Most Psychologists Still Believe In Recovered Memories


Pacific Standard features a recent story of a man whose daughter accused him of abuse, but by the end of the court proceedings had also accused one hundred other people close to her of all being involved in the abuse. The article then re-visits the controversial psychotherapeutic and legal history of recovered memories, and examines whether or not things have changed since the original scandals decades ago.

“Last March, Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues conducted two surveys to find out just how prevalent the belief in repressed memories remains among the general public and among professionals (research psychologists and clinicians who work with patients),” reports Pacific Standard. “Even though skepticism toward the idea has increased among general respondents, more than 80 percent of them still hold fast to the idea that traumatic memories can be repressed, and 70 percent believe memories can be accurately retrieved by therapy. More troublingly, over 43 percent of practicing clinical psychologists think it is possible to retrieve repressed memories. Among Internal Family Systems therapists, 66 percent believe it is possible. Those therapists are profoundly out of step with the thinking among research psychologists—only 16 percent of whom believe that repressed memories can be retrieved in therapy.”

The Most Dangerous Idea in Mental Health (Pacific Standard, November 3, 2014)


  1. I have no doubt that there have been some therapists who, historically, have planted such ideas in their clients’ minds in a way that was truly incorrect, but knowing many abuse survivors and having worked with them for years, most of what I have seen has been survivors dissociating from traumatic memories to the point that they are completely unaware of them (or, sometimes, of their entire childhoods). Later, when other parts of their life seem a bit more safe and stable, or upon entering into a trusting relationship (which could be with a therapist, friend, mentor, etc.), these memories start to come back, and are, quite often, disbelieved by those around them- including mental health professionals. While, in many cases, it is far too late to objectively confirm or deny whether or not a given event happened, I have repeatedly seen quite a bit of evidence arise that confirms these accounts.

    This site continuously outlines the need to take a good, hard look at so-called mental health professionals and the harm that many of them do in the name of “help,” but I feel that those of us who write or comment here are morally obligated to walk a fine line and not blame the victim in the process. Every article that, in any way, insults MH professionals is not necessarily an appropriate criticism- especially when the end result is inventing yet another reason for abuse survivors to be disbelieved.

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    • I agree with you. I think the author of the article does not distinguish between therapy designed to uncover purportedly repressed memories, which appears to be fraught with deeply troubling ethical considerations, and the possibility that memories could be repressed, which I think there is good reason to believe happens, based on both clinical and personal experience.

      As an example, I always carried around with me a vague recollection of being in second grade with my scary teacher, Ms. Vaughn. I remembered her shaking her hand while holding a book in it, and then flinging the book across the heads of the students to hit some tables in the rear of the classroom. I remembered standing up in my desk and saying something, and next thing I recalled, I was out in the hallway with another kid. I remembered going down to the office with him, talking to the secretary, having her go to talk to the principle, and being sent back to class. None of this was “recovered memory,” but I didn’t recall all of the details.

      I was at my 30th high school reunion, and encountered someone who had been in the same class. I told her the story as I remembered it, and she said, “I remember that, too!” When I got to the part about standing up, she said, “She hit you!” She also recalled what I had said (“Miss Vaughn!” apparently intoned in a voice of incredulity), as well as the name of the other kid, who was a friend of mine, and that explained the other kid I remembered being thrown into the hallway with. But the moments between standing up and being in the hallway, I had no recollection of at all.

      After replaying this memory to myself, I did recall that I had been sent down the hallway in the principal’s office to see the nurse (the only clear and uninfluenced “recovered memory” I experienced), who appeared to be examining my left ear, which would have been consistent with being whacked in the head by a right-handed person. So Susan’s recollection and mine fit together perfectly, except that I did not recall the part about being hit in the head or it’s immediate aftermath.

      Yes, memories can be repressed. Whether they can be recovered accurately or not remains an open question. Whether it’s therapeutic to allow a person to process what they believe to be the truth about what happened, without telling them what is true or not, seems likely to be therapeutic.

      I think it’s a whole different question when it’s the therapist who wants/needs the client to bring up repressed memories. That is clinical malpractice and should be treated as such. I believe the client always has the right to decide what is true and isn’t in his/her own life, and therapists who subvert that right, either by enforced diagnostic labels or suggestions or pressure of any kind to believe or recall things that aren’t coming from the client, are doing damage to their clients.

      —- Steve

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  2. There is a good possibility that most psychologists and clinicians have belief in repression because they have witnessed their clients go through the remembering process, and the clients have found corroboration for their memories, and or, they have healed from many symptoms as a result of dealing with those memories in therapy.

    In 1994 I suddenly became seriously ill with a disease that some of the best medical doctors in the country could not diagnose. After almost a year of debilitating physical suffering, unrelenting fear, repeated examinations, lab tests, EKGs, heart stress tests, an MRI, and intrusive medical procedures, all of which amounted to more than $30,000, doctors finally made a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis).

    The specialists informed me that there is no cure and no real treatment for the disease. Many physicians are unwilling to take on patients with cfids because of the low recovery rate and the untreatable incapacitating symptoms. Many cfids patients have committed suicide, but cfids is known by its sufferers as a walking death.

    My symptoms included irregular heart beat, inability to urinate, frequent urination, neurological problems, debilitating fatigue, intestinal disturbances, chest pain, headaches, chronic sore throats, stomach aches, abdominal pain, nausea, shingles, unexplained choking, mysterious pelvic pain, and scores of other physical afflictions.

    Over the fifteen years that I was most sick, I experienced more than seventy different physical ailments. The physical manifestations would alternate but the pain and suffering was a daily experience.

    Prior to the illness, and while I was sick, I also experienced phobias, insomnia, excessive fear, panic attacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, severe depression, unbalanced anger and rage, eating disorders, an excessive hatred of women, mood swings, suicidal thoughts, an abnormal fear of dying, no self-worth, being reclusive, feeling estranged from life, and an inability to trust anyone.

    After realizing that the medical and mainstream psychological professions were incapable of helping me, I turned to alternative healing in the form of hypnoanalysis.

    Let me be clear; hypno-analysis is quite different from hypnosis, and it has been practiced and studied for at least 150 years.

    Prior to beginning the therapy, I had retained only a few memories of my entire childhood, but I had always brushed this aside as ‘just one of those things.’

    When I began the hypnotherapy, I was unaware that people can mentally block significant events from their mind and my therapist never told me this could happen. Nor did she ever hint, suggest, or imply in any way that I might have had a history of child sexual abuse and trauma. The memories came from me, and me alone.

    In November of 1997 I discovered dissociative amnesia (known as repressed memory) in a very personal way

    My full recovery from chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, from shingles, PTSD, chronic heart problems, migraines, and from all of the psychological problems was not due to any medical procedure, herb, vitamin, yoga, conventional psychotherapy, “positive thinking,” or pharmaceutical drug.

    My total recovery from cfids and the rest of the mental and physical diseases happened gradually, as I broke through four decades of amnesia for incest, rape, psychological trauma, physical abuse, and emotional trauma.

    Every one of the incapacitating and frightening symptoms, which according to most medical doctors, have no known cause or cure are now gone. I have recuperated my joy for life. I do not react to triggers anymore, I have goals and dreams again, I am social, I have self-respect, and I am healthier than I have been since I was a teenager. I am now 52 years-old.

    The FMSF has virtually closed down. Repression has been proven through documented evidence, corroborating witnesses, abuser confessions, and through other research. Loftus has been exposed for who she is –someone who makes a lot of money defending people accused of serious crimes against children– so when someone continues to portray repression as a myth, I have to wonder what their true motivation is. Do they have pedophilia tendencies? Do they also have some kind of financial gain in their position? What is the bias in their stance? Because it is not to find truth, or to help victims of child sexual abuse.

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    • Of course, abusive people have an interest in denying and ridiculing any possibility of repressed memory. It sounds like your therapist did it the right way, allowing you to lead the discussion to where it needed to go rather than telling you the kind of things you should find or recall. I have found this to be very valid and healing, both for me and for clients I’ve worked with. It obviously worked for you. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sorry it happened to you, but it’s great that you found a path to healing!

      —- Steve

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  3. Here is a letter I wrote to the editor of the Pacific Standard regarding the recovered memory article published there:

    Ms. Streshinsky ([email protected]) ,

    It has come to my attention that the Pacific Standard will soon publish an
    article on recovered memories. From your editorial description of the
    forthcoming piece I thought you may wish to “fact-check” what appears to
    be the article’s claim that there is no such phenomenon as dissociative
    amnesia. Scientific endeavor has provided evidence that stress and
    psychological trauma can induce memory loss, and that such loss can be
    recovered at some time down the road. The dissociative amnesia phenomenon
    is well know in combat stress situations, and as those in the dissociative
    field are aware from their patient presentations, it is also known to happen
    within the civilian population. Here is a link to a recent news article
    detailing an extreme case of memory loss due to dissociative amnesia:

    Many courts have recognized that one’s traumatic memories can be hidden
    from oneself, only to rise to the level of consciousness at some later
    date. I provide the following link to documents in a case Anonymous v
    Vella, where the plaintiff recovered memories of abuse many years after
    the fact and pursued the case to judgement in her favor:

    These documents are the psychologist’s report on the patient (so you can
    gain an appreciation for the psychological analysis that is done in
    substantiation), a list of journal citations upon which he rests his
    opinion, and also a most unusual affidavit where that same psychologist
    had to defend himself from an attempt by those known as experts working
    against the notion of recovered memories to have this psychologist
    sanctioned for fraud in his findings. The affidavit is the psychologist’s
    defense from such claims, which I believe you may find compelling.

    The psychologist in this case, Dr. Dan Brown, is a widely acknowledged
    expert on recovered memory matters, and has effectively provided rebuttal
    of Dr. Loftus’ claims, including at a very high profile case in the
    international court in the Hague. Dr. Brown’s web page is at:

    As another example of a court’s ruling on the admissibility of testimony
    on recovered memory, you may wish to review a relatively recent Daubert
    opinion on the matter:

    I hope these documents are helpful for use in your editorial role of
    assuring balanced and thoughtful content in the Pacific Standard.

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