Repressed "memories" generally start off as fragments of images that are recovered during long periods
-- typically months -- of
recovered memory therapy (RMT). RMT is a group of suggestive therapeutic methods that some therapists use to
recover what they believe to be long-forgotten or
repressed memories. RMT is now used by a diminishing number of therapists. RMT was a hotly debated topic
within the mental health community during the 1980s and 1990s. The conflict has now
resolved, as almost all therapists have abandoned the practice:
Most memory researchers and therapists believe that any serious abuse after the age of
about 4 will be remembered into adulthood - particularly if it was repeated.
They look upon recovered memories with suspicion, feeling that most
are not based on real events but on a collection of memories of horror movies, terror TV programs, scary books, etc. Hypnagogic nightmares (those experienced immediately upon falling asleep)
and hypnopompic nightmares (those experienced at wakening) have also been
cited as one source of memories of "having been sexually molested.
There would be a vivid description of a 'faceless specter,' usually a
hulking figure, coming upon them in the darkness of their bedrooms."
A diminishing number of recovered memory therapists
still believe that many people
actively repress memories of abuse and store them what is called "traumatic
memory". This is a part of the brain that is not normally
accessible by the conscious brain. According to this belief system, an adult could have been sexually abused as
a child hundreds (or even thousands) of times and have no current memory of any of the
events, even though the adult could recall other memories of mundane childhood activities
from those same years. The survivors might not even retain a vague recollection that something
dreadful happened during their childhood. These therapists believe that the more serious
and frequent the abuse was, the more likely the memories will be repressed. This concept of
repressed memories is gradually being abandoned by therapists.
Although most memories are recovered after extensive counseling with a therapist, some
individuals have recovered repressed "memories" outside of formal therapy. Frequently, self-help books
like The Courage to Heal are involved. The techniques are the same; they are simply
self-administered. Mutual support group for survivors of sexual abuse are another
environment in which memories are often recovered.
Dormant memories: a different type of lost memory:
There may be another mechanism by which forgotten memories can be retrieved.
We once called them "triggered memories." However, the
term "trigger" has been used extensively by individuals who believe that they
have been the victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse, and similar
horrendous experiences. So, we prefer the term "dormant memories."
Sometimes abusive events during childhood will be gradually be forgotten, but are later
through some triggering mechanism. A person who was abused during childhood and
who eventually forgot the abuse might see a photograph of the abuser, read an
article about abuse, hear of a reference to the abuser, etc. Very quickly, the memories
are restored -- often in seconds. No therapy is usually involved. The results are unexpected, and are frequently
very disturbing to the individual.
Ross Cheit, an associate professor of political science at Brown
University appears to have experienced dormant memories. He had just learned that his
nephew was going to join a boy's choir and attend summer music camp. Cheit
had himself gone to the same choir and camp. A few months of distress
followed. Then, he had a dream of a particular camp counselor. When he woke,
memories of sexual abuse came flooding back. He tracked down the former
counselor who confessed that he had been an abusive pedophile. 2,3
The author is aware of a instance in which a friend experienced
dormant memories while reading a newspaper article about a child
molester. As in Cheit's case, the memories came surging back quickly --
only a matter of minutes in her case. No therapy was involved. The
memories had been long-forgotten. After their restoration, she was
distressed. She complained to
the police and laid a charge against the abuser. About a dozen other women
had already contacted the authorities -- mainly because of reading the article. All of the
others had always remembered the abuse. Many
key items in my friend's abuse correlated perfectly with the ever-present
memories of the other women. This included the location, details of the
interior of the house where the abuse happened, and the perpetrator's MO.
He pleaded guilty all charges and
was given a jail sentence of two years per abuse incident --perceived as
reasonable by his victims. The judge ordered that they be served
concurrently. In effect, he served less than two months per abused child.
We suspect that "dormant memories" are simply ordinary memories stored
in the brain which have simply remained not accessed for a long period of
time. The person had no reason to recall them. But when some form of
trigger materialized, they accessed the memories -- sometimes after
decades of dormancy. We suspect that the process of remembering "dormant
memories" are no different from the common experience of meeting a person
that you have not seen in decades, talking about old times, and recalling
shared experiences that you have not thought about in years.
How these types of memories differ:
We treat dormant memories as being very different from repressed
The recovery of repressed memories typically start as vague partial images that arise
after long periods of therapy, or during attempts at self-hypnosis, or
while attending mutual support groups of victims/survivors of abuse.
They emerge very slowly and coalesce into what feel like real memories.
All, or almost all, cannot be corroborated by independent evidence. There is
a growing belief that they are generally unreliable They rarely
relate to real events, and are probably based on nightmares, horror
comics, frightening TV programs and movies, etc.
Dormant memories typically are forgotten memories of real
events that rush back into consciousness after a trigger, generally without
any involvement with a therapist. From our limited experience, they seem to
be reasonably reliable.
Both feel absolutely real to the victim/survivor. Both have the power to destroy
families of origin, disable individuals, and sometimes prompt a person to
The remainder of this group of essays will deal only with the classical
form of recovered memories -- those created during long periods of
therapy, self-hypnosis. or .
Reaction of the professional community to recovered & dormant
As of the year 2002, "memory wars" are gradually subsiding.
Generally speaking, most therapists and almost all memory researchers
agree with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation who believe that:
Childhood sexual abuse is a very widespread and serious problem.
"Some of our memories are true, some are a mixture of fact and fantasy, and some are false."
Recovered memory therapy is potentially dangerous, because the
"memories" that are generated are of unknown accuracy.
The efficacy and safety of RMT has never been studied.
"Memories" uncovered during RMT should not be acted upon unless
their accuracy is first verified.
The relatively few therapists who still support RMT take a different
Childhood sexual abuse is a very widespread and serious problem.
In some severe cases, "...a child may develop 'dissociative
amnesia,' or memory loss..."
"For some, memories and feelings may emerge at a later date."
"...over 68 studies have documented the reality of recovering
forgotten memories of traumatic events."
"Dissociative amnesia is...listed in the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual (DSM-IV)"
"...research on adults with documented child abuse histories has
demonstrated that accurate remembering of forgotten trauma is possible."
A great deal of the remaining confusion over RMT involves triggered
An unexpected trigger, like seeing a photo or news
Therapy using hypnosis and other suggestive techniques
Memories appear suddenly
Memories appear gradually, after a long period of
Likelihood memories are true
Although these two types of memory retrieval appear to be completely
different phenomena, many professionals on both sides of the memory wars
seem to ignore dormant memories.
Many who support the false memory syndrome state that some forgotten
memories that return to consciousness are unrelated to real events,
whereas others are accurate.
Those opposing the false memory syndrome often quote examples of
dormant memories that have been verified as accurate. Then they use
those examples as proof that accurate, forgotten memories can be
recovered during RMT therapy.
No one is well served if the principals in the memory wars continue to
ignore a major mechanism by which memories can be retrieved.
Francis Kane, "Hallucinations and 'Recovered Memories'," The
Skeptical Inquirer, Letters to the editor, 2001-JUL-1, Page 73.
Michele Landsberg, "Memories of molestation recovered by
men, too," Toronto Start, Toronto ON, 2000-MAR-4, Page R1