Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Repressed Memories: Some Clinical Data Contributing toward Its Elucidation

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Repressed Memories: Some Clinical Data Contributing toward Its Elucidation

Article excerpt

Recently there has been considerable controversy about the reality or validity of patient's memories of abuse recovered while in psychotherapy. The debate has been polarized by those who maintain the impossibility of such "strong repression" versus those who maintain that repressed memories of abuse underlie a wide variety of psychiatric dysfunctions. This article presents two well-documented cases of patients with the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) that presented unique opportunities to verify by independent means some abusive experiences suffered in childhood.

Since the second half of the nineteenth century there has been considerable debate about the historical truth of patients' narratives concerning traumatic abuse. On the one hand, there were clinicians such as Pierre Janet (18591947) who published case after case in which they took for granted that many traumatic events were dissociated from consciousness. The cases of Leonie, Marie and Achilles, constitute striking examples of how clinicians such as Janet were convinced that such malignant and dissociated memories were mirroring historical events.1 As Janet himself explains in his book L'automatisme psychologique, published in 1889: "I thought then of putting her [Marie] into a deep somnambulistic state, capable, as has been seen, of recovering apparently forgotten memories, and I was thus able to recall the exact memory of a scene that she had never been aware of before except in the most incomplete fashion" 2(p.50).

On the other hand, although Freud early in his career firmly endorsed the historical truth of his patients discourse, he eventually abandoned the so-called "seduction hypothesis" arguing that such traumatic experiences never occurred in external reality. As Freud 3 put it in 1933: "I was driven to recognize in the end that these reports were untrue and so came to understand that the hysterical symptoms are derived from phantasies and not from real occurrences" (p.584).

As we all know, right from the start, Freud's position was highly polemical and, according to some critics, without solid foundations4-6 Nevertheless the position that sexual traumatic events in childhood were merely intrapsychic and conflictual fantasies was assumed as correct and basically uncontested in the clinical literature. Henderson's7 estimation in Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, Second Edition, that the proportion of incest victims was only one in a million is a typical aspect of many clinicians' lack of acknowledgment, neglect, and disbelief that child victims of sexual abuse had to confront (see Gelinas8 and Olafson, Corwin and Summit9 for a thoughtful historical exposition).

In the last two decades appeared a plethora of epistemological, clinical and developmental studies that leave no reasonable doubt that many children are victimized and abused not only physically but sexually as well.l12 Many contemporary clinicians, as did Janet and other well-known authorities decades before, have noted that some adult patients began to remember their abusive experiences as a by-product of being in a process of psychotherapy.

It is this last finding that is being vigorously contested by the False Memory Foundation and by psychologists and authors such as Loftus and Ketcham,l3 Yapko144 and Ofshe and Watters.l5 Basically, the position taken by the above-mentioned authors is that such "memories" are not the product of historical and real traumas, but "pseudo-memories" implanted by well-meaning therapists that usually created such vivid "recollections" by procedures like hypnosis, abreactions, and other psychotherapeutic techniques. The position taken by the False Memory Foundation is that many innocent people are being falsely accused of sexual-abuse crimes that are only the products of misguided therapeutic interventions. As Gardner"6 put it bluntly:

The greatest scandal of the century in American psychiatry. . . …

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