REPRESSED MEMORIES AND RECOVERED MEMORY THERAPY
RMT is a term which refers to the attempts to recover long forgotten
or repressed memories. It is often used when a client is suspected
to have been abused many years ago, but has no memories of it as an
adult. RMT is a hotly debated topic within the mental health
- Most memory researchers believe that any serious abuse will be
remembered into adulthood - whether a single event or oft-repeated.
- Many therapists believe that it is extremely common for a person
to actively repress abuse memories. According to this belief system,
an adult could have been sexually abused as a child hundreds (or
even thousands) of times and have no current memory of any of the
events, even though the adult could recall other memories of mundane
childhood activities from the same years. The survivors would not
even remember that something dreadful happened during their
childhood. The more serious the abuse and the more frequent the
abuse, the more likely the memories will be repressed.
Although most memories are recovered during counselling with a
therapist who believes in them, there exists a growing number of
individuals who have recovered memories outside of therapy.
Frequently, books like The Courage to Heal are involved. The
techniques are the same; they are simply self-administered.
Many therapists engaged in recovered memory therapy believe that
adult problems, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders,
relationship problems, sexual dysfunction, insomnia, etc are often
caused by a specific form of abuse. Memories of that abuse are often
believed to have been repressed so that they cannot be
remembered. Even though the abuse is not remembered, it generates
some of the above symptoms in the adult.
Many therapists use a
checklists of symptoms likely to surface in adulthood because of the
repressed memories. Unfortunately, some of these checklists include
so many symptoms that they include most of the adult population as
In order to recover
memories, therapists have used a variety of techniques:
- guided imagery (talking the client through an imaginary trip)
- dream work (analyzing dreams for suggestions of abuse)
- age regression (taking the client back in time to early childhood
- "truth serum": use of drugs to enhance recall of memories
- automatic writing (having the client write freely without thinking
about what they are writing)
- having the client imagine abuse that could have happened
All of these suggestive therapeutic techniques have been criticized
for their ability to create memories of events that never happened.
When a client first comes to a RMT therapist, she/he sometimes has
disconnected partial images of static scenes that are disturbing. It
is like having a few pieces of a black and white photo; not enough to
show what the scene is all about. If the client has no memories or
images at all, then disconnected partial images often appear during
therapy. Through the above techniques, pieces of the pictures often
materialize, until an entire scene (often involving abuse) is
recovered. Further therapy recovers more scenes, and scenes in
greater detail. Finally, memories of years of abuse are often pieced
together. Some therapists recover memories of horrendous abuse
extending over a period of years in 80% or more of their clients; a
few report 100%.
This appears to depend upon the belief system of the therapist. The
most common types are:
- memories of sexual abuse and/or incest during childhood.
The father is often remembered as the perpetrator. The abuse is
often recalled as being facilitated, permitted or ignored by the
other parent. In about 20% of cases, recollections of ritual abuse
are later uncovered, typically by Satanic cults or by a men's
- memories of kidnapping by aliens and being forcibly
subjected to intrusive, often horrendous medical experiments on
- memories of physical or sexual abuse during a former
The client is age regressed back to childhood, to their birth and
finally to an earlier lifetime where they often recall abuse. One
study (which we have not yet been able to locate) found that 25% of
"graduate counselors" believe in past life abuse. (It is unclear what
the study defines a "graduate counselor" to be).
abuse memories are by far the most damaging, because the alleged
perpetrators are often members of the client's family or origin. The
destruction of the family frequently follows. Abuse by little green
men on UFO's or by unknown perpetrators in a prior life has less
potential for damage. The latter cannot lead to accusations against
parents and other people with the resultant court battles, damaged
reputations, overwhelming stress and immense legal costs.
Therapists who are committed to the widespread incidence of
childhood sexual abuse recover such memories in most of their
clients (some claim all of their clients). Therapists who
believe in UFO's and in little green men under every rock recover
such memories in most of their clients. So too do therapists who
believe in past lives.
One is forced to one of two inescapable
- most recovered memories are accurate recollections, and thus
the vast majority of adults have been sexually abused as children,
and on board UFO's, and in former lifetimes. That is,
many or most people have been abused in multiple ways by multiple
groups of perpetrators, perhaps over many centuries.
- most recovered memories are a form of iatrogenic disorder:
false beliefs inadvertently triggered and facilitated in
clients by their therapists.
Additional sources of false memories could be:
- suggestive techniques described in books (e.g. The Courage to
- fellow members of incest support groups.
There are indicators that the second explanation is receiving
increasing support by memory researchers, the mental health
community and the general public. If this is true, then questionable
therapy techniques, by loving, concerned but terribly misguided
therapists are creating many victims:
Many families have been split and many suicides caused by false
- their clients who are partly or completely disabled by the
- the innocent persons accused of performing the abuse
- siblings of the client who have been forced to choose sides.
Fortunately, recovered memories which are false are
usually very different from the reality of the client's life. If
they are not continually reinforced, they tend to become less
believable with time. This causes many "survivors" to eventually
become "recanters" and finally reject the memories as false.
Unfortunately, too many clients commit suicide and too many parents
die before this point is reached. Other recanters find that they are
unable to reunite with their families; the devastation has been too
This is an extremely controversial subject.
- There is general agreement among memory researchers that
memories of events which happened before the age of 2 are never
remembered into adulthood and cannot be recovered; memories before
the age of 3 are rare and not particularly reliable. Claims by Ross
et al (11) that 27% of their MPD patients recall abuse that occurred
before 3 years of age are probably based on false memories. A claim
by Rosanne (12) of abuse when she was 6 months old is certainly a
false memory. Claims by some adults that they can remember being a
just-fertilized ovum stuck in their mother's fallopian tube are
totally devoid of credibility.
- Some survivor's memories of childhood sexual abuse have always
been present from the moment when they occurred until the present
time. Unfortunately, with the publicity given to false memories,
these survivors are sometimes ignored or belittled.
- Some memories are simply forgotten. This includes almost all
early experiences. It is quite possible that a child could have a
mild molestation experience and permanently forget about it, just as
children forget most painful bicycle accidents, falling down stairs,
- Some therapists believe in the concept of repressed memories. i.
e. that memories of hundreds of incidents of serious sexual abuse and
ritual abuse can be actively repressed so that the events cannot be
recollected in adulthood. They believe that through intensive
techniques (hypnotism, "truth serum" sessions, guided imagery, dream
analysis, etc) such memories can be recovered.
- Other therapists believe that a single instance of serious abuse
after about age 4 or 5 is very rarely forgotten, and that repeated
abuse is perhaps never forgotten.
Two researchers from
Harvard University recently completed a literature search on the
topic of repressed memories of childhood incest.(1) They postulate
instances of sexual child abuse where:
- the abuse has been corroborated independently of the survivor's
- the abuse was sufficiently traumatic that the child would
have been expected to remember it if it were not for the repression
- the child actually repressed the memory (and didn't simply
- the victim in her adult years was unaware of the
abuse; she was not lying about not having remembered it
Most people would accept this as a classic description of a
recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse. However, Pope and Hudson
were able to find only four such cases, none of them well
documented, in all of the published literature. It may well be
that (contrary to public belief) repression of traumatic childhood
memories never happens, or occurs very rarely.
studied 129 adults who had been treated as a child aged 10 months to
12 years in a large city hospital. The interviews were conducted
about 17 years later when all had reached adulthood. 16 women (12%)
said that they had no memories of childhood sexual abuse; 38% said
they did not recall the incident that brought them to the hospital.
Unfortunately, the study was deeply flawed:
- no effort was made to document whether the abuse had actually
happened. The child might have been simply brought to the hospital to
rule out the possibility of sexual abuse. Or sexual abuse might have
been suspected, but did not actually occur.
- some of the molestation which was in the form of fondling might
simply have been forgotten; it might have been less distressing to
the child then accidents which are often not remembered into
adulthood (e.g. breaking an arm or suffering serious cuts due to a
- some of the children brought to the hospital were under the age
of 3 when memories are not retained into adulthood; others might
have been 3 or 4, at an age when memories are unreliable.
- they did not interview the adults further to determine whether
- had amnesia or
- they remembered the abuse but did not choose to reveal it to the
Fortunately, The Femina study (3) took this
exploration one logical step further. They interviewed 69 people who
had reported abuse 9 years earlier when jailed. Of these, 26 (38%)
did not mention the abuse at the time of the study. This datum
matches the Williams study. However, the interviewers then tried to
find out why the victims did not report the abuse. The answers were
unrelated to repressed memories. Common responses were:
- a desire to protect parents and
- a need to
try to forget the abuse.
It is probable that incest and
sexual abuse survivors in the Williams study had similar reasons,
and that few or none had repressed memories. It is tragic that the
12% of the women who didn't remember sexual abuse during childhood
were not separately examined in the Williams study. If those who
were less than 3 and those who experienced less serious abuse were
removed, one might be able to conclude that essentially all
children remember into adulthood any serious sexual abuse which
occurred after the age of 4.
The Williams' study
uncovered two additional factors:
Both of these indicators are incompatible with the theory of memory
repression being promoted by supporters of recovered memories.
- Survivors were more likely to recall sexual abuse with high
amounts of force than with low amounts.
- Survivors were more slightly more likely to recall frequent
abuse than infrequent abuse during childhood. However, the
difference was not statistically significantly.
It is very difficult to understand why the Williams study has not
been redesigned to eliminate the serious flaws, and repeated. It
would appear to be the best method of determining whether memories of
repeated childhood sexual abuse actually can be repressed.
Recovered memories usually feel identical to normal memories to the
adult. The only certain method of verifying the accuracy of recovered
memories is to find supporting evidence.
Herman and Schatzow (4)
studied 53 adults in an incest survivors group to determine if they
had corroborating evidence of their abuse. The group was composed of
two very different populations:
- 38 survivors (74%) had little or no amnesia to begin with; they
had always been aware of their abuse, continuously from childhood to
adulthood. One would expect that they would have a good chance of
verifying their abuse.
- 15 survivors originally had no abuse memories during adulthood;
they all recovered memories later during therapy or group work.
44 women (83%) said that they had been able to obtain some
confirmation of the abuse. Unfortunately, Herman and Schatzow
accepted these opinions second hand without verifying them. There is
no way of knowing how valid these confirmations were. The women were
believed to have been subjected to considerable peer pressure in the
group to report some confirmation. Unfortunately, the percentage of
women who were able to confirm their abuse was not reported
separately for the two populations. The study needs to be
- with a larger group, so that the results will hold more weight
- with verification of the women's stories of confirmation
- separately reporting the degree of confirmation by women who
have never forgotten the abuse with those who had no memories until
they were recovered during therapy.
Mark Pendergrast, author of Victims of Memory (5; P. 517) was
only unable to uncover two cases in which an adult survivor suffered
from amnesia, recovered memories of incest and was able to
corroborate the events. Both were verified by obtaining confessions
from perpetrators (the fathers). The latter accepted the belief that
they had abused their daughters because they believed their children
to be truthful. Neither father originally had any memories of the
Ofra Bickel, producer of Frontline's documentary Divided
Memories was able to find only one probably verifiable recovered
memory after a long search among survivors.
Stan and Jared Abrams (7) studied polygraph (lie detector) tests of
alleged perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse. They pooled findings
of a number of polygraph examiners. The alleged perpetrators were
attempting to use the polygraph test to prove their innocence.
Polygraphs are not absolutely reliable devices. In the hands of an
experienced, trained operator they are generally accepted as being
accurate 85 to 90% of the time.
- 33 alleged abusers were accused by survivors who originally had
no recollections of the abuse during childhood, but who recovered
memories during therapy. 2 of the alleged abusers (6%) were found to
be lying (presumably guilty of abuse). 31 (94%) were truthful
(presumably innocent of abuse).
- 300 alleged perpetrators were accused in cases where there was
no significant repression/recovery of memory. 234 (78%) were found
to be lying (presumably guilty of abuse); 66 (22%) were truthful
All of these studies have grave
weaknesses. Polygraph tests are inexact and are regarded by some as
unreliable. Studies often are inconclusive because the wrong
questions were asked, because the number of individuals is small,
etc. Often, there is no differentiation among recovered memories
- were totally absent, but returned instantly as a result of a
trigger (e.g. meeting a perpetrator or reading an newspaper account)
- were absent and were recovered as a result of "self-therapy"
after reading The Courage to Heal or similar self-help books
- were added onto to always-remembered events of childhood abuse
- were originally absent, but were recovered as a result of long
periods of suggestive therapy.
- were of events that happened in
infancy, before the child's brain had matured sufficiently to be
able to store long term memories
However, the studies that do exist seem consistently to suggest that
most memories recovered through the lengthy use of suggestive
techniques are highly distorted and/or are of events that never
- The American Medical Association stated in 1993, that
recovered memories are "of uncertain authenticity which should be
subject to external verification. The use of recovered memories is
fraught with problems of potential misapplication." (8)
- The Australian Psychological Association adopted a
similar statement recently.
- The American Psychiatric Association stated in 1993 that
it is impossible to distinguish accurately between true and false
memories. (9) They currently have a committee studying the matter.
- The American Psychological Association condemned in
1995-JUN "past life therapy" as quackery.
They created a committee "The Working Group on Investigation of
Memories of Childhood Abuse" to investigate recovered/repressed
memories. It is composed of 3 memory researchers and 3 clinicians
(including 2 who practice recovered memory therapy). As expected,
the committee is deeply split. They issued an report in 1995-August
which states a number of interim conclusions:
- "..child sexual abuse is a complex and pervasive problem in
America, that has historically gone unacknowledged."
- "Most people who were sexually abused as children remember all
or part of of what happened to them."
- Abuse memories can be forgotten and remembered years later
- Pseudomemories can be created of abuse events that never
- Knowledge about the processes that lead to accurate and
inaccurate recollections of childhood abuse is incomplete.
The APA Board of Directors enlarged upon the interim statement of
the Working Group by stating:
- "There is no single set of symptoms which automatically means
that a person was a victim of childhood abuse."
- Therapists must take a neutral position on childhood abuse
- Beware of a therapist who diagnoses childhood abuse at the start
- Beware of therapists who "dismiss claims .... of sexual abuse
- Select a licensed practitioner with "with training and
- The British Psychological Society has issued a booklet
(10) "Recovered Memories" which mentions:
- Complete or partial memory loss of childhood sexual abuse is
- Recovery of such memories is frequently reported
- All adult memories of childhood events may contain errors
- "Sustained pressure" by a therapist could lead to recovery of
"memories of events that never actually happened."
- People no longer debate whether therapy-induced false memories
and recovery of memories from total amnesia actually occur. Debate
is currently directed at how often they occur.
Enormous numbers of adults are recovering "memories" during therapy.
Obtaining an accurate estimate is impossible. Some indicators
If recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse are all real,
then they are proof of arguably the most serious social problem to
ever face North American society. If they are all false, then they
represent a truly massive amount of therapy-created mental
disability, responsible for the destruction of perhaps millions of
loving families. As a member of the American Psychological
Association has stated (18) "nothing less than the integrity
of the mental health professions and the trust inherent in the
client-therapist relationship is at stake." Reality lies
somewhere between these two extremes.
Unfortunately, the professional societies are paralyzed; they dare
not take a stand against repressed/recovered memories because doing
so would leave their members exposed to law suits of a truly
horrendous magnitude. A solution to the problem will probably come
in time from insurance companies who tire of paying large
settlements to therapists found guilty of bad therapy.
0. See http://www.
around.com/abduct.html for a discussion by James Gleick
called "The Doctor's Plot". It was first published in New
Republic , 1994-MAY-11, and describes imaginary abuse by LGM
(little green men) on board UFO's.
1. Pope & Hudson Can Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse be
repressed? , Psychological Medicine, V. 25, P. 121-126.
2. Williams, L.M. . Recall of childhood trauma: A prospective study
of women's memories of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and
Clinical Psychology, (1994), 62, 6, 1167-1176.
3. Donna Femina, Child Abuse, Child Abuse and Neglect, 1990,
V. 14, P. 227-231.
4. Judith Herman and Emily Schatzow, Recovery and Verification of
Memories of Childhood Sexual Trauma, Psychoanalytic Psychology,
1987, V. 4, P. 1-14
5. Mark Predergrast, Victims of Memory, Upper Access (1995)
6. Lawrence Wright, Remembering Satan, Knopf, 1994, ISBN
7. Stan Abrams & Jared Abrams, False Memory Syndrome vs. Total
Repression, (unpublished as of mid-1995)
8. AMA Wary of Using 'Memory Enhancement'; AMA, Report of the
9. Statement on Memories, American Psychiatric Association
10. Recovered Memories, British Psychological Society, (£
10), available from: The British Psychological Society, St. Andrews
House, 48 Princess Road East, Leicester, LE1 7DR, Great Britain.
11. Ross et al "Abuse histories in 102 cases of multiple
personality disorder", Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 36, P.
12. Leeza TV show, 1994-OCT-11
13. E. Goldstein & Kevin Farmer, Confabulations, Upton Books,
Boca Raton FL, (1995) (Describes destruction of families as a
result of therapists creating false memories of childhood sexual
14. See: http://www.skeptic.com/03.4.pender-newsome-iv.html for an
article from Caltech's Skeptic magazine. It describes a
Christian therapist who engaged in extensive recovered memory
therapy. She finally realized that the memories that she was
dredging up in her clients had no basis in fact, and were
contributing to the destruction of their families of origin. She is
now revisiting her clients and attempting to undo some of the
15. See: http://www.utu. fi/~jounsmed/asc/hyp/memories.html for an
excellent comparison of past life identities, abduction and abuse on
board UFO's and Satanic Ritual Abuse. Extensive bibliography
16: New Zealand Sunday Star Times, 31 December 1995
17: M.D. Yapko, "Suggestions of Abuse: True and False Memories of
Childhood Sexual Trauma", Simon & Schuster, New York NY (1994)
18: P. L. Herndon, "False and Repressed Memories gain Media
Spotlight", Practitioner Focus, newsletter of the American
Psychological Association, 1994-FEB; P. 3, 15