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.
In order to recover memories, therapists had mainly used a variety of
guided imagery and visualizations (taking the client through an imaginary
projective drawing art therapy.
dream therapy (analyzing dreams for suggestions of abuse).
age regression (taking the client back in time to early childhood, into the womb
-- even beyond into a former lifetime).
past life regression therapy (taking the client back in time to an earlier lifetime).
"truth serum" -- use of drugs to enhance recall of memories
automatic writing (having the client write freely without thinking about what they are
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."
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.
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.5Adding
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.)
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:
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.
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.
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
they were accurate memories of real events, or
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.
Campbell Perry, "The False Memory Syndrome (FMS) and 'Disguised'
Hypnosis," Hypnos, Vol 22, #4.
R. Webster, "Why Freud was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis,"
Basic Books, New York, NY, (1995)
J. Herman, "Father-Daughter Incest," Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, MA, (1981)
Michael Sherman, "Why People Believe Weird Things," Freeman, New
York, NY (1997)
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: http://gladstone.uoregon.edu/~dvb/vanderk2.htm