Comments on the Inquiry into the
Practice of Recovered Memory Therapy
A draft report by the Government of Victoria, Australia
We will use the terms:
||"RMT" to refer to recovered memory therapy.
||"CSA" to refer to child sexual abuse.
||"Recovered memories" to refer to images of abuse that have
been gradually constructed during either during therapy, or self-help,
mutual support groups, or via self-hypnosis, and which coalesce into what
appear to be real memories. They may be false (i.e. not related to real
events) or true (accurate descriptions of real events) or distorted
(inaccurate descriptions of real events). "Recovered images" would probably
be a better term to use; however, all sides in the controversy generally use
"recovered memories" even though some of them are not real memories. By the
late 1990s, most therapists who had used RMT had abandoned the technique.
This happened largely in response to warnings by professional mental health
associations of the unreliably of recovered memory techniques and the
refusal of malpractice insurance companies to cover legal expenses.
||"Triggered memories" to refer to once simply forgotten memories
that have come rushing back into consciousness almost instantaneously as a
result of some prompt. Examples of the latter are: reading about a
perpetrator in a newspaper article, visiting the scene of abuse, seeing a
photograph of an abuser, etc.
One member of the OCRT -- the group responsible for this web site --
experienced the triggered memory phenomenon. Memories of CSA came flooding back
after reading a newspaper article about the perpetrator. He was being sued by
his daughter for CAS. Approximately 12 other women, all of whom had continuously
present memories of the CSA, emerged to join the lawsuit. The triggered memories
about the perpetrator's MO and the details of the location where the molestation
happened agreed with the continuously present memories of the other women. The
perpetrator pleaded guilty and received multiple two year sentences, served
From the studies that we have made of the available literature -- an in
particular of the statements of professional mental health organizations -- we
have tentatively concluded that RMT is extremely unreliable, and that that most
recovered memories of CSA are of events that never happened. We also suspect
that triggered memories may well be generally as reliable as continuously
present memories of CSA.
About the Inquiry:
The Health Services Commissioner to the Minister for Health of
the government of Victoria, a state in Australia,
published a 161 page draft report titled "Inquiry into the Practice of
Recovered Memory Therapy" (RMT) in 2005. The government agreed to
investigate RMT after being heavily pressured by parents who believe that they
had been falsely accused by family members of CSA as a result of RMT.
The professional qualifications of the three individuals who assembled the
report are not mentioned.
Concerns with definitions used:
The Commissioner shows a degree if either bias or lack of knowledge in the
definitions of the term "false memory advocates." Curiously, they include three
populations under this term:
"Individuals or associations who do not believe traumatic events can
be forgotten for a period of time and subsequently remembered. Rather they
believe recovered memories are false memories." There is one
professional association in Britain which has claimed that all
recovered memories are false. However, no other association has expressed
that belief. A consensus among individuals and associations who are
skeptical of RMT believe that many, perhaps most, but not all recovered
memories are not of real events.
Persons who believe that RMT is "currently taught and practiced in
Australia [and] which has the potential to implant false memories..."
This includes almost all mental health professionals worldwide, including
all or essentially all mental health professional organizations. The term
"advocate" seems inappropriate here; it seems to discount the professional
and scientific qualifications of the "avocates."
- Adults who believe that they have been falsely accused of childhood
sexual abuse as a result of memories recovered during RMT.
A very serious concern is that, in our opinion, two very different phenomena
are combined in the report. The inquiry does not clearly differentiate between:
||Recovered memories gradually constructed out of fragments of
images recovered over a long period of therapy involving suggestive
techniques, like hypnosis, guided imagery, interpretation of dreams,
interpretation of body memories, etc.
||Triggered memories which appear almost instantaneously as a
result of a prompt of some type -- often seeing a picture of the
perpetrator, visiting the scene of abuse, etc.
The report uses the terms "survivors of childhood abuse" or "survivors"
to refer to individuals who believe that they have experienced childhood abuse.
This wording includes those who actually were abused, and those who were not
abused but who have recovered false memories of abuse. To call a person a
survivor who was never abused seems inappropriate.
The inquiry received submissions:
||24 from individuals who believe they have recovered memories of CSA
||1 from a child abuse agency
||39 from individuals who believe that they were falsely accused of CSA by
an accuser who underwent RMT
||6 from false memory support groups
||26 from mental health professionals
||16 from professional mental health associations
Some of the inquiry's findings are troubling:
||They concluded that there "is profound disagreement amongst
experts regarding whether recovered memories are true or false."
However, they do not mention that the only way to be reasonably certain
that a memory is of a real event is to find corroborative evidence that
the abuse in fact occurred. Also, they do not mention that present-day
therapists generally consider most memories developed during RMT to be
||They report that patients often recover memories before entering
therapy. That is probably true for triggered memories. However,
recovered memories -- which appear to be the main cause of invalid
accusations against parents -- generally occur as a result of a lengthy
involvement with RMT.
||They report that the most common triggers for memory recovery happen
outside therapy. This is certainly true for triggered memories. But,
again, the problems with false memory, including the memories of
Satanic Ritual Abuse generally happen within
therapy. By lumping recovered with triggered memories, the inquiry has
confused the issues.
||They report that in national and international courts, "profound
controversy still exists about the dangers posed by evidence that is
therapeutically recovered." This was certainly the case in the past.
However, during the 21st century courts generally rule recovered
memories to be unreliable and inadmissible.
||Current level of RMT
||It appears that:|
||Those therapists who do not practice suggestive techniques to
search for repressed memories naturally responded to the inquiry's
questionnaire by saying that they do not practice RMT.
||Those therapists who do practice suggestive techniques generally
do not recognize the term "RMT" and would also respond that they do
not practice RMT.
||It is a pity that the inquiry did not design their questionnaire by
asking directly whether the therapist engaged in hypnosis, guided
imagery and other suggestive techniques in a systematic search for
repressed memories. If they had done so, they would have been able to
get a indication of the current level of RMT in the area.|
||Input from various groups:|
||Persons who believe they have recovered memories: They
inquiry correctly notes that an emphasis on false memory invalidates
their experiences. However, if their memories are false, then the path
to mental health may well be for them to realize that their memories are
of events that never happened.
||Therapists: The inquiry correctly noted that there is no
consensus on memory repression and recovery, the accuracy of recovered
memories, whether events before age of 24 months can be remembered.
Unfortunately, the inquiry only indicated that agreement was not
universal; they did not give an indication of majority beliefs. On some
matters, agreement approaches a consensus. The inquiry also did not
mention that memory researchers are agreed that long-term memory before
24 months is non-existent.
"Inquiry into the practice of recovered memory therapy: Draft report,"
Health Services Commissioner to the Minister for Health, Victoria Australia. (2005).
http://www.peterellis.org.nz/ and at:
http://www.dhs.vic.gov.au/. The latter is a PDF file. You may require
software to read it. Software can be obtained free from:
Being a report of the Victoria, Australia government, we have
assumed that its contents are not copyrighted.
Originally posted: 2005-OCT-14
Latest update: 2006-MAR-06
Author: B.A. Robinson