Memory is considered an integral facet of identity. The ability to recall one’s own history and life events shapes families, relationships and social interactions. Personalities are in part interesting and unique by virtue of their experiences and details. But with all its importance, questions remain on the accuracy of memory. While most conscious memory is widely considered to be malleable, open to suggestion and integrated with fantasy- perhaps outside of personal experience, other areas of memory are considered fixed and unchanged despite increasing time and distance from their occurrence. In this light, the concept of accurate memory becomes difficult to quantify.
While once considered to uniquely affect post-war patients, the topic of traumatic memories and the terms recovered and repressed memories have, in the past several decades, become commonplace. Much of Freud’s writing on repressed trauma continues to influence mental health treatment, despite intense revision. But how can trauma be treated if it is impossible to determine its veracity? What methods have been historically used in determining the extent of, and treating a patient who has suffered with trauma, and what tools are still used amongst therapists today? And finally, from a legal, practical and emotional standpoint, what guidelines are being developed to minimize the damage of a movement fraught with controversy, pain and sadly, a lack of discernable truth?
Despite the controversy surrounding Sigmund Freud’s early theories, it was Freud who first made the concept of psychic trauma, or trauma of the mind, concrete. Victims who returned home from World War I were ill not from physical wounds but psychological wounds as a result of significant, severe trauma. In 1916, Freud described trauma not by the usual medical terminology which denoted a physical wound, but instead as “an experience which within a short period of time which presents the mind with an increase in stimulus too powerful to be dealt with or worked off in the normal way, which may result in permanent disturbances of the manner in which the energy operates” (Freud, 1915-1917).
Uncertain as to how else to proceed, German and British doctors looked for guidance in treating their patients by referring to Freud’s works regarding traumas of the mind. Psychoanalysis, which had previously seemed somewhat irrelevant, re-emerged as an effective way to understand and ameliorate the suffering of patients who desperately needed help (Leys, 2000).
While this definition has been broadened with time, many traumatic events still carry a perceived or intentioned threat. The early psychologist Janet wrote that normally occurring experiences enter the memory without conscious awareness of specific details while traumatic or upsetting experiences may either enter the memory with greater exactness and detail recollection or resist integration due to alternate memory storage, the subconscious, which may not be accessible to recall under regular conditions (Caruth, van der Kolk, van der Hart, 1995). Repression of memories denotes a type of mental pushing back wherein the mind is viewed as layered. Sometimes repression occurs because the event cannot be processed linguistically and instead is processed on a somatic level. In this latter case, upsetting events may return as images, nightmares, and physical sensations as in the case of posttraumatic stress disorder. The psychological delay carries the individual through the first shock with repeated suffering at a later time. Janet compares this type of experience to an incomplete story, which cannot become a narrative memory (Caruth, 2004).
As a result, psychoanalytic thought focused on the question of how to unlock or resolve issues in the subconscious memory, to discover the tale that would not be told. Because repression was believed to resist analysis, Freud felt it required an actively involved therapist who might help retrieve the true nature of the patient. Hypnosis, as Freud and his contemporaries were aware, was vulnerable to the power of suggestion as well as the possibility that the interpretation of the event would vary according to those present (Leys, 2000). Freud himself warned patients of what they would remember and experience at his prompting, often against their better judgment (Webster, 1995). For those unable to be hypnotized, Freud developed the concept of Free Association which entailed a patient speaking whatever came to mind no matter how trivial in an effort to eventually reach the subconscious while the therapist interpreted. Pauses would indicate significant material reaching the conscious, as would “slips” of words from the subconscious, hence the term “Freudian slip”. But for many, idea of talking out repressed trauma was unsuccessful due to the total lack of conscious recollection (Freud, Kris. 1977).
For those afflicted with recurring traumatic scenes not relegated to the subconscious, Freud more effectively presented that mourning could bring about the ability to engage trauma and gain a much-needed critical distance. In working-through, the victim could identify a past trauma and recognize that despite its occurrence, it was, in fact, in the past and not in the present. In actively remembering, one could choose to leave it behind focusing energy instead on living for the future, rather than the past. The desired outcome included the hope that retrieval and healing were both possible. In addition to this, Dominck La Capra also suggested narrative working through and self-critical working-through as other promising modalities (LaCapra, 1999). The premise of narrative work being that working through the truth will to some extent be liberating, at times giving words to an experience that originally had none.
Freud’s writings on psychic trauma were not exclusive to victims of war. Most difficult memories were thought to be unavailable to the conscious mind because unconscious forces repressed them, allowing an individual to be as protected and as functional as possible. But too much repression would always become problematic by draining an individual’s energy and fostering internal tension. Freud believed, despite much controversy that psychic trauma specifically included the trauma of sexual assault which he explained in his seduction theory. He further posited that it was not even the traumatic experience itself which incurred damage but rather the recurrence of the event as a delayed memory. This was due the fact that Freud believed that the majority of sexual trauma took place in youth when a child’s mind was too young and inexperienced to comprehend such events. The repressed memory, when it returned in adulthood, would be viewed within the framework of adult logic and understanding causing tremendous pain and duress (Leys, 2000).
Today, almost a century later, segments of Freud’s theoretical framework have been debunked, adjusted, modified or discarded. However, much of psychology today is still based on Freud’s basic foundations of psychoanalysis. Certain of his theories continue to reappear, making resurgences in modern therapy. In the same way doctors once looked to Freud in understanding victims of war, the past few decades have revisited Freud’s writings on sexual trauma in an effort to explain a new chapter in repressed trauma: recovered memories.
In contrast to repressed memories, which are withheld from consciousness, the emergence of recovered memories made a significant social impact in the 1980’s and 1990’s (Sturken, 1998). Differing from repressed memories in the respect that recovered memories seemed to appear spontaneously, without initial external symptoms of distress, people began to search for truth about their lives and often without closure or relief due to the fact the details of their stories could not be verified. Suddenly books and television were filled with stories of abuse that had been “recovered”. How actual memory fit into the equation became difficult to discern. Most evidence used to judge a situation such as witnesses, physical symptoms and probability of a story were not available. Many forms of abuse occur in private meaning that there is no corroborating evidence. Furthermore, if decades have elapsed, the cases have no evidence aside from the testimony of the victim.
In the article, “The Remembering of Forgetting”, FBI Agent Lanning proposed a continuum of possible activity to try and frame these events with some sort of context. His suggestion worked to place the memories within cultural context spanning from the actual experience to the remembered experience as much as possible, including narrative, shared testimony, rumor and even fantasy (Sturken, 1998).
The difficulty in determining the truth of recovered memory narratives lies in the fragments of information that develop into tales of trauma and identified perpetrators. The fact that the memories are unclear and come in small bits is used as evidence of trauma and repression. However, in their writings, psychologists Freud and Janet both describe instances of complete and accurate nightmares, for example, recurring without any supposition or confabulation. In contrast to Freud’s layered memory theory, Janet believed the memories operated in the subconscious on a horizontal level, meaning that they are held in another stream of memory. But even Freud found loopholes in his theory and revised it when it became impossible for every woman he treated to have been sexually abused by her father, as so many manifested. Instead, Freud revised his position of repressed sexual memories by saying that while sometimes they did correspond with actual events, most often they were nothing more that children fantasizing about sexual relations with their parents. Unfortunately, in claiming the memories were probably fantasies and not real memories at all, a climate of psychoanalytic skepticism relating to sexual abuse pervaded the rest of the century (Webster, 1995).
The influence of Feminism in the early 1980’s challenged Freud’s ideas and a patriarchal system that had silenced women and children for decades. Female therapists and writers began to notice how often real stories of abuse were negated or denied. Women began to speak of their experiences, recalled clearly and accurately, repression not included. This gained the attention of psychotherapists who began to listen and believe their patients. Psychiatrist Judith Herman highlighted the ongoing trauma in her book Father-Daughter Incest that was published in 1981 by Harvard University Press. The goal was not to recover memories, but to create a safe and open forum wherein memories, which had always been present but kept secret, could be shared without cynicism (Webster, 1995).
Today, the clear and precise statements and testimonies from victims of traumatic atrocities are what bring about global action and change in the area of human rights violations (Sturken, 1998). Integral to these declarations is the relationship with the listener who must be only that, a listener, contrary to what Freud posits. In the case of a patient and therapist, a relationship may produce different kinds of truth. As suggested earlier, the power of suggestion and interpretation in this setting may be highly different than say, a courtroom testimony. Critics of Freud point out that the testimonies of his patients were not theirs at all. They were the product of suggestion by an overly involved therapist (Borch-Jacobsen & Douglas, 1996). The same has been suggested in the recovered memory phenomenon. Can the pressure and questioning of a therapeutic interview create false childhood memories in adults? Can baited questions pull certain answers out of a patient and if so, why would the patient or therapist want such a result?
Memory researchers who have conducted experiments on event-based memories have found that memory can be shaped by social factors and pressures, the desire to conform and belong to the majority. The power of books, media and popular culture is also amenable to suggestion. For example, repeatedly presenting misleading information to a group of preschool children resulted in one third of the participants incorrectly remembering what had happened by the end of the study, even details they had previously denied (Loftus, 1994, Hyman, Husband & Billings, 1995). Similarly, in asking adults about false childhood events, they were reminded of family experiences by siblings repeatedly over several sessions. Surprisingly, this lead to many of the adults believing they remembered the false event by the end of the study. The power of suggestion contained the ability to convince the study participants that they had experienced something that had never, in fact, happened.
While it seems implausible that anyone would purposely feign memories of recovered abuse, Martha Minow, a law professor describes sympathy, victimhood, attention seeking, shunning of responsibility and empathy as primary motivators of false claims of sexual abuse (Sturken, 1998). The fact that memories may not be accurate does not always indicate that the victim is lying deliberately. False memories can come about due to internal or external sources in an effort to make sense of other experiences, which lack an understandable framework. Statistically, therapists are highly inclined to believe their clients. In fact, a vast majority claim that it is part of their job to believe clients unless there is a reason not to (Loftus, 1993). Many therapists use checklists to determine symptoms of sexual abuse that might appear in adulthood. Unfortunately, the symptom list may be broad enough to apply to the majority of the adult population, even if abuse was never experienced. In a larger social context, attention is drawn away from true victims of trauma when groups who define themselves as survivors work for centre stage. This is not to say there are not valid, succinct memories of sexual abuse but rather that the true victims become more difficult to see. While psychoanalysts of the past earnestly sought to relieve trauma and bring a more normative standard of living to their patients, the recovered memory wave of the 1980’s and 1990’s seemed to do just the opposite, encompassing the entire life of the victim.
Another possible explanation for the recovered abuse phenomenon is the idea that many psychological disorders are due, at least in part, to repressed memories. Similar to what Freud described in the overwhelming of an individual unless the experiences could be purged and dealt with properly. By the 1980’s and onward, some of these disorders were thought to include interpersonal problems, depression, sexual dysfunction, anxiety and eating disorders. Hypnosis and guided imagery from Freud’s era are still used to return to a certain period of a victim’s life, recounting what they feel and remember. Journaling to recall certain events and then sharing it with the therapist is also still used. Self-help programs, addiction therapy and support groups are common for victims of the movement (Sturken, 1998). When the victims “recover” their memories, confrontation of the perpetrator is strongly advised. Often, legal action is also taken (General Psychology, 2012).
In 1990, San Matteo County, California, the first trial permitting recovered memory as testimony was presented in the case of George Franklin. Eileen Franklin-Lipsker testified that while playing with her young daughter one day a year prior to the trail, a memory of her childhood best friend came into her mind with clear and accurate detail. Franklin-Lipsker said she had no previous memory of the incident before that day. The memory was of her father assaulting and killing her best friend, Susan, threatening Eileen with murder if she ever told what she had witnessed. The Franklin family had been questioned at the time of the murder but police found nothing suspicious. Due to his emotional and physical abuse towards his own children, Franklin’s wife also questioned her husband about any involvement he may have had with the Susan. When police searched Franklin’s home at the time of Eileen’s accusation, child pornography was found but no other evidence in regards to the young girl. Leading psychiatrists testified on both sides of the case. While the prosecution witnesses explained the theory of repressed memories, the defense challenged the accuracy of such memories while noting that the gruesome details of the case had been published in the newspapers while Eileen was a child, pointing to the possible power of suggestion in her belief that she had witnessed the murder. The judge in the case prohibited the presentation of the newspapers and also accepted circumstantial evidence in allowing Eileen to describe a visit to her father in prison where he was held, asking him to tell her the truth about that day. He father remained silent, pointing instead to a sign, which stated that conversations would be monitored. His silence was taken as an admission of guilt by the courts.
Despite having no physical evidence to convict him, Eileen’s Father, George Franklin was found guilty of murder by the jury. Regardless of the fact that Eileen and her father were estranged and that there was no way to test the truthfulness of her claim, George was sentenced to life in prison for a murder that had taken place twenty years before. The conviction was not overturned until 1995 when a federal appeals court ruled that the newspaper should have been included in the evidence and that George’s right to remain silent was a constitutional right not indicative of guilt. Only five years after the original trial, the court deemed recovered memory a problematic and controversial subject, especially in light of the fact that they occurred so long after the original incident. It also appeared that Eileen took part in hypnosis prior to her accusation, a fact she did not disclose when asked at the trial. Six years later, George Franklin’s ruling was overturned and he was released from jail ( 2012).
In 1992, families opposing the shaky evidence of recovered memories as evidence presentable in court organized the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMS). The foundation asserted that unscrupulous therapists plant false memories in their patients, which tear families apart by emotionally disabling the client, forcing siblings to choose sides and accusing parents of criminal acts. Guidelines developed by the American Psychological Association in dealing with legal issues aim to properly address and investigate memories of abused that are classified as recovered. They state that Childhood sexual abuse is both pervasive and complex, acknowledging the problem as significant and real. They also state that historically the problem has not been properly given its due significance. However, the APA importantly states that most victims of childhood abuse remember all or a good portion of abuse suffered and that recovering repressed memories is a process, which is not well understood. Furthermore, it is possible to reconstruct false memories of abuse. And finally, the veracity of such memories is often unreliable due to time and lacking scientific knowledge on the subject (APA.org. 2012).
While today, victims of abuse have a voice with which to address their trauma, support and counseling services and greater accessibility to help and acknowledgment than ever before, the troubling question remains in the minds of many who have not suffered in this way: Is it possible that I was a victim of abuse and have repressed it? Like Freud, many therapists of the past thirty years who have participated in the recovered memory movement have unwittingly practiced a coercive form of therapy. The early theories of Freud have played a significant role in the recovered memory movement. So much so, that the topic of repressed memories in therapeutic circles will likely never again be ruled out.
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