Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse

Ralph C. Underwager
Hollida Wakefield

Oklahoma, 1995

X. Recovered Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse

A. Claims that traumatic and intrusive childhood sexual abuse was "repressed" or "dissociated" so the victim had no memories until, with the aid of a survivors' book or therapy, the memories were recovered.

B. Recovered memories claims have created fierce controversy and massive polarization in the professional community.

C. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) in was founded in 1992 in Philadelphia and has been contacted by some 17,000 parents.

D. Recovered memory assumptions

1. Many women have suffered childhood sexual abuse but do not remember the abuse.

2. These "survivors" have a variety of symptoms.

3. The "survivor" must be helped to retrieve her memories so she can process the trauma. Without retrieving the memories, the person cannot heal and recover.

4. These assumptions are supported by referring to one or more of several concepts.

a. repression

b. dissociation

c. body memories, flashbacks, and nightmares

d. multiple personality disorder

5. Information about the therapy that elicits recovered memories comes from several sources.

a. Reports of people who have undergone such treatment (Goldstein & Farmer, 1993; Nelson & Simpson, 1994; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b)

b. Writings of the therapists who describe their techniques in books, articles, and workshop presentations (e.g., Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Courtois, 1992; Dolan, 1991; Fredrickson, 1992).

c. Journalists or private investigators who join a survivors' group or go to a recovered memory therapist and record what happens (e.g. Nathan, 1992).

d. Information obtained by the FMSF questionnaire project. (Freyd, Roth, Wakefield, & Underwager, 1993; Wakefield & Underwager, 1992, 1994b).

D. Recovered memory techniques

1. These include direct questioning, hypnosis, age regression, reading survivors' books, attending survivors' groups, free association, massage therapy, dream interpretation, ideomotor signaling with the unconscious, and expanding on imagistic memories.

2. In the FMSF questionnaire, respondents also were aware of a variety of other unconventional techniques, including prayer, meditation, neurolinguistic programming, reflexology, channeling, psychodrama, casting out demons, yoga, trance writing, and primal scream therapy.

3. After memories are retrieved, the "survivor" is encouraged to express her rage at the perpetrator in a variety of ways such as throwing darts at his photograph, writing him angry letters, or confronting him during a family gathering. The goal of the therapist is to be accepting, reassuring, encouraging, and validating of the disclosures.

E. Poole, Lindsay, Memon, and Bull (1995) survey

1. Poole et al. found that 71% of three random samples of doctoral level therapists taken from the National Register of Health Services Providers in Psychology (NRHSPP) in the United States and the Register of Chartered Clinical Psychologists (RCP) in Britain had used techniques to help clients recover suspected repressed memories of sexual abuse.

2. Out of their total sample of 202 therapists, 25% reported a constellation of beliefs and practices suggestive of a focus on memory recovery and this latter group reported relatively high rates of memory recovery in their clients.

3. Poole et al. observe that their findings argue against the claim that recovered memory therapists are a small group of uncredentialed and untrained therapists.

F. Scientific support for the recovered memory claims is lacking.

1. The reconstructive nature of memory.

a. What we remember is a combination of the original encoding of the event, everything that happens to us since the event occurred, and our current beliefs and feelings (Dawes, 1988; Loftus & Ketcham, 1991, 1994, Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b).

b. Reconstructed memories can include detailed and subjectively real pseudomemories of events that never happened.

c.Therapy involves the telling and retelling of life experiences and the therapist shapes the telling of the personal history by selectively reinforcing and validating the client's recollections (Lynn & Nash, 1994).

4. Memories can be shaped, combined with fantasies, distorted, and even totally created.

G. Forgetting

1. Many things that happen are simply forgotten, although many forgotten events are readily recalled when there are cues.

2. People are seldom able to remember incidents from before the age of 3 or 4 because of the phenomenon of infant amnesia (Eisenberg, 1985; Loftus, 1993; Nelson, 1993).

3. Even sexual abuse may be forgotten-not "repressed," not "dissociated," not remembered only by an "alter personality," but simply forgotten. Not all sexual abuse is traumatic. For many children, the abuse may have been an unpleasant, but relatively unimportant event in the same category as countless other unpleasant childhood events (Spence, 1994). Some victims of less traumatic and intrusive abuse will forget about it until they are reminded in some way.

H. Memory for documented trauma

1. There is a great deal of information on the reactions of people to documented trauma, such as fires, airplane crashes, terrorist attacks, automobile accidents, hurricanes, and being held hostage.

2. Although such trauma victims may report feelings of unreality, detachment, numbing, disorientation, depersonalization, and flashbacks, they do not forget the entire event. We were unable to find any studies on children exposed to trauma and disasters where the children were described as developing amnesia.

3. Children who have witnessed a parent being murdered are likely to be troubled by intrusive thoughts (Black, Kaplan, & Hendricks, 1993; Malmquist, 1986).

I. Repression

1. Repression is seen as a psychological defense that results in the person losing all memory for traumatic events.

2. Repression comes from Freudian psychodynamic theory and is seen as an active, filtering process that is different from ordinary forgetting.

3. The concept of repression that involves the banishment from consciousness of a series of traumatic and intrusive events that take place in different circumstances over a number of years has been termed "robust repression" by Ofshe and Watters (1993).

4. There is no experimental support for the theory of repression; the only "evidence" comes from impressionistic clinical case studies and anecdotal reports.

5. In reviews of the literature over many years, Holmes (1974, 1990, 1994) concludes that there is no reliable evidence for repression. There is absolutely no support for the concept of robust repression as used in the recovered memory therapies.

J. Dissociation

1. Dissociation is now most often used to describe the process by traumatic memories are banished from consciousness.

2. All of us are familiar with minor forms of dissociation, such as daydreaming, becoming lost in a book, or "spacing out" while driving.

3. Dissociation can be seen as lying on a continuum from such ordinary forms to pathological forms such as amnesia, depersonalization, and fugue states.

4. However, there are no empirical data supporting a concept of psychogenic amnesia for a category of events stretching across several years.

5. No one has explained just how traumatic amnesia (or "repression" or "dissociation") is supposed to work in eradicating sexual abuse memories. Does the person completely dissociate the abuse and therefore develop traumatic amnesia immediately following each event? If this is the case, each new instance of abuse would be like the very first time since the child would have no memories of any of the previous incidents. Or, at some point after the abuse stops, does the person suddenly develop total amnesia for all memories of all of the abuse incidents which had previously been remembered?

K. Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD)

1. Now called "Dissociative Identity Disorder."

2. The recovered memory proponents assume that most people with MPD were abused as children. A "protector" personality is believed to develop and take over for the child, who therefore escapes psychologically from the abuse.

3. But MPD itself is controversial and many researchers and clinicians believe there is little empirical evidence supporting MPD as a distinct mental disorder and that it is heavily dependent upon cultural influences for both its emergence and its diagnosis (Aldridge-Morris, 1989; Fahy, 1988; Frankel, 1993; Freeland, Manchanda, Chiu, Sharma, & Merskey, 1993; McHugh, 1993; Merskey, 1992; Spanos, 1994; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b; Weissberg, 1993).

4. We believe that MPD is a media or therapist-induced disorder resulting from the widespread publicity about MPD and sexual abuse, suggestibility in vulnerable patients, inadvertent shaping and reinforcement from believing therapists, and social support and secondary reinforcement for the disorder. L. Although the proponents of recovered memory offer three studies to support a claim of repressed or dissociated memories (Briere & Conte, 1989, 1993; Herman & Schatzow, 1987; Williams, 1992, 1993), none of these studies provides any credible scientific evidence to support the assumptions of recovered memories (see Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b, for a detailed critique of these studies).

M. Civil Litigation

1. There have been several lawsuits filed based on recovered memory claims.

2. Several states have passed legislation extending the statutory period in civil cases so that the statute of limitations does not begin until two or three years after the alleged abuse is remembered and/or after the claimant understands that the abuse caused injury (Bulkley & Horwitz, 1994; Loftus & Rosenwald, 1993; Slovenko, 1993).

3. Recently, in trial courts, testimony of recovered memory therapists has not been admitted into evidence since it does not meet the standards of Daubert (described in section XII).

4. There have been successful lawsuits against recovered memory therapists by parents and clients who later retracted their recovered memories. (Gross, 1994).

N. Evaluating claims of recovered memories.

1.Without external corroboration, there is no truly satisfactory way to determine the truth of a given "memory."

2. Daly and Pacifico (1991) suggest gathering the following information:

a. All medical, psychiatric, and and school records of the person claiming abuse from childhood to the present.

b. Any information concerning relationships with peers, siblings and parents, or any childhood behavior problems of the person claiming abuse.

c. Any information concerning the sexual history of the person claiming abuse, including rapes, other childhood sexual abuse, abortions, etc.

d. The nature and origin of the disclosure, in as much detail and specificity as possible.

e. Information about any current problems or stresses in the life of the person claiming abuse.

f. The nature of any current therapy, e.g. whether techniques such as hypnosis and survivors' groups were used, the training and background of the therapist, and whether he or she specializes in treating MPD or "recovered" abuse.

g. Any books, television shows, or workshops about sexual abuse or rape to which the person claiming abuse may have been exposed.

h. Any exposure to recovered memory cases though a highly publicized case in the media or through friends who may have reported that this happened to them.

i. The work history of the person claiming abuse, including any problems with supervisors or coworkers, especially any allegations of sexual harassment.

j. The psychological characteristics and social and family history of the accused adult(s), including any drug or alcohol use, sexual history, family relationships, and job history.

k. Any criminal record or prior behaviors in the accused adult which would support or undermine the credibility of the allegations.

l. A detailed description of the behaviors alleged to have occurred.

m. Possible ways by which the person making the accusation might benefit from or receive reinforcement from making the accusation (e.g., a civil lawsuit, an explanation for why life has not gone well, the expression of anger for perceived childhood injustices, power over a dominant parent, attention, acceptance, new friends [in survivor group], etc.).

3. After obtaining the available documents and information, create a chronology of events. Note information about how the memory returned and how it was disclosed, the impact of therapy, books, or survivors' groups, etc., any changes in the nature of the allegations over time, and any possible secondary reinforcement.

4. Some suggestions for evaluating claims.

a. When the allegations are of extremely deviant, low-probability behaviors, rather than of behaviors more typical of actual abusers, the memory is less likely to be for a real event.

b. If there are allegations of a series of abusive incidents across time in different places and situations along with total amnesia for all of these, the recovered memory is less likely to be true than if it is for a single highly traumatic incident for which the person may have developed psychogenic amnesia.

c. When the disclosures progress across time to ever more intrusive, abusive, and highly improbable behaviors, the growth and embellishment of the story is likely to represent the suggestions and reinforcement in therapy.

d. If the memory is for abuse that occurred at a very young age, such as abuse during infancy or under age 3 or 4, the memory is unlikely to reflect a real event. e. Especially when the behaviors alleged are highly deviant, the allegations are less likely to be true when they include the mother and when the person accused has no discernible serious pathology.

f. If the abuse has only recently been "remembered," it is less likely to be true than if it has always been remembered but the person is only now disclosing.

g. Memories are especially unlikely to reflect actual events when they only emerge following therapy with a practitioner who specializes in recovered memory therapy.

h. Although psychopathology in some individuals may well make them more susceptible to the influence of a recovered memory therapist, the data from the FMSF survey (Freyd et al., 1993) suggests that many people who recover memories of childhood abuse are not psychologically disturbed. These data are consistent with the work of Spanos, Cross, Dickson, and DuBreuil (1993), who found that subjects reporting UFO experiences were not psychologically disturbed.

i. Corroborating evidence, such as such as a childhood diary with unambiguous entries, pornographic photographs, or an uncoerced admission by the perpetrator, obviously makes the allegations much more likely to be true. Some cases may have this type of corroboration. Ambiguous evidence, however, such as a childhood story or drawings now reinterpreted in light of the believed-in abuse, cannot be used as proof that the abuse actually occurred.

O. Claims of psychological damage.

1. Claims of emotional or psychological damage which assert a single or unidimensional cause must be evaluated in light of the scientific fact that human behavior is multicausal and multidimensional.

2. The existence of eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem cannot be used to support abuse claims since these can all be caused by a variety of factors (Beitchman et al., 1992, Pope & Hudson, 1992).

3. Contrary to what most people believe, the effects of sexual abuse are not nearly as severe as is often assumed (Levitt & Pinnell, 1995; Rind & Harrington, Undated). The effects of physical abuse and neglect are likely to be more serious and generate more long-term damage (Ney, Fung, & Wickett, 1994).

4. When family dysfunction is controlled, the effects of sexual abuse wash out. This is because both extrafamilial and intrafamilial sexual abuse are closely associated with families that are dysfunctional and pathological (Alexander & Lupfer, 1987, Beitchman et al., 1991, Harter, Alexander, & Neimeyer; Hoagwood & Stewart, 1989; Levitt & Pinnell, 1995; Nash, Hulsey, Sexton, Harralson, & Lambert, 1993; Underwager & Wakefield, 1995).).


Copyright 1989-2014 by the Institute for Psychological Therapies.
This website last revised on April 15, 2014.
Found a non-working link?  Please notify the Webmaster.