David Aaronovitch of The Times traces the powerful intellectual influences behind what he sees as one of the most important cultural shifts of the past 40 years: from a society in which accusations of sexual abuse were wrongly ignored to one in which the falsely accused were crushed by a system where the mantra was “victims must be believed”.
In the first of two programmes, Aaronovitch will examine the role played by unproven psychoanalytic theories which, from the 1980s, spread from the world of therapists in Canada and the USA to social work, medicine and then to law enforcement in Britain.
From the NSPCC to academia it was believed that children were being sexually abused in group Satanic rituals, which involved murder and animal sacrifice. The programme will explore how these bizarre ideas took hold, how they were related to mistaken psychotherapeutic practices, and how they resonate still.
The programme will look at the influences of four books which played a key role in influencing the intellectual and cultural climate. These are Sybil, Michelle Remembers, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and The Courage to Heal.
In the second of two programmes, Aaronovitch re-examines the role played by unproven psychoanalytic theories which, from the 1980s, spread from the world of therapists in Canada and the USA to social work, medicine and then to law enforcement in Britain.
The programme explores the parallels between the belief in ritual abuse with some of the claims being made today about VIP paedophile rings and group murder.
Some of the mistakes of the past – such as the false accusations made against parents in the Orkneys and Rochdale of satanic abuse – have been acknowledged. But, Aaronovitch argues, without a profound understanding of how and why such moral panics arise we are unlikely to avoid similar mistakes in the future. And when such mistakes recur we risk an over-reaction and a return to a culture of denial.
The “Sybil” story began in the mid-1950s. At its center were the Minnesota-born Ms. Mason and her intense relationship, first in the Midwest and later in New York, with a psychoanalyst, Cornelia B. Wilbur. Dr. Wilbur’s determination that Ms. Mason had 16 personalities — people of varying manner and ages, including two who were male — did not come about in a vacuum. She was well aware of “The Three Faces of Eve,” a 1954 report by two psychiatrists who worked with a woman said to have had three distinct personalities. (As Eve in a 1957 film based on that study, Joanne Woodward won an Academy Award for best actress. Years later, she did a neat Hollywood pivot by playing the psychiatrist in the first movie version of “Sybil,” with Sally Field as the patient.)
Dr. Wilbur did not write up her findings in some dry professional journal. Instead, she went looking for a large audience, and enlisted a writer, Flora Rheta Schreiber, to produce what became a blockbuster. But as the years passed, challengers began to speak up. One was Herbert Spiegel, a New York psychiatrist who said that he had treated Ms. Mason when Dr. Wilbur was on vacation. Dr. Spiegel described his patient not as a sufferer of multiple personality disorder but, rather, as a readily suggestible “hysteric.” A harsher judgment was rendered in the 1990s by Robert Rieber, a psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a New York City school where Ms. Schreiber taught English. After listening to tape recordings that he said Ms. Schreiber had given him, he concluded that “it is clear from Wilbur’s own words that she was not exploring the truth but rather planting the truth as she wanted it to be.” Debbie Nathan, a writer interviewed for this Retro Report documentary, piled on still more skepticism in her 2011 book, “Sybil Exposed.” Perhaps inevitably in a dispute of this sort, counter-revisionists then emerged to denounce the doubters and to defend “Sybil” as rooted in reality.
The full documentary can be viewed online here.