Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Recovered Memory: Unproven Strategy To Find Evidence Of Past Sexual Abuse

Editorial Comment:

Recovered Memory: Unproven Strategy To Find Evidence Of Past Sexual Abuse
By Lisa Goodlin
The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY) - September 24, 2002

While I am sure it was well-intentioned, I question the choice of Ellen Bass to conduct workshops Sept. 26 and Sept. 27 at Syracuse University and elsewhere for professionals who work with survivors of sexual trauma, and to give the featured address at an evening of healing for survivors.

Bass's book, "The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse," promotes the recovery of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. This book encourages women to conclude that they were sexually abused as children, although they lack memories of abuse or corroborating evidence.

In the words of Bass and co-author Laura Davis, "Many women who were abused don't have memories, and some never get any. This doesn't mean that they weren't abused;" and "If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were."

Serious questions have been raised regarding the "memories" recovered in therapy. The American Psychological Association's Working Group on the Investigation of Memories of Childhood Abuse issued a report in 1995 that notes recovered memory is rare. It states that "there is a consensus among memory researchers and clinicians that most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them, although they may not fully understand or disclose it.

"At this point," according to the APA, "it is impossible, without other corroborative evidence, to distinguish a true memory from a false one."  Thus, says the APA report, a "competent psychotherapist is likely to acknowledge that current knowledge does not allow the definite conclusion that a memory is real or false without other corroborating evidence."

In Britain, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has officially banned its members from using therapies designed to recover repressed memories of child abuse.

Bass also presents information on "body memories" and "satanic ritual abuse," the existence for which there is no evidence. By evidence I mean data that has been obtained using scientific methods.

Bass's book is filled with heart-rending and gut-wrenching stories, but it is important to remember that anecdote is not evidence. In response to first-person accounts like those found in "The Courage to Heal," FBI Special Agent Ken Lanning investigated more than 300 cases of alleged satanic cult activity and found no evidence of the existence of such cults. He wrote, "Until hard evidence is obtained and corroborated, the public should not be frightened into believing that babies are being bred and eaten, that 50,000 missing children are being murdered in human sacrifices, or that Satanists are taking over America's day-care centers or institutions. While no one can prove with absolute certainty that such activity has not occurred, the burden of proof is on those who claim that it has occurred."

Should this not make us question other "findings" of this type of therapy? In the "Investigator's Guide to Allegations of Ritual Child Abuse," Lanning goes on to say that "it is up to the mental health professionals, not law enforcement, to explain why victims are alleging things that don't seem to have happened."

In the mid-1990s, after books like "The Courage to Heal" began to appear and therapists started "training" in these methods, there was a rash, some would say an epidemic, of abuse allegations by women who had recovered memories in therapy. Many of these women later retracted their stories - but not before many lives were destroyed.

It is because of these destroyed lives that it is imperative to provide alternative information about recovered memory therapy so that Bass's ideas may be tempered by the findings of scientifically conducted studies.

To learn more about recovered-memory therapy, I recommend these books: "The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse," by Elizabeth Loftus, a well-regarded researcher of memory and professor of psychology; "Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria," by Richard Ofshe, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and a Pulitzer Prize winner; and Carl Sagan's chapter on therapy in "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark."

On the Web you can find critical information at these sites: The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (www.fmsfonline.org/) and The Skeptics' Dictionary entries on repressed memory therapy (skepdic.com/repress.html) and repressed memories, (skepdic.com/ repressedmemory.html).


Lisa Goodlin, of Syracuse, is president of Central New York Skeptics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of science and reason, the investigation of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, and the improvement of standards for science education and critical-thinking skills.

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