There has been a lot of media coverage about what has been called “false memory syndrome,” a situation where adults mistakenly believe they have been abused in their childhood. False memories of abuse are supposedly implanted by unethical therapists. There has been a lot of research on the nature of memory in general, and repressed memory in particular. The jury is still out: nobody knows for sure if repressed memory can be accurate or not.
In my experience as a therapist, many adult survivors are questioning their own memories, and whether or not “knowing what happened” is possible or even important to getting better. Let’s explore the recently undervalued importance of remembering the past, as well as some of the pitfalls in this troubling, but often lifesaving, therapeutic journey.
Survivors of abuse usually doubt their recovered memories. It is natural to wish that you could be somehow mistaken. Nobody wants to think that the adults we trusted when we were kids would have hurt us so badly. Furthermore, remembering repressed information often takes the form of reliving the experience–which is traumatizing in itself. The emotions that were successfully repressed are now just as present and overwhelming as if the trauma had just occurred. Therapists look for methods to ease the process of integrating this new and painful information into awareness, and clients understandably want to avoid the whole business. Maybe it would be better if we left this awfulness hidden altogether. Why does our mind want to remember what it has purposely forgotten anyway?
One good explanation is that the mind is trying to desensitize itself or learn a new way of coping by reprocessing the experience of trauma. In this way, the mind can get a look at what happened from the relatively safe perspective of present time. Often, after a flashback, you experience a change in whatever post-traumatic symptoms were plaguing you, and you become able to make choices about how you want to act and be in your contemporary world. For example, let’s consider a particular post-traumatic reaction that is frequently instilled into the behavior of adults who, as children, lived at the mercy of incestuous parents: Jill is frequently humiliated because she can’t seem to hold her own in relationships. She repeatedly goes along with things she doesn’t really want to do. When she was little she never disagreed with her girl friends and now she is endlessly pleasing and trying to be helpful. She has sex whenever her partner is interested regardless of what is right for her, and she frequently isn’t sure what she wants for herself in that relationship.
As a small child, Jill learned that passively accepting abuse was the only way to keep from angering her abuser and making the situation worse. Cooperating made it less painful and it was over quicker. She taught herself to never resist, and she turned off her awareness to her own feelings so that no resistance would show. What was initially protection from further bodily harm became her immediate response to any request or opposition: don’t think, just comply. As she grew up, this reaction became generalized–she would not stick up for herself even in ordinary situations.
When Jill remembers the actual abuse she has an immediate visceral understanding of why she didn’t fight back. Her own behavior (which she had previously considered weak and shameful) can be now understood as a learned and intelligent response to an untenable situation. As a little girl she had taught herself to behave in the only way she could to minimize the danger she was in. During that time of crisis she created the imperative: somebody wants something, they get it, period. It is monumentally clear how this became her automatic way of being in relationships.
Reprocessing the trauma gives Jill an opportunity to understand and undo the automatic nature of her reactions, reconsider the imperative, and respond with choice to present day events. All the feelings and conclusions about herself and her world can be reworked: Jill can, and will, begin to right her unjustly damaged self-esteem.
Questioning the validity of the content of our recalled memories puts this whole healing process in jeopardy, and all the press about “false” memories has increased doubt in everyone involved. Besides, it is perfectly understandable survivors would be very concerned about knowing if their family members did hurt them or fail to protect them. It is common knowledge that memory is, at best, malleable. So how can we draw any conclusions?
If memory is fallible how can we draw any conclusions?
We can assume that our brain and body collaborate to create a flashback, and that this is a normal and healthy attempt to heal from trauma. But the haunting question remains: Did it really happen? So far, nobody knows for sure. Perhaps a flashback is a composite of stored impressions and images that surface like shrapnel working their way out of your psyche so that you can heal. Perhaps it is a metaphoric message–like a dream, coming up from the unconscious and fitting perfectly with your life–clarifying and validating and freeing. Every person who experiences repressed memories has to come to their own conclusions about their veracity and meaning. Two criteria can be used to help evaluate repressed memories: (1) Are you healing from these experiences (having less symptoms and more freedom to make productive choices)? or (2) Are you getting “secondary gains” from having learned that you are a survivor of trauma? Not being sure of the answers to these questions may well be a sign of integrity. An outsider, perhaps a therapist who is trained in recognizing these things, can provide useful feedback.
As time passes, the exact truth of what happened often becomes less significant; but initially it seems crucial, and with good reason. We need to clarify relationships with our relatives who may or may not have been involved with the abuse. It is important to be sure of what we think, especially since perpetrators are usually invested in denial. An experienced therapist is your best guide through this rocky terrain. I urge you to come to your own best considered conclusions, and let the notion of a healing metaphor (that contains emotional, if not literal, truth) be an option.
A word of encouragement: I truly believe the human heart, if broken, can fully heal again. Once you take full ownership of your life you will treasure it always, and never take the good things for granted.