The Myth of Repressed Memory, by Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketchum

The Myth of Repressed Memory

I am going to offer some points of criticism about The Myth of Repressed Memory, but I’d like to emphasize from the start that I mostly agree with the position that Dr. Loftus takes on the issue of “recovered memories,” and I respect her and applaud her for having written an important and useful book.

“Repressed memories” are the largely faux “memories” that can be generated in people via the right combination of leading questions and suggestion. They most often occur in a therapy context. The repressed memories movement was huge for a while, and had devastating consequences for many people. It has died down considerably in recent years, though it has never gone away.

The way it works, it starts with a therapist who is already convinced that child sexual abuse is far more prevalent than the public or the experts believe, and is the cause of many if not most adult psychological problems, especially in women. This therapist has a patient suffering from depression, sexual dysfunction, suicidal tendencies, an inability to accept intimacy, whatever. The patient tells the therapist that she was never molested, raped, or anything like that. The therapist claims that memories of traumatic experiences are routinely “repressed” (i.e., can no longer be accessed consciously), and that therefore the lack of such memories doesn’t mean she wasn’t in fact molested. The therapist then seeks to turn everything the patient tells her into evidence of such abuse—“So your father often was alone with you in your bedroom, supposedly to say good night? Have you ever wondered why he arranged things so you two would be alone, rather than simply accompanying your mother to your room to say good night?” She may use hypnosis or other such methods to “help” the patient “remember” the abuse. Any step the patient takes toward acknowledging such abuse—“Well, I guess now that I think about it, Uncle Victor did seem to kind of leer at me at times or look at my cleavage when I was a teenager”—is rewarded with the therapist’s approval, praise for the patient’s “bravery,” and promises of healing if only she’ll continue down that same path and “remember” more.

Predictably, the “memories” that are “recovered” in this way destroy any relationship between the patient and the person or people she’s now convinced molested her as a child. Plenty of people have been convicted years or decades after the fact of sexual crimes against children where the main, or only, evidence is the now-adult’s stated “memories” of this abuse. This is spite of the fact that, as Loftus points out, the scientific evidence for this supposed phenomenon—of someone suffering a trauma, having no recollection of it at all for years, and then accurately remembering it as a result of this therapeutic process—is very weak. If something vaguely like that ever happens, it appears to be extremely rare.

I found The Myth of Repressed Memory maybe a little too chatty, a little too autobiographical, a little too stream-of-consciousness. Perhaps these things make it a more enjoyable read for a general audience, but I would have appreciated a more tightly organized, logical presentation. Instead, as I read the book, I felt like, “OK, here’s the start of an argument for her thesis that ‘repressed memories’ are a myth, here’s a long anecdote about someone falsely accused of child molestation, here’s another little piece of the argument, here’s some material on how she’s been attacked for her views by various zealots, here’s another long anecdote about a false accusation, here’s another little piece of the argument, here’s another autobiographical account of a run-in with one of her critics, here’s another little piece of the argument,” etc., etc.

Also, in spite of the fact that she mostly takes the position debunking the alleged “repressed memories” phenomenon, at times Loftus is more wishy-washy about it than I would like. She seems intent on painting herself as a “moderate” between the irrational extremes of those who accept the phenomenon dogmatically and those who reject it dogmatically. Mostly she’s in the rejectionist camp, and rightly so, but it seems to really pain her to just say so. Her position seems to be “Intellectually, I’m 90% of the way toward the ‘anti’ side of the issue, but, gosh, the people on the ‘pro’ side are mostly so nice and so well-motivated, and I just hate to criticize them and I so want them to like me!” She’s desperate to find common ground with the “repressed memory” advocates, desperate to avoid seeming to denounce them or come right out and say that they’re just plain wrong, desperate to find some watered down New Agey or postmodernist sense in which their claims are true.

If these confused, illogical, witch-hunting zealots denounced me for coming to scientific conclusions that were incompatible with their current politically correct dogma, and if they angrily insisted that that proves I’m anti-feminist, pro-child abuse, etc., I tend to think I’d be considerably less patient and conciliatory with them than is Loftus.

One question that kept coming back to me is, why in the world is this pseudoscience admissible in court to begin with? The standards for criminal conviction are supposed to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt. On this basis, we exclude things like polygraphs, which tend to be somewhat reliable, but not reliable enough. The likelihood that these recovered “memories” are reliable seems to me to be far, far lower than that of polygraph evidence. Unfortunately, the hysteria over child abuse has caused many people in our society and in our criminal justice system to override principles of law, logic, common sense, and decency to ensure as many convictions as possible.

In any case, again I am grateful for Loftus’s valuable contributions on this issue. The “repressed memories” movement appears to be a highly dangerous piece of pseudoscience that has damaged countless lives, and I commend those who have taken a stand against it on the basis of rationality and science.

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