Is psychotherapy sometimes a factor in the creation of false memories of childhood sexual abuse (CSA)? The authors of this study found that spontaneously recollected memories of childhood sexual abuse were corroborated just as often as continuous (never "forgotten") memories of childhood sexual abuse (both corroborated 37% of the time), except when spontaneous recall occurred during psychotherapy. In a starling finding, the authors report that no cases of childhood sexual abuse could be corroborated for memories spontaneously recovered during psychotherapy.
ABSTRACT – Although controversy surrounds the relative authenticity of discontinuous versus continuous memories of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), little is known about whether such memories differ in their likelihood of corroborative evidence. Individuals reporting CSA memories were interviewed, and two independent raters attempted to find corroborative information for the allegations. Continuous CSA memories CSA memories and discontinuous memories that were unexpectedly recalled outside therapy were more likely to be corroborated than anticipated discontinuous memories recovered in therapy. Evidence that suggestion during therapy possibly mediates these differences comes from the additional finding that individuals who recalled the memories outside therapy were markedly more surprised at the existence of their memories than were individuals who initially recalled the memories in therapy. These results indicate that discontinuous CSA memories spontaneously retrieved outside of therapy may be accurate, while implicating expectations arising from suggestions during therapy in producing false CSA memories.
Psychotherapy entails a complex interplay between the conscious and unconscious worlds of both the therapist and the patient such that each deeply influences the internal experience of the other during the therapy session. Psychotherapists who are not deeply attentive to these mutual influences can exert malign effects on patients who are enlisted to meet conscious and unconscious pathological needs of the therapist.
A particularly egregious example of malign influence on patient recollections occurred in the case of Chicago psychiatrist Bennett Braun who was, at one time, a professional icon in Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) circles. Braun made quite a name for himself during the 1980s and 1990s despite deep skepticism and concern about both his claims and his motives. The very damaging effects of Braun's work were eventually exposed. In a compromise with the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation, Braun surrendered his license for two years and received five years of probation — light consequences, in my opinion, for the harm he did to those who placed their trust in him. Besides the damage done directly to patients under his care, one insidious effect of cases like Braun's is that it provides ammunition to those who are, for a variety of reasons, invested in denying the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse — victimizing the victims yet again.