Recovered memory therapy

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Recovered memory therapy (RMT) is a psychotherapy that was developed in the 1980s as a way to recover “lost” childhood memories of abuse, as well as other memories of neglect and abuse. The use of recovered memory therapy has been a subject of ongoing controversy, and its use has been largely abandoned by the therapeutic community.



'Recovered memory therapy' is a layperson term for controversial therapies designed to retrieve forgotten 'memories' e.g. hypnotism, rebirthing, body memory therapy, dream interpretation, Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing and so on.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many self help books (such as 'The Courage to Heal' by Bass and Davis) on how to "know" if one had been sexually abused were published and became top sellers.

An Australian government inquiry[1] into the practice of Recovered Memory Therapy, 2005, found that therapist respondents 'stated that the term RMT (Recovered Memory Therapy) is not used by health professionals but has been created by false memory associations for political purposes'. It found no apparent evidence for the practice then being used amongst registered therapists.

Dissociative Identity Disorder

The rise of the use of recovered memory therapy coincided with a sharp rise in the occurrence of Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder.) Skeptics of recovered memory therapy point out this sharp rise, in what had been considered an extremely rare disorder before 1980, as part of a body of evidence suggesting that the disorder, may be caused by false memories implanted by recovered memory therapy. Some have gone so far as to call it a "passing psychological fad".[2]


Legislation had been introduced to help prosecute the family members who had allegedly perpetrated the abuse on those with recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, and sometimes juries jailed the accused solely on the basis of the recovered memories of the accuser. This practice of jailing family members on the basis of memory earned comparisons to the Salem witch trials (Jaroff). In one case, a girl who had had perfect attendance and grades as a teenager claimed, after visiting a therapist, that her family had performed ritual, Satanic sexual abuse on her all through her childhood. Also resulting from her visit to the therapist was that she began to claim to have developed 26 distinct personalities she said resulted from the abuse.[2] Cases like this had become fairly common, and they often took a great toll on the family of the alleged victim, as the victims and their families grew further and further apart. Some of the therapists who used recovered memory therapy on their patients have been sued for millions of dollars by the families of the patients, and the families have often won those cases. In Joan Acocella’s Creating Hysteria - Women and Multiple Personality Disorder, she writes:

"If only for financial reasons, one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of psychotherapy seems to be coming to an end. “In all but a few years,” writes Paul Mchugh, the director of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, “we will all look back” on the multiple personality disorder movement “and be dumbfounded by the gullibility of the public in the late twentieth century and by the power of psychiatric assertions to dissolve common sense."[3]


It should be noted that some practicing psychologists do believe in the benefits and correctness of repressed memory therapy, or at least the theory that memories of traumatic events get repressed and deliberately searching for them is a viable and worthy practice for helping a person deal with their problems.[3] Typically, the view of supporters is that sexual abuse is common and repression of traumatic events is common, and some studies support the theory that forgetting traumatic events is not infrequent.[4] The Courage to Heal is a 1988 book that actively promotes memory recovery as a form of healing that is often cited by supporters.

Significant numbers of practicing psychologists encourage their patients to be imaginative in therapy. In one survey, 22% of the responding psychologists admitted to encouraging their patients to “give free rein to the imagination.” (Poole, Lindsay, Memon & Bull, 1995, pg. 432.)

The DSM-IV recognizes the existence of posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative amnesia, and dissociative identity disorder--all of which are terms describing the fragmentation of memory due to traumatic experience. The DSM-IV is a widely used manual, with high credibility, in the therapeutic community. It is reasonable to conclude, on the basis of patient’s fragmented memories of childhood sexual abuse and the DSM-IV’s recognition that memory fragmentation, at the least, is definitely possible.

There has recently been a resurgence of interest in the idea of recovered memories among members of the Christian Inner Healing Movement. Critic Jan Fletcher describes one prominent example - Theophostic Prayer Ministry - as 'a form of Recovered Memory Therapy' [4].


The Royal College of Psychiatrists summarized their position as:

"Psychiatrists are advised to avoid engaging in any "memory recovery techniques" which are based upon the expectation of past sexual abuse of which the patient has no memory. Such...techniques may include drug-mediated interviews ["truth serum"], hypnosis, regression therapies, guided imagery, "body memories," literal dream interpretation, and journaling. There is no evidence that the use of consciousness-altering techniques, such as drug-mediated interviews or hypnosis, can reveal or accurately elaborate factual information about any past experiences, including sexual abuse."

In addition, a review article on Potentially Harmful Therapies (Lilienfeld 2007) listed RMT among "treatments that probably produce harm in some individuals."

Critics of recovered memory therapy, like Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters (Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria), view the practice of "recovering" memories as fraudulent and dangerous. They base this assertion on several claims:

  • Traumatic experiences which obviously have happened, such as war time experiences, are not "repressed"—they are either forgotten or remembered clearly in spite of attempts to suppress them.
  • The "memories" recovered in RMT are highly detailed. According to RMT literature, the human brain stores very vivid memories which can be recalled in detail, like a video tape. This belief contradicts virtually all research on the way memories work.
  • The patient is given very extensive lists of "symptoms" including sleeplessness, headaches, the feeling of being different from others etc. If several of these symptoms are found, the therapist suggests to the patient that they were probably sexually abused. If the patient rejects this suggestion, they are "in denial" and require more extensive therapy. This is a form of catch-22.
  • During the questioning, patients are openly encouraged to ignore their own feelings and memories and to assume that the abuse has happened. They then explore together with this therapist, over a prolonged period of many months or even years, how the abuse happened. The possibility that the abuse has not happened at all is usually not considered.
  • The psychotherapists attempting to help clients to recover lost memories (in particular with the use of regression hypnosis) allegedly use suggestion to aid in the recovery of these memories.

According to these critics, RMT techniques used for "reincarnation therapy" or "alien abduction therapy" are comparable to the techniques used in Satanic Ritual Abuse therapy. To verify the false memory hypothesis, researchers like Elizabeth Loftus have successfully produced false memories of various childhood incidents in test subjects.[5] This is viewed as further evidence that comprehensive false memories can be produced in therapy.

Even when patients who have had therapy to recover 'memories' come to decide that their memories are in fact false (and so retract their claims), they can still suffer a kind of post traumatic stress. This is due to what some therapists call "brain stain". [6]


  1. ^ "Bass and Davis examine very traumatic experiences and offer hope to survivors of these experiences."


  2. Ofra Bikel (Producer) (1995). Divided Memories, Part 1 (Frontline television episode)|format= requires |url= (help) (Videotape). Public Broadcasting Service.
  3. Acocella, Joan (1999). Creating Hysteria - Women and Multiple Personality Disorder. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  4. Hopper, Jim (2005-10-6). "Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse: Scientific Research & Scholarly Resources". Retrieved 2007-18-01. A substantial body of empirical evidence of amnesia and delayed recall for abuse has existed for years. Check date values in: |accessdate=, |date= (help)
  5. Elizabeth F. Loftus and Deborah Davis, Recovered Memories, Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 2 (2006): 469-98.
  6. Kelly Lambert and Scott O. Lilienfeld, [1], 'Scientific American Mind', Oct 2007.

See also


  • Jaroff, Leon and Mcdowell, Jeanne. “Lies of the Mind.” TIME Magazine, p.52. November 29 1993.
  • Ofshe, Richard and Watters, Ethan. "Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria". University of California Press; Reprint edition, 1996.
  • Loftus, Elizabeth and Ketcham, Katherine. "The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse". St. Martin's Griffin, 1st St. Martin's Griffin ed edition, 1996.
  • Lilienfeld, Scott. "Psychological treatments that cause harm." Perspectives on Psychological Science, Volume 2(1), pp. 53-70, 2007.

External links

  • Research on the Effect of Trauma on Memory Research has shown that traumatized individuals respond by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. One of the most common means of dealing with the pain is to try and push it out of awareness. Some label the phenomenon of the process whereby the mind avoids conscious acknowledgment of traumatic experiences as dissociative amnesia . Others use terms such as repression , dissociative state , traumatic amnesia, psychogenic shock, or motivated forgetting . Semantics aside, there is near-universal scientific acceptance of the fact that the mind is capable of avoiding conscious recall of traumatic experiences.
  • Summary of Research Examining the Prevalence of Full or Partial Dissociative Amnesia for Traumatic Events The most comprehensive review of the scientific literature on dissociative amnesia has been conducted by Brown, Scheflin and Hammond in their book, Memory, Trauma Treatment, and the Law . (New York: Norton, 1998). This book is viewed as setting the standard in the field after receiving the American Psychiatric Association's 1999 prestigious Manfred S. Guttmacher Award for best book in law and forensic psychiatry. Brown, Scheflin and Hammond reviewed 43 studies relevant to the subject of traumatic memory and found that every study that examined the question of dissociative amnesia in traumatized populations demonstrated that a substantial minority partially or completely forget the traumatic event experienced, and later recover memories of the event. Dissociative amnesia can occur after any type of traumatic event.

Although the science is limited on this issue, the only three relevant studies conclude that repressed memories are no more and no less accurate than continuous memories (Dalenberg, 1996; Widom and Morris, 1997; Williams, 1995). Thus, courts and therapists should consider repressed memories no differently than they consider ordinary memories.