by Sarah Abrams, PhD *
I’ve been asked to write about the controversy surrounding my lecture on Repressed Memory Syndrome, using Rebecca (Becca) Rosen’s infamous case as an example. While there might have been a modern psychological witch hunt a few years back, as Stephen Mason, PhD states in a recent Psychology Today article (Recovered Memory Syndrome, January 2010), “where a few professionals, a whole slew of marginally qualified therapists and councilors came forward to treat this questionable condition.” I am not convinced whether a handful of mismanaged cases can definitively prove repressed memories do not exist. Certainly, as Dr. Elizabeth Loftus tells us in her article, Creating False Memories (Scientific American, September 1997, Vol. 227 #3, pgs 70-75), “a growing number of investigations demonstrate that under the right circumstances false memories can be instilled rather easily in some people,” but this doesn’t necessarily demonstrate their implausibility.
In the article Teen Brain Development and Alcohol (posted online at Breaking the Cycles–Changing the Conventions, Feb. 14, 2009) Lisa Frederiksen states that “the portions of the brain that deal with emotion, memory, learning, motivation and judgment are the last to develop. According to a Wikipedia entry entitled, Memory Development, “Evidence indicates linear increases in performance of working memory from age 4 years through to adolescence.” Therefore, the ability to retain and assimilate memory is not fully formed until a child reaches their teenage years. That is why so many of our childhood memories are sketchy or non-existent. Further, different children develop memory differently. My sister, for example, has a photogenic memory and, even though she is younger, can remember incidents in our childhoods in vivid detail that I cannot even recall.
Add to all this the effect of trauma on the developing mind. As with Becca Rosen, a traumatic incident during childhood can either bring an event into sharp focus, or it can prove overwhelming and confusing. In the latter case, the child may be unable to fully integrate the information, or may be encouraged to forget it by the instigating individual, often a person with considerable perceived power. This can lead to suppressed or forgotten memories.
As therapists, I think we need to be careful never to plant thoughts or ideas in our clients’ minds. It is unprofessional, even unethical, to do this. On the other hand, we should not deny the possibility of forgotten memories surfacing during the therapeutic process. We should offer our clients the room to fully explore what might be behind their present distress. I am grateful I was able to accomplish this with Becca Rosen, because the outcome of our sessions were gratifying for her … and eye-opening for me.