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Repressed Memory and Recovered Memory--some facts

posted on forum on February 27, 1998

What is RMT?

RMT is a term which refers to the attempts to recover long forgotten or repressed memories. It is often used when a client is suspected to have been abused many years ago, but has no memories of it as an adult. RMT is a hotly debated topic within the mental health community:

Most memory researchers believe that any serious abuse will be remembered into adulthood - whether a single event or oft-repeated.

Many therapists believe that it is extremely common for a person to actively repress abuse memories. 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 the same years. The survivors would not even remember that something dreadful happened during their childhood. The more serious the abuse and the more frequent the abuse, the more likely the memories will be repressed.

Although most memories are recovered during counselling with a therapist who believes in them, there exists a growing number of individuals who have recovered memories outside of therapy. Frequently, books like The Courage to Heal are involved. The techniques are the same; they are simply self-administered.

Techniques used in RMT

Many therapists 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 abuse. Memories of that abuse are often believed to have been repressed so that they cannot be remembered. Even though the abuse is not remembered, it generates some of the above symptoms in the adult.

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 have used a variety of techniques:

  1. hypnotism
  2. guided imagery (talking the client through an imaginary trip)
  3. dream work (analyzing dreams for suggestions of abuse)
  4. age regression (taking the client back in time to early childhood or beyond)
  5. "truth serum": use of drugs to enhance recall of memories
  6. automatic writing (having the client write freely without thinking about what they are writing)

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 memories of events that never happened.

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 disconnected partial images often appear during therapy.

Through the above techniques, pieces of the pictures often materialize, until an entire scene (often involving abuse) is recovered. Further therapy recovers more scenes, and scenes in greater detail. Finally, memories of years of abuse are often pieced together. Some therapists recover memories of horrendous abuse extending over a period of years in 80% or more of their clients; a few report 100%.

What Kinds of Abuse are Uncovered?

This appears to depend upon the belief system of the therapist. The most common types are:

Memories of sexual abuse and/or incest during childhood. The father is often remembered as the perpetrator. The abuse is often recalled as being facilitated, permitted or ignored by the other parent.

In about 20% of cases, recollections of ritual abuse are later uncovered, typically by Satanic cults or by a men's fraternal organization. memories of kidnapping by aliens and being forcibly subjected to intrusive, often horrendous medical experiments on UFO's (0). memories of physical or sexual abuse during a former lifetime. The client is age regressed back to childhood, to their birth and finally to an earlier lifetime where they often recall abuse.

One study (which we have not yet been able to locate) found that 25% of "graduate counselors" believe in past life abuse. (It is unclear what the study defines a "graduate counselor" to be).

Sexual abuse memories are by far the most damaging, because the alleged perpetrators are often members of the client's family or origin. The destruction of the family frequently follows. Abuse by little green men on UFO's or by unknown perpetrators in a prior life has less potential for damage. The latter cannot lead to accusations against parents and other people with the resultant court battles, damaged reputations, overwhelming stress and immense legal costs.

Therapists who are committed to the widespread incidence of childhood sexual abuse recover such memories in most of their clients (some claim all of their clients). Therapists who believe in UFO's and in little green men under every rock recover such memories in most of their clients. So too do therapists who believe in past lives.

One is forced to one of two inescapable conclusions:

1.most recovered memories are accurate recollections, and thus the vast majority of adults have been sexually abused as children, and on board UFO's, and in former lifetimes. That is, many or most people have been abused in multiple ways by multiple groups of perpetrators, perhaps over many centuries. 2.most recovered memories are a form of iatrogenic disorder: false beliefs inadvertently triggered and facilitated in clients by their therapists. Additional sources of false memories could be: suggestive techniques described in books (e.g. The Courage to Heal) fellow members of incest support groups.

There are indicators that the second explanation is receiving increasing support by memory researchers, the mental health community and the general public. If this is true, then questionable therapy techniques, by loving, concerned but terribly misguided therapists are creating many victims:

their clients who are partly or completely disabled by the experience. the innocent persons accused of performing the abuse siblings of the client who have been forced to choose sides.

Many families have been split and many suicides caused by false memories.

Fortunately, recovered memories which are false are usually very different from the reality of the client's life. If they are not continually reinforced, they tend to become less believable with time. This causes many "survivors" to eventually become "recanters" and finally reject the memories as false. Unfortunately, too many clients commit suicide and too many parents die before this point is reached. Other recanters find that they are unable to reunite with their families; the devastation has been too great.

How Often are Childhood Memories Repressed or Forgotten?

This is an extremely controversial subject.

There is general agreement among memory researchers that memories of events which happened before the age of 2 are never remembered into adulthood and cannot be recovered; memories before the age of 3 are rare and not particularly reliable.

Claims by Ross et al (11) that 27% of their MPD patients recall abuse that occurred before 3 years of age are probably based on false memories. A claim by Rosanne (12) of abuse when she was 6 months old is certainly a false memory. Claims by some adults that they can remember being a just-fertilized ovum stuck in their mother's fallopian tube are totally devoid of credibility.

Some survivor's memories of childhood sexual abuse have always been present from the moment when they occurred until the present time. Unfortunately, with the publicity given to false memories, these survivors are sometimes ignored or belittled.

Some memories are simply forgotten. This includes almost all early experiences. It is quite possible that a child could have a mild molestation experience and permanently forget about it, just as children forget most painful bicycle accidents, falling down stairs, etc.

Some therapists believe in the concept of repressed memories. i. e. that memories of hundreds of incidents of serious sexual abuse and ritual abuse can be actively repressed so that the events cannot be recollected in adulthood.

They believe that through intensive techniques (hypnotism, "truth serum" sessions, guided imagery, dream analysis, etc) such memories can be recovered. Other therapists believe that a single instance of serious abuse after about age 4 or 5 is very rarely forgotten, and that repeated abuse is perhaps never forgotten.

Two researchers from Harvard University recently completed a literature search on the topic of repressed memories of childhood incest.(1) They postulate instances of sexual child abuse where:

the abuse has been corroborated independently of the survivor's memory the abuse was sufficiently traumatic that the child would have been expected to remember it if it were not for the repression the child actually repressed the memory (and didn't simply forget it) the victim in her adult years was unaware of the abuse; she was not lying about not having remembered it

Most people would accept this as a classic description of a recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse. However, Pope and Hudson were able to find only four such cases, none of them well documented, in all of the published literature. It may well be that (contrary to public belief) repression of traumatic childhood memories never happens, or occurs very rarely.

Williams (2) studied 129 adults who had been treated as a child aged 10 months to 12 years in a large city hospital. The interviews were conducted about 17 years later when all had reached adulthood. 16 women (12%) said that they had no memories of childhood sexual abuse; 38% said they did not recall the incident that brought them to the hospital. Unfortunately, the study was deeply flawed:

No effort was made to document whether the abuse had actually happened. The child might have been simply brought to the hospital to rule out the possibility of sexual abuse. Or sexual abuse might have been suspected, but did not actually occur.

Some of the molestation which was in the form of fondling might simply have been forgotten; it might have been less distressing to the child then accidents which are often not remembered into adulthood (e.g. breaking an arm or suffering serious cuts due to a fall) some of the children brought to the hospital were under the age of 3 when memories are not retained into adulthood; others might have been 3 or 4, at an age when memories are unreliable. they did not interview the adults further to determine whether they: had amnesia or they remembered the abuse but did not choose to reveal it to the interviewer.

Fortunately, The Femina study (3) took this exploration one logical step further. They interviewed 69 people who had reported abuse 9 years earlier when jailed. Of these, 26 (38%) did not mention the abuse at the time of the study. This datum matches the Williams study. However, the interviewers then tried to find out why the victims did not report the abuse. The answers were unrelated to repressed memories.

Common responses were:

It is probable that incest and sexual abuse survivors in the Williams study had similar reasons, and that few or none had repressed memories. It is tragic that the 12% of the women who didn't remember sexual abuse during childhood were not separately examined in the Williams study. If those who were less than 3 and those who experienced less serious abuse were removed, one might be able to conclude that essentially all children remember into adulthood any serious sexual abuse which occurred after the age of 4.

The Williams' study uncovered two additional factors:

Survivors were more likely to recall sexual abuse with high amounts of force than with low amounts. Survivors were more slightly more likely to recall frequent abuse than infrequent abuse during childhood. However, the difference was not statistically significantly.

Both of these indicators are incompatible with the theory of memory repression being promoted by supporters of recovered memories.

It is very difficult to understand why the Williams study has not been redesigned to eliminate the serious flaws, and repeated. It would appear to be the best method of determining whether memories of repeated childhood sexual abuse actually can be repressed.

How Reliable are Recovered Memories?

Recovered memories usually feel identical to normal memories to the adult. The only certain method of verifying the accuracy of recovered memories is to find supporting evidence.

Herman and Schatzow (4) studied 53 adults in an incest survivors group to determine if they had corroborating evidence of their abuse. The group was composed of two very different populations:

38 survivors (74%) had little or no amnesia to begin with; they had always been aware of their abuse, continuously from childhood to adulthood. One would expect that they would have a good chance of verifying their abuse. 15 survivors originally had no abuse memories during adulthood; they all recovered memories later during therapy or group work.

44 women (83%) said that they had been able to obtain some confirmation of the abuse. Unfortunately, Herman and Schatzow accepted these opinions second hand without verifying them. There is no way of knowing how valid these confirmations were. The women were believed to have been subjected to considerable peer pressure in the group to report some confirmation. Unfortunately, the percentage of women who were able to confirm their abuse was not reported separately for the two populations. The study needs to be replicated

With a larger group, so that the results will hold more weight with verification of the women's stories of confirmation separately reporting the degree of confirmation by women who have never forgotten the abuse with those who had no memories until they were recovered during therapy.

Mark Pendergrast, author of Victims of Memory (5; P. 517) was only unable to uncover two cases in which an adult survivor suffered from amnesia, recovered memories of incest and was able to corroborate the events. Both were verified by obtaining confessions from perpetrators (the fathers). The latter accepted the belief that they had abused their daughters because they believed their children to be truthful. Neither father originally had any memories of the abuse (6).

Ofra Bickel, producer of Frontline's documentary Divided Memories was able to find only one probably verifiable recovered memory after a long search among survivors.

Stan and Jared Abrams (7) studied polygraph (lie detector) tests of alleged perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse. They pooled findings of a number of polygraph examiners. The alleged perpetrators were attempting to use the polygraph test to prove their innocence. Results were:

33 alleged abusers were accused by survivors who originally had no recollections of the abuse during childhood, but who recovered memories during therapy. 2 of the alleged abusers (6%) were found to be lying (presumably guilty of abuse). 31 (94%) were truthful (presumably innocent of abuse).

300 alleged perpetrators were accused in cases where there was no significant repression/recovery of memory. 234 (78%) were found to be lying (presumably guilty of abuse); 66 (22%) were truthful (presumably innocent).

Polygraphs are not absolutely reliable devices. In the hands of an experienced, trained operator they are generally accepted as being accurate 85 to 90% of the time.

All of these studies have grave weaknesses. Polygraph tests are inexact and are regarded by some as unreliable. Studies often are inconclusive because the wrong questions were asked, because the number of individuals is small, etc. Often, there is no differentiation among recovered memories which:

were totally absent, but returned instantly as a result of a trigger (e.g. meeting a perpetrator or reading an newspaper account) were absent and were recovered as a result of "self-therapy" after reading The Courage to Heal or similar self-help books were added onto to always-remembered events of childhood abuse were originally absent, but were recovered as a result of long periods of suggestive therapy.

were of events that happened in infancy, before the child's brain had matured sufficiently to be able to store long term memories

However, the studies that do exist seem consistently to suggest that most memories recovered through the lengthy use of suggestive techniques are highly distorted and/or are of events that never happened.

Statements by Professional Organizations

The American Medical Association stated in 1993, that recovered memories are "of uncertain authenticity which should be subject to external verification. The use of recovered memories is fraught with problems of potential misapplication." (8)

The Australian Psychological Association adopted a similar statement recently. The American Psychiatric Association stated in 1993 that it is impossible to distinguish accurately between true and false memories. (9) They currently have a committee studying the matter. The American Psychological Association condemned in 1995-JUN "past life therapy" as quackery.

They created a committee "The Working Group on Investigation of Memories of Childhood Abuse" to investigate recovered/repressed memories. It is composed of 3 memory researchers and 3 clinicians (including 2 who practice recovered memory therapy). As expected, the committee is deeply split. They issued an report in 1995-August which states a number of interim conclusions: "..child sexual abuse is a complex and pervasive problem in America, that has historically gone unacknowledged." "Most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of of what happened to them."

Abuse memories can be forgotten and remembered years later Pseudomemories can be created of abuse events that never happened Knowledge about the processes that lead to accurate and inaccurate recollections of childhood abuse is incomplete.

The APA Board of Directors enlarged upon the interim statement of the Working Group by stating: "There is no single set of symptoms which automatically means that a person was a victim of childhood abuse."

Therapists must take a neutral position on childhood abuse memories. Beware of a therapist who diagnoses childhood abuse at the start of therapy Beware of therapists who "dismiss claims .... of sexual abuse without exploration." Select a licensed practitioner with "with training and experience"

The British Psychological Society has issued a booklet (10) "Recovered Memories" which mentions: Complete or partial memory loss of childhood sexual abuse is frequently reported Recovery of such memories is frequently reported All adult memories of childhood events may contain errors "Sustained pressure" by a therapist could lead to recovery of "memories of events that never actually happened." People no longer debate whether therapy-induced false memories and recovery of memories from total amnesia actually occur. Debate is currently directed at how often they occur.

How Common is Recovered Memory Therapy?

Enormous numbers of adults are recovering "memories" during therapy. Obtaining an accurate estimate is impossible. Some indicators are:

The New Zealand government's Accident Compensation Commission gives money to victims of violence. Over a three year period, they paid out more than $385 million dollars (US funds) to more than 50,000 adult women who recovered memories of abuse during therapy. (16) The ACC does not require any substantiation of the abuse. The population of New Zealand is 3.5 million, about the size of Los Angeles. This is about 1/8 that of Canada and 1/75 that of the United States. Assuming that recovered memories are as common in the US as they are in New Zealand, then the annual budget for a comparable agency would be $10 billion per year. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation has been contacted by more than 15,000 families distressed at the accusations of their adult children recovered during therapy. However, this is probably only a small percentage of the total number of cases - the "tip of the iceberg". Michael Yapko gathered statistics from therapists attending national conventions. (17) He found that: 97% believed hypnosis to be a useful 84% believed hypnotic age regression to be useful 54% believe that hypnosis can recover memories as far back as birth 41% believe that memories (even from the first years of life) are accurately stored and retrievable 31% believed that a trauma memory recovered during hypnosis must have happened

We are unaware of any leading memory researcher who would agree with any of the last three findings. With such faith in hypnosis (and in the reliability of memories recovered by hypnosis), it is likely that a large percentage of therapists are recovering memory using hypnotic therapy.

Mark Pendergrast (5; P. 491) estimates that there are in the US at least 62,500 of what he calls "true believer" therapists who actively recover memories of childhood sexual abuse in an average of 18 adult clients per year. This totals over 1 million women per year. If one added in smaller numbers of male clients, and clients of unregistered therapists, the number is much higher. He estimates that one in 25 families has been adversely affected!

If recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse are all real, then they are proof of arguably the most serious social problem to ever face North American society. If they are all false, then they represent a truly massive amount of therapy-created mental disability, responsible for the destruction of perhaps millions of loving families. As a member of the American Psychological Association has stated (18) "nothing less than the integrity of the mental health professions and the trust inherent in the client-therapist relationship is at stake." Reality lies somewhere between these two extremes.

Unfortunately, the professional societies are paralyzed; they dare not take a stand against repressed/recovered memories because doing so would leave their members exposed to law suits of a truly horrendous magnitude. A solution to the problem will probably come in time from insurance companies who tire of paying large settlements to therapists found guilty of bad therapy.


0. See http://www.

for a discussion by James Gleick called "The Doctor's Plot". It was first published in New Republic , 1994-MAY-11, and describes imaginary abuse by LGM (little green men) on board UFO's.

1. Pope & Hudson Can Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse be repressed? , Psychological Medicine, V. 25, P. 121-126.

2. Williams, L.M. . Recall of childhood trauma: A prospective study of women's memories of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, (1994), 62, 6, 1167-1176.

3. Donna Femina, Child Abuse, Child Abuse and Neglect, 1990, V. 14, P. 227-231.

4. Judith Herman and Emily Schatzow, Recovery and Verification of Memories of Childhood Sexual Trauma, Psychoanalytic Psychology, 1987, V. 4, P. 1-14

5. Mark Predergrast, Victims of Memory, Upper Access (1995) ISBN 0-942679-16-4

6. Lawrence Wright, Remembering Satan, Knopf, 1994, ISBN 0-679-43155-I

7. Stan Abrams & Jared Abrams, False Memory Syndrome vs. Total Repression, (unpublished as of mid-1995)

8. AMA Wary of Using 'Memory Enhancement'; AMA, Report of the Council (1993)

9. Statement on Memories, American Psychiatric Association (1993)

10. Recovered Memories, British Psychological Society, ( 10), available from: The British Psychological Society, St. Andrews House, 48 Princess Road East, Leicester, LE1 7DR, Great Britain.

11. Ross et al "Abuse histories in 102 cases of multiple personality disorder", Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 36, P. 97-101

12. Leeza TV show, 1994-OCT-11

13. E. Goldstein & Kevin Farmer, Confabulations, Upton Books, Boca Raton FL, (1995) (Describes destruction of families as a result of therapists creating false memories of childhood sexual abuse)

14. See: for an article from Caltech's Skeptic magazine. It describes a Christian therapist who engaged in extensive recovered memory therapy. She finally realized that the memories that she was dredging up in her clients had no basis in fact, and were contributing to the destruction of their families of origin. She is now revisiting her clients and attempting to undo some of the damage.

15. See: http://www.utu. fi/~jounsmed/asc/hyp/memories.html for an excellent comparison of past life identities, abduction and abuse on board UFO's and Satanic Ritual Abuse. Extensive bibliography included.

16: New Zealand Sunday Star Times, 31 December 1995

17: M.D. Yapko, "Suggestions of Abuse: True and False Memories of Childhood Sexual Trauma", Simon & Schuster, New York NY (1994)

18: P. L. Herndon, "False and Repressed Memories gain Media Spotlight", Practitioner Focus, newsletter of the American Psychological Association, 1994-FEB; P. 3, 15