Recovered Memory

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Recovered Memory

Recovered memory, often called repressed memory, emerged as a significant concept in mental health therapy in the early 1980s. The theory postulates that a variety of complaints in adulthood, ranging from eating disorders to marital problems, stem from childhood sexual abuse by a family member, usually of a daughter by her father. This experience is so traumatic that the child represses the memory and from then on has no conscious awareness that the abuse occurred. But at a subconscious level, the repressed memory continues to fester, producing symptoms that disrupt the victim's adult life. Therapeutic treatment consists of memory enhancement techniques to unblock the memories, allowing the patient to confront the source of her problems (an estimated 90 percent of these cases are female) and by doing so, "heal."

The roots of recovered memory theory can be traced to attitudes toward the middle-class family in parts of the feminist movement. Social worker Florence Rush was especially influential, arguing that incest was far more common than generally believed and was permitted because it prepared the female to accept a subordinate role in society. The theory provided an explanation for the gap between textbook estimates of incest (one to two for every million women in the United States) and its supposed common occurrence. The theory's most influential advocates include psychiatrists Judith Herman and Lenore Terr and law professor Catherine MacKinnon. But the single most influential book was written by lay people: The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, originally published in 1988, which provides checklists of symptoms suggesting past abuse. It has sold close to a million copies.

Both the theory and the therapy are controversial. The theory assumes that memory functions like a camcorder, keeping repressed memories intact in a special part of the brain. But memory experts have demonstrated that memory does not function in this way: forgetting is extensive and memories are continually reconstructed into what memory expert Elizabeth Loftus has called "creative blendings of fact and fiction." There is no scientific evidence that memories of traumas are processed and/or stored differently from other memories. The theory assumes that certain symptom profilesespecially eating disordersare signposts of child sexual abuse. However, according to American Psychiatric Association guidelines, "no specific unique symptom profile has been identified that necessarily correlated with abuse experiences."

The techniques therapists use to recover memories are equally controversial. The most common are hypnosis, guided imagery (the therapist helps the patient visualize scenes of childhood abuse), dreamwork, participation in "survivor groups," massage therapy to uncover "body memories" of abuse in infancy, and injections of sodium Amytal as a truth serum. There is no scientific evidence for the existence of "body memories." As for hypnosis, in a report issued in 1984, the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs stated that contrary to what the public believes, recollections obtained during hypnosis are "generally less reliable than nonhypnotic recall." According to the Council, hypnosis increases suggestibility, promoting vivid pseudo-memories. Memory researcher Martin Orne has noted that sodium Amytal is even more problematic than hypnosis in producing false memories. Researchers like Loftus, who has performed experiments in which she implanted "memories" in college students, including memories of traumatic events (such as being lost as a child in a shopping mall) believe therapists, wrongly convinced their patients' problems derive from childhood sexual abuse, implant false memories in their patients.

Recovered memory therapy has wreaked a great deal of damage on patients and their families. Therapists have encouraged patients to confront the perpetrator, typically the father, and sever all ties with their parents (the mother is often viewed as an accomplice), even to sue them in civil or criminal court. It is estimated that roughly 15 percent of patients who recover false memories of sexual abuse eventually go on to recover memories of being forced to participate in Satanic cults in which they engaged in ritual murders and cannibalism. Many of these patients have been wrongly diagnosed as suffering from multiple personality disorders, which supposedly had enabled them to compartmentalize their terrible experiences, and some have been hospitalized for long periods.

Since 1995 a number of factors have led to a waning of recovered memory therapy. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation, established in 1992 by and for accused families, assembled leading U.S. and Canadian memory researchers on its board and widely disseminated their findings. But the most important factor has been malpractice suits against therapists brought by ex-patients, some of which have resulted in multimillion-dollar judgments. As a result, insurance companies have become unwilling to insure therapists practicing recovered memory therapy.

See also: Child Abuse; Mental Illness.


Bass, Ellen, and Laura Davis. 1988. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York: Harper and Row.

Herman, Judith L. 1992. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Isaac, Rael Jean. 2000. "Down Pseudo-Memory Lane." Priorities for Health 12, no. 4: 17-22, 60-61.

Loftus, Elizabeth, and Katherine Ketcham. 1991. The Myth of Repressed Memory. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Ofshe, Richard, and Ethan Watters. 1994. Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria. New York: Scribner.

Prendergast, Mark. 1995. Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives. Hinesburg, VT: Upper Access.

Terr, Lenore. 1994. Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found. New York: Basic Books.

Rael Jean Isaac

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The remembrance of traumatic childhood events, usually involvingsexual abuse, many years after the events occurred.

The heightened awareness of child sexual abuse that developed in the 1980s also brought with it the controversial topic of recovered memory. Some mental health therapists contended that children repress memories of abuse so completely that years later they have no memory of it. These therapists believed that through the use of recovered memory therapy, victims are able to recover the memories of the traumatic events and begin dealing with their psychological effects. Others in the medical community, however, held deep reservations about the idea of repressed memory and the therapy techniques that purported to recover them. These critics argued that without established standards or procedures, a psychotherapist faced the danger of implanting false memories in a patient. By the mid-1990s these fears were justified, as patients won multimillion dollar verdicts against their therapists based on claims that they created false and destructive memories.

During the 1980s many adults who recovered memories of child sexual abuse through therapy sought to hold their abusers accountable in a court of law. However, under statute of limitations provisions, the time for a lawsuit had expired. Courts and legislators responded by changing these laws. Typically, these laws provide that the action must be filed within a certain number of years after the plaintiff either reaches the age of majority or knew or had reason to know that sexual abuse caused the injury.

Once the statute of limitations problem was resolved, a number of civil lawsuits were filed alleging sexual abuse that happened many years

before. Lawsuits against Catholic priests using recovered memories as evidence resulted in large damage awards in several cases. Criminal charges were also successfully brought against alleged abusers on the basis of recovered memory. Apart from the award of damages, some therapists believe that a trial and a confrontation between the abuser and the abused is essential to restoring the victim's mental health. In the 1980s courts allowed recovered memory testimony into evidence, despite objections by defendants that there was no scientific basis for believing memories could be recovered. In addition, defendants contended that the memories were untrue, implanted in the patient through a mixture of drug therapy and suggestive questioning.

By the early 1990s, there was a backlash against recovered memory and its use in the law. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was established as a support group by members of families who claimed they had been falsely accused of abuse by their children through recovered memory. Mental health professionals also contested the validity of recovered memory. Some argued that it is never reliable, whereas others believed it is sometimes reliable but only when elicited by a properly trained professional. In 1994 the american medical association (AMA) adopted a policy statement that proclaimed that recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse are often unreliable and should not be assumed to be true. The AMA statement concluded that few cases in which adults make accusations of abuse can be proved or disproved using recovered memories because there is no way to distinguish the truth of memories from imagined events. That same year the American Psychiatric Association also expressed misgivings about recovered memory.

In 1994 a California jury awarded $500,000 in a malpractice case brought against two therapists by Gary Ramona, a father who claimed that the therapists had implanted false memories of childhood sexual abuse in his daughter. In 1996 a Minnesota jury awarded David and Lisa Carlson $2.5 million after the longest psychiatric malpractice trial in U.S. history. The Carlsons sued Lisa Carlson's therapist, charging that she used hypnosis, drugs, coercion, and pressure to implant false memories.

By 1995 a number of state courts had issued decisions that attacked the validity of recovered memories and held that these memories were insufficient to sustain a lawsuit unless supported by independent evidence. Statutes of limitations also continued to be a problem for those seeking to file lawsuits. For example, in Dalrymple v. Brown, 549 Pa. 217, 701 A. 2d 164 (1997), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a sexual assault claim based on recovered memory. The alleged victim stated that the defendant had assaulted her in 1968 and 1969 when she was a young child but she had only recovered the memories of the assaults in 1990. The defendant asked the court to dismiss the case because under Pennsylvania law the statutes of limitations required the victim to sue within two years after her eighteenth birthday.

On appeal the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the plaintiff's contention that a discovery rule granted her an exemption from the two-year time limit. This rule holds that if the injured party does not originally know an injury, then the limitations period does not begin until the discovery of the injury is reasonably possible. Typical examples of the discovery rule are found in medical malpractice cases, where a doctor's error is unknown to the patient until its effects become physically evident. The court held that the discovery rule applies only when the nature of the injury is such that plaintiffs cannot detect it, stating that "it would be absurd to argue that a reasonable person, even assuming for the sake of argument, a reasonable six year old, would repress the memory of a touching so that no amount of diligence would enable that person to know of the injury."

further readings

Lazo, Joy. 1995. "True or False: Expert Testimony on Repressed Memory." Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 28.

Mason, Mary Ann. 1995. "The Child Sex Abuse Syndrome." Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 1.

Rogers, William. 1995. "Recovered Memory" and Other Assaults Upon the Mysteries of Consciousness: Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Fraud, and the Mass Media. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.


Child Abuse; Statute of Limitations.

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