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Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

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RECOVERED MEMORY STUDY

NEW STUDY ON REPRESSED MEMORIES IS BAD SCIENCE

In the last issue of SKEPTIC, you published a Reuters wire service report about a survey of British psychotherapists conducted for the British Psychological Society by Dr. Bernice Andrews and associates, which purported to "prove" the reality of some recovered memories of sexual abuse. In your introduction, you said that although you were generally skeptical of such recovered memories, "to be fair in our reporting we note that a recent British study argues that some of these recovered memories can be verified, and thus may have some basis in truth."

I am quite surprised that you chose to publicize this horribly flawed survey without comment. Allow me to remedy that.

The "memories" in the Andrews study were not corroborated in any kind of scientific sense. All data came from telephone interviews with just over 100 BPS therapists, who reported what their clients allegedly had told them. Think about the scientific laxity of such a survey. The therapist tells the surveyor that the client said that her aunt always knew there was something funny about her father, and this is presented as "corroboration" of abuse. Thus it is fourth-hand hearsay, coming out of therapy that is rife with suggestion and memory tampering.

The most egregious forms of recovered memory therapy have used hypnosis, dream analysis, misinterpretation of bodily pangs, and other pseudoscientific methods to unearth "memories" of mythical abuse that have torn families asunder and destroyed lives. But far more subtle cues from therapists who believe in the theory of massive repression can lead to "memories" of abuse that never happened. Therapists never think (or know) that they are leading their clients, so a telephone survey of such therapists is essentially meaningless.

The fact that some of the initial "memories" have arisen outside therapy is hardly surprising, given the number of books, television programs, and media publicity given to "recovered memories" in the 1990s. I am familiar with many such cases.

In all of my research on this topic, I did not find one case of truly corroborated massive repression, in which years of abuse were supposedly completely forgotten. What therapists and their clients grab as "corroboration" is highly questionable, since there is a kind of self-confirmatory bias that kicks into gear once a belief system is in place. For instance, a divorced mother might say, "I always thought your father spent an awfully long time tucking you in at night," and that is taken as corroboration.

The therapists in the study claim that one-third of the "memories" arose outside therapy. While this is a debatable and self-serving conclusion, it is not all that unlikely in the over-heated atmosphere of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when most women with problems at least considered that perhaps they stemmed from repressed memories of abuse. Many people came to therapy, having read misguided books such as The Courage to Heal, already believing they had recovered memories, or demanding to get them, but that does not mean the "memories" were accurate, nor does it let ignorant therapists who believed in mythical ritual abuse and recovered memories off the hook.

Andrews and her colleagues interviewed only fellow therapists. They did not speak directly to anyone who purportedly recovered memories, nor to those accused of sexual abuse on their basis. This is shoddy science, based on the hearsay evidence of the very people who encouraged people to believe in massive repression in the first place. It is akin to members of the Inquisition conducting a study amongst themselves about their experience with witches.

The main question is: Can people engage in massive repression? Can they forget years of traumatic events and then recall them later? The answer is almost certainly "No." In three years of research, I failed to find even one convincing case. …

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