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PTSD & other Traumas: Ethical Issues in Using Recall

Manual of Articles Sections 7 - 13
Section 7
The Creation of False Memory

Question 7 | Test | Table of Contents | PTSD
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, & MFT CEU

If it is true that recovered memories are sometimes false (there are enough recanters to substantiate this statement), then why do false memories happen? Although men recover memories in therapy, more women than men seem to experience the phenomenon.

Women are socialized—told what we should think and feel—by a sex alien to ourselves, a sex that teaches that being informed about the progress and process of wars is more important than the nurture and care of the young, that sex is something to be used to sell products, and that pornography depicting women as sexual slaves is a constitutional right. We earn 38 percent less than men and are still expected to do most of the housework and child care, although we are told that the latter is not work. We are told we “cannot have it all,” presumably a career, a relationship, and a family, while men are taught they have a right to these advantages.

The Canadian author Margaret Atwood pushed her students to discover the root of their fear of the opposite sex. The basis of male students’ fear was that women would laugh at them and would not accept their version of reality; the female students feared that men would kill them. If this informal survey is valid, most women walk the world in fear. For several decades the media have degraded the family man and worshiped instead the playboy bounder with red sports car and a woman half his age beside him. Therefore, many women’s male companions feel justifiably discontented and critical.

Many of us are frustrated and angry with the way things are. Internalizing our anger as unhappiness, we enter therapy and scour our childhoods for answers. Certainly, in order to sustain the status quo in society, it is safer to find the reason for our unhappiness in an abused childhood (and it is true that many were abused in childhood) than to face the enormous challenge of working with the men in our life to make more equitable relationships and of changing society into one in which women have an equal voice with men in determining the course of human affairs.

It is thus not always easy for therapy to improve a woman’s life. A time may come in therapy when we have worked through many issues, yet are unable to effect changes. It is then that both patient and therapist dig deeper to find someone or something responsible for our symptoms, and who better to blame than our parents? They were present and powerful in our lives at least until we were 18. By the time we are in therapy they often feel guilt for not having been perfect parents and accept negative assessments; or they may be physically weakened or dead. Again, it is often easier to blame than to go about the difficult process of changing ourselves and society

Clinicians, like the rest of us, are subject to fashions that sweep through the world of psychiatry and psychology. Adopting current styles of therapy may make them vulnerable to mistaken ideas and practices. In the past several decades it has been fashionable to seek and find inferiority complexes, penis envy; castration complexes, schizoid tendencies, low self-esteem, and multiple personality syndrome, to name but a few. Within the last decade clinicians of many disciplines have taught their clients to regress to the inner child and have been primed to look for childhood sexual abuse.

Therapy cannot make us good-looking or rich. Our society often avoids facing valid reasons for unhappiness, and therapy is its assistant when it insists that we look for our unhappiness solely in our own history. Implicit in the pact of therapy is the hope that the client will make personal changes in order to lead a more fulfilling life. Even when we effect changes in ourselves, however, as long as society does not change the way it treats women, our conditioning will remain the same and so, probably, will we.

My observation is that trauma creates vivid memory. I still remember every detail of an occasion in which a man exposed himself to me and a friend when I was 8 years old. In a 1995 Frontline program on memories, James McCaugh, Ph.D., of the University of California Learning and Memory Center, states, “Current evidence available concludes that strongly emotional experiences lead to strong memories. This fact has been verified and validated. There is no evidence to support the claim that memories not remembered can be recovered . . . which does not mean that it cannot happen, [but that] it just has not been researched, verified, and validated.”

I looked continuously for clues as to why I had this false memory. Perhaps a mental bond occurred between my therapist and me – a circle of trust so powerful that a kind of telepathy developed – and I found myself presenting discoveries that her training primed her to look for. Or perhaps I felt my therapist wanted me to change in certain ways; ashamed that I could not and afraid to lose her approval, I found a reason that explained those areas in my life in which I seemed stuck.

I discussed all aspects of this false memory with Charlotte Prozan, psychotherapist and editor of this book. She thought for a while, then said, “Perhaps by imagining this incident you got what you wanted as a child; you brought your daddy home.” This made some sense to me. Several times in the course of my therapy I had mentioned that my father had left to go to war when I was 2½ years old and that although this must have been a big event in my life, I could remember very little about it. (I have one conscious memory of my father from about that time. Wearing a little white dress, I am jumping up and down on a bed, behavior not sanctioned by my mother, a bed in which he is sitting on, laughing.)

In writing this chapter, I remembered an incident that happened when I was 6 years old. One of the big girls in the neighborhood—she was probably 10—had been in the hospital and had her temperature taken rectally All the young children were excited when she told us this. We eagerly lined up to play hospital outside a garden shed not far from the neighbor’s garage in which I later “recalled” being assaulted. One by one, the girl who had been hospitalized and who was now “nurse,” took us inside the shed, made us lie face down, pulled down our pants, and pressed a cold steel wrench between our buttocks. This incident could have impressed on my psyche a sexual connection with backyard buildings on that side of the street.

Another reason for this false memory could stem from the fact that every aspect of my childhood was permeated with the Second World War and the “dangerous men unleashed” that war news continuously emphasized. I slept alone in a large bedroom; some nights I would fear that a German soldier was hiding under the bed or in the closet. I have conscious memories of shouting out defiantly, “I know you’re there. Come out.” In my head I would decide that 1 would “let him have his way with me.” At that time these words meant only something sexual that could “disarm” a dangerous man. Perhaps my imagination, which conjured up a dangerous man—scruffy and in army trousers—along with an incident that brought my father home, could have been instigated by the war’s traumatic effect on my childhood self.

On reading through a sparse journal that I kept throughout the period of recovering the abuse memories, I see a strong connection between this false memory and my involvement with my husband at that time. In my first image of the scruffy man, he lifted my “little girl” onto a bench and kissed her/me; and the first time I met my partner he lifted me up, set me on a bench, and kissed me. I also see a connection between wanting to kill the man and my anger with my husband. My journal reveals that during the time that I worked through this “recovered memory” my husband was absolving himself of many of his responsibilities toward our family.

Now I can find no reason why my therapist and I chose not to relate this visualization to my current life as we had done with other metaphors from “inside,” other than the fact that at the time so many therapy clients were either dealing with conscious memories of child abuse or finding “recovered memories.”

In retrospect, I wish that my therapist and I had had the courage and energy (and possibly the unified vision) to work back into the false memory once I identified it as such. Perhaps after the first four to five years in therapy I should have become more issue-specific, although how and if I could have been I am unable to say. (Therapy did teach me I am stubbornly resistant to change!) However, therapy enabled me to better comprehend the dynamics of my family of origin and to come to terms with who I was and why I behaved as I did. This knowledge allowed me to start to forgive myself for having made choices that were not always in my best interests, to make some positive changes in my current life, and to find much strength and self-sufficiency within myself. I am grateful for that.
- Prozan, Charlotte, Construction and Reconstruction of Memory: Dilemmas of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Jason Aronson Inc.: London, 1997.

Personal Reflection Exercise Explanation
The Goal of this Home Study Course is to create a learning experience that enhances your clinical skills. We encourage you to discuss the Personal Reflection Journaling Activities, found at the end of each Section, with your colleagues. Thus, you are provided with an opportunity for a Group Discussion experience. Case Study examples might include: family background, socio-economic status, education, occupation, social/emotional issues, legal/financial issues, death/dying/health, home management, parenting, etc. as you deem appropriate. A Case Study is to be approximately 50 words in length. However, since the content of these “Personal Reflection” Journaling Exercises is intended for your future reference, they may contain confidential information and are to be applied as a “work in progress.” You will not be required to provide us with these Journaling Activities.

Personal Reflection Exercise #1
The preceding section contained information about false memory. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Within the last decade clinicians from many different disciplines have been primed to look for childhood sexual abuse and have taught their clients to do what? Record the letter of the correct answer the Test.

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