False Memory                                          

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... an undiagnosed, organic origin. For example, there are a few cases in which a patient's headaches were treated by hypnosis before it was recognized that it resulted from an unsuspected brain tumor. Although hypnosis was effective in masking the pain in these cases, the appropriate treatment was surgery. Of course, once the correct diagnosis has been made in such cases, hypnosis might well be an appropriate means of reducing the pain during the waiting period for the scheduled operation.

On the other hand, many of the complications that can occur with hypnosis stem from the hypnotized person's perceptions of it. Most of them can be avoided by questioning the person carefully during the pre-hypnosis period about his/her knowledge and beliefs about hypnosis. Beliefs such as that the hypnotized person is an automaton, unable to resist any suggestion that is administered, or that the person may not be able to terminate trance, can best be met with factual knowledge, or even the invitation to resist a particular item during hypnosis.Hypnosis can be dangerous harmful

Again, the belief that post-hypnotic amnesia is permanent (to the extent that the person is unable to remember any of the events of hypnosis) can be defused by explaining that amnesia is reversible, and that when the amnesia suggestion is administered, a post hypnotic cue ("now you can remember everything") will be given so as to relieve the amnesia. On some occasions, also, when an affect-laden memory is elicited, the operator may place the onus upon the hypnotized person to decide how much, if any, of the traumatic material s/he wishes to recall. For a more detailed treatment of these issues, see J. R. Hilgard, (1974).

It should be emphasized that this section is a distillation of cases of misused hypnosis reported over more than 200 years. Even allowing for the likelihood that such misuses are under-reported, one is left with the impression that, overall, most practitioners of hypnosis during this lengthy time span have been ethical and competent in their utilization of it. By contrast, with the widespread belief in the necessity for excavating memories of childhood sexual abuse, there has been a spectacular increase in the use of dangerous practices in which hypnosis plays a central role. A detailed case report (Macdonald, 1999) may help to crystallize how a procedure that is safe in competent hands can become one that is harmful to patients.

© False Memory Syndrome Foundation.  Published herein with permission from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. This article includes excerpts from an article by Perry, Campbell, "Key Concepts in Hypnosis", 1987.

The Gail MacDonald's Case (continued)

...discovered, was not permitted to diagnose patients because of his lack of experience and training. Her presenting problem involved overindulgence in alcohol, drugs (to a lesser extent), and diffuse anger towards her father (an alcoholic).

Very early in her treatment, Joe hinted that she had been sexually abused during her childhood. This "diagnosis" was based upon no more than his belief that her alcohol addiction, her low level of self-esteem, and her unhappiness were the products of repressed sexual abuse memories. He was undeterred by her reporting that she had no memory of any sexual abuse, countering that it is common for people in her situation to be in denial. He prescribed The Courage to Heal and a book by Laura Davis entitled Handbook for Sex Abuse Survivors as bibliotherapy; she purchased both books and read them.

From a very early time in the treatment, a strong transference appears to have developed between therapist and patient that had overtones of love. Over and above formal therapy sessions, there were walks by the bay and exchanges of confidences; Joe told her that it was difficult for him to confide in others because of his professional life, and that because of time constraints, he was unable to form a long-term personal relationship. He also admitted to loneliness.

During this first year of treatment, Gail remarried -- to another recovering addict. This new husband relapsed often; this, she said, brought her closer to Joe. She began to have dreams about him, and although she reports feeling embarrassed, she wrote them in her journal so that he would, inevitably, see them. His reaction to this was to say that it is normal to be attracted to one's therapist, but there would be no problem with this for as long as they discussed these feelings. Within a year, Gail was seeing Joe on a regular weekly basis for formal treatment sessions, interspersed with walks and coffee. This served to blur the professional lines between treatment and a personal involvement, since it may have placed Gail in the position of treating Joe for his loneliness -- and without financial compensation.

Over the next year, there were some major developments in the manner that the treatment devolved. Joe introduced the notion of an inner child, explaining that because of Gail's alcoholism, a "part" of her was wounded, and it needed assistance to develop emotional maturity so that she could learn to cope more effectively with difficulties. At around this time, he also introduced the technique of guided imagery, in which she was to imagine a safe spot to which she could retreat and explore her feelings, undisturbed by more mundane concerns. He explained that for some people an imagined armchair by the fireplace or a nature scene such as a seashore could be a safe spot. They decided that Gail's safe spot would be a meadow surrounded by trees with a brook flowing though it.

It needs to be understood that techniques such as guided imagery, and the metaphors of an inner child and a safe spot, are well recognized in the clinical literature of psychology, and in themselves, are not inherently harmful. Indeed, they can be beneficial to patients when deployed skillfully. But they can equally have unintended adverse effects, since all of them involve a direct appeal to the patient's ability to fantasize. If the stated purpose of the therapy is to resurrect buried memories of sexual abuse during childhood, this appeal to fantasy and imagination always risks a false memory. The problem is compounded when an elicited memory confirms the therapist's suspicions, and the patient takes it at face value with no corroboration.

The same can be said for dream analysis. Joe encouraged Gail to keep a journal of her dreams. He expressed great pleasure at the result, telling Gail that a breakthrough was imminent and that her denial was lifting, since the truth was beginning to emerge. No doubt this was highly encouraging to her until one day, without warning, he asked whether she remembered her father abusing her sexually. Not unreasonably, she was mortified that her dreams could contain memories of her father abusing her sexually. Even worse, from her point of view, was that if this interpretation of her dreams was correct, it meant that she had forgotten the abuse -- it raised the questions of how she could have participated in incest (however unwillingly) and of how she could not have remembered it.

Joe explained that when children are abused sexually, they "split off," relegating such memories to their subconscious until a later time when they feel strong and secure enough to acknowledge them. In the face of this apparent revelation, Gail left the office feeling "shattered and scared." Nevertheless, that night, following Joe's suggestion, she looked through old family photos, seeking to find even the slightest trace of evidence that such an abuse had occurred. She cried all night at the thoughts of her father having betrayed her trust, and of her being so "messed up" as to not remember it.

She phoned Joe the next day for an urgent appointment, telling him that she felt she was "coming apart at the seams." Clearly, Gail was becoming highly fragile and vulnerable; not heeding some obvious warning signals, Joe suggested she go to her safe spot using the guided imagery procedures. This time, she said that it felt different, that she was not alone. Joe suggested that she look around to see if anyone else was present.

It transpired that there were seven young people in the safe spot. This was interpreted by Joe as evidence of MPD; the young people she had fantasized with considerable clarity were interpreted by him as alter personalities, each harboring memories that she could not bear to remember. An intensification of symptoms followed; she began to hear voices, and this was accompanied by severe headaches. Joe interpreted the voices as belonging to alters and the headaches as stemming from blocks in the unconscious.

What followed for the next few years has a truly nightmarish quality. She began to sleep an average of three hours a night, and with the combined pressures of sleeplessness and of looking after two young children, she soon lost her a job with a cleaning firm that she had started up with some other women. She became too unreliable to maintain a regular clientele.

Joe advised her to join a support group of women with MPD. Soon she was experiencing time losses, during which she would self-mutilate without realizing what she was doing during these periods of lapsed consciousness. It was not long before every other member of the support group was self-mutilating on a regular basis. As well, Joe convinced her that she had been satanically ritually abused by the priests and nuns of a Catholic school she had attended during childhood.

It was a wretched period of her life, attending the support group, reliving what appeared to be memories of incest and sexual abuse, and listening to reports of similar memories from its other members. She felt desperately lonely, and, by her own description, she had become physically run down. She lost 30 pounds and had dark circles under her eyes from lack of sleep.

Fortunately, a male friend, Dan, had become concerned with this deterioration in her physical health, and suggested to Gail that she seek a second opinion on what ailed her. It led her to take a "temporary" break from therapy, remarkably with Joe's blessing. Within weeks, the voices began to diminish, though they did not disappear completely. Her appetite improved, and she began to sleep full nights. Most important, she ceased her self-mutilations.

These are but the bare bones of a cautionary tale. Gail's road back to full restoration of health and sanity still proved to be a long one, but was much aided by some sound psychiatric intervention. Further, Gail's experiences are not isolated instances of a destructive form of therapy. There have been a number of American legal cases in which an almost identical pattern of therapeutic mismanagement has been documented.  HOME

© False Memory Syndrome Foundation.  Published herein with permission from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. This article includes excerpts from an article by Perry, Campbell, "Key Concepts in Hypnosis", 1987.

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© False Memory Syndrome Foundation.  Published herein with permission from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. This article includes excerpts from an article by Perry, Campbell, "Key Concepts in Hypnosis", 1987.