We’re All Dysfunctional Now

True Stories of False Memories

In a dramatic news conference, a young man who accused Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of sexual abuse has dropped his suit. The man explained that he remembered the abuse only through hypnosis, and now has serious doubts that the memories were “true and accurate.”

It’s the latest development in the saga of recovered memories-the idea that people can suddenly remember sexual abuse that happened 20 and 30 years ago.

In some tragic cases, the memories have turned out to be unreliable-a product of overzealous counseling.

A woman I know-let’s call her Betsy-visited a counselor for mild depression. The counselor listened to Betsy’s symptoms, then announced confidently, “You’re depressed because you were sexually abused as a child.”

Betsy was shocked. She couldn’t remember anything of the sort. The more she searched her memory-all in vain-the more stridently the therapist insisted. “You’re just in denial,” she said.

Eventually Betsy stopped the therapy sessions. “It was as though I had a broken arm, but all she knew how to treat was cancer,” Betsy recalls, “so she kept insisting that what I really had was cancer.”

Similar stories are being repeated all across the country. Many counselors are adamant that their patients were abused. To trigger the lost-long memories, they rely on highly suggestive methods of therapy such as hypnosis, trances, and even sodium amytal (or “truth serum”).

Patients who are convinced that they’ve recovered memories of sexual abuse often accuse their mothers and fathers publicly, in some cases even suing for damages. Families are being ripped apart as siblings and relatives line up on one side or the other.

But like the young man who accused Cardinal Bernardin, some patients are having second thoughts. Sexual abuse does happen; no one denies that. But how valid are memories recovered after years of supposed repression?

Psychologists who specialize in the subject say memory is more pliable than we realize. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has conducted several experiments in which adults came to believe fabricated memories-for example, a false memory that they were lost in a shopping mall as a child.

Loftus has now founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which assists parents who feel they’ve been falsely accused by their adult children. The foundation also helps retractors-former patients who feel they were conned into believing false memories, and who have since retracted all accusations of abuse.

But if memories can be distorted, why do some therapists rely so heavily on “recovered” memories? Why are some so aggressive in diagnosing repressed sexual abuse? The answer is that psychology has been deeply infected with the belief that the traditional family is dysfunctional. They’re primed to see it as a hotbed of violence and abuse. Just look at the newly published Hite report on the family, which paints the family as a cradle of injustice and oppression.

So if someone in your own family or church circle raises accusations of long-forgotten abuse, please don’t jump to accuse or defend anyone. Wait until the charges can be sorted out-and until then give both sides your loving support.

Christians should be the last to jump thoughtlessly on the abuse bandwagon.

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