Repressed memories?
March 19, 2015 6:43 AM   Subscribe

I've seen the recommendation on here for The Drama of the Gifted Child many times. I bought it last night and was reading thru it and it seemed ok until I started seeing a lot of talk about repressed memories. Wasn't that all debunked? I'm questioning the validity of anything else the author says. This is just not the book I expected based on the numerous and repeated mentions of it here on the green.

The part where I got concerned is the chapter where the story of Johanna is related. She was having trouble breastfeeding and became ill with a fever. During the fever, she had repressed memories of parental abuse surface during dreams. She is then quoted as saying that these dreams allowed her to see that her parents "robbed [her] of [her] maternal instincts when [she] was three months old."

That sounds like a lot of woo to me. You can't remember things that happened when you were three months old.

While I do find that much of what the author (Alice Miller) says resonates with me, I am concerned because of this repressed memory stuff. I thought it was just a figure of speech she was using until this particular story was relayed.

Can anyone shine some light on this repressed memories thing? Is there validity to this? I'm finding it hard to take the rest of the book seriously when this sort of thing is presented as "true".

I genuinely don't mean this as chatfilter, I'm not even quite sure of what I'm trying to ask. Is this book meant to NOT be a scientific/psychological book? Is it to be taken more in the lines of Cheri Huber type stuff (which I have read and enjoy)? I just thought expected something different than "fever dreams are true" based on the number of recommendations on here.
posted by sio42 to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I could write lots about this, but instead I will quote Richard McNally, the world's foremost scholar on traumatic memory, in relation to a controversial legal case about repressed memories.

"The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry. It has provided the theoretical basis for “recovered memory therapy” -- the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era."
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 7:02 AM on March 19, 2015 [13 favorites]

You know, I'm pretty sure penis envy has been thoroughly debunked as well, but there are those who still find other concepts in Freud to be useful both personally and clinically. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater, if anything else resonates with you in the book.
posted by blue suede stockings at 7:25 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Therapy for retrieving repressed memories is widely considered suspect.

The idea of whether memories can be repressed, however, especially in extremely young children, is still being debated. That link talks about how it's more likely due to dissociation when/if it does happen.

Miller is coming from a very psychoanalytic framework, though she rejects a great deal of it. I'm not sure you need to believe all the foundations of that framework to find her work helpful, but I think it's easier to go along with it in order to understand her larger points. Even if children aren't officially "repressing" memories through unconscious processes, a lot of kids do minimize the abuse or neglect to which they are subject as a way of maintaining a positive view of their parents or caregivers, and many new parents do come to realize how inappropriately they were parented only when they have children themselves.
posted by jaguar at 7:30 AM on March 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

I can give you a personal answer.

I am highly suspicious of the 80s-style traumatic memory like "I thought I had a happy family and then I went under hypnosis and now I remember we were all in a cult!"

That said, memory is something that is continually modified and rewritten and I can speak to how "family memory" can impact on a child and throughout my adult life...a broad-strokes example is that I was abused at night by a family member (who verified this years later, so there is no argument about that having happened) over family holiday periods.

The "happy memories" piece where we opened stockings and went tree cutting and "warriorqueen and abuser have such a special loving relationship" was reinforced over and over. The other part was never mentioned (obviously) and so although frankly, it lived very fresh in certain parts of my awareness, dissociatively -- that is sometimes I would remember it without any feelings, sometimes I would remember the feelings without really any details, which left me with very bad free-floating feelings about say sex -- a lot of the time I just bought the family narrative. It did take therapeutic work for me to put the pieces together.

And like I said, I have the unusual situation of having been given a lot of truth and details.

Alice Miller's work spoke a lot to me about all the dynamics around some of that reality that impacted me and my worldview. I think whether or not "repression" means total amnesia or massaging of information, it is something that we naturally do and yet the patterns and habits and ways of thinking continue. I agree that her psychoanalytic perspective around 3 months is pretty woo, but I don't think that negates her insight into how parenting impacts on people once they're grown in an "on the ground" way.

I will also note that it really drives me crazy that there is a ton of PTSD research around soldiers and yet when women have PTSD from childhood, they are not believed that they do have flashbacks, physiological symptoms, etc. Various military PTSd documents state that soldiers forget experiences or forget key elements of them. Maybe they have not caught up to the latest research, but it seems to me that there's an element of judgement involved when it comes to abuse-type memories. Unfortunately it's probably come from the hysterical cult craze in the 80s that a lot of therapists benefited from.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:57 AM on March 19, 2015 [30 favorites]

As warriorqueen said, "Inability to recall key features of the traumatic event (usually dissociative amnesia; not due to head injury, alcohol, or drugs)" is one of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
posted by jaguar at 8:11 AM on March 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

The problem with Alice Miller isn't so much that she subscribes to dealing with nasty early childhood memories by ways of therapy (which can be debated in a manner of ways) but that she is so relentlessly angry all the time. Too many of her own axes being ground.

The book has been helpful to me nevertheless, not so much because of suppressed early childhood memories but rather because of stuff from around when I was seven or so. The concept of trying to re-live the authentic feelings of sadness and outrage about stuff that happened has been useful.

One rarely believes everything an author says. It's good to make a distinction between the things that may have been important for her to write down, and those that are important for you to read and work with.
posted by Namlit at 8:13 AM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

I thought it was well-understood that in cases of severe trauama or abuse especially at a very young age, memories sometimes become inaccessible, only to surface through flashbacks and other means at a much later time when it is safe to process them. Speaking as an abuse survivor that happened to me, and also to two members of my family, and also to someone in the support group I'm part of. In my case there is corroborating evidence from family members which means that the memory is very likely to be true, even though I tried everything to make it go away or be false, including wondering if I had just made it up or implanted it.

The classic book Victims No Longer, written for male victims of sexual abuse, describes many more examples, so much so that the author in his clinical practice suspects abuse immediately when people talk of not remembering much of their childhood (though there are many other indicators, such as substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, depression, etc). He is suspicious of targeted means for deliberately retrieving memories; as are the counselors at the group I attend, and as is my own therapist, but none would question the reality of memories of trauma that spontaneously re-emerge in adulthood. Maybe they were never really forgotten, just put aside and semi-consciously ignored for 30 years until it was a safe time to process them, at which point they are re-asserted. Does that mean they were 'repressed'? I don't know if it's useful jargon as it seems to be loaded. Maybe the field needs a new jargon word. While they argue about it, I assure you this is being lived on the front lines.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:14 AM on March 19, 2015 [18 favorites]

Thank you to everyone for sharing some personal experiences here.

The PTSD angle makes a lot more sense to me and I think I can view the mentions of "repressed memories" through that lens while reading the book.

I didn't want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" per se, but if she really was subscribing to something that was about as effective as an ear candle, it would make very skeptical that the rest of what was valid. Which maybe is throwing the baby out, but I'm trying to avoid getting wrapped in woo when I'm looking for something more substantial.

It looks like some reading on PTSD would be useful.
posted by sio42 at 8:59 AM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

just adding that i too was molested as a child and i've gotten access to memories later in life that i have no reason to question. this hasn't been through therapy or because i was looking for them. i knew i was abused, and i remembered some stuff the whole time, but other things just came into sharper focus in a way i could recall instead of being a vague uncomfortable feeling just out of reach in my mind.
posted by nadawi at 9:54 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I got repeatedly molested as a little girl, maybe at six years of age. And I forgot about it. Seriously. As a older kid I read lots if books on abuse, I was fascinated by the topic. But I didn't remember my own experiences, until my abuser started molesting me again when I was fourteen. And suddenly the memories came back vividly, as though I'd never forgotten.

I still don't understand how I could have forgotten all this! But that's what happened.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:19 AM on March 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Just to add a scientific reference to the personal stories above: Childhood amnesia is well established science. We all lose memories of what happened to us as children, although the reasons for this are not clear. Fragmentary memories can survive, but not from very early in life: nobody can remember things that happened to them when they were three months old.
posted by pharm at 3:12 AM on March 20, 2015

Just as an aside: seen the acuteness of many peoples' not-repressed (for want of a better term) childhood memories from far far back, I think the question of whether early memories exist or not is actually not that hotly debated (I recall several scenes from when I was two years old, and at least one fragment from when I couldn't even walk).
Problems arise when we talk about what to do with them, and especially, whether it is feasible and a good thing to, in therapy, extricate memories that have long been buried by time and stress.

As to the mechanism of 'suppressing' in and of itself, just review some more nearby pleasant and unpleasant events for how much you recall of them. Examples: 'had I not written a diary during the most terse phase of my divorce, I would have forgotten almost all about it'; 'that rebuke I got from my boss last year, I can't even remember whether I was in his office or he in mine'; versus 'the greatest day of my last vacation' - that kind of thing.
posted by Namlit at 6:45 AM on March 20, 2015

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