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Report to the Mental Health Subcommittee, Crime Victims Compensation Program, Department of labor and Industries, State of Washington. Crime Victims’ Compensation and Repressed Memory, May 1, 1996.

The concept of repressed memories of sexual abuse is controversial within the scientific, legal and sociological contexts. [1] Therapists who believe in the validity of the concept operate under the belief that massive trauma leads to repression and dissociation and that their job is to excavate these alleged memories to help the client to heal. The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has recently completed a preliminary study [2] that strongly suggests that in fact such "memory retrieval" therapy may be making people worse.

In 1990, Washington State permitted individuals to seek treatment under the Crime Victim Act if they claimed previously repressed memory for childhood sexual abuse. From 1991-1995, 670 repressed memory claims were filed. Of these, 325 (49 percent) were allowed.

In the study, a nurse consultant (LP) reviewed 183 of these claims. Of these, 30 were "randomly selected for a preliminary profile." Some of the findings of this analysis are reported here. The sample was almost exclusively female (29/30 = 97 percent) and Caucasian (29/30 = 97 percent), with ages ranging from 15 to 67 years with a mean of 43 years.

The women (and one man) saw primarily Masters level therapists (26/30 = 87 percent), although 2 saw a Ph.D., 2 saw an MD, and 6 saw a Master’s level therapist in conjunction with an MD. The first memory surfaced during therapy in 26 cases (26/30) = 87 percent).

All 30 were still in therapy three years after their first memory surfaced. Over half were still in therapy five years after the first memory surfaced (18/30 = 60 percent).

Prior to memories, only 3 (10 percent) exhibited suicidal ideation or attempts; after memories, 20 (67 percent) exhibited suicidal ideation or attempts. Prior to memories, only 2 (7 percent) had been hospitalized; after memories, 11 (37 percent) had been hospitalized. Prior to memories, only 1 (3 percent) had engaged in self-mutilation; after memories 8 (27 percent) had engaged in self-mutilation.

Virtually all the patients (29/30 = 97 percent) contended they had been abused in satanic rituals. They claimed their abuse began when they were, on average, 7 months old. Parents and other family members were allegedly involved in the ritual abuse in all cases (29/29); Most remembered birth and infant cannibalism (22/29 = 76 percent) and consuming body parts (22/29 = 76 percent); The majority remembered being tortured with spiders (20/29 = 69 percent); All remembered torture or mutilation (29/29). There were no medical exams corroborating the torture or mutilation.

The sample of (mostly) women was fairly well educated, and most had been employed before entering therapy (25/30 = 83 percent), many of them in the health-care industry (1539). Three years into therapy, only 3 of the 30 (10 percent) were still employed. Of the 30, 23 (77 percent) were married before they entered therapy and got their first memory; Within three years of this time, 11/23 (48 percent) were separated or divorced. Seven (23 percent) lost custody of minor children; All (30/30) were estranged from their extended families.

Whereas the average cost of a mental health claim in the Crime Victim Compensation Program that did not involve repressed memory was $2,672, the average cost for the 183 repressed memory claims was dramatically higher: $12,296.

These preliminary results strongly suggest that current therapeutic practices of memory retrieval are damaging to the clients. Furthermore, the validity of the memories retrieved is not in any way scientifically validated.

Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
University o Washington, Seattle, WA

Brian L. Grant, M.D.
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
University of Washington, Seattle, WA\

Gary M. Franklin, M.D., M.P.H.
Department of Environmental Health
University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine
Washington state Department of Labor and Industries, Olympia, WA

Loni Parr, R.N.
Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, Olympia, WA

Rachel Brown
Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, Olympia, WA

NOTES

[1] Beahrs, J.O., Cannell, J.J., & Gutheil, T.G. (1996), "Delayed traumatic recall in adults: A synthesis with legal, clinical, and forensic recommendations," Bulletin of American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 24:45-55.

[2] State of Washington (1996), "Repressed memory claim referrals to the nurse consultant," Report to the Mental Health Subcommittee, Crime Victims Compensation Program, Department of Labor and Industries, State of Washington. (Rachael Brown and Loni Parr, investigators).

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