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Truth & Memory It can be tricky, delving into adult recollections of childhood abuse


The allegations are ugly: Celebrities Roseanne Arnold, LaToya Jackson and Suzanne Somers stand out among the growing number of adults who are speaking about incest they remember from their childhood, sometimes even from infancy.

But how accurate are such memories of early sexual abuse?

Those who study memory describe it as a sticky and elastic substance that has a lot to do with the present: It is composed of the recollections of an incident, subsequent talk and suggestions about it, and a present-day perspective.

"What is an accurate memory and what is not? It's a difficult question that's right up there with 'What is reality?' and 'What is truth?' " says Dr. Gregory Lehne, a specialist in the evaluation and treatment of sexual concerns and an assistant professor of medical psychology in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine psychiatry department.

"A lot of early memories -- before the age of 5 or 6 -- are encoded in a way that they are reconstructed for recall: What you remember very often is what you recalled the last time you thought of it. It's like playing that game of telling a rumor and passing it around the room: The story changes with time. And some of those memories may change over time.

"When you deal with memories of what may be sexual, you realize that what is sexual is an adult definition. Children don't have the same definition of sexuality that adults do," he says.

"On the one hand, experiences that adults would call sexual may not be perceived as sexual or remembered as sexual by children.

"Then, there are other cases that children have memories of being touched or handled that were not sexual -- like taking rectal temperatures or cleaning around the vagina or anus -- which they don't really understand at the time and later can be cued as sexual memories. Especially if they are asked, 'Did anyone touch you between the legs?' "

Current memory research shows people can easily acquire false memories through hypnosis or persuasive suggestions about their childhood.

"Memory is not a videotape that we take through life, put in a memory machine and play back in order to remember. It's a present creation that attempts to re-create a past that may or may not have occurred," says psychologist Melvin Guyer, a professor in the department of child psychiatry at the University of Michigan. He is also an attorney.

Often serving as a defense consultant for people accused of sexual abuse, Dr. Guyer has investigated "delayed discovery" cases in which a victim of sexual abuse remembers the abuse only many years later in therapy. He suggests that many patients may actually be victims of memories created by their therapist's suggestions.

Some therapists believe troubled relationships, eating disorders, problems with employment and poor self-image are often symptoms of early childhood sexual abuse, he says. That bias can determine the course of therapy and sometimes result in well-meaning but potentially harmful suggestions.

"A number of delayed-discovery patients have gone from therapist to therapist seeking some answer to why they have intractable problems," Dr. Guyer says.

He offers a hypothetical conversation in which the therapist might say many patients with similar problems experienced sexual abuse.

"The patient might say, 'I have no memory of it.' And the therapist might say, 'Well that's what it's like, you don't remember. But I believe it probably happened to you.'

"And suddenly, people start remembering things that happened to them when they were 6 months old. Some regression therapists take people back to infancy and get these detailed descriptions of 'what my daddy did to me when I was 6 months old.'

"A patient is apt to start [remembering] by saying something like, 'Now I remember a looming shape.' And as the therapy continues, the memory becomes more and more precise. It is my suggestion," Dr. Guyer says, "that the increasing precision is a product of the therapist's suggestion and the patient's wish to be compliant and to 'remember' more. The general idea behind this [kind of revelation] is 'You're doing great! And when you remember more, you will get better.' "

But incest survivor Linda D. of Baltimore says the debate about false memories is merely another way society denies that incest exists.

"The old way was to say, 'You're making it up.' The new way is to say, 'The therapist is making it up for you.' It's just more of 'This couldn't have happened, this didn't happen.' Nobody wants to think that incest is at epidemic proportions."

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation in Philadelphia was created a year ago to respond to families whose members have been accused of sexual abuse by relatives claiming to have repressed those memories until they were in therapy.

The foundation has received calls from 2,600 families who say they have been falsely accused. Although there is no way to assess the accuracy of the charges, according to executive director Pamela Freyd, foundation researchers record each family's story and look for patterns in the way the accusers came to "remember" what happened to them.

Mental health professionals caution that for every potentially false memory of childhood sexual abuse, there are many more that are accurate. They say therapists face a formidable task in helping troubled patients discuss the traumas they remember.

Citing large-scale studies of war veterans and Holocaust victims, psychologist Judith Armstrong points out that survivors do not often talk about horrible experiences unless they are asked about them directly.

"Every therapist has a very delicate job. On the one hand, you don't want to suggest things to certain people; and on the other hand, if you don't inquire, you're not going to find out about certain things they need to talk about," says Dr. Armstrong, a professor at Towson State University.

"To add to the complication, we do have evidence that people who have been sexually abused and traumatized in a more general sense often have amnesia about it," she says.

Definitions of sexual abuse also have changed. Some use the term to describe painful physical episodes as well as the uncomfortable ways parents can stare at their children.

Dr. Janelle Maldonado, a psychologist who specializes in sexual abuse and eating disorders at Sheppard Pratt Hospital, defines "overt" sexual abuse as crossing the expected physical boundaries in such dependent relationships as parent/child, teacher/student, therapist/client, physician/patient, coach/athlete, Scout leader/Scout and priest/parishioner.

"Covert" sexual abuse, she says, happens when a child becomes a surrogate partner to the parent.

"It includes the mother who dresses seductively for her son . . . or it might be parents who brush against their children in a suggestive way or ask them to describe in detail what happened on their dates. Or you might see parents talking about their own sexual difficulties to a child."

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