Repressed Memories: Real or Imagined?

fingers clenched on rebar fenceMany people believe that when experiences are too painful or difficult to face, they end up tucked into the unseen corners of the unconscious in the form of repressed memories. The presence of hidden truths in the psyche may then manifest in myriad ways in waking life: panic attacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and issues with self-esteem, to name a few.

Sexual trauma, in particular, is viewed by a number of therapists as being especially susceptible to repression (Loftus, 1993). The memories may remain locked away for years before surfacing, which typically occurs in a therapeutic setting.

Several people, mainly women, who recollect memories of abuse 10, 20, 30, or more years after the abuse occurred have sued the perpetrators in court for damages to physical and psychological well-being. Many have won.

However, over the past few decades, the notion of repressed memories has sparked a great deal of controversy in the mental health field. This became especially heated during what became known as the “memory wars” of the 1990s.

Clinical psychologists and therapists who have witnessed adult clients remembering repressed experiences of childhood abuse argue that the memories are real, vivid, detailed, and reliable. Researchers tend to be more hesitant to accept the concept of repression as fact due to the lack of scientific evidence in support of it (Association for Psychological Science, 2013).

Findings reported recently in Psychological Science suggest that this controversy remains just as prevalent today, and that skepticism has actually increased with time. One of the researchers, Lawrence Patihis of the University of California, Irvine, said in a press release issued by the Association for Psychological Science (2013), “Whether repressed memories are accurate or not, and whether they should be pursued by therapists, or not, is probably the single most practically important topic in clinical psychology since the days of Freud and the hypnotists who came before him.”

The study conducted by Patihis and colleagues involved an online survey of practicing clinicians, psychotherapists, research psychologists, and alternative therapists. Their responses revealed that though skepticism regarding repressed memories has increased in the past 20 years for “mainstream psychotherapists and clinical psychologists,” approximately 60 to 80% of the clinicians, psychoanalysts, and therapists who responded to the survey believe that memories of trauma are often repressed and can be retrieved in therapy.

They also gathered data that shows the widespread acceptance of repressed memories as real among the general public. On the other hand, less than 30% of research psychologists believe in the validity of repressed memories.

Repressed-Memory Testimony Fuels Controversy

One of the primary concerns of skeptics is that “repressed-memory testimony” may be used in court to indict someone. Being able to testify against long-ago abusers has been known to aide in the healing and recovery of many who endured childhood sexual or physical abuse. However, there have been instances where an adult child accuses parents of abuse years after the fact and the parents vehemently deny the accusation; this inevitably tears apart familial relationships and leaves the accused feeling victimized (Loftus, 1993).

Repressed-memory testimony has also been used to solve unsolved cases of murder, as in the 1990 case of Eileen Franklin, who experienced sudden and vivid repressed memory recall as a 29-year-old mother that revealed a dark secret: When she was 8 years old, her father had raped and murdered her best friend; Eileen had been witness to the crime, and her father had threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone. Her then 51-year-old father George was tried in court and convicted largely based on the evidence provided via Eileen’s memories, although corroborating evidence gathered at the time of the crime was also taken into consideration.

The disturbing number of cases related to repressed experiences of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests and other private group leaders has also stirred much dialogue over whether memories that surface years after an alleged incident occurred should be used as evidence in legal cases. As recently as October 2013, Governor Jerry Brown of California vetoed legislation that would have allowed more victims of childhood sexual abuse to take action against the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, and other private organizations (Miller).

For those who experienced the abuse, being able to seek justice for the wrongs committed against them is essential to their ability to move on and recover. Many of them experience years of psychological torment prior to remembering in full the abuse that took place, and their supporters believe lawsuits should be an option regardless of how long it takes for those memories to appear (Miller, 2013).

Considering that the truth of a resurfaced memory is often nearly impossible to prove with scientific evidence, this may be a situation where researchers should defer to the practicing psychologists and therapists who have witnessed countless cases of repressed recall in action, as well as the people who attest to their validity firsthand and experience intuitive healing as a result.

References:

  1. Association for Psychological Science. (2013, December 13). Scientists and practitioners don’t see eye to eye on repressed memory. [Press Release]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/scientists-and-practitioners-dont-see-eye-to-eye-on-repressed-memory.html
  2. Miller, J. (2013, October 13). SEX ABUSE: Governor vetoes bill to allow more victims. The Press-Enterprise. Retrieved from http://www.pe.com/local-news/politics/jim-miller-headlines/20131013-sex-abuse-governor-vetoes-bill-to-allow-more-victims.ece
  3. Loftus, E. (1993). The reality of repressed memories. American Psychologist, 48, 518-537. Retrieved from http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/lof93.htm

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  • dan

    December 17th, 2013 at 11:54 PM

    repressed memories can cause a lot of pain to the person as I can imagine. it would not be easy to come face to face with memories from the past when they are ugly and could bring back episodes that are best forgotten.

    as far as legality is concerned, truth is truth whether it is from memory or from repressed memory. as long as it is medically proven that it is indeed repressed memories then there should be no hinderance to considering it is evidence.

  • Cat

    December 18th, 2013 at 3:40 AM

    The temptation must be great to dismiss a repressed memory as something that one is making up but I think that in most cases you can look back at the life of a person and determine that they are probably telling the truth. What would they have to gain from lying about something as critical as this? And they have obviously experienced a lot of pain in their lives as a result of something that they have experienced in the past but just didn’t remember until they were prepared to handle all of the ramifications of remembering. I know that it is tricky but imagine the damage that will be done of what they have to say os just discounted. We have to be willing to at least consider that what someone is saying was repressed for years is the truth.

  • William

    April 26th, 2017 at 10:47 AM

    It’s not a lie, per se. It’s a failure of memory.

  • Carr

    December 18th, 2013 at 9:56 AM

    I thought all you True Believers in RMT would be thrilled to know that my beloved wife grieved herself to death 3 and 1/2 years after our daughters made their false accusations against me and cut off all contact with us. She was in such a state of grief it compromised her immune system, caused pancreatic cancer to develop, and she died in agony January 11. They would not even come to her memorial. Someday all you True Believers will come to comprehend the enormous harm you have done to innocent people. I do pity you when that day comes and you can hardly live with the guilt from the enormous harm you have caused. Because you all believe we should “defer to the practicing psychologists and therapists” regardless of the lack of scientific basis for RMT, you are causing enormous harm to thousands of families. May God have mercy on your souls!!!

  • garrison

    December 18th, 2013 at 2:31 PM

    wow carr that’s a lot of anger and emotion that you are dealing with there, man- I think that you should find someone to talk to to help you through all of that anger that you are so obviously feeling. Sounds like there are a lot of unresolved family issues that trouble you, and you lost your spouse and all of this combined would be hard on anyone. Peace and love, man, and hopefully you too will eventually find some of that too.

  • Jeffrey

    December 26th, 2013 at 6:00 AM

    These memories boiling beneath the surface can be so damaging to one’s life, that to think that someone would ever make up something like this is kind of unthinkable to me. If they have struggled through their lives with no real obvious reason, maybe there is snomething that that other people don’t know about, and perhaps working with a therapist could help them to get those memories to the surface so that they can deal with them once and for all. It can’t be good for anyone to have all of that going on inside but they not really be aware of them or fully understand the magnitude of what they have repressed.

  • Bob

    January 12th, 2014 at 8:48 AM

    I am curious. How do you explain cases where a client has a repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse where you also have overwhelming evidence that the memory is false? For example, an adult patient accuses an uncle of abusing her when she was a kid, but he was stationed in another country for the entire time.

    The ethical issue I have is that it is impossible to tell the difference between a real case, and a confabulated case without corroborating evidence.

    In one case I recently reviewed, a teacher was accused of abusing a student back in the 90’s based on a recovered memory. Almost all of the story was provably true. The patient did have a private tutoring session with the teacher. Everything was spot-on, except for the abuse part. The teacher video-taped every private tutoring session they ever did, and actually had the tapes to prove the abuse never happened (every tape showed drop-off to pick up, without gaps).

    The presentation was no different than in cases where the abuse was provably true.

    Without those tapes, that teacher could have gone to jail.

    How do we defend the ethics of this?

  • Ric M

    August 13th, 2014 at 10:19 PM

    Here’s my biggest problem with the so-called mental health experts, the therapists: in so many cases they just ASSUME that what some “victim” is saying is true! They do zero research in establishing the true before determining a course of treatment! I know, ’cause it happened to me. My daughter, after 22 years with a beautiful, healthy relationship, told me she had memories of my “inappropriately touching” her. I KNOW this didn’t happen, and her therapists has her on a whole regimen of drugs to soften the “trauma” she experienced. There was no attempt at all to determine the truth before the drugs and continuous psychotherapy were prescribed. It’s an obvious racket in some cases.

  • dawn

    December 15th, 2014 at 1:11 AM

    I had memories… They were triggered by someone messing with my emotions… My memories were of my brother dying…it was ruled a suicide… He was murdered… It took 20 years to remember..i am now.. Trying to get help to investigate it…my memories were of the entire night in detail of every action I witnessed by my brother and the killer…
    I know… I will never be the same… Mentally… I’m 39… But mentally at the most… 20.. My brain constantly thinks about when i was young… Things that I say to ppl…they ask how I remember that stuff…idk…something happened to me…I’m different…but it turned out strange… I have a lot in my head…but at the same time..I’m content…pleasant… And have peace of mind… Which is awesome… But it took me a while to learn to live with my memories being there constantly… Thankfully I did…
    To everyone else that goes thru the memories that come back after decades and then…never go away.. As if they are a part of u…I wish u all the best… In finding a way to deal with it.. :)

  • jessi

    January 17th, 2015 at 3:56 AM

    I know that repressed memory isn’t something that people can say they trust 100%, but I just find it odd that I can remember such vivid details of the setting. For example the plasticine that I didn’t recall for 8 years, that was on a table, and it wasn’t even an English word to me when I was four. It was in Spanish when I lived in Colombia. I recalled what I had seen. And so i tried googling the description of plasticine and finally found what my memory was recovering ir what my memory was viewing. So then I googled the translation of plasticine to Spanish because I had forgotten the name of this stuff in Spanish as well, and when I read plastilina in Spanish, it seemed so familiar. I had already said and heard the word in the past. And I was recovering the memory by saying it in Spanish even more. I knew what the stuff was, what it felt like, what it looked like, the different colors, and when I saw the pictures of the plasticine and how some where stacked in a row, I remembered even more of the time when I was about 4 years old. I was a curious child. And I wanted to play with that. But not only do I remember this. I remember a sex position book. I didnt even know that books such as those existed at age 14 when I started ‘recovering’ and having parts of flashbacks of this, but somehow I knew at that age that sex position books existed, or else how could I have just invented the idea of such an object? I remember the closet, mainly because I recall having to run quickly into one to get my clothes back on and hide there because someone else was entering the house. I remember feeling guilt and embarrassment, like I needed to hide this information from everyone. And what’s worse is that now that I am 17, I feel like I already know what it is like to have intercourse and that when I DO “again” I will be familiar with it. Kind of like saying the word plastilina. It disgusts me. Why would I ever make up such horrid things? This is something on an online website, what am I seeking or getting out of this by saying this? The only reason I say this, isn’t for attention, rather more for your knowledge out there. I still fear that it really did happen. But I definitely cant just rule out the possibility that it happened, mainly because of the details that I portrayed in this paragraph. And my own questions in my head currently: how could I know these vivid objects existed, if they weren’t already in my memory? In my past..

  • rene

    January 22nd, 2015 at 4:48 AM

    My friend and I were abducted and attacked when we were very young so badly my friend was left infertile, and we spent time in hospital, because we were badly damaged It is common knowledge in my old town, we moved away shortly after the attack.I can not remember any of it. My family don’t really want to talk about it and say to leave it alone that it is a good thing that i don’t remember anything. All my life I had people coming to me and saying Werent you attacked when you were a child my answer was always No what are you talking about? the reply was always nothing sorry and an embarrassed quick exit or on one occasion the person burst into sobs and just ran away. After this happened enough times I asked my family if this was true, they said it was but refuse to go any further into it.I dont know if they are right or wrong should I just leave it and not remember it or should i try to find out more and try to unlock the memory? I am 40 years old now but it has bothered me along time.

  • tra

    February 12th, 2015 at 4:34 AM

    i was brought up by my grandparents after losing parents at three, my grandmother died 6 years later so was jus me my grandfather an uncle,the violence started then up until 16 when i ran away,the physical an mental abuse was common knowledge by then through people witnessing the violence etc,ive always been praised an admired by others for my mental strength an even have a child psychology diploma,the uncle died a week ago but now ive all these episodes flashing through my head,incidents i can actually see everything clear as day, i even feel the fright an confusion of the child in my memories which most of the time brings me to tears,now tho im seeing sexual behaviour toward me, touching inappropriately i’m now scared to sleep as i don’t know what i’ll see next, is this things ive locked away? why isnt this stuff stayed fresh in my mind? esp since the violence was ongoing,so confused and hes not even buried yet..?..

  • Jeffrey Von Glahn

    November 1st, 2015 at 8:21 PM

    For many examples, all of which were audiotaped, of how my client recovered from many repressed experiences from the earliest days of her life, see: Jessica: The autobiography of an infant.

  • Teddy

    December 2nd, 2015 at 9:22 PM

    All of a sudden when I got sober one day something some flash back at my grandpas house that now I must have repressed again because It was so vivid i ran out of my AA meeting hysterical. I must have 4 or 5 years old and somehow my cousin is involved the deeper I investigated the worse it looked, every photo I found of him and me at that age I looked like I was screaming for help. I wish I could remember exactly what that memory was all I have is a hatred for this cousin one that I’ve subconsciously had my entire life, I’ve always been jealous when he gave my sister attention or dreaded Christmas at his moms house and would relapse I never put two and two together. I finally came out about it and have broken my family apart, is there a certain kind of therapy that can truly help me unlock these memories so I can get some closure and know the truth?

  • Brandi

    October 11th, 2016 at 7:14 PM

    It seems to me there is a 500 pound gorilla in this room. On the one hand, someone references a case that convinces at least them that a particular claim about repressed memories is false. Another references a case that does the opposite. Some of these stories are quite poignant, and kinds undoubtedly carry deep personal significance. People on both sides of the fence then conclude from the evidence that moves them most deeply that repressed memories are or are-not legitimate.

    Whoa. Stop. Put on the brakes people! This is faulty reasoning!

    Just because you have a powerful story of the abuse of the concept of repressed memory doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Just because you have a story of confirmed repressed memory doesn’t mean there aren’t any false claims or abuse of the concept.

    In any particular case there are multiple questions.
    (1) Is repressed memory plausible in general.
    (2) Does a particular case have the marks of a valid memory recovery?
    (3) If so, is it reasonable to conclude that the details are accurate or could they be mistaken?
    I’ve personally made a study of this topic. I just reviewed some recent research on the question. In spite of severe doubts by some researchers, somewhere in the range of 60% to 80% of practicing therapists and psychologists believe traumatic memory can be repressed and recovered because they see so many apparently valid cases. That is a far cry from legitimizing every claim or even every clinical practice.

    With that as preface, I’ll tell this much of my own story. A repressed memory involving a violent death and sexual abuse (different incidents). Recovered around 30 years after the events, outside of therapy, spontaneously upon encountering a person involved. Eye witnesses to the events have confirmed the general outlines of the story. This seems to a bona fide case of recovered memory of traumatic events. However, not even I am willing to say that the details I “remember” have to be correct. I can’t imagine anyone trying to base a lawsuit or criminal charge primarily on such evidence.
    So, let’s agree that abuses of the concept are indeed possible. If you are a victim of such abuse, I am sincerely sorry for you. No one should invalidate your very real pain.
    If you were a victim of trauma and have gone through the agony of recovering that memory, I am sincerely sorry for you too. No one should invalidate your pain either.
    So, let’s just not be silly about things. People have been victimized on both sides of this fence.

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