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The Revenge of the Repressed

1.

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…”1

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 them show an impatience with or outright ignorance of conceptual subtleties. Thus in the movement’s most influential document, The Courage to Heal, first published in 1988, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis proclaim that “none of what is presented here is based on psychological theories.” Instead, Bass and Davis appeal directly to “the experiences of survivors”—who, however, may or may not be survivors of abuse, depending on whether they have actually learned the previously repressed truth or succumbed to therapeutically induced delusion.

Although it is no secret that the idea of repression derives from Sigmund Freud, few of the movement’s practitioners have actually studied his texts. Consequently, they are unrestrained by certain ambiguities and outright contradictions implicit in the Freudian theory of repression.2 Freud’s uncertainty, for example, whether events or fantasies make up the typical content of the repressed gets resolved in favor of events; as Herman puts it in the opening sentence of Trauma and Recovery, “the ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness.” Again, whereas Freud confusingly treated repression as both a conscious and an unconscious mechanism, his activist successors think of it as strictly unconscious—so much so, indeed, that they can routinely regard a young incest victim as leading two parallel but wholly independent lives, one in the warm daylight of normal family affection and the other in continually repressed horror. And while Freud only occasionally portrayed the undoing of repression as yielding undisguised, accurate information about a patient’s early past, contemporary “retrievers” entertain no doubts on the point; with the right coaxing, their patients can allegedly reproduce the exact details of their long-repressed traumas.

By today, recovered memory has enlisted the enthusiasm of many psychotherapists who lack the explicit feminist agenda of Herman, Bass and Davis, and other advocates whose views we will examine later. But all parties do share the core tenet of repression—namely, that the mind can shield itself from ugly experiences, thoughts, or feelings by relegating them to a special “timeless” region where they indefinitely retain a symptom-producing virulence. Clinical experience, the therapists agree, has proven the cogency of this tenet in numberless successfully resolved cases.

But has it, really? When arbitrary assumptions leak into “clinical experience,” confirming results can be pumped out as easily as bilge water. That is why research psychologists would insist that the concept of repression be required to pass tests in which variables are controlled and rival explanations for the gathered data are ruled out. Yet while psychoanalytic loyalists have repeatedly attempted to conduct just such experiments, their positive results have at best shown a compatibility with repression, not a demonstration of its existence. As David S. Holmes recently concluded after reviewing a sixty-year history of such efforts, “there is no controlled laboratory evidence supporting the concept of repression.”3

Of course, repression cannot be experimentally disproved, either. Since the concept entails no agreed-upon behavioral markers, we are free to posit its operation whenever we please—just as we are free to invoke orgone energy or chakras or the life force. Indeed, as Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham remark in their lively new book, The Myth of Repressed Memory,4 belief in repression has the same standing as belief in God. The idea may be true, but it is consistent with too many eventualities to be falsifiable—that is, amenable to scientific assessment.

It is possible, however, to mount experimental challenges to corollary tenets that are crucial to recovered memory therapy. That is just what Loftus, a highly regarded researcher and a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, has done in her own experimental work—and that is also why she has been pilloried by the recovery movement as an enemy to incest survivors. The Myth of Repressed Memory recounts some of that vilification and tries to head off more of it by taking a conciliatory tone wherever possible. But there is simply nothing to negotiate over. The burden of Loftus’s argument is that memory does not function in anything like the way that the recovery movement presupposes.

Loftus offers no encouragement to the retrievers’ notion that “videotaped” records of events are stored in a special part of the brain and then suddenly yielded up to near-perfect recall. Empirical science, she reports, has established that memory is inherently sketchy, reconstructive, and unlocalizable. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, it decays drastically over time, though less so if the experience in question gets periodically “rehearsed”—just the opposite of what the retrievers’ theory would predict. Furthermore, memory is easily corrupted, if not with an experimenter’s deliberate intervention or a therapist’s unwitting one, then with a normal “retrospective bias” that accommodates one’s sense of the past to one’s present values. Flashbacks to an early age, then, are highly unreliable sources of information about any event. All in all, Loftus finds no basis for thinking that repression, as opposed to a gradual avoidance and atrophy of painful recollections, has figured in a single molestation case to date.

Once we have recognized that a memory can disappear because of factors other than repression, even the best anecdotal evidence for that mechanism loses its punch. Consider, for example, the closely watched case of Ross Cheit, a Brown University professor who has recently proved beyond question that his suddenly recalled 1968 molestation by a music camp administrator was real.5 But had that abuse been repressed in the first place? In a phone conversation with me on September 7, 1994, Cheit declared that while he takes no position on the existence of repression, he is inclined to doubt that he abruptly and completely consigned his experience to oblivion. A more likely account is that the adult Cheit refocused his faded but unrepressed experiences after he had read a book about pedophilia (as he did) and became morally exercised about it. While this, too, is guesswork, the fact that it can’t be ruled out renders Cheit’s case useless as a demonstration.

Useless, that is, from the standpoint of logic. For another purpose, that of inducing popular belief in the theory of repression, anecdotes can be powerfully effective. The very idea of repression and its unraveling is an embryonic romance about a hidden mystery, an arduous journey, and a gratifyingly neat denouement that can ascribe our otherwise drab shortcomings and pains to deep necessity. When that romance is fleshed out by a gifted storyteller who also bears impressive credentials as an expert on the mind, most readers in our culture will be disinclined to put up intellectual resistance.

One such narrator, of course, was Freud, whose shifting views about the content of the repressed will prove pivotal to an understanding of the recovery movement’s intellectual ancestry. But Freud’s stories purportedly explaining tics, obsessions, and inhibitions among the turn-of-the-century Austrian bourgeoisie are beginning to seem not just remote but eccentric. Not so the case histories recounted by the memory retrievers’ most distinguished and fluent ally, Lenore Terr, who is not only a practicing therapist but also a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco. Terr’s deftly written book, Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found, has already been welcomed both by the Book-of-the-Month Club and by early reviewers who perceived it as a balanced and learned brief for repression.

The publication of Unchained Memories has been especially cheering to recovery advocates because Terr is not afraid to challenge their bête noire, Elizabeth Loftus. “[P]sychological experiments on university students,” Terr writes, taking dead aim at Loftus’s work,

do not duplicate in any way the clinician’s observations. What comes from the memory lab does not apply well to the perceptions, storage, and retrieval of such things as childhood murders, rapes, or kidnappings. Trauma sets up new rules for memory.

From Loftus’s vantage, of course, such a passage begs the question of how these new rules are to be validated without succumbing to the notorious circularity of “clinical experience.” Isn’t Terr simply handing herself a conceptual blank check? Nevertheless, she scores a strong rhetorical point with her animadversion against hothouse science. If Terr is right about the special character of real-world trauma, we may have to fall back on sheer stories after all.

  1. 1

    Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (Basic Books, 1992), pp. 9, ix.

  2. 2

    On this point, see Matthew H. Erdelyi, “Repression, Reconstruction, and Defense: History and Integration of the Psychoanalytic and Experimental Frameworks,” Repression and Dissociation: Implications for Personality Theory, Psychopathology, and Health, edited by Jerome L. Singer (University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 1–32. Remarkably, Erdelyi welcomes Freud’s unclarity as providing a sound basis for integrating the “dynamic” with the cognitive unconscious. The idea is that since Freud didn’t really know what he meant by repression, we are free to bring the concept into alignment with current research while still thinking of ourselves as Freudians.

  3. 3

    David S. Holmes, “The Evidence for Repression: An Examination of Sixty Years of Research,” in Singer, Repression and Dissociation, pp. 85–102; the quotation is from p. 96.

  4. 4

    Although two of the works under consideration here have double authorship, the Loftus and Ketcham book is cast in the first person singular, and its protagonist is Loftus herself. Although Ketcham did conduct some of the interviews that inform The Myth of Repressed Memory, I will usually call the “author” Loftus alone. In contrast, the junior partner in Making Monsters, Ethan Watters, was the first journalist to sound an alarm about the recovered memory movement, and the book casts him as a full collaborator; that is why I will refer to “Ofshe and Watters” below. I will also refer interchangeably to “the recovered memory movement” and “the recovery movement,” even though the latter term is often used more broadly.

  5. 5

    See Katy Butler, “S.F. Boys Chorus Settles Abuse Suit,” San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 1, 1994, p. A2.

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