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Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT)

Brief overview: more quotations;
what is RMT?; beliefs about RMT.

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More quotations: 

bulletSkeptical of RMT:
bullet"These therapists are worse than misinformed, poorly-trained fools. They are dangerous zealots, and they must be stopped." Unidentified sociology professor.  1
bullet"The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived, and dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic." J.G. Kennedy. 2
bulletSupportive of RMT:
bullet"...horrific experiences are stored but 'forgotten.' Some of these memories later return in flashbacks...The body keeps store, but the brain doesn't always remember." 3 B.A. Van der Kolk.
bullet"As a therapist, your job is  not to be a detective; your job is not to be a fact-finder; your job is not to be a judge or a jury; and your job is also not to make the family feel better. Your job is to help the patient make sense out of her life, make sense out of her symptoms...and make meaning out of her experience." Judith Herman 4

What is False Memory Syndrome (FMS) & Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT):

"False Memory Syndrome" has been defined as:

"An apparent recollection of something that one did not actually experience, especially sexual abuse during infancy or childhood, often arising from suggestion implanted during counseling or psychotherapy." 5

False memories are often generated in certain forms of suggestive therapy in which an attempt is made to recover forgotten or repressed memories.

The conflict over RMT is essentially a conflict between scientific findings and knowledge based on emotions. Consider the following quotes:

bullet

Elizabeth Loftus:

"There is no credible scientific evidence to prove that repressed   memories even exist. And yet they keep clearing the way for these kinds of trials which have ruined hundreds, if not thousands, of families." 

bullet

David Clohessy:

"It is very painful to me to have anyone, especially in the mental health community, doubt the existence of repressed memories." 

Although evidence of repressed memories, and a mechanism by which memories can be repressed and recovered, are missing, memories recovered during suggestive therapy feel like real memories to the RMT client. To tell them that these memories are false is often perceived as a accusation that they are lying.

In RMT, the therapist and client concentrate on the recovery of what they believe to be repressed memories from the past.  RMT is sometimes called amnesia, betrayal trauma, biological protective processes, cognitive gating, directed forgetting, dissociation, dissociative amnesia, motivated forgetting, retrieval inhibition, retroactive inhibition, self-induced hypnotic trance states, suggestion, thought suppression, etc.

Recovered "memories" generally start as images that appear during intense therapy -- often after months of searching the client's past. Suggestive techniques like hypnosis, guided imagery, or simply the imagining of abusive events are often used. These images often later coalesce into what feel like memories. They appear to both the client and therapist to be accurate recollections of childhood sexual abuse. Unfortunately, they are almost always unrelated to actual events in the person's past. Their actual origins appear to be in nightmares, horror movies, novels, one's imagination, etc.

Most recovered memories emerge during months or years of therapy. A rarer phenomenon is the surfacing of apparent recollections during self-hypnosis or during self-help or mutual support groups which focus on recovering memories.

Once these images are created and coalesce into what feels like actual memories of real events, they are very convincing both to the client and to the therapist. A Harvard University study in 2004 demonstrated this. It involved twelve people who had "memories" of having been abducted by LGM (little green men) and taken onboard UFOs (unidentified flying objects). Such "memories" are often constructed during recovered memory therapy by counselors who believe in the widespread nature of UFOs and abusive LGM. The subjects' reactions to stories of stress and abductions were compared to those of a twelve person control group made up of individuals who do not claim to have been abducted. Heart rate, sweat production, facial muscle tension and other parameters were measured. ABC News reported that:

"The emotional reaction among the abductees soared while listening to the stories...But it was much weaker while listening to happy or neutral narratives....The 12 participants who had never been abducted barely responded to any of the stories."

The lead author in the study, Richard  McNally, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, said: "The [abducted] person really believes something happened. But that doesn't  necessarily mean it did." 6

Beliefs about RMT:

Pamela Freyd, Executive Director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation summarized current scientific evidence concerning repressed and recovered memory. She draws three conclusions:

bulletPeople remember horrific experiences all too well. Victims are seldom incapable of remembering their trauma.

bulletPeople sometimes do not think about disturbing events for long periods of time, only to be reminded of them later. However, events that are experiences as overwhelmingly traumatic at the time of their occurrence rarely slip from awareness.
bulletThere is no reason to postulate a special mechanism of repression or dissociation to explain why people may not think about disturbing experiences for long periods. A failure to think about something does not entail an inability to remember it (amnesia). 7

Beliefs about RMT have seriously divided professional associations, such as the American Psychiatric Association, and American Psychological Association.

bulletSome clinicians still believe that recovered memories are accurate recollections of long repressed abusive events.
bulletEssentially all memory researchers and many clinicians now believe that images of abuse recovered during RMT are rarely related to real events.
Authors Pezdek and Banks have referred to the RMT controversy as close to "religious war." 8 It certainly has some of the features that are often found in many inter-religious conflicts: extreme hatred, vilification of the opposing side, and beliefs which rely on faith rather than hard data.

Belief in the reliability of recovered memories appears to have peaked in the early 1990s, and is now in rapid decline. It has left a trail of hundreds of thousands of damaged lives, among both victims of this experimental and dangerous therapy and among their families of origin. It has triggered many suicides. A small percentage of therapy victims have realized that their recovered memories are of events that never happened, and have been able to reunite with their families of origin. Family reunification has not been possible for most. 9

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References:

  1. Elizabeth Loftus, "The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse," St. Martin's Griffin, (1994), Page 35. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  2. J.G. Kennedy, delivered on 1962-JUN-11 at a Commencement Address at Yale University. Quoted by Biesterveld, Wisconsin Law Review, 2002.
  3. Quoted in Berry, "Memories: Delayed or Imagined,"
  4. Judith Herman, from a PBS Frontline program on recovered memory.
  5. Andrew Colman, "A Dictionary of Psychology," Oxford, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  6. " 'Alien abductees' help debunk themselves," UPI, 2004-JUL-21.
  7. Pamela Freyd, letter to the Central Kentucky News Journal in Campbellsville, KY, 2003-AUG-13, concerning Theophostic Counseling.
  8. Pezdek & Banks, "The recovered memory/false memory debate," Academic Press, (1996). Read reviews or order this book. The book contains 22 essays by 34 contributors.
  9. "A Daughter Returns," Impact newsletter, 2003-OCT, at: http://www.angryparents.net/

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Latest update: 2007-NOV-11.
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