MEMORIES? WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' MEMORIES . . .

A Review of Making Monsters by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters

by Christine Norstrand

Introduction

In Making Monsters, Ofshe and Watters raise several issues surrounding the validity of recovered memories. They examine both the validity of admitting recovered memories as evidence in legal proceedings and whether or not addressing recovered memories constitutes valid therapeutic practice. The book's best points include:

Summary

The authors draw the reader's attention to several tight arguments against the validity of recovered memories:

  1. First, memory functions in ways that are not clearly understood by either professional psychologists or the general public. Many indications suggest that some memories are "manufactured" as a result of imagination and secondary learning, and that this is normal and expected. To illustrate, Jean Piaget, father of developmental psychology, recounts that his nurse had misreported an attempt to kidnap him as a child. No such kidnap attempt had, in fact, been made, yet by way of imagination his "memory" had manufactured a past that corresponded to the stories he'd heard of the event. Ofshe and Watters hold that the "recovered memory movement" fails to establish a clear definition of what constitutes a recovered memory. Because memories are subject to "suggestion", the authors believe that recovered memory therapists exploit this collapse of distinction between memory and imagination to create dependency in their clients.
  2. A second compelling argument makes the point that both patients and their therapists have time, money, and expectations invested in the belief system that surrounds recovered memories. These emotional and financial investments preclude a detached observation of the validity of such therapy. Recovered memory sessions fuse Freudian technique and expectations to suggest or evoke "memories" that will explain the client's current condition. For the therapist, the rejection of a suggested etiology of abuse is rationalized as "denial" or "resistance". For the client, asserting that no abuse ever took place intimates that her trust, as well as other financial and emotional investments in therapy, was misplaced and that her condition may be hopeless.
  3. Hypnosis even more effectively creates "suggested" or false memories than do leading questions, interpretation, and other questionable therapeutic practices. People vary widely in their suggestibility, both under hypnosis and in traditional therapeutic settings. In essence, much of recovered memory practice is comparable to asking the client not to think of pink elephants -- if she can conceive a pink elephant she must have seen, had, or been one in another life. The implications in matters of religious faith are ominous. Some religious traditions depend on the workability of such suggestions: Prospective members are instructed to pray to the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth; the Saturday morning visitors return the following week to find that the new convert has indeed had a religious experience.
  4. Yet another argument: The etiology of recovered memories, as well as ritual and Satanic abuse stems from the "effort after meaning", the effort to find a prior cause to explain one's unwanted feelings or symptoms, or for those aspects of one's current life for which one has no rational explanation. Recovered memories, according to the authors, are usually explored after several years' psychodynamic therapy fails to resolve the patient's complaints. Repressed abuse is first suggested and then discovered, yet the symptoms fail to resolve. The unstated assumption underlying recovered memory therapy is that something very bad must have happened in the past to account for the current state of psychological disrepair. From this fallacious assumption, both client and therapist further assume that if the symptoms and well-being of the client do not spontaneously recover when the childhood sexual abuse is uncovered, that there must be even more, yet undiscovered, abuse. One incident becomes many, a pattern of betrayal is established, even going so far as the assertions of Dr. Cory Hammond at the University of Utah who holds to the existence of an underground Satanic network of childhood sexual abuse that spans generations. As still more recovered memories are sought and found yet symptoms continue; the conclusion is that an even more heinous single cause is yet to be uncovered. One "memory" follows another until eventually the patient finds herself "remembering" Satanic ritual abuse. Recovered memory therapy spans years, often with adverse consequences that include: an undermining of the client's reality as to the actual content of her past experience, disintegration of her ties to her family with nothing to replace the lost social support structure, and a reframing of the client's experience wherein she redefines herself as a victim.
  5. The diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD)) has increased exponentially in the last few years. Two hundred known cases were documented in history until 1979. In 1980, Colin Ross estimated MPD in one percent of Americans, or more than two million people. The authors believe that a lack of definitive diagnostic criteria in DSM- IV will lead to an influx of new, and incorrect, diagnoses of MPD.
  6. Diagnostic criteria are unclear and open to interpretation. The DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for Multiple Personality Disorder are aptly criticized as justifying a MPD diagnosis on the scantiest of evidence. Also indicted are therapeutic techniques that "assume the patient still beats his wife". For example, changes in consciousness such as those experienced during a drive in the country can be inappropriately personalized in the therapeutic process. Asking "Let me speak to that part of you that enjoyed driving in the country" can easily interpreted as a directive to create a new persona and respond from that persona. Using an identification procedure misdefines the experience as "other", as external to the person's cognitive awareness.

Critique

Despite compelling arguments against recovered memories, Making Monsters fails on several counts:

  1. The authors misrepresent the case of the opposition. To state the professional case for the validity recovered memories, Ofshe and Watters sought out Ellen Bass, coauthor of The Courage to Heal, at her home outside Santa Cruz. Neither Ms. Bass nor her friend and coauthor, Laura Davis (author of The Courage to Heal Workbook) claim to be professionals but writes from their own experience. Ms. Bass says, "common sense". The authors elected her an apologist for the movement, a role she was not equipped to fill. They asked her to how she accounted for the psychological phenomena of recovered memory. She disclaimed her responses by stating that she was only a housewife yet they continued to point out the fallacies and inconsistencies in her answers.
  2. The authors claim that recovered memory advocates often make acceptance of the memory a feminist issue, that they will be attacked because they don't toe the feminist party line. If such an allegation is true, it nevertheless disrecommends the authors' position to counter it. Claiming one's opponent holds a viewpoint because of political considerations is tantamount to an accusation of intellectual dishonesty. It fails to address the opponent's case on its own merits; it is an ad hominem argument.
  3. Making Monsters utilizes such anecdotal horror stories as the woman whose dying daughter would not speak to her, and the father who was unjustly accused and sued by his daughter. Such tales of injustice evoke emotional responses; they fail to rationally establish the validity of a claim. They are bad journalism and bad science. Although many studies are cited, the studies are not described; rather findings are excerpted as authoritative substantiation of the authors' claims. The Bell Curve has already disabused most of us of faith in purely metanalytical research.
  4. Ofshe and Watters overtly question the professional ethics of recovered memory therapists, something nice people do not do to their colleagues. They communicate this in subtle ways: a description of a therapist's gated home, inferences about years of unproductive therapy, diagnoses of MPD more frequent than the historical norms. In fact, however, we have no reason not to assume that professionals treat their patients in good faith, that they are neither malevolent nor incompetent. If this is not generally the case, clear and compelling evidence, such as censure by professional organizations, must be provided, not innuendo.
  5. The authors are remiss in addressing the issues of when legal vs. psychological evidence should be a determining factor in adjudicating the validity of false memory claims. Should witnesses who have "collaborated" by comparing memories be held reliable?
  6. The possibility that some recovered memories of abuse may be valid is ignored. Critical discernment tools are needed. The book's intention appears to be to discredit all recovered memories. That the book is so reactionary to the recovered memory movement weakens its position. We know from many longitudinal studies that 1 in 4 women are sexually abused at some point in their life, and that this frequency has remained stable over time.
  7. Making Monsters was particularly wanting in addressing the issues surrounding memory function. Unfortunately, this area is taken up in the first chapters and failures here undermine the credibility of what follows. Specifically, the authors initially make the distinction between normal memory and subconscious memory but fail to provide basic indoctrination steps that would be appropriate in a book aimed at a popular audience. No discussion of memory pathways or sort-term vs. long-term memory is provided. The authors claim that recovered memories are "created and maintained by weekly therapy sessions that verify the new belief structure" but fail to really explain the mechanics of how they believe this could occur.

    Moreover, the authors ask a) If children repress each trauma as it happens, wouldn't this phenomena have been documented throughout history? This is specious reasoning at best, rhetorically manipulative at worst. In other words, they argue that science is whole and complete and no undiscovered truths remain. If this argument were true, there would have been no point in questioning the geocentric model of the universe and countless other scientific revelations.

    The authors continue on the subject of children dealing with childhood sexual abuse trauma to ask b) If they do not repress each incident but rather a block of time, what event triggers the repression? The authors appear to chose to ignore the obvious answer, something that every teacher or professional working with children knows quite well: Perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse threaten children and their families if the child reports the abuse: "You had better forget this ever happened or else." Just as the authors argue that the line between imagination and fabrication is thin, so is the line between suppression and repression.

  8. The authors fail to take advantage of a clear opportunity to outline the ethical reporting responsibilities of professionals. Where a crime has been committed or others may be subject to abuse by a suspected perpetrator, the Tarasoff decision and California law outlines duties to inform and protect. It falls outside ethical boundaries to instigate a lawsuit on the patient's behalf, whether the lawsuit is based on an experientially valid event or not. Ethical considerations dictate that the therapist, not the client, report the possibility of abuse where others may be at risk.

Conclusion

In what comes across as a reactionary attempts to discredit the recovered memory movement in toto, Ofshe and Watters fail to deal with the reality that these recovered memories, whether experientially valid or iatrogenic in nature, exist. What is to be done about them? A person who is still defining herself as a victim of her experiences, attempting to dominate her family by demanding apologies and redress, has not integrated the experience. She is still not getting on with life. Even a decade of therapy may not be inappropriate but some evidence that the therapy works is required. Such evidence would need to be identified in terms of an objective scale of measurable behaviors. In summary, Making Monsters is an inflammatory exposé. It makes valid and points that will be well-received by a popular audience. It fails, however, to offer a resolution to the situation as it exists; it misrepresents the scientific position of the opposing position; and it casts aspersions on the character of its practitioners. It is cheap popular journalism; it is not good science.

(Published in Free Spirit Journal, Spring 1996)



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