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Section 1
False Memories in Sexual Abuse

Question 1 | Ethics CEU Test | Table of Contents | Introduction | Boundaries CEU Courses
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In this section, we will examine how false memories may be generated. We will also discuss the ethical factors regarding the client's right to self determination to keep in the foreground when you suspect a client may be under the influence of a false memory, and the subsequent ethical dilemmas.

As you may have observed, clients tend to reform their past to match their current attitudes and opinions. As Bartlett in his book, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology, remarked, the need to rework our past is, essentially, "the struggle to get somewhere, the varying play of doubt, hesitation, satisfaction, and the like, and the eventual building up of the complete story accompanied by the more and more confident advance in a certain direction."

Beth, age 22, constructed a memory by fabricating a short descriptive story about her father abusing her in her crib. After she finished her description, her reaction was so severe that she was convinced that the story must be rooted in a truth. Beth stated, "I began to scream and curse and cry. The feelings that came up for me were so intense I felt they must be grounded in some reality."

However, Bartlett goes on to explain that, "The course of description, when images abound, is apt to be more exciting, more varied, more rich, and more jerky." Beth was reacting to the images she had formulated, not an actual event that occurred in the past. However, because her intent was to discover whether or not she had been abused, she was unintentionally already looking for evidence.

♦ Literature with a Negative Effect - 5 Steps
As you know, detailed literature can be a lucrative stimulant to creating false memories. Books such as Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse includes several chapters just on descriptions of sexual abuse and also contains several exercises on recovering repressed memories.

-- Step # 1: When clients read these, their minds may soon be filled to the brim with images of abuse.
-- Step # 2: They may dwell on these images for days and nights.
-- Step # 3: Soon, the receptive client may begin to unintentionally visualize themselves in that position.
-- Step # 4: The next thought is, "What if I was really abused? I wouldn't have these awful thoughts if I were a normal, healthy person."
-- Step # 5: After reading the content, dwelling on the images, creating visualizations, and questioning abuse reality the fifth step is self-analyzing that excludes other options. By self-analyzing themselves before considering other options, they have excluded all other thinking and are ceasing to use reason and rely on their own memories.

♦ Damaging Exercises
Many of the exercises found in self-help sexual abuse books can actually be a form of hypnosis, causing the reader to put themselves in a more susceptible state of relaxation in which the author suggests that the reader "imagines" what "might" have happened to them. Such an almost self-hypnosis type of experience can leave a client extremely vulnerable to suggestion. If their mind is trying to imagine something, and they do, many times clients interpret this as a truth reflecting past experiences when really, it might just have been a result of the susceptible state they were in.

This is one of the examples of how allegedly false memories are generated. It is the ethical responsibility of the therapist to make sure that he/she does not accidentally exploit this very manipulative state of the client.

As addressed in the American Psychologists Association code of ethics section 5.05 Testimonials: "Psychologists do not solicit testimonials from current therapy clients/patients or other persons who because of their particular circumstances are vulnerable to undue influence." By misleading the client into believing he or she was a victim, the therapist clearly has broken this code of ethics. But the obvious dilemma is, short of having a crystal ball, how does a therapist know whether the alleged memories are real or false?

One of the greatest difficulties in recovered memories is the fact that the actual process has not been proved valid or invalid. Most of the time, it is impossible to corroborate either the survivor's memories of incest or their parents' anguished details. When all is said and done, both sides can only hold on to a belief that memory regeneration is valid and a competent means of therapy.

Because of this, one school of thought is that: it is essential that any memory generation not be induced by the therapist at any time due to the risk of inciting false memories and quite possibly emotionally injuring the client even further. But is this realistic? Which creates another dilemma?

♦ 5 Ethical Assessments to Remember
Five ethics assessments to keep in mind when considering recovering a client's so-called "repressed memory":

-- Assessment # 1 - Is there any other possibility or explanation for the client's behavior?
-- Assessment # 2 - Have they been under the influence of graphic literature, film, or any other stimulus?
-- Assessment # 3 - Are they already in a state of vulnerability?
-- Assessment # 4 - Have you or a colleague suggested to the client that he or she may be the victim of childhood sexual abuse?
-- Assessment # 5 - By using methods such as hypnosis to recover repressed memories, could you possibly be only placing false memories into a client's subconscious?

So what do you do when you believe a client has been negatively influenced by external forces? At the other end of the spectrum, one thing to keep in mind is, of course, not to completely rule out a client's suggestions of sexual abuse. By doing this, you may not only isolate the client, but degrade him or her to the status equal to that of a child telling far-fetched stories. Essentially, the therapist who does this has taken away the client's right to self-determination.

Standard 1.02 in the NASW Code of Ethics states that "Social Workers respect and promote the rights of clients to self-determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals. Social workers may limit clients' right to self-determination when, in the social workers' professional judgment, clients' actions or potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to themselves or others."

In this section, we discussed how false memories may be generated, the various ethical issues to keep in mind when you suspect a client may be under the influence of a false memory, and the subsequent ethical dilemmas.

In the next section, we will examine difficulties in determining whether or not a client has fabricated a memory.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Brainerd, C. J., & Bookbinder, S. H. (2019). The semantics of emotion in false memory. Emotion, 19(1), 146–159.

Nahleen, S., Nixon, R. D. V., & Takarangi, M. K. T. (2019). Memory consistency for sexual assault events. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. Advance online publication. 

Patihis, L., Frenda, S. J., & Loftus, E. F. (2018). False memory tasks do not reliably predict other false memories. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 5(2), 140–160.

What are five steps a client may go through in the generation of false sexual abuse memories? To select and enter your answer go to Ethics CEU Test.

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