The Bloated Corpse
[From the False Memory Foundation
Newsletter, May/June 2002 Vol. 11 No. 3. Copyright
2002 by Mark Pendergrast. Reposted here with explicit permission
of Mark Pendergrast. Direct reposting requests to
The Bloated Corpse
by Mark Pendergrast
In Victims of Memory (1995, 1996), I wrote: “I doubt it [recovered memory therapy] will die out completely. Once an idea enters the cultural mainstream, it has a way of resurfacing like a bloated corpse every few years.” I am afraid that the corpse is rising again, if it ever truly sank. Recovered memories are coming back into style with the mounting hysteria over accusations of sexual abuse by priests, with new cases involving recovered memories proliferating. It is frightening that media coverage, in general, has reverted to uncritical belief in recovered memory claims. Perhaps we have a new generation of young journalists who don’t recall what happened when The Courage to Heal was a bestseller.
Although the active practice of recovered memory therapy has subsided, I do not think that the mindset behind it has ever disappeared. Many therapists still believe in this pseudoscience; they are just afraid to espouse it publicly. Theophostic counseling, a currently popular so-called Christian form of therapy, tells people that Jesus will reveal their repressed traumatic memories to them. Last year, a New York psychiatrist killed his 38-year-old patient while giving her a bizarre gas treatment to help her recover memories. A Colorado child psychologist who uses dildos in leading interviews with children stated a few weeks ago, “If people would just open their eyes to it [his dildo therapy], it could be as effective as EMDR and hypnosis.” No doubt.
Last month I got an email from a woman who has completed all but her dissertation for a degree in clinical psychology from a well-known university. She prefers to remain anonymous. “I have been shaken by the lack of awareness of this problem [recovered memory therapy/false memories] at the centers where I have been trained. Most of the therapists I know claim to maintain neutrality regarding memories, but they also believe that massive repression exists in some or many cases. In addition, there are still so many young women and men who continue to come to therapy looking for reasons for their pain, and my experience is that some of them will go the way of abuse memories even if the therapist does not. In my short time as a student therapist at this university’s student health center, I was asked by clients more times than I would have ever expected if forgotten abuse might be a cause of their unhappiness. I still see copies of The Courage to Heal on my colleagues’ bookcases.”
She didn’t learn much about this issue in grad school. “Honestly, I don’t remember much instruction about recovered memories at all, except for a brief mention during a psychopathology class that the diagnosis of DID is controversial.” One of the social workers with whom she works believes in recovered memories and “stressed to me that she feels it is important to remain open to what the client brings.” At another walk-in clinic, there is a social work student who “spoke openly about the memories her clients were uncovering, and spoke proudly about having helped a client realize that what she’d interpreted as a physical problem was actually a body memory.”
In my own local Unitarian Universalist church, a minister recently gave a sermon based on Proverbs of Ashes, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker (Beacon Press, 2001), and the book was excerpted in UU World, the national church publication. There is a chapter in the book in which Parker explains how she recovered memories of being sexually abused by a neighbor. It is classic recovered memory therapy, and no one at the publisher questioned it, nor has anyone else that I know of.
Alarmed by all of this, I called “Robin Newsome,” the retractor Christian therapist in the second edition of Victims of Memory. “It seems to me,” she said, “that the idea of recovered memories is still completely accepted across the United States and Canada.” She confirms that “Theophostic counseling is one place I’m very aware that recovered memory therapy is alive and well. A woman I know asked me to look at the material, and it has a great deal about repressed memories and MPD. Lay people are being trained to be sensitive to work with patients to help them recover these memories. I told her to be really careful, but it’s highly unlikely that she took any counsel from me.”
A year ago, Newsome had a client who had just moved to her area and who was looking for a new therapist to continue to work on her satanic ritual abuse memories. “I told her I had some experience that left me with real concerns about this kind of therapy, and at that point, she became extremely angry at me and was just incredulous that a therapist would even suggest that what she was saying was not the absolute truth. I didn’t have the impression that anyone had ever talked to her about the possibility of false memories. This was 2001. That’s frightening.”
Indeed it is. One of Newsome’s colleagues has fallen in love with another therapist who does MPD therapy with children. Newsome recently had a second-generation MPD client. Her mother thinks she has alters, and so does the adult daughter. “I only discovered this in the fourth session, after we’d been dealing with marriage stressors. She asked if I worked with MPD, and she was floored when I said, ‘No,’ and told her that this is a controversial theory. She just didn’t understand that. She talked to her mother about it and then asked if I would be willing to pray about this, and I said, ‘No, I’ve done my praying about it.’ “
Newsome is particularly alarmed that MPD in the guise of DID is still in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. “I have a friend who works in a mental health association, and she says that many people come through their doors claiming to have MPD.” Thank goodness, they ignore it, dealing with the here-and-now, and the MPD wannabes tend to get better.
Most therapists and ministers are still afraid to cast doubt on recovered memories, Newsome says. “If someone came to their pastor saying that they thought they had been a horse thief in a former life, the pastor would said, ‘As Christians, we don’t believe in reincarnation.’ And the same thing would happen if they remembered being abducted by aliens. But if they said they went to a therapist and had begun to recover memories, the pastor will say, ‘Really? Can we pray for you?’ They would completely believe it.”
So I am sounding a warning. We may have won the battle but lost the war. Indeed, we may not even have won the battle. I am going to speak at a conference about true and false accusations of sexual abuse at the University of Western Ontario in May. The head of the Department of Psychiatry, Dr. Sandra Fisman, refused to support the conference or recommend it for Continuing Medical Education credits because it was “too controversial” and “outside the mainstream” of psychiatric issues. It turns out that Fisman has published several items indicating her belief in recovered memories.
In Victims of Memory, I estimated that there were several million cases of recovered memories in the United States. Some have scoffed at this outlandish figure, asking for proof. I based the estimate on surveys that indicated some 25% of American counselors specialized in recovered memory therapy at its height in the early 1990s. I also based it on anecdotal evidence. It is amazing how frequently I run into FMS stories. Recovered memories have affected the families of one out of every ten people I talk to at random — on airplanes, for instance. But you have to bring up the subject, because people don’t voluntarily talk about it. I wish someone would pay for a random Gallup or Roper survey that might give us a more scientific figure, since the number of families who have contacted the FMS Foundation is just the tip of the iceberg — but such a survey would cost a huge amount of money.
What is the solution? Keep everlastingly at it. Educate. Write letters. Protest. Never give up. We are talking about the lives and minds of our children and friends, and they are worth fighting for.