Recovered Memories of Alleged Sexual Abuse: Memory as Production and as Reproduction
ABSTRACT: The concepts of memory as production and memory as
reproduction are examined in terms of memories of abuse recovered in
therapy. Such memories may be psychically real for the patient but
they cannot be considered to reflect actual historical events. It
is a mistake for the therapist to act on memories from therapy as if
they were literal history.
How do we make sense of the explosive increase in claims of recovered
memories of childhood sexual abuse? As a psychiatrist and Jungian
analyst in private practice, I have observed with wonder the epidemic
sweeping my community. Colleagues tell me that Central Texas,
Bible-belt country, is also the center of satanic cult abuse.
Private psychiatric hospitals in my community have set up special groups
for patients suffering from multiple personality disorder. Many of
these M.P.D. patients report childhood sexual abuse.
Psychotherapists whom I supervise tell me of increasing numbers of their
patients who report childhood abuse, including satanic cult abuse.
What is going on? Is there an explosion of actual abuse, unnoticed
before now? Or does the increase reside in the belief system of
those making such reports?
What I would like to discuss relevant to this issue is an overview of
memory as reproduction (literal history) and memory as production
(creative imagination.) What I have to say draws much from a paper
of Paul Kugler (Childhood Seduction: Physical and Emotional, published
in Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought, Spring, 1987, p. 40-60).
How do we know what we think we know? Are our perceptions and
memories accurate reflections of the world? How might our
neurophysiology (our "hardware") and our individual
experiences and group expectations (our "software") shape our
These questions are not new. They go back at least as far as
the debate between Aristotle and Plato, on realism
versus idealism. For Aristotle, what you see is what you
get. He thought the way to know reality was to study the
individual event in the world. In contrast Plato invites us to
imagine being seated in a cave, with a light behind us. All that
we know are the reflected shadows upon the cave wall. We imagine
that the shadows are reality itself, when in fact they are
reflected images of a truer reality we cannot see. Aristotle would
be a godfather of experimental psychology, with its emphasis upon
observation, repetition and avoidance of hypothetical constructs.
Plato would be a godfather of psychologies such as ethnology, Jung's
archetypes of the collective unconscious, and Levi-Strauss's structural
anthropology, which emphasize recurrent, universal patterns rather than
individual events. Which tradition we adopt structures our beliefs
about memory. Do we imagine memory to be an accurate reflection of
accurate perceptions, or do we imagine both our perceptions and our
memories to be shaped by underlying structures of belief?
The question of what our perceptions and memories represent comes up
again in the writings of John Locke, David Hume, Bishop Berkeley and
Immanuel Kant. John Locke focused upon the association of events
as forming our thoughts. For Locke, the mind was a "tabula
rasa," a blank slate, formed by experience. Locke would be a
godfather of experimental psychology, especially the behaviorism of
Pavlov, Watson and Skinner. For Locke, memory would be the
reproduction of experiences associated together in the mind.
Locke's empiricism was questioned by David Hume and Bishop
Berkeley. These men asked, how do we know that our perceptions and
our memories are accurate? How do we know we are not imagining
what we think we see and remember? Carried to an extreme, this
line of thought leads to solipsism where we can never be sure our
knowledge is accurate or corresponds to the experience of others.
Immanuel Kant suggested a solution to the conundrum presented by Hume
and Berkeley. Instead of despairing at our thought being
"just imagination," Kant considered all knowledge to be
structured by the imagination. The outer world was not denied.
Nevertheless, reality was to be known through the creative
apperception of our imagination. From Kant's point of view, memory
is both reproductive (a reflection of events in the world), and
productive (shaped by the creative force of imagination).
The question of memory's origin in history versus imagination came
into focus within early psychoanalysis. It was precisely the
question of memories of childhood sexual abuse that preoccupied Sigmund
Freud. At first Freud thought he had discovered the etiology of
hysteria as being due to literal childhood seduction. By 1897
Freud concluded that at least some of his patients had not actually been
seduced, but were in fact imagining the events. In his words,
"It is impossible to distinguish between truth and
emotionally-charged fiction." Freud expanded (not abandoned
as has been charged), his etiology of neurosis so as to include the role
of fantasy. In Paul Kugler's words: "Freud had discovered
that memory records not only perceptions, but also wishes and
apperceptions. Memory is a confabulated record of the events
occurring in the exterior environment, along with those events occurring
in the interior environment. Furthermore, in the unconscious there
is no 'indication of reality,' which means it is impossible to
distinguish between history and desire" (p.45).
Freud never denied the reality of his patients' memories of actual
childhood traumas. Rather, he recognized that the memories of
actual childhood are continually being confabulated with unconscious
fantasies. Furthermore, within the context of analysis it is
impossible to distinguish which aspects refer to outer objective
perceptions and which refer to inner desires and apperceptions.
Freud's expansion of his childhood seduction theory to include the
role of fantasy has been attacked during the past decade by several
psychoanalysts who feel Freud minimized the trauma of actual childhood
seduction. In 1984 Jeffrey Masson wrote The Assault on Truth
subtitled, Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. Alice
Miller wrote a series of books, increasingly clear that she considered
memories of childhood trauma to be historical and literal (The Drama of
the Gifted Child ()(),
Thou Shalt not be Aware ()(),
Banished Knowledge (),
Down the Wall of Silence ()). In the end Alice Miller renounced
psychoanalysis because other analysts continued to see memory as a
confabulation of experience and fantasy rather than being literally,
Another founder of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, recognized the
productive creative aspect of memory. Jung recognized that memory
images arise from a conjunction of outer environmental influences plus
the specific reactions of the individual. The memory image exists
independently of the historical referent, even if based in part upon
perception. This realization led Jung to speak no longer of the
historical childhood and the historical parents, but to employ instead
the term imago. The imago bears traces of both external and
internal history. The person's love, admiration, resistance,
hatred, rebelliousness and envy transfigure the perceptual contents,
producing an imago. Again in Paul Kugler' words, "The 'imago'
is the merging place of perception and apperception. And because
of this merging, no one can ever distinguish for sure between remembered
history and imagined fantasy" (p.49).
To say that memory is a mixing of history and fantasy does not mean
that memory is invalid, unreal or unimportant. If we consider
"abuse" and, "being abused" as psychological
experiences rather than historical facts, then whenever abuse is
reported by patients, "abuse" is actually occurring.
Again in Paul Kugler's words, "So, the problem is not whether the
patient suffers from seduction or abuse. Of course the patient
does, and such abuse exists simply because the patient says it
exists. The abuse exists as a psyche fact. The real problem
is in how the treating therapist approaches the patient's image of
"If the therapist derives psychic reality from physical and
historical 'reality,' then physical, historical seduction will be
considered the preponderant etiological factor. If, however, the
therapist defines psychic reality more in terms of wishes, desires and
archetypal images, then these factors will be considered most
etiologically significant. And, finally, if the therapist works
from the definition of reality that both the environment and the
individual emotional responses of the person are equally real, then a
combination of these factors will determine the etiology" (p.50).
Where we are led by Paul Kugler's thought is that memories recovered
in therapy cannot be considered simple, historical events. Within
the patient memories are a confabulation of history and fantasy.
Furthermore, the patient is not alone in therapy. The therapist's
beliefs about the nature of psychic reality will shape what he
communicates to the patient, which will in turn shape what memories the
patient communicates to the therapist.
Within the context of therapy it is sufficient to accept memories of
abuse as psychically real. The emotional reality, the feelings,
are worked upon as psychic problems requiring healing. It is quite
different when patient and therapist take the memory as literally real
and attempt to act in the world. Efforts to act upon memories from
therapy as if they were literal history are problematic.
Wakefield is a psychiatrist at 711 West 38th Street, Suite B4B,
Austin, Texas 78705. This paper was presented at the
Fourth Annual Convention of the American
Psychology Society, San
Diego, June 20, 1992. [Back]