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The "Science" of Primary Cause Analysis

In 1962 a New Zealand hypnotist named James Bennett founded a therapy called Primary Cause Analysis. Bennett, who died in 1993, believed that virtually everyone has been sexually abused in early infancy. He describes 39 types of abuse categorised as "P" (paedophilia) scenes, which he claims were practised openly and performed as rituals until 2,800 BC, when society banned them. Since then most children, he says, have been victims of the abuse but have repressed memories of it.

The training manual for PCA therapists describes these 39 scenes, some of them extremely bizarre and obscene, in lurid detail. It claims that 98% of all cot deaths result from a mother holding her infant upside down by one leg inducing an act of "double oral sex". This would be a very disturbing suggestion to someone suffering the tragedy of a cot death.

Bennett taught that almost every problem for which people seek psychological help is the result of repressed memories, as are a large number of illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, acne and short-sightedness. Other symptoms he claims are caused by sexual abuse in infancy include stammering, sore throats, left handedness, headaches, cold sores, blushing, shyness, nail biting, stage-fright, yawning and hysteria. His therapy involved hypnotic "recall" and "reliving" of the abuse scenes, which are the Primary Cause of the client's problems.

Bennett claimed that he and therapists he trained had treated over 10,000 cases in New Zealand. Trainees are required to sign a pledge of secrecy about the processes they use and are not supposed to show the manual to anyone.

The Psychotherapy and Hypnotherapy Institute of New Zealand (PHINZ), which has been in operation for over 30 years, uses Primary Cause Analysis therapy. So does a breakaway group, the Institute of Primary Activation, which was set up in New Zealand in the past few years. In the 1970s, PHINZ had about 20 to 25 members. Training involved the students undergoing PCA themselves and reliving their own P scenes.

I have interviewed several therapists who underwent the training and then used PCA with their clients. They initially accepted the belief that all their clients had been sexually abused and that the scenes they re-enacted in therapy had really happened. The therapists explained to me how they were convinced that their clients came up with these memories spontaneously, but now recognise that giving subtle cues (leaning forward, giving attention) when what they were expecting was presented by clients, lead to them coming up with the sexual abusive material. There are certainly still some PCA hypnotists operating in New Zealand but the exact number is unknown to me.

The therapy has also surfaced in Britain, where the Society for Primary Cause Analysis by Hypnosis has secretly trained bout 50 people in its methods. This organisation uses the Institute of Primary Activation manual. The BBC 1994 documentary False Memories included cases where sexual abuse allegations had been made in families based on memories recovered during PCA.

PCA is an early and extreme example of treatment based on memory repression and recovery theory. It is clearly orientated towards its clients hypnotically creating violent scenes of incest during babyhood which they become then convinced really happened. Traditionally, there was never any suggestion that parents should be confronted or held accountable for their abuse. They were not seen to be to blame for their actions. It was believed that they too had suffered the same events in their own childhood, and they re-enacted these with their children in a state of dissociation. They hence would have no memory of them and would deny them if accused. Clients were expected to keep the memories within the therapy room. Healing came not from retribution, but from re-experiencing the events and therefore becoming free from the effects of keeping these terrible memories buried. Given the powerful effects of positive suggestion, it is likely that the expectation that they would be mentally healthy and happy following therapy did result in some people gaining benefit from this therapy.

In the 1990s however, memories of having been sexually abused in childhood are unlikely to remain within the consulting room. The chances are high that people recovering such memories come to believe they have been seriously and permanently damaged; that allegations are made that split up their families; that claims are made to Accident Compensation, and even that redress is sought through the courts. PCA therefore is potentially a very dangerous practice.

Dr Felicity Goodyear-Smith works at the Auckland University School of Medicine.

Dr Felicity Goodyear-Smith works at the Auckland University School of Medicine.