Sexual Abuse and Repressed Memory
Some therapists are at last waking up to the fact that repressed memories are false memories. Lives have been ruined, reputations destroyed, people have been falsely accused and imprisoned, families and communities torn apart.
It’s all been a terrible mistake.
It takes considerable digging on the part of the therapist to unearth repressed memories of sexual abuse, and for one simple reason – there was no abuse in the first place. A repressed memory doesn’t exist – until someone starts poking around in the imagination.
The most common repressed memory myth is that the idea originated with Sigmund Freud – it didn’t. The mere mention of Freud’s name gives the idea of repressed memory a credibility it does not deserve. What Freud actually said was, it is possible that the negative and painful emotions associated with traumatic experiences can be repressed – even though the memory of those events will always be there. [The old adage time is a healer is Freud’s opinion in a nutshell!]
Freud never suggested the memory of an extreme traumatic, painful and hurtful experience could be hidden from conscious recall, buried deep in the unconscious mind, repressed and forgotten.
Common sense dictates that any peak experience will certainly be remembered! Yet there are those who would have us believe that a significant percentage of adult survivors of sexual abuse completely block out their traumatic memories with the unconscious, defensive mechanism of repression.
We have been fooled into thinking that incest and child sexual abuse is epidemic. We have been led to believe that one in four women and one in six men have supposedly been sexually abused as children. This is manifestly and obviously untrue – were it not so tragic, the assertion would be laughable.
There are dozens of books available with dramatic titles such as Incest: A Book for Survivors, The Courage to Heal, Secret Survivors, The Right to Innocence: Healing the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse, The Ultimate Betrayal, Reclaiming the Heart: A Handbook of Help and Hope for Survivors of Incest, Betrayal of Innocence… the list goes on. There’s even a book of poetry for survivors!
The authors of these books may be motivated by the best of intentions, but they are also hopelessly misguided, not to mention oblivious of the damage they may be doing to clients. They blatantly pull made-up statistics out of the air and present them as fact. Their books are loaded with lurid and compelling accounts of abuse, guaranteed to keep the reader turning the pages.
Another myth, swallowed whole by the uninformed and uncritical audience is that any symptoms of adult psychopathology – including but not limited to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, sexual dysfunction, relationship difficulties, abusive behaviour, eating disorders, loneliness, and suicide attempts – are the result and root cause of long-term reactions to childhood sexual abuse.
This assertion is also incorrect. There are hundreds of reasons why people can be prone to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, sexual dysfunction, relationship difficulties, abusive behaviour, eating disorders, loneliness, and suicide attempts.
It is a wholly erroneous belief that accepting dredged-up imaginary memories as real and valid is a critical step in the recovery process – it isn’t – it’s more likely to make things worse. It’s also a misconception that individual and group therapy can offer ‘healing, resolution, and renewal.’ If there’s no substance to it, it obviously can’t!
The message of the determined therapist can be neatly encapsulated as follows: incest is epidemic, repression is rampant, recovery is possible, and therapy can help. Ker-ching!!! Yes folks, repressed memory therapy is a huge cash cow and the market leaders are doing very well out of it thank you! Their books have sold by the hundreds of thousands and the money they make disseminating their drivel on the lecture circuit is well worth catching the red-eye flight for, not to mention the applause and the adulation of the easily bamboozled that has elevated some of them to celebrity status.
Repression is very different than just ordinary forgetting, which is simply not thinking about an event or experience for a period of time and then having the ability to recall the memory without any degree of difficulty. Repression is supposed to be the active banishment to the unconscious of a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events, so that it cannot be retrieved.
Repressed memories are typically recovered during therapy sessions by dangerously under-qualified therapists who have no business playing around with vulnerable patient’s minds. Many of them have been badly trained and advised and are liable to hold onto beliefs and ideas that are just plain wrong! Properly trained psychologists don’t go in for repressed memory retrieval because they were taught about the obvious pitfalls of doing so when they were at university. Psychiatrists don’t have anything to do with repressed memory work because they regard it as a harmful pseudoscience.
The field is dominated by therapists who are themselves survivors – of weekend training courses which take place in hotel conference suites rather than universities or teaching hospitals, and where they’re spoon fed a dubious psychobabble and charged real money for the privilege. In return for their cash, they get a certificate to hang on their wall with all the other weekend-course certificates they’ve collected. Interesting to note that when therapists get together to discuss the value of courses, one of the main topics of conversation is about the standard of the catering.
My concern, that is, my particular interest in this area stems from the fact that when hypnosis is introduced into the equation – and you can bet your bottom dollar it will be – any false or imaginary thoughts and emotions will take on a life of their own and conspire to lead the recipient into a dreadful fantasy world of god only knows what.
Professor Elizabeth Loftus is the world’s leading authority on memory, and particularly on repressed memory. She has been a tireless campaigner against the charlatanism and quackery that is the repressed memory business – a business that grew to industrial proportions in the period 1970 to 2000.
Part of the problem is that no one, especially the therapist, seems able to recognise how incredibly easy it is to introduce a purely imaginary idea into the mind of a client – especially a client who is vulnerable or suggestible, as indeed most of them are, otherwise they wouldn’t be going to see a therapist.
In the absence of any other constructive ideas, the repressed memory specialist will work toward the goal of uncovering a truth, which is actually a lie, and in the process, increase the severity of anxiety, panic attacks, depression, sexual dysfunction, relationship difficulties, abusive behaviour, eating disorders, loneliness, and suicide attempts. In the process they’ll also destroy relationships and break up families, all the time feeling extremely smug about how terribly clever they are as they lead their unsuspecting clients into the demonic Narnia of tortured yet imagined memories!
Don’t misunderstand me – most therapists do valuable and positive work. The repressed memory therapists are not bad people they’re just naive and devoid of the imagination needed to see a bigger picture. And political correctness aside for a moment, they are almost universally women – make of that what you will.
According to Professor Loftus, someone I greatly admire ‘Real abuse is never forgotten. Real memories are painful to put into words. Real victims live for years with the dark secret of their abusive past and only find the courage to discuss their childhood traumas in the supportive and empathic environment of therapy. We are not disputing those memories.’
Nonetheless, therapists have at their disposal a formidable armoury of questioning, guided visualization, age regression, hypnosis, body-memory interpretation, dream analysis, art therapy, rage and grief work and good old fashioned group therapy, where confused, susceptible and sometimes helpless people experience the sort of hysteria not seen since Nuremburg. But be warned – all the above examples are extremely aggressive therapeutic techniques.
When examined closely, all these ‘techniques’ are based on a common thread – guesswork.
Clients are encouraged to explore (imagine) how they would feel had they actually been abused – this is guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing. Then, they are assured, the memories will come flooding back. Clients who deny they have ever been abused are told they are experiencing the classic symptoms of denial. But they mustn’t worry, because with the help of the caring therapist, they will soon be on the road to recovery, with a whole new set of memories to call their own. In return, they will have to cut off all contact with their families, but not to worry – all that remains is the small matter of going to the police to have their fathers, uncles, brothers, teachers and scout masters arrested and sit back and watch the fallout as divorce proceedings are filed, jobs are lost and lawyers rub their greedy little hands together.
Forgive my sarcasm. Real memories of abuse can be dealt with in a rational and positive way. Repressed memories never can be – because they didn’t exist until some therapist suggested they did. Then, the imagination freewheels – dark and unwelcome thoughts manifest themselves into even darker and more unwelcome thoughts that gradually subvert and overpower true memories. The longer the client dwells on such thoughts and ideas, the more real they become…
Therapists who indulge themselves doing this kind of work run the very real risk of doing irreparable harm to their clients and also to the innocents who inevitably become embroiled in the irreversible fall-out – they represent the unintended collateral damage that results from the triumph of ignorance and fantasy over reason.
Whenever I talk to groups of hypnotherapists, I go out of my way to warn against the dangers of the accidental and inadvertent implanting of false ideas and memories in the minds of clients. One leading question is enough to set the client on a false path; just one misplaced word can plant a seed of doubt in a susceptible mind.
On at least three occasions I have ended up in an argument with people who vehemently insist that the root of all anxiety, panic attacks, depression, sexual dysfunction, relationship difficulties, abusive behaviour, eating disorders, loneliness, and suicide attempts, is childhood sexual abuse. Not bullying at school, or sudden bereavement, or unexpected unemployment, or debt, or bad neighbours, or having one’s house burgled, or being robbed, mugged or swindled – these people simply will not consider alternatives and are therefore a clear and present danger to their clients.
So if your therapist starts telling you the reason you’re experiencing anxiety, panic attacks, depression, sexual dysfunction, relationship difficulties, abusive behaviour, eating disorders, loneliness, and thinking of suicide is because something terrible of a sexual nature happened when you were a child, something so awful you’ve forgotten all about it, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE because you might find the real abuser could turn out to be the therapist!
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The other thing I recommend to all my classes is that EVERY therapist should read Elizabeth Loftus’ book THE MYTH OF REPRESSED MEMORY: FALSE MEMORIES AND ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL ABUSE. It’s a masterpiece of common sense – it’s also a litany of terrible, tragic mistakes and miscarriages of justice and should be required reading for any therapist.