"To Believe or Not to Believe"
I have pondered this enigma considerably, not from a theoretical arm
chair by any means, but as a witness to 25 years of listening to various
kinds of recovered memories. I have also served as consultant to
numerous other therapists who have witnessed amazing experiences with recovered memories of all conceivable types.
As I have considered the problem, one striking feature began to
emerge with clarity which was found in all circumstances the demand,
insistence, yea the desperate almost life or death plea that the
person's memories be believed. Suddenly it struck me that there is more
to this single impelling feature than meets the eye. The dramatic and at
times almost desperate insistence demands full and literal belief
the additional claim or veiled threat that "if you don't believe me
I won't feel validated in my experience, and I will never be able to
feel that I am a real and worthwhile person. These things really
happened to me, they must be believed, and if you won't believe me this
ends our relationship and I will find someone who will."
But this (blackmail quality) demand being issued as a desperate plea
or a relationship ultimatum doesn't stop here: "These atrocities
happened. You believe me. Now you must support me in my redress of my
grievances, my efforts to gain restitution for those crimes committed
against me. My 'recovery' of my sanity depends upon my being believed,
validated, and aided in my attempts to gain redress. 'They' must be made
to confess and to pay for the wrongs they have done to me.
In the case of alien abduction memories the final part of the plea is
not so clear cut, but reads something like: "People must be made to
believe that these things are happening, that lives are being ruined,
that my life is ruined by the fears I live with. Until the truth is
known and believed we will have no collective way of banning together to
protect ourselves from these invading aliens and stopping this use of us
like common animals in a zoo or research laboratory."
There is, of course, a certain impelling logic in these various
claims and demands. And it would seem that this logic, taken along with
the passionate persuasion of its absolute truth value, has led numerous
therapists to lose their ordinary therapeutic stance.
As therapists we were all taught while in training to become dynamic
psychotherapists never to "believe" anything told to us in
psychotherapy, but to take everything told to us seriously. To
"believe" is to step out of the professional therapist role
and gets into a dual relationship with the person which destroys the therapeutic
stance, and with it the possibility of ever being able to interpret the
illusory and delusional aspects of transference and resistance.
entering the person's life in a realistic way colludes with unconscious
resistance. So we are taught to remain neutral, "equidistant"
between the personality agencies of id, ego, and superego and the
person's external reality.
Someone arrives in our consulting room and tells us he has a headache
because of too much "stress." The internist says "it's nerves."
We would be out of business quickly if we believed either conclusion.
Instead, we learn to receive the complaint along with the proffered
interpretations. Then we ask the person to continue telling us about
himself. A woman tells us that she feels pain during intercourse and it
is because her husband is so insistent on having sex with her all the
time. We hear that the child who is brought for therapy is lying and
stealing despite all of the parent's best efforts to raise him
correctly. In couple or family work we always hear conflicting
"realities." We take each reality seriously as we work; but we
refrain from losing our neutrality, our therapeutic stance, and
therefore our ability to be of value, by not becoming swept away with
the question of whose version of reality is correct or true. And the
list goes on. We never take at face value what we are told, but we
always receive it seriously and ask for more.
Then I began to realize that some of my colleagues are not plagued by
this demand to believe the recovered memories told them. Surprise!
suddenly realize that they are the most seasoned therapists, those with
the greatest experience and competence in analyzing transference and
resistance, regardless of what school of therapy they have been trained
in. They take what is told to them seriously and ask for more.
trail is getting hotter!
Seasoned therapists who understand transference and resistance work,
no matter how they label it, feel no need to "believe" the
childhood abuse or abduction memories, but take everyone's concerns and
beliefs very seriously and go to work. Oh, if pressed, they might be
more or less inclined to believe that a given person's experience
actually did or did not happen, but that is not their concern. They are
aware of the existence of massive abuse and denial in our society (R. Hilton, 1993, V. Hilton, 1994).
And without overwhelming objective
evidence of specific facts, they have no need to believe or doubt
are acutely aware that "believing" simply isn't their job as
psychotherapists. One colleague said, "whoever gave it to us to be
the arbitrators of objective truth. Where but the psychotherapy
consulting room are we less likely to be indulged with objective
The Problem of 'Recovery' Through Being Believed
Now the insistence (1) on "being believed," (2) on
"having to have one's experiences validated," and (3) on
"only being able to achieve 'recovery' by being supported in
actually seeking realistic redress" began to look more like
symptoms of something else. But if so, I asked myself, "What is the
common root to these many symptomatic demands?"
Almost as if by divine intervention, a deeply distressed and
horrified therapist appeared in my next consultation group:
(T=Therapist, C= Consultant)
|| Tomorrow a client I have worked with for two-and-a-half years has
arranged, with the aid of members of her 'survivor's' support group, a
flail family confrontation of her childhood molests.
|| Survivor's groups encourage this kind of thing all the time,
what's the problem surely you're not involved in all that?
|| No, of course not. But after six months of therapy when all of
these abusive memories began coming out during sessions she became quite
fragmented and was having a hard time functioning. I sent her to a
psychiatrist who put her on Prozac which helped. She is on a managed
health care plan so her psychotherapy benefits ran out rapidly. I
continued to see her once a week for a low fee but she clearly needed
more. I suggested she check out the Community Women's Center for a
support group. At the Center she was referred to an incest survivor's
group." I thought, "Oh, well, she is working on those issues
so maybe they can help her." Over the last two years numerous
memories have emerged of absolutely terrible things that happened with
her father and brothers. She insisted on my believing all of the
memories that came up in group and in session.
||And were the things believable?
||Well, that's hard to say. She is clearly very damaged, borderline at
best with organizing pockets around all of this abuse. I don't question
whether she has been somehow badly abused. But I have no idea about the
actual memories there are so many of them and they are so grotesque.
||But she insisted on your believing all of them?
||Yes, she did.
||And how did you handle that?
||Well, I did my best to get out of it. You know, to tell her that I
know some horrible things must have happened to her, that we would do
our best to figure things out and find ways for her to face whatever
happened and to find new ways to live I said it all. But she had to know
that I believed her. Then the memories began to be more explicit, things
an infant can't possibly imagine unless they had actually happened to
||And so you believed her?
||Well, in a way yes. I mean, I don't know about all of the memories
but something awful clearly happened to her. I let her know I believed
that. But I'm sure she thinks I believe it all, just like her survivor's
group does. But what I'm worried about now is she has all of this energy
and support gathered for the grand confrontation tomorrow. She wants
them all to confess, to say that they did all of these horrible things
to her, to say they are sorry, that they are horrible people to have
ever done such things, that they can never forgive themselves, and that
there is no way they can ever make it up to her.
||Is that what she wants, some form of recompense?
I don't really know what she wants. Her Dad and her brothers do have
money, maybe she wants some kind of payment. And there is a lot of
insurance money. Her survivor's group has educated her to that.
that's not the main thing. Or at least I don't think so. It's like her
sanity is somehow at stake. She now has amassed all of the believers she
needs to validate her experiences and her memories. She now feels
absolutely certain that these many things happened. If they don't
confess, if they don't grovel, if they don't agree that she is right and
they are wrong I'm afraid she'll have a psychotic break!
But what's got me scared is that I have somehow colluded in all of
this without really meaning to. She is going to confront the family
about all of these things, things that I have no way of knowing ever
happened. And she's going to say that she remembered all of this in
therapy and that her group helped her get the courage to finally speak
the truth. You see, it's awful. I don't know how I got into this jam.
And just yesterday I read about a group that's helping families fight
back. They are encouraging families to sue the therapist for encouraging
people to believe false memories. And, of course, therapists have lots
of money to sue for. I have three million dollars in insurance this
family could come after. And do you know what's scariest? I have all of
those memories written down in my notes. Sure enough, with her shaking,
sobbing, writhing as she remembered it all event by event. Her
least on the surface appears ordinary and normal. I don't think they are going to take
well to being told they are criminals, and to being threatened with
lawsuits for crimes they supposedly committed 25 years ago. It's all one
horrible mess and I have no protection in all of this. If the family
contacts me for information, I am bound by confidentiality. I can't tell
them anything or help mediate in any way. The bottom line is, I'm
|| Follow me for a minute as I throw out some possibilities.
hear your dilemma from the perspective of borderline or symbiotic
personality organization, I hear the bottom line is that your client has
succeeded in molesting you, violating your personal and professional
boundaries in much the same intrusive or forceful way she may once have
experienced herself as a very young child. According to this way of
considering your dilemma, you are telling me that your life is now in as
much danger as she may have felt in as an infant or toddler when all of
whatever happened took place. The flashback dream memories are vivid and
intensely sexual. What she experienced may have objectively looked very
different. But the grotesque sexualized memories metaphorically express
a certain true sense of how she felt then, or at least how she feels now
when attempting to express intense body sensations which do contain a
memory. By this view, you are saying that all this time you have been
held emotional hostage in a similar helpless and vulnerable position to
the one she felt in as a child without having the slightest idea of how
to protect yourself from this violence.
|| Oh, God, I'm sick in the pit of my stomach just realizing how true
what you are saying is. I'm feeling all of the abuse in the symbiotic
role reversal of the countertransference.
Similar versions of this story are being lived in therapist's offices
wherever psychotherapy is practiced. Talk shows are filled with the same
human tragedy. Television audiences are being forced into the same
position as this therapist of somehow judging the fate of those who are
producing recovered memories. Judges and juries are being asked to
decide the fate of family members who stand accused by the emergence of
years' old recovered memories. This therapist is bright, well-trained,
sincere, and well-intentioned. Her course was carefully thought out and
managed but nevertheless has proven dangerous. Her training, like that
of the vast majority of therapists practicing today, did not include how
to work with primitive transference and resistance states so as to
forestall massive acting out. By the therapist's own report her client
was in danger of a mental breakdown.
The source of the powerful energy which fuels the recovery movement
is primordial fear which leads therapists to search for memories which aim the helplessness and rage
toward an external source in the past and thereby to shift the focus of
this terrifying energy out of the present transference situation. If the
client were allowed her breakdown, terrifying and primitive body states
would emerge in the consulting room and involve her therapist. She
would, for that time period, lose completely her ability to observe her
own experience, to test reality, and she would experience the therapist
as the abuser, the molester. The accusation and demand for confession
and empathic understanding would be ideally aimed at the therapist in
such a way that the primitive transference and resistance memories could
at last be worked through rather than externalized and acted out.
Freud discovered before the turn of the century (1895b) that
hypnotic "remembering" and cathartic abreacting may indeed be
intense emotional experiences that are momentarily compelling and
tension relieving; but that without the activation of ego and body-ego
memories in transference and resistance and without an intense and
extensive working through process there is no transformative cure.
When we believe people are we perpetuating a fraud? When we fail to
believe people are we refusing to help them with their recovery? And
what will ethics committees, licensing boards, and malpractice judges
and juries be saying about how we conducted ourselves a decade from now
when the psychotic transference finally slips into place and it is we
who finally, but now publicly, stand helplessly accused of abusing this
person in any of a variety of ways by believing, by not believing, by
molesting, by seducing ...? "It looks like we're all fucked!,"
was the response of the consultation group.
The Fear of Breakdown
This therapist's horrifying vignette brought abruptly to my attention
a second feature of the recovered memory flap going on all around us.
She feared that if her client did not get her way in the family
confrontation she would have a psychotic breakdown. The therapist
herself was afraid of a malpractice suit or disabling ethical complaint.
Suddenly I realized that everyone touched in any way by the phenomenon of these popularized "recovered memories" is
somehow afraid that something uncertain but catastrophic is going to
happen to them in the vague but foreseeable future.
Hmmm ... something catastrophic is going to happen in the future that
is somehow related to the distant, unknown, and unrememberable past????
At that point the key to taking recovered memories seriously suddenly
leapt out in a conversation with Bob and Virginia Hilton.4
preparing a paper on the topic for delivery to a bioenergetic conference
the following week and we were brainstorming trying to get to the bottom
of the recovered memory mystery (V. Hilton, 1994). Bob had just finished
a paper to be delivered at the same conference on a related topic (R.
Hilton, 1993) and Winnicott's last paper which was published
posthumously, "Fear of Breakdown" (1974), was fresh on his
Donald Winnicott was the first pediatrician to become a
psychoanalyst. His understandings of the early mother child interaction
have made a significant contribution to British psychoanalysis and his
powerful influence is now rapidly spreading worldwide. As a result of
Dr. Margaret Little's (1990) publication of her own analysis with
Winnicott, Psychotic Anxieties and Containment, we now realize that
Winnicott was the first psychoanalyst to learn how to fully and
systematically foster a "regression to dependence" in which
the most primitive of human psychotic anxieties could be subjected to
analysis even in people who are otherwise well developed.5
In "Fear of Breakdown" Winnicott shows that when people in
analysis speak of a fear of a psychotic break, a fear of dying, or a
fear of emptiness, they are projecting into future time what has already
happened in the infantile past. One can only truly fear what one has
experienced. Terrifying and often disabling fears of breakdown, death, and
emptiness are distinct ways of remembering terrifying processes that
actually happened in a person's infancy. This nugget of an idea and all
that has followed in its wake has changed the face of psychoanalytic
thinking. What is dreaded and seen as a potentially calamitous future
event is the necessity of experiencing in the memory of the
psychoanalytic transference the horrible, regressive, (once
death-threatening) dependent breakdown of functioning that one, in fact, experienced in some form in infancy.
The fear of breakdown manifests itself in many forms as resistance to
reexperiencing in transference and resistance (memories) the terror,
helplessness, rage, and loss of control once known in infancy. Therapists and clients alike dread disorganizing breakdowns and there
are many ways in resistance and counterresistance that two can collude
to forestall the curative experience of remembering by reliving the
breakdown experience with the therapist. One way of colluding with
resistance to therapeutic progress would be to focus on external
perpetrators or long ago traumas to prevent having to live through deeply
distressing, and frightening breakdown recreations together.
Bob read us the passage from Winnicott which relates the original
breakdown to precipitous loss of the infant's sense of omnipotence,
however that may have occurred before or after birth. When the
environmental provision fails to support the infant's need to control
life-giving necessities of his or her world, a massive breakdown of
somatopsychic functioning occurs. The break constitutes a loss of
whatever body-ego functions the infant may have attained at the time.
Rudimentary or developing ego functions are not fully independent of
the interpersonal situation in which they are being learned. So when the
environment fails at critical moments, the infant experiences a loss of
his or her own mind, a loss of any attained sense of control, and a loss
of whatever rudimentary sense of self as agency may have been operating.
From the point of view of the infant, the loss of psychic control over
his or her environment is equivalent to the loss of the necessary life
support systems so that fear of death (as an instinctual given) is
experienced as terrifyingly imminent, complete with the frantic flailings
we see in any mammal whose contact with the warmth and nurturing
maternal body is interrupted. The environment is empty; the environment
that is not experienced as separate from the infant's rudimentary
consciousness. When the necessary environmental support for ego skills
and consciousness is lacking, the infant psyche collapses. In Green's
(1986) terms, the mother of primary desire and pleasure dies.
At the level of the infant's primary organizing attempts there is a
functional equivalence between disruption or failure of environmental
provision and a sense of emptiness, loss of control, loss of omnipotence, total
panic-stricken and painful psychic breakdown, and the terrifying
prospect of death. Memories of primordial breakdowns are embedded in
somatic symptoms and terror. Some such memories appear universal since,
regardless of how good the parenting processes are, there are
unavoidable moments of breakdown that occur in every person's infancy.
However, the subjective experience of intensity; duration, and frequency
of breakdowns is markedly traumatic in some people and not possible to
be adequately soothed or recovered from. This level of memory is guarded
with intense physical pain attributable to the process of
(quasi-neurological) primary repression. No one wants to go through the
excruciating gross bodily pain and terror necessarily entailed in
physically remembering the process of early psychic breakdown. A
simplified "recovery" approach may foster repeated intense
abreactions which bring the body to the pain threshold in an acting out
which is then endlessly repeated in the name of "recovery."
But a century of psychoanalytic research has repeatedly and
unequivocally demonstrated the futility of this abreaction approach
whether it be acted out in the form of screaming, kicking,
accusing, confronting, switching personalities, generating yet more
flashbacks, or whatever.
Acting outside or acting inside the therapeutic situation is never
seen by psychoanalysts as therapeutic though at times it may be
unavoidable or uncontrollable. Analysts and all responsible
therapists whether they work with psychoanalytic transferential concepts
or with transference concepts such as "parent-child tapes,"
"birth memories," or "wounded inner child" seek to
frame within the therapeutic relationship the relatedness memories from
the past which remain active in the personality. Transference and
resistance memories can be secured for analysis and found to be illusory
and delusory in contrast to the realistic possibilities offered in the
present by real relationships which the person has the capacity to
Winnicott (1974) holds that in more normal development the
environment is able to manage infantile frustration and disillusionment
through small and tolerable doses, so that the terrifying fear of death
and an empty world (and therefore an empty self) may be averted and the breakdown of omnipotence gently helped along
rather than traumatically forced and abusively intruded into the child's
body and mind. It is now possible to make sense of the strange and
compelling nature of recovered memories. Environmental failure in
infancy has led to a breakdown of early psychic processes with
accompanying terror and the active threat of death (as the infant
experiences it). The breakdown experience is blocked by primary
repression that says "never go there again." The breakdown
fear lives on as the somatic underpinning of all subsequent emotional
relatedness but cannot be recalled because: (a) No memory of the
experience per se is recorded only a nameless dread of dependence, (b)
The memory of the breakdown experience itself is guarded with intense
pain, somatic terror, and physical symptoms of all types, (c) The trauma
occurred before it was possible to record pictures, words, or stories so
it cannot be recalled in ordinary ways, but only as bodily terrors of
The Mythic Themes of Recovered Memories
The mythic themes of recovered memories (incest, violence, multiple
selves, cult abuse, birth, kidnapping, and alien abduction) have been
present in all cultures since the beginning of recorded time. These
themes can be called upon by the creative human unconscious to allow for
a creative narration to be built in psychotherapy which conveys the
emotional essence of the infant's traumatic experience. The demand to be
believed represents in some way the sense of urgency of the violation of
infantile boundaries. The primordial boundary violation can be
interpreted in the countertransference as the therapist feeling violated
by the demand to "believe me." The working through of the
repeated ruptures of interpersonal contact by flashbacks, sudden
physical symptoms, bizarre thoughts, panic attacks, personality
switches, and boundary violations can be accomplished through securing
the organizing transference and resistance for analysis.
The Concept of "Cumulative Trauma"
A final consideration regarding the problem of recovered memories
relates to the frequent claim by parents, family members, and accused therapists that the adult child
now making accusations based on "false memories" has, until
stressful problems in living were encountered, always been basically
normal and well adjusted. And that family life has always been
characterized by basically sound group life and parenting. Masud Khan's
1963 concept of "cumulative trauma" adds a new set of
possibilities to those already discussed.
Beginning with Freud's early studies of childhood trauma (1895a,
1895b), psychoanalysis has studied a series of possibilities regarding
how the human organism handles overstimulation arising from the
environment as well as from within the body. As early as 1920 Freud
envisioned the organism turning its receptors toward the environment and
gradually developing a "protective shield." "Protection
against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living
organism that reception of stimuli. The protective shield is supplied
with its own store of energy and must above all endeavor to preserve the
special modes of transformation of energy operating in it against the
effects threatened by the enormous energies at work in the external
world" (p. 17).
This protective shield later develops into consciousness, but even so
remains somewhat ineffective in protecting from stimuli arising from
within the body. One way the organism may attempt to protect itself from
overwhelming internal stimuli is to project them into the outer
environment and treat them as "though they were acting, not from
the inside, but from the outside, so that it may be possible to bring
the shield against stimuli into operation as a means of defence against
them" (p. 17).
The "false memory syndrome" appears to originate in
earliest infancy (pre- or postnatal) when environmental stimuli cannot
be effectively screened out, or when strong internal stimuli are
projected to the exterior in an effort to screen them out. In either
case, due to the operation of primitive mental processes, the environment
may be "blamed" by the infant for causing stimulation that cannot be comfortably
processed though blame may be
objectively inappropriate to the circumstances. For example, one
accuser's early problems were traced back to "placenta
abruptio," a detachment of the placenta from the uterine wall giving rise to at least several prenatal days without nourishment.
Often accusations are traceable to shortages of oxygen in utero, to
early problems feeding, to infant allergies, to surgeries and medical
procedures early in life, to incubators, to severely depressed mothers,
to marital distress of the parents, or to an endless array of stressful
and unusual early life events which were not deliberately cruel or
Anna Freud (1951, 1952, 1958) and Winnicott (1952) emphasize the role
of maternal care in augmenting the protective shield during the period
of early infantile dependency. Khan (1963) has introduced the concept of
"cumulative trauma" to take into consideration early
psycho-physical events that happen between the infant and its mothering
partners. The concept of cumulative trauma correlates the effects
infant caretaking with disturbing personality features which only appear
much later in life. Cumulative trauma is the result of the effects
numerous kinds of small breaches in the early stimulus barrier or
protective shield which are not experienced as traumatic at the time but
create a certain strain which, over time, produces an effect on the
personality that can only be appreciated retrospectively when it is
experienced as traumatic.
Research on infantile trauma and memory (e.g., Greenacre 1958, 1960;
Kris 1951, 1956a, 1956b; Milner 1952) demonstrates the specific effects
on somatic and psychic structure of cumulative strain trauma. Khan
(1963) holds that "... 'the strain trauma' and the screen memories or
precocious early memories that the patients recount are derivatives of
the partial breakdown of the protective shield function of the mother
and an attempt to symbolize its effects (cf. Anna Freud, 1958)" (p.
52). Khan further comments:
Cumulative trauma has its beginnings in the period of development
when the infant needs and uses the mother as his protective shield.
The inevitable temporary failures of the mother as protective shield
are corrected and recovered from the evolving complexity and rhythm of
the maturational processes. Where these failures of the mother in her
role as protective shield are significantly frequent and lead to
impingement on the infant's psyche-soma, impingements which he has no
means of eliminating, they set up a nucleus of pathogenic reaction.
These in turn start a process of interplay with the mother which is
distinct from her adaptation to the infant's needs (1963, p.53,
According to Khan, the faulty interplay between infant and caretakers
which arises in consequence of strain reactions may lead to: (a)
premature and selective ego distortion and development, (b) special
responsiveness to certain features of the mother's personality such as
her moods, (c) dissociation of archaic dependency from precocious and
fiercely acted out independency, (d) an attitude of excessive concern
for the mother and excessive craving for concern from the mother
(co-dependency), (e) a precocious adaptation to internal and external
realities, and (f) specific body-ego organizations which heavily
influence later personality organization.
Khan points out that the developing child can and does recover from
breaches in the protective shield and can make creative use of them so
as to arrive at a fairly healthy and effective normal functioning
personality. But the person with vulnerabilities left over from
infantile cumulative strain trauma "nevertheless can in later life
break down as a result of acute stress and crisis" (p.56). When
there is a later breakdown and earlier cumulative strain trauma can be inferred, Khan is clear that the earlier disturbances of maternal care
were neither gross nor acute at the time they occurred. He cites infant
research in which careful and detailed notes, recorded by well-trained
researchers, failed to observe traumas which only retrospectively could
be seen as producing this type of cumulative strain trauma. Anna Freud
has similarly described instances in which "subtle harm is being
inflicted on this child, and ... the consequences of it will become manifest at some future date"
The implications of this research for the problem of recovered memory
are several. There are many kinds of trauma to which an infant can
silently and invisibly be reacting that are not the result of gross
negligence or poor parenting. In such instances only retrospectively, in
light of later disturbance or breakdown of personality functioning, can
the effect of cumulative strain trauma be inferred. The origin of the
difficulty can be traced to the environmental function of the protective
shield, to the (m)other's role in providing an effective barrier which
protects the child from intense, frequent, and/or prolonged stimuli
which produce strain, though there may be no visible signs of trauma at
Early or "recovered" childhood memories representing
cumulative trauma are seen by psychoanalysts as screen memories which
abstract, condense, displace, symbolize and represent visually the
strain effect. The unconscious of the client creates a compelling
picture or narrative which describes in metaphor what the strain trauma
looked like in the mind and body of the infant.
Many symptoms and/or breakdowns in later life, occasioned by
conditions of acute living stress, have their origins in infancy. The
adult experience of vague and undefinable earlier trauma is attributable
to the cumulative effects of strain in infancy caused by environmental
failure to provide an effective stimulus barrier during the period of
infantile dependency. There may have been no way at the time of knowing
what kinds of stimuli were causing undue strain on the infant because
they were not gross and they were operating silently and invisibly.
the circumstance may have been beyond the parent's capacity to shield,
as in the case of medical problems, constitutional problems, or
uncontrollable environmental problems, e.g., war, food shortages,
concentration camps, family discord, etc. Therefore, when years later a
person under current stress, produces memories of the effects of the
cumulative strain trauma, what is remembered is abstracted, condensed,
displaced, symbolized, and represented visually in screen memories which
operate like dreams so that an accurate picture of objective facts is,
in principle, forever impossible to obtain from recovered memories.
Beyond the Unthought Known
Bollas (1987), following Winnicott, speaks extensively of
psychoanalysis of "the unthought known." His focus is on
preverbal patterns, emotions, and moods that characterize the early
interactions the child establishes with its caretakers. As these
patterns become established in the here-and-now emotional interaction of
psychoanalytic relating, what has heretofore been "unthought
known" can now be thought in the developing relatedness context.
Memories of the unthought known from the first three or four years of
life do not arrive in pictures or narrations. Rather they are
relatedness memories embedded deeply in our characters and in our characteristic modes of
interacting with significant others (Hedges, 1983b). Memories recovered
from this period in the form of pictures and stories are bound to be
unreliable as such. When the memories emerge within the context of
detailed analysis of resistance and transference which directly involve
the analyst and the analytic process, then two can participate in the
creation of words, pictures, and stories which serve as metaphors of
what the early experiences that are being nonverbally and somatically
revived in the present might have looked like. The objective facts of
early emotional life are simply not accurately retrievable in the form of
pictorial and narrational memories, no matter how vivid and emotionally
compelling mental pictures and somatic sensations relating to the past
Hedges and Hulgus (1991) focus their research on the developmentally
earlier (plus or minus four months from birth) organizing level
transference which sets up a block to experiencing others before
interactions can begin. They cite Fraiberg's (1982) observations of
infants in which "predefenses" the tendency to fight, flight,
or freeze serve as behavioral modes which characterize the resistance to
experiencing the terrifying response sequences which produced in infancy
the tendency toward compulsive blocking or rupturing of interpersonal
Early impingements of omission or commission into the infantile sense
of continuity force the infant to respond and to problem solve before it
is equipped to do so. Such early impingements may be subtle and operate
invisibly but do form a person's basic foundations of thought. By
definition they are persecutory in nature, in that these fundamental
experiencing templates have been formed based on response to intrusive
impingements. Thus faulty primary and primordial learning of thought
patterns results which serves (1) to keep the person focused on certain
classes of danger cues when no danger exists, (2) to preoccupy the
person with certain classes of danger cues so that they miss completely
other dangers that "common sense" would otherwise inform them
of; and (3) to freeze for the person certain aspects of sensorimotor
responsiveness at the level of infantile dependency global or amodal
perception and motor responsiveness which forecloses further elaboration
by more mature differentiated modes of perception in situations of
greater independence. Memories of such primordial persecutory
responsiveness which are "recalled" at later points of life
will necessarily be subject to early distorting influences as well as
influences of the recall situation. It becomes patently clear that
memories recovered from infancy are complex constructions which include
many unreliable sources of variance. As such they must be understood to
be mentally operating in the same way as dreams the products of
abstraction, condensation, displacement, symbolization, and
considerations of visual representability.
Memories recovered in the course of psychotherapy can be taken
seriously if one has clearly in mind what kinds of early life events are
subject to what forms of later recall and how the recall can be
accomplished through transference and resistance analysis. A review of a
century of psychoanalytic observation has demonstrated that the kinds of
recovered memories arising to public attention currently cannot possibly
be veridical memories in the ways and forms that they are being touted.
We have long understood the constructed effect of screen and telescoped
memories which operate like dreams, as abstracting processes that help
to weave together in plausible images and sequences psychic events that
might not otherwise belong together, in order to make them seem sane and
We have studied the way human truth gets projected into creative and
expressive narrations and narrative interactions which capture the
essence of psychic experience. We know that plausible narration demands
such features as a beginning, middle, and an end. Characters must have
motives and act in believable ways with purposes and effects. In a
plausible narrative various gaps or inconsistencies in the story, the
character structure, or the cause and effect of purpose are glossed
over, filled in, or seamlessly woven together in ways that are vivid,
flow naturally, and are emotionally compelling and logically believable.
We are taken in by "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" because we all
know what it means to experience ourselves in various convincing and contradictory parts.
"Sybil" shows on national television or a talk show airs live
appearances of satanic ritual abuse, our clinics are flooded with
self-referrals. After the atomic bomb we looked to the skies for danger
and sure enough our efforts quickly brought us flying saucers. We begin
affirming more rights for women and children and our culture began
noticing actual abusive incidents as well as many other violent and
molest stories that seemed to have other sources. When our culture could
no longer believe in conversion hysteria, we saw peptic ulcers, then
stress, now viral contagion. When we could no longer believe in Bridie
Murphy's past lives, we turned to multiple selves, alien abductions, and
satanic ritual abuse. The list of possibilities goes on and will keep
expanding as our collective imagination continues to generate believable
images which can be used in our screen, telescoped, and narrative
constructions to clarify what our infancies were like and what the
structure of our deepest emotional life looks like.
In all of these familiar stories and more we can suppose that what
must eventually be expressed or represented in the interactional
exchange of the psychoanalytic transference and resistance is the loss
of power, the loss of control over oneself, and a personal destiny to
continue experiencing emptiness, breakdown, and death as a result of
internalized environmental failures. The kinds of stories which must be
told and the kinds of painful somatic memories that must be relived will
vary according to the nature of the infantile breakdown experience.
Someone will arise now to ask, "but isn't this all speculation?
How do we know that all these things didn't really happen exactly as
they are remembered?" The answer lies in our understanding of the
hope which the psychotherapeutic situation holds out for people to be
helped in reliving in a dependent state past trauma. And then, of
transforming themselves through better relating in the present. The
effects of infantile breakdown resulting from misfortune,
misunderstanding, neglect, or abuse can only be transformed in our daily
lives through reliving in the transference present the traumas of the
infantile past. Acting out or displacing the accusation onto the past
never helps us transform our inner lives.
A well-meaning accused parent who has been searching his memory for
some evidence that he has, in fact, trespassed in the way his adult
daughter alleges, now arises to ask, "But doctor, isn't it possible
that if I were so horrified by the deed I had done that I would have
repressed it totally?" The answer is unequivocally "No."
Repression simply doesn't work this way. When we have been traumatized
the problem is that we can't forget it. We set it aside, we manage not
to think about it for long periods of time, but a sudden noise instantly
shuttles us back to the concentration camp, to the trench where our
buddy lies bleeding and dead, to the bedroom with the yellow flowered
wallpaper and musty smell where from our perch on the ceiling we look
down watching Father take his pleasure with our unfeeling bodies.
Psychological repression happens to a five-year-old child whose
sexual and aggressive impulses press for forbidden expression. Repression as we have studied it for a century only works against
stimulation arising from within the neuro-psychic system, not merely in
harmony with abstract moral convictions. Such a notion of repression
belongs to Hollywood.
"But doctor, isn't it possible I might begin having flashbacks
of my having actually committed the acts my daughter says I did?"
Of course, anyone can have "flashbacks" about anything. But
flashbacks operate like dreams, not like memories. Flashbacks are
unconscious constructions and, as such, have many determinants. If you
were working on my couch and started having flashbacks I would encourage
careful and systematic attention to them. I would assume they contained
the history of your infantile past which was now being recreated in dream
mode in order for us to study how your relationship with me was pointing
toward what had happened in your otherwise unrememberable infancy.
the flashbacks seemed also tied to your daughter and other family
members, I would be listening for how the infantile past being revived
for us to study in our relationship has also been activated at various
moments in transference experiences toward them as well. I would never
assume we were looking at facts or veridical memories.
Therapists who, in the course of working with primitive
transferences, have lost their professional boundaries momentarily are
regularly able to report vivid memories of experiences of dissociation.
There is never any question of what they did or did not do no matter how
heinous or how ego dystonic it was. In a given moment they felt the pull
of a desperate (asexual, infantile) woman who needed their touch to keep
from falling into blackness and death. As they reached out to her they
slipped into the place in themselves where long ago they mobilized total
reaching, total yearning, and went for the (asexual) breast so
powerfully desired and so potently alluring. Retrospectively, they know
beyond the shadow of a doubt that they experienced a psychotic moment in
themselves while trying to rescue this woman. And while they are duly
horrified at what they did, there is no possibility of its ever being
truly forgotten. Perpetrators know exactly what they did and did not
do, despite however much they squirm to deny, defend, and blame the
other. The only exceptions are people who chronically live in psychotic
experiences and have never been able to keep very good track of reality.
Ordinary people are simply not able to accomplish such
"repressions" no matter how much they may wish to.
A century of accumulated psychoanalytic knowledge says that
relatedness memory simply does not work the way so many people claim it
does, but rather that relatedness memories are manifest in people's
daily lives and in transference and resistance memories in
psychotherapy. People who have experienced infantile breakdowns attempt
to turn passive trauma into active mastery by molesting us with their
memories, the demand to be believed and the insistence on being
supported by us in their redress. As human beings who have been
subjected to infantile trauma they deserve so much more from us than
simply being believed!
Believing the traumas, and therapists encouraging people to do things
in the real world about the horrible memories they recover in
psychotherapy can only be colluding with the forces of resistance as we
know them to arise to prevent painful transference reexperiencing.
is being avoided is clearly the breakdown of primitive mental functions
that can only be done in the safety and intimacy of a private
transference relationship. Not only clients but therapists also dread
the intensity and the intimacy of such primitive transference reliving.
We have a whole population of people who have suffered humiliating and
traumatizing childhoods and infancies who are yearning for regressive
psychotherapy experiences in which disorienting experiences can be
subjected to transference, resistance, and countertransference analysis.
There is no shortage of customers. But there is a great shortage of
therapists who have been prepared by their professional training to
delve deeply into the meanings of recovered memories within the context
of the therapeutic relationship. And there is great risk to the
therapist working with deep personality trauma. There is not only the
risk of litigation arising from the wild acting-out damage which clients
are inflicting on their families as a result of recovered memories.
There is the greater risk that the therapist will be successful in mobilizing the early organizing or psychotic transference, will be
interpretively successful in not having it deflected towards revenge on
the family, but will be caught with the accusations aimed squarely at
him or her while the client is in a frame of mind with little reality
testing. No wonder so many therapists are eager to deflect these
psychotic anxieties onto personages in the past rather than to attempt
to contain them!
As professionals we have not yet begun to assess the grave danger
each of us is in as a result of "recovered memories" emerging
in the therapeutic transference relationship. Escalating law suits,
Increasing disciplinary action by ethics committees and licensing
boards, and skyrocketing costs of malpractice insurance make clear that
the problem is real and that it is serious. We know there are abuses and
that they must be limited. But the national wild accusatory atmosphere
surrounding recovered memories is only the tip of the iceberg of
universal psychotic transference feelings.
It is not abusive or neglectful parents and families that are the
proper therapeutic target of primitive abusive transference feelings.
is ourselves and the work we do. How are we individually and
collectively to protect ourselves from an abusive psychotic monster that
an enlightened society with concern for the emotional well being of
everyone has unleashed on us?
Postscript: Implications for Social and Legal Issues
1. Clinical, theoretical, and experimental research fails to support
the popularized "video camera" theory of memory. The
widely-held view that externally generated psychic trauma can produce
total amnesia for many years and then be subject to perfect total recall
of fact is a Hollywood invention which is completely fallacious. As a
dramatic device for generating horror and suspense, the specter of
capricious memory loss in response to unwanted experiences has indeed
been successful in convincing millions that such things can and do
happen as attested to by an utterly spellbound population at present.
2. Recovered memories cannot be counted as fact. Consideration from a
psychoanalytic point of view shows there to be too many sources of
variance in recovered memories for them to ever be considered reliable sources of factual truth.
Memories produced in hypnosis,
chemically induced interviews, or psychotherapy are setting, technique,
and relationship dependent. The most important recovered memories which
attest to a history of trauma originate in the earliest months and years
of life. Our knowledge of the way the human mind records experiences
during this era makes it impossible for pictorial, verbal, narrational,
or even screen images to provide facts from this era that are reliable.
3. Nor can memories recovered in psychotherapy be counted as merely
false confabulations. We have a series of viable ways to consider the
potential truth value of memories recovered within the context of
psychotherapy. Much has been said concerning screen memories, telescoped
memories, and narrational truth. Little attention has been given in the
recovered memory literature to the kinds of transference and resistance
memories which can be expected to characterize each developmental epoch
of early childhood. The terror which many people experienced in the
first months of life due to misfortune, misunderstanding, neglect,
and/or abuse is recorded in painful aversions to dependent states which
might leave them at risk for psychic breakdown. The effects of
cumulative strain trauma in infancy can be devastating in a person's
later life, though no trauma was visible and no abuse present at the
time. People resist at almost all cost having to reexperience in
transference (i.e., to remember) the terrifying and physically painful
memories of environmental failure in earliest infancy. But externalizing
responsibility for one's unhappiness in life onto people and events of
childhood goes fundamentally against the grain of responsible
4. A simplified recovery approach tends to collude with resistance to
the establishment of early transference remembering and, to the degree
that it does, it is anti-psychotherapeutic. In acceding to the client's
demand to be believed, to have his or her experiences validated, and to
receive support for redress of wrongs, recovery workers foreclose the
possibility of securing for analysis the transference and resistance
memories mobilized by the psychotherapeutic relationship. Encouraging
the acting out of multidetermined recovered memories in the name of psychotherapy is clearly creating malpractice liabilities for these
5. Studies of recovered memories cannot draw responsible conclusions
when collapsing over diverse categories of memory developmental levels,
and modes of personality organization. Nor can conclusions uncritically
generalize findings from the psychotherapy setting which is situation
and relationship dependent to other social and legal settings.
memory is complex, elusive, and multidimensional so that all attempts to
arrive at simplified or dogmatic conclusions are bound to be faulty.
This includes attempts to consider the physiological aspects of memory
6. Taking recovered memories seriously involves establishing a
private and confidential relationship in which all screen, narrational, transference, and resistance memory possibilities can be
considered over time and within the ongoing context of the
psychotherapeutic relationship. Therapeutic transformation of internal
structures left by childhood oversight, neglect, and abuse necessarily
involves mobilizing in the therapeutic relationship a duality in which
the real relationship with the therapist can be known in contrast to the
remembered relationships from childhood which are being projected from
within the client onto the person of the analyst and into the process of
the analysis (Hedges, 1993).
Responsible psychotherapeutic work with memories recovered from
infancy and early childhood requires much time and a well-developed
interpersonal relationship between the client and therapist. The
temptation for a therapist to take recovered memories at face value and
to encourage restitutive action against presumed perpetrators is great.
The current limited managed care approach guarantees that help for the
several million who suffer from infantile trauma will not be provided.
How many billions of dollars will we spend on litigational activities
and criminal prosecutions before prevention and treatment are
realistically considered? How many lives will be ruined and families
destroyed before we attend to the truly horrible problem of infantile
trauma and its effects in later adulthood? How long before we invest in
ourselves, in our children, and in our lives as a free people?