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PERSPECTIVE ON PSYCHIATRY : ‘Recovered’ Memory’s Real Victims : Most traumas are literally unforgettable. Why would only sexual abuse be buried, for recovery years later?

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A man in Philadelphia says that two priests molested him numerous times in the mid-1970s, when he was a high-school seminarian. Now, in 1993, he sues for $10 million. Because one of the accused priests went on to become Chicago’s cardinal, the story is national news.

The claim of molestation by 34-year-old Steven Cook comes years after the alleged events because, he says, he lost all memory of the acts shortly after each occurred, and only in 1992 did he “recover” the “memories” that are the grounds for his lawsuit.

Cook’s charges are similar to recent claims of childhood sexual victimization by roughly 10,000 adults in America. These claimants (mostly women) almost always say that the “perpetrators” were trusted adult figures, very often their own fathers. They further claim that they lost all memory for each and every molestation shortly after each event occurred. Such claims were almost unheard of five years ago. And almost everyone complaining is white, as opposed to Latino, black or Asian American. What’s going on here?

Welcome to the strange world of memory recovery therapy. This is a pseudoscience based on the notion that tens of thousands of Americans were repeatedly molested as children and don’t know it.

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People involved in memory recovery therapy have been convinced by misguided self-help books or therapists that they are “survivors” of totally forgotten sexual crimes. They are told that their eating or sexual or marital problems will clear up once the “lost memories” are found. The real message being sold by these new therapy messiahs is the ultimate crybaby solution to everyone’s pitiful human problems: It’s all someone else’s fault.

Not quite. Here are the facts:

* Memories of emotionally charged events are among the least forgettable memories we have. Consider the “Vietnam syndrome” where ex-GIs are still haunted by unwanted “flashbacks” of combat experiences that intrude into their daily thoughts. Similar symptoms occur in individuals months after experiencing horrible accidents or crime victimization.

* Barring flood, fire and electromagnetic disruptions, computer disks retain all the data you enter, and videotapes keep all the TV programs and birthday parties you recorded. But the human brain forgets most of what it experiences--for good.

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* Sexual molestations of children do occur, but so do other overwhelming experiences, such as witnessing fathers beating up mothers, or seeing family members killed, or having a broken bone set without sufficient anesthesia. These horrible events in childhood become literally unforgettable. However, people undergoing memory recovery therapy seem to only talk about sexual abuse.

* Even accurate memories fade or alter with time, more than we think. Often people’s absolute convictions that their memories are accurate have failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Subjects in laboratory studies can be coached into distortion of memories without their realizing it, and even children can be taught to believe that they underwent distressing events that never occurred.

While there are a few well-trained psychiatrists and psychologists who subscribe to the notion of recovered memory, many of the “experts” promoting these treatments are counselors with a master’s degree or less, who were never required to scientifically study memory as part of their training. In fact, the most popular self-help book pushing these ideas (with sales of more than 1 million) was written by two women with no formal training in memory, psychology or psychiatry.

People who sincerely believe that hidden memories are making them sick understandably want to get better, and rapidly gain conviction that their “recovered memories” are true. Unfortunately, the results, whether obtained through “meditation,” dream interpretation, hypnosis or “truth serum,” are likely to be visions that seem to be memories but never in fact occurred.

And there is more. Many memory therapists urge their patients to believe that their “recovered memories” are the only proof needed that long-trusted friends and family are actually perverts and perpetrators, never to be trusted again.

One interesting wrinkle is the trend to sue the “perpetrator” in order to aid the “victim” in “healing” and to “educate society.” And you can, according to this theory, ignore the “perpetrator’s” side of the story since all of them are “in denial” and won’t tell the truth, anyway. And if anyone tells you that you might be having “false memories” don’t talk to them either, because they are hindering your “recovery.”

People desperate for “recovery” are finding “proof” of “forgotten” crimes in therapists’ offices and in the revival-like atmosphere of “survivor support groups.” But in order for Steven Cook to get $10 million, the courts will have to decide whether he is a victim of pedophilic priests or whether the priests are victims of “recovered memories.”


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