Victims of Memory

Victims of Memory Book Cover

Victims of Memory – Mark Pendergrast

Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives. Victims of Memory examines the whole terrifying phenomenon of repressed memories. Accusers, the accused, the retractors and the analysts tell their stories in their own words.

By Mark Pendergrast. Publisher: HarperCollins. Date: 1995 (Multiple reissues).

“There is growing evidence that illusory memories of sexual abuse are being unintentionally promulgated and ‘validated’ by misguided therapists, resulting in devastating grief and irrevocably damaged family relations. When you are accused of sexual abuse in our society… you are automatically presumed guilty unless proven innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt ….”

Can human beings completely forget years of traumatic events, only to recall them later?  This book explores that question.  But readers must make up their own minds, once they have read the entire book.


‘I doubt whether any book of greater importance will be published in 1997.’ Anthony Storr, The Times.


“Victims of Memory constitutes the most ambitious and comprehensive, as well as the most emotionally committed, of all the studies before us. Pendergrast’s book stands out from the others in several respects. For one thing, it transcribes his numerous interviews…allowing the cruel unreason of the recovery movement to be voiced with a minimum of editorial mediation. Second, he is the author who delves most deeply into the movement’s antecedents in witchcraft lore, mesmerism, early hypnotherapy, and the treatment of so-called hysteria…. Third, Pendergrast offers illuminating material about physiological states (sleep paralysis, panic attacks) that have traditionally been mistaken for “body memories” of one lurid kind or another. And it is Pendergrast who devotes the most effort to analyzing the contemporary Zeitgeist in which the recovery movement thrives” — Frederick Crews, The New York Review of Books


I found this book as I was beginning to question my own experiences trying to recover memories of sexual abuse with “Courage to Heal” and the even more irresponsible book “Repressed Memories.” Using the exercises in CTH, I had sent myself into a downward spiral of self-absorption, self-pity, and depression that I didn’t climb out of until I packed away my copy of CTH and walked away from my therapist.


It was only recently that I started to question whether my experiences had any basis whatsoever in some real trauma. I read “Victims of Memory,” and what I found particularly striking was how much my experiences mirrored those of the “Retractors” — men and women who had recovered memories, termed themselves “survivors,” and then had finally realized that it was all a lie, the nightmares and terrifying images induced not by past trauma, but by irresponsible therapy and books like CTH.


While the other portions of the book were interesting — Pendergrast’s examination of the often-quoted study where various survivors found confirmation of their memories was particularly revealing — I found the chapter of stories by retractors to be most compelling. This section helped me to realize that my experiences made sense: if you take an otherwise reasonably healthy adult or adolescent and have them focus twenty-four hours a day on their worst thoughts, their most negative feelings, their fears, their insecurities, etc., etc., etc. — well, ANYONE will start having nightmares, panic attacks, etc. I didn’t get better by “working through” the feelings described in CTH; I got better by getting out of therapy and getting on with my life.


I don’t entirely exclude the possibility that people may repress (or simply forget) traumatic memories, and remember them later; however, I think advocates for Recovered Memory Therapy wildly overstate the number of people who do this. I wish that everyone who is pursuing the “memory recovery” techniques promoted by books like CTH would take the time just to read the chapter in this book about Retractors.

Amazon reviewer.


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