This is a haunting question. Several forces in our cultural climate nurture belief in the relationship between past sexual abuse and present individual pathology. This relationship has been endlessly trumpeted in pop psychology books, on television talk shows, in the movies, and in novels. These forces prepare people to accept the possibility that they were victims.
After these societal forces have nurtured the belief, it may be activated when a patient encounters a therapist who holds strongly to this belief system. When people enter therapy, they do so to get better. They want to change, they search for some explanation for their problems, and they come to trust the person they have chosen to help them. They also tend to rely on the therapist’s opinion. If the person believes that a patient’s problems result from past trauma, and that the patient will not get better without remembering, naturally the patient will work to find what he or she thinks is a trauma memory in order to improve.
Once the belief in past abuse has formed, it can be reinforced in a variety of ways. For example, therapists may do so by reinterpreting other events in patients’ lives in a negative way, or therapists may encourage the patients to read self-help books that tell them how to act and what to think. Patients may be advised to cut off contact with anyone who does not support the new beliefs, thus eliminating any opportunity for alternative explanations. Another powerful reinforcer of such beliefs occurs during hospitalizations where patients may find themselves immersed in an environment in which everyone holds the same belief system. Because support groups offer acceptance of newly formed beliefs, patients may be urged to join them. Finally, some patients may cling to these abuse memories because they provide "an answer" for their psychological pain.
Sometimes people call the Foundation and ask us if their recovered memories are true (historically accurate). We must respond by saying that, unfortunately, we could never know what happened to other people many years ago. Again, without some independent external corroboration, no one can discern true from false memories. When callers ask this question, we generally urge them to consider how these memories came to them. If repeated and suggestive questioning, inappropriate group therapy practices, imagination exercises, or "memory enhancement" techniques such as hypnosis were involved, we caution callers that although they may believe that they are remembering more, no evidence supports using these techniques for uncovering historically reliable memories. Hypnosis and sodium amytal ("truth serum") are especially unreliable for these purposes.
Although other "memory work" techniques have not been studied as systematically as hypnosis, cognitive psychologists have warned about techniques like guided imagery, relaxation exercises, trance writing and stream-of-consciousness journaling. With these techniques, patients make no effort to apply critical and logical thought processes. In addition, they can induce a hypnotic state, with its well-known risk of increased suggestibility. Scientists have also noted the risks of believing in dream interpretation. Dreams are not videotapes of events; thus interpretations, even if made by experts, are completely subjective, and therefore of dubious reliability.
Memory does not work like a videotape recorder. There just is no button to push or pill to take that can guarantee historically accurate memories. Memory is constructive: that is, people take bits and fragments of recollections from the past and use them to reconstruct a narrative that makes sense to them in the here and now. Memory gaps get filled in with new information mixed with old, and it becomes impossible to separate the two. Again, the truth or falsity of a memory cannot be discerned in the absence of external corroboration.
We quite literally ’make up stories’ about our lives, the world, and reality in general. Often it is the story that creates the memory, rather than vice versa.
(Hastie and Dawes, 2010)
The recovered memory literature claims that many symptoms in addition to flashbacks, body memories, and eating disorders, indicate past abuse. Thus, because of this literature, some therapists tell their patients that many behaviors -- having headaches, getting tattoos, suffering from irritable bowels, showing high appreciation of small favors by others, or fearing dentists -- prove past abuse. Others assert that wearing loose clothes (or wearing tight clothes), being unable to express anger (or being constantly angry), being afraid of sex (or being sexually compulsive), or taking risks (or not taking risks) all reveal past sexual mistreatment.
In fact, psychologist Ray London (1995) compiled a list of over 900 different symptoms that had been claimed as proof of past abuse. When he reviewed the professional literature, he found that not one of the 900 symptoms reliably proved an abuse history. No checklist of signs or symptoms proves the occurrence of past sexual abuse.
There is no single set of symptoms which automatically indicates that a person was a victim of abuse."
American Psychological Association (1995).
The use of the term flashback, for a vivid image or sequence of images occurring while a patient is awake, first appeared in the substance abuse literature; it referred to altered states of awareness caused by drug use, especially LSD. Although the term was introduced as a metaphor, the content of flashbacks began to be treated as historically accurate in the sexual abuse and trauma literature. There is no evidence, however, that flashbacks are historically accurate. Fred Frankel, M.D. (1994) has noted, "Contextual factors such as expectation, in addition to the suggestibility of patients and the social construct of role-playing, influence in a crucial way the creating and content of flashbacks." Simply stated, a flashback is not proof that abuse occurred.
Some patients have tried to explain their physical distress as coming from repressed "body memories" of incest. Therapists have told patients that "the body remembers what the mind forgets," that many physical sensations are symptoms of forgotten childhood sexual mistreatment, and that memories are recorded in cellular DNA. Because of such beliefs, some therapists have recommended massage therapy and other physical techniques to help patients "access" abuse memories.
Absolutely no scientific evidence supports these notions and practices. Rather, memories are encoded and stored in specific regions of the brain, and memory retrieval takes place in various brain structures. A physical pain or sensation is not proof that abuse occurred.
Some therapists assume that anyone with an eating disorder undoubtedly was abused. This belief is unfounded. The October 1997 Harvard Mental Health Letter notes, for example, that the connection between child sexual abuse as a cause of eating disorders has not been confirmed, and that some recent studies raise serious doubts about it.
Another belief is that aversions to foods (such as bananas, mashed potatoes, or pickles) indicate past sexual mistreatment. The presence of an aversion, however, does not tell how it came about; to infer a cause-and-effect relationship is to dabble in pure speculation. Neither food aversions nor eating disorders prove that abuse occurred.
Many scientific studies show that events accompanied by strong emotion are likely to be remembered, but no evidence demonstrates that they are any more accurate than any other recollections. Research shows that all memory is subject to the ordinary processes of misperception, distortion, decay, and change. The scientific evidence is clear: memories of events, whether traumatic or not, are reconstructed (that is, continuously reworked over time). As a result, all recollections are subject to change as time passes.
A competing belief exists in the recovered memory literature, however, that people commonly repress memories of horrible events and can accurately recover them years later. This belief often referred to as a theory of repression (or dissociation or traumatic amnesia), is based on several assumptions that lack scientific support.
Unfounded Beliefs about Repression:
Pope et al. (1998) reviewed all studies published since 1960 in which investigators had recruited victims of specific traumatic events and had prospectively assessed their psychological symptoms. A prospective study eliminates the problem of recall bias that can happen when people are asked to remember past events. Pope et al. found no evidence for repression. Indeed, for more than sixty years, researchers have been seeking scientific evidence that people repress traumatic memories. To date, they have found none. In summary, "the reality is that most people who are victims of childhood sexual abuse remember all or part of what happened to them." (American Psychological Association, 1995)
Memory research refutes the other beliefs as well. No special mental mechanism protecting a memory from natural decay has ever been found. And no scientific evidence shows that psychological healing requires unearthing memories.
Evidence does abound, however, about the malleability of human memory. That is, when therapists engage in excavating their patients’ memories, they almost certainly shape what their patients recall. Scientific experiments have shown that it is remarkably easy to influence people so that they come to believe in false memories. Garry and Loftus (1994) reported the "lost in a mall" experiment in which some people were led to describe a time when they were lost in a shopping mall -- an event that never happened. And Mazzoni and Loftus (1998) showed that suggestions in a therapy setting made by a clinical psychologist about the content of dreams led some patients to believe in past events that did not happen.
Memory appears to be stored as distributed ensembles of synaptic change. Neural networks are continuously resculpted as time passes after learning, i.e., there are both gains and losses of synaptic connectivity, and gradual changes in the substrate of memory. In general, what is understood about the biology of memory fits traditional psychological accounts of memory that emphasize its proneness to error and reconstruction, and change over time.
Retractors are people who say that their memories of abuse were wrong. People retract because they believe their memories of abuse were false; their accusations unfounded. What led them to retract varies from person to person. Some changed therapists, or left therapy because their insurance ran out; others had supportive spouses, siblings, or friends, who helped serve as important reality checks; others read about people in similar circumstances, or saw something on television, and started to read more about memory; some, without initially retracting, returned to the family because of a significant event - wedding, illness, birth, or death - and only later in that familiar environment began to question their memories.
The majority of people resume contact with their families before retracting. In several situations, the services of someone in the role of a mediator were used to explore the accuracy of the accusations, often leading to family reconciliation.
The experience we have with retractors reinforces our belief that as painful as the loss and alienation might be, there is hope for reconciliation in many families.
A Retractor’s Story
I entered therapy in the late fall of 1985 because I was unhappy at the way I was dealing with my son, age 9. I thought he might need some counseling because he had seemed very angry for a young child. Soon the therapy began to focus only on my adult issues and we did not work with my son. Clinical depression runs in my family, but the therapist kept me involved in digging up my past. He kept looking for more, more, more! My mother died in January, 1992 before I had a chance to tell her how sorry I was for the accusations. I now make my apologies at her grave. After her death, I stopped working on trying to find memories and began dealing with my loss and my marriage, which was falling apart. Slowly, I began to wean myself from the therapist. My husband and I had started marriage counseling with another therapist whom I began to trust. In the meantime, I read about the case of Dr. Bean-Bayog and Paul Lozano and heard about FMS. It took me eight more months to finally get clear. This past year has been very painful to me as I’ve really begun to acknowledge what I lost as a result of therapy. I went from being a very productive woman who was raising three children and serving on a school committee to a dependent, depressed, regressed, and suicidal woman. It’s amazing to me that this situation could have occurred and wreaked such havoc on my life.
Last Updated: March 19, 2014
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