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Recalling or Fabricating Past Abuse? : Psychotherapy: Michael Yapko says much so-called 'recovered memory' is in fact suggested by counselors. Others find merits in their methods.

August 05, 1994|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To psychologist and author Michael Yapko, much of what goes on in the name of psychotherapy is "blatantly stupid."

First there was Freud's theory of penis envy, then in the 1970s there were nude encounters and LSD therapy. Today, people delve into past-life regression and turn to crystals for help.

Some of it "is just moronic," says the San Diego therapist.

But Yapko, an expert in memory and hypnosis, says the therapy most en vogue today goes beyond absurdity. Recalling memories of sexual abuse--either real or imagined--is the latest fad in psychotherapy--and it may be the most dangerous, Yapko warns.

His controversial new book, "Suggestions of Abuse"(Simon & Schuster, $22), is an indictment of mental health professionals who lead their patients to mistakenly believe they are victims of sexual abuse, thus recklessly and unwittingly destroying lives and families.

Yapko, a soft-spoken clinician, has created an uproar among mental health professionals by writing the first book to take the profession to task for its techniques in recovering memory, based on research and surveys of nearly 900 therapists across the country.

Critics who disagree with Yapko's views say he exaggerates the problem, relies on inconclusive research and may frighten real abuse victims, keeping them from seeking psychological help.

"It's a very dangerous implication," contends Lenore Terr, a San Francisco psychologist who writes about recovered memory cases in her recently published book, "Unchained Memories" (Basic Books, HarperCollins, $22).

"There are a lot of people who have extreme anxiety and need psychotherapy. And if they start thinking that evil therapists will get ahold of them and force them into believing things, I think we are going to lose a lot of people who could have been helped," Terr cautions.

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Public debate over recovered memories has raged in the press and been highlighted in several high-profile court cases, including the lawsuit involving Holly Ramona, an Irvine woman who accused her father of molesting her. The accusations arose while she was under therapy at Western Medical Center-Anaheim.

Yapko's research sought to determine the level and quality of his colleagues' expertise in the area of memories and hypnosis.

His conclusion is that some therapists engaging in recovered memory therapy are "frighteningly" misinformed and are suggesting memories of abuse that may never have happened.

"I was surprised and in many cases shocked . . . that so many of my colleagues are conducting their clinical practice on the basis of misinformation and myth," Yapko said during an interview.

Even before "recovered memories" became the trendy topic of talk shows, Yapko had begun to express dismay over the growing preoccupation therapists had with finding evidence of past abuse.

In the early 1980s, while writing a textbook on the clinical use of hypnosis, Yapko says he would get called about once every three months by a therapist asking that he hypnotize a patient to determine if the patient had been sexually abused as a child.

By the late 1980s, the frequency of such calls from therapists had grown to nearly daily. Concerned, he warned therapists in the revised edition of his textbook about the potential dangers of using hypnosis or other suggestive techniques to unearth buried memories.

He was soon inundated with calls, letters and visits from people all over the country who feared they had been mishandled by a therapist, that their memories of abuse may have been untrue and their lives shattered.

But Yapko says it was one particularly desperate phone call from a woman who wanted him to hypnotize her that really spurred him to write "Suggestions of Abuse."

"It was the straw that broke the camel's back," Yapko recalls. She said she wanted to discover if she had been sexually abused as a child. "What makes you think you might have been abused?" Yapko asked. The woman responded: "Well, I called another therapist for help with my poor self-esteem, and she told me that I must have been abused as a child and I should have hypnosis to find out."

Yapko was stunned. "I thought, this is crazy," he says.

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"When I first started talking about this in 1991, (colleagues) were real irritated," Yapko says. "It was not politically correct to raise any doubts about therapists' practices in such a sensitive arena like sexual abuse."

Although the profession is still polarized over the issue of recovered memories, Yapko says increasing numbers of colleagues accept the warning that if not used properly, hypnosis and other techniques may lead patients to adopt false memories.

"What I really want to make clear is that abuse does happen with alarming frequency. . . . This is not about disbelieving or discounting abuse survivors," Yapko says.

"But under conditions of sloppy therapy, people can be led to believe things that are not true, including that they were abused."

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