Do we forget our worst memories? Some psychotherapists believe that when children are hurt—especially if they are sexually abused—they may “dissociate,” and block out the memory in order to protect themselves from pain. But the memory still affects them, showing up in anxiety or anger about other matters decades later. In theory, “recovering” the memory of the original experience will help adult patients with current problems.
However, to quote the American Psychological Association, there is “little or no empirical support” for the concept of repressed or dissociated memories of sexual abuse. People who were sexually abused as children usually do remember some or all of the event, although they may not talk about it or see it clearly.
The “recovered memory” movement, which surged in the 1980s, seems to have been a backlash against forty years of denying true accounts of sexual abuse. According to the great father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, all children might fantasize about sexual relations with their parents. To Freud’s credit, he also pointed out that memories of sexual abuse could be correct. But his American followers came to routinely dismiss accounts of incest as fantasies. That idea held sway in U.S. courts, and worked against many women or children who accused men, argues the British writer, the late Richard Webster, in, "Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis." “Again and again women found that their own entirely genuine memories of sexual abuse were discounted or denied by psychotherapists. Again and again the factual accounts of distraught and distressed children were dismissed as fantasies,” he writes.
Then the pendulum swung and the bias was reversed. Now psychotherapists were urged to see any hint of a memory—or any of a wide variety of psychological symptoms—as a sign of early sexual abuse. As Frederick Crews wrote in, “The Revenge of the Repressed,” in the New York Review of Books, in November 1994, “a single diagnosis for miscellaneous complaints—that of unconsciously repressed sexual abuse in childhood—has grown…from virtual non-existence to epidemic frequency.”
Why would so many patients sign on to a painful idea if it wasn’t true? Evidence suggests that people who report childhood abuse are more likely to suffer from sleep paralysis—when you mentally awaken from sleep before your body is able to move. Sleep paralysis can include tactile and visual hallucinations, often of threatening intruders in the bedroom. It’s possible to interpret these hallucinations as bits of old unclear memories. People who suffer from sleep paralysis are also more likely to have emotional issues, including depression.
Richard J. McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard who has extensively studied adults who report childhood sexual abuse, reports another possibility: Some children do not understand that anything notable is happening at the time but when they recall the event later and see it through adult eyes suffer “intense distress,” he writes.
False memories are well-documented in legal history. We are vulnerable to what psychologists call “suggestion” and can innocently construct false or “pseudomemories” of events that never occurred, if they are encouraged by someone we trust. One disturbing 2007 study found that when people recalled sexual abuse in childhood during therapy their account was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help. Sadly, well-meaning therapists have done their patients harm.
J Anxiety Disord. 2008 Dec;22(8):1535-41. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2008.03.007. Epub 2008 Mar 13.
Prevalence and correlates of sleep paralysis in adults reporting childhood sexual abuse.
A version of this piece appeared on Your Care Everywhere.