Peter M. Barach, Ph.D.
Questions About Childhood Memories
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Questions About Childhood Memories

There is a controversy in the mental health field about the accuracy of people's memories of childhood. The following information may help you to understand these issues and their relevance to your own situation. Please read carefully, and bring up any questions that occur to you.

Memory Recovery. From time to time, it's not unusual for adults to remember new information about childhood events. This process can occur while someone is in therapy, as well as at other times. When the newly recalled information seems unfamiliar, psychologists sometimes call the information recovered memory. Recovered memories may be either pleasant or unpleasant.

The controversy concerns the accuracy of recovered memories of child abuse. It is generally agreed that abuse occurring after very early childhood is generally remembered, but that some people forget the abuse and remember it later. Researchers disagree about how the mind may not be able to recollect things at one point yet can do so later, but there is general agreement that this can happen. Research shows that people's memories of childhood (both good and bad) are not always accurate; this is also true for recovered memories. Recovered memories of child abuse, like other memories, may be 100% factual, 100% fantasized, or anywhere in between.

"Do You Believe Me?" A therapist cannot tell whether someone's memories are true or false (unless the remembered event is clearly impossible). I was not present during your childhood, and I can't tell you what happened. Therefore, I don't have an opinion on whether your memories are true or not. Some people insist that I should state I believe their memories, but there is no evidence that this kind of statement helps patients get better.

Confirmation of Memories. Some people find it helpful to seek confirmation for their memories. They have sought confirmation by interviewing their parents or other family members, looking at old medical records or hospital charts, examining school records, etc. People have at times confirmed their recovered memories, disconfirmed them, or have been unable to find any information. I would be glad to discuss and examine the results of your research with you, but I will not take the role of detective.

Sometimes people will not be able to reach a decision about the accuracy of their memories. Treatment can go forward in spite of the uncertainty, since the problem brought to therapy is not the accuracy of memories, but the wish to resolve emotional distress and problems in living.

Hypnosis. Some people have used (or asked for) hypnosis to recover memories of childhood. Also, some people tend to go into self-hypnosis on their own, both in therapy and in other places, and recover memories of childhood. Hypnosis is not a truth serum. People recover inaccurate as well as accurate memories in hypnosis. Because hypnosis can make both real and fantasized situations feel very real, sometimes people feel more confident about hypnotically recovered memories than they should be.

If you plan to file a lawsuit, you should be aware that many courts will not admit testimony that is based on "hypnotically refreshed memory." Therefore, if you are using hypnosis in your therapy, you may not be able to testify about what you have remembered.

Confronting (Suspected) Perpetrators. Although there is no evidence that people need to confront an abuser in order to recover, some people wish to confront people who they believe abused them. I urge you to discuss any such plans in therapy before going forward with them, so that we can take the opportunity to help you understand your motives, your expectations, and the consequences of this kind of confrontation. Some therapists are willing to meet with patients and their alleged abusers for this kind of confrontation; I do not participate in this kind of meeting.

Some people decide to file lawsuits against their perpetrators. I will not encourage people to do this, but if you are considering this, I encourage you to consult a lawyer so you know what your rights are.

"Implanted" Memories. Some people are claiming that many therapists are implanting memories of an abusive childhood in adults who were not abused. There is no evidence that this is true, although it is possible that highly suggestive and leading questions from a therapist can sometimes affect what people recall. For this reason, I try to avoid suggestive and leading questions, and I do not "pressure" people to recover memories as a way to solve their problems.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder). Some people are claiming that therapists create DID. There is no evidence that this is true; there is no documented case in which a therapist has created this disorder in someone who was proven not to have it before therapy. DID is a real condition which is not rare, and has been underdiagnosed in the past. There are also people who have been mistakenly diagnosed with DID.

If you have any questions about any of the above material, please bring up those questions with me at any time. I can also provide you with some references so that you may read more about the issues on your own.