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Esman, A.H. (1995). On “Recovered Memories”. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 43:295-296.

(1995). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 43:295-296

On “Recovered Memories”

Aaron H. Esman, M.D.

December 8, 1994

The papers in JAPA 42/4 on childhood abuse and its developmental and pathogenic implications are an admirable psychoanalytic contribution to the continuing discussion of this complex and controversial issue. Of particular interest is Brenneis's imaginative discussion of the problems inherent in distinguishing “real” from “false” recovered memories of sexual abuse—i.e., the question of iatrogenic suggestion vs. “empathic” acceptance. Empirical study in this area is obviously difficult, and ardent partisans of credence on the one hand and dubiety on the other will continue to make their claims in the absence of clear and valid evidence.

One area in which claims for the etiological salience of childhood sexual abuse have been voiced is that of the eating disorders in general and bulimia in particular. Fortunately, careful epidemiological studies have been performed in this field, both here and abroad, and from these studies, as I pointed out in a recent Editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry(Esman, 1994), the evidence is clear. These investigations converge on the conclusion that, in the case of bulimia at least, the data do not support the notion that such abuse has specific causative effect, except in the context of general family pathology and other forms of abuse, both psychological and physical. Thus, the widespread practice of encouraging, even coercing, the “recovery” of “memories” of sexual abuse (including the use of hypnosis) is clearly unwarranted and may in fact be dangerous both to the patient and to family members.

It must be said that such cases as that of the pathetic Paul Ingram (Wright, 1994) induce a high level of doubt about the validity of many instances of “recovered memories.” It appears that in most cases memories of actual abuse have not been repressed and are readily accessible to conscious recall. This is neither to support the blunderbuss polemics of Frederick Crews (1994) against the very concept of repression, nor to minimize the social and clinical importance of child abuse, so well and movingly documented by Brandt Steele.

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