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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 8.1 (2001) 39-40

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Remembering Feminisms:
A Response to the Commentary

Erica Burman

I am grateful to Gwen Adshead for outlining the broader arguments surrounding feminist critiques of science and their relevance for mental health, particularly in forensic contexts. As she highlights, the debates about the status of accounts of memory hinge upon contested concepts of objectivity and the problem of discursive and provisional (but also necessary) claims to external reality, these being debates to which feminists have actively contributed. There are four additional points I would like to make in response to her comments.

Firstly, while I am in general agreement with her presentation of feminist positions in relation to scientific theory and method--and this does largely reflect a current consensus within feminist approaches--it is important not to overstate this consensus. Feminist debates about science, method, and claims to truth are precisely debates. There is no unitary feminist approach. Key arguments between feminists concern, for example, whether to lay claim to (forms of "strong") subjectivity rather than objectivity (see Harding 1986, Hollway 1989, Griffin et al. 1998) or whether to re-work criteria for objectivity to takeaccount of well-known gender biases (Eichler 1988).

In my analysis of feminist approaches to "false memory syndrome" (FMS), I wanted to highlight the diversity of feminist positions in order to indicate something of the interconnections between feminist and other political, theoretical, and cultural analyses--ranging from the modernist and empiricist to the postmodernist and constructionist. Hence, while I agree with Adshead that much feminist analysis seems unremarkable since its impact on cultural practice has been so great, I would argue that her account glosses over the many different feminist positions mobilized within the debate around "false/recovered memories." There are widely different views, for example, about the status of evidence/science. Another key area of debate is the role of psychiatric diagnosis between those who subscribe to and those who reject the "terms of art" of psychiatric diagnostic categories.

This may sound like a mere effort to attest to the rigor and rationality of feminist scholarship, including feminist re-workings of these terms. However, to come to my second point, there is a material consequence of this closer attention to the conditions for, and reception of, specific feminist analyses. For the debate about "false" or "recovered" memories goes beyond questions about the circulation of the roles of victim versus perpetrator that surround claims of credibility, legitimacy, manipulation, or gullibility. [End Page 39]

Thus, Laura Brown and I (1997) and Jan Haaken (1998) have suggested that in order to understand how the current debates surrounding (women's) reported memories could have come about, we need to analyze what has happened through, and what the stakes have been in, the (limited) institutionalization of feminism within models and practices of therapy. This involves attending to the particular forms of feminism that have been included and excluded: For example, how far do therapeutic models accept, and how far do they problematize, the forms and functioning of families? We also need to consider the broader societal response (or backlash?) to a feminized/therapeutic culture, including consequences of the confounding of the therapeutic with the feminized. In particular, Haaken draws attention to the gender essentialism that pervaded second wave (1960s and 1970s) U.S. feminist therapies. This essentialism, she argues, has fueled a failure to interrogate power dynamics (including therapeutic dynamics) between women that make possible displacements of transferential dynamics to an outside party, whether past or present.

My third point concerns the ever closer relationship between the therapeutic and legal arenas reflected within the career of FMS. Adshead's reference to a film narrative to highlight competing versions of legal knowledge puts me in mind of how FMS--as a potent cocktail of psychiatric labeling, familial conflict and abuse, and litigation--is the U.S. television courtroom drama writ large. It may be the case that, as Adshead argues, I fail adequately to address the complexity of legal process, with its assumptions about what makes certain accounts more credible or legitimate than others...


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