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The Validity of Recovered Memories Essay

The sudden recovery of repressed memories from a traumatic event such as childhood sexual abuse can be both validating and confusing for clients that are seeking help with various problems. These new memories might be able to help client identify the cause of their feelings and issues that are affecting their life. However for others it can be a very difficult time because of the conflicting emotions about the abuser. Worst of all when dealing with the recovery of repressed memories they may be all together false. The accuracy of recovered memories in regards to sexual abuse is low and can come with significant consequences. These false memories can be very harmful to the client as well as anyone falsely accused of sexual abuse. In the late nineteenth century Sigmund Freud began using the term repression to explain how memories of a traumatic event can be inaccessible for a period of time and then return at a later date sometimes suddenly while during other times slowly developing over a period of time into a more clear memory.

It was believed that repressed memories or motivated forgetting was a defense mechanism for people who needed to protect themself from the harmful and painful memories of a traumatic experience (Boag, 2006). More recently repressed memories being recovered about childhood sexual abuse (CSA) has caused more studies to be conducted to determine if the memories being recovered are valid or if false memories are be produced due to the fact that “human memories are vulnerable to distortion, that illusory memories can be created and therapies designed to recover memories of repressed abuse may inadvertently foster false memories of trauma” (Clancy, Schacter, McNally, & Pitman, 2000, p. 26)

Some therapist believes that memories that have been repressed can be successfully recovered with therapy and that these memories accurately portray the past events to the extent that legal action can be taken. Some states have even ratified laws to accommodate the recovery of repressed memories so that believed offender of CSA can be prosecuted once the client has recovered their memory of the traumatic event (Partlett & Nurcombe, 1998). These memories can be recovered using various therapies such as hypnosis, dream interpretation, guided imagery and truth serum. Many of the therapies used for recovering repressed memories include having the client in a relaxed state so that the memories can then be recalled more effectively. However a fallacy can occur when trying to help a client recover a repressed memory. If a therapist explains how a type of therapy such as hypnosis is helpful in recovering memories of CSA the client may then remember such instances of abuse simply because they believe the therapy works, so it does.

***As with any type of memory recovered memories are also subject to corruption and can vary from partially true to completely false. Recovered memories can be a fabrication of events and details that never actually took place. Because of these false memories being about such extreme information such as CSA an organization called False Memory Foundation was created in 1992 to help those who have been accused of such acts. The foundation will help the accused get in touch with attorneys that specialize in cases regarding repressed and recovered memories (Lein, 1999). For example a women’s recovered memory of being forced to drink blood as a child was later discovered to be nothing more than her drinking from a communion cup as a child. The wine she drank was explained to her as the blood of Christ when going to church and as a child thought the wine to be of real blood.

This caused what appeared to be a traumatic memory but turned out to be a memory that was explained easily and while the memory was true the actual act of drinking blood was not (Pope & Brown, 1996). At times the memories that are recovered are later found to be true with evidence from an outside source such as collaboration from another family member that was present at the time of the abuse or documentation such as diary’s kept by the abuser. Currently there is not a clear black and white understanding of recovered memories so theses type of therapies will continued to be practiced but should be done so cautiously. Not all memories recovered are false making it difficult for some to decide how they feel about the issue of repressed and recovered memories.

I believe that memories can be forgotten and later recalled with prompting from exposure to an outside stimulus that brings the memory to the surface again. However because of the number of ways a memory can be corrupted I am forced to doubt the validity of recovered memories. Without substantiated proof that a memory that has been recovered is true I feel it would be unjust to presume that memory is truly factual, especially when accusation of CSA can be so traumatic for not only the client but for their family as well. In most cases clients accuse their fathers of the assault which result in disruption of the family and for some court cases (Groman, 2008).

The practice of therapist trying to help clients recover repressed memories can become unethical extremely quickly depending on how the therapy progresses. Therapists have been sued and found guilty of implanting false memories (Stocks, 1998). It is important the therapist use open ended questions that allow the client to proceed with the sessions as they see fit rather than using suggestive or leading questions (Holmes, 2006). “Clients can be asked if they had any experiences in childhood that they found sexually inappropriate, uncomfortable, or frightening” (Pope & Brown, 1996, p. 158). However informing a client that their symptoms present in a way that the therapist believes the client has been a victim of CSA is a leading statement and can begin an unethical path to false recovered memories. Participation in survival groups can also cause these false memories of CSA. These memories appear to be real to the client however groups can cause conformity and may be causing false memories in the absence of any real CSA memories to be recovered(Stocks, 1998).

Asch (1956) also demonstrated how groups can cause conformity to the point that members will make reports that are inconsistent with observable facts. Also with the therapist being in a position of authority clients can feel the desire to please their therapist and will push them self to remember the tragic memory believed to be repressed in order to satisfy the therapist. Having a therapist in anyway push or persuade a client in to believing that they have repressed memories of CSA or any other repressed memory that needs to be recovered is extremely unethical due to the highly damaging effects this can have on the client’s life. Because of these and other ethical concerns some organizations have decided to create a code of ethics in regards to repressed and recovered memories. This code of ethics gives therapist a place to seek help when ethical dilemmas arise. Giving therapist a variety of choices and steps they can take if presented with such a case (Pettifor, Crozier, & Chew, 2001).

While it is important for people who have either actually repressed a memory of CSA or have been afraid to come forward before that point to have the ability to peruse their offender in court it is also important to remember the consequences of false memories. When a client recovers a false memory of CSA not only will the client have to deal with the emotions that come with that false memory but they can also become cut off from their family. For some the false memory has become so over whelming that they begin to hurt themselves with suicidal thoughts, self-mutilation, sleep disorders, and nightmares in an attempt to handle the information they have recovered and perceive as true.

These symptoms appear to lessen after terminating therapy (Stocks, 1998) Along with the client the accused person must also deal with ramifications of the false memories. The accused can be taken to court and put in jail if found guilty. Because of the lack of imperial data supporting that a significant number of recovered memories are indeed factual I find myself unable to support a therapy that can be so damaging to everyone involved from the client, to therapist and the family of both the client and the therapist. If false memories are produced and legal action is taken against the presumed abuser or the therapist for implanting false memories regardless if it was done purposefully it can cause damaging consequences for all parties involved.


Asch, S. E. (t956). Studies of independence and conformity: 1. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs, 70(9), 1-70. Boag, S. (2006). Freudian repression, the common view, and pathological science. Review of General Psychology, 10(1), 74-86. Clancy, S. A., Schacter, D. L., McNally, R. J., & Pitman, R. K. (2000). False recognition in women reporting recovered memories of sexual abuse. Psychological Science, 11(1), 26-31. Gorman, G. (2008). The recovered memory controversy—A new perspective. European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 8(1), 22-31. Holmes, L. (May 06, 2006). The debate over recovered memories In About.com. Retrieved December 3, 2012, from http://mentalhealth.about.com/cs/dissociative/a/dabaterec.htm. Lein, J. (1999). Recovered memories: context and controversy. Social Work, 44(5), 481-484. Partlett, D.F., & Nurcombe, B. (1998). Recovered memories of child sexual abuse and liability: Society, Science, and the law in a comparative setting. Psychology, Publice Policy, and Law, 4(4), 1253-1306. Pettifor, J., Crozier, S., & Chew, J. (2001). Recovered memories: Ethical Guidelines to Support Professionals. Journal of child Sexual abuse, 10(2), 1. Pope, K. S.,
& Brown, L. S. (1996). Clinical work with people who report recovered memories. In Recovered memories of abuse: Assessment, therapy, forensics (pp. 145-205). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association. Stocks, J.T. (1998). Recovered memory therapy: A dubious practice technique. Social Work, 43(5), 423-436.

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