“The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry,” wrote Harvard psychologist Richard McNally in a letter to the Supreme Court when it was hearing a case that stemmed from recovered memories in 2005. “It has provided the theoretical basis for ‘recovered memory therapy’—the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”The repressed memory horror, which sundered families and sent innocent people to prison, has been compared to the Salem Witch Trials.
Yet there are some stark differences between the events of 1692 and those of 1982-1992.
The Salem trials involved very few victims.
There were only a few other events in America that echoed them.
They were over very quickly.
Nonetheless people talk now much more about the Salem Witch Trials of 300 years ago than the national events of 30 years ago. If one wants to make a case for repressed memory, the fact that our society prefers to forget its own guilt is a better example than an episodes uncovered under hypnosis. Perpetrators forget, victims do not. Victims do get the events wrong, however, including who the perpetrator was. I redid a psychosocial history on a woman we had at the hospital 35 years ago. Her story of abuse then was different from her story of abuse now, though there were similarities as well.
I remain ashamed that I did not speak up enough when we went through this the first time. That there might be evil people doing horrible things to young women I believed, and fully grant now. I didn't know much of the science of memory, but I knew enough to be very suspicious of this. There were clinicians who knew more than I who believed in it, and I didn't believe I had the evidence to go against them. Perhaps most importantly, my direct supervisor was a believer, and I, the least-credentialed person in the department was always in a precarious position with her - and she was diagnosably ill, which the powers-that-be refused to admit. Yet that is the limit of my excuses, and it is not enough. I knew with more certainty that in the brief time we interacted with people in crisis, we did not have anywhere near enough information to be drawing conclusions and assisting in such drastic interventions. I knew that many of the stories were simply impossible, yet people around me were believing them. I expressed quiet doubt to a few people. I should have asked challenging questions instead.
One incident sticks in my mind. A young woman was admitted to our acute service, suicidal and claiming she had recently learned in therapy that her father had molested her for many years when she was young. We knew her only a few days, yet in that time my supervisor offered to provide the setting and be a support if she wanted to confront her father about this in a family meeting. In fact, she encouraged it as a safe place to do this, because we would be with her afterward in case she felt suicidal again. Afterward, in this case meaning another 48 hours. Ridiculous.
I said little then, but I have no fear now. I don't mind getting fired over this if it comes up. If it is going to be on the rise I am glad I hung around long enough so that I get a chance to shove it back down.