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Spectral Evidence: Fear and Ignorance in the Courts

An article by Margaret Jervis originally published in The Therapist Journal 1995

In 1693 the Salem witch-hunt withered away not because the hysteria had run its
course, but because a type of evidence, known as ‘spectral’, was declared inadmissible
by the courts. Spectral evidence was the term used to cover the contents of dreams,
visions and hallucinations related with mesmeric effect by the young girls said to have
become bewitched by the devilish sympathies of the citizens of Salem. Three hundred
years later, spectral evidence has again reared its head in the witness box, with no
immediate prospect of its demise.

The modern secular equivalent of spectral evidence is recovered repressed memories of

sexual abuse. Such evidence is usually, but not necessarily, therapeutically excavated.
Its power resides in the obscene nature of its content. It is vivid, emotive and
convincingly articulated with clear details to convey the picture in the listener’s mind of
obscene sexual acts. External corroboration may be entirely absent and memories
outside the alleged acts sparse, hazy and inconsistent with the facts; but the evidence
contains a cocktail of images juxtaposed to excite disgust, and titillation which has the
effect of freezing critical appraisal in the unwary.

The unwary may be members of a jury who, despite being warned of the danger of
emotion clouding judgement, may not be sufficiently aware of what those emotions are
and how they are created. A more measured response might be expected from the police
and crown prosecution service serving the indictments, not to mention the critical
discernment of the judiciary.

However, through the climate of concern about sexual abuse and the influence of
purported experts who claim specialised knowledge in this area, an uncritical receptivity
to spectral evidence has grown up among investigators, aided by the application of
therapeutic techniques in training. Recovered memories are like demon masks or
amulets – the grotesque and sometimes comical depictions of imagined demons worn to
ward off the incursions of evil spirits. Their function is to exorcise fear by presenting the
spirits with a mirror. In fact what they project is mortal fear through exaggerated human
features and they tell us more about the psychology of their creators than the noumenal
spirit world they affect to represent.

Here is an example of a recovered memory that acts as a demon mask. In the August
1993 edition of Woman’s Journal magazine, an American fashion editor tells her story of
how she came to recover memories of sexual abuse. The antecedents were a series of
upsetting incidents which threatened her and her family’s security. In a state of anxiety
she approaches a therapist who suggests her problems might have a deeper root, to wit
a sexual trauma in her childhood. Already in an excitable state she ponders this,
attempting to run her household at the same time as suffering sleepless nights.

The anxiety takes its toll and one day the distraction leads to her burning potatoes for
dinner. In an exhausted state she lies down and drifts in and out of sleep. Suddenly she
is jolted by an image flashing before her mind. Its form is that of a burnt potato but this,
we are led to believe represents something else – something large and hairy – a memory
of a male scrotum held close to a very young child’s face. The rest follows naturally;
armed with presumed knowledge and fear she runs to another therapist who helps her
‘recover’ the full picture of the previously unknown sexual traumas she suffered at the
hands of her father.
The image is Dadaesque. Potatoes are food, they excite the sense of taste, but we gag at
the image of the hair in the same way as we do when confronted with the classic Fur-
lined cup by sculptor Market Oppenheim. A device which denumbs our senses by making
us aware of our reactions and unconscious expectations. Fur excites touch but, if
juxtaposed with a cup, excites taste. The resulting entanglement elicits disgust.

Put this in a sexual context and the upshot is obscenity, not without, as in the case of the
demon mask, unintended comic effect. Readers of the Woman’s Journal article, whose
attention is drawn by the hairy potato incident quoted out of the main text, may be
unaware that they have been swept along by the force of the imagination because,
stunned by the power of the image, they experience a minor form of secondary trauma.

These kinds of tricks have been used inadvertently in the training of social workers and
criminal justice agencies who deal with allegations of abuse. The natural response when
confronted with explicit descriptions of sexual abuse is repulsion. This happens when we
sense danger. If we stick around we may be drawn into illicit fantasies which,
contextually, are doubly disturbing because the subject is the sexual abuse of children.
But precisely because of this, workers are encouraged to ‘stay with it’; freeze their
instincts and turn their minds to the rescue of ‘victims.’

When first confronted with explicit renditions of sexual abuse, many people report
dreams and nightmares. They see the propensity to abuse everywhere, even in
themselves. Often workers who express reservations either drop out or are forced to
leave, leaving sexual abuse work to those with stronger constitutions. A few may
maintain their critical faculties, others may be ensnared by a Pandora’s box of conflicting
thoughts and emotions which give rise to a blinkered crusade of zealotry.

A prime example of this is in the police and social work joint training model known as
Bexley (Child Sexual Abuse Bexley Experiment – HMSO 1987). The advisers to this
blueprint in 1986 were a number of psychiatrists and social workers who had gained a
view of sexual abuse based on imported American disclosure techniques and their own
clinical experience. The project’s principal source was Great Ormond Street Hospital and
the NSPCC who had pioneered British therapeutic disclosure work with children. At that
point, few convictions for child sexual abuse were forthcoming and the police were
sceptical of claims made about the ubiquity of sexual abuse because it did not tie in with
their experience. Equipping the police with the same skills as social workers became a
priority, not least because the police were anxious to portray a more sensitive and caring
image in dealing with sexual crimes against women and children.

At Bexley two hitherto disparate and opposing cultures merged. Police and social
workers, men and women, were led through a brainstorming session of explicit sexual
terminology, role play, true confessions of sexual experiences and hypnotic regression.
The regression exercise simulated a fantasy of being abused by a close and trusted
relative at the age of ten. Since the fantasy was dictated by the group leader, it met with
staunch resistance. The aim was to identify emotionally with the powerlessness and fear
of a child victim and to realise how impossible it would be to make up stories of sexual

But the parallel was flawed; these were adults bombarded by the imagination, not
children undergoing abuse. And the question of resistance to making up the story is
moot. Both children and adults may be encouraged and motivated to confabulate
gradually, once resistance to lying about abuse has been broken down for whatever
reason; the exercise addressed only the normal resistance of the group to the ownership
of the ready-made script. The exercise was described as ‘enormously powerful’ and
some delegates reported the course had given them ‘magical powers’ in detecting
abuse. Under the guise of sensitivity the course focused on eliciting intimate details of
alleged sexual acts.

This was then stipulated as the yardstick of truth. This approach has been critical in
framing the mounting number of prosecutions based on retrospective inference of abuse.
Interviewing officers urge complainants to remember the experiential details of assaults.
Very often these are specimen counts suspended in space and time without external
corroboration which are not open to proof or disproof. When interviewing the alleged
perpetrator, police officers dwell on ‘the details of the assault’ repeating the mantra of
the training course; it’s not possible for anyone to make up these details. None of this
would matter if it were not for the fact that it is at the expense of objectivity.

Insofar as these details can be made up under the right circumstances (the training
officer demonstrated that) and are impossible to disprove, they are poor indicators of the
reliability of evidence. In fact, they are likely to be negative indicators, since repeated
sexual assaults are unlikely to be remembered like a prescription from a sex manual, as
sometimes appears to be the case in retrospective complaints. It makes one wonder
whether good evidence in the hands of ‘sensitive’ investigators is sometimes turned to

With the distorted vision of trance logic, the police often fail to investigate critical factors
when deciding to press charges. They do not properly investigate the character of the
defendant to see whether the alleged heinous course of conduct is consistent with
known facts, nor do they bother to find out whether some other factor in the
complainant’s life, past or present, might have given rise to the allegations. They fail to
investigate the effects of therapy and other forms of suggestion, including their own.

Ironically, the Home Office has issued guidelines which warn against the inadmissibility
of hypnotically-induced evidence which is what many of the ‘sensitive disclosure
techniques’ amount to (Home Office Circular 66/1988). The circular describes the
process of confabulation, the firm conviction with which erroneous beliefs may be held
and how the evidence is resistant to cross-examination.

When those guidelines were formulated the situation was not anticipated where the
criminal justice system itself became spellbound. But take these examples of the lure of
spectral evidence and trance logic. In the Bishop Auckland ritual abuse case in 1995, the
police and social services were prepared to go to trial on the oral testimony of witnesses
where the allegations included genital mutilation with fish hooks. The medical evidence
was in no way commensurate with the allegations but this was completely overlooked.

In a Leicestershire children’s home trial in 1991, a witness claimed memories of abuse

committed sixteen years previously “were hidden, deeply hidden. I had to be hypnotised
to get it out”. In a North Wales trial in 1994 based on retrospective allegations against
children’s home staff a witness claimed he had been anally penetrated by a defendant
with a large hooked crowbar to such an extent that he felt virtually disembowelled.
Despite the horrific ‘memory’ his medical records revealed no trace of any injury. The
first and last case reveals just how insidious ‘spectral evidence’ is.

Sucked into the vortex of paranoia, the criminal justice system mounts witch hunts after
phantom networks of abusers. The new provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1994 which
allow evidence of procuration to be presented in court without external corroboration
may start to bite, with orchestrated tales of past vice dens coming to light without the
forensic backup which should be key to any crime investigation and prosecution.
Buttressed by fear and ignorance, the ‘magical powers’ of the investigators hold sway
and the spell of spectral evidence casts its net ever wider.

Margaret Jervis 1995