Dredging the Past: Recovered Memory or False Memory?

By Andrews, James H. | The Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 1994 | Go to article overview

Dredging the Past: Recovered Memory or False Memory?


Andrews, James H., The Christian Science Monitor


FOR Danny Smith and his family, life may never be the same. While the Maryland family of six is working hard at reconciliation, can they ever forget that in 1991 Mr. Smith's daughter Donna, then 17, accused her father of raping her hundreds of times as a girl, and that as a result of her claims he was tried for one of the most heinous crimes imaginable?

Last year prosecutors dropped the charges against Smith after a jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal. But the horrifying memories will remain.

And they are real memories - in contrast, it appears, to the memories of sexual abuse that Donna Smith, with the help of a psychotherapist, "recovered" three years ago. After the trial, Donna recanted her claims after concluding that the therapy-induced memories were false.

Gary Ramona's wife and children left him after his 23-year-old daughter, Holly, accused him of sexually abusing her years ago. Her recall of nightmarish events occurred as she was being treated by two psychotherapists for an eating disorder.

In a groundbreaking legal decision this spring, a California court awarded Mr. Ramona - who denies the allegations - nearly $500,000 in a malpractice suit against the therapists. It's the first time a court has ruled that such therapists owe a "duty of care" to a nonpatient in undertaking "recovered memory" treatment. Even so, Holly Ramona has not recanted her accusations and is seeking redress in court.

Controversy over recovered memory (as it applies to child abuse) is convulsing the mental-health community. A few experts question the authenticity of virtually all "repressed" memories of abuse that emerge during therapy when there was no previous indication of abuse nor corroborating evidence. A larger number of experts accept that memories of traumatic childhood events can be repressed and later recovered, but they question the techniques used by many therapists.

A growing number of mental-health experts contend that too often, false memories of childhood abuse are implanted by ill-trained or misguided therapists.

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