At one time, memory researchers believed that human memory worked like a
video recorder. All one had to do was to find the right tape, play it back, and
relive the memories precisely as they were originally experienced. However,
subsequent research showed that this model was very inaccurate. Rather, most memories
are simply forgotten and cannot be recalled. Few people have real memories of events that occurred
before their 3rd birthday. For those memories that are actually remembered, the mind
stores only elements of the actual events and reconstruct full memories later when the memories are
recalled. The act of recalling memories can change them so that at the time of
the next recall, they are somewhat modified.
Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) was quite popular during the 1980s and
1990s but is now rarely used. It is a therapeutic technique based on the
belief that traumatic memories of abuse -- typically sexual abuse experienced during
childhood -- can be forgotten or repressed and later recovered during therapy.
No matter how memories were recalled, they were believed to be accurate. Many
suggestive techniques were used to reconstruct what appeared to be memories;
however they are generally unrelated to real events from the past.
About 15 to 20% of persons with memories recovered via RMT went on to recover
memory of ritual abuse and Satanic Ritual
Abuse (SRA). Such memories were often personally devastating. No hard
evidence of SRA has ever been found. By the year 2000 and following, the consensus among investigators was that
it never existed in the past at a detectible level, and doesn't exist now.
However, there are many self-help and mutual support groups of individuals
who have gone through RMT, have recovered what they believe to be memories of
real abusive events, and firmly believe that they were the victims of childhood
sexual assault, and/or SRA. The Internet has been very useful to these groups in
helping them contact and communicate with others who sincerely believe that they are survivors of childhood abuse.
RMT led to tens of thousands of adults
accusing their parents of sexual abuse during childhood. Hundreds of parents
went to jail. Tens of thousands of families of origin were shattered; many never
recovered. Many hundreds of thousands of individuals have been adversely affected -- directly or indirectly -- by this therapy
RMT as a therapeutic
technique went into decline during the mid-1990s and has since been
abandoned by the vast majority of therapists and counselors. Many former RMT therapists have switched to
EMDR -- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, That form of therapy
appears to be just as useless as RMT. However, at least it does not have the same
potential for harm as did RMT.
The current near-consensus is that RMT does recover what seem to be childhood
memories, but the memories are false: that is, they are real-feeling memories of events that never happened.
Most therapists today differentiate between two types of memories:
Memories of events that have always been available for recall,
continuously from the time of the abuse to the present time. These are believed to be
reasonably accurate. However, they are not precise recollections. The memory
process itself distorts all memories.
What appear to be memories that were laboriously pieced together during many
months of RMT therapy. These are believed to be byproducts of the RMT
processes and are entirely or almost entirely unrelated to real events. They
feel like real memories, but are of incidences that never actually happened.
About "dormant memories:"
Some members of the group that sponsors this website suggest that there is a
third type of memory. We call it a dormant memories. These were
originally memories of real events. Over time they were forgotten due to normal
memory processes. For example, the author broke his right arm on two occasions during
childhood. These were apparently very distressing experiences at the time involving emergency treatment in hospitals.
However, years later, he forgot them, along with almost all other memories
accumulated during childhood. If he had been sexually molested as a child, and
the molestation was less traumatic at the time than having an arm broken, he might well have
forgotten those event(s) as well.
In rare cases, it appears that forgotten memories can be triggered back into
consciousness. A person might revisit the location of the abuse, read a
newspaper article about abuse, or see a picture of the perpetrator, etc. The
memories come rushing back just as if they had never been forgotten. This
actually happened to a member of our group when she read a newspaper article
about a man who had been charged with multiple cases of child sexual abuse. She recognized that the perpetrator had abused her as a child. When she reported the memories
to police, they checked out her story and probed her memories of the
perpetrator's MO, his house layout, and other details. Her memories matched exactly those of other
women who had also laid charges who had continually available memories of the
We believe that dormant memories differ from recovered memories in that:
Dormant memories are generally triggered by some event and come
rushing back into consciousness very quickly -- often instantaneously. We
suspect that they are as accurate as continually present memories.
Recovered memories are generally laboriously pieced together during
a long interval of intensive therapy or involvement with a self help group. We
suspect that very few are accurate memories of real events.