Recovered Memories of Alleged Sexual Abuse: Memory as Production and as Reproduction

Joseph Wakefield*

ABSTRACT: The concepts of memory as production and memory as reproduction are examined in terms of memories of abuse recovered in therapy.  Such memories may be psychically real for the patient but they cannot be considered to reflect actual historical events.  It is a mistake for the therapist to act on memories from therapy as if they were literal history.

How do we make sense of the explosive increase in claims of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse?  As a psychiatrist and Jungian analyst in private practice, I have observed with wonder the epidemic sweeping my community.  Colleagues tell me that Central Texas, Bible-belt country, is also the center of satanic cult abuse.  Private psychiatric hospitals in my community have set up special groups for patients suffering from multiple personality disorder.  Many of these M.P.D. patients report childhood sexual abuse.  Psychotherapists whom I supervise tell me of increasing numbers of their patients who report childhood abuse, including satanic cult abuse.  What is going on?  Is there an explosion of actual abuse, unnoticed before now?  Or does the increase reside in the belief system of those making such reports?

What I would like to discuss relevant to this issue is an overview of memory as reproduction (literal history) and memory as production (creative imagination.)  What I have to say draws much from a paper of Paul Kugler (Childhood Seduction: Physical and Emotional, published in Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought, Spring, 1987, p. 40-60).

How do we know what we think we know?  Are our perceptions and memories accurate reflections of the world?  How might our neurophysiology (our "hardware") and our individual experiences and group expectations (our "software") shape our memories?

These questions are not new.  They go back at least as far as the debate between Aristotle and Plato, on realism versus idealism.  For Aristotle, what you see is what you get.  He thought the way to know reality was to study the individual event in the world.  In contrast Plato invites us to imagine being seated in a cave, with a light behind us.  All that we know are the reflected shadows upon the cave wall.  We imagine that the shadows are reality itself, when in fact they are reflected images of a truer reality we cannot see.  Aristotle would be a godfather of experimental psychology, with its emphasis upon observation, repetition and avoidance of hypothetical constructs.  Plato would be a godfather of psychologies such as ethnology, Jung's archetypes of the collective unconscious, and Levi-Strauss's structural anthropology, which emphasize recurrent, universal patterns rather than individual events.  Which tradition we adopt structures our beliefs about memory.  Do we imagine memory to be an accurate reflection of accurate perceptions, or do we imagine both our perceptions and our memories to be shaped by underlying structures of belief?

The question of what our perceptions and memories represent comes up again in the writings of John Locke, David Hume, Bishop Berkeley and Immanuel Kant.  John Locke focused upon the association of events as forming our thoughts.  For Locke, the mind was a "tabula rasa," a blank slate, formed by experience.  Locke would be a godfather of experimental psychology, especially the behaviorism of Pavlov, Watson and Skinner.  For Locke, memory would be the reproduction of experiences associated together in the mind.

Locke's empiricism was questioned by David Hume and Bishop Berkeley.  These men asked, how do we know that our perceptions and our memories are accurate?  How do we know we are not imagining what we think we see and remember?  Carried to an extreme, this line of thought leads to solipsism where we can never be sure our knowledge is accurate or corresponds to the experience of others.

Immanuel Kant suggested a solution to the conundrum presented by Hume and Berkeley.  Instead of despairing at our thought being "just imagination," Kant considered all knowledge to be structured by the imagination.  The outer world was not denied.

Nevertheless, reality was to be known through the creative apperception of our imagination.  From Kant's point of view, memory is both reproductive (a reflection of events in the world), and productive (shaped by the creative force of imagination).

The question of memory's origin in history versus imagination came into focus within early psychoanalysis.  It was precisely the question of memories of childhood sexual abuse that preoccupied Sigmund Freud.  At first Freud thought he had discovered the etiology of hysteria as being due to literal childhood seduction.  By 1897 Freud concluded that at least some of his patients had not actually been seduced, but were in fact imagining the events.  In his words, "It is impossible to distinguish between truth and emotionally-charged fiction."  Freud expanded (not abandoned as has been charged), his etiology of neurosis so as to include the role of fantasy.  In Paul Kugler's words: "Freud had discovered that memory records not only perceptions, but also wishes and apperceptions.  Memory is a confabulated record of the events occurring in the exterior environment, along with those events occurring in the interior environment.  Furthermore, in the unconscious there is no 'indication of reality,' which means it is impossible to distinguish between history and desire" (p.45).

Freud never denied the reality of his patients' memories of actual childhood traumas.  Rather, he recognized that the memories of actual childhood are continually being confabulated with unconscious fantasies.  Furthermore, within the context of analysis it is impossible to distinguish which aspects refer to outer objective perceptions and which refer to inner desires and apperceptions.

Freud's expansion of his childhood seduction theory to include the role of fantasy has been attacked during the past decade by several psychoanalysts who feel Freud minimized the trauma of actual childhood seduction.  In 1984 Jeffrey Masson wrote The Assault on Truth (Paperback), subtitled, Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory.  Alice Miller wrote a series of books, increasingly clear that she considered memories of childhood trauma to be historical and literal (The Drama of the Gifted Child (Paperback Revised and Updated edition)(Audio Cassette (Abridged)), Thou Shalt not be Aware (Paperback (1998))(Paperback Reissue (1991)), Banished Knowledge (Paperback Reprint edition), Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (Paperback Revised edition)).  In the end Alice Miller renounced psychoanalysis because other analysts continued to see memory as a confabulation of experience and fantasy rather than being literally, historically true.

Another founder of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, recognized the productive creative aspect of memory.  Jung recognized that memory images arise from a conjunction of outer environmental influences plus the specific reactions of the individual.  The memory image exists independently of the historical referent, even if based in part upon perception.  This realization led Jung to speak no longer of the historical childhood and the historical parents, but to employ instead the term imago.  The imago bears traces of both external and internal history.  The person's love, admiration, resistance, hatred, rebelliousness and envy transfigure the perceptual contents, producing an imago.  Again in Paul Kugler' words, "The 'imago' is the merging place of perception and apperception.  And because of this merging, no one can ever distinguish for sure between remembered history and imagined fantasy" (p.49).

To say that memory is a mixing of history and fantasy does not mean that memory is invalid, unreal or unimportant.  If we consider "abuse" and, "being abused" as psychological experiences rather than historical facts, then whenever abuse is reported by patients, "abuse" is actually occurring.  Again in Paul Kugler's words, "So, the problem is not whether the patient suffers from seduction or abuse.  Of course the patient does, and such abuse exists simply because the patient says it exists.  The abuse exists as a psyche fact.  The real problem is in how the treating therapist approaches the patient's image of abuse" (p.49).

"If the therapist derives psychic reality from physical and historical 'reality,' then physical, historical seduction will be considered the preponderant etiological factor.  If, however, the therapist defines psychic reality more in terms of wishes, desires and archetypal images, then these factors will be considered most etiologically significant.  And, finally, if the therapist works from the definition of reality that both the environment and the individual emotional responses of the person are equally real, then a combination of these factors will determine the etiology" (p.50).

Where we are led by Paul Kugler's thought is that memories recovered in therapy cannot be considered simple, historical events.  Within the patient memories are a confabulation of history and fantasy.  Furthermore, the patient is not alone in therapy.  The therapist's beliefs about the nature of psychic reality will shape what he communicates to the patient, which will in turn shape what memories the patient communicates to the therapist.

Within the context of therapy it is sufficient to accept memories of abuse as psychically real.  The emotional reality, the feelings, are worked upon as psychic problems requiring healing.  It is quite different when patient and therapist take the memory as literally real and attempt to act in the world.  Efforts to act upon memories from therapy as if they were literal history are problematic.

* Joseph Wakefield is a psychiatrist at 711 West 38th Street, Suite B4B, Austin, Texas 78705.  This paper was presented at the Fourth Annual Convention of the American Psychology Society, San Diego, June 20, 1992.  [Back]

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