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CBT for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
6 CEUs It Wasn't Your Fault- Diagnosis & Treatment of Sexual Abuse in Children & Adults

Section 7
Accuracy of Memory for Child Sexual Abuse

Question 7 | Test | Table of Contents
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, & MFT CEU

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In the last section, we discussed the Family Stance and the Family Trance.  We also discussed how the two techniques of the "Other Family" exercise and the "Mottos" exercise can be used to bring awareness of where the guilt associated with the abuse comes from.

This section deals with implanting false memory of sexual abuse that may result in the client feeling that the fabricated abuse was their fault.

As you know, in therapy, clients are generally told that they are expressing characteristics of a repressed memory, possibly one of sexual abuse.  Since the suggestion is backed by probability, the client is much more susceptible to unconsciously inventing a false memory.  Do you agree?  Generally, these probabilistic suggestions can be exceedingly strong. 

Take, for example, Bass and Davis’s statement on repressed memory:  "So far, no one we’ve talked to thought she might have been abused and then later discovered that she hadn’t been.  The progression always goes the other way, from suspicion to confirmation. If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were." Such philosophy only enforced Joey’s own memory manipulation. Joey age 9 will be discussed later in this section. As you know, Memory Recovery Techniques (also known as MRT) are popular in therapy.

As Lindsay and Read noted, these techniques, which increased the demand on Joey to recover memories of abuse, can often lead to false memory generation. Also, the desire to heal symptoms contributes greatly to a client’s belief that sexual abuse occurred.  Because the client exhibits these symptoms and these symptoms resemble those related to childhood sexual abuse, the only way to be cured is to surface a repressed memory. 

4 Key Factors Contributing to False Memories
We will examine the four key factors involved in false memory generation:  social demands; consideration of the source; self-knowledge, and integration of the false events.  In addition, we will also discuss the influence therapy may have in fabricating these false memories.

As you may have experienced, humans have an inept ability to alter their own memory in favor of extraneous or unrelated suggestions.  This influence can be as mundane as tiny details in an unimportant story or video.  However, in cases of sexual abuse, influences are not as readily accepted, because these memories are not just an event playing out, but they are personally involving and emotionally arousing. 

♦ #1 - Social Demands
There are several key factors that contribute to false memory creation. First, social demands have a large effect on the client’s drive to force themselves to remember a false memory. While in therapy, Joey, age 9, felt that he had to perform well for the therapist and recover the memories that he was supposed to remember. As a result of this pressure, he unconsciously remembered details that had never actually taken place in order to meet that demand set by treatment. 

Joey was also a victim of false memory manipulation. He was referred to me by a school counselor who stated Joey had said that his father abused him. He used the abuse as a way to explain his failing grades in school. When Joey was 4, his parents divorced and a custody battle for Joey ensued.  In order to ensure that she would obtain full custody of her son, Joey's mother, Carol, implanted a false memory into the impressionable young Joey.

She took him to a therapist under the guise that he had been abused by his father, Jim. Carol told the therapist that Joey could not recall any of the memories of the abuse. But she stated she knew for a fact Jim had abused Joey. While in treatment Joey was frequently encouraged to recall these memories that he supposedly was repressing using memory recovery techniques. While at home, Carol told Joey over and over again that his father was a "bad man" and that he had touched Joey inappropriately on several occasions.

♦ Making it a Part of his Memory
Joey quickly integrated the false events into his own conscious, making it a part of his memory.  During the custody hearings, Joey relayed to the lawyers explicit details of the alleged abuse, details that his mother had not even told him.  Joey had completely absorbed the false memory.  Since Joey lacked many of the symptoms normally prevalent in sexual abuse survivors, except that of failing grades, I started to consider the possibility of false memory integration.  I interviewed Joey about the abuse and asked him to physically visualize in his mind the exact events surrounding the abuse. 

Joey revealed that he could not recall actually visualizing  recollections of the abuse. Further investigation revealed that while at the hearing, Joey had been occasionally encouraged by his mother who made suggestive comments such as, "Remember when Daddy touched you in your room?"  Joey would respond appropriately. This seemingly staged account and lack of symptoms ultimately led to the conclusion of a false memory integration.

♦ #2 - Consideration of the Source
A second factor involved with false memory creation is the consideration of the source. If the source seems reliable, a client is more likely to reconsider whether or not the event had actually taken place. In Joey’s case, his mother and the initial therapist’s encouragement was the source of the false memory.  Because he was four during the manipulation, he was much more vulnerable to false memory suggestion. The fact that his mother could be lying to him never entered his undeveloped mind.

♦ #3 - Self-Knowledge
In addition to social demands and considering the source, thirdly, when Joey began to consider whether his memory of his father was true or a false memory, the initial therapist had Joey discuss his knowledge of the events in terms of his own self-knowledge.  I began by asking Joey, "Where the abuse could have taken place, what time of day the event most likely took place, and even minute details such as the shirt he could have been wearing at the time."  By this time, Joey had constructed a memory that involved both the false events and accurate self-knowledge. 

Now that we’ve examined the key points of social demands, consideration of the sources, and integration of self-knowledge, let’s look at the fourth key, the importance repetition played in the implantation of a false memory.  The repetition of the false event by Joey’s mother Carol weakened Joey’s ability to monitor his reality.  Most clients do not question an image that periodically appears at the forefront of their mind.  They simply accept it as a memory.  Normally, this same kind of monitoring helps clients determine if a false memory is truly accurate or not.  However, Carol’s constant reiteration of the abuse skewed Joey’s mind to reconsider the reality of the event and ultimately led to his incorporation of the false memory.

Other more direct approaches by the therapist to recover false memories might only encourage a client to incorporate self-knowledge into the false memory, thus confirming the reality of the false memory. 

♦ #4 - Accepting False Events
In accepting false events, Bruck has found that children are less likely to integrate negative false events than positive ones.  Obviously, therefore, incidences such as the specifics of childhood sexual abuse can be hard to fabricate in the mind of the child.

In therapy, however, conditions are just right as you know to induce a child like Joey or sometimes even an adult into thinking that they were the survivor of sexual abuse.  The authority of the therapist may also contribute to false memory creation in therapy.  When a therapist suggests the possibility of abuse, clients tend to assume that there must be a reason for this suggestion.  These suggestions can also be accompanied by scientific information and therefore interpreted as indisputable facts. 

Also, in Joey’s case, the wish to please the initial therapist as an authority figure pushed Joey even further to recall a memory that had not occurred.  Likewise, group therapy can contribute in a similar way.  The sharing of stories coupled with the emotional need to belong is a strong instigator for memory fabrication

In this section, we examined the four key factors involved in false memory generation which could result in create false situation where the client may feel the abuse had occurred and was their fault.  These key factors in false memory generation are social demands; consideration of the source; and integration of the false event with the adolescent’s own self-knowledge; and repetition. 

- Wickham, R., & West, J. (2002) Therapeutic Work with Sexually Abused Children. London: Sage Publications.

Autobiographical Memory Specificity in Child Sexual Abuse Victims
- Ogle, C. M., Block, S. D., Harris, L. S., Goodman, G. S., Pineda, A., Timmer, S., . . . Saywitz, K. J. (may 2013). Autobiographical Memory Specificity in Child Sexual Abuse Victims. National Center for Biotechnology Information, 1-23.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Goodman, G. S., Goldfarb, D., Quas, J. A., & Lyon, A. (2017). Psychological counseling and accuracy of memory for child sexual abuse. American Psychologist, 72(9), 920–931.

O'Rinn, S., Lishak, V., Muller, R. T., & Classen, C. C. (2013). A preliminary examination of perceptions of betrayal and its association with memory disturbances among survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5(4), 343–349.

Myers, B., Myers, J., Herndon, P., Broszkiewicz, N., & Tar, M. (2015). Beliefs about therapist suggestiveness and memory veracity in recovered-memory therapy: An analogue study. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46(4), 270–276.

Shevlin, M., Murphy, S., Elklit, A., Murphy, J., & Hyland, P. (2018). Typologies of child sexual abuse: An analysis of multiple abuse acts among a large sample of Danish treatment-seeking survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(3), 263–269.

Tener, D., Lusky, E., Tarshish, N., & Turjeman, S. (2018). Parental attitudes following disclosure of sibling sexual abuse: A child advocacy center intervention study. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 88(6), 661–669.

Vargen, L. M., Weinsheimer, C. C., Coburn, P. I., Chong, K., & Connolly, D. A. (2018). Youth-perpetrated child sexual abuse: The effects of age at court on legal outcomes. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24(2), 248–258.

What are the four key factors involved in false memory generation regarding sexual abuse? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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