"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 — with 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.  Ever 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!  I 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.  Now the 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 — they 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 fact?!"

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)

T: 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.
C: Survivor's groups encourage this kind of thing all the time, what's the problem — surely you're not involved in all that?
T: 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.
C: And were the things believable?
T: 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.
C: But she insisted on your believing all of them?
T: Yes, she did.
C: And how did you handle that?
T: 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 her.
C: And so you believed her?
T: 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.
C: 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.  But 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 family — at 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 fucked!

C: Follow me for a minute as I throw out some possibilities.  When I 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.
T: 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  Virginia was 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 mind.

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 enjoy.

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 approaching death.

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 abusive.

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 of early infant caretaking with disturbing personality features which only appear much later in life.  Cumulative trauma is the result of the effects of 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, emphasis added).

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" (1958).

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 the time.

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.  Or 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 may be.

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 contact.

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 sensible.

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.  Every time "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.

bullet My parents in raising me were more concerned with creeds and ritual than they were with my needs to love and to be loved by them.  The reverence they kept was like a cult.  My father was the high priest, my mother a priestess who looked on emotionless while I was led to the altar and forced to kill a baby (me?) and to drink its blood.  Then I was placed on the altar as a sacrifice to the carnal wishes of all of their friends, the other participants that supported their belief system.  The most unbearable part of all is that I was forced do the same things they did, to become like them, to sacrifice human life in the same manner they did, in the same cult, at the same altar.  As a result, I am a damaged wreck.
bullet There is a higher intelligence that comes into my sphere, that picks me up, puts me down, and exchanges fluids with me through my umbilicus.  They want my soul, my fertility, and they want to impregnate me with their superior mental structure.  I have no control over the coming and going of the higher intelligence which governs my life but I am frightened by it and suddenly swept away.  It's like being lost in an endless nightmare that I can't make go away.  Like losing yourself in a horrible science fiction movie you just can't shake off.  I have no control over these higher intelligences that watch me.
bulletMy father loved me too much, I remember when he used to come into my room.  I remember my mother was somewhere in the background.  My childhood longings were misread by him and he took advantage of me.  If she had done her job in keeping him happy like a wife should I would not have been given to him.
bulletMy mother ruled my every thought, we were always close, we shared everything.  My father was an irrational, alcoholic brute, no one whom I could learn masculinity from.  He gave me to her because he didn't want to deal with her dependency and so I had to be parent to her, husband to her — no wonder I am what I am.

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.  If 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.  What 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.  It 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 psychotherapy.

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 therapists.

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.  Human 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 as well.

6. Taking recovered memories seriously involves establishing a private and confidential relationship in which all screen, narrational, transference, and resistance memory possibilities can be carefully 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?

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