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Editor’s Comment: Beth Rutherford, Springfield, MO went for counseling at age 19 due to stress from her work as a nurse in a cancer unit. The first time she went into the counselor’s office she was certain that she had a wonderful family and childhood. However, during 2 1/2 years of therapy with a church counselor, she began recovering “memories” of being sexually abused by her father between the ages of 7 and 14. Allegations were made against her father (a credentialed minister). She accused him of many things including impregnating her twice and performing a coat hanger abortion on her. If prosecuted, he would face 7 years to life in prison. A series of events over many months brought Beth to the realization that these “memories” were false memories. Beth later retracted and rejoined the family. Upon being medically examined, Beth was found to be a virgin. She now is speaking out to help prevent what happened to her from happening to others.
How did the reconstruction of my childhood and supposed recovery of “past memories” occur in therapy?
It was a process. It happened slowly, and I never stood back and looked at ‘A to Z’ all at once. I was absorbed into this process one “letter” at a time. The following is a general overview of the process:
- P – Putting doubt in my mind about my family, our relationships, my childhood, and my own memory.
- R – Remembering my childhood.
- O – Omitting the good and focusing on the perceived bad.
- C – Commitment that dreams and ideas are “true memories” and flashbacks of reality.
- E – Emotionalizing the memories and establishing loyalties to my therapist.
- S – Separating from my parents and from all those who did not believe me. Then taking….
- S – Steps of accusation and confrontation.
Each one of these phases was groundwork for bringing me deeper into believing that terrible sexual abuse had actually happened to me. In my conversations with other victims of this therapy, this process seems to be a common thread in all of our experiences with Age Regression/Recovered Memory Therapy.
P – PUTTING DOUBT IN MY MIND
The starting point for me was the therapist asking me if I had ever been sexually abused. After I got over the shock, I emphatically said, “No, never!” I was told that I fit the signs (symptom list) of being abused.
The power of suggestion is an underestimated power. In my second session I happened to tell my therapist that I sometimes had strange dreams of heated arguments between my father and me, dreams of having my father send bears after me, and of his coming after me with a knife. I was told that these were dreams that sexually abused people have and, therefore, I had to have been sexually abused. This was the start of the downhill slide of my life for the next 2 1/2 years.
The following are a few examples of the conversations that I had in therapy that put doubts in my mind, causing me to begin to wonder if perhaps I had been a victim of sexual abuse:
Therapist: You’re a high achiever in school (4.0 GPA). This suggests that you have been sexually abused.
Therapist: You absorbed yourself with your academic studies in order to cope with the abuse you experienced at home.
Beth: But, why don’t I remember any of this?
Therapist: It is because you have repressed it. It’s the only way you could deal with the pain. Now you are mature enough to handle the information your mind is trying to reveal to you.
Therapist: You need to trust me. I know what I’m talking about when it comes to sexual abuse. I will help you recover your past and work through it. You see, Beth, the only way you will ever be a mentally healthy person is to recover these memories and deal with them. Then you can become a truly whole person.
The suggestion that your family and childhood may not be as good as you thought is powerfully implanted.
R – REMEMBERING MY CHILDHOOD
I was asked to remember and tell what it was like growing up in my home. I shared various stories, conversations, events, told about places, and gave multiple details. I described what our home looked like, how many rooms it had, where all of the bedrooms were, etc. These statements gave my therapist specific events and details to work with as she weaved an amazing abuse story and all the while using my own stories with a new interpretation and twist. For example, in describing one of the homes we lived in, I told my therapist about a little storage shed that we had. This later became a place in my “memories” where I had been tied up and objects were inserted in me.
O – OMITTING THE GOOD AND FOCUSING ON THE PERCEIVED BAD
In this phase of therapy, I began to talk less and less about the good in my family. When I attempted to point out times of happiness, I was told that this was not the focus of our session. Every wonderful time I described from my childhood was taken and twisted into an example of a dysfunctional family.
Example 1: I told the therapist about times when my Dad and I wrote out checks and paid bills together when I was 9 years old. Instead of seeing the good in this situation, that I was learning about finances and enjoying a grown-up activity, my therapist focused on a twisted reinterpretation, stating that my father treated me as a marriage partner, and that he really should have been doing this with my mom. The therapist said that this was an indication that he preferred me over my mother.
Example 2: I shared about a few times that my sisters and I got a peck on the lips as a good-bye from my parents when they would be leaving on a trip or going away for a few days. Instead of seeing this as a beautiful and simple demonstration of parental love, the therapist suggested that only a husband and a wife should ever kiss on the lips, that it was wrong for a daughter and father to do so, and that this was inappropriate sexual behavior on the part of my father.
Example 3: My parents would encourage me to do well in school since academics was a natural ability and interest of mine. Instead of seeing this as parental support for my tendencies toward and enjoyment of academics, the therapist reinterpreted the parental words of encouragement, saying, “Your parents were feeling guilty about the fact that they were abusing you. If you did well in school, they wouldn’t feel like they were causing you any damage or harm by the abuse they were committing.”
Over time I came to believe that I had an incorrect memory of my childhood and that my therapist really had the correct view. I was told that people who were abused are not good judges of their own past because if abuse is all you have known or grown up with, you would not see it as wrong or abnormal.
C – COMMITMENT THAT DREAMS AND IDEAS ARE “TRUE MEMORIES” AND FLASHBACKS OF REALITY
As the focus on sexual abuse in our therapy sessions escalated, so did the sexual content and intensity of my dreams. I would come into the next therapy session and was asked what I had dreamed about recently. I was told that these were actual memories (not dreams or fantasies) and that through dreams my mind was revealing facts to me.
I was asked to concentrate deeply on my childhood. In this state of deep concentration and focus on earlier years, I went into hypnotic and trance-like states.
After “coming out” of one of these trances, I was told by my therapist that I had just revealed an event of sexual abuse and described for her something that had happened to me. She would then read back to me what she had written down about the “memory” I had recovered. I trusted my counselor. I looked up to her (she had an MS degree in counseling-psychology and BSW in social work). She was a professional. Although I didn’t consciously remember what happened in those trance-like states, I felt that I could trust her when she would explain, “Beth, you have just had a flashback into your past. . .these are real events that have actually happened to you. . .”
E – EMOTIONALIZING THE MEMORIES.
We talked about what a victim “feels” like and focused on the emotions of a victim: feelings of helplessness, loss of control, anger, hatred of your mother for not protecting you from your father, feeling dirty and afraid. As I began to internalize these emotions, they became a part of my thinking and my feelings.
I began having “body memories.” When coming out of a trance, I could actually feel the pain of being penetrated. My legs would go numb from ‘remembering’ times of being tied up. Again, I was told that this all was repressed and was now coming out; my mind was now allowing me to know what really happened to me as a child. These physical symptoms only reinforced for me that these times of abuse had to have happened or I would not be feeling the physical pain.
A highly significant phase of fully believing in the reality of my recovered “memories” was going to other mental health professionals for evaluations. A psychiatrist and a psychologist concluded from their psychological testing and evaluation that indeed I had been severely traumatized as a child. With these results, I fully believed that my good and happy childhood was really a cruel joke. (I only wish that I realized then what I know now, that Psychological testing is not a proof of history. It is only a reflection of what you believe and what is in your mind at the time of testing.)
E – ESTABLISHING LOYALTIES TO MY THERAPIST
I told my therapist everything: every dinner conversation held at home, my parents’ phone calls that I overheard, the comments my dad and mom made to me, etc. I called her from my closet at home if I felt scared. There were times I might call her four or more times a day in addition to my numerous therapy sessions. Sometimes I had two and three therapy sessions a week. Some were two- and three-hour marathons each.
I sneaked into my father’s office and got into his files and found papers he had to sign. I brought them to the therapist so that she could copy them for herself, and then I sneaked them back into my father’s files.
I would have given my life to be her daughter. An emotional bond was formed between us. I felt like only she could save me from my broken life. I thought that only she truly knew me and, therefore, only she could help me. I lived for my therapist and therapy sessions.
S – SEPARATING FROM MY PARENTS AND FROM ALL THOSE WHO DID NOT BELIEVE ME.
I was told that the only way that I was going to be able to be a healthy adult was to get away from my infectious parents, because they were like cancer and I had to “cut them out” in order to be a mentally healthy adult. The therapist told me that they were the cause of all the problems in my life, and I must be the one to break the cycle of abuse in my family so that I in turn would not abuse my children. I was told that my parents’ refusal to admit guilt meant that I must separate from them, for they were in denial. P>By this time, I had deteriorated physically. I weighed 87 pounds, was on medication, and hated life. I was told that in order to have any happiness in my life, I had to get away from my sick parents and any relatives who would not believe me. Only by cutting them all out of my life was healing possible.
S – STEPS OF ACCUSATION AND CONFRONTATION
Not every son or daughter takes this step. I was more than encouraged; I actually felt pressured to do this by the therapist. My plan was to get away from my parents and never see them again. However, accusations were brought against my parents in an ecclesiastical meeting, an absolute nightmare for them. It was the first time they were informed of what 2 1/2 years of therapy had created.
To accuse my parents was a statement of defiance. I told them that just because they wouldn’t admit what they had done to me didn’t mean I would back down from my belief that they did it. Making these accusations was driven by the therapist, who consistently told me that to accuse is the only way true healing can begin.
I was never further from true healing! I went to her office 2 1/2 years earlier as a normal, well adjusted, happy young adult with job stress. And after 2 1/2 years of “treatment” I was unrecognizable! I was a wreck mentally, physically, socially, financially and educationally. I was jobless with a destroyed past, present, and future. Thank God, He helped me find my way out of “therapy” and put me on the road of recovery.
IN SUMMARY, each situation is different. Those of us who are victims of False Memory Syndrome initially go to a therapist for different reasons. For me, it was job stress. For others it may be a painful divorce, a death in the family, marital problems, problems with a child, a tragic pregnancy, etc. But one thing is certain, we never walked into the therapist’s office with the idea that we had been sexually abused. Unfortunately however, we all left with that idea.
Each person is an individual with individual needs who warrants being treated as such. If you went to a medical doctor’s office with indigestion and wanted him to treat you for the indigestion, would it be acceptable medical practice for a doctor:
- to neglect to give you a physical examination;
- not to verify symptoms with external evidence and tests, or not take a medical history, etc.;
- to extemporaneously diagnose you with cancer of the stomach;
- to proceed with years of treatment (chemo/radiation/experimental drugs);
- to talk you into having a surgery to cut out the cancer by removing part of your stomach;
- to watch you deteriorate in every way; only to discover you never had cancer at all?
Would this be acceptable medical practice? Of course not! So why are similar methods tolerated in the professional mental health community? There is something wrong with “methodology” or “services rendered” if an unsuspecting client comes in with a little headache and goes out with no arms or legs….comes in with one problem and leaves with a life shattered to pieces. What ever happened to the sensibility of the Hippocratic Oath, “To Do No Harm.” Yes, there are real people who do have real cancer who need treatment. And of course, there are real people, who have had experienced real sexual abuse who may need assistance in dealing with that horrendous load of agony and pain. Those people deserve to be believed, listened to and helped. One case of sexual abuse is one case too many…. a nightmare for any who have lived through it. But to diagnose someone as sexually abused and to lead people to believe that horrible things happened to them that in reality never did….to destroy lives….to play with peoples’ minds is morally despicable malpractice.