Thankfully, the problem of the damage done by recovered memory therapy is so extensive that the False Memory Syndrome Foundationwas erected to help families find support while dealing with the destructive fallout that can result from this practice.
For those who are not familiar with it, I describe recovered memory therapy (RMT) in my book, The Learn to Discern Compendium, as a technique that is used to help a patient recover repressed memories of traumatic events ranging from incest and satanic ritual abuse to space-alien abduction and regression into infancy.
RMT is an umbrella term for several different kinds of unproven methods for recovery of memories such as through hypnosis, guided imagery, and sedative-hypnotic drugs. Proponents claim that traumatic memories can be buried in the subconscious and that this can affect current behavior until they are recovered and dealt with.
However, research does not support the idea that a person can repress a memory and then recover it accurately.
“Memory researchers have described the brain’s capacity to construct and invent reality from the information it processes,” the Foundation reports. “This research has shown that memory is a process that is constantly undergoing adjustment and reconstruction; it is malleable. A ‘memory’ actually consists of fragments of the event, subsequent discussions and readings, other peoples’ recollections and suggestions, as well as present beliefs about the past. Memories of life events may be easily altered by outside factors. Memories can be changed by the passage of time, during retelling, or by current knowledge and/or expectations. The mind does not encode every detail of an event, but only a few salient features. ‘When we look back, we fill in the blanks based on what must have been’."
In other words, memories can be notoriously inaccurate and are frequently "embellished" over the passage of time.
However, proponents of RMT claim that “repressed and recovered” memories don’t operate in the same way as other memories which is why people may not remember being abused and then are suddenly able to remember it with great accuracy.
Again, the science is not behind this theory. In fact, in the case of memories associated with strong emotion, such as traumatic events, research has repeatedly shown that these are actually better recalled.
For these reasons, the American Medical Association stated as long ago as 1993 that recovered memories are “of uncertain authenticity which should be subject to external verification. The use of recovered memories is fraught with problems of potential misapplication.”
It is also the reason why many U.S. courts refuse to accept testimony from people who have been hypnotized for purposes of ‘recovering’ memories.
The problem is that it is relatively easy for a therapist to plant a false memory into a person during hypnosis, or for the patient to experience confusion between the actual memory and their own imagination. When this happens, it results in what is known as “false memory syndrome,” a condition in which the patient really believes the false memory even though it is destroying its family or someone’s reputation in the process.
This problem is so pervasive that an organization of families and medical professionals affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution in Baltimore created the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in 1992 to fill the growing need for an organization that could document and study the problem.
The site contains heartbreaking accounts of families that were being shattered when adult children suddenly claimed to have recovered repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse.
Cardinal Bernardin, who was falsely accused in 1993 of abusing a young man many years earlier said the accusation was worse for him than the cancer that eventually took his life.
Another woman whose husband was accused of sexually abusing their daughter claimed that the mere accusation was enough to drive up their blood pressure and eventually caused him to suffer a massive stroke that ended his life.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the stress he had suffered from her false accusations was at least partially responsible for his untimely death. He was a vigorous, healthy, sixty-six year old man. Now I am trying to cope with the loss of my dear, loving husband of almost 46 years while, at the same time, struggling to overcome the bitterness I feel toward my daughter and her therapists. The tragedy of this almost overwhelms me. In my opinion, the therapists who are promoting these false memories are guilty of murder,” the woman wrote to the Foundation.
In addition to the shattering of family ties, these accusations can lead to devastating financial strain due to the cost of defending themselves in court, costing many their homes, livelihoods and life savings.
Not to mention the emotional stress and chaos it brings upon the falsely accused. The Foundation cites the case of one woman whose husband was falsely accused of sexually abusing their daughter who reacted by pulling down all the shades in her home and refusing to leave the house for three months.
Unfortunately, the therapy – and the controversy surrounding it – remain to this day. This is in spite of the fact that some therapists and hospitals involved in providing RMT have suffered enormous financial losses when their patients sued. For example, in 1997, a court awarded a woman $10.6 million in damages after doctors convinced her that she was involved in a satanic cult, was sexually abused by numerous men, and had abused her own sons.
If you, or anyone you know, has fallen victim to this kind of therapy, please visit the Foundation for help.