Weird Science: Recovered Memory Syndrome–Not

by Sue Lange
Remember Sybil? That book scarred me. I was too sensitive when I read it. All those personalities. All that missing time in a young person’s life. From then on, if I couldn’t remember a certain episode in my life, like what I had for breakfast last week, I was sure it was because my mind had been taken over by one of my other selves. But I hadn’t been a victim of horrible child abuse. Or had I? Maybe it was something I just didn’t remember. My mind had blocked it out. Maybe hypnotism would reveal to me something horrible that had happened to me in my childhood.

Fortunately, I love food, so I don’t forget too many meals. And truthfully I don’t have periods of lost time like Sybil did. I was more scarred from the horrible depiction of the torture in the book than anything that ever happened to me.

And now I learn that Sybil’s story was a fabrication. No abuse, no personalities.

It seems the therapy used to diagnose Recovered Memory Syndrome–the thing Sybil had–is questionable at best, quackery at worst. Someone’s recovered memory is often concocted by a misguided therapist. Probably not on purpose.

In Sybil’s case, according to Debbie Nathan, author of Sybil Exposed, the whole thing came about when Sybil (not her real name) began performing what she thought her therapist wanted to see: strange behavior. Apparently Sybil had a very active imagination and a difficult, but probably not abusive, mother.

Now, before we go further, know this: there are documented cases of recovered memory, and they’ve been corroborated. Here’s a quick quote from a 1999 article in American Journal of Psychiatry:

“Childhood abuse, particularly chronic abuse beginning at early ages, is related to the development of high levels of dissociative symptoms including amnesia for abuse memories. This study strongly suggests that psychotherapy usually is not associated with memory recovery and that independent corroboration of recovered memories of abuse is often present.”

I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of child abuse or what happens to people when they are subjected to it. Notice the quote says psychotherapy is NOT associated with memory recovery. What I find strange is that therapists seemed to believe the problem was so widespread anybody with any problem was in need of hypnotism or some other psychotherapeutic method to dredge up horrible memories. Whether or not the memories were of real events or not.

Fast forward to 2010 and we have an article from Psychology Today that points out memories are not ever very accurate and in fact you can easily plant a memory. Here’s a good tidbit:

“In one study, she interviewed a mother and her two sons both individually and as a group over a period of several weeks. They were, all three of them, normal subjects that, nevertheless, came to believe in an event that never occurred. Dr. Loftus introduced the idea of the younger son once getting lost in a shopping mall and finally being reunited with his mother and older brother through the efforts of a kindly stranger. Eventually this fabricated story became so real in the minds of the subjects that they offered a physical description of the imaginary stranger. He was an older man with a beard and red suspenders! One must wonder just how much, or how little, in the way of additional suggestions it would have taken to convince the family that the boy had been molested in the period between getting lost and being returned.”

And then there’s an interesting post at Feminist Philosophers about how it’s our culture that’s inventing the trauma in the first place. We decide what is aberrant behavior and then decide that anyone subjected to it is going to suffer psychological trauma. In other words if we’re told what has happened to us is terrible, soon we suffer from it. If nobody had pointed out how horribly we’d been treated, we’d just go on with our business and maybe even stay, I don’t know, happy? It’s a controversial idea and well worth taking a look at. Here’s a snippet:

“But what if an experience, perhaps a very bad one, is not experienced as abuse at the time? Seen from the present, it may seem much more abusive than it did in the past. But if it was not experience at the time as dreadful abuse, perhaps it won’t initially be retained as one of our obvious memories. If this is correct, then people might come to remember sexual abuse after having forgotten about it.”

And of course the very weirdest came from a site that doesn’t seem to have any professional affiliation with it, but nonetheless I’m presenting here because it’s interesting. The site is called “Apologetics Index,” and here’s the quote that catches the eye:

“False memories are therapy-induced fantasies masquerading as memories that seem very real to the person being treated. They often involves accusations and allegations of incest, Satanic Ritual Abuse, or cult involvement.”

The connection here is that many people with false memories believe them to be real recovered memories. Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, they believe their concocted memory.

One more link. I found an article entitled Christian Therapist Beware of False Memory Syndrome by one Chaplain Paul G. Durbin. He’s the Director of Pastoral Care at Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital in New Orleans.

A quick search lists Pendleton Hospital, but there’s no web page so I can’t check his credentials. He seems to be fairly active in the hypnotherapy world. He’s a chaplain, a hypnotist, a therapist. Who better to weigh in on the religious angle of this memory syndrome?

Here’s a quote:

“Some therapist believe that childhood sexual abuse is the specific cause of numerous physical and mental problems which emerge in adulthood. Regardless of the problem, these therapist will began to look for and search for sexual abuse. These therapists are not discouraged to find that the client may not remember any sexual abuse in her history. If given time, they will help client find the memories. I use the female pronoun because of the thousands of patients of Recovered Memory Therapy most are women. These therapists believe that children immediately repress all memory of sexual abuse shortly after it occurs so that it is not available to conscious awareness until it comes forth in therapy. I believe that some sexual abuse is repressed, but I am convinced that generally it is a single event or perhaps a number of events that happen very early in life. I do not believe that a person can be repeated abused over many years including teen years and not remember it.”

By the way, the quotes were lifted directly from the listed websites. Teh mispellngs and bad gramir is not mine. I make enough mistakes of my own. I shouldn’t have to take the blame for others’.

Anyway, Chaplain Durbin goes on to recount numerous examples of children suing parents, then recanting later and parents suing therapists. It’s a mess. It’s sad. But if nothing else it illuminates how difficult it is to know our brains. We will probably understand the multiverse (see previous post) before we understand the human mind.

Thanks for reading.

Sue Lange

Sue Lange’s latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. “It’s a wild, good read.” Get your copy right here at BVC.

This essay was first posted on December 7, 2011 at the Singularity Watch blog.




Weird Science: Recovered Memory Syndrome–Not — 6 Comments

  1. I always kind of wondered about that. I’ve seen real dissociative personalities–they do exist, and they’re interesting to deal with, though nowhere near as OOOOHHHHTHEDRAMAAAAA as portrayed in print and film.

    I’ve also seen false memories in action. Watched a friend/colleague go off the deep end claiming any and all kinds of horrors in past and present while in “therapy” for alleged childhood trauma. Since the things I was accused of had never happened, were in fact not happening while friend was claiming they were, I learned quite a bit about how memories can be planted and made to seem real, and also how they can become their own reality. An entire psychodrama played out in front of me, complete with enactment of my supposed part therein, while my actual presence and actions, and my protests, were completely ignored. It was…a learning experience.

    Painful to undergo. Fascinating research for a writer. The human mind is an interesting animal.

  2. I recovered a memory in an acting class, doing an exercise that was supposed to allow each performer to adopt “postures” from given years in our lives. The instructor called out a number which was supposed to be an age: when she called out “Eight,” I found myself leaning away from a person who wasn’t there, trying to be polite and somewhere else at the same time. I will spare y’all the details.

    Immediately after class I called home to ask if such a thing as the event I had remembered had occurred. “You didn’t remember it?” My mother was shocked. But she and the other adults around me had treated the situation–in my hearing–without much drama (behind the scenes, I understand there was drama to spare) and the event just faded away. Until that acting class.

  3. Sue: It was bizarro world. It played out its climax by fax–person didn’t have email and those were the days when faxes were still the done thing. Used up an entire roll of the old thermal paper, pouring out both sides of the drama, with me too busy with a farm crisis to respond.

    By the time I got a moment free from saving the newborn foal’s life, I had been enlisted as an ally, excoriated as an enemy, and cast out of their life in six different and lengthily described ways. I could see they honestly believed that the me in their head was the real me. By the time I could have interjected a word, there was nothing I could say that would counteract the me they’d been fighting with at greater and greater length, with no input from me whatsoever, for the better part of two days.

    Research. It was research.

    Mad, I’m terribly sorry that happened to you. But as a writer–wow. Fascinating.

    We’re such coldblooded organisms when we’re in that zone.

  4. I worry about this backlash on real abuse sufferers (I see it being taken too far, as a deliberate attempt at discounting of *any* instance of recovered memory). We’re so black and white on these issues. Outside corroboration is essential, but often people who do know of the abuse will lie to protect the family integrity (and obviously therapists and patients who are caught up in this may lie to prevent having to admit to being so susceptible to suggestion). And in many cases law enforcement and medical personnel have lied for personal reasons (Joe Arpaeio comes to mind)

    I was very affected by the idea of a Sybil, too. I’ll have to read the unraveling of Sybil story…with a few grains of salt. Thanks for talking about it!

  5. This definitely has fascinating implications for brain chemistry. My front-and-center Recovered Memory happened when I was given a powerful drug after a surgical procedure. I snapped awake suddenly, totally from the drug — and remembered a time when my father’s side of the family (grandparents, brothers and spouses and their children) were together in NYC for the Holidays.

    A sitter was hired to take care of the seven children. I don’t have a lot of memories of that night — and it was because she lined us all up and gave us something — I’m convinced it was a sedative — to zonk us all out. Since a cousin was on medication for something, she took a terrible risk.

    I never mentioned this to my parents, but I did to my grandmother. She had selective deafness about it, and finally told me, “You know, that agency came highly recommended.” I told her that I imagined it was true, and then pointed out the risk that woman had taken.

    Recovered Memory is real — I’ve worked on a trigger point on a client and had them stop breathing, remembering landing on that spot falling off a roof. But I think we are only at the beginning of understanding it.