A Cautionary Tale: Are the Memories True?

4 min read
Source: Cottonbro Studio / Pexels

Source: Cottonbro Studio / Pexels

One never knows which film will introduce a moment of significant psychological insight, particularly a startlingly unexpected reminder that therapy can sometimes be harmful.

Such is the case with Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, a documentary about the world-famous singer and human rights activist. As her history unfolds in her own words and archival footage, we learn of her struggles with depression, substance use, and romantic relationships.

Now an octogenarian, she reflects on the diminishing quality of her voice, fears about retirement, and coming to terms with regrets.

While this is fascinating to watch (particularly for Baez fans), it does not warrant a posting for Psychology Today. However, approximately 75 minutes into this two-hour film, Baez recounts entering therapy and accessing long-repressed memories of childhood incest.

It is then that the film becomes a cautionary tale of therapy.

Recovered Memory Therapy: A Fad

Recovered memory therapy, defined by the American Psychological Association as “a form of treatment specifically designed to elicit from the client forgotten or repressed memories of traumatic childhood events, such as sexual abuse,” was introduced in the 1980s and reached its apex in the following decade.

It became widely accepted that traumatic incidents in childhood, particularly sexual abuse, could be forgotten as an involuntary psychological defense mechanism yet continue to insidiously influence a person decades later, leading to depression, panic attacks, and eating disorders. The treatment approach was to consciously access repressed trauma through a panoply of techniques such as hypnosis and guided imagery.

At its peak, an entire recovered memory industry formed, leading to self-help books, clinical training, and a cadre of well-intentioned and (in retrospect) overenthusiastic mental health providers. A national panic ensued.

Patients, friends, and colleagues wondered aloud if they had been sexually abused as children yet had no memory of the incidents. Teachers, daycare workers, and parents were besieged with claims of sexually abusing children in their care; reputations were destroyed, families were ripped apart, and people were imprisoned.

There was one problem with this movement: It was not supported by research.

Research finds memory can be manipulated, and we are far more susceptible to creating false memories than we realize.

In a 1999 position paper (later reaffirmed in 2013), the American Psychiatric Association determined,

Some therapeutic approaches attempt specifically to elicit memories of childhood abuse as the central technique for relieving emotional distress. The validity of such therapies has been challenged. Some patients receiving this treatment have later recanted their claims of recovered memories of abuse and accused their therapists of leading or pressuring them into such ideas.

In their review of the repressed memory movement, Tavris and Aronson (2020) more succinctly state, “The problem for most people who have suffered traumatic experiences is not that they forget them but that they cannot forget them; the memories keep intruding.”

Joan Baez’s Story: A Cautionary Tale

Now, let’s return to Joan Baez.

It appears she began recovered memory therapy during the height of its popularity, and this led her to recall sexualized encounters with her father. Baez, a prodigious personal archivist, kept pleading letters and recorded phone messages from her seemingly bewildered parents as to her claims of childhood sexual abuse.

We listen to these messages in the film. Baez and her parents became estranged, and her relationship with her once-beloved father never recovered. In the film, Baez reflects she will never know the full truth of what happened with her father.

Therapy Can Harm: What We Can Learn from the Recovered Memory Movement

Joan Baez: I Am a Noise unexpectedly reminds us of the possible dangers of therapy; it brings back a time in the not-too-distant past when a therapeutic technique once widely embraced fell into disfavor as research, reporting, and lawsuits led to doubts about its claims.

Hearing the plaintive voice of Baez’s father as he attempts to reach out to his daughter reminds us that a therapeutic technique hurt an untold number of people, who, possibly like Baez, are forever left to make sense of their past. What happened and what didn’t?

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