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National Public Radio exposes
recovered memory therapy

     On the weekend of June 14, 2002 “This American Life,” a weekly syndicated program on National Public Radio produced by Ira Glass, which has a wide audience, aired a wonderful forty-minute segment on recovered memory therapy.
     Reporter Alice Spiegel interviewed Beth Rutherford about how it happened to her.  Beth told how she became depressed working in a cancer ward.  Her parents suggested she see a church affiliated therapist; her father Tom (an Assemblies of God minister) even made the appointment.  The first hour of therapy was very productive.  Beth talked about her experiences on the ward.  Beth immediately felt a lot better.  The therapist suggested a second appointment, “just to make sure.”  By the time Beth come to the second session, four weeks later, she was feeling so much better in fact that she ran out of things to say, half way through the session.  The therapist prodded her to say something more – “This is time that you have paid for, after all.”  Is there anything at all that’s bothering you the therapist asked Beth?  So Beth dug around and mentioned some horrific dreams she had been having sometimes.  She had a good relationship with her father but in these dreams he was sending bears after her and the like.  “Wait minute,” the therapist said, “were you ever inappropriately touched sexually?”  Dreams like that indicate that you were sexually abused, the therapist said.  “Oh no,” Beth said.  The therapist told Beth to go home and see whether she could come up with any memories of abuse.  Beth came back for a third session because she wanted to convince the therapist that nothing like that happened because the therapist and her parents knew each other.  But now she was trapped and the therapist began to pursue her quarry.
     The therapist began to give her books to read about people who had been abused.  Beth couldn’t think of any abuse but she became totally preoccupied with the subject.  She began to dream a lot and she would talk about those dreams in therapy.  At one point her therapist told her that those were not dreams, “they’re flashbacks of what hap-pened.”
     The reporter called up the American Psychological Association to find out how the Association felt about recovered memory therapy today and she was referred to an expert, therapist Michael Yapko (author of Suggestions of Abuse.)  Yapko explained what went wrong.  He said when clients in distress came to therapists who practiced recovered memory therapy (RMT), these therapists, believing that most of their clients problems were due to childhood sexual and /or Satanic ritual abuse, told their clients that such abuse was the cause of their problems.  When their clients then told them that such abuse had never happened, the therapist would smile knowingly and say that’s all been repressed.  We need to use various techniques such as hypnosis, guided imagery, medications, etc., to dig up the repressed material.  “That’s the only way you will recover.”
     But the memories the clients retrieved were not accurate, Yapko said.  Memory is prone to all kinds of distortion through all types of suggestions, coming from thera-pists’ remarks and questions, from reading matter, from support groups, from guided imagery, hypnosis, etc. etc.
     Beth illustrated how guided imagery worked with her.  She was asked to imagine herself sitting on her bed as a child.  “What are you wearing?” she was asked.  So you build on that and build and build, “till half a teaspoon of real memory becomes a whole fruit cake,” Beth said.  Then one day Beth concentrated so hard she worked herself into a trance-like state in which she recounted about how her father supposedly brought her into his bedroom, where her mother was also, and lay down beside Beth….”The foundations of your life collapse.”
     Linda Ross, a former recovered memory therapist from Arizona who was also interviewed, learned the techniques to “recover” memories in continuing education workshops after graduating with an M.A. in counseling.  But such techniques were taught in many other places.  She learned about a long list of symptoms that were supposed to indicate a history of child sexual abuse, and she learned techniques of memory retrieval.  She assumed what she was being taught was thoroughly and scientifically tested and researched, which they were not.  So she used the techniques on many of her patients who had no prior memory of being abused as children.  No matter how bizarre the tales she heard she always believed her patients.  “Don’t question, don’t doubt your patients” had been hammered into her.  Her patients got worse, but that too she had been taught to expect.  Always her patients were urged to get more memories yet.  “Unless you finish this, you will do it to your children - you must break the cycle.”
     Then Linda reached a breaking point.  She refused to believe a story of one of her clients that she had seen a neighbor eat the arm of a fried aborted fetus. Linda felt like a failure and referred the client to another therapist where the client got worse yet.  Another turning point came when Linda, at the urging of a former client, who had come to disbelieve her memories, attended an FMS meeting.  She stopped believing in recovered memory therapy.  She met the client’s parents and promised them to go public and hence her participation in this radio program. She wrote to all her former clients and told them their memories might not be real, one of only a handful of recovered memory therapists who took this step, as the producers of the program pointed out.  “And the experts were strangely quiet,” they said.  Beth Rutherford, of course, became a much-valued recanter, as most of you know.  And she was found to have been still a virgin, despite having had vivid "memories" of an abortion of a pregnancy supposedly caused by her father.  And he had had a vasectomy when Beth was four!

(This wonderful program is available as a tape for $12 from This American Life, WBEZ Radio, Navy Pier, 848 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.  Ask for June 14, 2002, Episode 215, Act One, “This American Life,” or you my call them at 312-832-3380. You can also listen to it at click on “Episodes”, “2002”,  and the pertinent “ra” icon on the left of "6/14" .)