Recovered Memory Therapy: A Dubious Practice Technique

By Stocks, J. T. | Social Work, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Recovered Memory Therapy: A Dubious Practice Technique


Stocks, J. T., Social Work


Throughout most of this century, public response to the sexual abuse of children had been to disregard, minimize, or deny allegations of child sexual abuse (Brownmiller, 1975; Finkelhor, 1979; Hechler, 1988). Incest was said to be a very rare event, involving fewer than two offenders per million population (Weinberg, 1955). In the 1970s reports in the clinical and popular literature indicated that child sexual abuse was more extensive than hitherto accepted (for example, Browning ex Boatman, 1977; Butler, 1978; Giaretto, 1978; Herman & Hirschman, 1977; Kempe, 1978; Meiselman, 1978). Subsequent survey studies showed the wide extent of child sexual abuse (for example, Finkelhor, 1979, 1984; Fritz, Stoll, & Wagner, 1981; Russell, 1983, 1984).

In the late 1980s reports of a previously undiscussed sexual abuse phenomenon appeared. Some therapists reported that adult clients had regained formerly lost memories of childhood sexual abuse (Blume, 1990; Courtois, 1988; Olio, 1989). Later survey studies indicated that some individuals forgot being sexually abused (Briere & Conte, 1993; Gold, Hawes, & Hohnecker, 1994; Williams, 1994, 1995). In later studies, Briere and Conte (1993) surveyed 450 adults in therapy who reported sexual abuse histories. Of these, 59 percent reported some period before age 18 when they could not remember their abuse, although there was no independent corroboration of the abuse reports. Gold et al. (1994) surveyed 105 adults in treatment for child sexual abuse issues. About 30 percent of their respondents reported a time period when they completely blocked any recollection of abuse. As was the case previously, there was no independent corroboration of the abuse incident.

Williams (1994, 1995) conducted a longitudinal follow-up study of 206 women who had been treated as girls at a hospital emergency room for sexual abuse. This study, with its prospective design, was an improvement over the previous retrospective studies. Of the 206 women, 129 (63 percent) were interviewed. Forty-nine (38 percent) did not report recall of the specific sexual abuse incident (although 33 of these 49 did recall other incidents of sexual abuse). These reports led many mental health workers to conclude that childhood sexual abuse memories were often repressed. For those clients whom they suspected of being sexually molested in childhood, attempts were made to recover abuse memories - "recovered memory therapy." A recovered memory therapist presumably can identify symptoms of forgotten childhood sexual abuse. The damaging nature of these unavailable memories makes it necessary that they be recovered and addressed in therapy. This is accomplished using memory recovery techniques (Bass &Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990;Courtois, 1988; Frederickson, 1992; Olio, 1989).

However, other clinicians and researchers questioned the validity of some recovered memories (Ceci, Huffman, & Smith, 1994; Ceci & Loftus, 1994; Goldstein & Farmer, 1992; Loftus, 1993; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; Yapko, 1994). Also, many former memory recovery clients retracted childhood sexual abuse allegations, saying that memory recovery techniques had led to distorted or confabulated recollections (Lief & Fetkewicz, 1995; Merskey, 1996; Seltzer, 1994; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994).

In light of societal ambivalence toward child maltreatment issues, it is not surprising that many workers equate doubts about memory recovery with doubts about the reality of sexual abuse. Some memory recovery advocates characterized these concerns as denial or minimization or even as "backlash" (Fowler, 1994; Hechler, 1988; Herman & Harvey, 1993). However, skepticism about many claims of recovered memory is not equivalent to skepticism about the reality of sexual abuse. Although child maltreatment and sexual abuse are authentic social and personal problems, it is not clear that memories obtained through memory work are equally authentic. …

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