Freud’s false memories
Psychoanalysis and the Recovered Memory Movement
THE OBSERVATION THAT Freud’s writings, and in particular his theory of repression, are the ultimate source of the recovered memory movement which has flourished in the United States in the last decade, has been made on a number of occasions already. The subject is a huge one and in order to avoid becoming ensnared by the present I have only touched upon it briefly in this attempt to review the psychoanalytic past. But because the recovered memory movement has assumed such an extraordinary importance in contemporary psychotherapy, no attempt to estimate the influence of Freud upon our century would be complete if it did not offer some account of this movement and of the phenomenon of ‘false memory’ which, in the view of many, is associated with it.
One of the obstacles which stands in the way of any realistic appraisal of the recovered memory movement is the difficulty most people have in imaginatively grasping the sheer scale of it, and the extraordinary speed with which it has come to dominate the mental health debate in North America and to move rapidly up mental health agendas in many other countries. As Frederick Crews has written, ‘during the past decade or so a shockwave had been sweeping across North American psychotherapy and in the process causing major repercussions in our families, courts and hospitals. A single diagnosis for miscellaneous complaints – that of unconsciously repressed sexual abuse in childhood – has grown in this brief span from virtual non-existence to epidemic frequency.’
Quite what the frequency of this diagnosis now is in the United States is impossible to say with any accuracy. But it is possible to make informed estimates. Crews himself relays the conservative estimate that a million people have been helped by their psychotherapists to recover putative ‘memories’ of child sexual abuse since 1988 alone. Tens of thousands of families have been torn apart by allegations of incest springing from these ‘recovered memories’. So massive and disruptive have the effects of this kind of therapy been that there seems little doubt that in a hundred years time, historians and sociologists will still be studying one of most extraordinary episodes in twentieth century history, and that in all probability they will still be arguing about its causes.
It seems reasonably clear, however, that one of the crucial factors associated with the rise of the recovered memory movement is the extensive denial of the reality of child sexual abuse which has reigned both among lawyers and among mental health professionals throughout most of the twentieth century. One of the most powerful influences in the realm of the law was that exercised by John Henry Wigmore, whose monumental Treatise on Evidence (1934) was one of the most famous legal texts ever published in the United States. In it Wigmore sets forward his own views on the reliability of women and children as witnesses in cases of sexual abuse. The doctrine he expounds impeaches the credibility of any female – especially if she is a child – who complains of a sexual offence. Wigmore warns that women and girls are in his view predisposed to bringing accusations against men of good character. He therefore recommends that any female complainant, but especially a girl who accuses her father of incest, should be examined by a psychiatrist to determine her credibility.
For the next forty years at least it was extremely difficult for women, and above all for children, to gain a hearing for accusations of sexual assault or incest made against men. This applied not only to the courtroom but also to the clinic. Again and again women found that their own entirely genuine memories of sexual abuse were discounted or denied by psychotherapists. Again and again the factual accounts of distraught and distressed children were dismissed as fantasies.
This massive denial of the experience of women and children who genuinely had been victims of sexual abuse, provided the essential conditions without which the recovered memory movement could never have grown and flourished in the way that it did. John Henry Wigmore clearly played a significant role in bringing about this state of affairs. But, as should already be clear, his doctrine could never have become established without the support of the psychiatric establishment. There can be no doubt at all that it received this support in America largely because of the influence of one man – Freud.
The reason that Freud’s influence in this area was so pernicious is readily apparent. In the theory of the Oedipus complex Freud had, in effect, invented a perfect theoretical instrument for explaining away allegations of sexual abuse and undermining their credibility. Since Freud’s theory held that all children might fantasise about sexual relations with their parents, it followed that a child's recollection of being sexually abused by a parent could be construed as a fantasy. Even though Freud himself specifically pointed out on a number of occasions that memories of childhood seductions sometimes did correspond to real events, the overwhelming tendency of the psychoanalytic profession throughout most of the twentieth century has been to construe recollections of incest as fantasies. In this respect, at least, psychoanalysis in general and the theory of the Oedipus complex in particular have caused untold harm.
The harm which they have caused would not be so surprising if it were widely known how Freud came to formulate the Oedipus complex in the first place. As I have already noted, the generally accepted version, related by Ernest Jones, is that during his self-analysis Freud unearthed a ‘memory’ of an occasion when, as a child, he had been sexually aroused by seeing his mother naked. It may well be that Freud did eventually come to believe that he remembered this scene. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the scene ever took place. For, as we have already seen, what Freud actually wrote at the time was that he remembered a train journey - a long train journey from whose duration he deduced that he might have had the opportunity of seeing his mother naked. He then speculated further that he might have been sexually aroused by this entirely hypothetical sight. Although Freud may eventually have come to experience the scene he had ingeniously constructed as a ‘memory’, it would seem that it was almost certainly a false memory.
Freud’s false memory, however, was instrumental in creating a climate of tyrannical scepticism about incest and child abuse which would remain almost unchallenged throughout most of the century. Only in the last twenty years has it become possible to oppose this climate effectively. This is almost entirely due to the influence of feminism. For during the late 1970s and the early 1980s many feminist writers and therapists began to recognise the frequency with which real cases of sexual abuse were subject to denial. Quite deliberately they started to draw back the veil of patriarchy and to reveal the reality which had been concealed behind it.
Women who had been sexually abused by their fathers, who had always remembered this, but who had kept the shameful secret to themselves, began to talk about their experience, or to recount their stories in books. Some women also began to disclose their histories of sexual abuse to psychotherapists who, almost for the first time, were prepared to listen to their stories and to believe them. This new development in American psychotherapy in its turn generated more books. In 1981 the Harvard University Press published Father-Daughter Incest by the psychiatrist Judith Herman, in which she persuasively argued that the incidence of this form of incest was much greater than had ever been suspected.
These were immense positive gains and they were brought about almost entirely by women – by women who were rebelling against the patriarchal straitjacket of Freud and psychoanalysis. It should be noted that most of these early pioneers were not seeking to recover repressed memories of child sexual abuse. They were seeking to create a safe space in which memories which had always been present could be disclosed by women, without being met by scepticism and denial.
If that is so we might well ask how it was that a movement which had its origins in a feminist rebellion against Freud, in an attempt to draw the veil of silence from memories which had never been repressed, should eventually have come to rely more and more on the most sacred of all Freudian doctrines – that of repression.
One answer to this question is provided by Judith Herman in her 1981 book. In this book she makes her quarrel with Freud’s patriarchalism and with the tyranny of his Oedipus complex abundantly clear. Yet, like countless critics of Freud both before and after her, she is unable to resist the massive potency of the Freud legend. Instead of escaping entirely from the influence of Freud, Herman actually found the authority for her rebellion against orthodox psychoanalysis in the writings of Freud himself. For she believed that she had discovered another, unknown Freud. This Freud, the Freud of 1896 and of the seduction theory, could be seen as a kind of proto-feminist. Instead of rejecting stories of incest as fantasies, he had listened to the women who had told these stories with respect and understanding:
The patriarch of modern psychology stumbled across the incest secret in the early and formative years of his career. It was Freud’s ambition to discover the cause of hysteria, the archetypal female neurosis of his time. In his early investigations, he gained the trust and confidence of many women, who revealed their troubles to him. Time after time, Freud’s patients, women from prosperous, conventional families, unburdened painful memories of childhood sexual encounters with men they had trusted: family friends, relatives and fathers. Freud initially believed his patients and recognised the force of their confessions.
But Freud, according to Herman’s account, eventually recoiled from the implications of his seduction theory, and chose to incriminate daughters for their incestuous fantasies rather than fathers for their incestuous deeds. ‘At the moment that Freud turned his back on his female patients and denied the truth of their experience,’ writes Herman, ‘he forfeited his ambition to understand the female neurosis. Freud went on to elaborate the dominant psychology of modern times. It is a psychology of men.’
Judith Herman was not the first person to put forward this view of Freud. She herself refers back to the very similar view taken by the social worker, Florence Rush in an article written in 1974. Another version of the same argument would, of course, soon be put forward in 1984 amidst massive publicity and controversy by Jeffrey Masson in his book The Assault on Truth.
Masson, as we know, had trained as a psychoanalyst and was himself seeking to escape from orthodox Freudian doctrine. The abiding temptation for those caught in this kind of predicament is to submit to the authority of a new messiah in order to find the strength to rebel against the tyranny of the old one. That, in a sense, is what Jeffrey Masson, in spite of all his best intentions, found himself doing. Except that in this case the messiah through which he sought liberation from the patriarchal doctrines of Freud was none other than Freud himself.
For, like Judith Herman, Masson too discovered a proto-feminist Freud apparently unmarked by the patriarchalism of orthodox psychoanalysis. In words which have already been quoted, he wrote of this early period in Freud’s career that ‘Freud’s female patients had the courage to face what had happened to them in childhood – often this included violent scenes of rape by a father – and to communicate their traumas to Freud . . . Freud listened and understood and gave them permission to remember and speak of these terrible events.’ Masson of course went on to argue, as Judith Herman had before him, that Freud eventually turned his back on the ‘truth’ he had discovered because of the fear, distaste and outrage of his colleagues.
This argument about Freud and the abandonment of the seduction theory has, especially in Masson’s well known version of it, exerted an enormous influence over the way American psychotherapy has developed over the last ten years. Yet, as I have suggested in the main body of this book, it is an argument which fundamentally misrepresents the actual course of Freud’s development and the entire nature of his early ‘discovery’.
For the proto-feminist Freud which both Judith Herman and Jeffrey Masson thought they had discovered, never existed. Both Herman and Masson imply that Freud’s early patients – those he discusses in his paper ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’ – came to consult him burdened with memories of incest which they then spontaneously disclosed. There is no mystery about why Herman and Masson should have assumed this. Because Freud himself said that this was what had happened. As we have already seen, on several occasions many years after he had abandoned his seduction theory, Freud described how his early patients had come to him and told him stories of sexual abuse and how he had begun by believing these stories.
It may well be that Freud had, by the time thirty years or so had elapsed, come to believe in this version of events himself. He may have ‘remembered’ this happening. But if this was Freud’s memory of events then, once again, we are forced to recognise that it was a ‘false memory’. For in his original 1896 paper, Freud had made it abundantly clear that when his early patients had come to him they had no memories of incest at all. Since they are so crucial, Freud’s exact words should perhaps be quoted again: ‘Before they come for analysis,’ he writes, ‘the patients know nothing about these scenes.’
How then, did these patients know what kind of scenes they were expected to reproduce? Freud himself, it will be recalled, implicitly answers this question. ‘They are indignant as a rule,’ he writes, ‘if we warn them that such scenes are going to emerge.’ It was thus evidently Freud’s habit to inform his patients of the kind of scenes he expected to emerge. But if his patients were indignant when they were told they were going to reproduce scenes of child sexual abuse, how did Freud persuade them to do this? Once again Freud himself gives us the answer. ‘Only the strongest compulsion of the treatment can induce them to embark on a reproduction of them.’ The phrase ‘the strongest compulsion of the treatment’ is a telling one. We have all experienced ‘the strongest compulsion of the treatment’ at one time or another, if only when we have been forced to take medicine whose taste we did not like. Freud, we must recall once again, was not originally a psychotherapist. He was a physician. He believed –especially at this point in his career – that he was dispensing a kind of medicine. His theoretical speculations had led him to the conclusion that ‘hysteria’ was a single disease, and that the ‘pathogen’ which caused it was repressed sexual abuse. His task was to persuade patients to reproduce the pathogenic memories which, according to his theories, were lodged in a submerged part of their minds. Freud’s duty, then, was not to treat the patient. It was to cure the disease. The way to do this was to persuade the patient to reproduce scenes of childhood sexual abuse. If they declined, it was his job, as a conscientious physician, to use his ‘pressure technique’ and to make sure that they followed the treatment he prescribed. For, as he writes, ‘We must insist on this, we must repeat the pressure and represent ourselves as infallible, till at least we are really told something.’
There is no evidence that any of the patients who came to Freud without memories of sexual abuse had ever suffered from such abuse. But, as a growing number of Freud scholars have recognised in recent years, and as I have argued in this book, there is a great deal of evidence, most of it in Freud’s own frank and astonishing words, that he went out of his way to persuade, encourage, cajole and sometimes bully his female patients to reproduce scenes of child sexual abuse which he himself had reconstructed from their symptoms or their associations. Freud’s manner of treating his early women patients was not essentially different from the manner he treated his later ones. For in both cases his theories denied women autonomy and declined to validate their own experiences and their own memories. Whereas his later theories led countless psychoanalysts to persuade women who had been abused to believe that they had not, Freud himself had, under the influence of his early theories, frequently tried to persuade women who had not been abused to believe that they had. In short, in his disregard for his female patients’ autonomy, and their right to psychological self-determination, Freud was just as much the nineteenth-century patriarch before he abandoned the seduction theory as he was afterwards.
In failing to understand the deep consistency of Freud’s patriarchalism and, in implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) holding up the early Freud as a model of therapeutic wisdom and sensitivity, Masson, Herman and all those who shared their views were in effect commending not a decisive break with Freud’s patriarchalism but a return to its earliest form.
It has sometimes been suggested by commentators on the incest survivors’ movement that the concept of repression was a relatively late ingredient. In as much as this movement appears to have started outside the realm of psychotherapy, there may be some truth in this. But although both Herman and Masson give the impression that Freud’s early patients were able quite spontaneously to gain access to their memories of being sexually abused, they appear simultaneously to accept Freud’s original assumption that such memories might be entirely repressed. It is clear that in 1981, when her book Father Daughter Incest first appeared, Judith Herman was already placing some reliance on psychotherapeutic reconstructions of sexual abuse, as opposed to spontaneous memories. She describes how one woman patient was helped during therapy to reconstruct ‘previously repressed memories’ of sexual assaults by her father. According to the account we are given, from the age of six until mid-adolescence her father had repeatedly exhibited himself to her and insisted that she e him. It is implied that she had entirely lost any memory of almost ten years of repeated sexual abuse until it was pieced together in psychotherapy.
Even before the publication of Jeffrey Masson’s book in 1984, a number of psychotherapists in the Boston area and elsewhere began to form therapy groups for incest survivors. It would seem that in these very early days of the incest survivors’ movement, most of those who enrolled in these therapy groups were victims of incest who had always remembered their abuse. In their groups they shared their experience with others, and undoubtedly felt stronger and more secure as a result of doing so.
But the very fact that Freud, and Freud’s early theories, had played such a crucial role in shaping the incest survivors’ movement during this period meant that the possibility of repressed memories of incest could never be ruled out. From the descriptions we have of them, it is clear that some of these early therapy groups also included women who had no memories of incest but who had been diagnosed by their psychotherapists or psychiatrists as suffering from repressed memories of incest. In their pursuit of the hidden memories which supposedly accounted for the symptoms of these women, therapists sometimes used a form of time-limited group-therapy. At the beginning of the ten or twelve weekly sessions, patients would be encouraged to set themselves goals. For many patients without memories of incest the goal was to recover such memories. Indeed they evidently felt under considerable group-pressure to do so and thus prove their right to belong to the group. ‘Women who wished to recover memories, were often preoccupied with obsessive doubt about . . . whether they belonged to the group at all.’ Some of them actually defined their goal by saying ‘I just want to be in the group and feel I belong.’ After the fifth session the therapist would remind the group that they had reached the middle of their therapy, with the clear implication that time was running out. As pressure was increased in this way women with no memories would often begin to see images of sexual abuse involving fathers or other adults, and these images would then be construed as memories or ‘flashbacks’.
One need not be particularly sceptical about the recovered memory movement in order to recognise that what was happening here was that distressed and vulnerable women with no memories of sexual abuse, and no reason to believe they had been abused other than their therapist’s diagnosis, were being placed under immense psychological pressure to produce ‘memories’ which would confirm that diagnosis. It is equally clear, however, that the therapists running the group were quite unable to see that they, like the pre-psychoanalytic Freud on whom they had modelled themselves, were actually dispensing an extremely coercive form of therapy. Instead they evidently saw each instance of a woman recovering putative memories of sexual abuse as a vindication of their original diagnosis, and as scientific proof of the theory of massive repression – a form of repression which was first named by Judith Herman in a speech made to the American Psychiatric Association in 1985.
Group therapy sessions of the kind I have described here were ostensibly designed to empower the women who joined them as patients. We should not rule out the possibility that, in some cases, this is exactly what they did, or appeared to do. It would seem, however, that one of their other effects was to induce a massive sense of empowerment in the psychiatrists and psychotherapists who ran them. This sense of empowerment was spread rapidly through informal networks of psychotherapists at the same time that it began to be disseminated formally through seminars, books and academic papers. A movement which appears to have begun in the Boston area thus soon started to spread throughout the entire United States.
There can be little doubt that its spread was very significantly accelerated by the appearance of Jeffrey Masson’s book The Assault on Truth in 1984. For, in the concluding pages of this book, Masson suggested that psychoanalysts had spent the twentieth century progressively erasing what he took to be Freud’s original insight. Consequently most American psychoanalysts did not now recognise what, according to Masson, was implicit in Freud’s 1896 paper. They did not therefore accept that ‘many, (probably most) of their patients had violent and unhappy childhoods, not because of some defect in their character, but because of something terrible which had been done to them by their parents.’ Masson went on to make clear that he was talking specifically about the sexual abuse of children by their parents. He suggested that sexual abuse might ‘form the core of every serious neurosis’, and that if this is so, ‘it would not be possible to achieve a successful cure of a neurosis if this central event were ignored.’ What Masson comes very near to saying here is that all, or nearly all, serious cases of neurosis have one single underlying cause – child sexual abuse – and that orthodox psychoanalysts were collectively engaged in a massive denial of this reality. By implication Masson now calls for an equally massive collective effort to retrieve these painful memories of incest. ‘Free and honest retrieval of painful memories,’ he writes, ‘cannot occur in the face of scepticism and fear of the truth.’
In the thunderous closing paragraphs of his book Masson makes his appeal quite explicit:
The time has come to cease hiding from what is, after all, one of the great issues of human history . . .
If it is not possible for the therapeutic community to address this serious issue in an honest and open-minded manner, then it is time for their patients to stop subjecting themselves to needless repetition of their deepest and earliest sorrow.
By writing this, Masson was issuing an ideological ultimatum to the entire American psychotherapeutic movement. What he was saying, in effect, was this: ‘Face up to the reality of incest and to the fact that, as Freud himself originally maintained, hidden memories of child sexual abuse are the root cause of your patients’ symptoms, and allow your patients to retrieve these memories in therapy. Otherwise your patients will leave you.’ The corollary of this view was implied but never stated: ‘If you do not have the courage and honesty to allow repressed memories of incest to emerge, your patients will leave you and find other therapists who do.’
If Jeffrey Masson had been the only person preaching this new understanding of Freud to the psychotherapeutic community, his ultimatum might have had relatively little effect. But Masson, as can now be seen, was in reality part of a broad historical movement. A number of writers and therapists, including Judith Herman in Boston and other therapists and psychiatrists elsewhere, were preaching a very similar gospel.
The best way to understand the immensely powerful dynamic of this new psychotherapeutic movement is, I believe, to translate its battle-cry out of its modern secular register and into an older register which is more deeply rooted in our culture. For what Judith Herman, Jeffrey Masson and others were saying was something like this: ‘Woe to you orthodox psychoanalysts, you Pharisees. For you have whitened the sepulchre of your patients’ unconscious and you have turned your eyes away from the evil and corruption which lie within. Woe to you psychoanalysts, you generation of vipers! Repent of your ways and be saved. For only those who follow the one true Freud, whom others have concealed, but whom I have revealed, will be healed and redeemed at the end. But all those who do not believe will suffer for their disbelief. For their patients shall leave them. And they shall be flung into the burning lake of therapeutic despair, where they will be tormented for all eternity.’
Quite how this gospel was spread will probably never be known with accuracy. For it was spread not only by books but in the way that new gospels often are – by word of mouth, and by example. It was spread through informal networks of psychotherapists, and by therapists who met in coffee-breaks, in conferences or in workshops. As a result it spread rapidly. What made its progress initially uncheckable was the ease with which it proved possible to implant, or create through suggestion, ‘memories’ of incest in women who had previously had no recollection of being abused. Therapists unfamiliar with the malleability of human memory, treated the extraordinary and vivid ‘memories’ which their patients now began to construct as proof that ‘massive repression’ could and did take place.
Before very long the belief that repressed memories of child sexual abuse were the cause of most serious neuroses, especially in women, began to be embraced by particular groups and subcultures of psychotherapists and psychiatrists all over the United States. It was embraced not only by many new-wave therapists, hypnotherapists and bodyworkers, but by some old-wave psychoanalytically trained therapists and by a number of young psychoanalysts. It was also sometimes embraced by reputable psychiatrists and even neurologists. A number of psychiatric conditions whose aetiology remained obscure were now held by some clinicians to be the result of sexual abuse during childhood. Seemingly sophisticated studies appeared purporting to demonstrate this aetiology.
Nor was the diagnosis of child abuse invoked only to explain psychiatric disorders. One recent academically serious contribution to what might be called post-Massonian psychoanalytic theory presents a table entitled ‘Childhood Symptoms of Sexual Abuse’. This includes a section headed ‘Changes in School Performance’ which specifies the following possible indicators of sexual abuse:
Decreased interest in school
School Phobia 
This is only a small example of the manner in which symptom lists, offered as aids to the diagnosis of repressed memories of sexual abuse, have proliferated within certain sub-cultures of American psychotherapy in recent years. The only certain conclusion which can be drawn from studying such lists is that there is by now practically no form of negative or mildly anxious human behaviour, from fear of the dark to neglecting to brush your teeth, which has not been cited by American therapists in recent years as a possible indicator or symptom of the existence of repressed memories of child sexual abuse.
Once it began to be accepted by some therapists and counsellors during the mid 1980s that millions of people in the United States were suffering from repressed memories, the incest recovery movement was well and truly under way, and before very long patients who had never had any recollection of being abused were emerging from therapy with detailed and graphic ‘memories’ of how they had been sexually abused in childhood.
Many large bookshops in America have entire sections devoted to ‘Recovery’. A growing proportion of books in such sections deal with incest and many are about repressed memories and the therapeutic recovery of such ‘memories’. By far the most important of these is The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse written by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. One way of conveying the sheer size and power of the recovery movement in America is simply to register the fact that The Courage to Heal, published in 1988, has now sold more than 750,000 copies in the United States alone.
The Courage to Heal has been described as the Bible of the recovered memory movement. If we are to understand the enormous impact that this book has had on North American history in the last decade I believe that this description should be treated very seriously indeed. Because ultimately, as I have tried to show in this brief appendix to my central argument, the recovered memory movement, although it may be supported by some feminists, does not belong to the cause of liberation. It is essentially a patriarchal movement, which can be traced back to the sternest patriarch and prophet of modern psychology – Freud. Its doctrines are remarkably similar to those of other movements of Puritan revivalism, and it is largely because of this that it has swept through Puritan North America, not against the tide of Christian fundamentalism but in alliance with it. For in some communities women have been encouraged to recover ‘memories’ of incest almost as frequently by ministers of religion or Christian counsellors as they have by secular psychotherapists.
As is the case with the leading figures in almost all revivalist movements there can be no doubting the genuineness of Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, and the sincerity of their belief that their book will facilitate healing and psychological wholeness. But just as more traditional revivalists have always proceeded by vitalising the anxieties and the sense of sin of those they seek to convert, so Bass and Davis encourage their readers to search their memories for dark and shameful secrets which, they are told, may have been completely hidden by repression.
Sexual abuse in childhood has, in effect, become the new Original Sin in Puritan America, and one of the aims of The Courage to Heal is to help women who have no memories of being sexually abused to ‘find’ such memories. The entire book is in one respect a literary surrogate for, or supplement to, the kind of time-limited survivor group therapy sessions which I have already described. With the help of The Courage to Heal and of therapists who believe in the possibility of ‘massive repression’, hundreds of thousands of women have recovered ‘memories’ of being raped, or sexually abused repeatedly and for long periods during their childhood. As yet no external evidence has been produced which convincingly demonstrates that any therapeutically recovered ‘memory’ of repeated and sustained sexual abuse actually corresponds to real episodes of sexual abuse. In early editions of The Courage to Heal, however, readers are never cautioned about the dangerous inaccuracy of most recovered ‘memories’. Instead proper caution is replaced by credulity. ‘If you think you were abused,’ write Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, ‘and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.’
Bass and Davis encourage women to engage in fantasies of vengeance against the people they believe they were abused by. ‘You may dream of murder or castration,’ they write. ‘It can be pleasurable to fantasize such scenes in vivid detail.’ What is perhaps even more significant is that The Courage to Heal encourages women to consider using their artificially constructed ‘memories’ as grounds for confronting their supposed abusers and denouncing them – even, if necessary, accusing their own parents or grandparents on their deathbeds.
The deep hostility towards the family and towards family relationships which is expressed in certain parts of The Courage to Heal has sometimes been construed as evidence of the liberating and truly ‘radical’ nature of the doctrines espoused by its authors. To take this view, however, is to betray the very innocence of cultural and religious history on which the recovered memory movement thrives. For it is one of the most notable features of repressive patriarchal ideologies that, in their original revivalist phases, they have tended to show a contemptuous disregard for the bonds of affection which exist within even the most troubled families. The clearest example of such an attitude is that which is found in the New Testament itself, in the words attributed in Luke’s gospel to Jesus:
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26 AV)
The literal sense of these words has frequently been repudiated by Christians, especially in modern times. Yet the particular form of contemptus mundi which they express has helped to sustain the entire Western monastic tradition. Partly because of the strength of this tradition, and the subsequent secularisation of the monastic virtues by Puritanism, the sentiments expressed in Luke’s words have been deeply internalised into our culture. The resulting climate of feeling has always tended to facilitate the growth of repressive cults and revivalist movements which actively disseminate hostility to the family. The Courage to Heal is perhaps best understood as the central text of one such revivalist movement.
As with any other movement of patriarchal revivalist Puritanism the effect of the recovered memory movement has been not to liberate women but to subjugate them, and to encourage dependence and deference to doctrines they are expected to accept unquestioningly. In this case the doctrines have been derived directly or indirectly from Freud – the true Freud which others had concealed, but which a number of modern scholars claim to have revealed.
The most disturbing feature of the recovered memory movement is the manner in which it encourages an attitude of emotional coldness and cruelty between different generations. Almost as disturbing as this, however, is the role it has played in the deepening sex war which has been fought out with increasing bitterness in recent years, particularly in America. Although some observers who are unsympathetic to feminism see the issues in this war as entirely synthetic, I cannot share this view. It is clear that many women have suffered immensely as a result of orthodox psychoanalysts construing real episodes of sexual abuse as Oedipal fantasies. To this extent the recovered memory movement was actually born out of a reaction against some of the tyrannical assumptions of psychoanalysis. The terrible irony, as I have tried to show, is that some of the key doctrines in this attempt to rebel against the patriarchalism of psychoanalysis have themselves been drawn from the original oppressor. For the notion that Freud based his seduction theory on real instances of sexual abuse has become the foundation myth of the entire recovered memory movement.
Proponents of this movement are, in effect, fighting Freud’s second delusion by taking refuge in his first delusion. In some cases at least they are doing something very similar to what Freud was doing to his own patients during the period he formulated his seduction theory - they are forcing their own theoretical preconceptions onto young and psychologically vulnerable women in a way which creates dependence in the patient and feelings of empowerment in the therapist. Freud’s patriarchal bullying can, when viewed sceptically, be recognised quite easily for what it is. It is much more difficult for us to recognise that the same kind of misogyny has now actually been taken over by a small section of the feminist movement and is being deployed by women against women, in the name of liberation and ‘healing’.
It does, however, seem reasonably clear that those who support the recovered memory movement either in its ‘low-church’ self-help form, or in its more scholarly and academic form, are currently playing into the hands of precisely those whom they ostensibly oppose – the repressive men (and women) who seek to deny that child abuse occurs at all. In 1992, in a preface to a new edition of his The Assault on Truth Jeffrey Masson wrote that ‘society has, even if reluctantly and belatedly, come to recognise that the sexual abuse of children is real, widespread, serious, and long-silenced.’ If that recognition has indeed been made it is undoubtedly a good thing. Yet the danger is that whatever progress has been made in this direction will be undone by the reaction against recovered memory therapy and the multiple injustices it has helped to perpetrate. In the first place this reaction threatens the work of the many therapists and counsellors who do deal with their patients constructively and with genuine sensitivity and understanding. For one of the great dangers of the recovered memory movement is that it may bring the entire concept of psychotherapy into disrepute, and lead those who make mental health policy to starve effective therapists of the resources they need in order to maintain a vital and constructive presence in the lives of those who sometimes desperately need their help.
Perhaps even more importantly the recovered memory movement itself poses a threat to the victims of genuine sexual abuse, who may now once again find themselves disbelieved. There is a particular danger that the sheer number of false accusations which have been made may lead some people to conclude that all memories of sexual abuse which emerge during therapy are false. This is clearly not the case. Some people who enter therapy may choose to talk about their experience of sexual abuse for the simple reason that their therapist is the first person they have met who has allowed them to do so without feeling shame and embarrassment. What remains critically important, however, is that therapists should distinguish carefully between episodes of sexual abuse which have always been remembered, and of whose reality the client has never been in doubt, and the retrieval (whether spontaneous or otherwise) of so-called ‘repressed memories’ of abuse. It is in the latter area that scepticism is not only desirable but necessary. For, contrary to a belief which is held by many therapists, there is no evidence that any past events, whether or not they involve sexual contact, can be reliably reconstructed on the basis of ‘repressed memories’. Therapists who seek either to elicit, or to ‘validate’ repressed memories of any kind are not respecting the autonomy of their patients. They are lending their authority to intrinsically unsafe therapeutic techniques which, by misrepresenting past relationships or events, can cause great emotional harm both to patients and their families.
One of the problems associated with attempts to counter the recent upsurge of accusations based on recovered memories is that the underlying therapeutic assumptions in such cases are not recent at all. Neither do they belong just to the fringes of the psychotherapeutic movement. To understand why this is so it is not sufficient merely to recognise that the Freud of 1896 was a recovered memory therapist in the modern sense of the term. The crucial point, as Frederick Crews has put it in a recent article, is that ‘he remained one thereafter, only substituting relatively trivial primal scenes and Oedipal wishes for the molestations which formerly made up the content of the repressed.’ These words go to the heart of the dilemma which now faces dynamic psychotherapy. For what they call upon us to acknowledge is that when Freud renounced his seduction theory in 1897 he was not bravely abandoning a cherished theory because of the evidence, as some have claimed. Rather he was seeking to retain his theory of repression and the clinical practices associated with it in spite of the fact that they had repeatedly led to erroneous conclusions.
When Freud subsequently sought to persuade Dora that she had ed even though she had no recollection of doing so, when he successfully persuaded his daughter Anna that she had indulged in sado-masochistic daydreams whose details she had repressed, and when, by interpreting a dream, he sought to persuade the Wolf Man that, at the age of eighteen months, he had witnessed his parents copulating a tergo three times in an afternoon, he remained just as much a recovered memory therapist as he had been in 1896. The main difference was that by generally refraining from reconstructing sexual crimes (which inevitably involved other people), and by focusing instead on events, impulses or ideas which were uncontroversial, private or unwitnessed, Freud ensured that his theory of repression could not be easily tested and became in practice unfalsifiable.
When psychotherapists in the 1980s, influenced by Judith Herman, Jeffrey Masson and others, began to turn the psychoanalytic clock back to 1896, they were not introducing a fundamentally different form of therapy. They were in effect reversing Freud’s flight from falsifiability and exposing his theory of repression to exactly the kind of tests which he had fled from in 1897. When, as a result, evidence which called this theory into question began to accumulate, and to be collected by the False Memory Societies in both Britain and America, many mainstream psychoanalytically oriented therapists took comfort in the thought that the therapeutic practices which were being discredited were both nd aberrant. Few if any orthodox analysts were able to face up to the fact that the theory which was being tested and found wanting was intimately related to the theory of repression which informed their own clinical practice.
It is this predicament which has made it so difficult for many mainstream psychotherapists and professional organisations either to understand the ‘recovered memory movement’ or to oppose it effectively. Again and again they have attempted to portray recovered memory therapy as an alien intruder into a therapeutic tradition which is essentially sound. Again and again, while counselling others to confront their past, they have resisted facing up to the history of psychotherapy itself and to the oppressive influence still exercised over it by the founder of psychoanalysis.
The social and sexual conflict which has been caused by recovered memory therapy is already considerable. My impression is that this very serious conflict is likely to continue unless we can face up to the disturbing history of psychoanalysis and to the cultural influences which shaped it. For only if we do this, is it likely that we can begin to grasp how pervasive and powerful patriarchal attitudes are, and how easy it is for those who genuinely and courageously seek liberation from them to become ensnared by them themselves.
One of the most trenchant and significant contributions to the debate on recovered memory therapy can be found in Frederick Crews’s The Memory Wars. Crews’s warning against what he calls ‘middle-of-the-road extremism’ (p. 249) is, I believe, particularly apt. For the idea that in every fierce debate the truth must lie ‘somewhere in the middle’ is always dangerous. Fortunately there are a number of works which implicitly recognise this. These include Lawrence Wright’s immensely valuable book, Remembering Satan, and two lucid and powerful studies of recovered memory therapy, Making Monsters, by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters and The Myth of Repressed Memory, by Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham. But perhaps the most comprehensive study of the recovered memory movement is Mark Pendergrast’s Victims of Memory. Pendergrast writes as an accused parent who is also an investigative journalist. His book, richly documented and informed throughout by a sense of history, is both wise and profound. Perhaps the most striking testimony to its power is that of Joan Kennedy Taylor, National Coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists in America. Reading Pendergrast’s book as somebody who believed that memories of sexual abuse were often repressed until unearthed by special therapeutic techniques, she found this assumption turned upside down. ‘I cannot remember ever before,’ she writes, ‘both admiring the research in a book and being moved to tears by it.’ (Pendergrast’s book, which was published originally in the United States was published in a revised UK edition by Harper Collins in August 1996.)
Afterword from Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis.
 See Frederick Crews, ‘The Revenge of the Repressed’, New York Review of Books, 17 November 1994, pp. 54-60; 1 December 1994, pp. 49-58. See also the ensuing correspondence in issues up to 2 March, 1995. 1. The best treatment of the history of the recovered memory movement will be found in Mark Pendergrast’s Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Hinesburg, Vermont: Upper Access, 1995, pp. 41-83 and passim.
 See Judith Lewis Herman, Father-Daughter Incest, Harvard University Press, p. 11.
 See Jeffrey Masson, The Assault on Truth: Freud and Child Sexual Abuse, (1984), HarperCollins, 1992, Afterword (1985), pp. 195-200.
 See Why Freud Was Wrong, Chapter 11.
 Herman, pp. 9-10.
 See above, Chapter 9. See also the article by Russell A. Powell and Douglas P. Boer, ‘Did Freud Mislead Patients to Confabulate Memories of Abuse?’, Psychological Reports, vol. 74, 1994, pp. 1283-1298. This article is excellent in many ways. But it should be noted that its authors, while justly critical of much recovered memory therapy, appear to take a more positive view of recent aetiological speculations concerning trauma, incest and repression than I have done here, or than I believe is warranted by the evidence. Their implicit approval of memory-retrieval therapy so long as patients are warned by their therapists that the traumatic ‘memories’ they recover may be false, seems to me misguided. (See p. 1295.)
 Aetiology of Hysteria’, in Masson, p. 273.
 Freud, PF3, p. 364.
 Herman, p. 8
 Judith Herman and Emily Schatzow, ‘Time-Limited Group Therapy for Women with a History of Incest’, International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, vol. 34, pp. 605-16, 1984; ‘Recovery and Verification of Memories of Childhood Sexual Trauma’, Psychoanalytic Psychology, vol. 4, pp. 1-14, 1987. See the discussion of these papers in Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters, Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, New York: Scribners, 1994, Appendix, pp. 309-12. See also Pendergrast, pp. 95-6.
 Pendergrast, p. 50.
 Masson, pp. 192-3
 See, for example, Ofshe and Watters, pp. 68-81.
The psychiatric diagnosis most closely associated with the recovered memory movement is ‘multiple personality disorder’. This diagnosis was only accepted ‘officially’ by the American Psychiatric Association with the publication of DSM III in 1980. A mere ten years earlier the disorder had been so rare as to be little more than a curiosity. Ten years later it appeared to have become epidemic, and by 1992, according to one observer, ‘there were hundreds of multiples in treatment in every sizable town in North America’ . (Hacking, p. 8, see below). The partisans of the multiple personality movement are often overtly critical of Freud. According to Colin Ross, a leading advocate of the diagnosis, ‘Freud did to the unconscious mind with his theories … what New York does to the ocean with its garbage.’ Yet beneath its ostensible hostility to psychoanalysis, the multiple personality movement has deep affinities with the Freud of 1896, not least through the work of the psychoanalyst Cornelia Wilbur and her case history of Sybil, which she related to the journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber. It was Schreiber's book, Sybil (Chicago: Regnery, 1973) which popularised ‘multiple personality disorder’ and its putative origins in repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse.
© Richard Webster, 2002