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Psychology’s Unhealed Wound

Imagine 20 years ago that you bandaged up a deep wound, and now you peel back the bandages to find that only part of the wound had healed and that, in fact, a raging infection persists. That is analogous to the situation that Mark Pendergrast describes in Memory Warp.

In the early 1990s one of psychology’s most important debates arose between some psychologists who argued that the recovery of repressed memories was valid, and skeptical researchers who thought they were confabulations. The theory of repressed memory, first proposed by Sigmund Freud in 1895, states that traumatic events are often so threatening to the psyche that the mind encapsulates them, rendering them inaccessible for years, only to be recalled later in a safer environment (for example, a therapist’s office).

Many experimental memory researchers, such as David Holmes and Elizabeth Loftus, argued that there is no credible scientific evidence for repressed memory. A growing band of psychology researchers became suspicious that some practitioners were actually creating false abuse memories in clients.

It was a bitter and personal argument at times, but thankfully all seemed to calm down to a degree around the turn of the century—the ameliorative bandages seemed to be working. An American Psychology Association committee came to an uneasy compromise on the issue. Related high profile court cases seemed to decrease in number—those where psychotherapy clients would sue parents, clients would retract their memories and sue therapists, or parents of clients would sue therapists. Multimillion-dollar verdicts against psychotherapists made most counselors far more cautious about seeking to unearth purportedly repressed abuse memories.

Many in the beleaguered profession heaved a sigh of relief when the story faded away—and coverage in newspapers and television documentaries dwindled. However, a 2014 Psychological Science article found that many practicing psychologists, even mainstream ones, tended to believe in repressed memories more so than do researchers, and that the vast majority of the public still believes in the theory. Perhaps psychology’s largest wound has not in fact healed.

In Memory Warp, his unflinchingly bold new book, Mark Pendergrast warns that repressed memory recovery, and accompanying memory distortions, are still a major problem in contemporary society. The book is essential reading for all because it offers valuable protection from the most damaging of psychology’s modern practices. In Memory Warp, Pendergrast articulately and thoroughly explains the history and the dangers of therapies that uncover purportedly repressed memories of trauma. He meticulously describes past and current research and explains how beliefs in repressed memories still predominate in today’s society. For example, he provides evidence refuting the claims of The Keepers, a documentary released on Netflix in 2017 involving the case of a murdered Catholic nun and a priest accused of sexual abuse, which he argues has fallaciously re-enforced a belief in repressed memories in households across the nation.

The book consists of nine chapters. In Chapters 1–3, the reader is given an overview of how an increasing realization of the horror of real incest led to the practice of repressed memory therapy and how individuals became victims of false memories of childhood sexual abuse. His second chapter is a virtual master class in how human memory actually works, while the third explores hypnosis, panic attacks, dream interpretation, and other methods for creating a belief in recovered abuse memories. Chapter 4 goes into detail about how the multiple personality diagnosis and belief in satanic cults were politicized by therapists, and how the power of suggestion makes an individual more prone to developing false memories. The fifth chapter recaps the related day care sex abuse hysteria cases. In Chapter 6, Pendergrast explores the history of mistaken psychological beliefs, from the Great Witch Craze to Charcot, Freud, and the origins of the beliefs of multiple personality diagnosis and repressed memories. In Chapters 7–8, he provides the reader with cultural contexts and “religious” cult-like views that have allowed for the rise and continued belief in repressed memories. In Chapter 9, Pendergrast gives his final summary, providing good evidence that the belief in repressed memories is still prevalent in society, and that the practice of repressed memory therapy continues. He provides recommended legal and organizational changes that could possibly fix the issue. He ends by giving advice to torn families and therapists.

Pendergrast, an independent scholar and science writer, explains how the pseudoscientific fad of repressed memory recovery has impacted millions of families throughout the world. By his account, the rise in recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse stemmed largely from the publication of pseudoscientific books, most notably The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis (first published in 1988, with the most recent edition in 2008). These authors, he argues, created a whole new generation of followers who believed that children who were sexually abused often repressed their memories. Pendergrast presents a convincing argument that these authors, and others writing similar material, inspired widespread echoing of such ideas in television shows, research articles, books, and national and international organizations. He makes an elegant argument that repressed memories of abuse are impossible and implausible.

Pendergrast presents remarkable insights that we have not read elsewhere. As just one of many examples, he discusses how late-19th century Austrian culture molded Freud’s work. Pendergrast relates how, in part, the problematic sexual attitudes and behaviors towards children of that culture led to Freud’s theories. Pendergrast argues this era gave rise to the theory of repressed memory of underage sexual activity or conflict, and to subsequent malpractice that has shaped some modern therapeutic theories and practices.

Child sexual abuse is a real and disturbing problem in society that is well worth more research, discussion, and corrective measures. Nevertheless, it is also an important matter to discuss false memories and accusations that can arise from flawed therapeutic and interviewing methods. Pendergrast provides an unbelievable transcript of such a case where a social worker used persistent suggestion towards a child that they were sexually abused (p. 221).

Pendergrast argues that some clinicians have brought about heartbreaking devastation by using suggestive therapy techniques, politicizing their agendas, and popularizing a new terminology, such as the push for multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder) to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. He posits that this is one way that clinicians and researchers who support the theory of repressed memory continue to push their flawed beliefs. Their argument is that childhood sexual abuse can give rise to different personalities within one individual as some sort of coping mechanism. Pendergrast maintains that these therapists actually lead their patient into such a belief through suggestive techniques such as hypnosis.

Religion has also had some influence on the misguided belief of repressed memories. During the 1970s some Christian psychologists brought their religious beliefs about the threat of satanic influence into their psychological practices. In one example, Pendergrast describes how a woman began to see a Christian psychologist for therapy and consequently developed what appears to be false memory of abuse by her father, then disowned her parents and became dependent on her therapist. She then began to recall being a victim of a purported satanic cult. This example is not an isolated case: many books claimed that these satanic cults existed in the shadows of society for the sole purpose of degrading and sexually abusing children for ritualistic purposes. There is no evidence that such satanic cults exist or ever existed.

Overall, Pendergrast demonstrates how belief in the existence of repressed memories, and the corresponding practice, has come at a great cost. Many families have been destroyed by recovered therapy practices with millions of people coming to believe that they had repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. The worst transgression, Pendergrast argues, is the destruction of families in pursuit of a biased agenda—rather than allowing sound empirical research to guide them.

This book is a must read for lay-persons, but especially for all those entering the field of psychology, law, or social work. Of particular benefit would be the next generation of therapists who have not been exposed to the story of repressed memory malpractice that arose in previous decades but continues today. The book provides a history lesson on the pseudoscience that has plagued the field of psychology, specifically in the belief that inaccessible unconscious and traumatic memories can be recalled as exact representations of the past. Pendergrast eloquently criticizes that position and uses years of extensive research on the topic to offer a comprehensive picture. When there is accumulating evidence refuting your position, one must be willing to accept the supported evidence, in the name of good science and the public good.

Finally, in 2017 Mark Pendergrast published a related book to Memory Warp. The Repressed Memory Epidemic: How It Happened and What We Need to Learn from It (Springer, 628 pages, $139) is an academic textbook version with chapter abstracts and discussion questions, and an appendix with Pendergrast’s verbatim interviews with therapists, “survivors,” the accused, and retractors conducted in the early 1990s. These interviews, along with full endnotes and bibliography, are also available for download. END

About the Authors

Mario E. Herrera is a doctoral student in cognitive psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, were he focuses on false memory and memory for emotions. He earned his Bachelors of Arts degree in Psychology from California State University, Northridge.

Lawrence Patihis is a socio-cognitive tenure-track Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. He received a doctorate from the University of California, Irvine, where he was advised by the memory researchers Elizabeth Loftus and Linda Levine.

22 Comments

  1. Bob Jase says:

    Too late to correct the error – its become a part of religious faith that has enshrined it as dogma.

  2. Xxxxx says:

    Repressed memories do exist and sometimes can be recovered–with or without a therapist. I have personally witnessed several instances of the sudden remembering of something long forgotten, usually something extremely traumatic, thought not always of a sexual nature. There is no doubt about the existence of repressed and recovered memories.

    The question of how the legal system should deal with such claims is a whole different issue. False memories, rationalizations, and outright malicious lies also exist. Nobody should ever be jailed on a basis of recovered memory testimony alone, especially after a passage of many years.

    The legal system should ignore any such claims. But a therapist should not.

  3. MBDK says:

    Xxxxx
    “I have personally witnessed several instances of the sudden remembering of something long forgotten, usually something extremely traumatic, thought not always of a sexual nature.”

    These were not related to amnesia? And you verified their authenticity…how?

    • Xxxxxxx says:

      By asking older relatives, who confirmed the events actually happened. One case involved a 2 year old who got his foot caught in a fence while a thunderstorm was brewing. His mother remembered it when we asked her about it after he as an adult recalled it one night and woke up screaming from fear.

      Another example is my own recollection of an encounter with a skunk at age 4. I had forgotten it until, in my 20s, I recalled in response to a smell one night. My mother later told me she remembered when it happened and filled in some details.

      • MBDK says:

        If you conclude that those two instances are so traumatic the brain has to purposely “forget” them, you and your friend must live the most sheltered and sedentary of lives. Also, if such a mechanism did exist and would allow an instant recall via “triggers” such as dreams and smells, it wouldn’t be very effective would it? Finally, It has been demonstrated time and time again that EVERYONE’S memories, especially when it comes to detailed recall, are fallible, even mothers. Although you may have a different opinion, science’s conclusions are based on demonstrable, repeatable analysis.

  4. Avital Pilpel says:

    If traumatic events are “repressed”, how come we never hear of somebody suddenly remembering they were in the holocaust? You’d think nothing could be more traumatic than that.

    How come the “recovered memories” are inevitably of something private and unverifiable, have no proof except for the patient’s say-so, and usually involves “remembering” evil deeds by whomever society is hysterical about right now – pedophiles, satanists, witches, et cetera?

    • Xxxxxxx says:

      Those are the ones that get in the news. Others, of no importance to the legal system, are less likely to come to your attention.

  5. Avital Pilpel says:

    >>>>>I have personally witnessed several instances of the sudden remembering of something long forgotten, usually something extremely traumatic, thought not always of a sexual nature.

    So did the judges in the Salem Witches’ trials.

  6. Dr. Sidethink Hp. D. says:

    It’s impossible to be skeptical about about whether something happened , but required to be skeptical about whether “repressed” memory suddenly remembered
    claims are bullshit instead

    Super bowl t ime again

    Dr.S

  7. Lance Kemp says:

    just because the memory is not at the forefront of your mind does not imply it was repressed. Most of our memories are not at the forefront of our mind. For instance, are you repressing your memory of dinner from last night?

  8. Barbara Harwood says:

    One of my most enduring memories of events as a two-year-old includes falling and cutting my head on broken glass. I do not remember the actual fall, which was obviously the traumatic part of it, but I do remember events that happened at the time. My only repressed memory was the actual fall. Do I really need that part of it?
    It is well known that a smell can evoke a memory because the olfactory bulb is close to that part of the brain that stores memories. The idea of refreshing a memory by reliving it leaves open the possibility of editing it. In many respects it is like making a copy of a copy. Remembering a fact is not the same as remembering an event.

  9. Kevin Dwyer says:

    Of course, we forget things; the question is whether we remember things that never happened. There is evidence that this does occur.

  10. Avital Pilpel says:

    The prosecutors in the Salem witch trial said the accused’s denials were because Satan told them not to tell. “Repressed memory” therapists say the patient’s superego told them not to tell.

    Since neither the superego nor the devil actually exist, and both are fantasies by Freud or of certain religious fanatics, respectively, it is extremely likely the victims’ suddenly-remembered stories are false. They were invented by the accused or the patient in order to please the witch-finder or the repressed-memory-finder.

    They both have a strong motivation to do so: to avoid torture on the rack, in the first case, or the displeasure of the therapist for “not overcoming their resistance”, “refusing to cooperate in the healing process”, etc., in the second case.

  11. Mark Pendergrast says:

    I am the author of MEMORY WARP: HOW THE MYTH OF REPRESSED MEMORY AROSE AND REFUSES TO DIE, and some of the comments here illustrate that the subtitle is accurate. Before I respond to the comments, please let me ask you to READ THE BOOK, which is quite comprehensive and which is necessary to understand the complexity of memory and how it can be distorted or even completely rewritten. I promise that it is not a difficult read, but it is scientifically grounded.

    Barbara Harwood wrote: “One of my most enduring memories of events as a two-year-old includes falling and cutting my head on broken glass. I do not remember the actual fall, which was obviously the traumatic part of it, but I do remember events that happened at the time. My only repressed memory was the actual fall.”

    Barbara, I hate to have to tell you this, but no one remembers anything from the age of two. It is part of the period of infantile amnesia. No more remembers much before the age of 4, and no one remembers before the age of 3. This is one of the most unpopular things I say when I give speeches, because so many people have their most cherished early memories that are impossible. Instead, these clearly held “memories” illustrate how we can rehearse imagined events until they seem real. In most such cases of alleged infantile memories, they are events that parents or older siblings have told us about, and then we think we remember the events themselves. That is known as “source misattribution.”

    As for the whole issue of repressed/dissociated memories, no one can DISPROVE them, any more than anyone can disprove the existence of witches. But the idea that you can be repeatedly traumatized, be completely unaware of it, and then recall it years later, goes against everything we know about human memory. All memory is reconstructive and subject to error, but what we recall the most clearly tends to be the best and worst things that have happened to us.

    You need to distinguish between ordinary forgetting and remembering and the idea of repression. We all forget things and then recall them later, often cued, as one comment here noted, by smell or music or whatever. And, in fact, I found some convincing cases of sexual abuse that were forgotten and then recalled. But these were generally single incidents of fondling or exposure that were not perceived as traumatic at the time. They may have been confusing, but not all that memorable. When they are recalled, they may THEN become traumatic due to current attitudes. But this is not an example of “repression.” And no one forgets long-term abuse beyond the period of infantile amnesia.

    • Barbara Harwood says:

      You claim that I have no direct memory of the incident, but I remember it from my own observation and for much of it there were no other witnesses. Admittedly, the memories of my two-year-old experiences are spotty. There are many things that I said and did that were told to me, but that I do not remember. There were other less traumatic scenes and events that I remember such views from a window of the bedroom in the house where we lived.
      The details that I remember from my fall include the fact that I saw a man drop a bottle of water behind his truck, which was the cause of my injury. I also remember that my grandfather, who was also a doctor, had the breakfast room table next to the kitchen door and a large punch bowl full of water sat on it. I was placed on the table and looked up to see faces looking down at me who included my parents and an uncle whose forehead was also bandaged. I cannot tell you how that injury occurred, but I seemed to know it at the time. Nobody explained these details to me because I remembered them.I also clearly remember my grandfather asking my grandmother where the bandages were.

  12. Avital Pilpel says:

    Xxxxxxxx wrote:

    >>>>>those are the ones who make the news. Others, of no importance to the legal system, are less likely to come to your attention.

    Really? You’d think people who suddenly remember the repressed memory of being in the holocaust or some other massive catastrophe after decades of repressing the memory *would* be in the news, for the human interest angle if nothing else. Since when do the news report only what is legally significant?

    Yet we never hear of a single case like that. Why is it that of millions, tens of millions, who were in the most traumatic events in 20th century, we never hear about repressed memories? We sometimes head about someone who allegedly repressed some particular trauma from the war, say, but never more than that.

    I was once present in a talk where a student, all excited, presented a case of repressed memory. An ex-pilot of a Grumman avenger plane (she was very specific about the type) remembered, in a flash, how the real reason he could not do something simple since the war (sit in a particular position? I do not recall exactly what) was that his Grumman bomber was shot down over Europe, and he survived while “his buddy” was killed.

    I didn’t have the heart to tell her that – being a bit of a WWII buff I knew this – the Grumman had *three* crew members, not two, and was a *naval* plane that flew almost exclusively in the pacific theatre and was *never* used in bombing missions over Europe.

    The man who “remembered” the trauma “remembered” something that could not possibly have happened. I do not know whether he was lying or deluded, but this sort of thing is perfectly typical of “recovered” memories. They are no more reliable than the memories of those who “remember” past lives.

  13. Avital Pilpel says:

    I would say “recovered memories” are part of the continued harm the nonsense that was psychoanalysis did to the field of psychology.

    Plato was a psychologist. He spoke of the soul as having three parts, a rider and two horses. Whatever else he might have gotten wrong about the soul, the tripartite division of the soul was a METAPHOR for one’s desires and the way to control them. He didn’t think there are actually a rider and two horses inside one’s head.

    Freud took the tripartite division, changed it a bit, and made it into a LITERAL thing, as if the soul really is made of imaginary riders and horses – only he called them “superego”, “ego” and “id” – and that mental diseases are caused by actual comflict between them.

    His “therapies” are based on this confusion. To tell a patient to he needs his dreams interpreted so that his id will become healthier, for instance, is the equivalent of Plato telling someone to eat grass so as to feed the horse in his head that represents the passions. The difference being that Plato would never recommend such nonsense.

    “Recovered memories” are also based on Freud’s fantasy. Only in a world where the superego, ego and id actually exist and causally interact, does it make any sense to think the most traumatic events we experience would be *forgotten*, because the superego tries to protect the ego from it (or whatever).

    In the real world, it makes much more sense (for evolutionary reasons if nothing else) that we would find it very *hard* to forget such traumatic events, which is obviously the case.

    • Danielle Murstein, MD says:

      I agree that suggestion and dramatization, combined with religious beliefs in Satan and demons have distorted the realities of the so-called “repressed memory” movement with the mass hysteria of the Daycare scandals.

      I am also aware that poorly trained therapists can make ill informed comments that lead to false memories. I have heard comments such as, “Her symptoms clearly indicate a past h/o sexual trauma,” when no such thing was true, and the person was leaping to conclusions based on some personal idea of how trauma presents, in the absence of evidence. This is like “leading the witness” legally.

      On the other hand, as Barbara Harwood above noted, smells in particular, as well as sounds, sensations, words, and events can trigger pre-conscious (forgotten but not repressed) memories by association. There was an element of insightful neuroscience in Proust’s great novel, which starts with memories of the narrator’s childhood, stimulated by dipping a madeleine cake into a cup of tea (a ritual he shared with his grandmother as a child).

      As a child psychiatrist with over 30 years of experience, I can attest that young children 3-6 years old, at least, do remember things from when they were 2 years old, especially those that are bright and verbal at an early age. Many of these things need not be traumatic. They could be pleasant memories of a birthday party, a much loved toy, or a favorite cake, or even a dream.

      My own daughter remembered and played out a physical trauma she experienced as an 2 year old (not at all repressed) after she painfully injured her fingers by accidentally slamming the keyboard cover on a grand piano onto her other hand. For weeks she reenacted this with a board book, closing it on her hand, then opening it up and saying, “all better now,” which I believe was a way of exerting mastery over the event and feeling more in control of it. She remembered this incident at least until around age 5 years, which I know because I overheard her telling peers about it as well as her little sister who was born 4 years after her, without adult prompting. It gradually faded into the background as she got older.

      Freud is not the last word, but was groundbreaking for his time. While eloquent, much of his work is problematic. The quote about the “interpreting dreams to get a healthier id” is nonsensical, and sounds like a mocking parody of 1920’s psychoanalysis, having nothing to do with the current practice of therapy or understanding of mind-brain psychology.

      Trendier modern explanations of Freud’s id, ego, and superego are repeatedly used in the psychological literature as a Metaphoric (not a literal structure) way to understand how we humans behave in sometimes immature, logical, punitive, or heroic ways. For example, discussing the “small child” in someone (id), the “problem solver” (ego), and the conscience, internalized parent, or internal police (superego) all have value as a way to understand our behaviors.

      There is a BIG difference between “newspaper report” truth with an emphasis on concrete facts, and working with a person’s lived experience in therapy, which the above comments seem to think should be identical.

      Freud himself once stated that, “In the battle between truth and memory, truth loses.” None of us stores the exact truth of events, but we usually remember our own associations and reactions to events, which is why 10 eyewitnesses come up with 10 different accounts of the same event.

      I know that while not repressed in the way the popular literature implies, traumatic childhood events can be forgotten and then later triggered. In my own life there were some traumatic events that I forgot the details of, probably because they were painful to think about and remember.

      One involved pain and trauma around a ruptured appendix. I vaguely remembered the event with ambulance ride from grandmother’s house to the hospital, but forgotten the gory details, including having multiple interns practice doing a pelvic exam on me prior to surgery, when I was 13 years old until I started kicking and screaming and wouldn’t let them touch me. I doubt this would be allowed to happen today, and it was very emotionally traumatic to me in the 1970’s, as well as very physically painful.

      The only reason I did remember these details is that I found an old diary I’d written around age 15 detailing the events that occurred. I don’t think this is the type of “repression” the false memory movement is talking about, but it was forgotten by me 30 years later, it involved some sexuality due to being a pelvic exam, and it was traumatic. Forgetting it allowed me to move on and to protect myself from feeling hurt and out of control as a child.

      I am skeptical of dogma either for or against Freud, therapy, etc. and agree that we need ongoing research to establish effective (and non-suggestive) ways to treat trauma.

      While being skeptical, it is good to reserve a bit of judgment about the opposing view, rather than denigrating and sometimes misrepresenting the point of view we don’t agree with. Many of the above comments include logical fallacy arguments described in issues of the SI.

      Unfortunately, this all or none generalization, and “Fake News” labeling is the current political climate and discourse, which we should be wary of emulating.

      I am very much looking forward to reading Memory Warp and having my own thinking expanded!

      • Barbara Harwood says:

        Thank you for validating my ability to remember events from my two-year-old experience. Most of my memories were not in any way traumatic. They included playing with other children and everyday activities.
        I specifically remember when my younger brother was born when I was two and a half. My father took me to the hospital, but because I was too young to go inside, I was able to look through a window that revealed the nursery where the new babies were kept. There seemed to be quite a few, but my ability to count prevents me from suggesting how many. A nurse tilted the bassinet forward so that I could get a better look at him. I remember my thoughts at the time which I have never revealed to another person until now. I wondered why they had chosen him and that I had not been consulted. I do not recall the words that I was using, but that was the gist of it.
        A couple of items were not my own memories, but they give an insight into the mind of a two year old. I was given a dall for my second birthday which I still have,. She was always called Kathleen for as long as I could remember. Some years later I asked my mother how the doll was named. She told me that I named her myself. I have no idea where the name came from.
        Again, at the age of two I was taken to the zoo by some friends. I amazed them by being able to say, “Hippopotamus” and “Rhinoceros”, although I doubt very sincerely that I recognized the animals. I was merely copying what I was told to say. My ability to say those words may be attributed to the fact that my parents did not believe in the use of Baby Talk.
        Please note that my memories are over seventy years old, but they seem exactly as I remembered them. The fact that most of them are highly visualized would tend to indicate that even younger children might be recording memories.

  14. MBDK says:

    One more general comment here. I don’t remember what I ate for dinner prior to going to Superbowl XL VIII in East Rutherford, New Jersey. So, that dinner must have been so terrible, I repressed its memory? And if I ever DO remember what I ate, and realize it was NOT a traumatic event, that suddenly changes how my brain works? No, I recall the “memorable” event and forget the mundane, just like everyone else.

  15. Danielle Murstein, MD says:

    Addendum for Mark Pendergrast.

    I recently read in a psych journal that “true” memories and hypnotic or fantasized memories are stored in different parts of the brain, which can be detected by PET scanning in real time.

    Do you know anything about this?

    Thanks!
    D

  16. Avital Pilpel says:

    Freud’s influence, I must say, had been mostly negative. His views may have been revolutionary and ground-breaking. But to be a new Galileo it is not enough to be railed against and bravely stick to your revolutionary views – you must also be right, while Freud’s pseudo-science was not even wrong.

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