Recovered Memory

Recovered memory, often called repressed memory, emerged as a significant concept in mental health therapy in the early 1980s. The theory postulates that a variety of complaints in adulthood, ranging from eating disorders to marital problems, stem from childhood sexual abuse by a family member, usually of a daughter by her father. This experience is so traumatic that the child represses the memory and from then on has no conscious awareness that the abuse occurred. But at a subconscious level, the repressed memory continues to fester, producing symptoms that disrupt the victim's adult life. Therapeutic treatment consists of memory enhancement techniques to unblock the memories, allowing the patient to confront the source of her problems (an estimated 90 percent of these cases are female) and by doing so, "heal."

The roots of recovered memory theory can be traced to attitudes toward the middle-class family in parts of the feminist movement. Social worker Florence Rush was especially influential, arguing that INCEST was far more common than generally believed and was permitted because it prepared the female to accept a subordinate role in society. The theory provided an explanation for the gap between textbook estimates of incest (one to two for every million women in the United States) and its supposed common occurrence. The theory's most influential advocates include psychiatrists Judith Herman and Lenore Terr and law professor Catherine MacKinnon. But the single most influential book was written by lay people: The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, originally published in 1988, which provides checklists of symptoms suggesting past abuse. It has sold close to a million copies.

Both the theory and the therapy are controversial. The theory assumes that memory functions like a camcorder, keeping repressed memories intact in a special part of the brain. But memory experts have demonstrated that memory does not function in this way: forgetting is extensive and memories are continually reconstructed into what memory expert Elizabeth Loftus has called "creative blendings of fact and fiction." There is no scientific evidence that memories of traumas are processed and/or stored differently from other memories. The theory assumes that certain symptom profiles–especially eating disorders–are signposts of child sexual abuse. However, according to American Psychiatric Association guidelines, "no specific unique symptom profile has been identified that necessarily correlated with abuse experiences."

The techniques therapists use to recover memories are equally controversial. The most common are hypnosis, guided imagery (the therapist helps the patient visualize scenes of childhood abuse), dreamwork, participation in "survivor groups," massage therapy to uncover "body memories" of abuse in infancy, and injections of sodium Amytal as a truth serum. There is no scientific evidence for the existence of "body memories." As for hypnosis, in a report issued in 1984, the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs stated that contrary to what the public believes, recollections obtained during hypnosis are "generally less reliable than nonhypnotic recall." According to the Council, hypnosis increases suggestibility, promoting vivid pseudo-memories. Memory researcher Martin Orne has noted that sodium Amytal is even more problematic than hypnosis in producing false memories. Researchers like Loftus, who has performed experiments in which she implanted "memories" in college students, including memories of traumatic events (such as being lost as a child in a shopping mall) believe therapists, wrongly convinced their patients' problems derive from childhood sexual abuse, implant false memories in their patients.

Recovered memory therapy has wreaked a great deal of damage on patients and their families. Therapists have encouraged patients to confront the perpetrator, typically the father, and sever all ties with their parents (the mother is often viewed as an accomplice), even to sue them in civil or criminal court. It is estimated that roughly 15 percent of patients who recover false memories of sexual abuse eventually go on to recover memories of being forced to participate in Satanic cults in which they engaged in ritual murders and cannibalism. Many of these patients have been wrongly diagnosed as suffering from multiple personality disorders, which supposedly had enabled them to compartmentalize their terrible experiences, and some have been hospitalized for long periods.

Since 1995 a number of factors have led to a waning of recovered memory therapy. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation, established in 1992 by and for accused families, assembled leading U.S. and Canadian memory researchers on its board and widely disseminated their findings. But the most important factor has been malpractice suits against therapists brought by ex-patients, some of which have resulted in multimillion-dollar judgments. As a result, insurance companies have become unwilling to insure therapists practicing recovered memory therapy.

See also: Child Abuse; Mental Illness.


Bass, Ellen, and Laura Davis. 1988. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York: Harper and Row.

Herman, Judith L. 1992. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Isaac, Rael Jean. 2000. "Down Pseudo-Memory Lane." Priorities for Health 12, no. 4: 17-22, 60-61.

Loftus, Elizabeth, and Katherine Ketcham. 1991. The Myth of Repressed Memory. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Ofshe, Richard, and Ethan Watters. 1994. Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria. New York: Scribner.

Prendergast, Mark. 1995. Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives. Hinesburg, VT: Upper Access.

Terr, Lenore. 1994. Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found. New York: Basic Books.