Creating "Memories" of Sexual Abuse

Lee Coleman*

ABSTRACT: An analysis of a case of alleged recovered memories of sexual abuse is presented to illustrate how such mental images can be created in therapy.  The memories, although believed by the woman to be of actual events, were the result of suggestions from both lay persons and professionals.

While, just a few years ago, students of child sexual abuse accusations thought they had seen every imaginable brand of irresponsibility on the part of certain mental health professionals, something new and equally terrible has emerged.  To the growing number of children trained to say and believe things which never happened is now added a growing number of adults, usually women, being trained to say and believe that they have suddenly "unblocked" memories of childhood sexual abuse.

Just like allegations coming from children, concern about biased and unprofessional methods of eliciting statements from adults should in no way cast doubt on the reality of sexual abuse.  There are countless numbers of adults who were molested as children, who did not speak of it, but who now may reveal their experiences as part of our society's belated recognition of such abuse.  But to acknowledge the reality of sexual abuse, and the reality of the silence kept by some of the victims, does nothing to mitigate the harm being done by those therapists who are convincing patients that even if sexual abuse is not remembered, it probably happened anyway.

In this article, I will illustrate the process by which a young woman, moderately depressed and unsure of her life goals, but in no way out of touch with reality (psychotic), came to make allegations which were so bizarre that they might easily be thought to be the product of major mental disorder.  In such cases, I have repeatedly seen the falsely accused and their closest family and friends make this assumption.  This case will show, as have the others I have studied, that the source is not a disorder in the patient, but a "disorder" in the therapist.  The problem is the irresponsible adoption by some therapists of a new fad which will be clarified below.

Here, then, is a report I submitted to the Court hearing the civil lawsuit filed by this woman against her cousin.  All names and identifying information have been changed.

Judge John Q. Smith
Superior Court, All American County
Anywhere, USA

The following report concerns the suit between Susan Q. Smith and John V. Public.  The opinions expressed are based on a study of the Amended List of Documents of the Plaintiff, dated April 6, 1992, Additional Documents (such as police records and Children's Services Records), Examination for Discovery transcripts of Mrs. Smith and Mr. Public, and my examination of Mrs. Smith on May 4, 1992, which lasted somewhat over three hours.  I have also studied several videotapes pertinent to the case, enumerated below.

Based upon all this information, as well my prior professional experience, it is my opinion that the alleged "memories" of Mrs. Smith, relating a variety of sexual and abusive acts perpetrated upon her by Mr. Public and others, are not memories at all.  They are, instead, mental images which, however sincerely felt by her to be memories of past events, are nonetheless the result of a series of suggestions from both lay persons and professionals.

That Mrs. Smith has succumbed to these influences in no way implies that she suffers from any mental disorder.  By her own account, she has had problems of low self-esteem, depression, and bulimia in her past.  She has, however, never suffered and does not now suffer a mental disorder which would imply a loss of contact with reality.  If the reliability of her claims are to be best evaluated by the Court, it should be understood that there is another way that a person may say things that may not be true, yet be entirely sincere.

Suggestibility is something we all share as part of our being human, with some persons obviously being more suggestible than others.  In this case, Mrs. Smith has been involved with individuals and groups, over a period of years, the end result of which has been to promote a process of accepting the false idea that whatever mental image is conjured up, especially if part of "therapy," is necessarily a valid retrieval of past experience, i.e. a "memory."

Let me now document the evidence which has led me to the above conclusions.

1. Mrs. Smith's suspicions about John Public and his daughter Alice.

From several sources, such as her deposition, my interview, and investigative interviews, it seems clear that Mrs. Smith suspected for several years that her cousin John Public was engaging in sexual behavior with his daughter Alice.  When asked for examples which led to these suspicions, she mentioned alleged comments from him that "a child's hands" felt so good.  She also mentioned that no other adults seemed to be concerned about such comments.

Seeing Mr. Public and Alice (approximately eight years old at the time) lying in bed together, in their underwear, reinforced her suspicion, as did the alleged comment from Mr. Public to Mr. Smith (not heard by Mrs. Smith), that his (Smith's) daughter would make him horny.  Mrs. Smith also noted that, until age 18 months, her own daughter would cry if Mr. Public attempted to pick her up or get close to her, and Mrs. Smith noted to herself, "She's a smart child."  (It should be noted that such behavior in infants of this age is perfectly normal.)

Mrs. Smith told me that she had informed family members on several occasions of her suspicions, but no one else apparently shared her opinions, or felt anything needed to be reported.

The 1986 video of a family Halloween party was the event that convinced Mrs. Smith she should report her suspicions.  It is quite important that the Court view this video, in order to judge for itself whether the material could reasonably lead a person to believe something untoward was taking place.  My own opinion is there was nothing happening that was unusual or abnormal.  It was Alice who first struck a somewhat playful and seductive pose, and such displays are hardly abnormal for a teenage girl.  Police investigators likewise saw nothing untoward on this tape.

The question raised, then, is whether Mrs. Smith had for her own personal reasons, upon which I will not attempt to speculate, developed an obsession about Mr. Public and his daughter, one which was leading her (Smith) to overinterpret ordinary behaviors.

It is not surprising, then, that when the report was investigated by Children's Services, no evidence of abuse was uncovered.  Mrs. Smith tells me, however, that she was not reassured, and only felt that she had fulfilled an obligation to report something.

2. Early Influences promoting in Mrs. Smith a belief that prior sexual abuse might have occurred but not be remembered.

From numerous sources (deposition, my interview, journals, therapy records), it is clear that Mrs. Smith was strongly influenced by a statement she says Dr. Owen Olson made to her regarding bulimia, a problem Mrs. Smith had suffered from to one degree or another since early adolescence.

Mrs. Smith states that Dr. Olson told her, sometime in early 1987 (the records indicate this was in December 1986), that "one hundred percent of my patients with bulimia have later found out that they were sexual abuse victims."  Whether these words were actually spoken by Dr. Olson, or instead interpreted this way by Mrs. Smith, I of course do not know.  But in either case, the words Mrs. Smith took away with her are extremely important, because the words "found out" would imply that a person could have been sexually abused, not be aware of it, and later recover such an awareness.  I will later on be discussing the lack of evidence for, and major evidence against, any such phenomenon being genuine.

Mrs. Smith told me she was seriously affected by this, experiencing crying and feelings of fear.  She began to wonder if she might have been sexually abused.  When I asked her if she had ever before that time had such a question, she said that she "had no memories" of any such abuse.  She had, in fact, told Children's Services shortly before, during the investigation of Alice, that John Public had "never before abused me ... I was relying on my memory."

At this time, Mrs. Smith was being seen in psychotherapy, first by Edna Johnson, and then by Dr. Abraham, for what seems to be have been feelings of anxiety and depression.  Sexual abuse was apparently not an issue in this therapy.  Instead, Mrs. Smith states that her self-esteem was low, and that she was "not functioning" well as a housewife, even though she felt good about her marriage.  Both she and Dr. Abraham apparently felt she was "a bored housewife."  She decided to start her own business, but this never happened because events leading to the current accusations against John Public interceded.

Mrs. Smith explains that she went to an Entrepreneurs Training Camp in the Fall of 1987, was doing extremely well, but then "sabotaged myself" by performing poorly despite knowing correct answers on an examination.  She felt, after the camp, that she needed to work on herself.

In addition, she saw an Oprah Winfrey program on the subject of child abuse.  Mrs. Smith told me that she cried as she watched this program, "for me and not for them ... I wondered at my feelings and where they were coming from."

Mrs. Smith confirms that it was shortly after seeing this program, with all of the above background in place, that she called the Women's Sexual Assault Center (WSAC) on September 3, 1987.

After a telephone intake, she had a face-to-face contact with Joan Oliver, and told her that "I had concerns, feelings, but no memory of being sexually assaulted ... I thought it would be better to wait (for therapy) until I had a memory.  They said OK, and put me on a waiting list."

The records of WSAC generally confirm this account which I received from Mrs. Smith on May 4, 1992. During the first telephone contact, Mrs. Smith related

... strong feelings of abuse as a child came up ... She can't remember specific things ... her GP told her most bulimics have been sexually abused as children...

A second telephone contact, September 16, include

... occluded memories.  Sister was abused by neighborhood man as a child.   Susan gets very re-triggered by this and by shows about child abuse. Her doctor told her that close to 100% of bulimics have been sexually abused.  This really brought up a lot of feelings and some images but not really a memory."

Yet another important event happened around Christmas 1987, before Mrs. Smith had entered the treatments (with Mary Brown and Veronica Erickson) where the mental images alleged to be "memories" started.  This was something I had not discovered from any written materials, and learned about for the first time from Mrs. Smith on May 4, 1992.

Mrs. Smith had a friend, Valerie White, who told her about her treatments for back problems.  Biofeedback was used at the pain and stress clinic she attended, and Ms. White told Mrs. Smith that she had started to remember being abused.  When I asked Mrs. Smith how she reacted to this, she said, "I felt ... that if she was in therapy, remembering, maybe I should start as well.  I had no memory, but if she was in therapy ..."

To summarize, then, the suggestive influences to this point: Mrs. Smith is still not reassured that Alice is not being abused by John Public; Dr. Olson either says or Mrs. Smith believes she says that in her experience all bulimics are sexual abuse victims; finally, after she decides she shouldn't go into therapy "until she has a memory" of sexual abuse, a friend tells her "the remembering" can wait, and Mrs. Smith concludes she should give it a try.

It is my opinion, based on the above material, that Mrs. Smith was at this point being victimized by lay persons and professionals who were representing to her that sexual abuse might not be remembered, when in truth there is no evidence to support such a claim.  While Mrs. Smith may have had her own personal problems and/or motivations for claiming abuse at the hands of Mr. Public (something I will not speculate upon) she was being profoundly influenced by unsound information.  It is my opinion that this has persisted to this day.

3. Suggestive and Unprofessional Therapy Creates the "Memories"

In March 1988, Mrs. Smith started seeing Mary Brown for individual psychotherapy, and also had interviews with Veronica Erickson, a student who was writing a thesis on "Recovering Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse."  On March 9, 1988, Ms. Erickson commented that Mrs. Smith had done

... a lot of great body work. Worked on her anger, hurt about being sexually abused.  Has a few memories about it and wants more.

On March 28, the WSAC records show that the

"memory recovery process" was getting into high gear: ... had lots of memories come to her which she feels good about; 2 "rapes," 9 sodomies, and 2 oral sex (she has remembered both rapes and 1 sodomy and oral sex), 8 sodomies and 1 oral sex to go.  Can't wait.

Further WSAC records of Ms. Erickson show just as clearly that she has lost all professional objectivity.  Her April 5, 1988 note simply says "FUCK!", presumably her reaction to hearing Mrs. Smith verbalizing more and more outrageous claims about what Mr. Public did to her.  The June 14, 1988 note gives an insight as to the position Ms. Erickson was taking with regard to whether Mrs. Smith's increasingly severe claims should be automatically assumed to be accurate:

... trying to remember a memory that was just beginning to flash ... really scared that this memory is made up ... I told her I believed her.

If there is any doubt about the stance being adopted by Ms. Erickson, i.e. that whatever Mrs. Smith "recovers" from week to week is a reliable statement about past events, a reading of her Ph.D. thesis makes it abundantly clear that it was simply a given for her and the selected sources she relies on, that the patient's claims must be taken a face value.  She writes, for example:

Validation, feeling believed, was seen as essential for incest survivors struggling to reconcile their memories.

Nowhere in the thesis is mention made of any concern that false claims may arise in therapy specifically aimed at such "uncovering."  Next, she speaks of

... the ability of counselor ... to facilitate the survivor's recall of the abuse ... which of course assumes that abuse has taken place.

Just how broadly based is the source of these allegedly reliable "memories," is indicated by her quoting the book, The Courage to Heal, which has been influential in promoting the very ideas at the center of this case:

"Occluded" memories are vague flashbacks, triggered by touches, smells, sounds, body memories, bodily sensations as "warning signs."  Some women just intuitively knew that they had been sexually abused and were struggling to trust their intuition.

It is also clear that the proper role for the therapist, according to Ms. Erickson, is not only to accept all images as "memories," but to actively encourage this process.  She writes of her method which

... serves to continually promote an atmosphere in which the researcher is spontaneously both receptive and actively stimulating the recollection of the participant ... The participants and researcher ... create the world within which this study is revealed."

Ms. Erickson says of "Victoria" (pseudonym for Mrs. Smith),

She thought about who might have abused her and when she said his name, she knew who the offender was but she still had no memories as proof (p. 56 of Erickson thesis).

Let me now turn to her other therapist, Mary Brown.  Ms. Brown in her intake notes of March 1, 1988 refers to Mrs. Smith having

... flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse experiences, she believes by this same cousin.

Ms. Brown's treatment plan was to "assist Susan express and release the emotions associated with the sexual abuse experience."  This is important, because it shows that Ms. Brown, from the beginning, assumed the truth of the allegations.

It wasn't too long after this, the night of March 12/13, that Mrs. Smith's calendar indicates she had a "nightmare," and her "first memories."  When I asked Mrs. Smith about this, she said it was

... the nightmare which triggered the memory ... In the nightmare, the neighbor had shot her husband in the chest.  Her cleaning up his blood, I recalled John blotting up my blood after raping me.

There are, of course, no reputable data which would indicate that a patient or therapist can use dream material to reliably "recover memories" of real events.  Ms. Brown, however, seems to have utter confidence in the process, for she wrote to the police on August 3, 1988:

The treatment methods I use enable clients to express and release the very deepest feelings that may have been stifled ... It is precisely because the emotional intensity of sexual abuse in childhood is greater than what most children can integrate that these experiences are quickly lost to memory.  The ensuing forgetting and denial are the mind's way of protecting the individual from total disruption of their cognitive functioning.  This was particularly true of survivors of sexual abuse whose experiences occurred more than ten years ago.  The reason for this is that there was not the social awareness nor the professional expertise for dealing with these problems at that time.  Children instinctively know when the adults around them are going to be able to help them.  When they find themselves in situations where they may either be disbelieved ... this forgetting and denial comes into play even more strongly ...

Memories tend to return in fragments and to be unclear or non-specific in the beginning ... the blocks in the way of memory are gradually removed ... This is precisely what occurred ... with Susan Smith.  It is my clinical judgment that Susan had reached a point in her healing process when the memories that were returning were completely reliable ... She was unprepared to report until she herself was certain and until she received validation from me that I was in agreement that the memories could be trusted ...

That Ms. Brown was not only accepting all statements as real events, but actively encouraging them, is seen by the following passage from the same letter:

Susan herself questioned any inconsistency ... It took some education on my part for her to ... understand the whole process of how it is that the recall process works ...

Ms. Brown was even willing to assure the police that the other persons that Mrs. Smith was gradually naming as victims during that Spring and Summer of 1988 would also need "help" in remembering.

It is highly likely that most or all of the children that Susan remembers ... will be unable to remember these experiences.  This does not mean they did not occur any more than Susan's former amnesia means that these events had not happened to her.  One of these (youngsters) may he precipitated to remember and recapture the experiences through a process similar to what occurred for Susan."

There is, of course, absolutely no evidence that this whole process has anything to do with memory, or a recall of past events.  The only professionals who advocate these ideas are those making up a small, fringe group who hold themselves out as "specialists in treating sexual abuse," but who (as this case shows) seem to assume that it is permissible to pass off wild theories, like the ones above, to both patients, families, and investigative agencies.

Most important, however, is that outsiders evaluate the possible impact of such ideas on persons like Mrs. Smith.  The evidence is clear that she has raised doubts from time to time, but each time, these "specialists" have told her that her mental images must represent real events.  In this sense, I believe the professionals (Brown, Erickson, and others to be mentioned) are most responsible for creating the unreliable information in this case.

Not only do the ideas promoted by Brown and Erickson hold great potential to contaminate information coming from such counseling, but the techniques used with Mrs. Smith would likely heighten this possibility.  Mrs. Smith described pounding pillows and being encouraged to express her anger in sessions with Ms. Erickson, and in individual and group sessions with Ms. Brown, she described exercises in which she was using hyperventilation or bending from the waist.  The many group sessions she has attended, focusing on "recovery from sexual abuse," have a potentially profound influence on the participants.

In addition, Ms. Brown had a technique, which she called the "denial game," that was used when Mrs. Smith expressed caution about whether her mental images were reliable.  This process had the intended effect of causing Mrs. Smith to once more assume that whatever she could think of had actually happpened.

The police investigation was dropped for lack of evidence, for lack of corroboration from any of the many alleged victims named by Mrs. Smith, and because an outside consultant told the police that the impact of the therapy might be contaminating the information (see p. 160 of police investigation).

Mrs. Smith's statements to police include "trying to see" alleged events, having

a flash ...( a) visual memory of a spirit part of me coming out of me via my mouth and sitting on a head board.  I now understand this to be dissociation. (p. 200 of police investigation)

The police, quite understandably, wondered whether this might be a sign of major mental disorder, like a psychosis.  Instead, such statements reflect not that Mrs. Smith was suffering a major mental disorder, but simply that she was absorbing unsupported ideas from her therapists.  I have studied the process by which some mental health professionals are passing these ideas to patients, via articles, speeches, and in therapy sessions.  Many, if not most, patients, will accept these ideas as accepted scientific information, coming as they do from a professional therapist.

Just how much Mrs. Smith had come to believe in this process, already by April, 1988, is seen by her telling the police on April 20, 1988 that

These are not complete memories at this point but there are bits and pieces of which I would like to tell you now and when I have the complete memory back I will talk to you again .... I would like to add that I expect to have further recall of incidents as I have just begun to have recall in the last five weeks or so (p. 206 of police records).

4. The Growth of the Allegations

The process described above will often lead to a virtual flood of allegations which grow and grow.  Particularly if there are emotional rewards for producing more claims, the sky is the limit.  In this case, it ultimately led to claims of ritual abuse, animal killings, gang rape, multiple personalities, etc. which Mrs. Smith now seems to disavow but which she at the time was claiming as legitimate memory.  A brief review of these developments offers important perspective on the unreliable nature of this entire process.

Dr. Wagner saw Mrs. Smith from May 20, 1988 to January 27, 1989.  He used a method Mrs. Smith describes as "regression," and which she now does not trust.  She feels that some of the things she said as a result of these methods may not have happened.

For example, Dr. Wagner's notes of November 24, 1988 speak of "... memory of John and 'Joe.'  Tying her up — raping her.  Two others came in, Evan and [unreadable]."  Mrs. Smith says she doesn't recall saying this to Dr. Wagner, doesn't believe she said it to him, believes his records are incorrect, and believes she talked about "Sam."

Dr. Wagner, while nowhere in his records expressing any doubt about the reality of these statements, did mention at the outset (June 3, 1988) that he thought Mrs. Smith was: "I suspect getting a lot of mileage out of sexual abuse.  Attention and support from home she never got from mom and dad?"

When I questioned Mrs. Smith about other examples of statements drawn from the notes of the many therapists she saw in the coming months, I noted an interesting pattern.  Whenever a statement in therapy records referred to events which she now says may not have happened, like seeing a boy with slits for eyes and no face, she says that she cannot recall saying any of this.  She repeatedly said it was only her study of the therapy records which allows her to remember what she might have said in therapy.

However, when I asked her about a note from Morton Hunt's evaluation of January 15, 1991, she was quite clear that she did not say the following "... Then had nightmare.  Chose John.  Just knew it was him (reviewed possible men)."

Such selective "memory" merely reinforces my opinion that these multiple therapy contacts, of the nature described, makes a mockery of the idea that claims growing out of the sessions, or growing out of the mental images of a patient between such sessions, are reliable.

The fact that Mrs. Smith was in much more therapy than I have yet summarized, only deepens the dilemmas.  She was in group therapy with Ms. Summers, for 32 sessions, from March 21, 1989 to December 1, 1989, and Ms. Summers, who is another of those who specialize in "working mainly with women recovering from childhood sexual abuse," wrote in her records that "Susan's abuse was the most cruel and degrading I have encountered."

Once again, unquestioning acceptance seems to be the sina qua non of many of the therapists in this case.  Sadly, such an attitude may be quite destructive to patients.  A review of her journals, which I will highlight, shows that (as Dr. Wagner had indicated) Mrs. Smith was getting a lot of positive feedback from more and more "memories."  A patient might feel good at the time of such feedback, but the encouragement of this process does not bode well for the long-term welfare of such patients.

May 24, 1988 — "Another memory came back — arms tied, Sam passed a bowel movement into my mouth ... I know there are things I can't even imagine yet that they did to me.  I know I still have a lot of memories to go ... I know I'll have the strength to handle them ... I'm on my way to a happy successful life ... I love my strength.

May 26, 1988 — This morning at the Mom's Group ... another memory came back.  Sam lay on my face with his penis in my mouth, my nose blocked, suffocated by his belly then he urinated in my mouth ... I called WSAC.  The more I discover about what I've been through the more I wonder how I ever survived ... You're so strong Susan, so wonderful.  You're capable of whatever you believe in.  You're OK, Susan Smith.  You're strong, you're a survivor, and a winner, you're going straight to the top, head of the class.  You're OK, you're a winner I'm really truly beginning to like myself and I really like that — all these years I hated myself,

May 27 — I begin my workshop with my therapist. (Mary Brown)

May 28 — ... we did rapid breathing ... I went to my sexual abuse ... my body was twitching and squirming just as if it were tied up by the hands ... I started getting these vague recollections of this blond male being Warren and some occurrence happening ... I wasn't ready to look at it until I could intellectually figure out how this could be ...

May 31 — Describes Dave1 meeting with Smith — "He explained to him that these memories had been undisturbed for twenty years and had not been distorted ... and that I was not making it up ... I knew Dave was not ready to look at his abuse ... at WSAC I went into denial mode ... Veronica played the denial game with me just to show me that I was crazy to believe I was making this up.

June 14, 1988— Saw Veronica, talked about Yellowstone incident with Gretchen involved, how I was blocking everything because I had no proof John was in Yellowstone and the fact that Gretchen must have repressed and that she would probably deny remembering such an incident ... so she had me "hang" and it took a much longer time for the feelings to come, but they did, I cried, pound pillows, yelled, and got back more memories ... so much doesn't make sense.  Where is everyone else?

Nov. 9, l988 — What I learned in therapy today: When I was abused it happened to my body.  It happened to a part of me that I dissociated from.  I have separated from and disowned the part of me that it happened to ... I am ashamed of my body ... so I abuse it.

April 18, 1989 — I love myself and that's something I couldn't have said a year ago.  I've come a long way ... Signed Terrific Susan.

May ?, 1989 — ... I let my little girls talk ... etc.

June 8, 1989 — attended Conference on Child Sexual Abuse ... I learned a lot ... talked to Gretchen two weeks ago.  More about her "other personalities" ... Memories, memories.  Where are they.  I want to remember all the mean sadistic things John did to me.

July 5, 1989 — I know I am going to go on and achieve great things in my life ... speak out against abuse of children, especially sexual abuse.  I know I'm strong, a survivor, and a successeder. (sic)

Oct. 16, 1989 — I got back memories of what happened after John gave my body to the two "tough men" in exchange for drugs.

October 29, 1989 — I don't think this can happily, successfully end for me unless I have power over him.

Nov. 29, l989 — Cousin Joe called and told me Warren had memories of being sexually assaulted by John.  The memories are just beginning ... I told Warren ... I was really proud of him.

Nov. 27, l990 — ... I don't want anymore memories!!! ... I called WSAC this afternoon and bits of memories came up.  One was John beside me, and about 5 men, in black robes, or gowns — full length with hoods on their heads ... These men had sword like daggers in their hands ... a memory of John slitting the throat of a cat with a knife ... telling us that this is what would happen to us if we ever told about him.

Dec. 16, 1990 — I think I might have multiple personalities.  It is something I've wondered about before, but believed you only developed multiples if you were severely abused before age 8 ... My first day with Veronica there was this other part of me talking.  She named herself Julie ... it was really weird cause I knew what was happening ... I'm going to get to the other side of this — new and improved.  But in the mean time, I'm a nuttsy basketcase.

Dec. 25, 1990— I started back in therapy mid-December, I could no longer contain the memories within me ... I want to write about and keep track of my memories.  I've had a feeling for several months now that there might have been ritual abuse.  When I started having flashes of white candles, lots of them, burning, I thought well, this is probably just an image I've seen on TV ... My 2nd day in therapy (3rd time I'd seen June) I had this memory — a faceless boy ... he had no nose and only slits for eyes ... They told us if we didn't behave, or if we ever told they would burn our faces with an iron ... They told the girls they use their genitals as eyes, then when they grow older they'd have furry, hairy eyes and everyone would laugh.

Toward the end of our meeting, I asked Mrs. Smith how she distinguished between the many allegations which she insists took place, and the many allegations which she made but now says she cannot remember saying and isn't sure they are real.  The gist of her answer (the tape is of course available) was that "memories" which were like a "videotape," where a picture is complete, from start to finish, and which occurred to her sometimes in therapy but often by herself, are reliable.  Brief images, or "flashes," which are incomplete, and which were often in response to therapeutic techniques she now is critical of, like those of June Schreiber and others, she distrusts.

I find this distinction, which I must assume to be sincere on Mrs. Smith's part, to be utterly unreliable.  First, the therapy from the beginning has been manipulative, even though I have no doubt that all the therapists were sincere in wanting to help.  They all, nonetheless, adopted the position that "the more memory the better."

While this might be interpreted to mean that this is standard practice in the therapeutic community, since so many therapists in this case acted in this manner, it is instead an artifact which resulted when Mrs. Smith sought out or was referred to a selected group of therapists who "specialize in recovery from sexual abuse."  Amongst this group, whose work and education I have studied intensively, it is common practice to assume abuse occurs if anyone claims it has, common practice to encourage as many "memories" as possible, common practice to encourage anger and "empowerment," and common practice to accept all allegations, however unlikely, as being real.

All this is terribly unscientific, without general agreement from the mental health community, and in my view highly destructive to many patients.  Perhaps most important here, in the context of litigation, is the fact that these techniques absolutely fly in the face of reliable fact-finding.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is for the Court, in studying this case and deciding what is reliable and what is not, to understand that if commonsense leads to one conclusion about where the truth lies, the use of psychiatric labels and esoteric explanations should not cause the Court to abandon what the facts otherwise seem to show.

As of this writing, the Court has yet to render a verdict.  But whatever is decided in this case, it should be clear that our society is about to experience yet another wave of unreliable sexual abuse allegations.  Once again, it is the promulgation of faulty ideas by a small segment of the mental health community (see for example Bass & Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Briere & Conte, in press; Cozolino, 1989; Maltz, 1990; Herman & Schatzow, 1987; Summit, 1987; Young, Sachs, Braun, & Watkins, 1991), coupled with the apathy of the bulk of the mental health community, which promises to create a new form of abuse of patients, families, and the falsely accused.  The moral and economic costs are incalculable, and the promotion of pseudoscientific ideas which confuse memory with mental imagery is already confusing the scientific literature.

Fortunately, clearer heads are also in evidence (see Ganaway, 1991; Lanning, 1989 & 1992; Mulhern, 1991a, 1991b, 1991c; Nathan, 1989, 1990, 1991; Passantino, Passantino, & Trott, 1989; Price, 1992; Putnam, 1991; Wakefield & Underwager, 1992 and undated).  Given our society's tendency to become infatuated with all manner of fads, it should be obvious that this latest development in the child sexual abuse circus is not going to go away quickly or easily. It will take insight and perseverance to counteract the tendency of the media and most lay persons to uncritically accept the "blocked memory" claims now emerging with increasing regularity.  If our society is serious about responding to the reality of childhood sexual abuse, a critical ingredient is the avoidance of irresponsible empire-building by some mental health professionals who have abandoned both science and reason.


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* Lee Coleman is a psychiatrist at 1889 Yosemite Road, Berkeley, California, 94707.  [Back]

1 A cousin of Mrs. Smith, and one of the other alleged victims, non of whom had any memories of abuse.  [Back]

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