RECOVERED MEMORY THERAPY (RMT)
DECLINING BELIEF IN RMT; ENDING THE MEMORY WARS
RMT topics covered in this essay:
During the 1990's opposition to RMT steadily rose, from within the insurance industry,
the courts, families who believed that they were falsely accused, memory
researchers, and some professional
mental health organizations. This has been called the "memory wars" -- long and
often bitter debates on the nature of human memory, and the existence of memory
repression. Ultimately, the public became concerned at the damage being
done to victims of this experimental therapy and the destruction of their families of origin.
On the topic of repressed and recovered memories, a member of the American
Psychological Association stated 1 "nothing less
than the integrity of the mental health professions and the trust inherent in the
client-therapist relationship is at stake."
Are clients crazy?
The answer is "no."
Some promoters of RMT have suggested that either:
|The "memories" are of real abuse events, or|
|The client is crazy.|
But there must be a third option, because:
|In almost all cases, the "memories" appear to be unrelated to real
childhood events, and|
|It appears that up to 80% of normal humans are quite capable of
generating images that feel like past, recovered, abuse memories. |
This third option is that essentially all "memories" are not of real events,
that the client is sane, but that recovered memories are a natural byproduct of
RMT, created by a sane mind. One can look upon recovered memories as a
phenomenon similar to nightmares. These also are created by a normal mind, do
not depict real events, and are meaningless.
Are clients lying about their abuse memories?
Some observers of RMT conclude that there are only two options:
|The "memories" are of real abuse events, or|
|The clients are knowingly lying about their "memories" and abuse.|
However, it seems that reality is more complex. There seem to be four
alternatives for childhood abuse memories:
|Very few clients lie about their memories:|
- Some clients have continuously-present memories of actual child
- Some once had continually-present memories of abuse, but
subsequently forgot them. Later, some image or sound or article in a
newspaper triggered the memories, and they returned in a flash. We use
the term "dormant memories" to refer to
- Some have recovered images of child abuse through lengthy RMT
sessions. The images are almost always unrelated to real events. However, the
not lying about their "memories;" their memories feel very real to them.
- Some have recovered accurate memories of child abuse as a result of RMT.
Of these four possibilities, there is a growing consensus that option 4
extremely rarely, if ever. One British professional organization, mentioned below, has
stated that the phenomenon has never happened.
|Some clients may be knowingly lying about their memories of child abuse --
perhaps to upset their parents or to blackmail their family of origin for
financial gain. Some of the allegations of clergy
abuse might be motivated by the deep pockets of religious
institutions. We have been unable to uncover any instances where this
has been proven to have
happened. But it remains a possibility.|
August Piper Jr. concludes an article on Multiple Personality
Disorder by comparing the Salem Witch trials of the 1690's with the Recovered Memory
Therapy in the 1990's: 3
|In 1692-MAR, Sarah Good (aged 38, pregnant, a resident of Salem MA) was denounced by her
husband to the witchcraft tribunal. He said that she was a witch or "or would be
one very quickly." There was no evidence that she had engaged in black
magic or had consorted with Satan. She was hung on 1692-JUL-19.|
|In 1992, a woman went to a psychiatrist at a hospital in Chicago IL. She was suffering
from depression. The therapists diagnosed her as having MPD,
concluded that she had abused her children, and had attended Satanic
cult meetings where pregnant women were killed and their fetuses eaten. The doctor
notified the authorities that she was a child molester. Her husband believed the doctor,
and divorced his wife. Because she was a "child molester" her husband
obtained custody of their children. Nobody had ever seen her engage in black magic, or
consort with Satan, or attend a cult orgy.|
It seems that we have made some slight progress in the past 300 years. We no longer
burn people at the stake; we no longer even hang people. We merely take their children
away, destroy their marriages, and destroy their quality of life.
Some professional associations have issued statements both before 1997 and
after 1996 which have cautioned the
public about the dangers of recovered memory therapy (RMT). In 1993, the American Medical Association was the first large
group to indicate that recovered memories are of "uncertain authenticity,"
and that they should not be relied upon unless "external verification"
is first obtained. Other professional groups followed. In more recent years, they tended
to increasingly dismiss RMT as a dangerous and useless technique.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists in England
created a Working Group on Reported Recovered Memories of Child Sexual Abuse
which issued their report on 1997-OCT-1. They concluded:
|"We can find no evidence that apparent memories of long forgotten and repeated
child abuse have ever been proven to be true.|
|"There is a good deal of evidence that patients will produce the material the
therapist seeks, but it is often a product of fantasy."|
|"Some memories are so incredible that most clinicians would regard them as
|"We must conclude that, like abduction by space travelers, accounts of satanic
abuse are false."|
Other professional mental health organizations have appeared to be paralyzed. They hesitate to
take a definitive stand against repressed / recovered memories. Perhaps they are concerned
that such action would leave their members exposed to law suits of a truly horrendous
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation summarized the situation in late 1998:
"More families report communication from formerly alienated children. More
retractors are contacting the Foundation. While newly accused families are devastated and
in crisis, the 'recovered repressed memory' phenomenon as a whole seems to have passed the
crisis stage. Most families tell us that they have moved beyond the need for support
groups and educational meetings. Proponents of recovered repressed memories seem in
retreat on professional, scientific and legal fronts. The recovered repressed memory
belief system appears to be moving closer to marginal status." 5
On 1998-FEB-12, a letter by Dr. H. Merskey was published in the Toronto Globe and
Mail. Dr. Merskey is a psychiatrist, and perhaps Canada's leading
expert in the field of recovered memories. He commented:
|the term "delayed memory" is a new euphemism for "recovered
|"There is no scientific reason to accept that truly recovered memories have
ever been properly corroborated. The few cases for which vociferous claims are made, all
|"Recognizing the unreliability of recovered memories should enable courts to do
their work using established methods for evaluating evidence..."|
Many courts have ruled on the admissibility of
recovered memories as testimony. Such decisions went increasingly against the use of such
material in court. A typical ruling, in 1996-JUL-29 was by The Court of Appeals of
Maryland who concluded:
"After reviewing the arguments on both sides of the issue, we are
unconvinced that repression exists as a phenomenon separate and apart from the normal
process of forgetting."
Starting in the mid 1990's, RMT court cases took an unusual turn. Instead of RMT
being used to prosecute an alleged perpetrator, RMT therapists themselves went on trial,
as a series of court cases were brought by clients against their therapists. In a few
cases, families of clients brought the charges. Two frequent factors were seen in many of
|The therapy involved recovered memory therapy (RMT), and|
|It recovered false memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA).
One of the largest lawsuits to date resulted in an award of almost 5.8
million dollars to the plaintiff. Ms. Lynn Carl, 46, sued her therapist, Dr. Gloria Keraga. Lynn commented: "This verdict validates my story, and I hope gives
strength to those other patients who have suffered similar abuse." Her false
memories which emerged during therapy convinced her that she had engaged in murder,
cannibalism, sexual abuse and incest. She became convinced that she suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder, was diagnosed as having developed
more than 500 personalities, and believed that she had been involved in a Satanic cult.
Her children, then aged 13 and 14, were admitted to hospital where they came to believe
that they had been abused by the cult. Ms. Carl claims that the false memories led to a
divorce, and a court order which prevented her from seeing her children. Her attorney, Skip
Simpson, implied that the motive for the implantation of false memories was over 1.1
million dollars in insurance payments. "This case was all about creating victims
so the mental health field could have patients and expensive treatment." The
Carl's have since reconciled and remarried.
In another case, during 1997-NOV, Rush Presbyterian Hospital (in Chicago IL), Dr.
Bennett Braun and the Pat Burgus
family settled out of court. The hospital and insurance companies involved paid the family
$10.6 million. Dr. Braun has since been expelled from the Illinois
Psychiatric Society and the American Psychiatric Association,
apparently for ethics violations. His license to practice medicine was suspended
for two years in 1999-OCT, and he was given five years probation. After working
as a night watchman for a year, he performed a "clerk-type
job" in a children's hospital in Wyoming at about one tenth of his prior
A survey of accused parents by the False Memory
Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) found that most of the accusations by clients
of RMT therapists occurred between 1989 and 1994, with 1991 and 1992 being
the peak years. 7 Opposition to the reliability of recovered memories appears to be
growing rapidly within the public, in the court system, and among malpractice and medical
insurance companies. RMT had been linked closely to Multiple
Personality Disorder/Dissociative Identity Disorder and belief in
Satanic Ritual Abuse; these other movements are also fading in popularity. All
three movements have been immensely damaging to individuals and their families of origin.
Unfortunately, these psychological fads will leave behind them a massive trail of personal
devastation, bankruptcies, suicide attempts, and completed suicides.
Paul McHugh, distinguished service professor of
psychiatry and former psychiatrist-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Medical
Institutions, wrote on 2003-MAR-2: "The [memory]
wars are ending for several reasons. The memories reported by many patients
became absurd. Satanic cults were imagined, and even alien abduction. Many
psychiatrists were rebuked for malpractice - sometimes professionally, sometimes
in civil court. And most importantly, patients after discharge gradually began
to doubt their memories, recanting their accusations and rejoining their
As research psychologists continue with their fundamental research into
memory, it is becoming increasingly obvious that recovered memories were just the latest in a series of
psychological fads with little substantial basis in reality. Perhaps in excess of 1
million clients and patients have been harmed by the therapy. They were led to believe,
falsely, that they were the victims of horrendous sexual abuse during their childhood.
Countless thousands of families of origin have been needlessly destroyed. It seems
irresponsible that professional associations and governments took no action to
prevent this psychological fad, based on a dangerous experimental therapeutic
technique, to rage uncontrolled for over a decade, adversely affecting so many
individuals and their families of origin. Governments, the various professional associations of
psychiatrists, psychologists, Christian counselors, feminist counselors, etc. must accept
considerable responsibility for the social damage that has resulted from RMT.
Paul McHugh concluded his article with the hopeful
statements: "The Memory Wars are over. Rehabilitation for many of its
victims proceeds. We have learned something very deep - not just about how the
human mind can be tricked and misled (useful as that is) - but how it has the
powers to find confidence and energy in facing the future."
Dr. McHugh is partly mistaken. The memory wars are not completely over.
Classical RMT therapy is still being used by a few therapists and counselors. It
has also been reborn in a modified form in
Theophostic Counseling -- a therapy method that has started to
cause devastation in some conservative Christian congregations.
There is every likelihood that new psychological fads will appear in the future. We
seem unable as a society to learn from our mistakes. One method by which we could minimize
future disasters of this type would be to train both therapists and the general
public to be more skeptical of therapeutic techniques whose efficacy and safety
have not been thoroughly examined. We could:
|Require the curriculum of all academic courses that train psychiatrists, psychologists,
therapists and counselors to include an additional course: a study of past psychological fads. That might help therapists to be on guard against new fads as they
|Add to the curriculum of all high schools a course that trains students to skeptically
and logically analyze beliefs -- such as the existence of UFOs piloted by extraterrestrials,
various conspiracy theories concerning the federal government, Christian
urban legends, 100 mile per gallon
carburetors, etc. Unfortunately, not all parents would accept courses of this nature, as
children might become skeptical of their parents' cherished religious, political and other
- P.L. Herndon, "False and Repressed Memories gain Media Spotlight",
Practitioner Focus, newsletter of the American Psychological Association,
1994-FEB; P. 3, 15
- Kirk Makin, "McLellan to look into recovered-memory debate,", The
Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON, 1998-MAY-20, Page A3
- A. Piper, "Multiple Personality Disorder: Witchcraft Survives in the Twentieth
Century," The Skeptical Inquirer, 1998-MAY/JUN, Pages 44 - 50
- PBS TV program, "Searching for Satan," Frontline, 1995-OCT-24.
- Pamela Freyd, FMS Foundation Newsletter, 1998-DEC, Vol 7, #10.
- Bob Anez, "Suspended Chicago psychiatrist takes job in Montana,"
Associated Press, 2001-JUL-24.
- FMS Foundation Newsletter, 2001-SEP/OCT.
- Paul McHugh, "Ending the 'Memory Wars' does not
redeem the victims. Witch-trial zealotry has given way to sound
psychiatry - after vast damage was done," Baltimore Sun, 2003-MAR-3, at:
Copyright © 1998 and 2000 to 2003 incl., by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2003-MAR-4
Author: B.A. Robinson