We generally avoid taking sides in controversial matters. Our normal policy is to explain both or all viewpoints that people hold on each issue. However, the extreme harm caused by RMT has now been well documented. The unreliability of RMT has been firmly established. Thus, this series of essays will mainly reflect the beliefs of a near-consensus of therapists: that RMT is a dangerous and irresponsible form of therapy that can generate "memories" of events that never happened.
History of RMT:
The theory of repressed memory began with pioneer psychologist Sigmund Freud. According to Adriaan Mak, who helped found the Canadian branch of the False memory Syndrome Foundation: Freud literally browbeat his clients -- "whacked them on their heads to loosen forgotten experiences of childhood incest." 1 Freud later abandoned the belief in repressed memories. The theory was resurrected in the early 1980s by Swiss therapist Alice Miller. Within a decade, tens of thousands of therapists were actively trying to recover repressed memories.
During this time, research into how the human brain remembers events was advancing rapidly. Memory researchers were finding out that memory works by a reconstructive process that is not particularly accurate. Old memories can easily be overlaid by newer events. Unfortunately, a lot of therapists had not kept up with the latest research. They still believed that memories were always accurate. It did not matter whether a client always remembered an abuse event, or had laboriously pieced together recovered "memories" of abuse in therapy. They believed earlier theories that the human mind worked like a video tape recorder. All recordings were exact and could be relied upon.
Perhaps the leading memory researcher, and certainly the most famous/infamous is psychologist Elizabeth Loftus at Washington State. She warned the 1991 American Psychological Association conference that memory "retrieval" might be generating false memories. She was howled down by her colleagues. 1
During the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, thousands or tens of thousands of psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, church counselors, feminist counselors etc. attempted to recover memories of early childhood abuse from their patients/clients. Partial images of abuse were easily uncovered in most patients/clients, using various suggestive techniques, such as hypnotism, guided imagery, dream analysis, automatic writing, fantasizing, etc. With continued therapy, these images often coalesced into what appeared to be actual memories. Most often, the alleged abusers were within their own family. Often the clients severed all connection with their parents. Tens of thousands of families of origin were destroyed by these revelations; many clients/patients became emotionally disabled; some committed suicide.
By the mid-1990s, the tide had turned. The reliability of these memories became widely suspect. Many professional mental-health organizations in Australia, Britain, Canada and the U.S. had by this time warned that memories recovered during therapy may or may not be related to real events. They should not be accepted as valid without external corroboration.
Many explanations were advanced to account for these "recovered memories." Many theories were pure conjecture, without any significant experimental basis. As Kenneth S. Pope wrote in 1998:
By the late 1990s, many former patients had retracted their beliefs and recognized that their memories were false. Some have sued their therapists; a few won multi-million dollar judgments. Insurance companies began to put pressure on their therapist clients to abandon RMT.
By the turn of the 21st century, only a small, dedicated minority of therapists and counselors still believed that recovered memories were reliable, without corroboration by other evidence. In response, the main U.S. public education group in the field, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, had down-sized. COSA, a New Zealand organization that helped persons who were accused because of false memories, closed down. Isolated cases of false sexual abuse allegations still occur; however the earlier flood has almost dried up."
Recovered memory therapy appears to be simply the latest mental-health hoax to emerge from obscurity, rise through the usual 15 years of ascendancy, falter because of a lack of supporting research, and fall back into obscurity. Like some other hoax therapies, it has left behind a trail of broken families, broken lives and dead bodies. It has also profoundly damaged the credibility of the psychology and psychiatry professions. Psychologist Mark Genuis, founder of the National Foundation for Family Research and Education, in Calgary AB lays part of the blame for on its abandoning the scientific method. Over the last generation, he said, careful statistical research has been shunted aside by "qualitative research" or "case studies." While case studies are important, Genuis said, without statistical validation, they have the status of fiction. 1
History seems to be repeating itself. Many psychologists and other counselors and therapists who abandoned RMT are now practicing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR has been reported in the media as taking "only a few sessions" to effect a cure, and as "boon to traumatic disorders." Fortunately, this therapy does not seem to have the power to destroy people's lives as has been demonstrated by RMT. 2
We use the phrases "recovered memories" or "delayed memories" because these terms are almost exclusively used by experts on all sides of the issue. However, they are not good labels. The word memories implies that actual events are being recalled from the past. A very few are indeed memories of real events; but most appear to be false "memories" of events that never happened. "Images" might be a better word to use.
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Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance