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What RMT Therapists Believe:

Some therapists who are still 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 childhood abuse. They believe that these abuse memories have been repressed so that they cannot be recollected during adulthood. Even though the abuse is not remembered in regular memory, it generates some of the above symptoms in the adult. Through RMT, some therapists believe that the repressed memories can be recovered. Further, they believe that they must be recovered in order for the patient-client to regain mental health.

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 suspected victims/survivors.

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RMT Techniques:

In order to recover memories, therapists had mainly used a variety of therapeutic techniques:
bullet hypnotism.
bullet free association.
bullet relaxation training.
bullet guided imagery and visualizations (taking the client through an imaginary trip).
bullet projective drawing art therapy.
bullet dream therapy (analyzing dreams for suggestions of abuse).
bullet age regression (taking the client back in time to early childhood, into the womb -- even beyond into a former lifetime).
bullet past life regression therapy (taking the client back in time to an earlier lifetime).
bullet "truth serum" -- use of drugs to enhance recall of memories
bullet automatic writing (having the client write freely without thinking about what they are writing).
bullet having the client imagine abuse that could have happened to them.

All of these suggestive therapeutic techniques have been criticized for their ability to create false memories of events that never happened.

Another method by which memories are recovered is through participation in a mutual support, self-help group. These groups often include some individuals who have recovered memories and others who suspect that they have been abused during childhood and have not yet been able to recover any recollection of the events. Some investigators believe that intense peer pressure on those who cannot remember causes them to begin to imagine images of abuse. These images later coalesce into what appear to be memories.

A third technique for recovering repressed memories involves the study of self-help books. They describe methods of recovering memories that individuals can use by themselves. Campbell Perry, Professor of Psychology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, wrote in an article: "While generalization requires caution, the most common way in which such memories enter conscious is through reading a book The courage to heal: A guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis (1988) 1 as a part of a specific psycho- therapy program. There are cases of a person reading this book alone (Nelson & Simpson, 1994) and subsequently reporting vizualizations of being abused sexually during childhood. It is more common to find, however, that reading the book occurs in conjunction with what has become known as "recovered memory" therapy." 2

Often multiple techniques are used to recover memories. A therapists may give an individual recovered memory therapy, may suggest that they join a support group, and that they read and follow a self-help book.

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Origins of RMT:

Richard Webster has traced the history of RMT to a group of therapist in the Boston, MA area in the early 1980's. 3 Inspired by Judith Herman's 1981 book "Father-Daughter Incest", they formed support groups for incest survivors. 4 The book contained the description of one woman who, during therapy, reconstructed her formerly repressed memory of sexual abuse. At first, the groups were made up mostly of people who had always remembered their childhood abuse. But slowly, the composition changed, as more patients seeking recovered memories entered the sessions. "...women with no memories would often begin to see images of sexual abuse involving father or other adults, and these images would then be construed as memories of 'flashbacks.' "

Ellen Bass and Laura Davis published "The Courage to Heal" in 1988, This book helped readers recover memories by following methods of self-therapy. As of early-2000, the book is still in print, and still stocked by many bookstores. Over 750,000 copies have been sold. It is often referred to as the "Bible" of the repressed memory industry. RMT therapists frequently recommend that their clients read it. Michael Shermer commented on the authors' estimate that a third to one half of all women were sexually abused as children. 5 Adding 42.9 million child victims to 42.9 perpetrators, and including also a smaller number of spouses and family members of the abusers, he concludes that over 100 million Americans would have been involved in child sexual abuse. This is almost 40% of the population - a number that Shermer considers impossible. (Actually, his computations are unrealistic, because some adults abuse multiple children.)

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How Recovered Memories Appear:

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 these partial images often appear during therapy.

An article by B. van der Kolk, et al. explains the process as follows:

"A systematic exploratory study of 46 subjects with PTSD indicated that traumatic memories were retrieved, at least initially, in the form of dissociated mental imprints of sensory and affective elements of the traumatic experience: as visual, olfactory, affective, auditory, and kinesthetic experiences. Over time, subjects reported the gradual emergence of a personal narrative that can be properly referred to as 'explicit memory.'" 6

Through the above RMT techniques, additional pieces of the pictures often materialize, until an entire scene (often involving abuse) is recovered. Further therapy recovers more scenes, and images in greater detail. Finally, complete pictures of years of abuse are often pieced together. These pictures are often believed by both patient and therapist to be memories of real events. Some therapists help their patients recover memories of horrendous abuse extending over a period of years in 80% or more of their clients; a few report 100%. Among patients who recover memories of abuse, about 15 to 20% go on to find memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse. A smaller percentage are diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder or Dissociative Identity Disorder.

During the 1990s, there was a great deal of controversy among mental health professionals and within their professionals associations over RMT. A consensus existed about the process of RMT: the appearance of visual images, sounds etc.; the gradual development of these elements into abuse sequences; the coalescence of these into what feel like normal memories of real events. However, there was no consensus on the reality of the memories:
bullet Some believed that recovered memories are as reliable as those which have been continuously present from childhood to the present time. Some details may have been lost; memories of individual episodes of abuse may have been combined into a single memory; but the overall picture of abuse is believed to be quite accurate.
bullet Other therapists believe that at least some of the images recovered are based on events that never happened to the individual. They might be based on recollections of horror movies, comic books, nightmares, TV shows, etc. And by concentrating on the recollections, a full story emerges which may be a fictional account, even though they feel like memories of real events.

There is anecdotal evidence that people who recover repressed memories of childhood abuse are often artists, writers, or exhibited levels of creativity above the norm. One source states that "only a few did not fall into that category." We have been unable to find any formal study of this phenomenon.  Perhaps the combination of high creativity and suggestive therapeutic techniques combine to make their recovery of memories more likely during therapy.

By 2001, recovered memory had largely become an abandoned therapy. Few therapists still practice it.

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Why Would People Want to Dredge up Memories if they are not Real?

Supporters of RMT often suggested that there were only two possibilities with respect to recovered memories:
bullet they were accurate memories of real events, or
bullet they were the delusions of a mentally-ill mind.

There is a third possibility - that the memories are an unintended creation of the therapy process itself. That is, a client who is hypnotized or is engaging in other suggestive therapies is particularly open to suggestions from the therapies. These suggestions created images which coalesced into what appear to be memories.

RMT supporters sometimes point out that nobody would intentionally create horrific recovered memories unless they were real. To recover such memories requires the client to experience the agony of reliving the abusive events. Again, there is an alternative explanation. Almost everyone has terrifying nightmares from time to time. One could ask why people's minds create such horrible images and situations. Perhaps some recovered memories (those which are not based on real events) are as "real" as nightmares.

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  1. E. Bass & L. Davis, "The courage to heal: A guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse," Harper, (1994) . Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Campbell Perry, "The False Memory Syndrome (FMS) and 'Disguised' Hypnosis," Hypnos, Vol 22, #4.
  3. R. Webster, "Why Freud was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis," Basic Books, New York, NY, (1995)
  4. J. Herman, "Father-Daughter Incest," Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, (1981)
  5. Michael Sherman, "Why People Believe Weird Things," Freeman, New York, NY (1997)
  6. B. van der Kolk & R. Fisler, "Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: Overview and exploratory study," Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8, 505-525 (1995). Available at:

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Copyright 1996 to 2001 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update: 2001-NOV-5
Author: B.A. Robinson.

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