Throughout the past decade or so, a shock wave has been sweeping across North American psychotherapy, and in the process causing major repercussions within 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 nonexistence to epidemic frequency. As Mark Pendergrast shows in Victims of Memory, if we put together the number of licensed American psychotherapists (roughly 255,000) with survey results about their beliefs and practices, it appears that well over 50,000 of them are now willing to help their clients realize that they must have endured early molesta-tion. Those professionals have been joined by countless untrained operators who use the yellow pages and flea market ads to solicit “incest work.” It is hard to form even a rough idea of the number of persuaded clients, because most of them take no publicly recorded action against the accused, but a conservative guess would be a million persons since 1988 alone. The number affected is of course vastly higher, since, as all parties acknowledge, virtually every case sows dissension and sorrow throughout a family.
When one explanation for mental distress rockets to prominence so quickly, we ought to ask whether we are looking at a medical breakthrough or a fad. However, the choice between those alternatives is not always simple. As its main proponents insist, “recovered memory” is by now not just a diagnosis but a formidable sociopolitical movement. In the words of one of that movement’s founders, the Harvard psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman,
The study of trauma in sexual and domestic life becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the subordination of women and children. Advances in the field occur only when they are supported by a political movement powerful enough to legitimate an alliance between investigators and patients and to counteract the ordinary social processes of silencing and denial.
The larger movement in question is, of course, women’s liberation, including what Herman calls “a collective feminist project of reinventing the basic concepts of normal development and abnormal psychology…”
However uneasy one may feel about an ideologically driven “reinvention” of scientific notions, it is possible that the feminist critique of received psychological lore is substantially right. Feminists were certainly warranted, in the 1970s and 1980s, in declaring that the sexual abuse of children was being scandalously underreported. If they now go on to claim that untold millions of victims, mostly female, have forgotten what was done to them, their claim cannot be discredited by the mere fact that it sprang from an activist commitment. Obviously, it needs to be assessed on independent grounds.
Yet such grounds are hard to come by. How can one count authentic cases of repressed memory when the very concept of repression stands in doubt? And what, for that matter, do the champions of recovered memory mean by repression? It is fruitless to press them very hard on this point, since most of …