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Ethical Boundary Considerations and Repressed Memories of Sexual Abuse
4 CEUs Ethical Boundary Considerations and Repressed Memories of Sexual Abuse

Section 15
Issues Regarding Sexual Abuse and 'False Memory Syndrome'

Ethics CEU Question 15 | Ethics CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Boundaries CEU Courses
Social Worker CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs

Critics of the antirape movement contend that professionals and researchers have used false definitions to create rape out of normal sexual behavior. In contrast, critics of therapy for adult sexual abuse survivor charge Sad Memories Ethical Consideration psychology mft CEU coursethat therapists create false memories of abuse. Critics who focus on the "epidemic" of false memory often use sensational language that resembles the rape hype literature. Ofshe and Watters (1993) stated the following: "Recently, a new miracle cure has been promoted by some mental health professionals--recovered memory therapy. In less than 10 years' time this therapy, in its various forms, has devastated thousands of lives. Parents have to witness their adult children turn into monsters trying to destroy their reputations and their lives." (p. 4)

In equally dramatic language, Safran (1993) declared that "The bare-all, tell-all '90s have spawned a fascinating phenomenon, as a growing army of individuals come forward with sudden flashbacks of childhood abuse" (p. 98).

Significant support for these perspectives has come from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), an organization that was founded in March 1992 to work toward the prevention of "false-memory syndrome," assist victims of this syndrome, and combat "the mental health crisis of the 1990s" (False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 1992; M. Gardner, 1993, p. 370). The FMSF created the label "false memory" for advocacy purposes and defined this syndrome as a condition in which a person's identity is centered around "a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes." The syndrome has been likened to a personality disorder in that "the memory is so deeply engrained that it orients the individual's entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behaviors" (False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 1992). Although the phrase "false-memory syndrome" implies that it is an accepted diagnostic label, it carries no scientific endorsement.

The FMSF has communicated with thousands of families who state that they have been falsely accused of incest and has lobbied public opinion and the press on behalf of its cause (Jaroff, 1993). A testament to this organization's success is the publication of numerous articles in the popular press about this "syndrome." The FMSF has also gained the acceptance and assistance of a wide variety of professionals, and its advisory board includes many prominent memory researchers and mental health professionals (Wylie, 1993a).

According to those who have defined false-memory syndrome, the typical client is a woman in her 20s, 30s, or 40s who initially seeks therapy for a variety of issues including mild depression, inability to lose weight, or headaches. She is described as an overachiever who has difficulty establishing an independent identity apart from her parents and who is looking for approval from authority figures, including the approval of the therapist. She is most frequently a well-educated, financially comfortable woman who projects her unacceptable sexual desires on her father and develops fantasies of abuse under the tutelage of an all-believing therapist and mother substitute. Therapists are charged not only with pressuring their clients to develop memories of abuse but also for inappropriately using hypnosis, sodium amytal, or other nontraditional methods to help the client "remember" forgotten trauma (M. Gardner, 1993; R. Gardner, 1992; Jaroff, 1993; Safran, 1993; Wylie, 1993a). The description of false-memory syndrome resembles Freud's beliefs about women's incomplete resolution of the Oedipal complex, a description that has been used to deny the existence of abuse and that feminists have worked to abolish during the past two decades (Lerman, 1986; Westerlund, 1986). Ofshe and Watters (1993) have also proposed that Freud correctly abandoned his original hypothesis that his patients' memories of sexual abuse were based on actual experience. They stated: "Freud's initial mistake of classifying pseudo-memories as factual accounts is chillingly similar to what is happening today in recovered memory therapy" (p. 8).

The FMSF was founded by Pamela and Peter Freyd and other concerned individuals after the Freyd's daughter, Jennifer, began to recall experiences of childhood sexual abuse by her father. Although Jennifer did not threaten any form of public disclosure or legal action, her parents used the FMSF to publish skewed accounts and superficially disguised descriptions of their family experience (e.g., Doe, 1992). Jennifer remained silent for a significant period of time, but she eventually disclosed her reactions after the publication of inaccurate accounts about her experience and as academic psychologists and various mental health professionals began to question the legitimacy of "repressed memories" (Freyd, 1993). It should be noted that Jennifer Freyd is a tenured psychologist at the University of Oregon who specializes in memory and perception research. Consistent with her scientific knowledge of the ambiguities of memory, Jennifer did not propose that all of her memories are exact replicas of historical fact. She stated: "I am sure that my parents mistreated me and the form of the mistreat-ment included hurting my sexual self. . . . At the same time, I have a certain amount of uncertainty, because I have no way to corroborate the memories. I don't know anyone who has recovered memories who doesn't express doubt about them. What I can say is I stand by the memories as carrying an essential truth, and I believe they are true." (quoted in Fried, 1994, p. 156)

Jennifer Freyd is currently contributing to the interface between general memory research and trauma theory by proposing mechanisms that may facilitate loss of memory for child sexual abuse (Freyd, 1994).

Loftus (1993), a prominent memory researcher and FMSF advisory board member, has suggested that poorly trained therapists may be implanting false memories of child sexual abuse as well and drawing uninformed conclusions as expert witnesses. As an expert on eye-witness testimony and the fallibility of memory (Loftus & Ketcham, 1991), Loftus and other memory researchers have expressed appropriate alarm about therapists who claim that clients have gained verbal access to memories of child abuse that date back to early infancy or prenatal development (Denton, 1993). Research on childhood memory and infantile amnesia reveals that the earliest reliable verbal recollections of children do not normally date back before age 2 (Usher & Neisser, 1993), indicating that there is no scientific basis for claims that clients can gain access to memories of abuse that occurs very early in life. However, a study of young children noted that, in the absence of verbal memory, some childhood victims exhibit bodily memories and behaviors that involve reenactment of trauma (Terr, 1988). Furthermore, memory is "relatively sophisticated even in infancy" (Howe & Courage, 1993, p. 306), and infantile amnesia may be related less to memory capacity and more to difficulties retrieving early memory. The development of a sense of self as an independent entity, which is a necessary prerequisite for autobiographical memory, emerges as infantile amnesia ends. Thus, it is possible for clients to retain implicit memories of abuse that are not open to conscious inspection (Howe & Courage, 1993) but may have long-term impacts on survivors.

The evidence that poorly trained or unethical counselors and therapists are creating memories of child abuse is based primarily on anecdotal data and social psychological research regarding the suggestibility of research participants in laboratory settings. For example, extensive research on eyewitness testimony reveals that bystanders will often remember false details about events, suggesting that retrospective memories are often modified during reconstruction (Wells & Loftus, 1984). However, studies of eyewitness testimony do not demonstrate that individuals falsely remember the salient aspects of events. Loftus (1993) also successfully implanted false memories in a handful of participants, including memories of being lost in a mall in a 14-year-old boy's mind. When asked, "Remember when you were lost at the mall when you were 5 years old?" and provided with false pieces of information, the boy remembered details and events regarding being lost. On the basis of her research, Loftus (1993) suggested that false memories about childhood abuse might also be implanted rather easily. Many individuals have both vague memories of many hours spent in shopping malls and vague fears and memories of being lost as young children. When these two commonplace experiences are combined, a false memory may be rather easily created. However, it is difficult to imagine that a person will falsely remember being repeatedly abused after a counselor raises tentative, exploratory questions about these issues. Laboratory research regarding suggestibility of research participants provides necessary but only partial answers to issues regarding memories of child sexual abuse.

Counselors must be aware that memory does not operate as a video camera, does not represent an exact replica of the past, and is organized to fit a person's current needs (Dawes, 1991). However, although autobiographical memory involves a "constant process of selection, revision, and reinterpretation" (Brewin, Andrews, & Gotlib, 1993, p. 85), most autobiographical memories for major life events are relatively accurate, especially those that are "unique, consequential, and unexpected" (p. 87). Details and temporal aspects of events are more susceptible to error. It is likely that this principle is also relevant to recovery of adult memories of abuse when the counselor behaves in an ethical and competent manner.

Trauma researchers note that traumatic memory bears "little resemblance to the tepid, anemic and rather desiccated experimental laboratory paradigms of the memory researchers" (Wylie, 1993b, p. 43). Current trauma theory suggests that victims of child abuse often encode the abuse into memory in a state of terror, and they sometimes develop amnesia to survive and cope with life demands (Freyd, 1994; Herman, 1992). Sexual abuse and other traumatic experiences represent an "overwhelming assault" on the person's "world of meaning" (Conte, 1988, p. 325). Trauma and abuse destroy a person's fundamental assumptions about the world as a safe place, one's sense of agency and autonomy, and one's ability to maintain relationships with others in an unsafe world. Thus, survivors of trauma use highly creative methods for dealing with abuse; they may experience memory disturbances, flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, posttraumatic stress disorder, and multiple personality disorder (Briere, 1992). Children may be especially vulnerable to memory loss when exposed to trauma; they cannot physically escape the abuse perpetrated by a more powerful adult and may cope by walling off conscious memory, numbing themselves to all emotion, or creating another personality who receives the abuse during a state of dissociation. It should also be noted that even when memory is retained, the secrecy, shame, betrayal, and fear of reprisals associated with child sexual abuse support nondisclosure rather than disclosure. Thus, some memories that are presumed to be "forgotten" may have been deliberately suppressed until the individual feels greater support for "remembering." It is often only in mid-adulthood, when survivors gain some distance from the actual abuse, that they may experience the psychological safety necessary for working through the impact of abuse (Herman, 1992).
- Enns PhD, Carolyn Zerbec; "Counselors and the Backlash: 'Rape Hype' and 'False-Memory Syndrome'"; Journal of Counseling & Development; Mar/Apr 1996, Vol. 74 Issue 4, p358
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information about the debate over false memory syndrome. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

According to Enns, when considering false memories, counselors should be aware of what fact? Record the letter of the correct answer the Ethics CEU Answer Booklet.

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Table of Contents

The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
Ethics Alive - Gifts From Clients: The Good, the Bad, and the Ethically Ugly
Everyone loves gifts, but being offered a gift from clients may be cause for celebration, cause for concern, or both for social workers.
Ethics Alive! Respect in Social Work Advocacy
We explore the nature of respect in social work advocacy. Social workers demonstrate respect to individual clients by honoring their right to self-determination. Advocacy often involves persuason and trying to change beliefs and behaviors of others.
Ethics Alive! To Record or Not To Record: The Ethics of Documentation
How much and what should social workers document? Allan Barsky outlines the ethics of social work documentation.
Ethics Alive! Coping With Multiple Codes of Ethics as a Social Worker
Which codes “must” social workers abide by? Which codes “should” social workers abide by? And if there are conflicts between two or more codes by which you are abiding, which code takes “precedence”?
Respect: Ethical Imperative or Skills for Success?
Many of us think about respect in terms of how we engage with clients. Honoring clients’ dignity is not the whole story, however, with social work codes of ethics also highlighting the importance of showing respect to colleagues.

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