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 Illinois-Wisconsin FMS Society


This well known incest researcher and feminist revised her viewpoint about recovered memories in the new introduction to the second edition of her Secret Trauma (1999). This chapter can be found at her web site at:
Russell makes a powerful argument that a high percentage of recovered memories        are false. The newsletter of the feminist Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault also  carried a reprint of this introduction.

This leading spokesman for recovered memory therapy and the author of the earlier Healing the Incest Wound (1988) has more recently outlined new guidelines for therapists dealing with memory issues that are arresting.  Click for some highlights of these in the first selection below

SHIRLEY FELDMAN-SUMMERS, Ph.D., a feminist psychologist, has written on the pitfalls involved in recovered memory therapy in Women & Therapy, vol. 19(1), 1996, p.109-122.  You will find some excerpts from this article in the second selection below.

This feminist writer gives her view of the recovery movement in her trenchant article "Sex, Lies, and Audiotapes" in the Summer 2001 issue of  The Women's Quarterly. Read the whole article at that site or the third selection below.

 SIGRID MAC DONALD is a veteran feminist.  Click for her views as given in the Women's  Freedom Newsletter (1997).

From Courtois , Recollections of Sexual Abuse (1999)

"The Therapist Utilizes General and Specialized Informed Consent...[including providing the patient] with detailed and accurate information about memory.  This information should correct myths, for example, that recovered memories are necessarily accurate.  The patient needs to know that memory is imperfect, that most memories contain a mixture of accurate and inaccurate information, and that some memories, however emotionally compelling, may be quite inaccurate with respect to historical truth...vividness of detail about, and confidence in any given memory, have little relationship to its accuracy or or inaccuracy." (p.269-270)

"[The therapist must avoid] an uncritical acceptanceof an individual's recollections of abuse as always representing historical truth...[and educates the patient] regarding the malleability and reconstructive nature of human memory processes and the possibility that memories may represent reality, fantasies, confabulations, or some combination thereof." (p.274-275)

"The Therapist Is Alert to Suggestion and Suggestibility Issues and Assesses Risk for False Memory Production" (p.282)

"The Therapist Should Not  Use Hypnosis (Or Related Techniques) Specifically For Memory Retrieval...risk for the development of pseudomemories increases with the use of hypnosis... or any similar technique..." (p. 285)

"Self-help Books and Groups...Where abuse is suspected in the absence of clear memory, a generic book on the effects of a painful childhood is preferable to a book on signs and symptoms of sexual abuse...[and for such a patient] a heterogeneous group for general mental health concerns...rather than a homogeneous abuse-focused one. " (p.289-290)

"The Therapist Does Not Recommend Family Separations, Cut-offs, or Lawsuits... the therapist can assist the patient to explore options, including the option of family arbitration and mediation..."(p. 292-293)

Courtois also cautions therapists to use only non-suggestive, neutral open-ended questions and "practice in ways that minimize suggestion effects" (p.271-274)

(If she had recommended such guidelines in her first book, in 1988, and therapists had followed them conscientiously, then no major false memory problem would ever have arisen.)

Feldman-Summers excerpt on recovered memory therapy pitfalls

(also appeared in A Feminist Clinician's Guide to the Memory Debate, 
p.109 ff)

Hypnosis or Guided Imagery...If an abusive experience is recalled solely through hypnosis or guided imagery questions will almost certainly be raised about the validity of the recollections...

Survivors' Groups... A potential problem arises, however, in cases where the client's recollections of abuse are vague or non-existent.  If the client merely suspects sexual abuse or has at best only a vague sense that abuse occurred, encouragement of group participation is fraught with problems, because the client may be subjected to group pressure to reject all doubts and to believe abuse occurred.  The client may be exposed to repeated directives by the group to accept the group's view of what happened, a process which can be not only suggestive, but coercive.  Group members...can suggest various scenarios to help the client "remember" more and more.

Books and Articles About Sexual Abuse....A potential problem arises, however, if clients who have no recollection of childhood abuse are encouraged by the therapist to read books and articles about sexual abuse.  Such a practice may lead them to identify themselves as abuse survivors....In addition if the books and articles recommended contain descriptions of symptoms experienced by abuse survivors, the client's own report of those symptoms can be questioned as having been suggested by others.

Inferences from Symptoms.  It is questionable for a therapist to tell or suggest to clients who have no memories of being sexually abused that their symptoms are indicative of childhood abuse...

Working to Overcome "Denial."...If a client is encouraged to believe he or she is "in denial," or is engaging in "resistance," recollections which occur (or are more firmly believed) thereafter can be attacked as having been the product of suggestion...

Flashbacks...[Horevitz's warning is cited that] "intrusive images, flashbacks, and dreams are NOT, subjectively speaking, memories" (p.117) 

Excerpt from Isaacs' "Sex, Lies, and Audiotapes"

Believe the women. Believe the children. These refrains became the mantra of the incest movement. While the women's movement would be enormously successful in turning sexual abuse-including incest-into a major public issue, women, ironically, would become the chief victims of the hysteria it generated. 

The obsession with this supposedly rampant sexual abuse played out in two ways: "Believe the women" became the repressed memory hysteria. "Believe the children" turned into the daycare hysteria. 

At the time of the conference, psychiatric textbooks estimated the rate of father-daughter incest at one to two for every million women in the United States. If that figure was accurate, it was not surprising that incest attracted little public attention. On the other hand, if, in fact, fathers were sexually abusing millions of daughters, why did no one know of it? 

The theory of "repressed memory" provided the answer. A woman was so traumatized by being molested by her father, the theory said, that she banished the memory from her conscious mind. Paul McHugh, head of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School, is skeptical of repressed memory. McHugh sees the development of the concept as one of the "misadventures" of the last thirty years that show "the power of cultural fashion to lead psychiatric thought and practice off in false, even disastrous, directions." 

However poorly grounded in science, the theory helped explain why so few women remembered their incestuous experiences until they entered therapy. According to the theory, the intact, repressed memory festered in a special part of the brain producing, as psychiatrist Lenore Terr put it, "signs and symptoms" that disrupted the woman's life. While Terr and Herman were important in lending a cloak of medical legitimacy to the idea of repressed memory, the most influential work was The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, neither of whom had training in psychiatry. Published in 1988, The Courage to Heal has sold more than 700,000 copies. 

The book asked such questions as: Do you have difficulty expressing your feelings? Problems trusting your intuition? Have an eating disorder? Feel different from other people? Feel powerless, like a victim? If you answered "yes" to these or exhibited any of a host of other "symptoms," The Courage to Heal said that it was time to consider the possibility that you had been sexually abused as a child. 

Convinced sexual abuse was endemic and seeing such symptoms as "evidence," therapists of all types, from psychiatrists on down, set out to "help" patients unlock their buried memories. They used a variety of methods, including hypnosis, injections of sodium amytal ("truth serum"), guided imagery, dream work, participation in "survivor groups," even massage therapy to recover "body memories" of abuse. Yet as social psychology professor Richard Ofshe points out in Making Monsters, the scientific grounding for all this was absent. 

Indeed, studies on memory show that intense emotional experiences are the least likely to be forgotten ...

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