Body Memories: And Other Pseudo-Scientific Notions of "Survivor Psychology"

Susan E. Smith*

ABSTRACT: The recovery movement and the sexual abuse survivor therapies have led to an uncritical acceptance of a number of pseudo-scientific concepts and assumptions.  The notion of "body memories" exemplifies this trend.  The theories, assumptions, and therapeutic techniques of survivor psychology are discussed on the basis of literature from its proponents and data from a survey of current sexual abuse treatment modalities in the Phoenix, Arizona area.  The belief in these pseudoscientific concepts appears to be related to scientific illiteracy, gullibility, and a lack of critical thinking skills and reasoning abilities in both the mental health community and in society at large.

Continuous media attention on sensational recovery stories throughout the eighties resulted in the progressive redefinition of behaviors and bad habits as "addictions" or "diseases" (Bufe, 1991; Katz & Liu, 1991; Peele, 1989, 1991).  The family has been redefined as an institution organized around the "soul murder" of children (Bradshaw, 1987, 1988, 1990), and society itself is called "an addict" by recovery culture theorists (Schaef, 1987, 1989; Schaef & Fassel, 1988).

Throughout the eighties the public had voraciously and uncritically consumed unfounded "dysfunctionality" theories and seemed hungry for more.  The manipulative writing styles of recovery authors were adopted by medieval and evangelical psychologists and several Ph.Ds lent credibility to the completely undocumented and unresearched notions of rampant demonic possessions, satanic ritual abuse, and the prevalence of multiple personality disorders theoretically caused by satanic ritual abuse (Fredrickson, 1992; Friesen, 1991; Mayer, 1988, 1991).

Recovery culture authors often quote absurdly high "statistics" and "studies."  However, where these numbers came from or who did the "studies" are rarely, if ever mentioned (Bradshaw, 1987; Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson, 1992; Friesen, 1991).  For instance John Bradshaw (1987) claims that 60% of women and 50% of men in this country have "eating disorders" and are "killing themselves" with food, but where he got this information is not specified.  René Diamond, a "Christian counselor," claims that she has clients with in excess of 2000 "alter" or multiple personalities (Diamond &Thompson, 1993).

There is no large-scale historical precedent which parallels the rise of a quasi-religious and pseudo-psychological therapy movement in which new diseases or disease processes are invented by members of the movement, who then become self-styled experts on the diseases of their inventions, and the most appropriate and effective treatments as well (Smith, 1992; Trimpey, 1989).  The treatment prescribed most frequently for the innumerable and rapidly multiplying addictions and diseases is the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (Ackerman, 1989; Bass & Davis, 1988; Beattie, 1987, 1989; Becker, 1989; Black, 1981; Lasater, 1988; Mastrich & Birnes, 1988; Middleton-Moz & Dwinell, 1986; Whitfield, 1991).

Family systems and dysfunctionality theories continued to emerge primarily through 12-step theorists and therapists throughout the late 1980s.  The syndromes, symptoms, and issues of "dysfunctional" families and adults also formed the foundation for the philosophies, assumptions, and treatment modalities of mental health professionals who work with sexual abuse and incest survivors.  The language and logic of 12-step psychology has been integrated into many so-called "Christian counseling" programs and is taught in conjunction with medieval mental illness theories and fundamentalist application of Scriptures.

Mass media sensationalism of recovered memories of sexual abuse, emphasis on 12-step psychology; and the resurrection of medieval mental illness theories has transformed the unusual and deviant into the mundane.  Every form of deviance is declared "epidemic," and practically every human behavior is pronounced an "addiction," a "disease," a case of multiple personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder) or demonic possession (Beattie, 1987) 1989; Becker) 1989; Blume) 1990; Bradshaw, 1987, 1988, 1990; Cruse, 1989; Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson) 1992; Friesen) 1991; Kritsberg, 1988; Mayer, 1988, 1991; Nakken, 1988; Schaef, 1986, 1987, 1989; Schaef & Fassel, 1988; Whitfield, 1991; Woititz, 1983).

Based on the paranoid notions first advanced within the recovery culture about the soul-murdering function of family systems, and the amnesia resulting from soul-murder (Bradshaw, 1987), survivor psychologists now express the conviction that invasive and intrusive therapeutic modalities and aggressive tactics to recover "repressed memories are necessary and justified (Bass & Davis) 1988; Blume, 1990; Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson, 1992; Friesen, 1991; Mayer, 1988, 1991).  The medieval belief in demonic possession as the cause of mental illnesses or disorders justifies every form of aggressive indoctrination and coercive treatment modality known in the mental health community.  Medieval and evangelical psychologists claim that their treatments and diagnoses are "given" by God (Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Friesen, 1991).

The expansion of the 12-step method to treat the human condition and the inclusion of various fringe and borderline therapeutic modalities occurred with the advent of the "inner child" movement (Bradshaw, 1987, 1988, 1990; Kritsberg, 1988; Middleton-Moz & Dwinell, 1986).  Elements of "mind cure," Christian Science, pop psychology; metaphysics, transpersonal psychology, and psychoanalytic techniques were resurrected by 12-step theorists (Kaminer, 1992; Smith, 1992).  Bogus physiological and neurological theories of the workings of the body and mind were presented as "facts" by "recovery" psychologists (Bradshaw, 1987; Kritsberg, 1988; Solberg, 1983).  These theories were developed further in survivor psychology" and medieval or evangelical psychology (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson, 1992; Friesen, 1991, Marie, 1991a, 1991c; Smith & Pazder, 1980).

The recovery movement created its own jargon and internal logic to support the process of traumatic thinking, traumatic reframing, and traumatic remembering which is the foundation of recovery culture psychology.  The jargon used in the sexual abuse/recovery literature tends to describe generally mundane physical conditions as "symptoms" and to reframe practically the full range of behavioral transactions within the family in traumatic, emotionally loaded and tragic terms (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Bradshaw, 1987, 1988, 1990; Covitz, 1986; Marie, 1991a).

This process lays the groundwork for ideological and therapeutic coercion and occurs in both the urban underground therapeutic culture dominated by the 12-step groups and in professional, or other for-profit and purportedly non-profit therapy systems.  The learned processes of traumatic thinking, reframing, and remembering, which are supposedly aimed at breaking "denial" and the "family spell" (Bradshaw, 1987, 1988, 1990), in conjunction with aggressive and biased therapeutic modalities, may predispose an individual in counseling or psychotherapy to develop false memories or identify with victim status by the exaggeration or fabrication of past trauma (Smith, 1992).

The jargon and internal logic of the recovery/survivor movement have been combined with loosely interpreted Freudian theories and psychoanalytic procedures with a reversed application.  Survivor psychologists de-emphasize traditional nondirective facilitation and cognitive insight, and focus on literally interpreted "feeling work" and "memory work" (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Bradshaw, 1987, 1988, 1990; Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson, 1992; Friesen, 1991; Kritsberg, 1988; Marie, 1991a; Mayer, 1988, 1991; Middleton-Moz & Dwinell, 1986; Whitfield, 1991).

In addition to neo-Freudianism with a reversed focus, various learning theories and family systems theories have been adapted to suit the ideologies of survivor psychology.  These quasi-legitimate theories have been combined with metaphysics, paranormal phenomenon, 12-step fundamentalism, true believer logic, religious fundamentalism (including demonology), and pseudo-scientific or even entirely bogus physiological and psychological theories (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Bradshaw, 1987, 1988, 1990; Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson, 1992; Friesen, 1991; Marie, 1991a, 1991c).

One of the most recently invented syndromes is Blume's "post-sexual abuse/incest syndrome."  The "Sexual Abuse and Incest Survivors Checklist," which is used to diagnose "post-incest trauma syndrome," evolved from 12 items originally written for rape and incest counselor's training.  The list was first published by NYWAR, which stands for New York Women Against Rape. The 12 items evolved into 34 items and appears in the book Secret Survivors (Paperback)(Paperback)(Mass Market Paperback) written by E. Sue Blume. It is not specified how this list evolved, and the evolution of other lists, diagrams, and scales to diagnose the existence of repressed memories or incest trauma are not explained either.  One of Blume's numbered categories in the list of 34 items contains 43 "symptoms," which totals over 70 indicators of sexual abuse and incest (Blume, 1990).

The Courage To Heal (Paperback)(Audio Cassette) by Laura Bass and Ellen Davis contains blocks of information preceding each chapter listing "effects" by which repressed sexual abuse is diagnosed and the damages are assessed. There are 74 effects proposed (Bass & Davis, 1988).

A list circulated in a college seminar on sexual abuse and incest contained 31 symptoms of sexual abuse and incest, and was written by the instructor.  Ten symptoms were said to be indicative of "sexual abuse" and 15 symptoms indicative of "incest."  The symptoms included "... a dislike for tapioca pudding, mashed potatoes and runny eggs" (Marie, 1991a, 1991c).

One of the most recent additions to the literature in the survivor psychology field is Renee Fredrickson's 1992 book, Repressed Memories: A Journey To Recovery From Sexual Abuse (Paperback).  Dr. Fredrickson presents a 63-item list for determining the existence of "repressed memory syndrome" which she reports was developed to "... describe those who have no memory of the abuse, as well as those who remember but have a significant amount of amnesia" (p. 40).  A complicated "PTSD Symptom List" is included, numbering 16 items but containing multivariant symptoms.

The symptoms were compiled through anecdotal reports by clients, thus incorporating every imaginable quirk, twitch, preference, phobia, constitutional propensity, personality tendency, or physical illness as a "symptom" of repressed sexual abuse or incest issues (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson, 1992; Marie, 1991c).

Other newly defined "diseases," syndromes and disorders have recently become accepted as factual by sheer repetition as well (Kaminer, 1992).  Questionable or fanciful diagnoses, such as "sexual addiction," "relationship addiction," and "co-dependence" are considered our cultural legacy (Schaef, 1986, 1987, 1989; Schaef & Fassel, 1988).

There are presently a minimum of 33 groups using the 12-step approach of the original Alcoholics Anonymous program.  Six of these deal exclusively with sex and incest related themes: Co-dependents of Sex Addicts Anonymous, Survivors of Incest Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Co-dependents of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and Sexaholics Anonymous (Whitfield, 1991).  Sexual abuse and incest-related themes are not restricted to the above named groups.  Overeaters Anonymous, Bulimics Anonymous, Anorexics Anonymous, and the related "co-addiction" groups deal with assumptions regarding sexual abuse and repressed memories as primary causes of obesity or eating disorders, even though there is no empirical evidence that the numerous disorders attributed to repressed abuse and incest memories or to sexual abuse issues have a simple cause and effect relationship (Pope & Hudson, 1992; Greenwald, Leitenburg, Cado, & Tarran, 1990).

The subjective and projective approach to defining and treating addictions infiltrated the mental health community; and soon the belief that personality problems, addictions, and adjustment problems were caused by repressed childhood trauma became treatment, counseling, and recovery truisms.  The erosion of boundaries between folk psychology and professional mental health systems is due to many complex social and economic factors that are beyond the scope of this paper; however, the widespread acceptance of anything that is "self-improvement" or "growth" oriented has compromised the credibility of mental health systems, endangered the well-being of clients, and led to the unchecked resurrection and promotion of 13th to 16th century medieval psychology through some churches and Christian counseling facilities.

Recovery culture psychology is well integrated into these growing branches of the mental health community and the notions of both recovery and medieval psychologists have crossed over into professional counseling systems (Smith, 1992).  Practicing and prospective counselors are attending satanic and ritual abuse seminars in droves, even though the lectures and the literature are based on the oral tradition of anecdotes (Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson, 1992; Friesen, 1991; Mayer, 1988, 1991).  Both the prevalence of the problem of "satanic ritual abuse" and the "treatments suggested are unsubstantiated (Hicks, 1991; Lanning, 1989, 1991, 1992; Putnam 1991; Richardson, Best, & Bromley, 1991;Victor 1991, 1993).

As the theories of recovery culture proponents became progressively anti-family, and the theories of survivor psychologists became increasingly oriented to demonology, the therapeutic modalities suggested in the literature became increasingly invasive, coercive, and aggressive.  This was justified by a missionary mentality which claimed the world was in crisis because of "... adult children, raising adult children who will become adult children" (Bradshaw 1987, p. 4), the claim that healing "co-dependence" would heal the world's condition (Whitfield, 1991), and the notion that special knowledge is being given to Christian counselors, who are "anointed" to "minister" to the rapidly growing numbers of MPDs and demonically possessed individuals manifesting in the client populations of Christian counseling facilities (Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Friesen, 1991).

According to Kenneth Lanning (1992), a law enforcement investigator specializing in child abuse, reports of satanic ritual abuse are not supported by any substantial evidence and the ideology of satanic sexual abuse syndromes is primarily anecdotal.  There is no evidence of organized, intergenerational satanic cults operating behind the scenes of the establishment, routinely engaged in infanticide, animal sacrifice, serialized murder and rape and mutilation of children in numerous ceremonial activities of a bizarre and heinous nature (Gardner, 1990; Hicks, 1991; Lanning 1992; Mayer, 1988, 1991; Richardson, Best, & Bromley, 1991; Victor, 1991).  Anecdotal claims are difficult to disprove, yet highly questionable.  One cannot argue with the subjective truth of one person or hundreds of people.  Questioning the methods, logic, science, responsibility, and ethics of the current sexual abuse ideology does not negate the claims of all survivors nor deny that sexual abuse does happen.  Critical appraisal of memory theories does not deny that memories are sometimes repressed, or more accurately, selectively suppressed (Ofshe, 1993).

The rewards of "memory work" are stressed in the advertisement campaigns to sell inpatient treatment to the public.  The False Memory Syndrome Foundation has compiled an extensive file of such ads, all listing "symptoms" of "repressed" memories, from the mundane to the most dramatic (Freyd, F1993).  These ads imply or claim that physical problems, health problems, weight problems, employment difficulties, relationship needs, and many other human desires and aspirations will be fulfilled by the "healing" that memory work supposedly brings.  Often these "rewards" are tied to conditions, such as "spiritual awakenings" or being "saved" or "reborn" (Bradshaw, 1987, 1988, 1990; Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Friesen, 1991). The major condition is that the client "remember" a horrible incident, whether it happened or not (Gondolf, 1992).

Indoctrination in the language and logic of survivor psychology appears to be essential to acceptance of the physiological fairy tales, psychological fables, quack counseling techniques and bogus memory storage and retrieval theories.  The psychology of the sale and the persuasiveness of the language and logic is most tragically evident when individuals become convinced they are sexual abuse survivors, even though they have no memories.  One of the most commonly used theories to support the ideology of "repressed memories" or incest and sexual abuse amnesia is "body memories."  Body memories are thought to literally be emotional, kinesthetic, or chemical recordings stored at the cellular level and retrievable by returning to or recreating the chemical, emotional. or kinesthetic conditions under which the memory recordings are filed.  The theory of body memories is a fascinating example of a seemingly logical theory that is not only mistaken, it is dangerously coercive.

With the exception of Freud's early seduction theory, and the recent rise in reports of recovered memories of UFO abductions (Sullivan, 1992), there are no comparable theories or studies available regarding the phenomenon of complete repression of traumatic memories affecting such large numbers of people.

The crux of the problem seems to be hinged on scientific illiteracy, gullibility, and a lack of critical thinking skills and reasoning abilities in the mental health community and in society at large.

The Phoenix Survey

The following discussion of body memories and other pseudo-scientific notions of survivor psychology contains excerpts and information from a survey conducted by the author during the fall of 1992.  This survey consisted of an extensive descriptive inquiry into current sexual abuse treatment modalities conducted in the therapeutic network in Phoenix, Arizona.  Thirty-eight counselors specializing in sexual abuse recovery were interviewed using a structured interview questionnaire containing 41 questions with 103 items under investigation.  The questionnaire was constructed using the language, logic, ideas, theories and notions gleaned from survivor and recovery literature.

Body Memories

Incest and dysfunctionality theorists now routinely discuss various forms of "thought crimes" and "face crimes" (Orwell, 1949) that are labeled as "emotional incest," "covert sexual abuse," or "covert incest" (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Covitz, 1986; Fredrickson, 1992; Marie, 1991a).  The psychic sexual abuse or thought crime theory is based on the belief that children are extremely telepathic and pick up the vibrational frequency of inappropriate sexual thoughts (Marie, 1991a).  One therapist in the Phoenix survey explained covert incest in this manner: "Thoughts have a vibrational frequency and a sexual thought that involves another person without their consent carries with it a vibration that is felt on a covert, subliminal level."

The therapists also discussed various forms of thought-broadcasting and quasi-paranormal events supposedly occurring within the family that broadened the categories of abuse and incest, so that nothing actually had to occur, but "incest" or abuse could still be diagnosed.  The thought broadcasting notion was popularized by John Bradshaw's 1987 work, The Family, in which the intergenerational learning theory was called "multi-generational transmission."  The uncanny clairvoyance of children supports this theory as well, and "covert incest" occurs because children supposedly are attuned to a "highly sexualized atmosphere in the home" (Marie, 1991a).  The transmission theory is also used to explain or label dysfunctionality in families where alcohol is not a problem or incest had not occurred.  According to dysfunctionality theorists, "alcoholic family rules" can jump generations and so can "incest issues."  Thus a child who has not been abused psychically takes on the parents' "repressed" issues and "shamebound" identities (Bradshaw, 1987, 1988, 1990; Marie, 1991a).

The "face crime" theory is used to explain subjective notions of emotional incest among clients without memories (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Marie, 1991a).  Adults in therapy who cannot remember sexual abuse can be coerced to remember adults somehow communicating incestuous thoughts by facial expressions, thereby committing incest.  Now that incest and sexual abuse can supposedly occur in the absence of sexual contact and incestuous thoughts are carried by the vibrational frequencies of thought waves, the notions of covert incest and emotional incest have reached even greater levels of absurdity and meaninglessness.

One of the most persuasive and commonly used theories to support the ideologies of survivor psychology is the notion of "body memories."  The theory of body memories is used to describe feelings for which the individual usually has no visual, auditory or other sensory memory imprint.  It is claimed that the cells, DNA or simply the body contains 100 percent recall of what the mind represses or forgets (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Marie, 1991a).  This is based on the idea that the body has no intellectual defenses and therefore cannot "screen out" memory imprints, and the corresponding erroneous idea that even though the mind "records" everything that happens, many memories are unavailable to conscious recall and will remain unavailable because of the power of the mind (Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson, 1992; Marie, 1991a; Mayer, 1988, 1991).

The body memory notion is bolstered up by two major survivor psychology theories which have been adapted from traditional theories to weave a superficially plausible and official-sounding supporting argument.  These two notions are the "traumatic memory" theory and the "state dependent" learning or memory theory.  According to survivor psychologists it is possible to retrieve memories of early infancy and even of being in the womb.  These memories are identified by the survivor psychology version of "state dependency" which means that regression to the developmental stage for which no cognitive structure exists will produce memories in the manner in which they were imprinted.  For instance, survivors subscribing to this theory have reported feeling teething pain, losing the ability to read, losing motor control, loss of speech and blurry vision, all characteristic of infancy.  While in a regressed state, reports of somatic sensations such as feeling suffocated or in terror are considered "proof" of infantile sexual abuse (Raphael, 1992).

Developmental stages of comprehension and cognitive abilities present at the time in which abuse allegedly occurred supposedly "fixes" the memory or knowing at that stage of comprehension.  These stages are thought to be consistent with "symptoms" of abuse that manifest in adults in the process of traumatic memory construction.  The age at which sexual abuse allegedly occurred is pin-pointed by physical symptoms or somatic sensations that generally correspond to developmental stages (Fredrickson, 1992; Raphael, 1992).  For instance, if an adult becomes tongue-tied during a regression, trance or "abreaction" they are presumed to be on the infant level because an infant has very little control of the tongue.  When clients in hypnosis or in a regressed state experience feelings of terror, rage, or being restrained, but cannot articulate the sources of these feelings, it is assumed that they are recovering "memories" of infantile sexual abuse.

The traumatic memory concept is very loosely based on Freud's theory of repression and Piaget's theory of cognitive development in children which says that children function primarily through the senses until the age of 6 or 7.  Abstract thinking processes do not normally begin until the age of about 7 or 8 (Pearce, 1986).  Therefore, traumatic memories, extending as far back as the womb, but usually the first 6 months of life, are supposedly imprinted as sensory memories which may have no cognitive support.  The theory was explained by one survivor in the following way "... it's not like I remember picking up a Cheerio this morning, and it got stuck in my throat. The dif — that's a memory.  What a traumatic memory is — I remember the feeling of the Cheerio being stuck in my throat.  Traumatic memories come with the developmental age at which they happened ..." (Raphael, 1992, p.2).

Traumatic memories are thought to be stored differently than other memories.  It is believed by survivor psychologists that they are sealed away, compartmentalized or encapsulated and preserved in pure form, waiting for a "safe time to be accessed or "triggered," either spontaneously (supposedly when the person is ready), or through therapy, when they have "guidance" (Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson, 1992; Friesen, 1991; Mayer, 1988, 1991).

The phrases "developmentally appropriate" or "developmentally inappropriate" are also used to reframe past behavior or events that the client did not originally identify as abusive.  Developmentally appropriate stages, responses, or reactions are said to occur in a fairly consistent manner and a child acting above or below a developmental stage is being, or has been, abused somehow.  For example, an 8-year-old being bathed by a parent could be construed as developmentally inappropriate abuse.

Regression and reliving "repressed" trauma is essential to the theory of how healing occurs in survivor psychology.  In survivor psychology theory, the client must return to the "ego" state or developmental stage in which abuse occurred to "heal" the wound from that stage and grow up.

Survivor psychologists frequently claim that body memories take the form of stigmata, manifesting actual physical representations of events, such as "handprints appearing around a survivors neck" or acute attacks of pain in the area that was purportedly abused (Fredrickson, 1992; Marie, 1991a; Mayer, 1988, 1991).  In Michelle Remembers (Mass Market Paperback), the 1980 work that greatly contributed to the satanic abuse legends circulating in the therapeutic community, several photographs of Michelle's arms and neck were shown.  An asymmetrical rash on her neck was labeled a "body memory" of the "devil's tail" which had supposedly been wrapped around her neck to choke her.  According to Dr. Lawrence Pazder, "the Devil" had literally manifested at a satanic ceremony and wrapped his fiery tail around Michelle's neck and burned the imprint into her flesh (Smith & Pazder, 1980).

The theory of body memories is not consistent with psychosomatic disorders in which the manifestation of a psychiatric disorder is physical.  The concept of body memories presupposes that the body is capable of harboring or retaining memories and operates by an independent intelligence which attempts to communicate to the individual about the repressed abuse by literally manifesting signs, diseases, or stigmata.  Numerous medical diseases are attributed to repressed abuse such as cancer of the uterus, vagina, or breasts, various gynecological problems, and other diseases and afflictions.  The addictive disorders are also considered to be direct results of repressed abuse by survivor therapists (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Fredrickson, 1992; Marie, 1991a).

The therapists in the Phoenix survey claimed that 59% of their clients experienced body memories, and 95% of the therapists said it was common for memories to surface via body memories.  Several therapists claimed 100% of their clients experienced body memories if they were "working it through" or if they were sexual abuse survivors.  This is where the beliefs and biases got really interesting.  Therapists often reported that their regular client load, or those without sexual abuse issues, did not generally experience body memories, that this symptom of repressed traumatic memories was usually unique only to traumatic memories of sexual abuse.

Why body memories would be specific to traumatic memories of sexual abuse is a curious assumption.  It would seem that if the body had the capability to record traumatic experiences, it would record all traumatic experiences.  It is also curious that body memories would specifically deal with infantile sexual abuse.  If the cognitive processes are not developed enough to recognize, understand, or remember sexual abuse, how would the body know the difference between sexual trauma and any trauma?  Trauma would simply be recorded as trauma, if the theory had any validity at all.  The fact that many therapists believed that body memories of preverbal trauma were only of a sexual nature demonstrated clearly illogical biases and ideologies that have not been well-reasoned or thought out.

In a sequence of questions in the structured interview, therapists were asked to describe the concept of body memories, asked if the theory of body memories corresponded to the theory of cellular memories, asked how they knew that clients were experiencing body memories, and asked to explain how the body stores memories.  Following are some of their verbatim replies:

When asked to describe the concept of "body memories":

Subject #1: Yes ... When I first started working with someone and they were talking about their father and they dissociated in the middle of that and they were reacting like he was in the room right then and not only did their whole body shake, especially like, you could see goose bumps and the redness all up and down her legs, but you could also see like, a hand print across her throat.  It's like even though she didn't really remember it consciously what was happening, her body registered what happened.

Subject #2: Let's see, what I believe is that memories can be stored in the tissues of the body, and ah, sometimes people will begin to have symptomology around their bodies before they have cognitive memories.

Most of the therapists gave similar scientifically illiterate and biased descriptions of "body memories."

When asked if body memories corresponded to the theory of "cellular memories" the following answers were given:

Subject #3: Okay, to me cellular memories are similar to what I just described and often times there are actual data that comes up with it at the same time that people have often reported that maybe it didn't happen in this lifetime, that it happened in some other lifetime.  Or that it did happen in this lifetime but they don't have a memory of it happening to them.

Subject #5: Yes, well I think whatever happens to us the body remembers in great detail and doesn't lose it.

Subject #17: Cellular memories in my understanding are that the very, within each cell there's a mitochondria that has the capacity for recording events.

I'm sure physiological psychologists and molecular biologists would be thrilled to find such a precise and localized little mitochondria that records memories.  How that theory was generated is a mystery, but it was shared by the majority of therapists who unhesitatingly launched into similar explanations of "cellular recordings."

The answers to the question "How can you tell when a client is experiencing a body memory?" were loaded with assumptions and selective reinforcement of symptoms:

Subject #11: ... actual twitching, body movement ... feelings of warmth or wetness.

From symptoms this vague all one could reasonably conclude is that the client was alive.

Subject #13: ... checking out or questioning (the client) what the various parts of the body are feeling ... (and then) ... looking for affectual responses that might cue that they're having one.

Subject #18: (Clients describe) some kind of kinesthetic experience that doesn't have anything to do with what's going on in their lives right now.  Usually when we track it in trance, it goes back to a specific sexual abuse memory or cult memory.

Subject 18 also became very agitated and paranoid toward the end of the interview and became concerned that I was a cult member.  I reassured her that I was not and reiterated the name of the university I was attending and my advisor's names and offered phone numbers.  She remained agitated because she explained that "the establishment," including the academic community, is supposedly involved in satanic cult activity on a large scale.  Given the depth of her belief systems about satanic cults, it's not surprising that when she "tracks" clients' kinesthetic experiences in trance she "finds" cult memories.

Subject #10: People who have no recollection of being abused seem to have more in the way of body memories.

This is an interesting assumption and seems clearly coercive.  A belief of this nature would contribute to selective reinforcement of symptoms and could be used to convince a client with no memories that they are, in fact, having memories, because they are displaying symptoms common to other survivors with no memories.

Subject #10 also says she can tell a client is having body memories by "... watching them, how they carry themselves, what they do."  Again, this is selective reinforcement and traumatic interpretation of so called "symptoms" of repressed abuse memories.  Subject #10 explained that she'll ask a client, "What's going on right now?" and they might answer, "Well, I have this real sensitive area on my thigh, and there's no reason for that but I know I've had that feeling before and it doesn't seem to connect with anything."

The erroneous idea that every little twitch, pain or bodily sensation must have a reason or connect with something is a traumatic reframing notion.  Clients would be unlikely to talk in these terms if they had not learned therapeutic thinking and jargon.  People who have not been trained in the language of counseling don't generally find every vague feeling or sensation indicative of something of monumental importance.  Without training in therapeutic thinking or survivor logic, the average person is unlikely to make an issue out of minor sensations and go around musing, "You know, I feel this itch on my arm and it doesn't seem to connect with anything."

Many subjects talked about clients having feelings or bodily sensations that did not "connect" to anything in their lives right now, which is a rather absurd notion in itself.  Nothing happens in the body that is not connected in the here and now.  The body is in the "here and now" and everything that happens to the body does not have to have a psychological origin.  The ideas that emotional reactions and symptoms of stress which manifest in flushing, tremors) shaking, changes in skin color or evenness, or that hives and spots that appear on clients faces, necks, arms, or legs were literal storyboards or histories written on the body to be read by therapists is an unfortunate development which has fully constellated in survivor psychology; even though the ideas have always been around in some form.

The notion of body memories has been recycled many times as a foundational or supportive theory in many quack counseling systems, eccentric philosophical systems, and pseudo-scientific or metaphysical health and healing cults (Hay, 1983; Hubbard, 1985; Lawren, 1992; Steadman, 1966).  Like the term "false memory syndrome," the notion of body memories is not new and has been known by a variety of names.  Unlike the established phenomenon of false memories, which is based on studies of measurable and observable phenomenon including the effects of influence, group psychology, suggestibility, interpersonal cuing, and behavioral psychology (Baker) 1990; Spanos & Chaves, 1989), the notion of body memories is entirely subjective and the many names for body memories are often fabricated, distorted, or literally interpreted versions of cellular or biological metaphors.

The theory of the "repression" of traumatic childhood memories originated with Freud, but the foundations for his theories were highly influenced by Ernst Brucke (1819-1894), a physiological scientist with a dynamic evolutionary orientation.  Freud was exposed to Brucke's ideas at the University of Vienna during his third year of medical school in 1816 (Jones, 1961).

Jones notes that Freud's later works correspond closely with Brucke's ideas about "... transformation and interplay of physical forces in the living organism" (Jones) 1961, p.31).  Freud did not renounce Brucke's biological theories, he transformed them to describe mental phenomena that were independent of an anatomical basis.  A later influence on Freud's theories was Theodor Meynert (1833-1892), a brain anatomist.  In time Freud challenged Meynert's theories on brain anatomy, particularly the notion that the cortex contained "... a projection of the various parts of the body." Meynert had also taught that "... ideas and memories are to be pictured as attached to various brain cells" (Jones, 1961, p. 143).

The crude and literal notions of early brain anatomists were challenged over a hundred years ago, and even though Freud's "repression" theory is often presented as the basis for "traumatic memory theories, the current notions in recovery/survivor psychology are closer to Meynert's theories of localized sites of memory and idea storage.  In fact, recovery/survivor psychology has descended further into crude and literal theories of memory storage with the invention and/or resurrection of the concept of body memories and cellular memories.

Occasionally a credentialed scientist becomes intrigued with cellular memory theories and begins doing research.  This was the case with a recent revival of the molecular memory theory, called one of the 10 "greatest hoaxes of the 1980s" in an article in Omni magazine (Lawren, 1992).  The survivor psychology explanation of how the body or mind stores memories bears a striking similarity to the molecular memory theory proposed in the mid-1980s by Dr. Jacque Benveniste, an immunologist at French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Lawren, 1992,p.51).

Benveniste described "molecular memory" as "A subtle electromagnetic language that enables one molecule to record the 'essence' of a second, much like a tape recorder records a sound."  According to Benveniste, his work could vindicate the discredited field of homeopathy and lead to "the medicine of the future."  Doctors could learn to tap into the "electromagnetic molecular communication system" and, in effect, perform psychic surgery by learning the language of the molecules and giving them signals in that language.  Aspirin or other medications could be administered metaphorically, by telling the molecules the biochemical "signal" that translates as "aspirin" or other medication in molecular language (Lawren, 1992, p.51).

Benveniste performed a series of experiments that he claimed proved his hypotheses and submitted a report to Nature in 1986 (Lawren, 1992, p.73).  His results were published in 1988 and brought on scrutiny and criticism from the scientific community.  A team of investigators, including one with a reputation as a "scientific sheriff" and noted skeptic, James Randi, began analyzing Benveniste's research methodology and tried to replicate the results using his methods.  All of the tests were negative, but after the initial controversy died down Benveniste began repeating his original trials and is still claiming positive results which no one else can substantiate (Lawren, 1992, p.74).

The electromagnetic or biochemical "energy frequency" of certain emotional events which are "stored or "remembered" by their frequency is the physiological explanation of body memories put forth by survivor psychologists.  Like Benveniste's molecular memory theory, the traumatic memories supposedly stored in the cells have their own "language" or means by which they are accessed.  Therefore, the therapist must take the client back to the emotional state and developmental stage at which the memories were "recorded" and activate the biochemical or electromagnetic frequency at which the memories are "stored."  While "abreacting" or literally in the age-regressed states at which trauma supposedly occurred, the cells will "release" the memories or reproduce the physiological, emotional and cognitive states and "replicate" the experience for the client.  The client has then "disempowered" the memory, and can now metaphorically go back and change the outcome or accept their past powerlessness and grieve it.

None of these memory storage or retrieval theories are supported by any credible scientific data (Loftus, 1993; Ofshe, 1993; Wakefield & Underwager, 1992a, 1992b; Wielawski, 1991).

Another example of an exploitive body memory theory is L. Ron Hubbard's (1985) eccentric quasi-psychological, philosophical system known as Scientology or Dianetics.  The foundational theory of L. Ron Hubbard's self-proclaimed "mathematically precise, exact science" of Dianetics is "engrams."  Physiological psychologist Karl Lashley used the term "engram" in his 25-year search for precise storage sites of memory traces in the brains of rats.  Lashley taught rats to run mazes and systematically removed sections of their cortexes.  Lashley was disappointed repeatedly as the rats became increasingly impaired according to how much brain tissue they lost, but they were still able to navigate the mazes.  By 1956 Lashley was forced to conclude that memory traces or "engrams" did not have localized sites of storage but were diffused throughout the brain (Hooper & Teresi, 1986).

The results of scientific research have never deterred crackpots who have latched onto a seductive, potentially profitable and self-aggrandizing theory.  By 1948 L. Ron Hubbard had adopted Lashley's theory of engrams, but ignored the results of his 25 years of research.  Hubbard decided that all neuroses, psychoses and illnesses were caused by cellular recordings or imprints and then claims he wrote Dianetics (Hardcover)(Mass Market Paperback), the 614-page book, in three weeks (Gardner, 1956). According to Martin Gardner, author of Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Paperback), this is not hard to believe because nothing in the book resembles a scientific report and the "case studies" were constructed from Hubbard's memory and imagination (Gardner, 1956).

Dianetics is a Greek word meaning "thought" and according to Hubbard's philosophy, words are "imprinted" in the cells of the body, particularly in the developing fetus and even in a sperm or an egg prior to conception. According to Hubbard's theories — which bear striking similarities to "body memory" notions and the "memory retrieval "practices of current sexual abuse therapies — the subconscious mind, or "reactive mind" is completely literal and all uncomfortable sensations, painful experiences, or words heard in the womb and in early childhood are imprinted in the cells and literally interpreted and manifested as neuroses, psychosomatic disorders, and diseases by the body throughout life unless they are "audited out."  Auditing is merely a process of hypnosis, which is called a "dianetic reverie."  The client is regressed and aggressively questioned and coerced to make connections between current problems and diseases to early memories or pre-birth traumas (Gardner, 1956; Hubbard, 1985).

Literal interpretation and distortion of the metaphorical language used by cellular biologists has been used as the pseudo-scientific rationale for the survivor psychology notion of body memories.  This development is a fascinating example of how a metaphorical means of conceptualizing the relationship between physical states and emotional states or the mind-body connection has become literally interpreted and distorted.  The pseudo-scientific slant on body memories is borrowed from the metaphorical terminology and language used by cellular biologists.  The terms "biological memory," "cell commitment," or "cell determination" are used to discuss cellular retention of phenotype during many rounds of division (Wolffe & Brown, 1988).  This has nothing to do with literal memory notions, but is simply a way of conceptualizing genetic stability and the stability of cellular processes.

A little pseudo-scientific terminology and a lot of pseudo-psychological mumbo-jumbo and the blind commitment of true believer fanaticism creates an internal logic that appears to make sense, but the body memory theory is wrong.  If the body memory theory had any credibility, neuroscientists could stop looking for a cause or cure for Alzheimer's in the brain and just activate all the body memories, which survivor psychologists claim "remember everything the mind forgets" (Bass & Davis, 1988).

Misguided and unethical therapists use the body memory theory to manufacture "evidence" of sexual abuse and traumatic memories where none exist.  When the therapist interprets flushing, hives, rashes, headaches, stomachaches, or other physiological sensations of stress and emotional arousal as forms of memory" during counseling sessions, hypnosis or groups, the notion of body memories becomes a means of indoctrination into survivor logic.  When therapists teach clients that everything from the common cold to cancer are body memories, clients develop attentional biases or predispositions to interpret mundane sensations to serious illnesses as body memories.  This means of divination used by therapists to convince clients with no memories of sexual abuse that they are "survivors" is not responsible, credible, or supportable.

There are many physiological diseases, symptoms, and sensations that are confusing and frightening.  The "mind-cure, spirit-cure" philosophies that claim people "cause" or "choose" their own diseases and are entirely responsible for "creating their own realities" leave many people with a sense of guilt, distress, shame and a desperate need to explain the unknown.  The "cause and effect" body memory theory provides a logical explanation for the common problems women experience, particularly since some of the most frequently mentioned "symptoms" of repressed incest and sexual abuse are said to be vaginal pain, yeast infections, or any problem with female reproductive organs (Blume, 1990; Fredrickson, 1992; Marie, 1991a).  The seduction of the "explanation delusion" (Meerloo, 1961), or "the logical fallacy of the false cause," exploits the powerful human need to know, explain, and make sense out of chaotic or mysterious events and phenomena.

Emotional hyperbole, exaggerated suffering, and disregard for facts and research is characteristic of zealotry, faith healing, religious psychology, and mind-cure, spirit-cure-based programs such as the 12-step programs and the rapidly growing medieval/evangelical psychology programs.  Learning to think traumatically and reframe the past to suit a socially constructed reality system is a common religious and ideological conversion technique.  However, exaggeration, disregard for facts and research, and aggressive mental programming are not traditionally characteristic of professional mental health systems and do not belong in credible mental health systems.

Traumatic thinking and reframing has contributed to the irresponsible expansion of the definitions of incest and child abuse.  When sexually-oriented physical contact between adult and child relatives no longer has to occur, but "incest" can be retrospectively determined to have occurred through psychic transmission or "funny looks," a dangerous ideological shift has taken place.  The climate of suspicion resembles the social climate in "Oceania," the setting in George Orwell's 1949 futuristic novel 1984.

Conclusions and Recommendations

It is well-accepted within the mental health community that helping professionals must handle ethical, emotional, and personal issues in the helping relationship with great care.  Transference, counter-transference, unresolved personal conflicts, coercion, and abuses of power and influence are sensitive areas of ethical concern (Corey, Corey, & Callahan, 1992).

Client welfare and professional ethics are the concerns of all mental health professionals.  Helping professionals are repeatedly cautioned about using clients to serve their own needs, beliefs and agendas.  It is imperative that helping professionals curb such tendencies, as well as remain aware and respectful of the client's condition and personality propensities such as fantasy-proneness, high suggestibility, high hypnotizability, histrionic tendencies, excessive emotional neediness, attention-seeking behaviors, and the tendency to want to please, conform or perform to perceived situational demands (Corey et al., 1992; Lanning, 1992; Wakefield & Underwager, 1992a, 1992b).

The widespread acceptance of the traumatic memory and somatic memory theories are clearly factors in the mental health professional's zeal to uncover "repressed" memories or pay selective attention to erroneous symptoms of repressed memories.  Traumatic memories and body memories are differentiated from cognitive memories by the distinction that there may be no mental pictures or actual memory — but that somatic impressions, sensations, or subjective feelings constitute proof of early childhood or infantile sexual abuse.  This is absurd and flimsy logic, but highly persuasive to clients who have had unresolved problems for many years and are desperate to believe that the rewards promised through the recovery of "repressed memories"" will be attained through believing they were abused or constructing memories of abuse.

When numerous somatic sensations, impressions or subjective feelings are refrained as "symptoms" of repressed memories, it is assumed that these memories can be "recovered" and that they exist somewhere in the brain or body, encapsulated in pure form, unadulterated by on-going learning processes and unaffected by current belief systems (Fredrickson, 1992; Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Marie 1991a).  If the traumatic memory theory is, in fact, held by a large number of mental health professionals, it may be that remedial education should be suggested for practicing counselors and therapists.

The process of educating an individual to act as a therapist or counselor includes teaching healthy detachment and objectivity.  Therapists are not generally supposed to become enmeshed in the illusions of memory or narrative histories of clients.  The goal of therapy has traditionally been to create an environment in which the client can explore illusions and myths and emerge with deeper insight into psychological processes, a greater tolerance for ambiguity, and an appreciation for the mysteries of human emotion and consciousness.

Research is generally undertaken to test a hypothesis regarding the causation of a particular disease or psychological syndrome and also to assess the efficacy of a particular treatment.  In this case, research is being done to assess the impact of a well-developed social and therapeutic trend.

Study and investigation are particularly important when so many people are affected by the consequences of believing in an epidemic of incest, intergenerational satanic cult networks operating on a large scale through family systems, and secret societies that have infiltrated day care centers, religious institutions, and school systems.  The social and personal consequences of believing that 96% of all family systems are dysfunctional (Bradshaw, 1987), and that true pathology is rampant within the family and social institutions (Pride, 1986), may be more dangerous to society and the family than the deplorable conditions and values that result in child abuse.

Concerned professionals and investigators looking into the charges of repressed memories of incest and ritual abuse have been accused of everything from harboring perpetrators, to being part of the "anti-recovery backlash," to being practicing satanists (Freyd, 1993; Lanning, 1991, 1992).  Yet, ironically, the concerns of most mental health professionals, investigators, and other responsible adults run parallel.  Protecting children, promoting the health and integrity of family systems, protecting the best interests and integrity of both clients and the mental health community, ensuring that clients receive appropriate care, and ensuring that false accusations will not trivialize sexual abuse issues or desensitize society to the needs and rights of victims and survivors are common concerns (Gardner, 1990; Goleman, 1992; Lanning, 1992).

Questioning the efficacy of therapeutic modalities, examining the methods used, reassessing assumptions, and comparing results and consequences of various procedures and philosophies is of great importance in the therapeutic process.  This process has nothing to do with denial of child abuse, harboring perpetrators, or practicing satanism.

The concept of "denial," apart from being an all-purpose diagnostic device in the recovery culture, also deflects critical scrutiny by asserting that the concern for accuracy, research, and professionalism is motivated by "denial."  Recovery psychologists deflect criticism by projecting that the motives behind reasonable inquiry or outright disagreements are the products of a "sick" individual or a "diseased" way of thinking (Whitfield, 1991).  Survivor psychologists deflect scrutiny, questions, and criticisms by chastising the dissenters and claiming that they have "unresolved issues or are "in denial" (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Marie, 1991a; Whitfield, 1991).  It has become so politically incorrect to challenge the cherished (but debunked) psychoanalytical notions or medieval superstitions that have resurfaced in survivor psychology that questioning the wisdom of exaggerating, over-estimating, and simply fabricating statistics of addiction, child abuse, incest, demonic possession, and maladjustment makes one a suspected supporter of evil doings or of a sick society.

This suspicion has created a climate in which those promoting extremely controversial, and even dangerous, notions are no longer obligated to back up their claims.  Mental health practitioners using invasive, coercive, and aggressive practices no longer need to consider the consequences of their actions.  Unethical "educational" programs charging exorbitant fees and peddling urban legends and medieval superstitions proliferate unchecked (Diamond & Thompson, 1993; Victor, 1991).

The scientific illiteracy, low conceptual levels, lack of rationality, and poor basic reasoning skills among the majority of the therapists interviewed in the Phoenix survey is not surprising if the popular survivor literature is indicative of prevalent notions in the field.  The books are written by nondegreed individuals as well as Ph.Ds, and substantiation is absent in all the manifestoes (Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Fredrickson, 1992; Friesen, 1991; Mayer, 1988 1991; Smith & Pazder, 1980; Stratford, 1988).

What is most clearly indicated in the data from the Phoenix survey, and in reviewing the survivor manifestoes, is that the educational process for counselors and psychotherapists is failing in critical thinking and ethics as well as in biology and physiological and social psychology.  A common concern expressed by many professionals investigating the recovered memory phenomena is that therapists can practice without degrees.  Although this is a major problem that should be addressed, judging from the results of the Phoenix survey, the level of education reported had little bearing on whether the therapist practiced and promoted survivor psychology.  The majority of the therapists held Master's degrees, and it would seem that 18 years of schooling would be sufficient to teach basic logic and reasoning skills.  There were 26 therapists in the sample with MAs, 6 with BAs, 1 with a BS, 4 with Ph.Ds, and 1 reported no degree.  Ironically the therapist with no degree expressed the highest level of scientific literacy, skepticism, and professional ethics.

The data from the Phoenix study have many possibilities for secondary analysis.  Although no significant differences were readily apparent between the styles and statements made by the MAS, Ph.Ds and BAs, in-depth study may reveal significant differences.  The styles and statements of male and female therapists may be another avenue of investigation.  If the results of the Phoenix study reach the academic and therapeutic community soon and on a large scale, it is unlikely that the results could be supported.  However, if the structured interview questionnaire and interview procedures were used quickly, and in a different geographical area, the results may be supported.


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1 This paper was first presented at the False Memory Syndrome Conference at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, April 16-18, 1993.  The paper is adapted from her book, Survivor Psychology (Paperback), published by SIRS, 1993, Boca Raton, Florida.  [Back]

* Susan E. Smith is an author and social science researcher at 2019 W. Roma, Phoenix, Arizona 85015.  [Back]


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