Of Babies and Bath Water: Navigating the Controversies of Repressed and Recovered Memory

Recently I ran a conference about abuse within the church. In these kinds of venues (this blog and conferences) I am asked about a couple of related problems—the problem of false memories of abuse and the reliability of recovered memories of abuse.

While I intend to address these matters here (and in future blogs), I want to reiterate something that I think gets lost in most conversations about recovered and/or false memories.

Sexual abuse is real. The vast majority of adult reporters of abuse during childhood never forgot the details.

Why say this first? Discussions of rare and extreme cases (i.e., repressed memories, recovered memories, and false memories) tends to create undue suspicion for all adults who choose to reveal their child abuse later in life. It is my experiences that conversations about false memories or recovered memories lead many to assume that a report of extensive or horrific abuse is probably false. So, let us remember that as we take up the matter of fully repressed memories of abuse, we are talking about a very small percentage of people.

But, the issue of repressed and/or recovered memories and the construction of false memories is indeed worthy of a careful review given the strong feelings on both sides of the recovered memory debate. In order to be as careful as possible, I want to consider a few topics that may help us understand the issue. First, I will explore foundational topics (memory, forgetting, repression, and dissociation). Then,  I’ll explore the how trauma is known to create confusion, self-doubt, and “motivated” forgetting. Finally, we’ll take up the practice of counseling victims of sexual abuse and the particular matter of dealing with memory retrieval in counseling. Strap in!

Just in case you NEED to know my opinion at the outset…

I find Partlett and Nurcombe’s 1998 summary of an APA report on the topic to be fairly comprehensive,

The plain point here is the consensus set forth by the Working Group:
1. Controversies regarding adult recollections should not be allowed to obscure the fact that child sexual abuse is a complex and pervasive problem in America that has historically gone unacknowledged.
2. Most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them.
3. It is possible for memories of abuse that have been forgotten for a long time to be remembered.
4. It is also possible to construct convincing pseudomemories for events that never occurred.
5. There are gaps in our knowledge about the processes that lead to accurate and inaccurate recollections of childhood abuse.[1]

I would add one more point: most people (myself included) in this debate are motivated by strong feelings as well as “facts.” These feelings may be the result of experiences with those who appear to be abused or appear to be falsely accused.

Issue one: Memory and Memory Retrieval

Let me start by stating the obvious: this isn’t a neuropsychology primer on memory and I am not an expert in memory. However, there are a few things on which I think we can agree:

  1. memory is a whole brain biochemical process. While structures like the hippocampus are clearly involved in memory storage, no one structure handles all aspects of memory storage or recall.
  2. memory is multi-faceted. Researchers differentiate between recognition and recall memory, explicit and implicit memory, short-term, long-term, and working memories…and much more.
  3. memory-making is a process.  The formation of memory requires attention, perception, encoding, storage, and retrieval. Thomas Insel calls it a 5 act play. A person moves from perception to long-term encoding to retrieval and finally, expression of memory.
  4. relational and affective context influences memory formation and memory retrieval
  5. the act of recall may change memory,

The concept is simple: memories are not fixed; they are periodically retrieved, and modified each time they are retrieved. This process of strengthening a memory by retrieval is called reconsolidation. One profound implication of this concept is that what you recall is not only a reflection of what you first learned, but also a product of each time you have recalled the original information.

How does this relate to our issue of recall of abuse?

  • memories are both fragile and yet not so. You recall what the house you grew up in looks like, even if you haven’t seen it in 30 years. And yet, your recall may or may not be particularly accurate. You may remember a large house even when it is much smaller to your adult eyes.
  • repetitive recall along with high levels of emotion may solidify memory. Most of us know exactly where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001.  You remember this because you talked about it, played it over in your mind, and because of the powerful biochemical process kicked off when you heard of the first plane crashing into the twin towers.
  • Most child sexual abuse has little corroborating evidence, especially when revealed decades later. This leaves victims by themselves to sort through the narratives they and others tell about their history.  The result? Ample opportunities for both denials of actual abuse as well as false memory.

Return with me to my first point. Most child sexual abuse is never fully forgotten. Some memories may be lost, others distorted, still others intentionally forgotten. Memory, as we have seen here is not a structure but a narrative.[2] In most cases, the story being told has much merit, even if some important details are perceived rightly. Thus memory retrieval during therapy (something that WILL happen whether therapist or client wants it) plays a powerful role in the re-storying work of therapy.

In my next post on this topic, I will make some comments about forgetting, motivated forgetting, dissociation, and repression.

[1] Partlett, DF & Nurcombe, B (1998). Recovered memories of child sexual abuse and liability: Society, science, and the law in comparative study. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 4, p. 1273

[2] “Rememberings—whether valid or invalid—are communicated by means of narratives.” Sarbin, TR (1998). The social construction of truth. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 18, p. 145.


Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology, ptsd

11 responses to “Of Babies and Bath Water: Navigating the Controversies of Repressed and Recovered Memory

  1. Melinda Bloom

    What, then, do you think about a Christian therapist who asks her patient about abuse that was never brought up in therapy…never remembered before then? Then the patient begins to have horrific “memories” that never happened. There seems to be a huge difference between false memories & real memories…false memories are bizarre & outrageous & not believable by anyone except the patient. Real memories are very believable & not outlandish. False memories ruin lives, especially the patient who becomes more mentally ill as time goes on & therapy continues. Therapists who go looking for abuse in every patient (even when there is no evidence) need to be stopped.

    • Melinda, You’re getting ahead of me :). See forthcoming posts on this topic. The short answer? I don’t think much of that therapist approach. Sadly, the distinction between false and true memories is not distinguishable as you say. Some real history is stranger than fiction. I would agree with you that those who look for abuse without evidence do need to be stopped.

  2. Tom

    Phil, Good start. When did you last write a blog this long? Smile. BTW, you are a model of calm in a fraught field and, as the Thai’s say, you have a cool heart. But a blog would be boring w/o a little controversy, so here goes.

    Liked the memory reprise! Memory re-consolidation theory is intriguing. But what about changing views of memory over the past couple decades? Current understanding represents a sea-change over past, static views. Not a trivial point when discussing Freud.

    I’d like to see an expansion of the comment that “sexual abuse is real…” (no disagreement there) to include something similar for victims of false allegations of abuse (also real and prevalent). Shouldn’t both those concerns be on the table?

    To be honest, I’m skeptical of “repression.” After 100 years, there’s no proof of it, or the ego, etc. (You can guess where I stand on repressed memories…) Which is not to say people don’t forget things. There’s just other ways to explain it besides repression. The point is that your description of current thinking about memory seems a bit at odds with a belief in repression (structures vs narratives). Help me out here. On the other hand, “false memories” are a different animal – and they aren’t an endangered species. So, I’ll quibble when you say RM is rare. RM is rare (or non-existent), but FM…is not so uncommon. Do you not differentiate the two?

    Historic abuse based on continuous memory isn’t in focus here; it’s accounts based on discontinuous memory. People use lots of euphemisms for these – fragmented, hidden, repressed, flashbacks, dreams, somatic, kinesthetic, whatever. Such accounts call for healthy skepticism given the history of the “memory wars.” But I think that skepticism should be directed at psychology and counseling. Are you saying that skepticism is unwarranted?

    I’d like to see therapists give equal standing to abuse victims and victims of false allegations. It seems rather lop-sided at present, but it shouldn’t be a win-lose situation. The Bible provides that kind of counterpoint in Exodus 23: 7 – “Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.” (NIV)

    BTW, have you read Priest and Cordill’s article in the current Christian Scholar’s Review yet? Let me know if getting a copy is a problem.

  3. Tom, working back from the bottom. I do have Priest and Cordill’s essay. I have some concerns about it but am not ready to go public as I’m still weighing some ideas. Actually the controversy isn’t about discontinuous memory but about fully “recovered” memories never had before. There are plenty who have discontinuous memories, with breaks, but remember that the information isn’t as new.

    I do not have numbers (do you?) that false charges are very high? I doubt they are, especially in comparison to the numbers of people who experience abuse and have no one but their own voice to corroborate. Statistically, I can’t believe there is much lop-sided in the true vs. false charge. What is true is that any false positives are very costly. In addition, just as there are some counselors who are abuse hunters, I find there are counselors who are equally false accusation hunters. My sense is that both collect a true population and both overestimate the incidence of abuse/false reports.

    Finally, for now, I’ll leave the repression for a later post. In due time we will try to raise this issue. You are right that there are many different words for the forgetting part. I think repression has colloquial meaning still today even if we don’t accept all of Freud. I prefer “motivated forgetting” which may or may not be conscious.

    • Tom

      Thanks for your thoughts. Yea, the “lopsided” comment was too cryptic. My bad. I wanted to point out a disparity in abuse training/information which doesn’t deal much with the problem of false accusations. But I do appreciate your recognition that they are costly. The only material I’ve run across is “A Parent’s Guide” by the Global Children’s Fund -ch 6. (a bit dated)

      No good numbers either on false accusation rates that I know of. The FBI lists a yearly 8-9% false rape allegation rate (for the USA). But you know numbers are tricky. I like Douglas and Finkelhor’s “Child Sex Abuse Fact Sheet” because it shows the complexity of counting abuse. Personally I think the numbers you use are on the high side, but they’re within ranges in D&F. Still the data isn’t stable. When multiple national surveys say 9%-28% of women report sexual abuse during childhood…that suggests no one is quite sure what’s going on. Is SA still a problem? Yes, definitely.

      There’s other ways to count though. Priest & Cordill point to the polygraph testing that convinced Diana Russell to change her ideas about memory recovery. There’s also an early survey by Debra Poole and friends (Poole, Lindsay, Memon, Bull. 1995) that found 71% of US and Brit psychologists (PhDs) were using hypnosis, body work and dream interpretation to recover memories of CSA. That’s a big problem.

      I’m looking forward to the next blog on repression. You’re a machine, Phil. Let me say, though, that as a psychologist, you don’t get to use “repression” colloquially. The other reason you know: Freud’s theory of repression was the pillar of the recovered memory movement. There’s too much history, too many how-to books, too much misunderstanding, to be throwing that term around loosely.

      Glad you found the CSR article. That is my starting point. It’s how I know this isn’t a random, isolated problem.

      • Tom, a couple of responses. You are right the numbers are and will always be unstable given the shame/secrecy factors. However, enough to say something is happening on both sides. Regarding numbers, I would say that I know of no psychologists who are using hypnosis or dream work (now, maybe that says something about who I like to hang with :)). I can tell you that the schools I am aware of do not teach these kinds of techniques. So, I would be very suspicious of 71% as accurate for today. FYI, we also recognize the problematic use of false positives and negatives with lie detectors too.

        About repression…it isn’t well defined and it is used by many to mean more than what Freud defined it as. Terms get hijacked all the time. I do psychotherapy but what I do Freud would deny as psychotherapy. CACREP would like to believe that “counseling” began in the early 80s and is something different from what psychologists do. So, yes, I still do think that words change meaning and repression is one of those.

        About Priest and Cordill. Everyone (including me) has an agenda. I don’t know the backstory but I believe there to be one. I did see an earlier version of that paper that had significant factual and citation errors in it. I’m not sure they corrected those errors but before I charge them with that I want to be careful so I’m holding back most of my judgement until I can spend more time with the article.

    • Oh, and one more thing. Have you looked at Ken Pope’s site? Interesting full text paper there (http://www.kspope.com/memory/memory.php) that is long but discusses issues related to Poole’s study. I like his work because he seems balanced in discussions of problems on both sides (unethical practices and abuse/memory matters). Also, have you read this 2006 study by Alison, Kebbell, and Lewis in the 12th vol of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law (pp 419-441)?

      • Tom

        Ken Pope had a hard time giving up repression or anything else associated with RM ideology. Did he ever? The paper you mention includes parts of Pope’s response to Poole, et. al. But there’s a rebuttal. (Google “Did Pope Read a Different Poole?”) On the same site is another Pope article – “The Therapeutic Relationship As The Foundation for Treatment with Adult Survivors of Sexual Abuse.” Check it out. I won’t immediately assume you support this guy, but I’m left scratching my head. Your response to Melinda above was reassuring. But using Pope undermines that confidence. Pope was writing during a time when RMT’s validity was up for debate, but he was definitely all in. Respectfully disagreeing, there’s nothing balanced about Pope’s position on RM.

      • Tom

        Oops, forgot about Alison, Kebbel and Lewis, but I don’t have access to this article. Is there an electronic version? I did see that the Minnesota Supreme court recently rejected “RMT” as “lacking foundational reliability.” I think that means expert witnesses can’t use it in court, at least in MN.

  4. Tom

    Phil, Shame/secrecy are only one aspect of counting abuse. It’s worth a blog on its own – maybe a book. See Phillip Jenkin’s book “Pedophiles and Priests” for a really broad look at abuse as a “social problem.”

    The 71% figure was a base-line in 1995 and it did come with some controversy. But because of better awareness,s and litigation, practitioners started dropping the more questionable practices. Language and narratives w/i the RMT shifted as well, but not just because therapists changed their minds. THey were trying to stay out of hot water. This is why I’m insistent on using “repression” accurately. But Phil, some people still believe in and practice very questionable techniques. I trust we’ll get back to things like memory work, body work/body memory, and things like DID.

  5. Your assessment of counselling for so-called repressed memories from a Christian standpoint interests me very much. Sadly, I have my own tale to relate about pseudo-christian RMT.
    My wife (now ex) suffered from mental illness and was always restored back to wholeness with professional counselling. When she was befriended by a “Bible study group”, she was at the cusp of such an episode. This group convinced her that her “issues” stemmed from horrific Satanic abuse at the hands of her own family, which of course, she had no recollection of until their “counselling” brought it out. She was diagnosed as suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, and it was claimed she had thousands of “parts”, which is all bunk of the worst kind. She was taken to a quack group operating in Canberra called “The Shepherd’s Heart” run by a couple called John and Glenys Darnell, who go further still with their own beliefs, proclaiming publicly that the British royal family are demonic reptilian shape-shifters, and that women are regularly kidnapped by Nazi-built, demonically piloted UFOs, and the spirited to huge underground bases to be impregnated with half demon babies by fallen angels called Nephilim. Beyond the pale, tinfoil hat wearing crazy, to be sure; but the point is that these people claim to be doing the will of Jesus Christ, and our mental health authorities are over-cautious to act because the groups claim they are offering spiritual counselling rather than mental health care (this is despite their use of manifestly medical/psychological terminology alongside their advocacy of exorcism for demonic possession).

    My question is this: What causes such people to go off the rails so badly in conflating real mental illness with supposedly spiritual causes, then causing them to wreak irreparable damage to individuals and families through their “treatments”.

    I’d strongly recommend you go to my own blog website, http://baliset.blogspot.com as I’ve laid out my own family’s story there as an archetype case of the phenomenon you are describing.

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