On one side of the issue is the group claiming memory is completely unreliable and that all therapists who work with survivors of sexual abuse are charlatans trying to ruin innocent reputations. On the other is the group that seems to say that almost everyone was abused as a child, most likely by Satanists, we just haven't all remembered it yet.
Whenever two groups line up as polar opposites, you can bet the truth is somewhere in the middle. The issue of "false memories" is no exception.
We now know a great deal about memory and are learning more every
day. Memory is a tricky thing, and can be unreliable. There is no doubt, however, that the
process of repression, the forgetting of traumatic events, is a real and provable process.
On the other hand, this study does not prove that all or most people with emotional problems were sexually abused as a child. On the contrary, studies that have looked at this question found only a weak association between emotional problems in the present and sexual abuse in the past. In other words, childhood sexual abuse is but one of many ways to become emotionally troubled.
So how can you know if your therapist is helping you recover real memories of abuse, or just leading you to conclusions about yourself and your family that are utterly untrue? Here are a few things to watch for in a psychotherapist that indicate he or she is doing it right:
2. No Leading Questions: This is really just a variation of neutrality, but deserves special mention. Almost everything that gets talked about in therapy ought to have come spontaneously from your own thoughts and feelings. Your therapist is there to help you explore what is inside you, not to suggest things you ought to be thinking about or trying to remember.
3. Healthy Skepticism: The process of psychotherapy is fraught with historical inaccuracies. These small distortions of the truth have little effect on the healing power of psychotherapy, but no one should take what is remembered or talked about in the context of psychotherapy as historical truth. How we experienced the past is far more important to the process of psychotherapy than verifying each and every detail.
4. Encourages Ambivalence: Life consists of shades of gray. Almost nothing is absolute, at least here on this planet. Learning to live with uncertainty and mixed feelings is a part of growing up.
5. Holistic View: Who you are and the problems you are having are all a mixture of lots of things, including your genetic makeup, the family you grew up in, your personality and temperament, and a host of other variables. This is the theory of complex causality; nothing is directly caused by only one other thing or event. Life is a whole mix of events, experiences and emotions, all of which influence and change the others. In other words, there is no particular problem or illness that always results from childhood abuse.
Events or memories spoken while under the influence of Amytal are subject to the same skepticism and need for verification. Being under the influence of a drug does not guarantee truthfulness.
Finally, hypnosis is an oft abused method of treatment and subject to the same limitations described for Amytal. Hypnosis is a proven and effective treatment for a wide variety of emotional and physical problems ranging from burn recovery to weight loss to smoking cessation. When applied by trained and competent hypnotherapist it is almost always safe and effective, but it is not a highway to finding lost memories.
By recognizing the subjective nature of memory, and of life itself, we can avoid the fallacy of believing that all memories are historical facts until proven otherwise. Memories can inform, guide and educate us about ourselves and our emotions, but they cannot reliably prove events in the past.
Copyright 1994 by Thomas A. Grugle, M.D.; Dallas, Texas. More articles by Dr. Grugle can be found at http://www.cybercouch.com.
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