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Posts Tagged ‘repressed memories’

Can a therapist do much more harm?

Posted by c. wagner on November 4, 2009

A while back, I posted a note about how the existence of “recovered” or “repressed” memories was not supported by science. Today I stumbled upon a news story that brings up the subject again. This time, it happened in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

A therapist supposedly “helped” her client recover memories of abuse by a cult, government mind control experiments, murdered babies, and a forced marriage.

But whenever the troubled woman expressed doubts about her lurid delusions, her psychologist, Suzanne James, told her she was “in denial” and encouraged her to concoct even crazier theories, state investigators concluded. Without a shred of proof, James believed it all. The St. Cloud psychologist even provided dark sunglasses to shield her client from the cult’s lasers.

Needless to say, those were mind control lasers. Hoo boy. But there’s a little bit of light in this dark corner of psychotherapy.

In a report released last week, the Minnesota Board of Psychology found James violated numerous laws and regulations governing doctor-patient conduct. Instead of helping her client get better, the board said, James made her sicker, fostering a state of unhealthy dependence that made it virtually impossible for the client to function independently.

That said, James has not lost her license to practice. She will be monitored and can accept no new clients with multiple personality disorder.

The human memory is a frail thing at the best of times, but is even less secure when a person is hurting or even just stressed. It’s horrible when someone trusted with healing a person introduces more trauma into that person’s life. Trauma that is going to be very difficult for the patient to forget. The science does show that.

Read more from the Star Tribune.

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How well can you forget?

Posted by c. wagner on October 27, 2009

I’ve been debating posting on this for a couple of days now. On one hand, the question of the reality and validity of repressed memories is interesting. On the other hand, we are talking about a man convicted of an awful crime that is related to a perhaps even more evil cover-up.

Remember Paul Shanley? The now-former priest who became the poster molester of the sex abuse in the Catholic church a few years ago? He’s now appealing his conviction. And he may have a good argument.

There were dozens of priests and hundreds of victims involved, but Shanley’s case is unusual in that there is no corroborating evidence of his crimes. Often in cases of accusations of sexual abuse — even ones that occurred years earlier — there is some other supporting proof. But the only evidence against Shanley was the memory of a now-grown man who said he didn’t recall the abuse until 2002 when he heard about a newspaper article on the clergy abuse scandal. That, he claimed, triggered a flood of memories of abuse that had occurred decades earlier at Shanley’s hand.

The problem? What the victim claims is unheard of in science.

Shanley’s lawyer argued that the former priest deserves a new trial because the jury relied on misleading “junk science” testimony about repressed memories, wrongly suggesting that such memories were considered valid by the psychological and scientific community. (Indeed, a judge concluded that repressed memories are “generally accepted by the relevant scientific community of mental health professionals.”)

Shanley’s lawyer is correct: There is no scientific consensus (and little research suggesting) that people can completely forget about traumatic events, only to recall them in detail years or decades later.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, for one, has spent her career studying the mechanisms of memory and how easily memories can be corrupted. Here’s her overview of the literature on creating memory, repressed memories, and the power of suggestion as of 2003.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Even if this conviction is overturned, Shanley was accused of abuse by three others, who were dropped from the original suit.

Read the livescience.com column by Benjamin Radford.

Read the story at boston.com.

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