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Ground Lost: The False Memory/Recovered Memory Therapy Debate

Ground Lost: The False Memory/Recovered Memory Therapy Debate

The recovered memory debate has been the most acrimonious, vicious and hurtful internal controversy in the history of modern psychiatry. From its very beginning in the late 1980s, it has been more an "ad hominem" war, appealing to feelings and prejudices, rather than a matter of reasoned professional disagreement. As such, it has demonstrated the wisdom of Louis Nizer's cogent observation that "mud thrown is ground lost" (Nizer, 1966). In this case, as we shall see, the ground lost has been considerable, and science, law and psychiatry have suffered the main casualties.

Common Ground

Until recently, the false memory/recovered memory controversy has been defined by zealots from both ends of the spectrum. Because the squeakiest wheel gets the most grease, the courts, legislators, public and professionals have heard, and acted upon, more diatribe than dialogue. To quiet this cacophony, we must make one fundamental observation: there is a crucial difference between opinion and belief on the one hand and science on the other. It is only by separating them that we can hope to understand and benefit from this unquiet controversy.

For hundreds of years, people believed that the earth was flat and the center of the universe. Their belief did not make it so. When science was able to demonstrate otherwise, people's beliefs changed. Sometimes, however, people prefer fiction to fact. Folklore is often more powerful than fact, as twentieth-century propagandists have proven time and time again. In discussions concerning false and repressed memories, a great deal depends upon what one believes, and what the science shows.

Perhaps we can find common ground with the understanding that the debate is most fundamentally about science, not belief. The important questions are all questions of science: whether repressed memories exist, whether they are accurate, whether false memories can be implanted, and how far suggestion can influence memory, thoughts and conduct. Regardless of what we may want to believe, as a civilized people we must be governed by what the science tells us is truth.

It is in this spirit that my colleagues and I wrote Memory, Trauma Treatment, and the Law (Brown et al., 1998). Apparently we were successful, because the book was the recipient of the American Psychiatric Association's 1999 Manfred S. Guttmacher Award. Reviewers have consistently praised the book for its "rare evenhandedness" (Behavioral Science Book Review, 1999). Other critics described its merits thusly: "The authors are always careful to discriminate between areas of well-established scientific consensus and areas of uncertainty or speculation" (Herman, 1999) "in a manner which is rigorously respectful of evidence" (Mollon, in press). Although some critics will quarrel with our interpretation of some of the science, praise has been universal for our attempt to turn the debate from rhetoric to reason.

Common ground should also be found in the commonsense observation that the term recovered memory is used exclusively as a pejorative. In fact, by definition, every memory is recovered. Furthermore, there are no known schools of recovered memory, no conferences on how to practice recovered memory therapy, nor are there any textbooks on the topic. The term was a clever rhetorical invention and, as such, it has even fooled many otherwise cautious scientists.

In the service of science, we must examine what the shouting is all about, even if it means that we must sacrifice some of our fervently held beliefs.

Shaky Ground

Courts have been treated to a parade of alleged experts (who shall remain unnamed) who have written or testified under oath to a truly astonishing array of opinions, including:

  • There is only one memory system, therefore traumatic memories are not handled differently by the brain than ordinary memories.
  • Repressed memory does not exist.
  • Repressed memories are never accurate.
  • Implanting false memories of horrific events that never occurred is easy and frequently done by therapists.
  • Hypnosis, guided imagery and visualization are unduly suggestive techniques that always contaminate memory.
  • Recanting of childhood sexual abuse proves that the abuse never happened.
  • Repressed memories are always true.
  • If you think you were abused, you were.

None of these claims is supported by science (Brown et al., 1998; Brown et al., 1999). Space permits brief discussion of only the two most central topics. At the root of the debate is the question of whether repressed memory exists. If it does, is it accurate? We know, and the courts have heard, what various people believe about these issues, but what does the science say?


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