Repressed Memory Versus False Memory
REPRESSED MEMORY VERSUS FALSE MEMORY
In the early 1900s Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud first proposed the theory of repression, which hypothesizes that the mind can reject unpleasant ideas, desires, and memories by banishing them into the unconscious. Some clinicians believe that memory repression explains why a victim of a traumatic experience, such as childhood sexual abuse, may forget the horrible incident. Some also believe that forgotten traumatic experiences can be recovered later.
In 1988 Ellen Bass and Laura Davis wrote The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1988). It has been described as the "bible" of the recovered-memory movement. The authors claimed that Freud was right about his theory that the physical symptoms of hysteria in his patients were indicative of childhood sexual abuse. They listed such symptoms as feeling powerless and having trouble feeling motivated as signs that a person had experienced childhood sexual abuse.
Proponents of recovered-memory therapy are convinced their patients cannot heal until they confront their memories. Some clinical therapists believe that memories rediscovered through hypnosis and other recovery techniques are true and that they must be acknowledged in order for treatment to be successful. Some have been known to recommend that patients cut off all ties with their families to speed up recovery.
Some memory researchers do not agree, saying that children who have suffered serious psychological trauma do not repress the memory; rather, they can never forget it. They cite the examples of survivors of concentration camps or children who have witnessed the murder of a parent who never forget. These researchers believe that memory is inaccurate and that it can be manipulated to "remember" events that never happened. Many mental health professionals warn the public about believing persons who have no training in mental health. For example, they note that authors Bass and Davis were not licensed therapists. Bass was a creative writing teacher, and Davis was a student in one of her writing workshops.
THE FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME FOUNDATION
In the early 1990s many adult patients (mostly women) who sought the help of psychotherapists for emotional problems were told that they may have been sexually abused as children and had no memory of the abuse. Through recovered memory therapy (hypnosis, dream interpretations, joining survivor groups, etc.), women were encouraged to remember the abuse so that they could get rid of their emotional complaints. In response to the growing cases of recovered repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, an organization of parents claiming to have been falsely accused was formed in 1992. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) was founded by Pamela Freyd, whose adult daughter had accused her father of childhood abuse. The daughter, Jennifer J. Freyd, is a professor of psychology who specializes in memory.
Some mental health professionals have dismissed the FMSF as an extreme organization. The foundation has been accused of protecting child abusers and attempting to discredit the psychiatric profession. Opponents of the FMSF claim that rather than work toward improving therapy, the FMSF sides with those people considered extreme on its scientific board. The board includes experts such as Dr. Elizabeth Loftus (a memory specialist who has challenged the truth of repressed memories), Dr. Richard Ofshe (who specializes in memory related to social coercion and police interrogation, such as in cases of confessing to a crime one did not commit), and Paul McHugh (who disputes the existence of multiple personality disorder). Nevertheless, families who claim they have been torn apart by what they insist are false memories consider the FMSF a lifeline to others suffering the same accusations. FMSF affiliations are found in other countries.
The Debate Continues
Although allegations of recovered repressed memories have declined since their peak in the early 1990s, the controversy over the validity of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse has not abated. For many, there is no room for the possibility that perhaps the other side might be right. Nonetheless, there are clinicians and memory researchers who believe that the workings of the mind have yet to be fully understood. They agree that, while it is possible for a trauma victim to forget and then remember a horrible experience, it is also possible for a person to have false memories.
STUDIES ON FALSE MEMORIES
Psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus, a leading opponent of the recovered-memory movement, claims that repression is not normal memory and that it is empirically unproven. She does not believe that the mind could block out experiences of recurrent traumas, with the person unaware of them, and then recover them years later (The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1994).
Memory researchers such as Loftus have shown that false memories can be implanted fairly easily in the laboratory. In The Myth of Repressed Memory, Loftus recounted assigning a term project to students in her cognitive psychology class. The project involved implanting a false memory in someone's mind. One of the students chose his fourteen year old brother as his test subject. The student wrote about four events his brother had supposedly experienced. Three of the experiences really happened, but the fourth one was a fake event of the boy getting lost at the mall at age five. For the next five days the younger brother was asked to read about his experiences (written by his older brother) and then write down details that he could remember about them. The younger brother "remembered" his shopping-mall experience quite well, describing details elaborately.
In "Make-Believe Memories" (American Psychologist, November 2003), Loftus noted that memories can be influenced by imagination. "Imagination not only can make people believe they have done simple things that they have not done but also can lead people to believe that they have experienced more complex events," wrote Loftus. She described a study in which participants were told to imagine performing a common task with certain objects, such as flipping a coin. The second meeting consisted of imagining doing a task without using any object. In a subsequent meeting, participants were tested on their memory of the first day's task performance. Some participants "remembered" not only tasks they had not done but also unusual ones they had not performed.
Being Lost in a Mall Is Not the Same as Being Abused in Childhood
Heidi Sivers, Jonathan Schooler, and Jennifer J. Freyd noted that one should be as cautious in interpreting findings that support recovered memories as in interpreting those that support false memories ("Recovered Memories," Encyclopedia of the Human Brain, San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2002). According to the authors, questions have been raised about generalizing experiences of "benign" false memories, such as remembering being lost in a mall, to recalling being abused by one's parents. False memory studies are limited by the fact that researchers cannot experiment with implanting sexual abuse memories due to obvious ethical considerations and possible repercussions.
The authors added that in false memory research, such as Loftus's "lost in a mall" study, one cannot be certain that the allegedly false event did not actually happen to the subject. Although the subject's relative who was recruited to help plant the false memory was sure the subject had never had such an experience, the findings could have been interpreted as cases in which the relatives were the ones who had forgotten the incident.
implanting a false memory to prove a case: the paul ingram case. In an unusual situation, Richard Ofshe, social psychologist, expert on cults, and a member of the FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board, implanted a false memory of abuse in the mind of Paul Ingram who was accused of sexually abusing his two daughters. In 1988 after returning home from a religious retreat, Ingram's two daughters accused him and several men in the community of extensive sexual and satanic abuse. After months of interrogations and pressure from a psychologist and police detectives, Ingram began to confess to all kinds of horrific behavior. As his children brought up new charges, he would search his memory until he finally "remembered" and could even supply details of the events. The daughters' accusations included the murder of infants, abortions, and satanic orgies, even involving their mother.
Dr. Ofshe, who had been hired by the prosecution, did not believe Ingram's memories were genuine. Dr. Ofshe told Ingram he had spoken to one of Ingram's sons and one of his daughters, and they related the time Ingram forced them to have sex in front of him. This was one of the few charges that had not been brought against Ingram, and never was, but within a day Ingram submitted a written confession with details of the memory of the event. When Dr. Ofshe informed Ingram he was mistaken, Ingram protested, saying that the event was as real as anything else.
Although he was not sure about his memories, Ingram, a very religious man, was convinced that his daughters would never lie and that he had a dark side he had not known. His pastor, who was counseling the daughters, told Ingram that the abuse had indeed happened. The pastor exorcised him and admonished him to pray to God to bring back memories of his evil acts. Later on Ingram claimed remembering the abuse. Before Dr. Ofshe could submit his report to the prosecution, Ingram pleaded guilty to the charges of rape.
Richard Ofshe reported to the prosecution, "My analysis of this interrogation is that it is quite likely that most of what Mr. Ingram reports as recollections of events are products of social influence rather than reports based on his memory of events." Ingram later realized his false recollections and withdrew his guilty plea. The Washington State Supreme Court rejected his appeal. Ingram received a twenty-year prison sentence. In 1996 Ingram, having exhausted all of his appeals, applied for pardon from then governor Mike Lowry through the Washington pardons board. Memory experts Elizabeth Loftus and Richard Ofshe, as well as the county prosecutor, sheriff, and Ingram's son, testified on his behalf. The board denied Ingram's request for pardon. On April 8, 2003, Paul Ingram was released from prison after serving fourteen years of his sentence. He was required to register as a sex offender.
TRAUMA AND DISSOCIATION
Some psychologists believe sexual abuse can be so psychologically traumatic that the victim dissociates from full awareness of the horrible experience. In other words, dissociation is the mind's defense mechanism against the trauma. Other scientists disagree, however. For example, Daniel L. Schacter (Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, New York, NY: Basic Books, 1996) questioned how a patient could dissociate so much of her past, and yet function in society for years without her problems being obvious in her behavior before she consults a therapist. Schacter argued that patients who have really experienced many episodes of dissociation should also have a documented history of the manifestations of such disorder before ever having recovered repressed memories of long-term abuse.
Dissociative Amnesia for Childhood Abuse Memories
According to James A. Chu, Lisa M. Frey, Barbara L. Ganzel, and Julia A. Matthews, although research has shown that memories can be inaccurate and can be influenced by outside factors such as overt suggestions, most studies show that memory tends to be accurate when it comes to remembering the core elements of important events ("Memories of Childhood Abuse: Dissociation, Amnesia, and Corroboration," American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 156, no. 5, May 1999). The authors conducted a study of ninety female patients ages eighteen to sixty who were undergoing treatment in a psychiatric hospital. Dissociative amnesia, discussed in this study, is a type of dissociation, or dissociative disorder.
A large proportion of patients reported childhood abuse: 83% experienced physical abuse, 82% were victims of sexual abuse, and 71% witnessed domestic violence. Those who had a history of any kind of abuse reported experiencing partial or complete amnesia. The occurrence of physical and sexual abuse at an early age accounted for a higher level of amnesia.
Contrary to the popular belief that recovered memory of childhood abuse typically occurs under psychotherapy or hypnosis, most of the patients who suffered complete amnesia for their physical and sexual abuse indicated first recalling the abuse when they were at home and alone. Most patients did not recover memory of childhood abuse as a result of suggestions during therapy. Just one or two participants (for each of the three types of abuse) reported first memory of abuse while in a therapy session. Nearly half (48% for physical abuse and 45% for sexual abuse) were not undergoing psychological counseling or treatment when they first remembered the abuse.
Critics of recovered memories have noted the lack of corroboration (confirmation that the abuse really occurred) in many instances of recovered memories. In this study, the researchers found that, among patients who tried to corroborate their abuse, more than half found physical evidence such as medical records. Nearly nine of ten of those who suffered sexual abuse found verbal validation of such abuse.
BETRAYAL TRAUMA THEORY
Psychologist and professor Jennifer J. Freyd proposed the betrayal trauma theory to explain how children who had experienced abuse may process that betrayal of trust by mentally blocking information about it (Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). Freyd explained that people typically respond to betrayal by distancing themselves from the betrayer. Children, however, who have suffered abuse at the hands of a parent or a care-giver might not be able to distance themselves from the betrayer. Children need the caregiver for their survival so they "cannot afford not to trust" the betrayer. Consequently, the children develop a "blindness" to the betrayal.
In 2001 Jennifer J. Freyd, Anne P. DePrince, and Eileen L. Zurbriggen reported on their preliminary findings relating to the betrayal trauma theory ("Self-Reported Memory for Abuse Depends upon Victim-Perpetrator Relationship," Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, vol. 2, no. 3). The researchers found that persons who had been abused by a trusted caregiver reported greater amnesia, compared with those whose abusers were not their care-givers. Greater amnesia was also more likely to be associated with the fact that the perpetrator was a caregiver than with the repeated trauma of abuse.
A LONGITUDINAL STUDY OF MEMORY AND CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE
Between 1986 and 1998 Catherine Cameron conducted a long-term study of child sexual abuse survivors (Resolving Childhood Trauma, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2000). The researcher interviewed seventy-two women, ages twenty-five to sixty-four, during a twelve-year period. The women comprised a group of sexual abuse survivors who sought therapy for the first time in the 1980s. On average, it had been thirty years since their first abuse occurred (thirty-six years for those who suffered amnesia). The women were in private therapy, were better educated, and were more financially well off than most survivors. Twelve imprisoned women were included in the survey. They came from a low socioeconomic background, were serving long sentences, and had participated only in brief group therapy sessions, lasting less than a year.
Cameron sought to study amnesia as both an effect and a cause—what was it about the abuse that resulted in amnesia, and how did the amnesia affect the victim later on in life? Twenty-five women were amnesic, having no awareness of the abuse until recently. Twenty-one were nonamnesic, unable to forget their abuse, and fourteen were partially amnesic about their abuse. The imprisoned women were not assigned a specific category because they were part of a therapy group.
About eight of ten of the amnesic and partially amnesic women believed that they did not remember the sexual abuse because the memories were too painful to live with (82%) and they felt a sense of guilt or shame (79%). More than half of each group believed the amnesia served as a defense mechanism resulting from their desire to protect the family (58%) and love for, or dependence on, the perpetrator (53%). About three-quarters (74%) thought the amnesia occurred because they felt no one would believe them or help them. More than one-third (37%) thought the amnesia had come about because they needed to believe in a "safe" world.
During the years between the abuse and the recall of the abuse, the amnesics reported experiencing the same problems as the nonamnesics, including problems with relationships, revictimization, self-abuse, and dependency on alcohol. Because the amnesics, however, had no conscious knowledge of their childhood abuse, they could not find an explanation for their problems. The author claimed that the conflict between the amnesia and memories that needed release left the amnesic victims depressed and confused.
Cameron addressed the allegations that some therapists implant false memories of sexual abuse in their clients. She noted that 72% of the amnesic women in her study had begun to recall their abuse prior to seeking therapy. Once the survivors in her study confronted their traumatic past, they took charge of how they wanted their therapy handled. Cameron also observed that, since it is evident that recovered memories of childhood abuse are common, they should not be labeled as "false memories" nor accepted as "flawless truth," but should instead be explored by proponents of the opposing views.
SCIENTIFIC PROOF OF REPRESSED MEMORY?
While some repressed memory experts such as Lenore Terr, a clinical professor of psychiatry, dismiss all laboratory experiments on memory as invalid, others have tried to prove scientifically that memories can be forgotten. Linda Meyer Williams, of the Family Research Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, studied the recall of women who had been abused in childhood, for whom there were medical records proving the abuse ("Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women's Memories of Child Sexual Abuse," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 62, no. 6, 1994).
Williams used data gathered between 1973 and 1975 on 206 girls (ages ten months to twelve years) who had been examined for sexual abuse in a city hospital emergency room. In 1990 and 1991 129 of these women were included in a study that was, they were told, a follow-up on the lives and health of women who had received health care as children at the hospital. The women, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-one at the time of the study, were not told of their history of child sexual abuse, although some women suspected the reason for their hospital visit.
Of the 129 women, 38% failed to report the sexual abuse documented by the hospital; of this group, however, 68% reported other childhood sexual abuses. Williams doubted that the women were simply unwilling to discuss the abuse because other personal subjects—such as abortions, prostitution, or having sexually transmitted diseases—were not withheld.
Twelve percent (fifteen respondents) of the total sample reported that they were never abused in childhood. Williams suggested that this was an undercount of the likely number of women who had forgotten childhood abuse. Because the abuse these women suffered was known to at least one other person (the person who brought the child to the hospital), it was less likely to have been repressed than abuse that was always kept a secret.
Williams concluded that if it is possible that victims do not remember having been abused, their recovery of repressed memory later on in life should not come as a surprise. In fact, 16% of the women who recalled the sexual victimization that brought them to the hospital reported there were periods when they "forgot" the abuse.
In a second paper on the same research ("Recovered Memories of Abuse in Women with Documented Child Sexual Victimization Histories," Journal of Traumatic Stress, October 1995), Williams described the interviews with some of the women who had forgotten. It is not clear whether the women were truly amnesic or whether the abuse wassimply not a part of their conscious lives for a time.
Most reported that they recalled the abuse when a television movie or some other event jogged their memories. None had sought therapy to uncover repressed memories. Williams suggested that these women (inner-city, mainly black, women) did not have the financial resources or knowledge to get professional help.
Critics of Williams's conclusions pointed out that one of the reasons women in the study had forgotten their abuse was that the trauma had occurred in infancy. (Experts contend that events that happen before the acquisition of language at two to three years of age are forgotten because there is no way to express the event.) Williams disagreed, noting that, while 55% of those who had been abused at three years or younger had no memory of the occurrence, 62% of those who were four to six years old also did not remember.
In addition, critics questioned how Williams could be certain that those who claimed not to remember were actually telling the truth. The researchers never confronted the women who did not report abuse by showing them their hospital records.
VICTIMS' PERCEPTION OF THEIR FORGETTING EXPERIENCES
Michelle A. Epstein and Bette L. Bottoms investigated the temporary forgetting of past abuse and trauma to determine victims' own explanations for their forgetting experiences ("Explaining the Forgetting and Recovery of Abuse and Trauma Memories: Possible Mechanisms," Child Maltreatment, vol. 7, no. 3, August 2002). The researchers observed that many studies of forgetting experiences involve mainly childhood sexual abuse. In this study Epstein and Bottoms added other childhood traumatic experiences, including being in a serious car accident, experiencing other severe accidents, being at a fire, being a victim of a major crime, emotional or verbal abuse, severe neglect, and surgery/hospitalization.
Study participants were 1,411 college women, consisting of 37% whites, 22% Asian Americans, 21% African-Americans, 14% Hispanics, and 6% other ethnic/racial groups. The women ranged in age from eighteen to sixty years, with a median age of twenty-one (half were younger than twenty-one and half were older than twenty-one).
About one-quarter (26%) of the women reported at least one incident of childhood sexual abuse, 27% reported childhood physical abuse, and 54% reported one or more other traumatic experiences. The authors found no statistical difference in women who reported experiencing "a time when they could not remember" sexual abuse (14%) and physical abuse (11%). Compared to women who temporarily "forgot" having experienced other types of trauma (6%), those who reported sexual abuse and multiple traumas experienced temporary forgetting at much higher rates, 14% and 17%, respectively.
A majority of participants attributed their temporary forgetting to mechanisms other than the "classic Freudian repression" (complete lack of conscious memories and forgetting these memories, followed by memory recovery of the abuse or trauma). These mechanisms included active cognitive avoidance (actively not thinking of abuse or trauma), retrieval failure (simple forgetting), and relabeling (looking at an experience in a different light "because its negative implications are less likely to be understood during childhood"). Epstein and Bottoms concluded that, when they counted only women who reported classic Freudian repression, just 4%, or two sexual abuse victims; 10%, or three physical abuse victims; and 11%, or four victims of other traumas, represented such repression. Nevertheless, the authors pointed out that they were not claiming that repression does not occur.
GOING TO COURT
Suing Alleged Abusers
According to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), between 1983 and 1998 many individuals who had "recovered" memories of childhood sexual abuse sued their alleged abusers, many at the instigation of their therapists. During those years a total of 589 lawsuits based on repressed memory were filed, of which 506 were civil and 83 were criminal. Following a sharp rise in 1992, the year the FMSF was created, the number of lawsuits dropped rapidly after 1994.
While the courts readily accepted some early cases of child sexual abuse, courts in more and more states are becoming increasingly suspicious of accounts of outrageous abuse. Therapists are being held liable for malpractice not only by their patients, but often by third parties (usually the accused parents of someone who has allegedly recovered memories of sexual abuse).
The Case of Eileen Franklin
In 1990 George Franklin was convicted of killing his daughter Eileen's friend twenty years earlier. Eileen claimed to have recovered memories of her father's murderous act as she was gazing into her own daughter's eyes. She told her secret to her therapist. She then told police she suddenly remembered herself as a nine-year-old watching her father kill her friend. Later on Eileen changed her account of how she recalled the murder, at one point telling police that the details of the killing became clearer to her after she underwent therapy.
Lenore Terr was an influential expert witness at this first criminal trial in the United States involving recovered memory. Terr, who supports the idea of repressed memory, later wrote about Eileen's story in the book Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1994).
Harry MacLean, who reported on the case in his book Once upon a Time: A True Story of Memory, Murder, and the Law (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993), claimed that Professor Terr had repeatedly distorted the facts to suit her purpose. Terr claimed to offer a dramatic proof of Eileen's truthful testimony when she described the "body memory" (a physical manifestation of trauma that the conscious mind has forgotten) of Eileen's repressed trauma. According to Terr, Eileen had a habit of pulling her hair out, resulting in a balding spot on her scalp. Eileen had allegedly seen her father murder her friend with a blow to the head using a large rock.
According to MacLean, in his interviews with Eileen's mother, sisters, school friends, and teachers, no one could remember Eileen's pulling out her hair or having a bleeding spot on her scalp. Dr. Ofshe and Ethan Watters (Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, New York, NY: Scribners, 1994) found more than forty photos taken of Eileen during the relevant period that were wrongly withheld from the defense and that showed no trace of a bald spot.
In November 1995 a federal appeals court overturned George Franklin's murder conviction. By this time Franklin had served almost seven years of a life sentence. The court ruled that the trial had been tainted by the improper allegation that Franklin had confessed and by the exclusion of crucial evidence: Eileen had been hypnotized by her therapist, Kirk Barrett, prior to the first trial, making her testimony unreliable. The court ordered a retrial. On July 2, 1996, the prosecution dropped the charges, citing the problem of Eileen's hypnosis that, by California law, would probably prevent her from testifying. In addition, new DNA evidence showed that it was impossible for Franklin to have committed the second murder his daughter had accused him of, which she claimed happened when she was fifteen.
In June 1997 George Franklin filed a civil suit in federal court against his daughter, her therapist, Barrett, and county officials, claiming violation of his civil rights. The suit alleged, among other things, that Eileen, Barrett, and county officials conspired to deny George Franklin the due process of law and violated his Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights to confront witnesses against him. He also sued Professor Terr for conspiring with Eileen to give false testimony.
In 2000 the court dismissed Franklin's suit against the county officials. The judge for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also threw out the claims against Professor Terr, writing in his opinion, "Terr is absolutely immune … for civil damages based on the allegation that she conspired to present her own and another witness's perjured testimony at Franklin's criminal trial…. Absolute witness immunity is based on the policy of protecting the judicial process" (Franklin v. Terr, No. 98-16843 ). The court dismissed the suit against Barrett because George Franklin failed to state the right claim that the therapist had conspired with a state official to deny him his constitutional rights. Franklin had sought a token $1 award from his daughter, but that, too, was thrown out.
Suing the Therapist
In February 2004 Elizabeth Gale settled a lawsuit against three therapists and the Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center and Tush North Shore Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, for $7.5 million. In 1986 Dr. Bennett Braun, a psychiatrist, first diagnosed Gale as having multiple personality disorder when the patient sought treatment for mild depression. Gale was hospitalized for five and a half years and was treated by two other therapists, Doctors Roberta Sachs and Corydon Hammond. Under hypnosis, Gale believed that she was involved in a secret cult that sacrificed children. She was told she had repressed memories of her participation in the cult. She had a tubal ligation, with Braun's approval, so that she would not bear any more children for the cult.
Dr. Bennett Braun settled a similar repressed-memory malpractice suit in 1997, with co-defendants Dr. Elva Poznanski and the Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, for $1.6 million. The plaintiff, Patricia Burgus, consulted Braun for postpartum depression in 1986. For the next six years, using hypnosis and medication, Braun convinced his patient that she had developed more than three hundred multiple personalities as a result of child abuse. She believed that she was horribly tortured by her family and had participated in ritual murders, cannibalism, and devil worship. Braun also convinced Burgus and her husband that their two sons, ages four and five, might be predisposed to multiple personality disorder like their mother and should be committed to the hospital psychiatric ward. Doctors Braun and Poznanski helped the children "remember" abuse perpetrated by their mother, exposing them to guns and handcuffs for "therapeutic" purposes.
The courts now often hold therapists liable to a third party, usually the patient's accused parent, when they implant or reinforce false memories in their patients. Social worker Susan L. Jones, while treating Joel Hungerford's daughter Laura, convinced her that her anxiety attacks were the result of sexual abuse by her father. Jones not only advised Laura to cease contact with her father but also convinced the patient to file a complaint of aggravated felonious sexual assault against Joel. In addition Jones contacted the police regarding the alleged assault and aided the prosecution in indicting Joel Hungerford.
Hungerford sued Jones for the misdiagnosis and negligent treatment of his daughter's condition. Jones claimed that she owed Hungerford no duty of care, meaning that since she had treated Laura Hungerford, not Joel Hungerford, Joel Hungerford could not claim that her treatment had hurt him. On December 18, 1998, in Joel Hungerford v. Susan L. Jones (No. 97-657 ), the New Hampshire Supreme Court, in this case of "first impression" (with no existing precedent), ruled:
We hold that a therapist owes an accused parent a duty of care in the diagnosis and treatment of an adult patient for sexual abuse where the therapist or the patient, acting on the encouragement, recommendation, or instruction of the therapist, takes public action concerning the accusation. In such instances, the social utility of detecting and punishing sexual abusers and maintaining the breadth of treatment choices for patients is outweighed by the substantial risk of severe harm to falsely accused parents, the family unit, and society.