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Recovered Memories of Abuse

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These papers - from a conference with the same title - includes work by Lawrence Weiskrant (highlighting the concerns around false memories), John Morton (outlining contemporary models of memory), and Valerie Sinason (on detecting abuse in child psychotherapy). The second half presents a psychoanalytic theory of false memory syndrome, by Joseph Sandler and Anne-Marie Sandler. Peter Fonagy and Mary Taget then offer a final overview.

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1. Memories of abuse, or abuse of memories?

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Lawrence Weiskrantz

The topic of recovered memories of abuse is of considerable social importance, and of personal concern—indeed of grief—to many individuals. But perhaps I should first say what I consider that this discussion is not about.

There are many interesting issues about which it is not. It is not about whether sexual abuse occurs: it does, and the consequences can be dire. Estimates of how frequently it occurs in our society might be relevant for judging base rates, but I shall not deal with such estimates, nor with the very difficult and fuzzy question of definition. It is not about whether satanic ritual abuse occurs. No one has yet provided any convincing and concrete confirmative evidence, here or in America, that it does in detectable frequency (viz. the report by Lanning, 1992, in the United States and by La Fontaine, 1994, in the United Kingdom). But no one can prove the universal negative—that is, prove that it never does occur nor has occurred. Exhortation that it might occur does not get us very far. Nor, equally, can one prove the universal negative about abuse by alien visitors from outer space, nor of the recovery of memories of earlier lives. Nor is my talk about the sincerity or otherwise of beliefs of therapists, although Yapko’s (1993) findings that 28% of a large population of graduate therapists in the United States believe that hypnosis can resurrect memories from past lives, and that 53% of them believe that it can retrieve memories going back to child-birth, are, to put it mildly, rather disturbing. We do not know the comparable figures for this country, and it was hoped that the British Psychological Society (BPS) would provide such evidence in its report (Morton et aL, 1995). (In fact, the published report does not pursue such points, and, alas, I found the report itself to be weakly complacent in its outlook and deeply unsatisfactory in its analysis: for a critique see Weiskrantz, 1995.)

 

2. Cognitive perspectives on recovered memories

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John Morton

I am not a clinician; I have no friends who have recovered memories, nor do I have friends who have been accused by people who have recovered memories. I am an academic and am used to academic discourse. Even worse, or even better, I am an experimentalist and theoretician. Reading the material on recovered memories and false memories, I had something of a shock, for two reasons. The first was the nature of the material itself. Irrespective of the historical facts of the matter, I have found these stories of abuse and brutality, usually involving small children, extremely disturbing.

The second problem was that, rather than the one, flexible scientific truth that I had dealt in all my life, where outrageous hypotheses could be advanced without more than a sad smile in return, I now found myself in an area where certain hypotheses carried with them the threat of legal proceedings and possibly imprisonment. This was an unfamiliar area of discourse, where the very nature of truth became an issue. It became apparent that there are a number of different kinds of truth involved. Firstly, there is the historical truth: what really happened. Secondly, there is a narrative truth, which results from a process of remembering and constructing a version of past events; this process could take place in a therapeutic context, in which client and therapist engage together, with the aim of enabling the client to understand something about herself or himself. These two kinds of truth can be contrasted with legal truth, which is established on the basis of evidence admissible in a court of law. Finally, there is scientific truth, which actually concerns what is possible in principle rather than what might have happened in any particular case. In the public debates on the issues, we see, repeatedly, a dangerous slide from the truth or falsity of an individual matter to the generalization and back.

 

3. Remembering in therapy

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Valerie Sinason

I had planned to try to do justice to what we can refer to as all the different languages being spoken here, but I now have a profound sense that there are three different languages being spoken, with very few interpreters. I have met several families here in great pain who had come, rather courageously, hoping to understand more of what could have changed their children’s attitude towards them. Some of the families I met had no experience of psychotherapy except as something that had hurt them or hurt their families. Such families had no initial understanding of the different kinds of psychotherapy, and they were very carefully trying to understand the different sorts of training and different ways there are of approaching clinical work. I met psychologists who had understanding of clinical work and of the methodology of psychoanalytic clinical research that comes from consulting-room skills; and I met psychotherapists who did not understand the language of psychology research. There seem to be only a few bilingual people about, and perhaps nobody trilingual. Some of us, of course, have a conflict in our selves with regard to these different languages. For example, in nay role as research psychotherapist, I have had to video patients every year to try to get a visual impression of how they had changed. As a clinician I took great care to say to all these patients with learning disabilities, whose consent is often not properly sought, to check whether they really wanted the video made. When a couple of them, after my having taken much care, actually said no, that they would rather not be videotaped, the clinician in me was absolutely delighted that I had given them a proper choice, but the researcher in me was deeply depressed because I knew that the symmetry of the experimental results had been spoiled.

 

4. Panel discussion

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Alan Baddeley, Peter Fonagy Brendan MacCarthy, John Morton, Hanna Segal, Valerie Sinason, Lawrence Weiskrantz

It is perhaps useful to remind ourselves of some of the ideas that have been put forward here, and as the Chair I would also like to take the opportunity to summarize some thoughts that have been stimulated in me.

We have spoken about scientific reasoning and scientific thought, and have been reminded by Lawrence Weiskrantz of the grave danger of a retrospective search for the truth. The expectations that we have are compelling in the sense that they affect our findings, and the pressure for confirmation is always present among us. In some ways, this bias is as true in scientific research as it is in therapeutic research, and it represents a temptation that we have consistently to resist.

Perhaps there are different types of truths, as John Morton suggested. Perhaps we have to think of a scientific truth, a personal truth, a legal truth, and the criteria for these are certainly different. I am not too sure, however, that we can then conclude that the truths are different because the criteria we use are different. Perhaps the statements that we make about the various sorts of truths are different, and perhaps we have not yet given serious consideration to what we mean by the truth. I hope to touch on this a little later.

 

5. A psychoanalytic theory of repression and the unconscious

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Joseph Sandler and Anne-Marie Sandler

The status of recovered memories of abuse has been discussed throughout this book, and the relevant literature has been reviewed by the contributors (see also Chapter 6). The psychoanalytic concept of repression is frequently invoked in discussions of the validity of recovered memories of abuse, and “forgotten” memories are nearly always thought of as having been relegated by repression to “the unconscious”. Such a broad formulation is inevitably imprecise, and it is important that the psychoanalytic meaning and usage of the repression concept, as well as that of “the unconscious”, be clarified.

Freud’s publications spanned several decades, and, as his psychoanalytic thinking developed, the precise meaning of many of his concepts and terms altered. This rendered much of his later developments in psychoanalytic theory ambiguous, and the situation has not been helped by psychoanalytic writers who have used the same conceptual terms but applied different meanings to them (for further discussion, see Sandler, 1983).

 

6. Perspectives on the recovered memories debate

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Peter Fonagy and Mary Target

The last four years have seen a unique controversy between senior academics and mental health professionals. It concerns the validity of adults’ forgotten, but subsequently recovered, memories of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). On one side of this debate are clinicians and survivors (e.g. Freyd, 1993), who maintain that most such memories are historically accurate. On the other side of the “battlefield” are experimental psychologists (e.g. Loftus, 1993), people who have apparently been falsely accused of abuse (Doe, 1991), and so-called recanters (e.g. Pasley, 1994), all of whom regard recovered memories as principally introduced by suggestion, usually from over-eager psychotherapists. The former group tend to talk of “survivors”, the latter of people suffering from “false memory syndrome”. Both terms are highly emotive, which is hardly surprising given that the group designated tends to consist of individuals, usually women, who have entered therapy with relatively severe psychological conditions, such as chronic eating disorder, severe depression, personality disorders, and suicidal tendencies. There is a real danger that in the effort, by both sides, to establish the validity of their position, it is the individuals with these serious problems who are having to pay the price. It is a concern about this possibility that prompted the undertaking of this review.

 

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