In yesterday’s Comments section, regular commenter Arthur Pint asked an important question about the interview between Brian Gerrish and Vicky Ash:
I watched the video with Vicky Ash talking to Brian Gerrish and i wondered does she really believe in what she is saying due to a mental illness or is she straight out lying?
How much of any SRA claimant’s story can be attributed to a genuine belief that they were sexually victimised by mysterious cult members, and how much is simply so much made-up nonsense? Is it always one or the other, or can there be a mixture of true belief and ulterior motive? The answer is that we just don’t know.
Memory is a funny thing
Most people think of their own memories as being something like a video recorder which accurately captures life experiences in a more or less orderly fashion, and deposits them in an “archive”, something akin to a hard drive in the brain, from whence they can be accessed at will.
The reality is much messier, and much less reliable.
Of course we all know the feeling of having “misplaced” a memory: we see a person in the street and struggle to recall their name or where we know them from; we distinctly recall that we left our phone on the kitchen table, but somehow find it in our coat pocket instead.
However, the idea that a person could misremember something as important as whether they were sexually abused as a child, or whether they participated in murdering babies, seems extraordinarily far-fetched to most people. If such things had really happened, wouldn’t they be etched permanently into the person’s memory? And if they hadn’t happened, how could such ghastly memories be created long after the fact?
American memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has shown that false memories may be induced via suggestion, and that such memories can become stronger and more vivid over time. Rather than remaining static, memories become distorted and begin to shift and change; and old memories may be “adapted” to accommodate new ones.
Loftus has described her own experience with false memory:
At a family gathering for her 44th birthday, Loftus’s uncle told her that she had been the one to find her mother’s body floating in the pool after a drowning accident. Before that, she had remembered very little about the incident, but after her uncle’s comment, the details suddenly began to come back.
A few days later, she discovered that her uncle had been mistaken and that it was actually her aunt who discovered her mother after the drowning. All it took to trigger false memories was a simple comment from a family member, illustrating how easily human memory can be influenced by suggestion.
Freud and ‘repressed memory’
The idea that overwhelmingly traumatic childhood events could be somehow stored so deeply in a person’s unconscious mind that it was virtually lost to recall originated with the early work of Sigmund Freud. He connected this repression with “hysteria” (now known as “conversion disorder”), a diagnosis which was popular at the time amongst female patients.
(Believe it or not, this was a step up from the popular belief that “hysteria” was caused when a woman’s uterus went walkabout, causing various strange symptoms depending upon which part of the body it landed in. So, uh, go Freud?)
According to this article in The Conversation,
Those who accept the repression interpretation argue children may repress memories of early abuse for many years and that these can be recalled when it’s safe to do so. This is variously referred to as traumatic amnesia or dissociative amnesia. Proponents accept repressed traumatic memories can be accurate and used in therapy to recover memories and build up an account of early experiences.
It should be noted that while Freud’s ideas and terminology have seeped into the language over the past 100 years, with terms like “repression”, “neurosis”, and so forth becoming part of the general lexicon, none of his hypotheses about repressed memories have ever been verified by rigorous scientific proof.
Freud’s idea that it should be possible to dig around in the unconscious mind in a search for repressed memories which, once released, would free the patient from their neurotic symptoms, is at the root of much of the modern practice of “recovered memory therapies” (RMT).
However, this article on RMT notes that
There is … little scientific evidence supporting the notions that memories of childhood sexual abuse are unconsciously repressed or that recovering repressed memories of abuse leads to significant improvement in one’s psychological health and stability.
In general, RMT refers to any therapeutic technique which is based on the belief that traumatic memories of abuse can be forgotten or repressed and later recovered during therapy. These memories, no matter how bizarre or improbable, no matter whether they can be corroborated by others or validated by any other form of evidence, are deemed to be accurate and true.
We’ve discussed some high-profile RMT therapists here in the past: Valerie Sinason, Fleur Fisher, Sandra Fecht, Lawrence Pazdor, Colin Ross, and others. All of them have used suggestive and/or hypnotic techniques to reconstruct what appear to be memories, and have assured their clients that “the unconscious doesn’t lie”.
The problem is that the unconscious most definitely does lie…or at least it misleads. Claiming that memories can be recovered in this way is like claiming that anything that we dream of while we’re asleep is 100% real and true.
Hypnosis isn’t the only technique used to dig for the mind’s detritus, incidentally. RMT techniques wax and wane in popularity, and have included:
- Free association
- Relaxation training
- EMDR (“eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing”)
- Guided imagery and visualisations
- Analysing dreams for suggestions of abuse
- “Body therapies” which claim to release “memories stored in the body”
- Age regression or past life regression therapy
- Use of “truth serum-type” drugs to enhance memory recall
- Having the client imagine abuse that could have happened to them
RMT can create false memories
We don’t want to portray all RMT therapists as evil people who mess with their clients’ minds for the fun of it. However, when therapists are passionately invested in certain things—such as Satanic ritual abuse—being true, they can shape their clients’ treatment in such a way that the client will almost certainly remember what the therapist wants them to. While this might not be malicious, it is certainly a form of malpractice, which can have disastrous consequences.
For example, at the Castlewood Treatment Center in Missouri, a number of clients have sued various therapists for implanting false memories of SRA during their treatment for eating disorders.
The first lawsuit, filed in 2011, alleged “gross malpractice” while the claimant was undergoing treatment at the centre:
defendant carelessly and negligently hypnotized plaintiff at a time when she was under the influence of various psychotropic medications and said hypnotic treatment directly caused or contributed to cause the creation, reinforcement, or increase in plaintiff’s mind, of false memories including the following:
a) Plaintiff suffered physical and sexual abuse;
b) Plaintiff suffered multiple rapes;
c) Plaintiff suffered satanic ritual abuse;
d) Plaintiff was caused to believe she was a member of a satanic cult and that she was involved in or perpetrated various criminal and horrific acts of abuse;
e) Plaintiff was caused to believe that she had multiple personalities at one time totalling twenty separate personalities.”
In June 2016, Kate Wheeling reported in the Pacific Standard:
The former Castlewood Treatment Center patients claimed that, under the influence of hypnosis and psychiatric drugs, they were encouraged to link their current problems to forgotten childhood abuse. The false memories of abuse, according to the suits, exacerbated the emotional distress the patients were already experiencing. But the patients who were incepted with these emotionally disturbing and false memories aren’t the only victims of the discredited technique. …
Although there is no full tally, University of California-Berkeley professor Frederick Crews, who wrote about recovered memory therapy, suggested (conservatively, he says) that one million patients may have been convinced they had recovered repressed memories. Of course, as Crews notes, the number of those affected was far greater; the accusations from each of these patients almost always radiated through families and communities, leading to bewildering and painful estrangements for fathers, mothers, teachers, and others.
While there’s little evidence that people can completely forget highly emotional events, there is plenty of evidence that people can form false memories of emotional events. “People can falsely create, or come to believe, that emotional events occurred that never occurred, people can misremember the details of emotional events, but what they don’t seem to do is have an emotional event occur and then shove it into some basement of their subconscious and not be able to recall it,” says Linda Levine, a psychology professor at the University of California-Irvine. “You don’t see literature on people wholesale forgetting emotional events. Events that are highly emotional to people are typically very well remembered.”
Are false memories forever?
Some victims of false memory induction do eventually recover. Some call themselves “retractors”; others gradually come to realise that the memories which seemed so real to them had no basis in reality.
We found this statement from a victim of RMT very insightful; this and other statements from retractors can be found on the False Memory Syndrome Foundation website. Amy P. writes:
I did not set out intentionally to hurt anyone, including my parents. I have had problems with mental illness since my early teens. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was twenty years old. I spent about five years in the mental health system being treated like a chronically mentally ill person. I was prescribed anti-psychotic medication that eventually led to early signs of tardive dyskinesia. This was a desperate fearful time in my life, and I began searching for an alternative answer. I had a case manager who wanted to be a therapist with me. She began probing, and slowly but surely, I began coming up with vague memories of sexual abuse. As this progressed more memories came, and my diagnosis was changed to Multiple Personality Disorder. This was a relief to me because it meant that I could be cured if I worked in therapy, whereas schizophrenia was more hopeless.
I continued to work with this therapist for four years. The memories grew more complicated, gruesome, and detailed. My life also continued to get worse at this time. I read all the right books, including The Courage to Heal. I spent most of my time alternating between numb denial of what I was doing and hysterical panic. At one point I was hospitalized for three months in a Dissociative Disorders unit to receive more intensive treatment. It was then that the subject of ritual abuse came up. I resisted this idea as long as I could, but was under a great deal of pressure to accept it. I am sad to say that eventually I caved in and began to come up with ritual abuse memories, as well as cult alters. This was not a conscious process on my part. I didn’t wake up one day and decide suddenly that I had been abused in a cult. It was gradual and directly related to subtle and not so subtle pressure from the staff in this unit and other patients. I was led to believe that I would not be released if I remained “in denial” about my abuse. I am not proud of it, but I capitulated, and gave them what they wanted.
My therapist at home was untrained in dynamic psychotherapy. She viewed me as a fascinating and interesting client. In fact, I was her only client. I was flattered by her attention, and this probably led me to attempt to please her. Pleasing her involved coming up with still more memories of abuse, and working hard in therapy and never doubting her abilities. At some point she grew tired of my dependency, and abruptly terminated therapy. I was devastated at the time, but it was actually a blessing in disguise.
I have been in therapy for two years with a woman who makes no effort to decide what my issues are or lead me in any particular direction. A few months ago I read the book True Stories of False Memories, and was very moved by the stories in it. I felt a stirring of recognition. I opened up my mind at that point and came to realize that not only had I been duped, but that I had actively participated in it.
Right now my heart goes out to all innocent persons who have been falsely accused of abuse of any type. I understand why they would be angry, and I think they have a right to their anger. Therapists and treatment centers are responsible for part of this epidemic of “repressed memories,” but ultimately each individual must make their own choices. I take full responsibility for the accusations I have made. I have had to struggle daily with my sense of guilt and remorse. It is not an easy process-retracting things you were so sure of at some point. I fervently wish all this had never happened, but since it did, I am now seeking to repair the damage. I never accused my parents directly of abusing me, but they were aware of my MPD diagnosis and my hospitalization. I can’t make it up to them without causing them pain because if I tell them I made false accusations, then they will want to know what those accusations were in the first place. It is a dilemma.
I am truly sorry I allowed myself to be led so easily, and will not allow it to happen again. I am sorry that sexual abuse exists, and I am sorry that people are falsely accused of it. The FMS Foundation is right. False accusations detract from the real needs of sexual abuse victims. I hope that some of this damage can ultimately be repaired.