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Clearer Memory

Editorial from The Guide
November 2002

In the mid-1980s, some psychotherapists began peddling "repressed memory therapy" (RMT). According to them, sexual abuse was often so horrific that victims would banish memory of it from their consciousness, sometimes for decades. Only with the help of a therapist trained in RMT could patients troubled by a wide-ranging host of symptoms get at the source of their woes; almost invariably, RMT practitioners found that their patients had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a male authority figure. That a patient did not initially remember such abuse was taken as evidence of how terrible the trauma in fact was. Why else, the circular reasoning goes, would the patient have so thoroughly repressed such memories unless the abuse had been horrific?

But that's not how memory works. Survivors of the Nazi's Holocaust or the Khmer Rouge's killing fields do not report "dissociative amnesia" wherein they lose all memory of the events they lived through. Indeed, many such survivors report being plagued by all-too vivid memories the rest of their lives. And while it is normal to forget an embarrassing incident or have difficulty recalling details of a story from long ago, there is no evidence that people have trouble remembering traumatic events. Commonsense and science agree that horrible, oft-repeated events are most memorable.

Tragically, though, advocates of RMT have ruined thousands of lives. They have urged patients to "remember" non-events that are not based in reality but are rather an amalgam of the therapist's and patient's fantasies. Fantastic stories of satanic abuse, secret torture chambers, infant sacrifice, and bodily mutilation have been leveled against fathers, uncles, camp counselors, clergy, and doctors. The lack of corroborating evidence has been dismissed as irrelevant because, according to the RMT mantra, the accusing patient must be believed.

Like the Salem witch hunters 300 years earlier, advocates of RMT may have begun with good intentions, but their "evidence" is just as spectral and the consequences of their actions just as pernicious. Hundreds of people are still in prison unjustly because of false accusations by patients coached to "remember" events that never happened.

Such nefarious mischief occurs because we remain plagued by irrational attitudes about the dangers of sex. And even if we are not personally the target of false accusations concocted by irresponsible therapists, we all need to be on guard about how our pasts are remembered.

Just a generation ago, children pulling down their pants behind the garage to compare anatomies would have been dismissed as "playing doctor." In today's insane climate, though, such children risk being discovered by adults inculcated in the prevailing hysteria that childhood sexuality is a minefield of cataclysmic dangers. Indeed, a parent convinced that their "innocent" child would never do something so nasty without being enticed by others may insist that the police get involved; amazingly, kids are being prosecuted for behavior that used to be seen as a normal part of maturation. What could have been remembered, appropriately enough, as an inconsequential bit of sexual exploration, will instead be branded as a psychic, possibly criminal, trauma.

Or consider the young teenage boy caught fooling around with a male friend. Once accosted, he is likely to disavow his voluntary participation -- he does not want to be thought a "fag." He will be encouraged, by parents and police and therapists, to see himself as a tragic victim of a predatory homosexual. Indeed, he may come to believe such nonsense himself, later relating "memories" of the time he was "raped" or "abused."

All memories exist in a context. When that context is warped by beliefs that sex itself -- especially gay sex -- is fundamentally wicked, memories are inevitably distorted. Our struggle as gay people has always been to correct that distortion, to see sex more clearly, and to share with a troubled world a less fearful vision of our sexual present, future ... and past.

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