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RMT topics covered in this essay:

bulletAre RMT clients crazy?
bulletAre RMT clients lying?
bulletHow far have we come in 3 centuries?
bulletStatements by various organizations
bulletSummary by a leading expert
bulletCourt decisions
bulletThe current status of RMT
bulletWhat does the future hold?

Also see:

bulletRecent news items about RMT, Satanic Ritual Abuse and False memories

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Overview of RMT:

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."

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Are clients crazy?

The answer is "no." 

Some promoters of RMT have suggested that either:

bulletThe "memories" are of real abuse events, or
bulletThe client is crazy.

But there must be a third option, because:

bulletIn almost all cases, the "memories" appear to be unrelated to real childhood events, and
bulletIt 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.

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Are clients lying about their abuse memories?

Some observers of RMT conclude that there are only two options:

bulletThe "memories" are of real abuse events, or
bulletThe 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:

bulletVery few clients lie about their memories:
  1. Some clients have continuously-present memories of actual child abuse.
  2. 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 this phenomenon.
  3. Some have recovered images of child abuse through lengthy RMT sessions. The images are almost always unrelated to real events. However, the clients are not lying about their "memories;" their memories feel very real to them.
  4. 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 happens extremely rarely, if ever. One British professional organization, mentioned below, has stated that the phenomenon has never happened.

bulletSome 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.

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How Far Have We Come in 3 Centuries?

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
bulletIn 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.
bulletIn 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.

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Statements by various organizations:

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:
bullet"We can find no evidence that apparent memories of long forgotten and repeated child abuse have ever been proven to be true.
bullet"There is a good deal of evidence that patients will produce the material the therapist seeks, but it is often a product of fantasy."
bullet"Some memories are so incredible that most clinicians would regard them as false."
bullet"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 magnitude.

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

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Summary by a Leading Expert:

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:
bulletthe term "delayed memory" is a new euphemism for "recovered memory"
bullet"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 have problems."
bullet"Recognizing the unreliability of recovered memories should enable courts to do their work using established methods for evaluating evidence..."

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Court Decisions:

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 suits:
bulletThe therapy involved recovered memory therapy (RMT), and
bulletIt 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 salary. 6

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The current status of RMT

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 parents." 8

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.

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What Does the Future Hold?

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."

Unfortunately, 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:
bulletRequire 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 emerge.
bulletAdd 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 beliefs.

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  1. P.L. Herndon, "False and Repressed Memories gain Media Spotlight", Practitioner Focus, newsletter of the American Psychological Association, 1994-FEB; P. 3, 15
  2. Kirk Makin, "McLellan to look into recovered-memory debate,", The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON, 1998-MAY-20, Page A3
  3. A. Piper, "Multiple Personality Disorder: Witchcraft Survives in the Twentieth Century," The Skeptical Inquirer, 1998-MAY/JUN, Pages 44 - 50
  4. PBS TV program, "Searching for Satan," Frontline, 1995-OCT-24.
  5. Pamela Freyd,  FMS Foundation Newsletter, 1998-DEC, Vol 7, #10.
  6. Bob Anez, "Suspended Chicago psychiatrist takes job in Montana," Associated Press, 2001-JUL-24.
  7. FMS Foundation Newsletter, 2001-SEP/OCT.
  8. 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: http://www.sunspot.net/features/

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Copyright © 1998 and 2000 to 2003 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2003-MAR-4
Author: B.A. Robinson

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