Therapist: Beware of False Memories
Chaplain Paul G. Durbin, Ph.DRecovered Memory Therapy is a type of therapy used by ministers, psychiatrists, psychologists and other counselors. The Recovered Memory Therapist tends to assume that patients with such problems as eating disorders, relationship problems, depression, sexual inhibition and a host of other problems must have experienced traumatic instances of sexual abuse, which they have then repressed. These therapists use many counselling methods such as hypnosis, guided imagery, progressive relaxation techniques automatic writing, feeling work, dream work, group therapy and art therapy to uncover those repressed memories or produce false memories. The use of these techniques can be very helpful tools of counselling. I have used each of these techniques in my role as hospital chaplain and a certified clinical hypnotherapist, who is consulted by physicians at Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital in New Orleans, La.
In discussing Recovered Memory Therapy, I do not include those who use hypnosis and other counselling techniques to discover past history that might contribute to a present day problem and use it to help the person live better today without destruction of others. I do not included those therapists who work with individuals who have always remembered that they were sexually abused and are working in the here and now to overcome any problems initiated by that abuse. I am including those therapist who plant false memories and encourage their clients to confront, hate, break with and sue parents for something that may or may not have happened years ago. Based upon my findings and interpretation of those findings, I consider Recovered Memory Therapy to be based on bad assumptions and the result is bad therapy. Recovered Memory Therapy is bad therapy because it makes assumptions that are not valid, it rewrites a persons history with very painful results, it makes the client very dependent on the therapist, separates clients from their natural families, it causes the client to induce some very emotionally painful experiences which come only from the imagination and quite often makes the client worse instead of better.
Understanding the consequence, it is important to beware of Recovered Memory Therapy and its potential dangerous implications.
We have one mind but two parts: the conscious and subconscious. The conscious portion consists of about 10% of our thinking ability and the subconscious consists of about 90%. Our conscious mind consists of what is available to our conscious thinking process. It is the analytical, rational, logical, two plus two is four part of the mind. The subconscious is not logical and it contains our emotions, habits, automatic responses, feelings, instincts, impressions and much of our memory. One of the peculiarities of the subconscious mind is that the subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality. In regards to memory; a thought, image, idea whether real or not, repeated often enough or when emotionally charged, becomes like a real memory to the subconscious mind.
One way to get to those memories is through hypnosis. Clergy, psychiatrists, psychologists and other therapists often use "age regression" in their therapy. In discussing "false memories," I am not speaking out against "age regression." I am concerned about how we get to those memories and how they are used when recovered. If they are used to help a person adjust to the present that is what is desired. If the recovered memories are used to provide a client the information to sue someone, I have a problem with that kind of therapy. Many believe that a memory retrieved in hypnosis is true and accurate. I used to accept this assumption, but as I come to my understanding of the subconscious mind as previously stated, I realized that one can easily produce a false memory that can seem just a real as a true memory. I was first introduced to Recovered Memory Therapy about five or six years ago. A man called me from California. He said that he had got my name and phone number through the United Methodist Church. He had an adult daughter in New Orleans who had sent him a letter accusing him of childhood sexual abuse. She had recovered the memory while in therapy at a local psych-center in New Orleans. She wrote her father requesting that he pay for her therapy and he should send her a specific amount of money each month as she was to emotional disturbed to hold a job. She was in her forties when she began therapy and was working and making a living. After a few months, she had recovered these memories of sexual abuse and had steadily gotten worse. The father denied that he had ever touched his daughter sexually and was overcome with sadness and despair as a result of the accusations. He asked me for help. As his daughter was receiving counselling at another health care facility, I contacted the chaplain at that hospital to look into the situation.
I talked to the father one more time and he said that he was trying to get an appointment with the therapist but had been unsuccessful. The therapist keep telling him that he was in denial and that the only way the daughter and therapist would meet with him was if he confessed that he had indeed molested his daughter when she was a child. He asked me if I had ever heard of the False Memory Syndrome and an organization called, "False Memory Syndrome Foundation" which had been formed for parents of adult children who had accused their parents of sexual abuse. I admitted that I had not.
The False Memory Syndrome has been described as a condition that results when a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a false memory recovered as an adult of childhood sexual abuse. The individual with recovered memories is resistant to any effort to discover the truth. The person may become so focused on the memory that he or she may become ineffective in coping with the real problems in his or her life.
A few years ago, a woman came to me stating that she had been to a psychiatrist who regressed her back to a supposed sexual molestation by her father. She was considering confronting her father and accusing him of sexual abuse when she was a little girl. Before confronting her father, she wanted a second opinion. Before Recovered Memory Therapy, she had no memory of abuse and had always felt very close to her father and was never consciously afraid of him. She had experienced a proper and appropriate amount of affection from her father and in spite of her supposed 'recovered memory' loved him very much. During a regression, I asked her to go back to any experience in her past that could clarify her situation in relation to her father. She went back to a situation that occurred when she was three years old and continued on and off for about two years. She used to like to have her dad rock her on his foot which she called, "riding the horsey." An activity that many small children enjoy without any sexual content. During this time of play, she experienced sexual pleasure and orgasms. Of the first time she experienced sexual pleasure, she said in a childlike voice, "Daddy is holding my hands while I ride the horsey and it feels good between my legs. Something is happening, if feels so good, but I don't understand. The good feeling is coming form where I pee pee." I asked her, "Is there anyone else in the room with you and your father? She replied, "Yes, my mama and my brother and when I get through riding the horsey, my brother can ride." From this regression, it appears that her father was totally innocent of any abuse and was just playing a normal child's game with his daughter the same way that he played with her older brother who wanted to "ride the horsey."
Following that session, I began to read everything I could on the False Memory Syndrome. I decided that I would write an article on "False Memories". I did this because of the pain and harm that Recovered Memory Therapy was inflecting on clients and their families. Aging parents accused of sexual abuse were often being sued by their adult children because of "recovered memory" without any verification of the reality of their abuse. Beware of false memories because of the trauma caused to the client who experiences these false memories. Beware of false memories because of the hurt and pain experienced by parents who are accused. Beware of false memories because of the damage to families that results from false memories. Beware of false memories for your own well-being. Many families and retractors (individuals who experienced false memories and are now refuting those memories) are suing the therapist who developed the false memories.
From my counseling, books and other materials, which I have read, a pattern tends to occur with striking frequency. These sessions began with a client coming to the therapist with a presenting problem other than sexual abuse. Regardless of the presenting problem, the therapist tends to assume that if a person has certain symptoms that are proof of childhood sexual abuse. The abuser is usually assumed to be the father and/or perhaps the grandfather, and may also include the mother and grandmother as well others. The symptoms that indicate that the person has experienced sexual abuse includes but is not limited to eating disorders, headaches, vaginal infections, sleep disorders, stomachaches, dizziness, problems maintaining stable relationships, obesity, depression, or low self-esteem. Anyone may face one or more of these symptoms during their lifetime, but the Recovered Memory Therapist acknowledge only one cause: repressed memories of childhood abuse.
With this motivation, the therapist next step is to convince the client that she was abused whether she can remember abuse or not. If the client says she was not abused, the therapist will often respond that the denial is another proof of her childhood sexual abuse. It is similar to the witch trails at Salem. Those suspected of being witches were thrown into a pond. If they floated they were guilty and burned. If they sank, they were innocent but dead. Once the client is convinced that remembering childhood memories of abuse can cure her problems, the therapist uses a variety of techniques to help the client uncover repressed memories. Among these techniques used are hypnosis, sodium amythal, guided imagery, age regression, progressive relaxation with suggestions, trance writing, body memory group survivors work and many other such therapies to get to the so-called repressed memories. As a certified clinical hypnotherapist, I use most of these techniques. Except for sodium amythal, it is not the technique that I have problems with, but with the way it is used or rather misused.
Among many stories told by Eileen Franklin of how she recovered memories of her father, George, raping and killing her friend years before was from a flashback. She told her brother that she recalled the incident while under hypnosis. She told her sister that the she became aware of the killings from a dream. At her father?s trial, she told the jury that she had remembered the murder during a flashback triggered by looking at her own daughter's face. Based upon Eileen testimony of the recovered memory, George was convicted of murder and sent to jail.
Perhaps nothing fueled the flames of the fires of recovered memory therapy as much as the books by survivors. Do these books provide good advice to help women recover memories or do they tend to implant memories? During the twentieth century, few books have done more harm than the Bass and Davis book 'The Courage to Heal' which is considered the bible of the Recovered Memory Therapy movement. Early in the book the claim is made "You may think you don't have memories (of sexual abuse) but often as you begin to talk about what you do remember, there emerges a constellation of feelings, reactions, and recollections that add up to substantial information. To say, 'I was abused' you do not need the kind of proof that would stand up in court." (p. 25) The book continues "Often the knowledge that you were abused starts with a tiny feeling, an intuition... Assume your feelings are valid." (p. 25) Another statement to prepare the soil of the mind for implanted memories is "If you have unfamiliar or uncomfortable feelings as you read this book, don't be alarmed. Strong feelings are part of the healing process. On the other hand, if you breeze through these chapters, you probably aren't feeling safe enough to confront these issues. Or you may be coping with the book the same way you coped with abuse - by separating your intellect from your feeling." (p. 27) They have got you whether you are feeling uncomfortable or if you are feeling nothing. Either way the authors assume that you were sexually abused and they will go to any lengths to recover the memories without regards to the truth.
The authors encourage women to separate themselves from their "family of origin", to sue their parents, to disassociate with anyone who does not support their claims and hate those who they discovered abused them. The book tells of one woman who claims that she was abused by her grandfather went to his deathbed and, in front of all the other relatives, angrily confronted him right there in the hospital. Forgiveness may be considered, but is not encouraged and in fact is discouraged.
I believe that forgiveness can contribute much to healing. Habitual grudges, resentment, smoldering rage, the war within plays havoc with our health and well-being and weakens our resistance to disease and/or emotional illness. We need to forgive those who have harmed us. That does not mean that we condone what they did nor do we need to have a close relationship to that person. By forgiving them, we release ourselves from the power that they hold over us. We need to forgive even when the person who has harmed us do not ask for nor deserves our forgiveness. Whether the person is living or dead, we need to forgive in order to free ourselves from the power that person has over us. This is true regardless of what has happened to us including sexual, physical or emotional abuse.
I am reminded of Sandy, a 21 year old lady, that came to me for counselling, who had always remembered being sexual abused by a brother who was seven years older than she. She was a Christian but was having trouble forgiving herself or her brother. She was concerned because Jesus said "forgive and ye shall be forgiven." She could not be freed until she could forgive him. He had not asked her for forgiveness nor was he visibly sorry for his abuse. The forgiving act of Sandy did not change her brother, but it did change her. After several sessions covering many issues, she said that she was ready to forgive her brother. I said, "In your imagination, you are setting in a chair on the stage in front of your brother. Now prepare to forgive him even if he does not request forgiveness nor deserves forgiveness. She said, "I forgive you brother for the sexual things you did to me as we were growing up. I forgive you Robert. In so doing I release myself from the power that you have had over me. The power that made me feel guilty, has prevented me from fully enjoying sex with my husband and has weakened my self-esteem. I am now free to live my life joyfully." Sandy lives a much happier life and responds joyfully during sexual relations with her husband.
There is a concerted effort to make the patient experience the emotional pain of rape, sexual abuse and other horrible experiences through abreaction. They have the client relive the supposed abuse and thereby releasing its power. (Most therapists use abreaction as a releasing technique, but most of the time the therapist will have the patient distant themselves from the pain and view the experience from a safe place or as if it were on a TV screen.) The Recovered Memory Therapist persuades their clients to literally feel the pain of the rape and torture and the humiliation of their supposed experiences. In their book Making Monsters, Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters state, "Although we don't suggest that these recovered memory therapist take sexual pleasure from these abuse 'recreations,' some recovered memory therapist perhaps deserve recognition as a new class of sexual predator." (p. 7)
The client is encouraged to have a confrontation with their abuser and/or abusers This is usually done in the therapist office with strict guidelines. Supported by the therapist and perhaps others, the client generally reads from a prepared statement. They lists a variety of accusations such as "you molested me when I was six months old, you raped me when I was four until I was seventeen. Mother you let it happen. You did nothing to stop him and in fact you assisted him and molested me also." The parents are not allowed to challenge the accuser and if they say that the abuse never occurred, they are accused of being in denial. Sometimes the accusations are made over the telephone or in a letter with similar letters written to other family members and friends. During these confrontations there is usually a demand for the parents to pay for therapy and additional sums of money for the pain they caused the survivor. If they don't get what they want from the confrontation, they quite often sue and most of the so-called survivors books encourage them to do so.
A Recovered Memory Therapist encourages clients to give up their natural families to including any relatives who do not agree with the client concerning the alleged abuse. The authors of 'The Courage to Heal' suggest that one should separate themselves from the cause of their problems, which in their terms is "the family of origin." Their tendency is to picture the family as poison for the client and destructive to the client. Fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles and added to that list; mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts who either participated in the abuse, allowed it to happen without interfering, or did not believe the accusation of the survivor.
The Recovery Memory Therapy Movement has many cult-like qualities. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary definition of cult is a group with a "devoted or extreme attachment to or extravagant admiration for a thing or ideal, especially as manifested by a body of admirers; any system for treating human sickness that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific." Generally a cult will claim to be the only way to God, Nirvana, Paradise, healing, and such. Some characteristics of a cult are:
(1) Their leader/s may claim a special revelation. The therapist is the leader and develops a situation where the client depends upon on them for salvation.
(2) They believe that they have the whole truth. Everyone is a victim and needs to recovery the memories of abuse in order to be whole. Their bible is The Courage To Heal with other survivor books also used as sacred writings.
(3) They use intimidation or psychological manipulation to keep members loyal to their truth. If one says they experienced no childhood sexual abuse, they are said to be in denial.
(4) Members will be expected to give substantial support. The cost of therapy is high and can go on for years.
(5) There is great emphasis on loyalty to the group and its teachings. You must accept the diagnosis of the leader and allow yourself to discover the repressed memories of abuse.
(6) Members are encouraged go give up their natural families for the family of the cult. The survivors group is to take the place of the family of origin and the family of origin must be denounced.
(7) Members will look to their leaders for guidance in everything they do. During treatment the client becomes overly dependent on their therapist.
(8) Any questioning of the group's teaching is discouraged. If one suggests that they have no sexual abuse history, the group ridicules them and says that they are in denial.
(9) Attempts to leave may be met with threats. The client is told that they can never heal until they have dealt with their abuse and cannot make it on their own.
Mark Pendergrast writes in his book 'Victims of Memory', that one of the primary appeals of Recovered Memory Therapy "movement is that it serves as a substitute religion in an era of shifting values, uncertainty and confusion. Being a Survivor provides many of the advantages of a born-again sect, including self-righteous indignation or pity for those who have not been saved, a warm communion with those who share similar beliefs, a strong spiritual/mystical component, and the opportunity to become a martyr for the cause. For therapist, the movement is a crusade against the forces of evil. They are valued priests who can unlock the secrets of the mind." (p. 460) To identify the movement as having the trappings of religion, "you have only to listen for the telltale words and phrases. It is astonishing how often the words 'belief' and 'faith' come up. 'Letting go takes faith,' Bass and Davis write in The Courage to Heal. 'You have to trust your capacity to heal yourself.' Therapists must 'believe' their patients, or they will re-traumatize them.... It requires 'a leap of faith' to 'believe the unbelievable.' To doubt any of these stories or to ask for some sort of evidence is tantamount to heresy." (p. 461)
Some guidelines for therapist:
(1) If the therapist is going to bring up the possibility of sexual abuse, it should be part of the patient history intake information and should be one question among many. The question may be "Were you sexually abused as a child?" If the answer to that question is "No," accept the answer.
(2) Do not diagnosis sexual abuse based on the client's symptoms. A therapist should not assume that sexual abuse has occurred because a person has periods from her past that she cannot remember.
(3) Be aware of how you word questions or suggestions so that you do not lead a person to have false memories.
(4) Be aware that because of books, TV/radio programs, magazines articles and newspaper articles that false memories may have already been planted before the client came to you.
(5) Understand that memory can be distorted even when the person is in a hypnotic state.
(6) Work toward coping with life in the here and now rather than focusing on the past; especially avoid repeated reliving of painful experiences whether real or false.
(7) Do not put a client without clear and detailed memories of abuse into a survivors therapy group and then only if the group deals with adjusting to the world in the here and now.
(8) Do not advise a client to read 'The Courage to Heal' or any other book written by a so-called survivor.
(9) Be careful when using progressive relaxation, suggestions, guided imagery, hypnosis, or other hypnotic like states that you do not give leading suggestions of abuse.
(10) Be certain that you are not meeting some sexual need of your own by helping your client come to share with you sexual abuse whether real or false.
(11) If you were sexually abused as a child, do not assume that everyone else was abused.
(12) Question your motives before you suggest that a client confront and separate from her natural family.
(13) Do no harm. Continue to use hypnosis, guided imagery, relaxations techniques to help others come to terms with life and thus live a better life, but beware of false memories.
BOOKS ON FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME AND RECOVERED MEMORIES:
Bass, E. and Davis, L. (1994) The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. 3rd ed. NY: Harper Perennial.
False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 3401, Market Ste 130, Philadelphia, PA. 19104-3318.
Goldstein, E., with Farmer, K. (1992) Confabulations: Creating False Memories, Destroying Families. Boca Raton, FL: SIRS.
Hansen, J. "The False Memory Syndrome: How It's Affecting The Use of Hypnosis" NGH Convention Manual, 1994 "What Is The False Memory Controversy?" NGH Convection Manual, 1995.
"Hypnosis - Controversial Again" NGH Convention Manual, 1995. Merrimack, NH. "Hypnosis and Delayed Recall: Part 1" (Oct 1994 Vol xiii # 4) The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Periodicals Press.
"Hypnosis and Delayed Recall: Part 2" (April 1995 Vol xiii # 4) The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Periodicals Press.
Loftus, E. and Ketcham, K. (1994) The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse. NY: St. Martin's.
Ofshe, R. and Watters, E. (1994) Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria. NY: Scribner.
Pendergrast, M. (1995, 1996) Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives. Second ed. Hinesburg, VT: Upper Access.
Stephens, R.L. (1996) Hypnosis and False Memories. Freeport, PA: Ziotech.
Underwager, R. and Wakefield, H. (1994) The Return of the Furies: Analysis of Recovered Memory Therapy. Chicago: Open Court.
Wassil-Grimm, C. (1995) Diagnosis for Disaster: The Devastating Truth about False Memory Syndrome and Its Impact on Accusers and Families. Woodstock, NY: Overlook.
Yapko, M.D. (1994) Suggestions of Abuse: True and False Memories of Childhood Sexual Traumas. NY: Simon & Schuster.
Chaplain Paul G. Durbin, Ph.D