Date: Tue Sep 27 1994 23:03:52
From: Sheldon Wernikoff of 1:115/299
To: David Bloomberg of 1:2430/2112
Copyright 1994 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times, Friday August 5, 1994, Pg. E1
Recalling or Fabricating Past Abuse?; Psychotherapy: Michael Yapko
Says Much So-Called "Recovered Memory" Is In Fact Suggested By
Counselors. Others Find Merits In Their Methods.
By Jeanne Wright
To psychologist and author Michael Yapko, much of what goes on in
the name of psychotherapy is "blatantly stupid."
First there was Freud's theory of penis envy, then in the 1970s
there were nude encounters and LSD therapy. Today, people delve
into past-life regression and turn to crystals for help.
Some of it "is just moronic," says the San Diego therapist.
But Yapko, an expert in memory and hypnosis, says the therapy most
en vogue today goes beyond absurdity. Recalling memories of sexual
abuse -- either real or imagined -- is the latest fad in psychotherapy
-- and it may be the most dangerous, Yapko warns.
His controversial new book, "Suggestions of Abuse"(Simon & Schuster,
$22), is an indictment of mental health professionals who lead
their patients to mistakenly believe they are victims of sexual
abuse, thus recklessly and unwittingly destroying lives and families.
Yapko, a soft-spoken clinician, has created an uproar among mental
health professionals by writing the first book to take the profession
to task for its techniques in recovering memory, based on research
and surveys of nearly 900 therapists across the country.
Critics who disagree with Yapko's views say he exaggerates the
problem, relies on inconclusive research and may frighten real
abuse victims, keeping them from seeking psychological help.
"It's a very dangerous implication," contends Lenore Terr, a San
Francisco psychologist who writes about recovered memory cases in
her recently published book, "Unchained Memories" (Basic Books,
"There are a lot of people who have extreme anxiety and need
psychotherapy. And if they start thinking that evil therapists
will get ahold of them and force them into believing things, I
think we are going to lose a lot of people who could have been
helped," Terr cautions.
* * * *
Public debate over recovered memories has raged in the press and
been highlighted in several high-profile court cases, including
the lawsuit involving Holly Ramona, an Irvine woman who accused
her father of molesting her. The accusations arose while she was
under therapy at Western Medical Center-Anaheim.
Yapko's research sought to determine the level and quality of his
colleagues' expertise in the area of memories and hypnosis.
His conclusion is that some therapists engaging in recovered memory
therapy are "frighteningly" misinformed and are suggesting memories
of abuse that may never have happened.
"I was surprised and in many cases shocked . . . that so many of
my colleagues are conducting their clinical practice on the basis
of misinformation and myth," Yapko said during an interview.
Even before "recovered memories" became the trendy topic of talk
shows, Yapko had begun to express dismay over the growing preoccupation
therapists had with finding evidence of past abuse.
In the early 1980s, while writing a textbook on the clinical use
of hypnosis, Yapko says he would get called about once every three
months by a therapist asking that he hypnotize a patient to determine
if the patient had been sexually abused as a child.
By the late 1980s, the frequency of such calls from therapists had
grown to nearly daily. Concerned, he warned therapists in the
revised edition of his textbook about the potential dangers of
using hypnosis or other suggestive techniques to unearth buried
He was soon inundated with calls, letters and visits from people
all over the country who feared they had been mishandled by a
therapist, that their memories of abuse may have been untrue and
their lives shattered.
But Yapko says it was one particularly desperate phone call from
a woman who wanted him to hypnotize her that really spurred him to
write "Suggestions of Abuse."
"It was the straw that broke the camel's back," Yapko recalls. She
said she wanted to discover if she had been sexually abused as a
child. "What makes you think you might have been abused?" Yapko
asked. The woman responded: "Well, I called another therapist for
help with my poor self-esteem, and she told me that I must have
been abused as a child and I should have hypnosis to find out."
Yapko was stunned. "I thought, this is crazy," he says.
* * * *
"When I first started talking about this in 1991, (colleagues) were
real irritated," Yapko says. "It was not politically correct to
raise any doubts about therapists' practices in such a sensitive
arena like sexual abuse."
Although the profession is still polarized over the issue of
recovered memories, Yapko says increasing numbers of colleagues
accept the warning that if not used properly, hypnosis and other
techniques may lead patients to adopt false memories.
"What I really want to make clear is that abuse does happen with
alarming frequency. . . . This is not about disbelieving or
discounting abuse survivors," Yapko says.
"But under conditions of sloppy therapy, people can be led to
believe things that are not true, including that they were abused."
Yapko says he wrote the book to both educate and alert the public
and help families who have become entangled in these cases.
Allegations based on supposed repressed memories have reached
epidemic proportions in this country, he says.
In surveys presented to therapists at psychotherapy conventions,
he questioned professionals about their knowledge and practice of
recovering memories and hypnosis. He surveyed those at therapy
training courses he taught. He also viewed videotapes of therapists'
sessions with patients.
The recovered memory theory holds that people who may have suffered
a traumatic experience such as sexual abuse may repress or
psychologically block out the memory because it is too painful. At
a later time, the memory may surface on its own or be recovered
with the help of hypnosis, counseling or drug therapy, according
to some professionals.
Yapko doesn't deny that some people may repress terrible memories.
But he and others admit that there is no way to know if a reclaimed
memory is true unless there is corroborating evidence.
James L. McGaugh, director of UCI's Center for the Neurobiology of
Learning and Memory, is a scientist who has done research in the
field of memory since 1956. He says the recovered memory movement
among some therapists is "absolutely irresponsible."
McGaugh insists there is no scientific evidence to prove that
so-called recovered memories are accurate.
The number of cases in which people are claiming to have sudden
memories of terrible experiences in their past is astonishing, he
says. There is an entire "cottage industry" that has grown up around
this kind of therapy.
He says people are willing to embrace the therapy because they want
some kind of explanation for why they have problems.
Tustin lawyer Brandt Caudill, who often defends therapists in
lawsuits stemming from repressed memory cases, says there has been
a dramatic upswing in lawsuits filed against therapists by patients
who contend they were wronged during therapy.
The recent verdict in the Ramona case had a significant impact on
the public, Caudill says. In May, a Napa Valley Superior Court jury
awarded Gary Ramona $500,000, ruling that his daughter's therapists
had wronged him by implanting false memories of child abuse during
Caudill said his office alone has about two dozen cases pending in
The American Psychiatric Assn.'s Board of Trustees issued a statement
in December expressing concern that "the public confusion and dismay
over this issue and the possibility of false accusations not
discredit the reports of patients who have indeed been traumatized
by actual previous abuse."
* * * *
Yapko's concern lies with how patients' memories are being recalled
and what role therapists and other outside influences may have
played in forming that memory.
Did the patient remember the memory independently? Or did a therapist
draw it out under hypnosis, under the influence of the drug sodium
Amytal or during suggestive questioning? Was it in a dream? Or
could the memory be an image once seen in a movie or read in a
The therapists' responses to his survey "indicate grave cause for
concern," Yapko says.
"While the great majority of therapists are well-intentioned people
who genuinely want to help their clients, the survey data make it
abundantly clear that too many therapists hold beliefs that are
sometimes arbitrary, sometimes sheer myth, and sometimes outright
dangerous to their clients' well-being," Yapko writes in the book.
Of the 864 therapists who responded to one portion of the survey,
57% admitted "that they do nothing at all to differentiate truth
from fiction" when dealing with patients' memories, Yapko writes.
Forty-three percent of the therapists who participated in the survey
believed that "if someone doesn't remember much about his or her
childhood, it is most likely because it was somehow traumatic," he
Although research on hypnosis as an effective investigative method
shows conflicting results, nearly half believe that memories obtained
under hypnosis are more accurate than simply remembering, Yapko
Hypnosis is "not a lie detector, nor does it prevent either
intentional or unintentional deception on the part of the hypnotized
person," Yapko writes. Yet one in five of the therapists questioned
said they believed that people cannot lie under hypnosis.
Yapko said he was heartened to find that 75% believed it is possible
to "suggest false memories to someone who then incorporates them
as true memories." Nearly one in five therapists said they could
point to cases where it seemed likely that a victim's trauma was
somehow suggested by the therapist rather than a real experience.
Terr, an author and clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San
Francisco, disagrees with Yapko over the frequency of patients
being mishandled by therapists.
"I think he overstates the problem," Terr said in an interview.
She is an expert on trauma and memory and is known for her research
on the kidnaped children of Chowchilla. She was an expert witness
for the prosecution in the 1991 murder conviction of George Franklin
in Redwood City. Franklin was found guilty based on his daughter's
testimony that, after 20 years, she suddenly remembered seeing her
father murder her childhood friend. Terr also testified on the
behalf of the therapists sued in the Gary Ramona case.
Terr, who has faced off against Yapko on the talk show circuit,
says it is rare for recovered memories to be wholly false. She also
disagrees with Yapko's view that many mental health professionals
are so misinformed about memory that they are planting memories in
their patients' minds.
Most therapists are well-intentioned and treat people properly,
"Obviously, it sometimes happens. . . . There are a few rotten eggs
in any basket. . . . But he has numbers that I really would find
"I think the number of people who are having true return of memory
are much greater than the number of people who are having implanted
memories by someone else," Terr says.
But Yapko contends the risk of patients' true memories being
contaminated or false memories being suggested is very real.
In his book, he cites examples of some of the comments and questioning
techniques used by therapists that he believes can carelessly lead
patients to develop false memories of abuse.
Despite the lack of evidence to suspect the patient was abused,
according to Yapko, a therapist might say, "Your symptoms seem to
fit the profile of someone who was sexually abused as a child. Were
Another approach may be, "I have reason to believe you were sexually
abused as a child. Can you think of any experiences you might have
had that would be considered evidence of abuse?"
These types of statements and questions can lead to confusion and
distress and potentially taint real memories with sexual connotations,
Yapko argues. After hearing these remarks, the patient is forced
to consider the possibility that he may have been abused, even if
he never had any reason to believe so. Sometimes allegations of
satanic ritual abuse and evidence in these cases sound very
far-fetched to observers, said attorney Caudill. "But look at the
Jeffrey Dahmer case, the Branch Davidians or the Jim Jones case.
These cases were very outlandish." No one would have believed such
events could have happened, he said.
The notion of going to a therapist seeking help for a specific
problem and having them suggest -- without any corroborating evidence
-- that you may have been sexually abused as a child is frightening,
He advises adults and parents of young children who are going to
therapy to be wary of mental health professionals who jump to
conclusions and offer snap opinions on whether the patient fits a
profile of an abuse victim.
"That is a legitimate concern," Yapko said. "There are paranoid
therapists. There are therapists who are intent on finding abuse
with no matter what someone comes in for, including acne."