False Memory Syndrome?

Carl Hendel, M.D.


There has been much public debate about the so-called "False Memory Syndrome." Is there such a thing? The most vehement voices de-crying the falsehoods of the memories are often the ones who most benefit from discrediting them. They insist that these " recovered memories" have no basis in fact.

The importance of recovered memories is the associated healing that becomes possible when this very toxic psychic material can be discharged. We must not make the assumption that a "recovered memory" is completely accurate, nor may we assume that there is no possible truth in it.

Many recovered memories are related to traumatic events that our unconscious mind has kindly let us forget. Many times, sexual and physical abuse is so overwhelming that the mind must, for self-protection, hide these experiences away. And often, these events have occurred at a young age and are therefore subject to a child's misunderstanding and inaccuracy. This does not change the value of de-briefing these memories.

Patients should be advised that their recall does not translate into legal fact. The purpose of exploring the past is to open the present to healing possibilities. What matters is the neurochemistry associated with the belief, whether or not it exactly matches reality. In simple terms, if a person believes that something horrible happened, the internal chemical environment is as if it did happen.

Does this mean that retrieved memories are not true? I sincerely believe that many reported memories of sexual , emotional and physical abuse are indeed based in fact. Consider that we know that this kind of abuse does happen in about one in three female children and one out of eight male children. That is a lot of abuse, and many people, in their adult years, may well recover the previously hidden or screened memories.

Many people with a past history of abuse develop symptoms which may be the unconscious mind's way of letting us know that we need to listen to our bodies and minds. Not all symptoms are due to abuse, but some are. Emotional problems, dissociative disorders, and chronic unexplained somatic pain syndromes may all be expressions of deep inner unrest. The process of exploration can be difficult and painful, and can take time, but there is some truth in the old saying that "re-living is relieving."

This exploring process is not always appropriate. Often, a younger person is not ready or able to safely cope with the material. Often, details of repeated trauma scenes can be excessive and unhelpful. It is often possible to deal with hidden traumas without the conscious mind having to have all the details (this work is in the realm of Dr. Milton H. Erickson, needs a highly knowledgeable clinician, and is beyond the scope of this writing). Often, the previously hidden information spontaneously arises for the person, and that must be dealt with in a sensitive and skillful manner.

The role of the therapist is to be one of support and presence. The therapeutic process must be "content-free," so that the information that arises, comes from the patient and is not seeded or planted by the suggestions of the therapist.

I believe that the goal of such exploration is to be in the service of healing, not in vengeance, justification, and blame. Certainly closure is desirable, but this can happen without a "getting even" requirement. The experiences of processing anger, hurt, pain, disappointment, re-claiming sense of self, moving to acceptance, and finally forgiveness is the path to wellness for those afflicted by the ravages of old and deep wounding.

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