Sexual Abuse: Treating Trauma in the Era of the Recovered Memory Debate

Article excerpt

JuDITH L. ALPERT, ED.: Sexual Abuse: Treating Trauma in the Era of the Recovered Memory Debate. Jason Aronson, Northvale, NJ, 1995, 410 pp., $40.00, ISBN 1-56821-363-8.

Treating sexual trauma in the context of scientific and legal controversies about recovered memories is clinically and ethically challenging. Dr. Albert and her experienced coauthors offer a sophisticated review of research and treatment issues, primarily geared toward the psychodynamically oriented mental health professional.

Several authors thoughtfully challenge the positions of some academic memory researchers or proponents of the "false memory syndrome" (FMS), who, they believe, hold generally oversimplified or inaccurate beliefs about the therapy process. Whether findings from many laboratory memory studies are applicable to trauma victims is questionable, and even if so, FMS advocates have selectively applied memory-suggestibility results. FMS proponents argue that socialpersuasion processes (particularly in therapy) frequently lead to false reports of abuse by nonvictims, but ignore the likely impact of social-demand issues on victims' false memories/reports of nonabuse or perpetrators' false memories/ reports of nonabuse.

While research clearly demonstrates that memory is not infallible, it does not follow that most clients' memories of abuse are likely to be false and derived from therapists' direct or indirect suggestions. Alpert convincingly argues that most therapists using traditional therapeutic techniques are well aware of the reconstructive nature of memory and that therapy is the process of coconstructing a personal narrative with emotional truth but potentially varying degrees of historical accuracy.

In "Incest and the Intersubjective Politics of Knowing History," Grand points out that coconstruction of reality or truth is not only based on memory phenomena but also on the distribution of power. She makes an interesting analogy between current attempts to undermine the perceptions of sexual-abuse survivors and "the annihilation of history and subjectivity" that occurs in Orwell's 1984. In this classic novel, the dominating perpetrator ("Big Brother's" representative O'Brien) forces the main character and victim Winston to deny his own perceptions and accept the Official, falsified version of reality.

Several authors discuss factors that might increase the potential for memory distortion in clients. Hammond and Brown discuss potential distortion in highly suggestible or hypnotizable subjects, uncertain about the past, who experience strong interrogatory or coercive pressure. Hammond offers clear, practical guidefines about how to encourage neutral expectations when using hypnosis with trauma victims, including discussions that material elicited under hypnosis is not necessarily more or less accurate than other memories. …