The Magazine

The End of a Delusion

The psychiatric memory wars are over.

May 26, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 36 • By PAUL R. MCHUGH
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So, for instance, both the orthodox and the mannerists believed that Western society is the primary source of mental distress: Freud taught that society restricted the expression of our drives, producing conflicts and neurosis; the mannerists claimed that society protected the sexual predators by its paternalistic structure. Meanwhile, both believed in a dynamic unconscious roiling with suppressed secrets: Freud supposed that the unconscious hid our selfish impulses and hungers from consciousness and thus from censure by a repressive culture; the mannerists held that the unconscious hid the shocking memories from consciousness so that family life could go on. Finally, both believed that therapy should bring the unconscious issues to light: Freud said this would spare the subject from wasting psychic energy repressing his drives and so allow him to flourish in "love and work"; the mannerists believed that acknowledging the "repressed" abuse would lead to a life free of the nightmares, failures in personal relationships, and self-destructive behaviors generated by the unconscious memories.

The manneristic Freudians made intellectual moves defined by orthodox Freudianism, even while they rejected such politically incorrect Freudian ideas as penis envy. And so the memory wars were launched by the aggressive proposals of the manneristic Freudians. The signal event in this offensive against reason and plausibility was the publication in 1984 of Jeffrey Masson's book, "The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory." As the archivist of the Freud papers (many of which are still secret), Masson was an insider amongst the orthodox Freudians, but he turned on his master's memory to resurrect Freud's original claim of childhood sexual abuse as the cause of neurosis. Indeed, Masson claimed that Freud knew it to be true but lacked the courage to press on with it. With the publication of this book--and the consequent dismissal of Masson as Freud's archivist--manneristic Freudianism and the concept of repressed memory moved to the front of psychiatry.

THIS FIRST PHASE of the memory wars demonstrated how quickly an idea about mental life can grow and spread in the public, particularly if it offers an opportunity to identify new victims and new villains. The manneristic Freudians encountered few obstructions as their ideas gained support through the 1980s and early 1990s from psychiatrists and psychologists working in psychotherapy.

Many books were written to encourage the practice of recovering lost memories, the most successful of which--indeed a continuing bestseller--was "The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse" published in 1988 by two radical feminists with no qualifications in psychology and psychiatry. By 1991 some manneristic Freudians were claiming that up to half of the patients in psychiatric care were suffering from the effects of repressed or dissociated memories of sexual abuse.

It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well that many psychiatrists in teaching positions began to receive calls from families reporting how their adult offspring--mostly daughters--were accusing them of the most ferocious forms of sexual abuse when they were children. Casualties began to mount rapidly: mostly family breakup and estrangement, but also growing mental derangement in the accusers. They were under pressure first to "remember" the details of the purported abuse they had "repressed" and then to "relive" these experiences in their psychotherapy sessions for cathartic relief. Why was it a surprise when patients treated in this fashion got worse, not better? More symptoms of depression colored with anger, resentment, and fear emerged, and suicide attempts began to occur. Long hospitalizations were often required. All these unfortunate outcomes replicated Freud's original experience with recovered-memory treatment a hundred years before.

THE SECOND PHASE of the memory wars was the organization of opposition to these ideas and practices. In 1992 a group of accused parents and concerned psychologists and psychiatrists founded the "False Memory Syndrome Foundation" (of which I am a board member) to "provide support and advice to accused family members and to disseminate scientific information about trauma and memory to the public at large." The argument of the foundation was that therapeutic techniques attempting to recover repressed memories actually led to the creation of psychologically compelling but false memories of childhood sex abuse, with all the destructive effects such false beliefs bring to the patient and the family.