Recovered memory therapy (RMT)
Repression of childhood memories
A near consensus of researchers believe that memory repression is extremely rare and that recovered
memories from childhood should not be given credibility unless they are corroborated by
other evidence. However, some of those few therapists who still use Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) believe that memory
repression is quite common and that recovered memories are usually valid recollections of
real childhood events. There is a
near consensus that the researchers are right: that most recovered memories are
not related to real events.
There is general agreement among memory researchers that memories of events which
happened before the age of 24 months are never remembered into adulthood and cannot be recovered.
Memories before the age of 36 months are rare and not particularly reliable. Claims by Ross et al
that 27% of their Multiple Personality Disordered (MPD) patients recall abuse that
occurred before 3 years of age are invalid. 1 A claim by Rosanne
of abuse when
she was 6 months old is certainly a false memory. 2 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. A fetal brain's higher functions only turn on in the
- Some survivor's memories of childhood sexual abuse have always been present from the
moment when they occurred until the present time. The memories were never repressed.
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 life experiences. It
is quite possible that a child could experience a non-violent molestation experience and permanently
forget about it, just as children can forget painful bicycle accidents, falling down
stairs, breaking an arm, etc.
A few therapists still 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
and suggestive techniques (hypnotism, "truth serum" sessions, guided imagery, dream analysis,
etc.) such memories can be recovered. Their numbers are dwindling. The main
reason is that "there are no scientific data that trauma victims
dissociate and forget their abuse." 11
- Most therapists believe that a single instance of serious abuse after about age 4 or 5
is very rarely forgotten, and that repeated abuse after that age is perhaps never
- People who have been known to have suffered terrible abuse during childhood have been
studied. These include adults who lived in European ghettos during World War II, who were
interned in Nazi concentration and extermination camps, children who watched while their
parents were killed, children who were kidnapped, etc. None have been found to have
repressed their memories of the childhood events. Their problem tends to be the opposite:
they want to forget the incidents, but are unable to.
Pope and Hudson study:
Pope and Hudson from Harvard University recently completed a literature search on the
topic of repressed memories of childhood incest. They postulate instances of sexual
child abuse where:
- the abuse has been corroborated independently of the survivor's memory.
- 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 forget it).
the victim in her adult years was unaware of the abuse; she was not lying about not
having remembered it. 3
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 would seem that
repression of traumatic childhood memories occurs very rarely, if at all.
In 1994, Williams 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
all had reached adulthood. 4 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.
This study is often cited as proof that sexual abuse memories are often repressed.
Unfortunately, the study contains some ambiguities:
- The hospital records contained many findings of sexual abuse. However, in recent years,
the methods that were then used to physically examine children have been shown to be
unreliable. It was beyond the scope of the study to attempt to verify whether the abuse
had actually happened by consulting with family members. 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 in some cases.
- Some of the molestation which was in the form of fondling might simply have been
forgotten or not interpreted by the child as molestation; there is no indication of repression. The acts 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 fall).
- Some of the children brought to the hospital were under the age of 24 months, before the
age when memories are retained; others were under the age of 36 months when memories are
unreliable and frequently forgotten.
They did not interview the adults further to determine whether they:
- had repressed or forgotten the event, or
- they remembered the abuse but did not choose to reveal it to the interviewer.
The Williams' study uncovered two additional factors:
- Survivors were more likely to recall sexual abuse which involved high amounts of force than with
- Survivors were more slightly more likely to recall frequent abuse than infrequent abuse
during childhood. However, the difference was not statistically significantly; a larger
number of test subjects would be needed to verify this conclusion.
Both of these indicators are incompatible with the theory of memory repression
that has been
promoted by supporters of recovered memories.
It is very difficult to understand why the Williams study was not immediately redesigned
and repeated (perhaps on a larger scale) during the mid to late 1990s. It would appear to be the best method
of determining whether memories of repeated childhood sexual abuse actually can
be repressed and to obtain an estimate of how often this happens. During the
1990s, unproven and experimental RMT were used on probably hundreds of thousands of clients, and tens
of thousands of families of origin were destroyed. Proper, carefully designed,
and well publicized studies could have avoided an enormous amount of human
suffering, and prevented many suicides.
Fortunately, The Femina study took William's work one logical step further. The
interviewed 69 people who had reported abuse 9 years earlier as adults, 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. 5
It is probable that at least some of the incest and sexual abuse survivors in the
Williams study had similar reasons. It is possible 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 the study had been
conducted differently, one might be able to conclude that essentially all children
remember into adulthood any serious sexual abuse which occurred after the age of 4.
Study by C.S. Widom et al,:
C.S. Widom and S. Morris conducted a study in 1997 similar to that performed
by Williams. They studied 1,114 adults who were abused or neglected, and whose
abuse was substantiated by courts. They found that 37% of adults who were
victims of childhood sexual abuse did not disclose the abuse to the researchers.
Study by Goodman et al.:
This study involved telephone interviews with 175 subjects who had been
victims of child sexual abuse which resulted in legal actions. This was followed
up with a mailed questionnaire to 129 subjects and in-person interviews with 107
persons. In the telephone interviews, 26 people did not report sexual abuse. Of
those 26, twelve reported abuse on the questionnaire or in the personal
interview. Thus, they found that only 8% of subjects did not disclose abuse;
this is much lower than two previous studies which found the number to be 38%
and 37%. Author's note: We suspect that the major gap between the findings of
this study when compared to earlier studies was caused by the multiple contacts
with the study subjects and/or the degree of comfort felt by the subjects during
the interviews. 13
They found that:
- Forgetting child sexual abuse may not be a common experience.
- The greater the severity of the abuse and the older that victims were at
the time of the abuse, the more likely they were to disclose the abuse as
"...these findings do not support the existence of special memory
mechanisms unique to traumatic events, but instead imply that normal cognitive
operations underlie long-term memory for" childhood sexual abuse.
The Ohio Association of Responsible Mental Health Practices published
a short essay by Paul Simpson in their 2003-MAR newsletter. 6
Simpson "is a Christian psychologist who used to practice RMT. He soon
discovered that 100% of his patients got worse and sometimes decomposed under
this Toxic Therapy. He has written a book called 'Second Thoughts'...." 7 He discusses what he regards as RMT's greatest problem: it lacks
predictive validity. "...when we know that a traumatic event has occurred, we
find that victims do not repress their experiences. Instead, they are often
plagued by recurring memories of their trauma..."
He cites three studies:
One study found that children who witnessed the murder of one of
their parents did not repress their memories. "Rather, they were
preoccupied with the murder and were continually flooded with disturbing
Dozens of children kidnapped in Chowchilla CA in 1976 under
extremely frightening conditions. Children were kidnapped, placed in two
vans, and driven for 100 miles. The vans were then buried in a quarry.
The driver and two boys were able to dig their way out and get help. A
1993 article revealed that none were found to have repressed memories of
the event. 9
Seventy-eight Holocaust survivors were interviewed four decades
after the end of World War II. None had repressed their memories of
experiences in the prison camps. All but one remembered forgotten
details with simple prompting. 10
Paul Simpson concludes: "As these case studies of actual victims show,
none behave as repression theory predicts. In contrast, scientific research
reveals that people remember, rather than repress, traumatic events."
Ross et al., "Abuse histories in 102 cases of multiple
personality disorder", Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 36, P. 97-101
- Leeza TV show, 1994-OCT-11
Pope & Hudson Can Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse be
repressed?, Psychological Medicine, V. 25, P. 121-126.
- 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.
Donna Femina, Child Abuse, Child Abuse and Neglect, 1990, V.
14, P. 227-231.
Paul Simpson, "Recovered memories: Fact or fiction?," Ohio
Association of Responsible Mental Health Practices, 2003-MAR newsletter,
Paul Simpson, "Second Thoughts: Understanding the false memory
crisis and how it could affect you," Thomas Nelson, (1997). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
C.P. Malmquist, "Children Who Witness Parental Murder:
Post-traumatic Aspects," Journal of American Academy of Child
Psychiatry, 25 (1986), Pages 320-325.
C. Safran, "Dangerous Obsession: The Truth About Repressed
Memories," McCalls, 1993-JUN), Pages 98-115.
W.A. Wagenaar & J. Groeneweg, "The Memory of Concentration Camp
Survivors," Applied Cognitive Psychology, 4 (1990), Page 77.
- Susan Clancy, Research Fellow, Harvard University; letter in
Washington Post, 2003-FEB-25.
C.S. Widom & S. Morris, "Accuracy of adult recollections of
childhood victimization: Part 2: Childhood sexual abuse,"
Psychological Assessment, 9, Page 34 to 46.
G.S. Goodman, et al., "A prospective study of memory for child
sexual abuse: New findings relevant to the repressed-memory controversy,"
Psychological Science 14(2), Pages 113 to 118.
Copyright © 1995 to 2008, by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2008-SEP-03
Author: B.A. Robinson