Are repressed memories real?
Yes, but they are incredibly rare. Usually, a traumatic experience in childhood (even without images) is a real problem precisely because it won't go away. That's why clients come to me for trauma therapy! Traumatized people usually remember in all too much detail what happened, and wish they could "repress" the memory--not that that would be a solution. But let me give you a story (with some details changed for privacy) to describe one of the instances I have seen.
A client came to me with some pretty serious symptoms that seemed to be the result of sexual trauma across the lifespan. She was able to recall more recent memories, but added that she thinks she may have been sexually abused by an aunt over a four-month period spent with her aunt at the aunt's home when she was 12. This idea did not come from her. The suspicion came from adult life, from her sister, who was also there those four months. The sister asserts that they were both horribly abused over those few weeks, and that she suffers from flashbacks. When the sister said this, the client became very aware that this time period for her was simply gone. She felt nothing when thinking of it, one way or the other--it was a four-month black hole, and the only reason it stood out is because it's very weird to realize that a portion of your memory has been "edited" from your mind. How do we treat this? We use ego-state therapy to access the traumatic material, even if is never fully remembered, doing EMDR specifically with the part of the mind that has access to the emotions that are affecting the present.
This advanced approach is simply a way to make the unknown more known. With EMDR, we treat known trauma (regardless of how known), which produces a generalization of healing to connected memories, without needing to cover them in any detail--as demonstrated by a remission of clients' symptoms. EMDR doesn't work by making people hurt, and you can read about how it works in other blog entries. EMDR helps clients stop beating themselves up by obsessing about trauma, in order to leave it in the past, and move on with life with new confidence.
As an aside, contrary to popular belief, I have it on good authority that is possible with hypnosis to recover repressed memories without the possibility of accidentally creating a false memory. The master therapist Milton Erickson did this, but that's sort of the problem, in hypnotherapists who are not masters often do facilitate the creation of false memories. This has led to hypnotically derived testimony being barred from use in court. There is even a society devoted to defending people accused of abuse when a "repressed memory" is recovered by a therapist.
In contrast to hypnosis, details of memories recovered in EMDR are allowable in court. A recent case in Texas decided that EMDR is not hypnosis (it bears no relation), and that research has proven that EMDR cannot create false memories. But with EMDR, we are never talking about recovering a "repressed" memory, we are talking about the rare cases in which EMDR brings extra info into a known memory. Here is an example, which shows the difference:
A client came to me with a number of traumatic memories, but one occurred when she was three. She remembered this incident in great detail. But she could not see the face of the abuser. The face happened to come back during EMDR. This is the only time I've had this occur, and it's certainly associated with 1) the very young age at which the traumatic event occurred, and 2) the fact that sexually abused children very often leave images out of the memory of abuse.
EMDR therapists are very careful with this sort of thing. I heard another rare example from another therapist. This therapist had a client who had a very clear and painful memory of sexual abuse at a young age, but with few images. One of the images was a scary, angry image of her father's face. She had feared for years that her father had abused her. EMDR happened to reveal that it was an uncle, and the father had caught this abuse happening, and the father's angry face had to do with the father stopping the uncle and throwing him to the floor. Again, this is a very rare case in which the client's unconscious mind--which in EMDR is totally free from hypnotic suggestion--decided that it was necessary to recover a more complete image in order to heal the trauma. EMDR therapists are concerned with healing, not a morbid investigation into terrible memories. The client's mind is capable of doing the healing in the best way possible, and EMDR simply enables healing by getting the process "unstuck."
Am I fascinated by the possibility of recovering hidden memories, even repressed memories? Certainly. As a trained hypnotherapist, insured to practice in the state of NC, I am very curious. But I would never allow my intellectual curiosity to come before the needs of a client. EMDR with ego-state therapy is the better route where trauma is concerned.
As an aside, many hypnotherapists who deal with trauma (hypnotherapy can be a great trauma therapy with advanced training) have trained in EMDR simply because it's faster, although they continue to use hypnotherapy with other issues their clients bring to them.