Allegations of Recovered Memories
This is discussed elsewhere in these volumes, but we will provide a
few observations regarding recovered memory allegations in sexual abuse
cases (also see Wakefield and Underwager, 1992, 1994b). In recovered memory
cases, there are no memories for years because the abuse is said to have
been completely "repressed" until, generally with a help of a
therapist, it is then "recovered." These cases may lead to some
type of litigation, most likely civil, but there have been criminal prosecutions
as well. Several states have extended the statutory period of limitations
in civil cases until several years after abuse is remembered and/or after
it is understood there was damage done by the abuse.
Attorneys must understand the claims, the scientific basis for these claims,
and the therapeutic techniques often used in recovered memory cases. Therapists
specializing in recovered memory maintain that memory deficits, amnesia,
and dissociation are characteristic of trauma. Many maintain that large
numbers of women have been sexually abused but that up to half of all incest
survivors do not remember their abuse. Many believe that abuse survivors
must be helped to retrieve their memories in order to recover. They often
retrieve memories with intrusive and unvalidated techniques including direct
questioning, hypnosis, reading books, attending survivors' groups, age regression,
dream analysis, and a variety of unorthodox procedures.
These "repressed" or "dissociated" memories are thought
to differ from the simple forgetting or not thinking about an event that
may have been unpleasant but was not particularly traumatic. No psychologist
disagrees that many events are forgotten and that persons may be reminded
of them years later. Also, the phenomenon of infant amnesia means that most
people's earliest memories are not before the age of about three or four (Fivush and
Hamond, 1990; Howe and Courage, 1993; Loftus, 1993; Nelson,
1993). But the assumption in recovered memory therapy is that the abuse
was repressed or dissociated because it was too traumatic to be remembered.
The recovered memory therapists support their assumptions through concepts
such as repression, dissociation, traumatic amnesia; body memories, and
multiple personality disorder. However, there is no scientific support for
the way these concepts are used, nor any credible evidence that it is common
for children to undergo traumatic sexual abuse but, as adults, have no conscious
memories of the abuse until it is uncovered by a therapist "skilled"
in such matters.
Repression is not generally accepted in the scientific community except
among analytically-oriented therapists, who base their beliefs on anecdotal
reports and clinical case studies. Traumatic amnesia can occur for a single,
traumatic event, such as a rape, but there is no support for the claim that
it is common for individuals to be completely amnesiac for repeated episodes
of sexual abuse. There is no support that such events will be completely
repressed for years, only to be accurately remembered years later. Diagnoses
of Multiple Personality Disorder often appear in recovered memory cases,
especially when the alleged abuse is violent and sadistic, and many people
claim most individuals diagnosed with MPD were abused as children. But MPD
itself is controversial and, despite its inclusion in DSM-III-R and DSM-IV,
cannot be said to be generally accepted in the scientific community.