The dangers of memory: Can 'regression therapy' by hypnosis produce false recollections of sexual abuse? Hester Lacey reports

Hester Lacey
Sunday 16 January 1994 01:02 GMT

SUSIE hasn't spoken to her sister for weeks. 'We were so close, and she wouldn't even come to my parents for Christmas with me and my brother. The last time I rang her was November 1st. Since then she's changed her phone number.' Susie blames herself. 'I had been depressed and had been helped by a wonderful hypnotherapist. I knew she was unhappy, her marriage was in a bad way and I suggested she try seeing one.

'A few months later she called me and my brother together. She told us that dad had abused her over 10 years of her childhood. I can't tell you exactly what she said. It was disgusting, filthy. My brother was so livid, I thought he was going to hit her.

'My father would never do such a thing, never. I told her I thought she was either mentally ill or had made a terrible mistake. My parents are stunned and griefstricken, and sick at the thought that she might spread these accusations.'

Susie's sister's hypnotherapy involved 'regression' - going back through the subconscious memory to try to confront and tackle forgotten childhood incidents or traumas diagnosed as causing problems in later life. It is a controversial journey to embark upon. Increasing numbers of cases are emerging where delving after old memories has lead to 'repressed memory syndrome' (RMS) - or 'false memory syndrome' (FMS), as it is often called by its detractors - where regression subjects have vivid images of childhood sexual abuse, hotly denied by the accused parents. Most of these cases are associated with some form of regression therapy: either through hypnosis or by other psychotherapy techniques.

The psychiatric use of regression was first popularised by Freud in the 1890s - at first he used hypnosis on his patients, but discovered that he could make them regress equally effectively by talking to them. Today it is used for conditions including depression and sexual dysfunction by psychotherapists, psychiatrists, counsellors - and in particular hypnotherapists, for whom regression is one of the main tools.

'Someone in hypnosis will regress spontaneously to the roots of their emotional problems,' says R K Brian, chairman of the British Hypnotherapy Association. 'The hypnotherapist's main skill is not inducing hypnosis, but having knowledge in understanding problems and how to help.'

It is impossible to say how many hypnotherapists are practising at the moment; the BHA refuses to release numbers of practitioners registered with it, and there are no government regulations on who may set up as one. Basingstoke MP Andrew Hunter was sufficiently concerned by one of his constituent's experience of hypnotherapy-related FMS to ask a question about this in Parliament. 'I felt that an external regulation system would protect clients. The Department of Health believes self-regulation is the way.' He is currently compiling a dossier of instances of hypnotism-linked FMS.

THE idea that childhood memories of abuse could be uncovered through regression therapies was first suggested in the US; many of those who claimed to have done so were influenced by a book called The Courage To Heal, published in 1988, which suggests that one in three girls and one in seven boys have been sexually abused. The book recommends confronting abusers and publicising their supposed actions. A US backlash against recovered memories is already well under way; concerned psychiatrists and psychologists, along with accused families, responded by setting up the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. The British False Memory Society, set up last April, has already been contacted by 300 British families. Some women 'returners' are emerging, claiming that their 'memories' were fantasies encouraged by their therapists - a newsletter, The Retractor, has just been launched in America.

Among psychotherapists, regression is still regarded as a valuable psychiatric technique by many reputable practitioners. 'It is quite possible for memories of abuse to be submerged,' says Liz Sayce, policy director of the mental health charity Mind. 'We believe regression reveals true memories - though there could be occasional instances of unscrupulous therapists who look for it when it's not there.' She has more reservations about the use of hypnosis. 'I feel people should know exactly what's involved and should give a very well-informed consent. It can be a very intense experience. We would prefer to see hypnotherapists who also have an accredited qualification in psychotherapy or counselling.'

SWINGING a watch and gazing mesmerisingly into the patient's eyes has been abandoned by modern hypnotists in favour of relaxing music and the consulting couch. 'There are six billion ways to regress people, because there are six billion people on the planet,' says Finchley hypnoanalyst and counsellor Georges Philips, who trained with the Bournemouth-based International Association of Hypnoanalysts (IHA). 'My objective is to do it as calmly and pleasurably as possible. I get people to relax physically, talk to them, tell them to imagine they are in a garden or a park - then they will start to see and remember events, feelings and emotions. Hypnosis itself doesn't do anything - it puts the client in a state where he's least critical of himself.'

He claims that 'more often than not' he finds that clients in regression have memories of sexual abuse - 'maybe nine times out of 10. But nine out of 10 feel fear, nine out of 10 feel loneliness. There's sexual abuse and sexual abuse.' He is adamant that such memories are spontaneous. 'I would never lead a client - it has to come from their own mind. Medical doctors and psychiatrists recommend Valium, ECT, behavioural therapy. We use what is within the unconscious mind. It's there for your survival and it certainly won't harm you.'

Philips accepts as a matter of course that the memory can play tricks. He believes that reality as perceived by his client is what he should concentrate on. 'I only deal with the client's truth - not the reality of life. Sometimes you might think 'did this really happen?' Whether it did or not, letting out the emotion is what's important.'

Hypnotherapist Margo Jackson is also an experienced counsellor who believes regression is a vital part of her work. 'I do it all the time - most people need it. When people are depressed they say 'Could it be something from my childhood?' - I say 'It might or might not be - but even if not, let's have a jolly good look, and at the least you'll be able to let off some steam.' '

However, she believes that, while most women have memories of intrusive sexual behaviour somewhere along the line, to suddenly remember forgotten sexual abuse is 'unlikely' and 'bizarre'. 'There is something definitely amiss with these girls,' she says, 'but perhaps their memories have a symbolic sense. It's hard to believe that anyone could forget years of satanic abuse into their teens.' She blames poor therapist technique - including asking leading questions at the wrong moment. 'The IAH method stresses minimal therapist intervention. The problem with training to be a therapist is that it's too easy to pass the exams.'

The British Hypnotherapy Association is also concerned about low standards. Its own registered hypnotherapists spend four years in training and abide by the BHA code of ethics. 'We are worried about the low standards of some people who call themselves hypnotherapists,' admits R K Brian. However, he condemns 'shock-horror journalism' and adds that the biggest risk with hypnotherapy is 'wasting time and losing money, if your therapist does not treat your problem properly'.

Roger Scotford, director of the British False Memory Society, believes the dangers are much greater. 'Hypnotherapy is most frequently involved in the cases we have analysed - over a quarter of them - followed by psychotherapy, counselling, and then psychiatry. Three families contacted me independently about one consultant psychiatrist. No one is saying that all psychiatrists and therapists are bad - just the wacky ones that think sexual abuse is at the root of all problems.' The BFMS has recruited an advisory board of psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, and is seeking charitable status.

RMS/FMS is currently being investigated by the British Psychological Society. 'Different therapists hold differing opinions,' says its working-group Chair Professor John Morton. 'About the effect of hypnosis and regression on recall, all the evidence points to two things. You are more confident of the things you remember under hypnosis - and you are more susceptible. The combination can be dramatic. The deeper the hypnosis, the less reliable the memory.'

He warns that memory is fragile. 'Everything you recall is not likely to be correct. There is a danger that people will elaborate, fill in any incomplete bits to make a full story. The memory is not like a tape-recorder or a video; claims such as 'the body remembers what has happened to it' mean nothing. The amount you can remember before the age of four is small, before one is very small, and before six months is negligible.' Could someone recall having their clitoris touched at the age of nine months, as one recent regression therapy case-history suggested? 'I don't believe that people could remember such an incident. Some therapists argue that, under analysis, inner reality is the important thing.'

He also believes that therapist suggestion can be misleading. 'Under the British Psychological Society code of practice, any proper therapist will say that you should never suggest. It's quite clear that in the States, quite a lot of therapists actively look for levels of child abuse. Investigative journalists posing as clients have had sexual abuse diagnosed in five minutes.'

Regression therapy will be finding itself on the couch over the next few months. The inaugural meeting of the BFMS advisory board takes place on 25 January, and Professor Morton's working group hopes to publish a report in May, following a survey of several thousand chartered psychologists. The IAH is holding a conference next month in response to the 'potential threat' from a 'substantial media attack against 'uncovering' '.

Margo Jackson plans to attend. 'There's a lot of stupidity at the moment. I think the IAH feels that it is on the 'other side' from the BFMS. I hope to see open minds, rather than a 'let's defend ourselves' mentality.'

(Photograph omitted)

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