By: David Bloomberg
Re: Making Monsters
Date: Mon Mar 20 1995 15:24:02
From: SHEPPARD GORDON
Subj: False memory & Monsters
When memory turns into monsters
Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters make a well-argued case against recovered
2/07/95 SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER
False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria."
Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters.
Scribners. 340 pages. $23.
THE CURRENT BATTLE over the veracity of abuse memories recovered in
psychotherapy is something of a national morality play. For its defenders,
the recovered memory movement reveals an archetypal confrontation between
blameless victim and guilty perpetrator. From this perspective, to deny the
validity of recovered memories is to cast aspersions not only on the
integrity of the survivors but on the mysterious capacities of the human mind.
For the movement's critics, on the other hand, recovered memory is a
manifestation of societal hysteria, a quack "solution" that brings legitimate
therapies into disrepute.
In "Making Monsters" Richard Ofshe, a professor of social psychology at UC-
Berkeley, and Ethan Watters, a San Francisco-based journalist, throw down the
gantlet to the movement's defenders. In their well-researched, well-argued
book, they make a convincing case that recovered memory therapy, rather than
revealing actual abuse, often creates false memories of such abuse.
Ofshe and Watters persuasively critique the inconsistencies and muddy
thinking that beset writings on recovered memories of abuse, from popular
manifestoes like "The Courage to Heal" to the recent work of psychiatrist
And they demonstrate, in chilling detail, the bizarre abuses of the
therapeutic process engaged in by psychotherapists themselves.
The crux of the debate concerns whether repressed memories of sexual abuse
can be "recovered" - remembered for the first time - in treatment with
psychotherapists. Ofshe and Watters convincingly demonstrate that the methods
employed by some therapists necessarily contaminate and often create the
"memories" that emerge. They reject the claim that the human mind is capable
of completely repressing numerous traumatic events, maintaining that it goes
against what psychologists have discovered about the workings of human memory.
Memory of childhood events, they cogently argue, is highly unlikely to take
the form of photographic images that are buried and then excavated in
pristine form years or decades later.
The authors also point out how therapists' misguided use of hypnotic
techniques and suggestion create subtle demands for the emergence of false
memories. In one of the book's most compelling chapters, they show that
patients under hypnosis are just as capable of producing imagined events as
factual ones; their fantasies may then be misconstrued as truthful memories
by therapist and patient alike.
"Making Monsters" is a smart book, bringing scientific rigor and clear
thinking to a domain where these qualities have been woefully lacking. It
also has the surprising advantage of being a good read; it is that rarest of
breeds, a social science page-turner. At times, though, its bracing polemical
style is achieved at the expense of a more complex consideration of memory,
psychotherapy and experiences of abuse.
Take the issue of memory. Ofshe and Watters' presentation of memory
research is, in itself, an important contribution, since the theories of
memory invoked by recovered memory therapists are for the most part
inconsistent and oversimplified. But, because they restrict themselves almost
exclusively to empirical research findings, the authors fail to address
various conundrums of memory encountered in the therapeutic setting.
For instance, the authors suggest that "the memories we continue to
remember are those we tend to retell or revisit in our minds." Yet careful
and responsible therapists have observed that while sometimes people do not
consciously remember traumatic events, they appear to act them out in the
behavioral patterns of their lives. This is observed not only with children
who suffer traumatic experiences pre-verbally, but in many other ways as well.
Transference is precisely what recovered memory therapists simultaneously
ignore and exploit in their unexamined roles as persuasive "guides" toward
abuse memories. They exploit the patient's willingness to invest them with
authority, and they ignore the ways in which their authority influences the
patient to comply with their subtle and not-so-subtle agendas.
There is no question that "Making Monsters" succeeds in its major goal, to
expose the abuses of the recovered memory movement. The case it makes is
damning, and it is now up to social critics to try to understand the cultural
phenomenon of recovered memory - and up to psychotherapists to clean house.
Psychotherapists have to ask themselves some pressing questions: What are
the genuinely healing aspects of psychotherapies? How do these go beyond
suggestion, persuasion or the simple use of authority? What differentiates
bad therapy from good, what kinds of therapy actually help people, and what
techniques are especially good for treating what problems?
Serious researchers at Ofshe's own university study the psychotherapy
process and its outcomes. They are trying to understand psychoanalytic
therapy scientifically, and the complex phenomena they study are a far cry
from the cartoonish version of Freudian ideas that pervade recovered memory
therapy. Psychotherapists need to keep themselves informed of this kind of
research, and assess rationally and thoroughly its implications for their
More generally, how are we to understand why abuse functions for some
people as an anchor for their identity? Why do so many people seem to feel
abused? What sort of convenient shorthand might the abuse narrative offer
people trying to come to grips with diffuse and shameful experiences? Ofshe
and Watters point to the identity and sense of belonging that accrues for
"survivors" in inpatient settings and therapy groups across the land. Why are
certain people in need of this particular mode of belonging?
Being a psychotherapist remains an "impossible profession" largely because
it requires walking a fine line between skepticism and belief, between the
demands of scientific rigor and an openness to surprise. Psychotherapists
need to be able to live comfortably with ambiguity and yet strive to
distinguish between fact and belief, reality and fantasy.
By making a strong case that the phenomenon of recovered memory is
specious, Ofshe and Watters have challenged the mental health community.
Those who feel equally passionate about the veracity of such memories must
step forward and articulate their views, holding themselves to a similarly
high standard of evidence.