The accusations brought against the Governor General,
Hollingworth, that he raped a women 40 years ago
have made me wonder whether there is any way I could
suffer the same fate.
Of course I am an obscure, impoverished journalist
with no particular prospects of greatness, not a Governor
General, and so an unlikely target for accusations -
true or false. But what if, say, I shot to fame through
a best-selling novel (okay, we all have our dreams)
and suddenly my name and picture was in all the papers?
What if, then, a woman suddenly made a legal claim complete
with a statement that I date-raped her in Melbourne
in the late 1970s or 1980s?
Of course, I have never forced myself on anyone and,
as far as natural selection is concerned, I was frequently
selected out. In fact, I am sure that at one point I
was the most dumped guy in Melbourne. But the flip side
to that rather sad statement is that I did go out with
a number of women 20 years and more ago whose names
I now cannot remember. (They would have forgotten my
name faster than I forgot theirs.) So if someone turned
up claiming that I committed a ghastly offence on her
person from way back then, I would be unable to say
with certainty even whether I knew her or not, especially
if she had worked somewhere I had worked or had been
around in the same groups. This problem becomes worse
if, say, my accuser is someone I did go out with a few
times before being forcibly selected out for the undoubted
"drop kick" that I am.
Then the accusation becomes almost proven until I
can present evidence to the contrary. After all, in
some circles, all men who date women are rapists-in-waiting.
The woman may say she was too frightened of me to say
anything at the time (laughable to anyone who knows
me) or, more plausibly, that she was too disgusted by
the incident and wanted to put it behind her but seeing
my picture in the paper had brought all the memories
The sad part is that the woman may well have been
violated by someone after I knew her and, after 20 years
of trying to forget and convincing herself nothing could
be done, she belatedly realised that it is relatively
easy to consult with a lawyer. Increasing competition
in the law means that lawyers will often make their
first consultation free and will only ask for payment
if any subsequent action is successful.
Initially, my would-be accuser may have little idea
who did the deed. After 20-25 years the sequence of
events, let alone the name, are all likely to be hazy
memories indeed, despite the ghastly nature of the act
(assuming my "victim" did not write it down
afterwards). But wait, what is this picture of a successful
author in the paper? His picture brings back memories!
She certainly recalls that she went out with him and
that he was a drop kick. That must be him! At that point
the memories of going out with me and being raped would
fuse, and my "victim" would become genuinely
convinced I was her attacker.
Fortunately, it is now passé to try to claim
that the rape is a memory "recovered" during
therapy. But as that craze for making bizarre allegations
after therapy proved, human memory is fallible, extremely
malleable and subject to suggestion. Scientists - notably
Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University
of Washington - have found that they can deliberately
implant false memories by making the right suggestions.
In one famous experiment (Loftus, E.F. & Pickrell
J.E. 1995, The formation of false memories. Psychiatric
Annals, 25, 720-725) they were able to implant false
memories in volunteers of being lost in a shopping mall
when they were children. Those implanted memories were,
to their possessor, just as real as the memories of
events that actually happened - just as those with recovered
memories thought those memories were real, even vivid.
If any further illustration of the difficulties of
bringing evidence after all this time is required, then
I need only point to the Special Investigations Unit
set up by the Australian Government in 1987 to prosecute
war criminals. For various reasons the unit went after
suspects from the second world war who now happened
to be living in Australia, but failed to gain a single
conviction, chiefly due to the problems of trying to
bring prosecutions 50 years after the events in question.
The disbanded unit is now chiefly remembered for the
final results of its efforts to prosecute one Ivan Polyukhovich
for events in the Ukraine for 1942. The jury in that
trial, which concluded in Adelaide in 1993 after years
of proceedings, stayed out for just one hour before
declaring a Not Guilty verdict.
As for myself I am glad that I am long married and
out of the dating scene, that I am not gay and have
never worked with youths. For that matter I am never
likely to have a best seller.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.