Lost Daughters: Recovered Memory Therapy and the People It Hurts by Reinder Van Til, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997, $18.00, 266 pp.

Reviewed By
John A. Speyrer 

Van Til's Lost Daughters is a well-written and powerfully argued book born in the foundry of the author's experiences of alienation from his daughter after her association with members of a radical feminist group and subsequent psychotherapy. The purported revelation that she was molested in childhood by her father was uncovered as the result of a type of Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT). Van Til writes that this form of psychotherapy can create a false memory syndrome in the patient and has split families apart when a person mistakenly believes that sexual molestation has occurred during her childhood.

As background information for RMT, the author goes into much detail as he explains the limitations of memory and the nature of repression. The author has an interesting section on Freud's position on childhood sexual abuse as well as a listing of symptoms which the RMT therapist looks for in their patients. Van Til writes that the list is so general that it would fit the profile of anyone. He says that the techniques of RMT consist of guided imagery exercises, re-living the earlier traumatic experiences, dream interpretation, and hypnosis. The author feels that the patients of RMT therapists succumb to the power of suggestion used by therapists who have an agenda or a need to discover childhood sexual abuse in their patients. He writes that there is no evidence that it is possible to repress years of abuse. He says that high suggestibility of the supposed victims also was the explanation for the infamous McMartin Preschool case, the unintentional fraud of facilitated communication with autistics and the Paul Ingram molestation case.

Van Til writes that the false memory syndrome is nothing new . It was operative during the late nineteenth century when the power of suggestion fooled French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. He had unwittingly placed his hysteric patients in the living quarters of epileptics and found that they soon began mimicking the behavior of the epileptics. Charcot did not realize what was happening until it was pointed out to him by one of his students. When Charcot isolated his hysteric patients from the epileptics, and paid less attention to their behaviors, they no longer showed an interest in their pseudo-epileptic activities, and their symptoms dropped away. Again, unconscious suggestion was the culprit.

Van Til includes a chapter on how the radical feminist movement has encouraged the acceptance of false and misleading information and has made more acceptable the status of "victimhood." The author writes that ". . . (w)omen who accept the thesis that all men are sexual monsters will naturally be more receptive to the tenets of RMT." He believes that neither multiple personality disorders nor claims of satanic ritual abuse have a basis in reality. The author concludes that seeing sexual abuse where none exists is a modern day witch hunt and indeed he draws interesting parallels between the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials of the late 1600's and modern day sexual abuse hysteria.

The book's chapters alternate with five personal accounts of daughters (including his own) who have accused their parents of childhood sexual molestation. This, coupled with a historical background of the subject, makes Lost Daughters an interesting and persuasive book.

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This book review gives me an opportunity to ramble a bit about the false memory syndrome and memory. FMS seems to be a hot potato with the primal and regressive therapy theorists since this issue is never discussed by them. The issue should be discussed since FMS'ers bring up important points which merit consideration.

The unreliability of traditional memory which supporters of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation usually write about is quite different from the quality of memory accessed in primal and other abreactive regressive therapies. Perhaps the proponents of the existence of FMS would contend that such memories are even less reliable than memory of material apart from regressive re-livings. Certainly, the feelings association with memory retrieved in a regressive therapy are much more intense than a normal memory of say, a vacation trip, because invariably, traumas are what is accessed.

One example from a visual primal I had a number of years ago will illustrate this difference. One day at home while re-living a birth sequence of gagging, coughing and choking, I began having visions of being in the baby wading pool at our city park. In my mind's eye I saw a vision in which I was about 4 or 5 years old and had begun to slip and fall because of a growth of green slime at the bottom of the pool. I fell on my back and began aspirating water. During the primal regression, I could very clearly "see" the height of the sun in the sky and tasted the water entering my throat and lungs as I gagged and choked. This "scene" lasted only seconds but with this primal experience the details of the wading pool environment were burned in my memory.

Very soon thereafter, I was transported back to my living room floor and continued the birth-work. I had had an interconnected primal which is primal work that involves two or more separate experiences which have a common physical or emotional theme. When the primal feeling was over, I felt an almost compulsive need to validate the experience I had just had. I felt I needed to confirm the physical layout of the center of the pool where the trauma had occurred. In the visual primal, I had particularly recalled the appearance of the water fountain and statuary at the center of the wading pool.

I live near the city park so, after the primal, I immediately drove to the scene of my near-drowning. I noticed that the center area of the pool was much less ornate than in my primal re-living. But since the actual episode had taken place some fifty years previously, it is reasonable to assume that the original center area had been remodeled!

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But had I perhaps re-experienced an event that actually never happened? I was concerned, since, if the pool had not been constructed when I was the age I thought I was, I would have had a false memory. I telephoned the park service and was told the construction was part of a project begun during the depression and that the work had been completed in either 1936 or 1937. I was satisfied since the information meant that I would have had to have been at least 5 years old at the time. So the time frame was essentially correct.

But how certain was I that I had experienced a near drowning in the baby wading pool, and that the primal memory was a faithful recreation of the event? My subjective certainty was absolute. However, is it still possible that I had confabulated aspects of the incident? The entire incident? Perhaps the statuary at the center of the pool was much less ornate than what I "saw" in the primal. That is a possibility.

With a normal memory of an event, there is usually no such clarity of retrieved vision even though such visions recounted above are the exception rather than the rule (I have had only three primals with such intense visual components). A more typical primal involves the reliving of the feeling of an actual event or the amalgamation of the feeling components of a number of events with shared emotions but without the visual element.

So, are false memories possible? I believe that they are. Van Til cites studies which show that the analogy of memories being laid down like high fidelity tape recordings is false. It is possible to retrieve a transpersonal memory in many forms of regressive therapy, and such access is very common in a therapy such as breathwork. It occasionally happens in primal therapy.

What about the reliability of a transpersonal memory of a past life, of evolutionary recapitulation, of an alien abduction, an out-of-body experience, cellular consciousness re-livings, or encounters with various deities or historical figures? (In a holotropic breathwork session I relived being almighty God Himself who had just created the earth !!) Where do rational people (even primal people!) draw the line between the probability of reality and its complete improbability? Helping a veteran re-live the entire battle of Iwo Jima in a states-side veterans' hospital ward was fascinating to the attendants, until it was learned that during the Second World War he had never left the continental United States!

My position is neither one of being for nor against the reliability of accessed memories in psychotherapy. The validity of memories does not concern us greatly as we go about our daily living and therapists can even "work with" a patients' feelings even if the event in question did not actually happen. But when such purported incidents such as incest and sexual molestation split families apart and truth is sought to be defined in courts of law, it is important to take a look at the reliability of memory. I believe that in many such cases the judicial system is unable to arrive at the truth. The testimony of various experts on each side of the issue is a useless expensive exercise. The guilt or innocence of a parent is not a question which can be easily resolved in spite of the fact that so heavy financial and emotional burdens are involved .

I believe that false memories can occur because of an overload of pain of repressed trauma. This can result in symbolization of feelings and at such times it is possible to interpret the resultant connection as meaning one thing when it does not. I believe that the feeling memory is always correct, but when we are pushed into transpersonal feelings we may decide that the culprit or source of our pain is not whom or what we think it is.

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The author of Lost Daughters feels that it is not possible to repress years of abuse. He believes that if the abuse was ongoing, it will be remembered. But, laid down memory residuals consist of a lot more than the recalling of a traumatic incident or a series of incidents. Repression is not all or none. Partial repression is the rule rather than the exception. The person who suffered the abuse might very well know on some level that the abuse occurred. But it might remain something that she never thinks about, since it is painful and suppressed. In addition, elements, especially aspects of feeling elements, might be partially repressed.

If, later in life, someone had asked me if I had ever had a near drowning experience, I am certain I would have replied, "no." But, if someone who knew about the experience would have probed further and asked, "What about the baby wading pool incident?" I might have had some inkling or memory that I did have that experience. But that does not mean that I did remember the experience. That proding of my memory would not have made be realize the fear and discomfort I suffered on that day, so such an accessed memory is sometimes only peripheral. Only the reliving of the experience brought me face-to-face with what happened that Summer afternoon. Thus emotional distance from an traumatic event may mean that the trauma is not confronted even though it may be remembered.

The mere recollection of a trauma or a series of traumas does not undo the devastation which was laid down in the victim's mind and body's neurological system. In those cases of early and severe trauma, the memory is always more fully repressed. The feeling component of the memory can be completely repressed while the mere fact that the trauma did occur is not. Only considering whether there was some knowledge that the abuse occurred is not the most essential element when traumas are remembered.

In some cases, the devastation which the victim suffered as a child as a result of a pattern of continued abuse may have been completely repressed in order that the needy and completely dependent child could continue living psychologically and physically with the abusive family. Without this repression and dissociative split the victims could not have continued functioning unless she was able to remain sane in a situation which was insane.

When asked later in life if she had ever been a victim of childhood sexual abuse, she might answer "yes," but on some level, the feeling reality and effects of the incest can be completely unknown and unfelt.