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Book Forum: CHILD PSYCHIATRY   |    
Recovered Memories of Child Sexual Abuse: Psychological, Social, and Legal Perspectives on a Contemporary Mental Health Controversy
ROBERT L. SADOFF, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:1174-a-1175. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.7.1174-a
View Author and Article Information
Philadelphia, Pa.

Edited by Sheila Taub, J.D. Springfield, Ill., Charles C Thomas, 1999, 224 pp., $46.95; $33.95 (paper).

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The issue of recovered memories of child sexual abuse has been most controversial in psychiatry and mental health. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was organized in order to respond to lawsuits by adult children who claimed to have recovered memories of child sexual abuse that has affected them throughout their lives. The lawsuits were initially directed at parents and family members accused of such abuse. More recently, the lawsuits have been directed at therapists who have helped patients recover memories that have later turned out to be false and the accusations against parents have been determined to be unwarranted. Many people have suffered as a result of the recovery of memories, either true or false, in the course of therapy.

The issue has been polarized by labeling the memories either false, recovered, or discovered. False memory implies that all of these memories are untrue and based on fantasy or wish fulfillment during the course of therapy. Recovered memories imply that the memories are accurate and had been "stored" in the unconscious until the individual went for therapy to help uncover memories of abuse that has badly affected the individual. Others have labeled the memories as discovered memories to attempt to neutralize the controversy.

Sheila Taub, the editor of this book, is an attorney who has published numerous journal articles in the area of health law; she is also the author of a publication on law and mental health professionals in Connecticut. She has pulled together articles by several writers in the field, including two representing the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (the founder, Pamela Freyd, and Anita Lipton, coordinator of legal research). Dr. Freyd begins the book with a discussion of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, its origins, and its needs. Ms. Lipton tracks the legal developments in the area of recovered memory since 1992, the year the False Memory Syndrome Foundation was organized. Her chapter is of interest to those who are following the legal developments in these cases.

The book is the result of a conference organized by Sheila Taub under the auspices of Arthur Taub, a clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine, who is a neurologist and neuroscientist specializing in the treatment of chronic pain. He runs the Institute for Pain Research, which sponsored this conference. The chapter authors present diverse points of view regarding the recovered memory issue. Mark Pendergrast is an investigative journalist and an accused parent who discusses the issue from the historical perspective, concluding that there "is no way definitively to disprove the theory of massive repression or massive dissociation, since one cannot prove a negative." He notes that his investigation has uncovered cases in which people were sexually abused for a limited period of time, forgot that the events occurred, and then recalled them later. He notes that most of these cases have corroborating evidence, and he questions the issue of "massive repression."

One of the clinical chapters is presented by David Sakheim, who treats dissociative disorders and has written about Satanism and ritual abuse. He writes on the clinical aspects of recovered memory and discusses, in some detail, the role of the therapist in helping patients to recover memories. He deals with countertransference problems, disturbed therapists, and therapists who have been victims of personal trauma.

Jerome Singer, a professor of psychology and child study at Yale University, has studied conscious and unconscious mental processes as well as repression and dissociation. His chapter discusses repression, dissociation, and memory as a constructive creative process. He develops his conclusions on the basis of his experience as an experimental psychologist and a clinician. He relates his experimental work on stream of consciousness to recovered memories and suggests that recovered memories are neither true nor false but, rather, approximations of the experiences the individual has had. He also concludes that false memories may exist and may be caused by therapists’ involvement as well as the individual’s need for such memories.

Other experimental psychologists, Dr. Jonathan Schooler from the University of Pittsburgh and Dr. Stephen Lindsay from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, present an attempt at scientific analysis of memory and its effect on the phenomenon of recovered memories. Dr. Schooler coins the phrase "delayed discovery" in his analysis of cognitive-based memory recall. Dr. Lindsay’s chapter is more experiential in its presentation. He recommends that psychologists and society in general develop a balanced and "scientifically grounded approach…that seeks to address accurate and illusory recovered memory experiences simultaneously."

In summary, this book is an interesting compilation of the studies and experiences in a highly controversial field. However, one is not persuaded one way or the other by reading the book as to whether recovered memories are false and developed by therapists or, in fact, reflect earlier childhood experiences. What is important and stressed by all of the authors is that any such memories, in order to be valid, must be corroborated whenever possible by facts. The tendency for the therapist is to believe the patient and the patient’s memories. Keeping those "truths" in the consultation room is appropriate for therapy, but not when the case enters the courtroom. There, "truths" are insufficient and need to be corroborated as "facts."

Finally, from a forensic psychiatric standpoint, this issue has created havoc for patients, families, and, most recently, therapists. Ms. Lipton, in her final chapter, discusses the cases that have come to court and the consequences of these cases. As a representative of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, she shows her bias in her final statement, which nevertheless poses a challenge for all therapists: "Greater judicial scrutiny of these claims will, one hopes, inspire the mental health professions to adopt higher standards of education and training and more explicit ethical guidelines that will reduce to a minimum the questionable therapy practices that gave rise to these claims." In some cases, she is correct, but not in all cases. One must keep an open mind about this highly controversial phenomenon and attempt to adhere to the scientific explanation that is bolstered by the judicial discrimination between truth and fact.

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