The Courage to Reconsider


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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22 Responses

  1. Avatar gregiank says:

    First the recovered memory concept, as you state, is crap. There is really little to it. I don’t think attributing to feminism really makes sense. Certainly some of the therapist who pushed it were likely of a feminist bent, but that doesn’t imply feminism was part of pushing the phenomenon. I think it more came about because of a combination of frenetic, crappy, fear based news reporting, a christianist fueled terror of devil worship ( a lot of the prominent cases of mass abuse also involved accusations of satanism or some such poo) and the largely correct discovery that sex abuse was more prevalent then people had thought.

    Sadly the therapy professions often have a lack of respect for or out right aversion to scientific evidence. The people who pushed it couldn’t prove anything outside of anecdata and trials that were more like witch hunts.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to gregiank says:

      @gregiank, I’m not entirely sure where Salon was going with the “feminist-inspired” stuff since there really was a lot of hysteria about underground devil worship that I don’t remember as being particularly feminist. But I do think the argument resonated among some feminists anyway, since the authors of The Courage to Heal are noted feminist activists, and Maram was a feminist journalist at the time.

      I remember once going to a dinner in which another guest was the then-president of the American Psychological Association, and I asked him a rude question that made him chuckle, thankfully: “Isn’t your profession a bit like a banana republic? It seems like every time there’s a new theory all of the old history has to be re-written and the old theories erased from memory.”

      One of my wife’s frequent complaints about her profession is that some therapists have this tendency to rush headlong into a new theory that seems to explain many pathologies- currently, it’s the rush to declare everyone bi-polar. I suspect part of what this woman is talking about relates to that tendency.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @Rufus F., The rush to every fad diagnosis drove me crazy when i was therapist. Wait, it still pisses me off.

        I don’t think history is rewritten, since people still endlessly teach Freud even though he has relatively few people who adhere to anything like his ideas. I think many therapist need to chant “if you a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” three times before seeing a client. To many are suckers for recognizing the patterns they want to see.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to greginak says:

          @greginak, I guess history’s not the right word. It’s just that I’ve had the same quirks since I was a teenager and been told that those quirks were the result of at least four different disorders depending on what was in fashion that season.Report

          • Avatar greginak in reply to Rufus F. says:

            @Rufus F., Hmmmm ( rubs beard) tell me more about that.Report

            • Avatar John Henry in reply to greginak says:

              @greginak, And your relationship with your mother; how was that as you were growing up?

              The problem is that people are complex and they don’t generally understand themselves or their own motivations as well as they would like. It takes a lot of talent and mental discipline to develop the self-awareness necessary to avoid simply projecting your own biases/theories onto others. As psychiatry is the new spiritual direction, it’s worth noting that this is not a new problem; many a Catholic saint has complained that hardly on person in a hundred is qualified to give good advice; but when you find such a person, it can be invaluable.Report

  2. Avatar bearing says:

    It helps reinforce a useful mistrust of families.

    If deep down you believe that nuclear families, however shiny happy on the outside, are really dark, sinister, and dangerous on the inside, then your theory is bolstered by every case of familial sexual molestation.

    A belief that families really aren’t competent to raise their own children safely is a helpful philosophical grounding for increased governmental oversight of the family.

    Furthermore, if you believe that men are basically dangerous people who shouldn’t be left unsupervised with their own children, let alone other people’s children, it makes it rather easier to hold beliefs like “many children are probably better off being raised by a single mother.” It affects policy towards marriage and divorce and custody, if nothing else.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to bearing says:

      @bearing, I think this is a bit much though. Certainly, there were radical feminists in the 70s at least who were openly opposed to nuclear families, but I think it was because they were genuinely radical in their beliefs more than out of covert statism. Remember that the state is generally run by men.

      It’s strange- feminism has become so much more moderate in the last few decades. I’m old enough to remember radical feminists arguing that women would be free of the patriarchy only when they, en masse, became lesbians.

      And I could be wrong but while I do remember radical feminists arguing for the abolition of the nuclear family, I really don’t remember them arguing for increased government oversight of the family. Now, social workers might be a different story- living in a “low income” community, I’m amazed at how much social workers are involved in people’s lives here and, as a result, they’re generally more hated than the government.Report

      • Avatar Simon K in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @Rufus F., Back in the old country social workers were responsible for many of the worst child molestation witch-hunts. They were deeply hated for a while even by the middle class for having taken children into state care based on crackpot theories about sexual abuse.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Simon K says:

          @Simon K, I think Christopher Lasch wrote about you’re referring to. I find it sort of disturbing, even given how much alcohol abuse and other dysfunctional behaviors I see here, how many people I encounter in my town who are currently fighting to keep their children from being taken by child protective services. It’s hard to believe there’s not some kind of special focus on neighborhoods in this income bracket.Report

          • Avatar Simon K in reply to Rufus F. says:

            @Rufus F., Its horrifying, especially when you consider the very poor quality of the state or foster care many children who are taken from their parents experience.

            I’m sure CPS doesn’t have an explicit policy of focussing on poor neighbourhoods, but ends up doing so anyway, simply because one case leads to intelligence about other cases, and poorer people are less likely to understand how to fight back.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to bearing says:

      @bearing, Leaving aside the grand conspiracy to destroy the family aspect of your post, you should know that many women were convicted in the big recovered memory witch hunts at pre-schools.Report

  3. Avatar Trumwill says:

    I see this not as something that feminism wrought. There’s no percentage in it. Rather, I think the association is because feminists were much more quick to buy into the theory because its perpetrators were mostly men and its victims mostly girls. So it was especially horrifying, if true. Then it was HORRIFYING, if true. Then it was ABSOLUTELY HORRIFYING (assuming it’s true).

    As a general rule, we lend more credence to the frequency and severity offenses that we (or people like us) are more likely to face and less credence to offenses were are more likely to be accused of. This is true of men and women and of the left and the right and everything in between.

    While a lot of young boys were alleged victims, too, I think the general imagery was abused girls at the hands of their male aggressors or, for the early skeptics, men being assumed guilty until proven innocent.Report

    • Avatar Rufus in reply to Trumwill says:

      @Trumwill, Yeah, and I think there’s something to that. It’s occurred to me that of course feminists are going to be concerned about women being victimized- that’s what they’re concerned with. Like, duh. Not to mention the fact that American society was not always greatly responsive to the molestation issue in the first place. My mother was almost abducted as a child, and fought off an attacher, and her parents shrugged it off! So dragging the issue into the light was not a bad thing and it’s understandable why feminists would be part of that- a problem of sexual victimization, somewhat taboo in patriarchal societies, etc.Report

      • Avatar Simon K in reply to Rufus says:

        @Rufus, And its still true, unfortunately, that girls get abused and for one reason or another their parents write it off and it doesn’t get to the police. I hope such things are rarer than they were, but I’m sadly not sure of it.

        I think feminists saw the recovered-memory thing as a way to get the voices of victims heard were they weren’t heard before, and as confirmation that the problem was more widespread than was believed. The first was a reasonably goal and the second was a true belief. It was unfortunate – and in retrospect rather predictable – that most recovered memories turned out not to be true.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Rufus says:

        @Rufus, during the previous discussion on crime rates, I did a little legwork and saw the breakdown of rates and one of the huge factors in the overall increase of violent crime was the increase or rape. This, I don’t think, represents rape becoming much more common than it was decades ago but rather much more commonly reported. And most rapes (from what I understand) go unreported still. So given the darkness imposed by the taboos, the belief that there were tons and tons of molestations going overlooked due to taboos was really quite understandable. But I think they so much wanted to believe this that they took non-credible methodology more seriously than they should have. And, of course, so did society at large until we got a grip on things.Report

  4. Carl Sagan talks about repressed memory syndrome in (1995’s) The Demon Haunted World. He basically groups it with U.F.O. abductions, religious visions, devil worship etc., as part of a general 80s hysteria.

    But there is some scientific basis for the idea, like there is some scientific basis for phrenology. Everything we experience is implanted in our brains from the time we have brains and begin using our senses to learn about the world. What ultimately forms our declarative memory are the sense-data recordings that we link to other sense-data recordings. So when I remember the time I almost drowned when I was three years old, it’s because recalling this was often useful for me whenever I felt like engaging in horseplay at the public pool later on in my childhood.

    The idea of repressed memories, that experiences have been so unpleasant that we consciously lock them away seems to make little sense from a neuroanatomical perspective. Wouldn’t we remember these experiences particularly vividly since they would obviously carry important information for us thereafter. What we actually repress are memories that are mundane for us at the time, because we don’t gain any inductive knowledge from them.

    It is possible that someday we may have the technology to uncover these true “repressed memory” artifacts, but they will probably be fairly boring and worthless from a practical standpoint, but may have emotional nostalgiac value. So I don’t think history will repeat itself so much as there will be progress. Therapy will become a real science once we have a few more discoveries and better technology, provided something catestrophic doesn’t happen, in the same way as alchemy became chemistry and metaphysics became physics.Report

    • Avatar Rufus in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      @Christopher Carr, One thing I find mildly frightening is that the research right now is towards finding drugs that can obliterate traumatic memories, and it bothers me for exactly the reasons you describe- I need to be able to learn from those experiences in order to protect myself.

      You’ve gotten at a question I’ve asked my wife but thought would sound too glib here: If I go through the most painful and traumatic experience of my life, wouldn’t that be the last thing I’d ever forget?

      It seems to me that they’re working from Freud’s “return of the repressed” idea, but I don’t think he was talking necessarily about painful memories being lost and forgotten, just not dealt with. It’s fascinating to think of Freud having an influence on feminist therapeutic thought though, and a bit unexpected. But, you know, if you repress anything long enough…Report

      • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Rufus says:

        @Rufus, An incredibly large body of Freud’s generally off-the-cuff theories have turned out to be eerily correct, and as counterintuitive as repressed memories seem, people far more knowledgeable than I buy into it.

        But the existence of repressed memories would neccesarily mean that our hard-won and parsimonious models of how memory works are fundamentally wrong. I tend to side with science over Freud, unless someone could explain the science of repressed memories to me. Do we consciously choose to destroy our own neurons, or is there a special section of the human brain where we isolate and lock away painful sense-data?

        That part about drugs to obliterate traumatic memories is nothing short of frightening, like the kind of stuff Philip K. Dick wrote about.Report

  5. Avatar Boegiboe says:

    I thought that trauma or unpleasantness were the secondary aspects of a repressed memory; the primary aspect is the guilt felt by the victim.

    “It’s bad to do X. This adult made me do X, but I did the bad thing, so I feel bad. This doesn’t makes sense, so I won’t think about it.”

    Or something like that. Young children have much more broad capacities for interfacing with reality than adults do. That is, the younger a child is, the more they can believe in imaginary friends, can lie bald-faced to their parents, and, maybe, can choose to forget bad things (or even sublimate their attention during a bad experience, so they really don’t have a clear memory of it). As children get older, that detachment from reality gets harder, and if there is a pattern of being abused by an adult, especially one that started at a young age and continued over some years, it can cause severe emotional disturbances.

    So, repressed memory syndrome is not “crap” in the sense that there are clear mechanisms by which it can happen, and appears to have truly happened in some cases.

    None of this speaks to the cultural phenomenon of repressed memory syndrome being blown way out of proportion to reality, nor the many victims of that phenomenon. I just thought some of the comments were going a little too far in saying the psychological phenomenon is impossible or total crap.Report

    • Avatar gregiank in reply to Boegiboe says:

      @Boegiboe, You are certainly correct that memories can be repressed, that is without question. However in many of the big cases that started the Repressed Memory movement hypnosis was used to recall the repressed memories which is entirely unsupported by science and basic knowledge of what hypnosis does. Also in many cases the repressed memories were encouraged or coerced by really, really bad practitioners. Anybody who knows much about memory, especially among children, knows that memory is ephemeral and very susceptible to language and influence.Report