Childhood sexual abuse is a heinous and unthinkable crime. Victims of these crimes suffer the consequences for a long time, sometimes even a lifetime. I do believe that there are cases that the effect on the child was so traumatic that they “repressed” these memories. Especially if the perpetrator was someone, they depended on to fulfill basic day-to-day care or there was a strong bond of trust between the victim and the perpetrator. I believe this to be true because other traumatic events have had similar reports, such as a natural disaster; a child watching the brutal murder of his parents; and war. But this particular reaction even in these situations is rare. Moreover, because of the strength of the emotion involved in the trauma it could leave a very detailed and strong impression, even though buried very deep in the mind. Exposure of these crimes almost guarantees a public outcry.
In recent years, there is a sudden increase in “recovered” memories. Unfortunately, many of these cases have been proven false but not before destroying many lives and relationships. Because of many high profile cases, the accuracy of all memories has been brought into question and also has created an increase in skepticism.
While society does not want to believe such atrocities exist, they are anxious to believe the innocent and punish the perpetrator. It is difficult to retrieve memory in its purest form and it takes a highly skilled and conscientious therapist to retrieve memories without manipulating the facts, but it vital for the protection of the victims to find a way to minimize false memories causing destruction of the lives of the innocently accused.
Unfortunately, there have been too many cases where either an over zealous or fame seeking therapist has used “guided” imagery, suggestion and other means of creating memories. There are several things I believe therapists can do to minimize the unintentional creation of memories.
1. First, a professional should remember the portion of their oath that states “First do no harm.” Keeping this in mind, I believe a good therapist would be willing to abide by self-monitoring guidelines such as the following.
2. Remember there truly is no such thing as a “classic case”.
3. Attack suspected cases from “unbiased” position.
4. Use caution when recommending reading materials or exercises or other therapy related activities.
5. Work with another therapist to create a check and balance atmosphere.
6. Know your subject. Therapists need to thoroughly comprehend how memory works as well as the susceptibility of such.
7. Also, they should not work in areas they are unfamiliar with unless a specialist in that specific arena closely monitors them.
8. Remember the harm that can be done through misguided therapy.
9. Professionals need to attend to their powers. Keeping in mind that they hold a lot of power when working in vulnerable situations.
It’s important that they remember how the patient’s perception and direction is often very much in their control and they have an obligation to use this power properly. Not only are therapists hurting their patients and those that are unjustly accused, but they are also doing damage to the field of psychotherapy by creating a perspective of “recovered memory” that obscures the authenticity of valid memories. Persons whom have sought assistance in a life crises or function have now become victims once again. Keep in mind that with even the mildest influence, the therapist can bring into question the entire validity of the claim.
If you follow the consensus in many psychology textbooks, “forgetting is often not memories discarded but memories hard to find,” it would make sense that particularly painful memories have been hidden in dark recesses of the mind. Using the library analogy, then the “book” containing these traumatic events has only been locked into a special storage room of the library and we need only to find the right key (cue) to retrieve it. In all traumas where the memory is buried there is a delicate balance.
According to James McGaugh (1994) a highly emotionally charged event would create vivid and intrusive memories. However, in the case of long- term abuse the victim may have shut-down emotions related to the abuse and following McGaugh’s theory, the memories would more easily be buried. Repressed memory is a type of disassociation that develops to enable the victim to survive. Not just as a defense mechanism as in “betrayal trauma”, but also as a preservation of a perception or need of a person.
McGough, James Nature 371, 702 – 704 (20 October 1994); doi:10.1038/371702a0.
Myers, David (1994). Psychology, Sixth Edition in Modules.