Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Forgotten Lessons of the Recovered Memory Movement

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By Ethan Watters

Mr. Watters is a journalist and author whose work focuses on psychiatry and social psychology.

Most students in psychology and psychiatry programs today are too young to have any firsthand memory of the moral panic engendered by the recovered memory movement in the 1980s and early 1990s. This was a time when therapists proudly advertised their ability to help clients unearth supposedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse; the accusations that followed shattered families and communities across the country.

The belief that such memories could be repressed and then recovered through special techniques was widespread among mental health professionals for well over a decade. In books and on television, therapists portrayed themselves as the first generation of healers to understand both these mechanisms of repression and how to unlock them without contaminating the story that emerged. The results were dramatic: Patients often recovered abuse memories that began in infancy and lasted for decades. Some came to believe not only that they had repressed memories but also that their minds had fractured into many personalities to manage the pain and betrayal.

With a few decades’ perspective, it’s clear this level of confidence led to disastrous results. In 2005 a Harvard psychology professor, Richard McNally, called the recovered memory movement “the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”

At the height of the controversy in 1994, I co-wrote a book, “Making Monsters,” on the topic with the sociologist Richard Ofshe. In writing it, we hoped to help stop the practice that was harming so many. We also wanted to create a historical record that might help prevent the profession from going down another rabbit hole.

Just what happened to lead so many well-intentioned people down such a road is not a simple story. Understanding the power of recovered memory therapy requires an examination not just of the memory retrieval techniques used by individual therapists but also of how the movement created a tide of popular belief that bordered on mass hysteria. Recovered memory stories were, for a time, pervasive and inescapable. These stories influenced both patients and therapists as they hunted for hidden histories of abuse.

Considering the speed at which ideas spread on the internet and social media, a deep understanding of how cultural trends and psychology interact is more important than ever. We tend not to want to believe that we or our healers are susceptible to social contagions — which is why the recovered memory movement remains a cautionary tale with much to teach us.

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The seeds of recovered memory therapy were planted in the 1970s, as the women’s rights movement brought attention to the subject of sexual abuse. As women began to fill academic and clinical positions, the topics of incest and child sexual exploitation began appearing in scholarly and popular books. The public reckoning revealed that child sexual abuse was far from uncommon and that these horrors had been largely dismissed or ignored for centuries.

Some writers at the time argued that public attention on the topic had unlocked the ability of individuals to recover their abuse memories. “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness,” wrote Dr. Judith Herman in her book “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.” She argued that the human mind could hold trauma memories in its consciousness only with the support of “political movements that give voice to the disempowered.” If the personal is political, as the popular slogan had it, it made a kind of sense that individuals might have repressed their memories, in the same way society had long repressed collective awareness.

In step with these new ideas, therapists of the time reanimated an early Freudian theory that repressed early experiences of sexual abuse were the root cause of all hysterical symptoms. Freud had subsequently pivoted to argue that symptoms came not from repressed memories but from repressed sexual fantasies — but Dr. Herman and others argued that Freud was right the first time.

What happened during recovered memory therapy sessions is no mystery. Therapists candidly revealed their techniques in books, conference speeches and academic papers and on daytime television talk shows. The process of hunting for abuse memories and overcoming the patient’s “denial” was not a subtle one.

Therapists used relaxation exercises, age regression, dream interpretation, psychodrama, sodium amytal and hypnosis to help clients visualize abuse. All of these techniques, we know now, are much more likely to distort memory than to enhance recall. Still, it is hard to believe that these tactics alone could have persuaded so many people to rewrite the histories of their childhoods so dramatically; what is often underappreciated is that much of the belief-building power of recovered memory therapy came from outside the consultation room.

In the late 1980s, self-help aisles began to fill with books about recovered memory therapy, written mainly by therapists or former patients. This small publishing boom took off with the 1988 success of “The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse” by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. They were not mental health professionals, but they reflected the certainties of the movement. “So far, no one we’ve talked to thought she might have been abused and then later discovered that she hadn’t been,” they wrote. “The progression always goes the other way, from suspicion to confirmation.”

Lists of the symptoms that supposedly indicated repressed abuse often went on for pages in these texts. E. Sue Blume’s book “Secret Survivors” listed over 70 symptoms indicative of repressed abuse. The psychologist Renee Fredrickson’s book “Repressed Memories” describes over 60. Do you have trouble trusting your intuition? Do you neglect your teeth? Have joint pain? Do certain foods nauseate you? Do you sometimes space out or daydream? If you have some of these warning signals, “you probably do have repressed memories,” wrote Dr. Fredrickson. In their books and papers, therapists described themselves as clever detectives searching patients’ lives for unexplained emotional responses or feelings, which might be the first sign of hidden pasts.

While it often took weeks or months, by all accounts, the therapists were remarkably successful at convincing patients that their minds had hidden horrible abuse memories. The most effective methods appeared to be hypnosis, relaxation exercises and other semitrance states. When the scenes finally surfaced, they were nothing like normal memories of childhood. Therapists expected patients to experience supposedly repressed abuse scenes as if they were living through the experience in real time. Patients “may re-experience the events quite vividly,” wrote one therapist in the journal Women & Therapy. “Physical responses such as vomiting, incontinence or fainting will sometimes occur.” The intensity of the emotional abreactions, as they were termed, often convinced the therapist and the patients of the validity of the recovered memories.

For memory experts like the psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus, the type of recall being described by recovered memory therapists seemed wholly new. Researchers had documented how people experiencing fear or panic will often have diminished or imperfect recall of a disturbing event. They also knew that people can be motivated not to think about a distressing memory and that they could recall an incident from childhood and realize, as an adult, it was sexual abuse.

But these and many other forms of memory distortions were nothing like the repression being described. Therapists across the country were suddenly certain that horrendous and repeated abuse could instantaneously be walled away in the unconscious, where it would remain inaccessible for decades, until unlocked in therapy and re-experienced with perfect clarity. For Dr. Loftus and others, there was simply no support in the scientific literature or in all the historical stories of human suffering that supported this type of repression and retrieval.

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It was partly because of its novelty that stories about recovered memory therapy were, for a time, everywhere in popular culture. Recovered memory therapists became go-to guests on daytime television talk shows. Well-known celebrities came out to tell their stories of recovering memories of abuse. Promoters of recovered memory therapy held regional and national conferences; states changed their statute of limitation laws to allow for criminal prosecutions based on repressed memories. The movement rode a tide of public belief that therapists helped create.

That popular culture influenced what happened in therapy is clear. Recovered memory therapists themselves recognized that abuse beliefs were, to a degree, contagious. One therapist recommended that patients struggling to uncover memories should continually expose themselves to stories of incest and abuse by reading articles and popular books, attending lectures and seeing movies on the topic.

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