Repressed memory therapy

Effects of repression on

Religious conflict and violence


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At one time, memory researchers believed that human memory worked like a video recorder. All one had to do was to find the right tape, play it back, and relive the memories precisely as they were originally experienced. However, subsequent research showed that this model was very inaccurate. Rather, most memories are simply forgotten and cannot be recalled. Few people have real memories of events that occurred before their 3rd birthday. For those memories that are actually remembered, the mind stores only elements of the actual events and reconstruct full memories later when the memories are recalled. The act of recalling memories can change them so that at the time of the next recall, they are somewhat modified.

Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) was quite popular during the 1980s and 1990s but is now rarely used. It is a therapeutic technique based on the belief that traumatic memories of abuse - typically sexual abuse experienced during childhood - can be forgotten or repressed and later recovered during therapy. No matter how memories were recalled, they were believed to be accurate. Many suggestive techniques were used to reconstruct what appeared to be memories; however they are generally unrelated to real events from the past.

About 15 to 20% of persons with memories recovered via RMT went on to recover memory of ritual abuse and Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA). Such memories were often personally devastating. No hard evidence of SRA has ever been found. By the year 2000 and following, the consensus among investigators was that it never existed in the past at a detectible level, and doesn't exist now.

However, there are many self-help and mutual support groups of individuals who have gone through RMT, have recovered what they believe to be memories of real abusive events, and firmly believe that they were the victims of childhood sexual assault, and/or SRA. The Internet has been very useful to these groups in helping them contact and communicate with others who sincerely believe that they are survivors of childhood abuse.

RMT led to tens of thousands of adults accusing their parents of sexual abuse during childhood. Hundreds of parents went to jail. Tens of thousands of families of origin were shattered; many never recovered. Many hundreds of thousands of individuals have been adversely affected - directly or indirectly - by this therapy

RMT as a therapeutic technique went into decline during the mid-1990s and has since been abandoned by the vast majority of therapists and counselors. Many former RMT therapists have switched to EMDR - Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, That form of therapy appears to be just as useless as RMT. However, at least it does not have the same potential for harm as did RMT.

The current near-consensus is that RMT does recover what seem to be childhood memories, but the memories are false: that is, they are real-feeling memories of events that never happened.

Most therapists today differentiate between two types of memories:

  1. Memories of events that have always been available for recall, continuously from the time of the abuse to the present time. These are believed to be reasonably accurate. However, they are not precise recollections. The memory process itself distorts all memories.
  2. What appear to be memories that were laboriously pieced together during many months of RMT therapy. These are believed to be byproducts of the RMT processes and are entirely or almost entirely unrelated to real events. They feel like real memories, but are of incidences that never actually happened.

About "dormant memories:"

Some members of the group that sponsors this website suggest that there is a third type of memory. We call it a dormant memories. These were originally memories of real events. Over time they were forgotten due to normal memory processes. For example, the author broke his right arm on two occasions during childhood. These were apparently very distressing experiences at the time involving emergency treatment in hospitals. However, years later, he forgot them, along with almost all other memories accumulated during childhood. If he had been sexually molested as a child, and the molestation was less traumatic at the time than having an arm broken, he might well have forgotten those event(s) as well.

In rare cases, it appears that forgotten memories can be triggered back into consciousness. A person might revisit the location of the abuse, read a newspaper article about abuse, or see a picture of the perpetrator, etc. The memories come rushing back just as if they had never been forgotten. This actually happened to a member of our group when she read a newspaper article about a man who had been charged with multiple cases of child sexual abuse. She recognized that the perpetrator had abused her as a child. When she reported the memories to police, they checked out her story and probed her memories of the perpetrator's MO, his house layout, and other details. Her memories matched exactly those of other women who had also laid charges who had continually available memories of the abuse.

We believe that dormant memories differ from recovered memories in that:

Dormant memories are generally triggered by some event and come rushing back into consciousness very quickly - often instantaneously. We suspect that they are as accurate as continually present memories.
Recovered memories are generally laboriously pieced together during a long interval of intensive therapy or involvement with a self help group. We suspect that very few are accurate memories of real events.

In this section, we will attempt to accurately reflect the full range of beliefs about recovered memories, including believers, skeptics, and memory researchers.

A list of Internet links on RMT and false memory:

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