A new take on recovered memory syndrome

An important number of people sincerely believe that they were victims of sexual abuse when they were children, that  they forgot it,  and that they recovered memories of the abuse when they were adults. 

Are they right?  Can you really forget and then remember such abuse?  Or are the seeming memories in some ways created later, perhaps by post-hypnotic suggestion.

My understanding is that a lot of recent research has changed a great deal in what we know about memory.  We are not passive recorders of our experience; everything that happens to us is not retained somewhere in the brain, and memories can easily change over time.  At the same time, very serious issues have been raised about whether we do forget horrible abuse.  If it does seem, as many claim, that it is unlikely that we forget severe abuse, a lot of people’s claims about past severe abuse are de-legitimized.  We have the sort of case where, many others worry, the abuser wins twice.

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 memoies.  If this is correct, then people might come to  remember sexual abuse after having forgotten about it. 

A new book, The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children–and its Aftermath, based  on about 200 interviews with survivors of abuse, opts for  the  latter account.  When the research was first initiated it was highly controversial and the author was warned by her advisers that it could finish off the possibility of an academic career for her.  As recounted in the sympathetic NY Times review:

[At the start of her research] Dr. [Susan] Clancy figured she knew what she would find: “Everything I knew dictated that the abuse should be a horrible experience, that the child should be traumatized at the time it was happening — overwhelmed with fear, shock, horror.”

But many carefully documented interviews revealed nothing of the sort. Commonly, the abuse had been confusing for the child but not traumatic in the usual sense of the word. Only when the child grew old enough to understand exactly what had happened — sometimes many years later — did the fear, shock and horror begin. And only at that point did the experience become traumatic and begin its well-known destructive process.

Dr. Clancy questioned her findings, reconfirmed them and was convinced. Her audience, when she made the data public, was outraged.

First, her data flew in the face of several decades of politically correct trauma theory, feminist theory and sexual politics.

Second, Dr. Clancy found that the world had little appetite for scientific subtlety: “Unfortunately, when people heard ‘not traumatic when it happens,’ they translated my words to mean, ‘It doesn’t harm victims later on.’ Even worse, some assumed I was blaming victims for their abuse.”

Dr. Clancy reports that she became a pariah in lay and academic circles. She was “crucified” in the press as a “friend of pedophiles,” colleagues boycotted her talks, advisers suggested that continuing on her trajectory would rule out an academic career.

Some of the comments on it at Amazon.com are deeply unsettling.  I certainly can’t simply dismiss them, but there is quite a bit of recent work that might at least mitigate their force.

It seems we can find a psychological syndrome can be largely constructed by therapeutic and medical authorities.  One person who has done a lot of early work on this is Ian Hacking.  See his Mad Travelers, The Re-Writing of the Self and The Social Construction of What for his very interesting thought.

Another recent book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, examines in some detail the issue of how much cultural beliefs affect the manifestation of mental problems.  There’s now an extended community that sees a mental syndrome as due to far more than facts about individuals and their experience.  The symptoms we see are in part the result of self-interpretation in the light of permissible ways of thinking in the culture.   Among other things.

11 thoughts on “A new take on recovered memory syndrome

  1. If anyone is interested in this topic, I would highly recommend Sue Campbell’s book, Relational Remembering: Rethinking the Memory Wars. (2003: Rowman and Littlefield). One thing she notes is the difference between the way the memory-accuracy of those who remember abuse (most often women) is questioned in a way that the memory-accuracy of those who claim there was no abuse is not questioned. She also makes some points about the ways that naming experiences can change our memories of those experiences (which sounds similar to what Dr. Clancy is saying).

    I had an experience that is similar to what Dr. Clancy describes. In fact, it was one of the moments at which feminism clicked for me. I was in my undergrad and supporting myself by working at a sports bar (ugh). I was also enrolled in the first Women’s studies course I had ever taken. During one class discussion we were asked if we had ever experienced sexual harassment or abuse at work. I was sure that I had not.

    A month or so later I was talking to a friend from that class and complaining about work. The sports bar where I worked was particularly crappy, and I was complaining about patrons grabbing my bum every time I stepped out from behind the bar (and so on). As my friend and I talked I came to realize that being groped at work is sexual harassment. (I know, I know, duh!)

    Before this conversation I had no memory or experience of being sexually harassed at work. I think I was interpreting sexual harassment as something that happened in offices when bosses make passes at their underlings. The patrons were not my boss, and I was not in an office, so I did not think of it in those terms. After the conversation, I reinterpreted my experience (though it was the same experience) as involving sexual harassment, and it coloured my memories of that experience. I felt much angrier about the incidences of groping, because the were no longer simply inappropriate, but now I understood them as wrong (and illegal).

    Obviously this is not on the same scale as the childhood abuse the study describes. But I do think that new understandings can lead to completely valid reinterpretations of past experiences.

  2. Bakka, I really like Campbell’s work and I don’t understand why it hasn’t gotten more notice. O! Wait! I’m writing all the time about how women’s work isn’t noticed, remembered, etc. I think she’s taken on a very important challenge: how to fit psychological notions back into their social contexts after research has altered our understanding of them.

    I can certainly resonnate with the whole experience of not getting it at the time. For me, part of not getting it involved has not seeing myself as worth much more respect; also, the last time it happened it was a funny sort of situation. An official would call me into his office and start using very vulgar sexual images. What’s not to get!?! Well, in my post-menopausal state, could I plausibly say this was sexual harassment? As though one has to be an obvious object of legitimate desire for a real sick person to create such an obviously hostile environment.

    One hesitancy about the Campbell point you mention:

    There is a significant between between (1)the way the memory-accuracy of those who remember abuse (most often women) is questioned and (2) the memory-accuracy of those who claim there was no abuse is not questioned – if, that is, the memories of (1) are recovered memories and we still think abuse is traumatic at the time.

    The difference is that if abuse is traumatic at the time, then we should remember is; so lack of memory is evidence of lack of occurrence, while recovered memory conflicts with the fairly established idea that we

  3. jj, can you please describe your hesitancy again. I think it might have been cut-off, or else I am just having difficulty understanding.

  4. Bakka, thanks. I don’t know what went on with that last para. here’s the simpler point. There are things that the current theories about memory think can happen.

    (a) you suffer abuse and you remember.
    (b) you didn’t suffer abuse and you don’t have any memories of any.

    (a) and (b) are both ‘normal’ for the theory. Both of those below are problematic:
    (c) you suffer abuse and then forget about it (and then claim to get memories back);
    (d) you don’t suffer abuse but you seem to have memories of it.

    Within this categorization, the #1 in my first comment is (c)and so questionable, while the #2 is (b) and is not particularly so.

  5. OK, now I’m going to have to read both the Clancy book and the Campbell book. Ironically, I stumbled across a description of the Clancy book yesterday and have been trying to get my hands on it, so this post is certainly timely for me.

    A couple of thoughts:
    1) In my experience it’s not that you don’t remember the abuse. Instead, you remember it but are so lacking in the coping skills and the conceptual framework to understand it and deal with it that everytime it pops into your consciousness you firmly push it away and refuse to deal with it. So once you’ve reached an age and maturity level when you can start to deal with it, it’s hard to explain to people why you’re just now talking about it. And the ‘repressed memories’ narrative is already there in our culture, so you appeal to it, because, in addition to being really hard to cope with, this stuff is really hard to articulate as a young adult. And this is further complicated by gender dynamics when it’s a young woman accusing a well-respected man who’s older than her, and then you get all mixed up with issues of the legitimacy of your voice. And in my case this was all amplified by a conservative religious context (!).
    2) From the description of Clancy’s book, it strikes me that this is an instance of us not just imposing a cultural understanding, but also an adult understanding of a situation onto a child’s experience, and totally not getting what’s going on because of it. I mean, it’s probably true that the PTSD narrative captures pretty well what happens when an adult experiences sexual assault. But this is based on an adult understanding of sex and an adult sense of personal autonomy, etc. And these are all very dependent on the cultural context as well. But simply because we would experience this as an adult who was sexually assaulted, we project that onto children who are abused, and this dictates the vocabulary and conceptual tools they’ll have available to them and the expectations we’ll have for them (and thus that they’ll have for themselves), etc.

    But I haven’t read either of these books and probably should before I say much more on the topic. …’Cause I really need to add even more books to my reading list…

  6. “Only when the child grew old enough to understand exactly what had happened — sometimes many years later — did the fear, shock and horror begin. And only at that point did the experience become traumatic and begin its well-known destructive process.”

    It’s not hard to see why Clancy has faced so much hostility. If the trauma connected with child molestation is most often a function of the way our “truth will set you free” therapeutic culture encourages it to be recalled and scrutinized, rather than a function of the molestation itself, then an unsavory implication seems to be that our interest in criminally sanctioning these crimes is, in a way, at odds with the reduction of the trauma connected with them.

  7. Here’s a link to Jennifer Freyd’s work on what she terms “betrayal trauma.” Her primary focus is on child abuse.

    From the link: “if the person who has betrayed us is someone we need to continue interacting with despite the betrayal, then it is not to our advantage to respond to the betrayal in the normal way. Instead we essentially need to ignore the betrayal….If the betrayed person is a child and the betrayer is a parent, it is especially essential the child does not stop behaving in such a way that will inspire attachment. For the child to withdraw from a caregiver he is dependent on would further threaten his life, both physically and mentally. Thus the trauma of child abuse by the very nature of it requires that information about the abuse be blocked from mental mechanisms that control attachment and attachment behavior. One does not need to posit any particular avoidance of psychic pain per se here — instead what is of functional significance is the control of social behavior.”

  8. lga, thanks for the link. Freyd does believe in recovered memories, and I guess I think we might put a question mark around that.

    Another story might be that the abused child learns to be an acute observer, so she has at least a little control given by the ability to predict. Perhaps another way of coping is by splitting, so one tracks the good and the bad and unfortunately has trouble putting those together again?

    Elizabeth Loftus, as you may know, is one of the leading researchers in the false memory research world. She looks at lots and lots of cases of people seeming to remember things and its not checking out. Unfortunately, the innocence project has lots of cases of false memories sending others to jail, but there’s part of a talk of hers on youtube where she picks up on one of the most startling false memories I’ve heard of – that’s Hillary Clinton’s “memory” of being shot at on arriving in Bosnia. (Her actually peaceful, happy arrival was filmed.)

  9. I find any attempt to challenge or question the feasibility of recovered memories to be most troubling because of my concern that they could easily be part and parcel of an insidious attempt to deny that actual abuse has taken place in order to protect predatory pedophiles. Human beings are amazing in our ability to adapt and survive unbearable circumstances, and dissociating from, and blocking out traumatic, overwhelming childhood abuses would appear to be the perfect response to such hideous abuses. I do understand that proving something in a court of law is another matter, but I tend to take a rather cynical view of the court system in general, given the number of legislators and judges who themselves are pedophiles, and who stack the “justice” system to favor the perpetrators, rather than the victims.

    Child abusers rely on the fact that their victims are helpless and powerless to stop the abuse. They use their leverage in a cowardly way to maximize the discrepancy between their power status and the powerless status of their victims. Everything they do is geared towards forcing their victims “not to tell”. I honestly don’t think it requires advanced psychoanalytic theory to understand what being traumatized and victimized is all about. The guilt and shame internalized by incest survivors and child abuse survivors, along with the inclination to suppress those memories, would seem to be common sense to most rational people. But once everything gets twisted and distorted inside the court system, what was once clear becomes [intentionally] murky. All one needs to do is look at the plethora of sexual abuse cases involving the Catholic Church in order to see how the unscrupulous some people are.

    With regard to Dr. Clancy’s theory, it sounds to me as if she’s trying to make a subtle, but important distinction: namely, that it’s wrong to simply assume that all childhood sexual abuses are inherently painful and traumatic at the time the abuse occurred. That’s an important distinction in terms of how we understand the perpetrator’s process, but it’s NOT saying that real abuse has not occurred. Understanding that some child abusers might operate more subtly and opt to sexually stimulate a child in a way that generates pleasure, rather than pain, could be helpful in identifying survivors of such abuse and in helping them find legitimacy to their claims, and healing in their lives.

    In these instances, a child would have no way of knowing that anything the parent was doing was wrong or bad. On the contrary, the child would expect that EVERYTHING the parent would do to them to make them feel good would have to BE good. It’s only later on that it becomes clear that what has happened was wrong and a total breach of trust. The critical key, as far as I’m concerned, is to understand that this type of subtle, physically pleasurable abuse can actually be MORE damaging psychologically by virtue of the fact that there ARE less concrete actions and behaviors on which to focus and identify, at least until the child is older. It creates a perpetual state of confusion, doubt, and lack of trust. IF that is what Ms. Clancy is getting at, then I applaud her pioneer work. If she’s simply trying to minimize or delegitimize the claims of a specific subset of child abuse survivors, then I hope she rots in hell.

  10. sbaltimore, thanks for your comment. I’m very inclined to agree with your last two paras.

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