Home » science » Weird Science Day 7: Recovered Memory Syndrome–Not

Weird Science Day 7: Recovered Memory Syndrome–Not

Remember Sybil? That book scarred me. I was too sensitive when I read it. All those personalities. All that missing time in a young person’s life. From then on, if I couldn’t remember a certain episode in my life, like what I had for breakfast last week, I was sure it was because my mind had been taken over by one of my other selves. But I hadn’t been a victim of horrible child abuse. Or had I? Maybe it was something I just didn’t remember. My mind had blocked it out. Maybe hypnotism would reveal to me something horrible that had happened to me in my childhood.

Fortunately, I love food, so I don’t forget too many meals. And truthfully I don’t have periods of lost time like Sybil did. I was more scarred from the horrible depiction of the torture in the book than anything that ever happened to me.

And now I learn that Sybil’s story was a fabrication. No abuse, no personalities.

It seems the therapy used to diagnose Recovered Memory Syndrome–the thing Sybil had–is questionable at best, quackery at worst. Someone’s recovered memory is often concocted by a misguided therapist. Probably not on purpose.

In Sybil’s case, according to Debbie Nathan, author of Sybil Exposed, the whole thing came about when Sybil (not her real name) began performing what she thought her therapist wanted to see: strange behavior. Apparently Sybil had a very active imagination and a difficult, but probably not abusive, mother.

Now, before we go further, know this: there are documented cases of recovered memory, and they’ve been corroborated. Here’s a quick quote from a 1999 article in American Journal of Psychiatry:

“Childhood abuse, particularly chronic abuse beginning at early ages, is related to the development of high levels of dissociative symptoms including amnesia for abuse memories. This study strongly suggests that psychotherapy usually is not associated with memory recovery and that independent corroboration of recovered memories of abuse is often present.”

I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of child abuse or what happens to people when they are subjected to it. Notice the quote says psychotherapy is NOT associated with memory recovery. What I find strange is that therapists seemed to believe the problem was so widespread anybody with any problem was in need of hypnotism or some other psychotherapeutic method to dredge up horrible memories. Whether or not the memories were of real events or not.

Fast forward to 2010 and we have an article from Psychology Today that points out memories are not ever very accurate and in fact you can easily plant a memory. Here’s a good tidbit:

“In one study, she interviewed a mother and her two sons both individually and as a group over a period of several weeks. They were, all three of them, normal subjects that, nevertheless, came to believe in an event that never occurred. Dr. Loftus introduced the idea of the younger son once getting lost in a shopping mall and finally being reunited with his mother and older brother through the efforts of a kindly stranger. Eventually this fabricated story became so real in the minds of the subjects that they offered a physical description of the imaginary stranger. He was an older man with a beard and red suspenders! One must wonder just how much, or how little, in the way of additional suggestions it would have taken to convince the family that the boy had been molested in the period between getting lost and being returned.”

And then there’s an interesting post at Feminist Philosophers about how it’s our culture that’s inventing the trauma in the first place. We decide what is aberrant behavior and then decide that anyone subjected to it is going to suffer psychological trauma. In other words if we’re told what has happened to us is terrible, soon we suffer from it. If nobody had pointed out how horribly we’d been treated, we’d just go on with our business and maybe even stay, I don’t know, happy? It’s a controversial idea and well worth taking a look at. Here’s a snippet:

“But what if an experience, perhaps a very bad one, is not experienced as abuse at the time?  Seen from the present, it may seem much more abusive than it did in the past.  But if it was not experience at the time as dreadful abuse, perhaps it won’t initially be retained as one of our obvious memories.  If this is correct, then people might come to  remember sexual abuse after having forgotten about it.”

And of course the very weirdest came from a site that doesn’t seem to have any professional affiliation with it, but nonetheless I’m presenting here because it’s interesting. The site is called “Apologetics Index,” and here’s the quote that catches the eye:

“False memories are therapy-induced fantasies masquerading as memories that seem very real to the person being treated. They often involves accusations and allegations of incest, Satanic Ritual Abuse, or cult involvement.”

The connection here is that many people with false memories believe them to be real recovered memories. Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, they believe their concocted memory.

One more link. I found an article entitled Christian Therapist Beware of False Memory Syndrome by one Chaplain Paul G. Durbin. He’s the Director of Pastoral Care at Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital in New Orleans.

A quick search lists Pendleton Hospital, but there’s no web page so I can’t check  his credentials. He seems to be fairly active in the hypnotherapy world. He’s a chaplain, a hypnotist, a therapist. Who better to weigh in on the religious angle of this memory syndrome?

Here’s a quote:

“Some therapist believe that childhood sexual abuse is the specific cause of numerous physical and mental problems which emerge in adulthood. Regardless of the problem, these therapist will began to look for and search for sexual abuse. These therapists are not discouraged to find that the client may not remember any sexual abuse in her history. If given time, they will help client find the memories. I use the female pronoun because of the thousands of patients of Recovered Memory Therapy most are women. These therapists believe that children immediately repress all memory of sexual abuse shortly after it occurs so that it is not available to conscious awareness until it comes forth in therapy. I believe that some sexual abuse is repressed, but I am convinced that generally it is a single event or perhaps a number of events that happen very early in life. I do not believe that a person can be repeated abused over many years including teen years and not remember it.”

By the way, the quotes were lifted directly from the listed websites. Teh mispellngs and bad gramir is not mine. I make enough mistakes of my own. I shouldn’t have to take the blame for others’.

Anyway, Chaplain Durbin goes on to recount numerous examples of children suing parents, then recanting later and parents suing therapists. It’s a mess. It’s sad. But if nothing else it illuminates how difficult it is to know the brain. We will probably understand the metaverse (see previous post) before we understand the human mind.

Thanks for reading. Hey, if you’ve got any leads on weird science, mention them below or contact me through the form. I’ll check ’em out.

Sue Lange

Sue Lange’s latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. “It’s a wild, good read.” Get your copy from Amazon or read a couple of free chapters at the publisher’s website.


2 thoughts on “Weird Science Day 7: Recovered Memory Syndrome–Not

  1. It’s a curly topic, that’s for sure … and some of it smells like the dismissive attitude toward women, (” most are women”) of ‘it’s all in your mind Dear’.

    Lets face it, in a culture that regularly ‘devours’ its young, by all sorts of abuse, priests, football coaches, politicians, therapists, etc, (an overwhelming majority of whom are men – funny that!) why is it surprising that these children shift their memories to one side in order to continue functioning.

    What’s truly horrifying is how this has become another ‘lets medicate (by chemical or other means) the symptoms’ aspect of one of the largest growth industries in the western hemisphere – health, or sickness, depending on your point of view – rather than taking an honest look at why it happens in the first place.

    Curly indeed … I like how you handled it.

  2. I don’t think it’s a case of anyone dismissing women, although it certainly sounds that way. I think the problem is people are more apt to believe little girls get abused. It’s only recently that people have realized that little boys get sexually abused too.

    Good point about the medication. Apparently Sybil’s therapist had relied heavily on drugs to get her to “remember.”

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