T would be hard to imagine a more lively debate about psychologyfilled
as it is with accusations, counter-accusations, and downright
insultsthan the controversy about so-called repressed memories.
The debate centers on whether or not traumatic experiences can be repressed
out of conscious awareness and then later recalled, either spontaneously
Sigmund Freud more-or-less started the whole issue about
repressed memories when his clinical case studies in the late nineteenth
century inspired him to develop his psychological theories
about the nature of
mental processes. He used the term repression to describe the way
emotionally painful events could be blocked out of conscious awareness so
that their painful effects would not have to be experienced.
this repression process is a completely automatic psychological defense against
emotional trauma and does not involve conscious intent. In contrast, deliberately
pushing something out of awareness because you want to avoid any responsibility
for it is called suppression.
theories all came together in his technique and philosophy of
and repression has been a key concept within that philosophy ever
Lets pause here to note that Freuds theories emerged
from case studies and that the concept of repression has not been scientifically
substantiated. Some studies on the subject have been attempted, usually through
round-about methodssuch as whether the awareness of an
electric shock associated with a particular word, in a laboratory setting,
will be pushed out of awareness. But, to be honest, repression is an obscure
concept and a credible scientifically controlled
would be unethical and nearly impossible. Imagine taking several hundred
babies, giving them identical upbringing, all the while subjecting selected
groups of them to various kinds of horrific trauma in childhood, and then
waiting years or even decades to see (a) if any of them remember anything
of the trauma or (b) if the different kinds of trauma affect memory in different
however, been some progress in investigating the issue from
studies in which known cases of child abuse
are followed by researchers over the course of many years. In this
research [2,3] the abuse is well documented, so if the child forgets about
it, that also can be documented. And then, if the grown child, adolescent,
or adult (all depending on time) remembers the abuse, the recovered memory
can be documented and compared to the actual records.
Anyway, Freuds speculative theories have today been
taken up in the context of allegations of childhood sexual abuse; i.e., when
an older child or adult suddenly remembers having been abused
in childhood by some particular person, usually a parent. The camps are clearly
divided here, some saying that these things happen all the time and that
they reflect historically real events, while others say that recovered memories
are false. Some groups even argue about the definition and reality of the
mechanism of repression. It can get very ugly.
As a clinician who has been trained in research, I certainly
know about the reality of child abuse, and I know about the danger of false
memories and self-justification by clinicians. I have also treated clients
who remembered forgotten traumas. I have even seen improvement
in physiological symptoms apparently because of previously forgotten events
that were recalled and discussed in therapy. But I always approach such
occurrences as personal revelations whose historical truth is
irrelevant, because, after all, the point of therapy is to help the client
cope with dysfunction in the present. I dont go looking for
repressed traumas, but if remembered events give
clinical relief, so be it. Im also careful to be honest about
and guided imagery, acknowledging their wonderful healing power, yet
never trying to attribute any particular reality to the
It would require
intense scientific scrutiny to allow the personal revelations of a client
to take on any legal or cultural significance, or to use them to substantiate
any theoretical claims. All objective details would have to be meticulously
verified by outside sources. In the end, Im not willing to be a private
investigatorIll focus on helping people reclaim their human dignity,
even though we might never know what really happened in the
I myself have had to come to terms with ordinary remembered experiences in
my own life that were later shown to be seriously distorted. As a result,
I know how tenuous and fragile an
identity can be, and I realize that
the only thing we can be sure of in life, besides doubt, is what we believe
in and value.
In order to illustrate the therapeutic points made above,
lets consider three fictitious stories.
The first story
begins with two of your friends, Billy and Bobby. One day Billy borrows a
large amount of money from you. But when he repeatedly fails to pay it back,
you realize that your friendship with him is ruined, and you lose contact
with him for several years.
Then one afternoon,
when you start to prepare dinner and reach into your cupboard, a can of soup
falls off the top shelf and conks you on the head. When you come to your
senses, you have forgotten about the money Billy owes you. A few days later
someone asks you something about Billy. You suddenly realize that you
havent seen him in a long time, so you call him on the phone. Billy,
being very sharp, keeps his mouth shut about the money and just enjoys having
you back as a friend.
Then one morning
while youre trying to get a piece of toast out of the toaster you get
an electrical shock. Slowly you begin to realize that someone owes you money,
but you cant remember who it is. After a while, you get the impression
that Bobby owes you the money. When you ask him, he denies that he owes you
money, and in your anger you break off the friendship.
OK. Notice that
this story illustrates two points:
An event that
you cannot remember can be psychologically equivalent to an event that never
An event that
you falsely remember can be psychologically equivalent to an event that really
Now, this first
story, in its emotional sense, is overly simple. Its even silly. A
real trauma would diffuse itself across several
states and make things more complicated. So lets look at a second
story to illustrate this.
very young child, and for some reason your mother must leave you in the care
of your uncle for a few months. During that time, he sexually abuses you,
most often by the swimming pool in his back yard. Eventually your mother
takes you back home, and your whole family moves away; you never see your
uncle again. Lets assume that the memory of the abuse becomes repressed,
for whatever reason, but in its place youre left with a general fear
of water and the inability to go swimming like other children. This phobia
lasts for years. Then, as an adult, you enter psychotherapy for your phobia
of water, and suddenly you remember the abuse. So the therapy focuses on
the trauma, and, in due time, youre no longer afraid of water
Here, in this
story, we have the illustration of a trauma being repressed and diffusing
into a phobia that is metaphorically connected to the trauma itself. Then,
in psychotherapy, the real trauma emerges, and with its ultimate resolution
the phobia is resolved as well.
put a twist to these events with a third story.
lets assume right from the beginning that your uncle never abused you,
but that he was an odd man, emotionally cold and given to teasing others.
One day, at a family gathering, you fall by the swimming pool and split open
your lip. This causes an uproar in the family, and, during all the confusion,
your uncle makes fun of you, right in front of everybody, for being a cry
baby. None of this gets repressed, but it does just recede into the
back of your mind like most childhood events. But for some reason, you develop
a fear of water. Years later, you seek therapy to resolve this phobia. As
you work on your emotional experiences, you slowly develop the suspicion
that your uncle sexually abused you in childhood. So the therapy focuses
on those memories and works to resolve them. And with their
resolution, you find that the phobia of water resolves also.
This third story
illustrates the point that even a false memory can be used therapeutically.
Maybe your unconscious mind created the memory of abuse because your uncle
really was a cold man who enjoyed humiliating others, and, by seeing him
as a child abuser, you were able to deal with the emotional fears of humiliation
that motivated the water phobia. Who knows? But just remember this: such
a false memory may be a therapeutic help, but it would be a grave mistake
to try to prosecute your uncle for actual abuse. We, by benefit of the
story, know that the memory was false. But in real life, without independent
corroborating evidence, you will never have the benefit of knowing conclusively
whether a recovered memory is true or false. If you make an accusation, and
youre wrong, youre really wrong.
While a child is being abused, for example, the childs
greatest desire is that someone with power and authority will recognize the
abuse and put a stop to it. If this doesnt happen, and if the child
simply endures years of pain into adulthood without ever being believed,
there will always be a childlike part
of the adult that desires desperatelyand
repetitivelyto make others recognize any sort
of injustice. This frustration can even be one of the underlying psychological
factors motivating terrorism.
If such a person
for the treatment of trauma,
the issue of Do you believe me? can quickly emerge as a therapeutic
Clearly, if the
psychotherapist says, Oh, thats all in your head. Why dont
you just get over it? then all of the clients inner experiences
surrounding the traumatic memory are invalidated.
And here is precisely
where the real damage is done. Mind you, the damage has nothing to do with
accepting or denying the past. It doesnt really matter whether the
psychotherapist believes that the event in question actually happened exactly
as the client remembers it. But it does matter that the psychotherapist
believe the clients pain because the real therapeutic issue
is whether the psychotherapist can help the client believe his or her
own pain enough to sit and listen to it without running from
In the end,
psychotherapy is all about the adult part of the personality finally listening
to the frightened child part tell its storyand
taking adult responsibility for the healing process that the child part cannot
manage on its own. For the psychotherapy, then, Do you believe me?
is not a question about facts but a yearning for emotional respect and
whether any abuse actually happened wont help you. Nor will trying to
get the suspected person(s) to admit the truth help you. The best thing to do
is vow that, regardless of what others have done to you, you will not
keep looking backwards in anger but will look forward to take personal
responsibility now for your healing from your injuries.
Although it should be no surprise to a clinician well-trained
in the psychology of the unconscious that
psychological disorders tend to originate for self-protective reasons, the
average person can be shocked byand even skeptical ofthis clinical
Imagine a psychologist
explaining to a client that you got depressed to keep yourself from going
crazy. The client would be astonished to hear such a thing.
Yet when children grow
up in dysfunctional families, in which the
parents are cruel and critical, it can be so emotionally traumatic for the
children to admit the truth about their parents lack of
caring that, to
protect themselves from being torn apart by the cognitive dissonance of
fear and anger, the children will
turn the anger against themselves, blaming themselves for their parents
cruelty. The children will construct negative beliefs
such as Youre to blame, or Youre bad, or
Youre disgusting, or Youre just damaged goods.
And so, under the pressure of this self-imposed judgment, the children will become
depressed, because, as every skilled clinician knows,
depression is anger turned
Well, in a similar way,
memories of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in childhood can be repressed
as a self-protective mechanism. Because some part of the
childs personality knows that the abuse could provoke intense and damaging
angerboth toward the perpetrator and toward the selfthe memory of the
abuse can be suppressed to protect everyone from the risk of the childs own
Consequently, for real
emotional healingnot just containmentto be possible, it is necessary
for adults who have been abused as children to understand and make peace with their
fear of their own anger.
This is a deep
psychotherapeutic process, but, in its essence, it begins with the understanding that
anger is not an emotion but a desire for revengethat
is, a desire to hurt someone as you have been hurt; then comes the understanding
that impulses to angerthat is, angry fantasies of harm to others and
harm to the selfare not shameful
but are natural products of the human mind; and finally comes the understanding that
when these impulses are recognizedrather than suppressed in fear and
shamethey can be psychological cues for rejecting aggressive responses to emotional
hurt and for consciously choosing healthy and assertive emotional
Once this process has been
mastered, then it can be safe for full memory of the past to be recalled without the
danger of wild rage overwhelming you.
Shows how to turn the emotional wounds
of daily life into psychological growth. Available as a paperback book or
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See Geraerts, E. , Lindsay, D. S., Merckelbach, H., Jelicic, M., Raymaekers
L., Arnold, M. M., & Schooler, J. W. (2008).
Cognitive Mechanisms Underlying Recovered-Memory Experiences
of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Psychological Science, (20)1, 9298,
a research study that may focus this debate.
In short, Repressed memories of
childhood sexual abuse which occur spontaneously may be more reliable than
those that pop up during therapy sessions, says Tom Jacobs, in a
summary of this research.
2. Williams, L.
M. (1994). Recall of childhood trauma: A prospective study of womens
memories of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,
3. Widom, C. S.,
& Morris, S. (1997). Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood
victimization: Part 2. Childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Assessment,
Disorders from THE MERCK MANUAL, Sec. 15, Ch. 197.
International Society for
the Study of Dissociation
The International Society
for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) provides a forum for the sharing
of research, clinical strategies, public policy concerns, and theoretical
formulations on trauma in the United States and around the world through
its education and training programs and its various publications.
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology
and its Practice:
Revenge, and Forgiveness
Deathand the Seduction
Questions and Answers
Trauma and PTSD
Types of Psychological
INDEX of all subjects
on this website