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Recovered memory therapy (RMT)

Repression of childhood memories


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Overview:

A near consensus of researchers believe that memory repression is extremely rare and that recovered memories from childhood should not be given credibility unless they are corroborated by other evidence. However, some of those few therapists who still use Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) believe that memory repression is quite common and that recovered memories are usually valid recollections of real childhood events. There is a near consensus that the researchers are right: that most recovered memories are not related to real events.

Currently:

  • There is general agreement among memory researchers that memories of events which happened before the age of 24 months are never remembered into adulthood and cannot be recovered. Memories before the age of 36 months are rare and not particularly reliable. Claims by Ross et al that 27% of their Multiple Personality Disordered (MPD) patients recall abuse that occurred before 3 years of age are invalid. 1 A claim by Rosanne of abuse when she was 6 months old is certainly a false memory. 2 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. A fetal brain's higher functions only turn on in the third trimester.
  • Some survivor's memories of childhood sexual abuse have always been present from the moment when they occurred until the present time. The memories were never repressed. 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 life experiences. It is quite possible that a child could experience a non-violent molestation experience and permanently forget about it, just as children can forget painful bicycle accidents, falling down stairs, breaking an arm, etc.
  • A few therapists still 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 and suggestive techniques (hypnotism, "truth serum" sessions, guided imagery, dream analysis, etc.) such memories can be recovered. Their numbers are dwindling. The main reason is that "there are no scientific data that trauma victims dissociate and forget their abuse." 11
  • Most therapists believe that a single instance of serious abuse after about age 4 or 5 is very rarely forgotten, and that repeated abuse after that age is perhaps never forgotten.
  • People who have been known to have suffered terrible abuse during childhood have been studied. These include adults who lived in European ghettos during World War II, who were interned in Nazi concentration and extermination camps, children who watched while their parents were killed, children who were kidnapped, etc. None have been found to have repressed their memories of the childhood events. Their problem tends to be the opposite: they want to forget the incidents, but are unable to.

Pope and Hudson study:

Pope and Hudson from Harvard University recently completed a literature search on the topic of repressed memories of childhood incest. 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. 3

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 would seem that repression of traumatic childhood memories occurs very rarely, if at all.


Williams' study:

In 1994, Williams 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 after all had reached adulthood. 4 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. This study is often cited as proof that sexual abuse memories are often repressed. Unfortunately, the study contains some ambiguities:

  • The hospital records contained many findings of sexual abuse. However, in recent years, the methods that were then used to physically examine children have been shown to be unreliable. It was beyond the scope of the study to attempt to verify whether the abuse had actually happened by consulting with family members. 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 in some cases.
  • Some of the molestation which was in the form of fondling might simply have been forgotten or not interpreted by the child as molestation; there is no indication of repression. The acts 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 24 months, before the age when memories are retained; others were under the age of 36 months when memories are unreliable and frequently forgotten.
  • They did not interview the adults further to determine whether they:
    • had repressed or forgotten the event, or
    • they remembered the abuse but did not choose to reveal it to the interviewer.

The Williams' study uncovered two additional factors:

  • Survivors were more likely to recall sexual abuse which involved 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; a larger number of test subjects would be needed to verify this conclusion.

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

It is very difficult to understand why the Williams study was not immediately redesigned and repeated (perhaps on a larger scale) during the mid to late 1990s. It would appear to be the best method of determining whether memories of repeated childhood sexual abuse actually can be repressed and to obtain an estimate of how often this happens. During the 1990s, unproven and experimental RMT were used on probably hundreds of thousands of clients, and tens of thousands of families of origin were destroyed. Proper, carefully designed, and well publicized studies could have avoided an enormous amount of human suffering, and prevented many suicides.


Femina study:

Fortunately, The Femina study took William's work one logical step further. The researchers interviewed 69 people who had reported abuse 9 years earlier as adults, 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:

  • embarrassment,
  • a desire to protect parents, and
  • a need to try to forget the abuse. 5

It is probable that at least some of the incest and sexual abuse survivors in the Williams study had similar reasons. It is possible 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 the study had been conducted differently, one might be able to conclude that essentially all children remember into adulthood any serious sexual abuse which occurred after the age of 4.


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Study by C.S. Widom et al,:

C.S. Widom and S. Morris conducted a study in 1997 similar to that performed by Williams. They studied 1,114 adults who were abused or neglected, and whose abuse was substantiated by courts.  They found that 37% of adults who were victims of childhood sexual abuse did not disclose the abuse to the researchers. 12


Study by Goodman et al.:

This study involved telephone interviews with 175 subjects who had been victims of child sexual abuse which resulted in legal actions. This was followed up with a mailed questionnaire to 129 subjects and in-person interviews with 107 persons. In the telephone interviews, 26 people did not report sexual abuse. Of those 26, twelve reported abuse on the questionnaire or in the personal interview. Thus, they found that only 8% of subjects did not disclose abuse; this is much lower than two previous studies which found the number to be 38% and 37%. Author's note: We suspect that the major gap between the findings of this study when compared to earlier studies was caused by the multiple contacts with the study subjects and/or the degree of comfort felt by the subjects during the interviews. 13

They found that:

  • Forgetting child sexual abuse may not be a common experience.
  • The greater the severity of the abuse and the older that victims were at the time of the abuse, the more likely they were to disclose the abuse as adults.
  • "...these findings do not support the existence of special memory mechanisms unique to traumatic events, but instead imply that normal cognitive operations underlie long-term memory for" childhood sexual abuse.

Other studies:

The Ohio Association of Responsible Mental Health Practices published a short essay by Paul Simpson in their 2003-MAR newsletter. 6 Simpson "is a Christian psychologist who used to practice RMT. He soon discovered that 100% of his patients got worse and sometimes decomposed under this Toxic Therapy. He has written a book called 'Second Thoughts'...." 7 He discusses what he regards as RMT's greatest problem: it lacks predictive validity. "...when we know that a traumatic event has occurred, we find that victims do not repress their experiences. Instead, they are often plagued by recurring memories of their trauma..."

He cites three studies:

  • One study found that children who witnessed the murder of one of their parents did not repress their memories. "Rather, they were preoccupied with the murder and were continually flooded with disturbing emotions." 8
  • Dozens of children kidnapped in Chowchilla CA in 1976 under extremely frightening conditions. Children were kidnapped, placed in two vans, and driven for 100 miles. The vans were then buried in a quarry. The driver and two boys were able to dig their way out and get help. A 1993 article revealed that none were found to have repressed memories of the event. 9
  • Seventy-eight Holocaust survivors were interviewed four decades after the end of World War II. None had repressed their memories of experiences in the prison camps. All but one remembered forgotten details with simple prompting. 10

Paul Simpson concludes: "As these case studies of actual victims show, none behave as repression theory predicts. In contrast, scientific research reveals that people remember, rather than repress, traumatic events."


References:

  1. Ross et al., "Abuse histories in 102 cases of multiple personality disorder", Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 36, P. 97-101
  2. Leeza TV show, 1994-OCT-11
  3. Pope & Hudson Can Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse be repressed?, Psychological Medicine, V. 25, P. 121-126.
  4. 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.
  5. Donna Femina, Child Abuse, Child Abuse and Neglect, 1990, V. 14, P. 227-231.
  6. Paul Simpson, "Recovered memories: Fact or fiction?," Ohio Association of Responsible Mental Health Practices, 2003-MAR newsletter, at: http://www.ltech.net/.
  7. Paul Simpson, "Second Thoughts: Understanding the false memory crisis and how it could affect you," Thomas Nelson, (1997). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  8. C.P. Malmquist, "Children Who Witness Parental Murder: Post-traumatic Aspects," Journal of American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 25 (1986), Pages 320-325.
  9. C. Safran, "Dangerous Obsession: The Truth About Repressed Memories," McCalls, 1993-JUN), Pages 98-115.
  10. W.A. Wagenaar & J. Groeneweg, "The Memory of Concentration Camp Survivors," Applied Cognitive Psychology, 4 (1990), Page 77.
  11. Susan Clancy, Research Fellow, Harvard University; letter in Washington Post, 2003-FEB-25.
  12. C.S. Widom & S. Morris, "Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood victimization: Part 2: Childhood sexual abuse," Psychological Assessment, 9, Page 34 to 46.
  13. G.S. Goodman, et al., "A prospective study of memory for child sexual abuse: New findings relevant to the repressed-memory controversy," Psychological Science 14(2), Pages 113 to 118.

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Latest update: 2008-SEP-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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