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RECOVERED MEMORY THERAPY? (RMT)

HOW COMMON WAS IT?

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The following essay was originally written in 1995, just after the peak years for recovered memory therapy (RMT). Most therapists were becoming aware, by that time, that this form of therapy often created images in their clients which felt like memories, but were unrelated to real events. Since that time, RMT has been in sharp decline. It is rarely practiced today. However, where it is in use, client's lives are being destroyed and families of origin disrupted.

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Large numbers of adults recovered "memories" during therapy. Obtaining an accurate estimate is impossible. Some indicators are:
bulletAs of the year 2001, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) has been contacted by more than 15,000 families who were 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".
bulletThe FMSF maintains a "Legal Survey" which contains data on the number of lawsuits in the United States that were based on repressed memory evidence. Typically, 15% were criminal cases; 85% civil. Prior to 1988, there were fewer than 10 cases per year. The number started rising during 1988, reaching a peak of about 105 in 1992, 1993 and 1994. A precipitous drop occurred at that time: cases totaled only about 55 in 1995 and fewer than 20 in 1996. Much of this drop is probably being caused by the rejection of many courts of unsubstantiated recovered memory evidence. The figures also probably indicates a reduction in the frequency of recovered memory therapy.
bulletIn the year 2001, the FMSF conducted a survey of their membership. They found:
bulletMost of the accusations were between 1989 and 1994.
bullet1991 and 1992 were the peak years for accusations.
bulletThe accusers were not typical cross section of adults:
bullet90% of the accusers are daughters accusing parents.
bullet99% are Caucasian.
bullet45% had completed college, but not graduate school.
bullet32% had completed graduate school.
bullet18% of the accusations involved claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse.
bulletMichael Yapko gathered statistics from therapists attending national and international psychotherapy conventions. These were supplemented by an additional 10% from his therapy training courses on unrelated topics. 64% had Master's degrees, 24% were PhD's. He found that:
bullet97% believed hypnosis to be a useful technique
bullet84% believed hypnotic age regression to be useful
bullet54% believe that hypnosis can recover memories as far back as birth
bullet41% believe that memories (even from the first years of life) are accurately stored and retrievable
bullet31% believed that a trauma memory recovered during hypnosis must have happened. 1

We are unaware of any leading memory researcher who would agree with any of the last three findings. There appears to be a major gap between the beliefs of researchers and therapists.

bulletMark Pendergrast estimates that there are in the US at least 62,500 of what he calls "memory focused" 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 would be much higher. His estimate is based on a number of factors:
  1. the number of therapists in the United States
  2. the fraction of therapists who engage in recovered memory therapy
  3. the average number of clients per therapists
  4. the fraction of clients who recovered memories during therapy

All of these numbers are approximations; the second factor is impossible to estimate with any accuracy from available studies. The final estimate of 1 million is thus of doubtful validity. 2 Still, his approximate result does suggest that a very large number of clients/patients of therapists are exposed to RMT each year.

bulletMichael Shermer wrote in 1997: "Experts on both sides of this issue estimate that at least one million people have 'recovered' memories of sexual abuse since 1988 alone, and this does not count those who really were sexually abused and never forgot it." 3 He cites Crews et al., 4 Loftus et al., 5 and Pendergrast 2 as support for this statement.
bulletPoole, et al conducted a survey among doctoral-level US psychotherapists and British psychologists. 71% responded that they had used various suggestive methods (e.g. hypnosis, dream interpretation) "to help clients recover suspected memories of CSA". 6 This would seem to refer to the classical case of a patient or client coming to therapy with no conscious memories of CSA and attempting to recover repressed memories. A much lower percentage of therapists specialize in recovered memory therapy. The researchers report "Across samples, 25% of the respondents reported a constellation of beliefs and practices suggestive of a focus on memory recovery, and these psychologists reported relatively high rates of memory recovery in their clients."
bulletThe British False Memory Society mentioned in a 1996 publicity release that:

"A recent survey of clinical psychologists conducted by the British Psychological Society, revealed that nine out of ten of their respondents thought that 'recovered memories' (both of sexual abuse and satanic ritual abuse) were essentially accurate despite the fact that scientific evidence shows that there are no grounds for believing in the reliability of 'recovered memories'."

Unfortunately, the surveys described above do not give a complete picture. Almost all of the therapists sampled were highly trained psychologists or psychiatrists. We believe that such therapists are more likely to keep themselves updated with developments in memory research. There are also untold numbers of less qualified persons engaged in therapy and counseling: Social Workers, Medical doctors, Christian church counselors, Sexual Assault Center counselors and volunteers, Women's Center counselors and volunteers, etc. It is impossible to obtain an accurate estimate of their total numbers, let alone information of the therapeutic methods used. Many jurisdictions allow persons to engage in psychotherapy without any academic training at all. Volunteer based groups are essentially unregulated. These groups' use of recovered memory techniques remain unknown.

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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 iatrogenic (therapy-created) mental disability, indirectly responsible for the destruction of countless loving families, and the emotional disability of many clients.

Reality lies somewhere between these two extremes. But no matter where it lies, it remains a very serious problem.

The above words were written in 1995. Today, recovered memory therapy has been largely abandoned by therapists and councilors. But RMT has left a terrible trail of devastation behind. Tens or hundreds of thousands of intelligent, creative women (and a few men) are emotionally burdened by "memories" of events that probably never happened. Most remain estranged from their parents. Most of the direct victims of RMT have two parents who have also been devastated by accusations of abuse. Although fewer new victims of RMT are being created each successive year, many generations will pass before its damaging effects will pass. By that time, there probably will be a new quack therapies to replace RMT.

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References:

  1. M.D. Yapko, "Suggestions of Abuse: True and False Memories of Childhood Sexual Trauma", Simon & Schuster, New York NY (1994)
  2. Mark Pedergrast, Victims of Memory, Upper Access (1995) ISBN 0-942679-16-4. Upper Access has a toll-free order line at 1-800-365-9315. A revised edition was published in mid-1996. See http://pwshift.com/vomemory/"
  3. Michael Shermer, "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition and other Confusions of our Time," Freeman, New York, NY, (1997)
  4. F. Crews, et al., "The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute," York Review of Books, New York NY (1995)
  5. E. Loftus & K. Ketcham, "The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and the Allegations of Sexual Abuse," St, Martin's, New York, NY (1994)
  6. Poole, Lindsay, Memon, and Bull, "Psychotherapy and the Recovery of Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse: U.S. and British Practitioners' Opinions, Practices, and Experiences.", Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, 1995, Vol. 63, No3. 426-437.
  7. P.L. Herndon, "False and Repressed Memories gain Media Spotlight", Practitioner Focus, newsletter of the American Psychological Association, 1994-FEB; P. 3, 15

Copyright 1995 to 2001 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2001-NOV-5
Author: B.A. Robinson

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