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Recovered memory therapy (RMT)

1. Why we discuss RMT on this site.
2. A more complete history of RMT.

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Why we discuss RMT on a website devoted to religious tolerance:

There are three main reasons why we included recovered memory therapy (RMT) on our web site:

  1. Our web site discusses more than just religion; we also discuss items related to morality and ethics. We concluded back in 1995 that RMT is an immoral form of therapy because it often artificially generated images in clients' minds of abuse that never happened. These images often coalesced into what felt like real memories. The result was many tens of thousands -- perhaps over 100,000 --- disrupted or destroyed families of origin. Many innocent people were sent to jail. We take the position that any new therapeutic technique should be treated like new medication: carefully evaluated for efficacy and safety in small scale studies before being released for general use.
     
  2. Approximately 18% of clients with recovered memories of abuse went on to develop false "memories" of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA). This resulted in two serious problems.
    bulletMany such victims of RMT & SRA became severely depressed, unable to parent, and/or unable to work; some committed suicide.
    bulletMany abuse accusations were directed against religious Satanists who were innocent of any crime. Unfortunately, some religious conservatives widened these accusations against Satanists to include abuse by Wiccans, new religious movements, Neopagans, the Occult etc. This caused a great deal of religious oppression of these other minority religious groups.
     
  3. We felt an obligation to familiarize the public with this disastrous form of therapy so that they might become more careful when considering this and other unproven and thus potentially useless and/or dangerous therapies.

We generally avoid taking sides in controversial matters. Our normal policy is to explain both or all viewpoints that people hold on each issue. However, the extreme harm caused by RMT has now been well documented. The unreliability of RMT has been firmly established. Thus, this series of essays will mainly reflect the beliefs of a near-consensus of therapists: that RMT is a dangerous and irresponsible form of therapy that can generate "memories" of events that never happened.

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History of RMT:

The theory of repressed memory began with pioneer psychologist Sigmund Freud. According to Adriaan Mak, who helped found the Canadian branch of the False memory Syndrome Foundation: Freud literally browbeat his clients -- "whacked them on their heads to loosen forgotten experiences of childhood incest." 1 Freud later abandoned the belief in repressed memories. The theory was resurrected in the early 1980s by Swiss  therapist Alice Miller. Within a decade, tens of thousands of therapists were actively trying to recover repressed memories.

During this time, research into how the human brain remembers events was advancing rapidly. Memory researchers were finding out that memory works by a reconstructive process that is not particularly accurate. Old memories can easily be overlaid by newer events. Unfortunately, a lot of therapists had not kept up with the latest research. They still believed that memories were always accurate. It did not matter whether a client always remembered an abuse event, or had laboriously pieced together recovered "memories" of abuse in therapy. They believed earlier theories that the human mind worked like a video tape recorder. All recordings were exact and could be relied upon.

Perhaps the leading memory researcher, and certainly the most famous/infamous is psychologist Elizabeth Loftus at Washington State. She warned the 1991 American Psychological Association conference that memory "retrieval" might be generating false memories. She was howled down by her colleagues. 1

During the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, thousands or tens of thousands of psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, church counselors, feminist counselors etc. attempted to recover memories of early childhood abuse from their patients/clients. Partial images of abuse were easily uncovered in most patients/clients, using various suggestive techniques, such as hypnotism, guided imagery, dream analysis, automatic writing, fantasizing, etc. With continued therapy, these images often coalesced into what appeared to be actual memories. Most often, the alleged abusers were within their own family. Often the clients severed all connection with their parents. Tens of thousands of families of origin were destroyed by these revelations; many clients/patients became emotionally disabled; some committed suicide. 

By the mid-1990s, the tide had turned. The reliability of these memories became widely suspect. Many professional mental-health organizations in Australia, Britain, Canada and the U.S. had by this time warned that memories recovered during therapy may or may not be related to real events. They should not be accepted as valid without external corroboration.

Many explanations were advanced to account for these "recovered memories." Many theories were pure conjecture, without any significant experimental basis. As Kenneth S. Pope wrote in 1998: 

"For example, reports of recovered memories of child sex abuse may be described as the result of implanting, false memory syndrome, repression, dissociation, motivated forgetting, directed forgetting, amnesia, betrayal trauma, retroactive inhibition, suggestion, self-induced hypnotic trance states, personality disorder, thought suppression, retrieval inhibition, cognitive gating, or biological protective processes. These terms may be used without clear definition or scientific basis and may unintentionally foster pseudoscientific beliefs."

By the late 1990s, many former patients had retracted their beliefs and recognized that their memories were false. Some have sued their therapists; a few won multi-million dollar judgments. Insurance companies began to put pressure on their therapist clients to abandon RMT.

By the turn of the 21st century, only a small, dedicated minority of therapists and counselors still believed that recovered memories were reliable, without corroboration by other evidence. In response, the main U.S. public education group in the field, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, had down-sized. COSA, a New Zealand organization that helped persons who were accused because of false memories, closed down. Isolated cases of false sexual abuse allegations still occur; however the earlier flood has almost dried up."  

Recovered memory therapy appears to be simply the latest mental-health hoax to emerge from obscurity, rise through the usual 15 years of ascendancy, falter because of a lack of supporting research, and fall back into obscurity. Like some other hoax therapies, it has left behind a trail of broken families, broken lives and dead bodies. It has also profoundly damaged the credibility of the psychology and psychiatry professions. Psychologist Mark Genuis, founder of the National Foundation for Family Research and Education, in Calgary AB lays part of the blame for on its abandoning the scientific method. Over the last generation, he said, careful statistical research has been shunted aside by "qualitative research" or "case studies." While case studies are important, Genuis said, without statistical validation, they have the status of fiction. 1

History seems to be repeating itself. Many psychologists and other counselors and therapists who abandoned RMT are now practicing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR has been reported in the media as taking "only a few sessions" to effect a cure, and as "boon to traumatic disorders." Fortunately, this therapy does not seem to have the power to destroy people's lives as has been demonstrated by RMT. 2

Terminology:

We use the phrases "recovered memories" or "delayed memories" because these terms are almost exclusively used by experts on all sides of the issue. However, they are not good labels. The word memories implies that actual events are being recalled from the past. A very few are indeed memories of real events; but most appear to be false "memories" of events that never happened. "Images" might be a better word to use.

References:

  1. Joe Woodard, "Myth #1: Our therapeutic culture," Calgary Herald, 2002-AUG-17, Page OS08.
  2. "EMDR Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing," EMDR Institute, Inc., at: http://www.emdr.com/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-FEB-14.
Author: B.A. Robinson

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