The pain of recovered memory

April 05, 1995

An emotionally troubled young woman visits a therapist who tells her the pain she experiences may be the result of childhood sexual abuse. Over the course of several sessions, the woman and her therapist struggle to "recover" the memory of these early traumas. Eventually the woman becomes convinced she recalls being abused by her parents, whom she accuses of sexually penetrating her with spiders, wires and vegetables in a $20 million lawsuit. The parents, appalled by the charges, angrily protest their innocence but ultimately are forced to settle out of court for $15,000.

This story and others like it are at the center of a growing debate over the so-called "recovered memory" movement, a novel form of therapy that attempts to treat adult emotional disorders by tracing them back to episodes of abuse in childhood.

The controversy involves feminist ideology, fads in psychotherapy, professional ethics and the courts' ability to sort fact from fantasy. At issue is whether recollections of abuse culled through therapy constitute credible evidence of wrongdoing or whether they are unconscious responses to suggestions by therapists who have a vested interest in finding abuse and a cavalier attitude toward truth.

These and other questions are explored in a fascinating two-part "Frontline" documentary that began this week and concludes next Tuesday on PBS. Filmmaker Ofra Bikel interviewed dozens of clients and their therapists, parents and relatives. In one sequence, a woman relates how therapy helped her "remember" being abused in a previous lifetime; in another, a California man whose family broke up after his daughter accused him of abusing her 25 years earlier complains bitterly of his loss,

despite having won a $500,000 malpractice award against his daughter's therapist.

In recent years the nation increasingly has come to acknowledge that many children have in fact been abused and that later symptoms should not be written off as hysteria. Celebrities like Roseanne and Sandy Unitas, wife of the legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback, have publicly spoken of their experiences as abused children.

But the new openness also raises troubling questions regarding the potential for abuse, both by therapists hoping to cash in on a new psychological fad and by emotionally troubled people wishing to avenge old grievances. Claims of victimization clearly can cut both ways. One may recognize the tragic consequences of abuse and still sympathize with the families that pay a terrible price when incredible tales produced in a climate of suggestion are allowed to ruin innocent people's lives.

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