Indeed, many adults who had in treatment recovered a memory of childhood sexual abuse and accused the supposed perpetrator later retracted the claim. For example, Gail Macdonald, who lives in Ontario and is the author of "Making of an Illness," had seen a social worker who used hypnosis and guided imagery to convince her that prior sexual abuse by her father was the cause of her current emotional problems. The therapist said she had multiple personality disorder, a diagnosis he inflicted, she said, on "120 people in my little community."
As a result of the false memory, Macdonald said she divorced herself from her family, suffered horrible nightmares, wrote compulsively in journals about the abuses her father had supposedly committed and lost so much weight she was described as corpse-like until she sought the help of a psychiatrist who said she had developed "post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of therapy" and helped her realize that her recovered memory was false.
How can someone tell if a recovered memory is false? Serious questions should be raised when corroborating evidence is lacking, when the so-called memory occurs before a child is able to remember and when details of the memory are preposterous (like a rape by aliens), said Dr. Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University who addressed a recent conference on False Memory Syndrome sponsored by New York Medical College.
McHugh also questioned the reliability of methods typically used to elicit these "memories." Among the most common are hypnosis and guided imagery, during which a therapist may introduce the notion that sexual abuse had occurred and ask the patient to try to remember the circumstances and who the perpetrator might have been. Sometimes patients participate in a recovered memory group where other members pressure the newcomer to recall prior sexual abuse and even suggest how it may have occurred.
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, cited numerous studies that demonstrated how easy it was to implant a false memory. By asking a series of leading questions and by having a supposed "witness" talk about the made-up experience, it is often possible to convince someone that the event actually happened. In one study, researchers easily convinced half the adult participants that they had been hospitalized in severe pain as children or that they had been lost in a shopping mall at age 5. Several people with these false memories provided detailed embellishments.
This is especially true for young children. In a study conducted by Dr. Stephen Ceci, a psychologist at the New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, preschool children were asked weekly about whether a fictitious event had ever happened to them. By the 10th week, more than half reported that it had happened and provided cogent details about it.
In one experiment, interviewers told the children: "Think real hard. Did you get your hand caught in a mousetrap and go to the hospital to get it off?"
Ceci reported: "So compelling did the children's narrative appear that we suspected that some of the children had come to truly believe they had experienced the fictitious events. Neither parents nor researchers were able to convince 27 percent of the children that the events never happened."
Based on his research, Ceci concluded, "It is exceedingly, devilishly difficult for professionals to tell fact from fiction when a child has been repeatedly suggestively interviewed over a long period of time. They look and act the way children do when they are trying to be accurate and honest."
Adults with emotional problems like depression, dissociative disorder or hysteria also tend to be highly susceptible to the suggestion that an imagined event had actually occurred. Professional psychiatric organizations have warned against the use of "memory recovery techniques" to unearth tales of sexual abuse.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, for example, techniques like hypnotherapy, regression therapy and drug-mediated interviews are unproved and not acceptable in psychiatric practice. In guidelines issued three years ago, the college stated that psychiatrists should never use forceful or persuasive interviewing to elicit memories.
Families facing accusations based on recovered memories that they insist are untrue can seek help from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 3401 Market St., Suite 130, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104-3315, phone (215) 387-1865 or fax (215) 387-1917. Jane Brody
Columnist A young woman in psychotherapy recovered the memory that at age 13 she was raped by her teacher, became pregnant and underwent an abortion. No corroborating evidence for this event existed. In fact, the woman had not reached menarche until 15, so the pregnancy was medically impossible.
Still, she filed criminal charges against the teacher, who had to spend his life savings to defend himself against the false accusation. Eventually, the court ruled that recovery of a repressed memory lacked sufficient scientific foundation to be admissible evidence. There is no question that the memory of traumatic events can sometimes become repressed, a condition known as psychogenic amnesia.
For example, an otherwise law-abiding man who in a fit of rage committed a heinous crime might report it to police as if someone else had done it and make no attempt to escape or to defend himself when he is accused of the crime. Or a woman who was violently raped may afterward be unable to explain her bruises or shock until perhaps she returns to the crime scene. Or a child who witnessed the violent death of a parent may develop a variety of behavioral disturbances but be unable to recall what started it all.
But there is also no question that many so-called recovered memories, particularly those involving allegations of childhood sexual abuse by a parent or other close relative, teacher or friend, are often fictions induced by the concerted efforts of a therapist who fosters a belief that becomes so deeply held it seems like a real memory.
This "false memory syndrome" has resulted in many family tragedies: alienation of children from their parents, loss of jobs, ostracism and divorces.
"We don't know what percent of these recovered memories are real and what percent are pseudomemories," said Dr. Harold Lief, a psychiatrist from Philadelphia who was one of the first to question these induced memories.
"But we do know there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of cases of pseudomemories and that many families have been destroyed by them.
We also know that many therapists who track down these memories and focus on them fail to deal with the patient's real problems."
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