Chapter 13: Subsection: The Scope of the Problem
Just how widespread is the recovered-memory business, though? How many therapists are actively searching for repressed memories, and how many people have “recovered” them, cut off contact with their families, and become Survivors? So far, more than 17,000 families have contacted the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, but that number is almost certainly a tiny fraction of the actual cases out there. Most accused parents are probably too frightened and embarrassed to tell anyone about their situations. To obtain a realistic estimate, it is necessary to approach the problem via the therapists.
It should be clear to readers by now that a substantial subset of American therapists specialize in helping clients to recall what they believe are repressed memories of sexual abuse. It isn’t difficult to spot them, even through ads in the yellow pages. Many specifically solicit “sexual abuse survivors.” Other tell-tale phrases include inner child work, dream work, adult child of dysfunctional families, hypnosis, or guided imagery . One of the more notorious therapists, involved in several cases that have come to my attention, has placed an aggressive Yellow Pages ad, featuring a black telephone receiver and a red headline: “Immediate Help .” The highlighted problems and solutions offered include: “Anxiety and Stress, Sexual Issues, Drugs and Alcohol, Isolation, Survivors of Incest and Abuse, Relaxation Training, Depression, Troubled Relationships, Adult Struggles.” Of course, people do sometimes need therapy for depression or “adult struggles,” but this therapist is likely to explain all such difficulties by uncovering repressed memories.
How many such therapists are there, and how many clients have they infected? Two recent surveys offer disturbing figures. Michael Yapko, a clinical psychologist whose 1994 book, Suggestions of Abuse , questions the hunt for repressed memories, gathered data in 1992 from more than 860 psychotherapists, most of whom were attending national conventions. The average respondent was 44 years old, with education beyond the master’s degree level, and had been in clinical practice for more than 11 years. Of these, 40 percent agreed with the statement: “I believe that early memories, even from the first years of life, are accurately stored and retrievable,” and about the same percentage thought that if people don’t remember much about their childhoods, it is because of traumatic events. Almost 60 percent thought that any events someone couldn’t remember must have been repressed. And 36 percent agreed that “if a client believes a memory is true, I must also believe it to be true if I am to help him or her.”
An overwhelming majority (84 percent) of Yapko’s respondents thought that hypnotic age regression was a useful technique. Three-quarters believed that hypnosis enables people to accurately remember forgotten events. Nearly half (47 percent) believed that “psychotherapists can have greater faith in details of a traumatic event when obtained hypnotically than otherwise,” while 31 percent agreed that “when someone has a memory of a trauma while in hypnosis, it objectively must actually have occurred.” Incredibly, 28 percent of Yapko’s respondents believed that hypnosis could be used to recover accurate memories of past lives! Finally, 16 percent thought that it was impossible to implant false memories in a client.
Social psychologist Richard Ofshe has called the belief in satanic ritual abuse the “Achilles’ heel” of the recovered memory movement, since the grotesque memories of murder, cannibalism, and aborted fetuses are so unbelievable and never present any confirming evidence. His point is well-taken. Yet in a huge survey published in 1994, conducted by Gail Goodman and her colleagues, 13 percent of the nearly 7,000 therapists surveyed had elicited recovered memories of ritual abuse, and these respondents “overwhelmingly believed” the memories.
A 1993 survey yielded equally disturbing results. Debra A. Poole and D. Stephen Lindsay conducted a random national survey of Ph.D.-level American psychologists with a substantial female client base. Of their 86 respondents, 76 percent reported that they sometimes used one or more memory recovery techniques, including hypnosis, age regression, dream interpretation, guided imagery, use of family photographs as memory cues, or interpretation of physical symptoms as body memories; 60 percent reported using two or more of these techniques. Most of those surveyed (85 percent) said that at least some clients who initially denied any memory of sexual abuse subsequently recalled it during therapy. Some therapists reported that all of their clients recovered memories. Over half (52 percent) claimed that they were sometimes “fairly certain” after the first session that they were dealing with a repressed-memory case. A disturbing 43 percent of their respondents sometimes recommended The Courage to Heal to their clients. Only 8 percent never made quick judgments about sex abuse, used no suggestive techniques, and did not regard memory recovery as an important therapeutic goal.
This survey makes it abundantly clear that the majority of American therapists sometimes hunt for repressed memories of sexual abuse, using suggestive techniques to do so. (Indeed, results from another national American survey, published in 1995, indicate that 73 percent of 378 psychologists surveyed had at least one recovered memory patient.) On the other hand, only a minority appear to specialize in recovered-memory work. As an extreme example of such “memory focused” therapists, Poole and Lindsay describe a clinician who routinely tells her clients that they were probably abused, then leads them in an initial two-hour hypnotic age regression. All of her female clients eventually come to recall abuse while in her care. Yet she wrote on her survey sheet that “it is very important not to lead the hypnotized subject.”
Poole and Lindsay found that 25 percent of their sample are “memory focused.” All of these therapists use two or more memory recovery techniques, think that they can often spot hidden abuse victims after an initial session, and believe it is important for clients to recall the abuse if therapy is to be effective. On average, these therapists saw approximately 50 adult female clients per year and reported that 60 percent of those whom they suspected had repressed memories eventually came to remember abuse.
From this first survey, it was not clear what percentage of all female clients recalled memories, so Poole and Lindsay conducted a second survey of 59 therapists early in 1994, rephrasing the question. The results confirmed that 25 percent of the therapists were memory focused, and that 34 percent of their clients initially denied any memory of abuse but eventually recalled it while in therapy. Although Poole and Lindsay emphasize that their limited survey cannot be considered definitive, it provides at least a rough approximation of the extent of recovered memory work in the therapeutic community.
In their second survey, Poole and Lindsay were joined by British colleagues Amima Memon and Ray Bull, who gave the questionnaire to 57 psychologists in the United Kingdom, with similar results–about 25 percent appeared to be memory focused. Even more alarming are the results of a 1994 British Psychological Society survey of 810 member therapists. The overwhelming majority, 97 percent, believed in the essential accuracy not only of run-of-the-mill recovered memories, but of satanic ritual abuse reports! (53 percent believed such memories “sometimes,” 38 percent “usually,” and 6 percent “always.”) Twenty-three percent of the respondents had clients who had recalled memories from total amnesia while in therapy with them during the previous year.
It is surprisingly difficult to arrive at a firm figure for the total number of practicing American psychotherapists, because they encompass psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, masters-level counselors, and pastoral counselors. Nonetheless, in a recent article in Common Boundary , journalist Beth Baker arrived at an estimate of 254,600 practicing licensed U.S. therapists. Her figure is unquestionably low, for a variety of reasons. For example, Baker got her figure of 80,000 practicing social workers from membership figures of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). But, as an NASW official told me, there is probably an equal number of practicing social workers who have not joined the organization. The same holds true for figures from the American Psychological Association and others. Because of high dues, many therapists simply don’t belong.
There are other reasons to suspect that Baker’s figure is an underestimate. The country’s 13,000 school counselors are not included, for instance, although a number of them have been involved in repressed-memory cases. Moreover, in most states, anyone can legally hang up a shingle declaring him- or herself to be a psychotherapist–like Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon strip–and unlicensed therapists do not show up in these figures. Nor do the body worker/massage therapists, channelers, or other non-traditional memory-retrieval practitioners.
Nonetheless, let us take Baker’s figure and round it down to 250,000 therapists. Poole and Lindsay’s survey indicated that 25 percent of doctoral-level therapists are “memory-focused.” That percentage is likely to be higher for social workers or masters-level counselors, who tend to accept the repressed-memory dogma more eagerly than do their Ph.D. colleagues (see Chapter 5) . Taking that 25 percent figure as accurate, however–and ignoring the substantial number of “recovered memories” that arise outside that core group–we arrive at 62,500 memory-focused therapists . Poole and Lindsay found that each therapist saw approximately 50 female clients per year, of whom 34 percent recovered memories.
Using simple math (62,500 memory-focused therapists x 50 clients x 34 percent who recover memories), we arrive at over 1 million cases of “recovered memories” each year . Even assuming overlap–some clients return to the same therapist year after year, while others change therapists frequently–it is reasonable to assume that, since the hunt for repressed memories came to full flower in 1988, several million have come to believe they are “Survivors.”
And that is only an estimate of women who have recovered memories at the hands of hard-core, memory-focused, licensed therapists. It doesn’t account for men who have recovered mem-ories, or for those who worked with clergy or unlicensed therapists, or those who were influenced outside of therapy by books such as The Courage to Heal.
In short, by any conservative analysis of the information available, there are millions of cases of “recovered memories,” each of which represents shattered lives and destroyed families. If two-and-a-half million women (well over one percent of the U.S. population) identify themselves as “Survivors,” then one out of every 25 families has been affected.
That astonishing conclusion is also confirmed by anecdotal evidence. I challenge readers to consider how many people they personally know who have been affected, either by retrieving memories themselves, being accused on their basis, or belonging to a family system that has been shaken by such allegations. If you don’t know of any, ask your friends and neighbors about this phenomenon. You might be surprised.