HAYDEN HOLLINGSWORTH: The Tale of Two Truths

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Hayden Hollingsworth

Did anyone imagine we would ever face another dilemma like the Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991?  The taint of those accusations has hung over his appointment ever since and now we are in the midst of a similar crisis.  We should all hope the next week will offer a resolution where the damage done to all parties can be reconciled in an acceptable conclusion.

The roller coaster of the past days has alternately offered hope and despair.  One thing should be apparent to all:  politics has been weaponized.  Whether or not we can return to a time of civility may remain in question for the foreseeable future.

As is generally the case in complex issues there can be truth on both sides but the intensity of the emotions involved and the resulting polarity obscure that important fact.  In the case of the current furor one might consider a possibility that has been overlooked:  Both Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford are telling the total truth.  For that statement to have any credibility (a word that that has been sorely tested of late) it is necessary resurrect a term that has fallen into disfavor in the world of psychiatry and psychology—the False Memory Syndrome.

Peter J. Freyd, a PhD mathematician from Princeton, advanced the idea of the False Memory Syndrome in 1992 in response to an accusation from his daughter that she had been sexually abused by her father.  The concept gained notoriety in the 1990s but quickly fell into disrepute because there was little to recommend it other than a battle of contradictory facts.  The syndrome has been excluded from the lexicon of diagnoses used by professional organizations for categorization of disease entities.

The common thread to FMS, as it has been known, is a traumatic event, usually sexual, that is repressed by the victim because of its horrific nature.  Relegated to the level of the unconscious in the memory centers (the hippocampus among others), it still carries emotional freight which seeks alternate routes of expression.

These can take many forms; depression, obsessive-compulsive behavior, various personality disorders, and a host of other possibilities.  Any of these can be the source of major psychic discomfort as any thinking adult can testify.  The victim will then seek professional help which in some cases has led to recovered memory therapy.  This can include many modalities; hypnosis, interviews under sedation, probing questions by the therapist who believes that repressed memories are the cause of the patient’s symptoms.

The victim does not consciously embrace the repressed memory with certainty but the memory centers will supply an information set that is different from the repressed event.  The patient believes this scenario and can be totally sincere in the veracity of what now assumes the proportion of fact.

The obverse of this coin can be disastrous:  The now accused perpetrator has no place of defense other than vehement denial.  The natural reaction to the accusation is a tragic fragmentation of fact over which the accused is basically helpless.

In the late 1990s the problem had reached the point that therapists, both psychologists and psychiatrists, were successfully sued on the charge of propagating iatrogenic (caused by the therapist) memories of childhood sexual abuse.

Dr. Ford was little more than a child when the alleged assault occurred.  Anyone who saw her testimony would likely believe she had undergone some terrible sexual experience.  Anyone who saw Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony would likely understand his reaction to a charge that he knows to be false.  Dr. Ford’s hippocampus may have offered up faulty information which she had no choice but to believe.  She is not at fault; she is being truthful as to what her memory has supplied to her, although it varies from what is provable.

Regardless of how this turns out the damage done is widespread and may prove irreparable.  When such is the case there is a tendency to assign blame.  If FMS does exist the blame does not rest with either accuser or the accused but with the rush to judgment in an area where proof does not exist.

Increased certainty can only be achieved with investigation of all possible areas.  That each side has now become resigned to that, we can only hope that the result will not overshadow the lives of those involved, that we can all move beyond to a better time and place.

  1. Hayden Hollingsworth, MD