Repressed-Memory Therapy: Lies of the Mind

Repressed-memory therapy is harming patients, devastating families and intensifying a backlash against mental-health practitioners

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Suffering from a prolonged bout of depression and desperate for help, Melody Gavigan, 39, a computer specialist from Long Beach, California, checked herself into a local psychiatric hospital. As Gavigan recalls the experience, her problems were just beginning. During five weeks of treatment there, a family and marriage counselor repeatedly suggested that her depression stemmed from incest during her childhood. While at first Gavigan had no recollection of any abuse, the therapist kept prodding. "I was so distressed and needed help so desperately, I latched on to what he was offering me," she says. "I accepted his answers."

When asked for details, she wrote page after page of what she believed were emerging repressed memories. She told about running into the yard after being raped in the bathroom. She incorporated into another lurid rape scene an actual girlhood incident, in which she had dislocated a shoulder. She went on to recall being molested by her father when she was only a year old -- as her diapers were being changed -- and sodomized by him at five. Following what she says was the therapist's advice, Gavigan confronted her father with her accusations, severed her relationship with him, moved away and formed an incest survivors' group.

But she remained uneasy. Signing up for a college psychology course, she examined her newfound memories more carefully and concluded that they were false. Now Gavigan has begged her father's forgiveness and filed a lawsuit against the psychiatric hospital for the pain that she and her family suffered.

Gavigan is just one victim of a troubling psychological phenomenon that is harming patients, devastating families, influencing new legislation, taking up courtroom time, stirring fierce controversy among experts and intensifying a backlash against all mental-health practitioners: the "recovery" -- usually while in therapy -- of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, satanic rituals and other bizarre incidents (see box).

"If penis envy made us look dumb, this will make us look totally gullible," says psychiatrist Paul McHugh, chairman of the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins University. "This is the biggest story in psychiatry in a decade. It is a disaster for orthodox psychotherapists who are doing good work."

No one questions that childhood sexual abuse is widespread and underreported. The subject, rarely mentioned and then only in hushed tones until the 1980s, has become the stuff of talk shows, movies and feature articles. Indeed, many, perhaps millions of Americans have jarring and humiliating memories of abuse, recollections that, painful as they are, have stayed with them through the years.

But can memories of repeated incest and other bizarre incidents be so repressed that the victim is totally unaware of them until they emerge during therapy or as the result of a triggering sight, smell or sound?

Across the U.S. in the past several years, literally thousands of people -- mostly women in their 20s, 30s and 40s -- have been coming forward with accusations that they were sexually abused as children, usually by members of their own family, at home or, in many cases, at hidden sites where weird rituals were practiced. Says McHugh, "It's reached epidemic proportions."

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