False Memory Syndrome
How do we know that the information that a client gives us is true and accurate? The answer is that we do not know. The fact that this answer is, we do not know, is at the heart of probably the most controversial issue facing all therapists today. That of repressed memories, mainly of childhood sexual abuse.
The definition of a repressed memory is a memory that has been buried in a person’s unconscious mind, which may be for decades. When these surface it is often in a dramatic way.
The definition of repression is a natural psychological defence mechanism that serves to keep painful and traumatic material out of ones awareness.
In repressed memories the past trauma is out of awareness, though its lingering effects on ones thoughts, feelings, and behaviour can be dramatic. Some very severe symptoms can be a direct consequence of repressed traumas.
Why are many mental health professionals bitterly divided about repressed memories? On the one hand, some believe that the existence of repressed traumas due to sexual abuse can and should be readily identified from a set profile, in the form of a symptom checklist. They believe that treatment should involve first lifting the veil of repression with a variety of memory recovery techniques, then working with the newly discovered traumatic material. The therapist who take this view, believe that the memories recovered are essentially true, and need to be acknowledged as such in order for treatment to succeed. They are also concerned that perpetrators of sexual abuse not given a new basis, legitimised by professionals, for evading responsibility for their actions.
The other view is a sceptically of anyone’s professed ability to diagnose repressed memories of trauma on the basis of symptoms that might just be as readily explained by other means. These therapists further believe that by forming a conclusion that an individual has been abused and is repressing memories to that effect, a therapist can intentionally or unintentionally influence that person to reach that same conclusion, when it may not be true.
They recognise that people can be influenced, especially in vulnerable situations like therapy, to believe damaging things that may have no basis in fact. They are concerned that innocent people will be falsely accused, and that many peoples’ lives will be all but destroyed in the process.
As I am sure I have said at least once before, a person can lie while in the hypnotic state just as easily as in a waking state. Some might say that we are the sum of all our history, all that we have experienced. I and many others believe that we are greater than the mere sum of our parts. We are more because there is an interaction that takes place between all of our individual parts.
Memory is unreliable. Many studies have concluded this fact. The objective accuracy of the memory is one crucial aspect of its overall value, while another degree of confidence the individual has in the memory’s accuracy.
One thing that a therapist must ask him/herself, how accurate are our own memories? I know from my own experiences, I can remembers things with a particular clarity, and then speak to another person who was there and hear something completely different to what that person recalled. Who is right? Who is wrong? Are we both right? It almost does not matter for the trivial, but for crucial things, the importance is clear. It is vital that we as therapist are absolutely sure that what the client is giving us is “true” and that we do not lead a client through direct or indirect suggestion in either hypnosis or the pre or post talk.
The least likely memories to be contaminated are: 1) Ones that arise on the basis of free narrative, 2) One unprompted by leading or suggestive questions, 3) Ones in an atmosphere free of coercion, 4) Ones where the therapist manifests a neutral position, and 5) Ones that allow the therapist and the client to plead ignorance about what really happened. Memories that surface under conditions other than these are suspect. Memories from very early childhood are also suspect, since almost every piece of available research suggests that these are likely to be confabulations.