Reality and recovered memory

SATURDAY MAILBOX

March 15, 2003

I found Dr. Paul McHugh's article about the "Memory Wars" surrounding recovered memories of child sexual abuse as sad as it was well-written ("Ending the `Memory Wars' does not redeem the victims," March 2).

Clearly, there are many therapists who are incompetent in their handling of interviews regarding child abuse allegations. But to give the impression that all such interviews are poorly done is unrealistic.

Many therapists have done a careful and highly ethical job of dealing with child abuse allegations. And child sexual, physical and emotional abuse is a real problem in our society. To fail to mention that fact does a great disservice to the children who experience it, and the people of all ages who struggle to recover from its effects.

Dr. McHugh mentioned adults who recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, accused their parents and later decided their memories were untrue.

But many adults who recover memories of childhood incest do not recant, and do have competent, ethical therapists with the skills to avoid so-called "memory insertion."

I do not doubt there are therapists who, for whatever reason, encourage their clients to remember things that are not true. But most therapists are good, intelligent, skilled human beings who are dedicated to their profession and their clients' well-being.

Joanne Kirsch

Columbia

How could someone be abused in childhood and not remember? It seems impossible. However, not only is it possible, it is not uncommon.

The process of not remembering trauma is not "repression," which is a theoretical construct; it is called "dissociation," and it's a documented phenomenon.

We see it in war veterans who have amnesia for bloody battles. We experience it when we drive down the highway, lost in our thoughts, but still get off at the right exit. It is a normal process that is overdeveloped in people who are traumatized and trapped.

By mentally escaping an inescapable horror, we can continue functioning despite excruciating emotional pain. Some people describe "leaving" their bodies during abuse and seeing it happen from a corner of the ceiling. Others protect themselves from overwhelming trauma by putting the intolerable in a mental box, out of conscious awareness.

They may recall it later in life, not necessarily during therapy, as Dr. McHugh suggests, but perhaps while driving down the road listening to the radio or after a painful transition in life such as a divorce or a death in the family.

In my psychological practice, I've witnessed men and women rocking and talking in a child's voice as they recall memories they buried long ago. None of them wants to believe he or she was abused. They still love their fathers and priests and teachers.

But as more memories and sensations come into consciousness, they can no longer deny what happened to them; their dissociative barriers have cracked. And there are numerous cases of corroborated recovered memory.

Marilyn VanDerbur, a former Miss America, remembered her abuse in adulthood. Her father admitted abusing her.

As a child, John Robitaille was sexually abused by the infamous Father Porter in Massachusetts. His memories came flooding back after hearing his abuser's voice on the radio. He could smell Father Porter's cigarette breath and feel the stubble on his face.

Some of Mr. Robitaille's abuse was witnessed by other boys. In fact, some of them recall incidents he still has not remembered.

While it is certainly possible for memories to be suggested and confabulated, this does not mean that every case of recovered memory is fiction.

Emily Samuelson

Towson

In "Ending the `Memory Wars' does not redeem the victims," Dr. Paul McHugh rightly criticizes the excesses of the "recovered memory" movement. However, he presents only one side of the issue.

He fails to describe the shrill sanctimony, witch-hunting and all but delusional clarity that have characterized both extremes of the debate over sexual abuse. Like litigious lemmings, our society ran first in one direction, believing any hint of sexual abuse, then in the polar opposite direction, imposing an aura of suspicion on all reports of sexual abuse.

Dr. McHugh correctly notes that "our minds are built so as to develop beliefs that go beyond evidence." Indeed, and both camps are guilty.

Our minds also seem built so as to welcome being deceived by dichotomous clarity that fixes on either extreme, rather than to be made uncomfortable by an ambiguous muddle of truth in the middle.

But existing science suggests a moderate position. And history will frown on the extremists on both sides of the controversy about sexual abuse memories.

Steve Shearer

Lutherville

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