How Widespread Are Purported Recovered Memories of Abuse in Therapy?

One of the most important questions anyone interested in the phenomenon of recovered memories faces is how widespread they are.

In examining the subject, Lawrence Patihis (Assistant Professor of Psychology, The University of Southern Mississippi) and Mark Pendergrast (author of ‘Memory Warp’ and ‘The Repressed Memory Epidemic’) have co-authored a report which addresses the issue in a broad as well as specific context.  They conclude that the numbers are not in the hundreds of thousands, but in the millions.  In the United States alone there may be 18.5 million that have discussed repressed memories with their therapist.  It is not difficult to see that extrapolated across the world this represents an extraordinary number.  It really cannot be anything other but that millions are being treated for traumatic experiences that have not occurred.

 

Reports of Recovered Memories of Abuse in Therapy in a Large Age-Representative U.S. National Sample: Therapy Type and Decade Comparisons

Abstract

The potential hazards of endeavoring to recover ostensibly repressed memories of abuse in therapy have previously been documented. Yet no large survey of the general public about memory recovery in therapy has been conducted. In an age-representative sample of 2,326 adults in the United States, we found that 9% (8% weighted to be representative) of the total sample reported seeing therapists who discussed the possibility of repressed abuse, and 5% (4% weighted) reported recovering memories of abuse in therapy for which they had no previous memory. Participants who reported therapists discussing the possibility of repressed memories of abuse were 20 times more likely to report recovered abuse memories than those who did not. Recovered memories of abuse were associated with most therapy types, and most associated with those who reported starting therapy in the 1990s. We discuss possible problems with such purported memory recovery and make recommendations for clinical training.

 

There have been indications that the debate over repressed memories of childhood abuse is not resolved. The central question in this controversy is whether attempting to help clients to recover purportedly repressed memories of abuse leads to memory distortions that harm rather than heal clients.

 

Research question 1: percentage of therapists dis­cussing repressed memories with their clients

We calculated a weighted percentage estimate of 8.3%, 95% CI = [7.3%, 9.5%], reported that their therapist had discussed the possibility that they had been abused and repressed the memory. If this were extrapolated, this would approximate to an estimate of 18.5 million out of a total 225.5 million U.S. population aged 20 or over (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011a).

 

Research question 2: proportion of people remem­bering abuse in therapy of which they were not previously aware

Of those 1,082 receiving therapy, 11.3% (122) reported that during the course of therapy they
came to remember being abused as a child, when they had no previous memory of such abuse. This amounts to 5.2%, 95% CI = [4.3%, 6.2%], of our total sample of 2,326.

If extrapolated, this would approximate to an estimate of 9.1 million in the U.S. population aged 20 or over (unweighted = 11.8 million).

 

Research question 3: proportion of those who recov­ered memories of abuse who also developed DID

Of the 122 reporting recovered memories of abuse in therapy, 13.1% (16) reported that they also came to believe that they suffered from MPD/DID. This was 0.69%, 95% CI = [0.39%, 1.11%], of our total sample of 2,326.

If extrapolated, this would approximate to an estimate of 1.0 million in the U.S. population aged 20 or over (unweighted = 1.6 million).

 

 

Those who reported starting treatment in the early 1990s reported the highest proportion of recovered memories in therapy: 18%. But that has not declined to zero: 9% of those starting therapy in 2015-2017 reported recovering an abuse memory of which they had no previous memory.

 

Although the epidemic peaked in the early 1900s and declined during the late 90s in a tsunami of lawsuits and licensing revocations, alas, the excavation of recovered memories continues.

 

The report can freely viewed or downloaded from Researchgate.net.