Therapists urge caution in dealing with memories

June 27, 1991|By Randi Henderson

In story after story of childhood sexual abuse --whether or not it involves satanic ritual -- there often is a puzzling gap of years between when the abuse was said to occur and when the victim began to remember it.

A classic example of a suppressed memory emerging years later came recently from former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur, who says she was sexually abused as a child and adolescent by her father. She had no awareness of the incidents until she was in her 20s, when a conversation with her clergyman forced her to confront her past.

"In order to survive, I split into a day child, who giggled and smiled, and a night child, who lay awake in a fetal position, only to be pried apart by my father. . . . The day child had no conscious knowledge of the night child," Ms. Van Derbur wrote for People magazine.

While therapists generally accept the validity of long-repressed memories, some memory experts suggest caution in accepting them as the whole truth.

"When you're dealing with information that's many years old and so emotionally charged, you can't just accept those memories at face value," said Michael McCloskey, a Johns Hopkins University psychologist who specializes in memory. "People can definitely be wrong in their memories. Even when there's no issue of suppression, the accuracy of memories is sometimes questionable."

But on the other hand, Dr. McCloskey added, "people definitely can suddenly remember things that happened years ago."

Although it's unlikely that incidence of childhood sexual abuse has increased recently, Dr. Richard Krugman suggests a reason why the public is hearing more and more about the retrieval of repressed memories.

"Psychiatry is finally getting involved with all this," said the pediatrician, who directs the Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse in Denver. "There are many more professionals [who are] aware of the possibility of sexual abuse in someone's past and know how to explore it."

Another theory about the recent attention to these suppressed memories comes from Sandra Rappeport, a Baltimore social worker and therapist who specializes in treating incest survivors.

"It's stemming from the feminist movement," she said, noting that the majority of abuse survivors are women. "Women are reclaiming the experiences they really had and not letting people talk them out of it. Freud called them hysterics and told them these were fantasies. Most psychiatrists were trained not to believe the stories and it takes a long time to change."

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