Repressed and recovered memory has been the topic of much debate for the past ten years. Many feel that these psychological issues have been used to create chaos in the legal system and to destroy families. Professional organizations all over the world have commented on the controversy surrounding repressed and recovered memory.
The purpose of this discussion is to examine the issues and controversies that the psychiatric community is currently facing. We will also explore the research involving repressed and recovered memory. Let's begin by defining repressed memory and recovered memory.
Definition of Repressed Memory and Recovered Memory
According to the Psychology Dictionary repression is a, "Psychoanalytic Theory, the defense mechanism whereby our thoughts are pulled out of our conscious and into our unconscious." (Psychology Dictionary) Many psychologists have concluded that the act of repressing memory is usually caused by a traumatic event. (Carroll 2002) These psychologists also contend that repressed memories can affect the desire, actions and thoughts of an individual. (Carroll 2002)
It is believed that repression can cause a variety of different psychological and physical problems, such as insomnia, eating disorders and depression. "Most psychologists accept as fact that it is quite common to consciously repress unpleasant experiences, even sexual abuse, and to spontaneously remember such events long afterward. Most of the controversy centers around recovered memories..."(Carroll 2002)
Recovered Memories are memories that have been repressed and are recovered at some later date. Often times the event is not recovered until years after it has occurred. According to an article, published by Elsevier Science, recovered memory is not a new phenomenon. (Sivers et al. 2002)
In fact, it was first discovered during the early twentieth century. The article also explains that there are two schools of thought on the topic of recovered memory. The first school of thought asserts that memories of traumatic events can be repressed and recovered and that the recovered memories can be accurate and clear. The second school of thought asserts that adults with problems simply use the theory of repressed memory to make excuses for their dysfunctional lives. (Sivers et al. 2002)
Issues and controversy
The topics of repressed and recovered memories, the latter more than the former, have been ridiculed over the last few years. Among these issues is repressed memory therapy (RMT). Repressed Memory Therapy "assumes that a healthy psychological state can only be restored by recovering and facing these repressed memories of sexual abuse." (Carroll 2002)
Opponents propose that individuals that are treated with this therapy can be convinced by psychologists that they have repressed memories of abuse. They contend that some of the memories that are recovered during this therapy are false memories. Many opponents believe that these memories are dreams or even fantasies and that many of these patients have never been abused.
Those who practice RMT use various methods to recover memories. These methods include; trance writing, visualization, group therapy and hypnosis. Opponents believe that some of these forms of therapy are not legitimate for the recovery of memory because the patient can be easily manipulated. For instance, when a patient is hypnotized they can easily be persuaded and suggestions made by the therapist may create a false memory. In addition therapy that involves visualization can also evoke false memories. The following quote is from a former RMT patient and describes how a therapist created a false memory through the use of visualization, (My father would give me a bath and he used to draw on the mirror, draw on the steam, and he would draw cartoon characters. And that was the seed for a memory; we would start with that. And [my therapist] would tell me, 'You're in the bathtub. Your dad is there. He's drawing in the mirror. What is he drawing?' Then he'd say, 'OK, now your father's coming over toward you in the bathtub. He's reaching out to touch you. Where is he touching you?' And that's how the memories were created. Carroll 2002)
Eventually the patient discovered that she had not been abused and these memories were actually created by her therapist. This discovery was detrimental to the patient and she had many psychological problems because of these false memories. The allegations of abuse were also detrimental to her family. She is not in any type of therapy and she has tried to commit suicide. (Carroll 2002)
One of the most infamous cases involving recovered memory came from Donald Watt. USA Today reports that in 1987 Donald Watt recovered a memory of being a stoker in the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. He told a horrific story of his life there and the Jews that he saw being executed. He even wrote an autobiography describing his life in the concentration camp. (Cunningham & Gary 2000) However, historians found that some of his recovered memories had no basis in fact.
For instance, Watt claimed that he escaped the gas chambers at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp but experts on genocide have determined that there were no gas chambers at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. (Cunningham & Gary 2000) Watt's memories also include a description of the layout of the Auschwitz camp that is not accurate. (Cunningham & Gary 2000) Watt stands behind his claim that he was at these concentration camps and does not believe that is memories are false. However, most in the scientific and historic communities have dismissed his claims as nothing more than imagined memories.
Oddly enough these incidences of false memory are not unique. Over the past few years a large number of people have claimed that their therapists created these memories and they were never abused. They further contend that theses false memories had a destructive effect on their lives. Several of these patients have sued former therapists and won. (Carroll 2002)
In some cases this type of therapy has been strongly discouraged. As a matter of fact in the United Kingdom the Royal College of psychiatrists "officially banned its members from using therapies designed to recover repressed memories of child abuse." (Carroll 2002) The British Psychological Society has not banned the use of this therapy but it has warned that recovered memories can simply be imagined and that a conclusion about such alleged abuses can not be made until more evidence is produced.
In addition, the American Psychological Association published a report warning practitioners that,
Recovered memory is rare. It also states that "there is a consensus among memory researchers and clinicians that most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them although they may not fully understand or disclose it....At this point," according to the APA, "it is impossible, without other corroborative evidence, to distinguish a true memory from a false one." Thus, says the APA report, a "competent psychotherapist is likely to acknowledge that current knowledge does not allow the definite conclusion that a memory is real or false without other corroborating evidence." (Carroll, 2002)
Although practitioners have been warned about the drawbacks of repressed memory therapy, it is still being practiced throughout the world. There is not a consensus on the accuracy or validity of this therapy and this is sure to an issue of debate for years to come.
Another issue facing recovered memory is its admissibility in court. Because there are no conclusive studies that demonstrate the validity of recovered memory, the legal system has questioned whether or not recovered memories of abuse should be admissible in a court of law. Opponents argue that these are false memories and that innocent people are being sent to jail based on these memories. The courts have dealt with the admissibility of recovered memory in different ways;
The few reported cases considering the admissibility of recovered memory theory at trial offer inconsistent results. For instance, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire recently reviewed the available literature on recovered memories and found that "the phenomenon of recovery of repressed memories has not yet reached the point where we may perceive these particular recovered memories as reliable"; thus evidence of recovered memories was deemed inadmissible under a modified Daubert test in that jurisdiction.
In contrast, the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan somewhat less recently applied the Daubert test to hold that one proposed expert demonstrated sufficient support for recovered memory theory in the field of psychiatry to allow her to present that theory to a jury. (Nichols n.d.)
Those in the legal profession that oppose the admissibility of recovered memory argue that it does not pass four of the Daubert. The first factor requires that recovered memory can be tested. One of the primary reasons why there is so much opposition to recovered memory is because it can not be accurately tested. Thus recovered memory has failed the fist factor of admissibility. The second factor argues that issues involving recovered memory should be subject to publication and peer review. The topic has been subject to peer review and publication but most of it opposes the practice…