“Christian psychologists” follow the theories of secular theorists and they pick up certain ideas and treat them as truth. One set of currently popular psychological notions is that people repress impulses and memories from consciousness and that those impulses and memories continue to act in powerful ways from an active, motivating unconscious.
Influence of Freud
Simply put, the scientifically unproven notion is that painful memories are pushed out of normal memory and packed into a powerful unconscious. Then those “forgotten” memories supposedly cause people to act in certain ways. The unproven Freudian-based idea is that if what is hidden in the unconscious can be exposed, then people will know why they behave the way they do and then with such self-knowledge they change their thinking and behaving. Thus, if a “forgotten” memory of abuse is “remembered” in therapy, that serves as an explanation for one’s present behavior. However, such theories contradict biblical doctrines on the nature of man and they deny biblical doctrines of personal responsibility and sin.
True or False Memories?
Are “forgotten” memories newly “remembered” by individuals in therapy true memories? Are they really viable explanations for why people are the way they are and why they do what they do today? Most people, including Christians, would answer “yes,” especially if they are involved in “Christian” psychology or listen to “Christian” radio, or read the popular “Christian” books.
However, evidence reveals that memories are not as solid as they have been assumed to be. Moreover, there is no real evidence to prove Freud’s theory of the unconscious or his theory of repression. And since there is no proof that what has been forgotten drives present behavior and feelings, it is pointless and counterproductive to search the past rather than look to the Lord and His word in the present. Believers are instructed to put off the old man. Even if real memories of painful events are resurrected, the negative results may be worse than having forgotten.
Faith in theories of an unconscious filled with forgotten memories that cause present behavior has led to a special genre of psychologists who specialize in satanic ritual abuse. Numerous Christians are counseling according to those theories of the unconscious, repression, and widespread traumatic amnesia. And countless Christians are newly “remembering” sexual and satanic ritual abuse in therapy and after reading books that encourage people to search for such memories.
Then, once people “remember” such horrible events, no amount of proof seems to dissuade them. Even when other family members say that the abuse could not have happened and when pediatricians and gynecologists report that such abuse could not have occurred, the person “remembering” the abuse continues to maintain that those memories are true.
The result is not greater understanding of what actually happened. Instead, the clients seem to “need” perpetual therapy. And, those accused of the abuse are further accused of denial (another Freudian defense mechanism). They are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent, rather than innocent until proven guilty.
What Kind of Abuse?
Our question is this: could the abuse be occurring in therapy? Not sexual abuse, but rather abuse of the mind? Abuse of memories? Abuse of family members who are blamed, accused, rejected, and sued? Answers to these questions are not easy, because the human mind is the most intricate and least understood aspect of creation.
However, certain assumptions stemming from the extensive influence of Freudian theory on our culture are now being looked at and reexamined. Research on memory is important for Christians to watch, because too many myths are believed as truth and too many promoters and followers of “Christian” psychology think that those assumptions are part of their “discovered” truth from God.
PrimeTime aired a special segment on this kind of therapy January 7, 1993. The television program showed therapy sessions and interviews with therapists. One leading therapist in this movement truly believes there are hundreds of thousands of victims of satanic ritual abuse who have repressed the memories. PrimeTime also showed part of one seminar being given to therapists, to teach them how to “help” clients “remember” through hypnosis.
PrimeTime also interviewed Dr. George Ganaway, who has interviewed numerous satanic ritual abuse patients. He said that not one had proved to be the result of actual satanic ritual abuse. Instead, he said that such memories are formed through the person absorbing information in a highly suggestible state of mind.
Christians are not exempt from such therapy or from the accusations of abuse allegedly remembered in therapy. Also featured on the program were Mr. and Mrs. Grady whose story was told in D Magazine.1 Their family had been close until their daughter Gloria entered psychological therapy in hopes of losing weight. Through regressive therapy aimed at locating the “key” to her weight problem in her past, Gloria came to believe that her family had involved her in satanic ritual abuse. The power of Gloria’s memories are so strong that even the clear evidence presented in court, which disproved her allegations, did not dissuade her from believing those memories. The parents are still hoping to regain their daughter, but even to the airing of the PrimeTime Special, Gloria declared that she still believed her memories.
How Accurate Are Our Memories?
Some people would have us think that the memory is like a tape recorder that records every event accurately and keeps it intact. But, research on memory has debunked that myth and raised many questions about common misconceptions about remembering and forgetting.
For instance, how accurate are childhood memories? Does the vividness of the recall increase the validity of a memory? The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget describes a clear memory from his own early childhood:
I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, in which I believed until I was about fifteen. I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysées, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened round me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a short cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station.
Notice the details of this memory. Nevertheless, Piaget then says his clear memory is of an event that never happened. His nurse had confessed when he was about fifteen years old. Piaget says:
She had made up the whole story, faking the scratches. I, therefore, must have heard, as a child, the account of this story, which my parents believed, and projected into the past in the form of a visual memory.2
Memories are created out of images, overheard conversations, dreams, suggestions, and imagination as well as out of actual events. And they change over time. Even as we remember we tend to fill in the gaps. Therefore, each time a memory is recalled it is also recreated with the emotions accompanying the recall and with the imagination which fills in the gaps.
Elizabeth Loftus is well-known for her research on memory. She begins her book Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget by describing her own memory of her father after he had died. At first her thoughts of him were filled with recent images of him suffering the final stages of cancer. She says:
Then, gradually, my thoughts of him began to include some happier images. I saw him standing in the yard, holding a scrawny cat. I saw him in the living room surrounded by smiling family. I even thought about him holding me on his lap when I was no older than four.3
Then she realized the source of those memories. She had photographs of each event. She was remembering the pictures. Thus her memory was enhanced by additional visual information.
Remembering is not running an invisible tape recorder back to an event. It is pulling together bits and pieces of information that logically fit together. Nor can we depend on accuracy. Even immediate recall may be inaccurate simply because of an initial failure to perceive accurately. That is why those who testify about a particular event may have completely different stories.
Memories are also very malleable. They change even as we recall past events. Loftus says:
With the passage of time, with proper motivation, with the introduction of special kinds of interfering facts, the memory traces seem sometimes to change or become transformed. These distortions can be quite frightening, for they can cause us to have memories of things that never happened.4
Even under the best circumstances, our memory is incomplete. We creatively fill in details with probabilities. Because of this natural inclination and because of the possibility of creating new memories through hypnosis and other forms of suggestion, Christians should be cautious about any counseling that looks for the keys of today’s behavior in so-called repressed memories in some controlling unconscious.
1 Glenna Whitley, “The Seduction of Gloria Grady,” D Magazine, October 1991, pp. 44-49, 66-71.
2 Jean Piaget, Plays, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood (New York: Norton, 1962).
3 Elizabeth Loftus, Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 1-2.
4 Ibid., p. 37.