The Recovered Memory
Movement: A Female Perspective
Paula M. Tyroler*
ABSTRACT: The recovered memory movement harms women in several
ways. Women, who are the main recipients of this type of therapy,
not only fail to receive the help they need, but may develop new
symptoms and become alienated from family support systems. The
persons accused as a result of recovered memories are often women,
despite the fact that the proportion of females among actual child
sexual abusers is low. Even if a mother is not accused of abuse,
the patient may be encouraged to blame her mother for not protecting
her. The growing skepticism over recovered memory claims poses a
threat to genuine survivors, mostly women, who may now find themselves
disbelieved. Proponents of recovered memory therapy, including
some feminists, are promoting a harmful misogyny in the name of
liberation and healing.
What has been called "recovered memory therapy" pressures
patients to exhume supposedly "repressed" memories of
childhood sexual abuse, using intrusive therapeutic techniques such as
hypnosis, age regression, guided imagery, and dreamwork. Recovered
memory therapy has the potential to severely harm its recipients and
their families. It encourages alienation of the accuser from the
alleged perpetrator and the entire family without seeking corroboration
for the alleged criminal acts (Doe, 1992; de Rivera, 1994; Goldstein
& Farmer, 1992, 1993; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; Ofshe &
Watters, 1994; Smith, 1994; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994;
Pendergrast, 1995; Wassil-Grimm, 1995). It has been condemned by
mainstream professionals and warnings concerning this kind of treatment
have been issued by several professional associations and societies
(American Medical Association, 1994; American Psychological Association,
1995; American Psychiatric Association, 1993; Australian Psychological
Society, 1994; British Psychological Society, 1995; Michigan
Psychological Association, 1995).
Recipients of Therapy as Major Victims
The memory recovery movement has harmed falsely accused parents, some
of them elderly and in poor health, innocent people sued or sent to
prison on the basis of uncorroborated "memories," and true
abuse victims whose plight has been trivialized by the explosion of
false accusations. I believe, however, that it is the recipients
of recovered memory therapy who have been hurt the most.
Women are the major target of this therapy. Such women may
enter treatment for many reasons. At one end of the spectrum are
women who suffer from major psychiatric disorders that could be
alleviated by the right diagnosis, effective treatment, and/or
medication. At the other end are women who are mildly dissatisfied
with their life and whose mental health and adjustment could
significantly improve with several sessions of proper
psychotherapy. Instead, these patients are misdiagnosed by
therapists with tunnel vision and exposed to prolonged distressing
treatment. To be in recovered memory therapy for many years is not
uncommon. Some damaged clients are recycled within the recovered
memory therapy circles and are treated for post-traumatic stress
disorder. They may, indeed, display post-traumatic symptoms, the
trauma being, however, the trauma of previous therapy and not the trauma
of unverified sexual abuse. Depending on the therapists' beliefs,
some patients have been convinced that they are "survivors" of
satanic ritual abuse. Others learn to believe that they have a
number of "personalities." There is now no difficulty in
summarizing the 1980s prototype for multiple personality: a middle class
white woman in her thirties (Hacking, 1995).
The diagnosis of multiple personality disorder represents a
misdirection of effort which hinders the resolution of serious
psychological problems in the lives of the patients (Merskey,
1992). This is illustrated by a personal account from a woman
misdiagnosed as suffering from MPD:
For seven long years ... I labored under the diagnosis of
multiple personality disorder. It began simply enough with
bulimia but, after seeking psychiatric help, I was told that all
eating disorders evolve from sexual abuse in childhood. In order
to get better, I would have to uncover all the repressed memories of
this abuse ... Seven years, including lengthy stays in hospitals
and countless emotional crises, brought about loss of job, husband,
children and any feelings of self-worth I have ever possessed.
Five years later, I am still in the process of rebuilding my shattered
life ... (Harris, 1993).
The woman who wrote these words belongs to a growing group of women
who have been persuaded by therapists that they were abused in childhood
and who have rejected those beliefs (Gondolf, 1992; Gavigan, 1992;
Godley, 1993; Goldstein & Farmer, 1993; McGovern, 1993; Pasley,
1994). They call themselves retractors" or
"recanters." Their testimonies suggest that recovered
memory therapy is often nothing less than psychological torture
inflicted on vulnerable patients by people to whom they turned for
help. Let me illustrate this point by quoting from an editorial in
a retractors' newsletter, Building Bridges:
There are hundreds of thousands of desperate people who have
stopped thinking for themselves and who are turning to others to find
a way out of their pain. The problem is, the ones professing to
have the answers are basing their knowledge and practices on personal
experience, beliefs, experimentation, imagination ... rather than on
science and logic ... the treatment often increases the pain of their
patient, and can result in death. I don't aspire to the belief
that everyone dispensing this kind of prescription for happiness is
doing it maliciously ... [T]he people I worked with truly thought they
were doing the right thing. They believe in what they do
passionately. This is what makes them so dangerous ...
People are dying, committing suicide, or going insane because this is
a nightmare that never ends ... People ... are brutally raped
and tortured over and over again in their minds ... The unwitting
victims of false memory syndrome can never heal from something that
never happened (Diana, 1995).
These women, once they cross the line between being a
"survivor" to being a "retractor," immediately
become outcasts of the recovered memory movement. The very same
women who previously have lent support to the cherished beliefs of their
therapists want to share their journey from believing to questioning to
recanting, but the proponents of recovery movement refuse to
listen. This movement cannot offer any valid scientific evidence
to support the belief in massive repression or, more fashionably, in
dissociation (Holmes, 1990; Ofshe & Singer, 1994; Pope & Hudson,
1995). Proponents base their claims on clinical evidence.
The therapy patients, the "survivors," are their clinical
evidence. Once the "survivors" defect to the "other
side," this presumed evidence evaporates and the whole recovered
memory concept is bound to collapse as a house of cards. Thus, the
recovered memory movement has no choice other than completely ignoring
the recanters or discrediting their accounts.
Pendergrast (1996) notes:
Whitfield joins therapist E. Sue Blume in dismissing the
horrifying, compelling testimony of retractors. They really were
abused. Their incest memories we're accurate. It's just
that they have slipped back into denial. "Why are we so
willing to accept the reported withdrawal of incest memory by
persons seen as so suggestible that they allegedly have been persuaded
to accept a 'false' experience in the first place?" asks Blume in
an aptly-titled 1995 article "The Ownership of Truth." Who,
one wonders, is actually in denial here? (p. 495).
Anecdotal testimonies from retractors are now being backed up by
professional studies. Nelson and Simpson (1994) published the
first systematic analysis of retractors' experiences. The authors
examined the common experiences of 20 subjects, 19 female and one
male. They conclude that, for their subjects, recovered memory
practices circumvented the thorough, empirical, and cautious methods of
scientific validation. Survivor books, movies and videotapes
appeared to play a role in producing harmful visualizations, along with
suggestive therapeutic techniques such as hypnosis and group pressure
(Nelson & Simpson, 1994).
McElroy and Keck (1995) describe the case of a patient who uncovered
repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse with two different
therapists during the prior two years, and who displayed no apparent
benefit but many harmful effects from this treatment approach. The
authors observe that repressed memory therapy appears to be increasingly
used, although its theoretical rationale, efficacy, and safety have not
yet been scientifically demonstrated. They note:
Surprisingly, however, there are few reports in the peer-reviewed
psychiatric literature on the beneficial or harmful effects of such
treatment. Those that exist, however, suggest that this
treatment can be associated with deleterious effects, particularly
when prescribed to patients with no recollection or evidence that they
were in fact abused (p. 731).
McElroy and Keck (1995) observe that this case demonstrates three
serious adverse effects of recovered memory therapy. The first is
the development of new symptoms, unrelated to the primary disorder for
which the patient sought therapy. These symptoms may take the form
of flashbacks, vivid and detailed memories, and even hallucinations
about abuse that did not occur. The second deleterious consequence
is that pharmacological and psychological treatments with proven
efficacy are postponed or withheld. The third complication is a
severe disruption of family relationships and breakdown of family
Women as Sexual Predators
While harmful and destructive therapy is the gravest violation
affecting female patients, there are other anti-female aspects of the
recovered memory movement. In 1993, the FMS Foundation1
reported the results of a survey of 284 families in which at least one
member was accused exclusively on the basis of recovered
"memories" that did not exist prior to therapy (Freyd, Roth,
Wakefield, & Underwager, 1993). This original survey revealed
that about 30% of the accused persons were women, mostly mothers or
grandmothers. A later update based on data from 510 families
raised this number to 42%. The allegations included such claims as
inserting umbrella handles or Barbie dolls into the vaginas of infants
while changing their diapers (Freyd, 1996). This nonsense is
viewed as valid in certain feminist circles. For example, K. Munro
(1995), the director of a clinic for abused women in Toronto, chided the
FMS Foundation: "The [FMS] Foundation's most notable claims are
repressed memories are not credible ... [they claim that] if the abuse
involves female perpetrators it is even less likely to be true, which, I
believe is linked to another of their claims, that is, ritual abuse does
not exist." In a follow-up telephone conversation, she
confirmed her belief that women sexually abuse children and that this
activity is not rare. This notion is in sharp disagreement with
the experience of mainstream professionals working in the sex abuse
field which indicates that the proportion of female child sexual abusers
is very low (Wakefield & Underwager, 1991). According to
Director of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical
Institutions, Dr. Paul McHugh, erotic interest in the child is not a
female phenomenon (McHugh, 1994). Incestuous behavior of mothers
and grandmothers is extremely rare and it is usually associated with
readily observable psychiatric problems or with diminished mental
capacity. Unfortunately, some people ignore this evidence and
accept uncritically the data on a high incidence of alleged female
pedophilia as reflection of reality rather than a manifestation of
The high percentage of alleged female sexual offenders in the data
collected from families accused on the basis of uncorroborated
"recovered" memories is in line with another statistic.
In their examination of alleged sex abuse in day care centers,
Finkelhor and his colleagues report that 40% of the alleged perpetrators
were intelligent, educated, highly regarded women with no histories of
known deviant behavior. Instead of expressing skepticism about
this dramatic contradiction, Finkelhor assumed that the accused were
guilty (Finkelhor, Williams, & Burns, 1988). Like the witch
hunters who burned females in the name of God, the modern-day
researchers were ready to vilify women in order to save children (Nathan
& Snedeker, 1995). The reason for the close agreement of data
from two seemingly unrelated situations becomes more obvious when one
focuses on the similarity of false memory syndrome cases and day-care
cases. Although the false accusations in day-care cases came from
children questioned by child protection workers, as opposed to adults
questioned by psychotherapists, the similarity is undeniable. Both are
mistaken beliefs cognitively processed as memories (Victor, 1996).
Satanic Ritual Abuse Allegations
The search for an explanation of the high percentage of alleged
female incestuous offenders in the recovered memory sample takes us to
the most bizarre aspect of the recovery movement the belief in
the widespread existence of "intergenerational" satanic cults
in which women are thought to play a prominent role. Not
surprisingly, the surge of unsubstantiated reports of satanic ritual
abuse has coincided with the proliferation of the recovered memory
movement. Police forces and government-funded agencies throughout
the USA and Great Britain have investigated thousands of such reports
and found no evidence of anything like organized ritual satanic activity
(Bottoms, Shaver, & Goodman, 1996; Goodman, Qin, Bottoms, &
Shaver, 1994; LaFontaine, 1994; Lanning, 1992). Nevertheless, some
therapists and their supporters cherish a belief that teenagers and
young women are forced to breed babies who are sacrificed as infants and
eaten in ritual ceremonies, all this with the assistance of their
mothers and grandmothers who are active members of the satanic
cults. Incredibly, some university-educated therapists subscribe
to this never proved phenomenon, claiming that ritual abuse leads to
developing multiple personality disorder (Fraser, 1990). Women
throughout the English-speaking world have learned to believe through
therapy that they are "survivors" of ritual abuse. These
unfortunate women, who are in dire need of proper psychiatric help, are
instead being supported in their delusions by fringe practitioners and
by government grants to fund "ritual abuse" conferences and
Women as "Enablers"
We should not ignore another fairly large group of women who have
been affected by the beliefs and practices of the recovered memory
movement. Once false memories are instilled, these (mostly female)
"survivors" often are encouraged to blame their mothers for
not protecting them. Mothers are perceived either as evil
"enablers" of male criminal activity who looked the other way
while the fathers were raping their infant daughters, or as dumb nitwits
who did not notice the abuse that was going on under their noses for
years or decades. This is not a flattering portrayal of women in
general or of mothers in particular. And yet, this implicit
denigration of a relatively large group of older women comes from
representatives of the movement whose noble intention is to elevate the
image, recognition, and status of women to new heights.
The True victims of Abuse
Genuine sexual abuse victims are also harmed by the explosion of
false accusations. Again, these are mostly women. In the
last decade, society has come to recognize that the sexual abuse of
children is real and long-silenced. Yet the great danger is that
whatever progress has been made towards recognition of this problem will
be undone by the reaction against the recovered memory movement and the
multiple injustices it has helped to perpetrate. The recovered
memory movement poses a threat to the victims of genuine sexual abuse
who may now once again find themselves disbelieved (Webster,
1995). In a strange twist of logic, it is the wrongfully accused
who are often blamed for this predicament rather than the originators
and promoters of the destructive form of psychotherapy that leads to
creation of pseudomemories and to false accusations.
Origins and Proliferation of Recovered Memory Movement
The recovered memory movement has victimized, in horrendous fashion,
not only men, but mostly women, the latter group in the name of
liberation, empowerment, and healing. Who are the major movers of
this therapy gone amuck? When and why did the movement start and
how did it proliferate? Above all, why did recovered memory
therapy receive such enthusiastic approval from some feminist factions?
To start with, accusations based on supposedly
repressed and recovered memories only began to appear in the
mid-eighties, and reached epidemic proportions in the late eighties and
early nineties. Prior to the mid-eighties, patients claiming that
they had uncovered memories of childhood sexual trauma for which they
had no previous awareness were rare or nonexistent (Goodyear-Smith,
1995). The outburst of allegations based solely on recovered
memories coincided with the publication of several self-help
memory-recovery books, all written by women (Bass & Davis, 1988;
Blume, 1990; Courtois, 1988; Fredrickson, 1992; Maltz, 1992), and with
proliferation of erroneous beliefs in massive repression. The
Courage to Heal (Bass & Davis, 1988), the so-called bible of the
recovered memory movement, was written by two women with no background
in psychology or psychiatry. Probably the greatest irony is the
fact that this openly anti-male hate literature encouraged therapy
practices which have caused untold suffering to thousands of women.2
In War Against the Family, Canadian writer W. D. Gairdner
(1993) argues that radical feminism is essentially an antifamily
movement. Grossly distorted sex abuse statistics, together with
allegations originating in the offices of the recovered memory
therapists, provide handy ammunition for the feminist fringes in their
fight against the cornerstone of society the traditional family
of origin. Along the same line, Webster (1995) claims that the
most disturbing feature of the recovered memory movement is the manner
in which it encourages an attitude of emotional coldness and cruelty
between generations. According to Ofshe and Watters (1994),
recovering memories of abuse has proved a powerful metaphor for the
larger goal of exposing the perceived unfairness of the patriarchal
family structures of a male-dominated society. The defense of
recovered memory therapy became synonymous with the defense of the women's
Perhaps the best and most complete answer to the troubling question
about the origin and proliferation of recovered memory therapy is
provided by British scholar Richard Webster in his 1995 book, Why
Freud Was Wrong, particularly in the chapter entitled, "Freud's
False Memories." According to Webster, one of the crucial
factors associated with the rise of the recovered memory movement was
the extensive denial of the reality of child sexual abuse. The
denial of the experience of women and children who genuinely had been
victims of sexual abuse provided the essential conditions without which
the recovered memory movement could never have grown and flourished the
way that it did. This denial would not have received such
acceptance if not for one man Sigmund Freud. In his theory
of the Oedipus complex, Freud had invented a perfect theoretical
instrument for explaining away allegations of sexual abuse and
undermining their credibility. Only in the last 20 years has it
become possible to oppose effectively this climate of disbelief.
This is almost entirely due to the influence of feminism.
The terrible irony, according to Webster, is that the movement which
rebelled against Freud's denial of memories which had never been
repressed has come to rely more and more on the most sacred of all
Freudian doctrines that of repression. There is no evidence
that any of the patients who came to Freud without memories of sexual
abuse had ever suffered from such abuse. But there is a great deal
of evidence that Freud went out of his way to persuade, encourage,
cajole and sometimes bully his female patients to reproduce scenes of
child sexual abuse which he himself had reconstructed from their
symptoms or their associations. Unfortunately, the notion that
Freud based his repression theory on real instances has become the
foundation myth of the entire recovered memory movement.
Webster notes that the proponents of this movement are doing
something very similar to what Freud was doing to his patients
they are forcing their own perceptions onto psychologically vulnerable
women in a way that creates dependence in the patient and feelings of
empowerment in the therapist. Freud's patriarchal bullying can be
recognized quite easily for what it is. It is much more difficult
to recognize that the same kind of misogyny has now actually been taken
over by a small section of the feminist movement and is being deployed
by women against women, in the name of liberation and healing.
Indeed, if a hypothetical misogynous segment of the oppressive
patriarchal society had set up a goal to destroy mental health and the
self-esteem of a large group of young and middle-aged women, it could
not have invented a more devious scheme.
Setting the Record Straight
On a more positive note, it is mostly the mothers and the siblings
who are the most active lay players in the fight against the insanity of
the recovered memory movement. Thousands of them are donating
their time and energy to expose the fraudulence and harmfulness of
recovered memory therapy. In doing so, they have to face, daily,
the reality of the false accusation. They have to keep the wounds
open. However, for most of them this is the best way of coping
with the undeserved tragedy imposed on their adult children and
spouses. This craze, as any social craze of the past, will not
last forever. It will run its course and it will eventually
disappear. The efforts of the mothers and siblings are
accelerating its demise. While most of the mental health
professionals opposed to recovered memory therapy are trying to save the
reputation, integrity, and ethical principles of psychiatry and
psychology, the mothers are fighting for the return of sanity to their
adult children's lives and for reunification of the families.
Ofshe and Watters (1994) sum this up:
The evidence is now overwhelming that something went tragically
wrong in certain therapy settings. If those who are concerned
with victimization of women ignore this evidence, they run the risk of
sacrificing the well-being and happiness of thousands of women and
their families for the sake of the politically expedient assumption
that recovered memory therapy cannot create false memories of
abuse. To look away from brutalization of patients in therapy is
now nothing less than an act of willful blindness and betrayal.
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Tyroler is a professor of engineering at Laurentian University
in Sudbury, Ontario and can be reached at 1223 Kantola Rd.,
Lively, Ontario, Canada P3Y 1H8. [Back]
1 The FMS Foundation is a
non-profit organization whose main purpose is to encourage
research and disseminate information on memory and memory
distortion, and to offer support to individuals accused solely
on the basis of uncorroborated "memories." [Back]
2 The anti-male character
of the The Courage to Heal can be illustrated by the following
"I have such venomous hate. I pray to God that (my
father) comes down with some terrible disease I'd like him to
get AIDS. That or Alzheimer's. I can't wait for his
funeral . . . this hatred affects me in a positive way" (p.
"I'd watch Perry Mason to get ideas how to kill my
father. It was really the best of times. Every day I
would get a new method" (p. 47).
"My experience was that 95% of men are abusers"
"If your abuser has died, you may be glad he is
dead. This is a perfectly reasonable feeling to
have. One woman said she could not wait for her father to
die so she could spit on his grave" (p. 143).
"You may dream about murder or castration. It can
be pleasurable to fantasize such scenes in vivid detail
... Let yourself imagine it to your heart's content."
"As a child ... you could not think about killing your
father when you relied on him to feed you" (p.35). [Back]