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Remembering Recovered Memories: Lessons We Shouldn't Forget about False Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Posted Sep 29 2010 12:33pm
Forget my plans for talking education this week, the topic of Repressed Memories is too remarkable to forget for another week let alone another decade or two. This month a new book out by Meredith Maran, My Lie: A True Story of False Memory, brings back memories of the Recovered Memory/False Memory phenomenon of the late 80s, early 90s when a cascade of adults "recovered" long-buried memories of being sexually abused in childhood only after therapeutic interventions, often hypnosis. The sorry saga began with several high-profile (duh) alleged child sex-abuse rings at daycares and preschools around the US. Typically numerous children at each of the centers "remembered" being molested by the adults caring for them, claims now generally regarded as false, implanted, the product of leading and repeated questions, hypnotic suggestion and social pressure.

Remember the McMartins? The story is even sadder than I remembered. Here's a reminder from Wikipedia (which also lists the other notable cases):

The case started in August 1983 when Judy Johnson, the mother of a 2½ year-old boy reported to the police that her son was abused by Raymond Buckey at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California.[1] After seven years of criminal trials, no convictions were obtained, and all charges were dropped in 1990. As of 2006[update], it is the longest and most expensive criminal trial in the history of the United States.[1] The accusations involved hidden tunnels, killing animals, Satan worship, and orgies.[4] Judy Johnson was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia[5][6] and in 1986 was found dead in her home from complications of chronic alcoholism.[7] Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin were eventually released without any charges. In 2005 one of the testifying children retracted his testimony and said he lied, to protect his younger siblings and to please his parents.[8]

In The Devil in The Nursery in 2001, Margaret Talbot for the New York Times summarized the case
"When you once believed something that now strikes you as absurd, even unhinged, it can be almost impossible to summon that feeling of credulity again. Maybe that is why it is easier for most of us to forget, rather than to try and explain, the Satanic-abuse scare that gripped this country in the early 80's — the myth that Devil-worshipers had set up shop in our day-care centers, where their clever adepts were raping and sodomizing children, practicing ritual sacrifice, shedding their clothes, drinking blood and eating feces, all unnoticed by parents, neighbors and the authorities."[9]
Wow. Not just child molesters but devil worshippers. It's true, we don't know what's going on every minute at school, daycare, or the next-door-neighbor's, but honestly.

Devil worshippers. Orgies. Animal Sacrifices.

I know, I know. How in the world did this happen? It was the near pinnacle of political correctness. To challenge women who'd claimed they'd been abused was surely insensitive, brutish, morally suspect. Questioning children? Unthinkable. It was also soon after women flooded the workplace in the late 70s and early 80s when daycare, the practice of leaving your young child alone in the hands of strangers, still a new concept, engendered considerable anxiety and conflict, the large-scale studies refuting fears of its ill effects still years away.

Hopefully in retrospect we can now recognize the faulty assumptions that enabled this modern-day witch hunt:

1. Sexual abuse is pervasive (saying this is faulty isn't saying any amount is tolerable) .
2. The signs are everywhere (e.g., children's nightmares, bed-wetting, phobias, acting out at  school, tantrums).
3. Children never say things that aren't true about something as serious and dreadful as being molested.
4. Children cannot be led into reporting abuse that didn't happen.
5. And one more biggie that I'll get to in a minute.

So in the zeal to protect children the adults lost their way, ignited a mass hysteria, seeing signs of sexual abuse everywhere, staying vigilant at all costs. The damage for the individuals involved, nearly impossible to quantify. Innocent mothers and fathers sent to prison, families shattered, jobs lost, reputations destroyed. For Maran, the author of My Lie, the losses included a broken marriage, alienation from the rest of her family, her children's alienation from not only their grandfather (the accused) but aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Sure we know a lot more about memory today. Thanks to cognitive psychologists and other brain scientists we realize memories are more fluid, more subject to emotion, external cues, stress chemicals, entities that must be pieced back together rather than accurate videos stored in our cranial warehouses waiting to be shipped out like the next Netflix DVD (see Seven Sins of Memory from Daniel Schacter, the legendary research psychologist at Harvard). But it wasn't like we had no idea about the inaccuracy of memories back then. We knew plenty. Problem was, the psychotherapists and district attorneys weren't exactly sympatico with the the memory researchers. If only they'd have chatted over pita with hummus while We Are The World played softly in the background. Maybe they'd have agreed some memories could be a little off.
Now for that other big flawed assumption: traumatic memories can be repressed, in other words, forgotten.
The key disagreement in the False Memory debate is the extent to which memories, especially ones of traumatic events, can be forgotten. Memory researchers generally agree it's unlikely people forget highly disturbing experiences, others, however, disagree. Those who find forgetting improbable point to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). It's why survivors can't forget, in fact can't keep from reliving the horrific events. Memories processed in the presence of stress appear to be infused with an intensity unlike any others. It's long been documented how readily people recall highly dramatic, highly emotional events including where they were when it happened. There's plenty of work on perceptions and memories of national disasters and tragedies (e.g., the assassination of J.F.K, the explosion of the Challenger, Hurricane Katrina) and more personal experiences (sexual assault, war violence, terrorism).

As for evidence of forgetting trauma, it's difficult to show empirically someone has forgotten. It would involve providing evidence of the existence of dormant or subconscious memories of actual events that people cannot access. Psychologists have established protocols for assessing unconscious beliefs (e.g., stereotypes) but those are not quite the same as memories of experienced events let alone scary events. It's one thing to not want to admit to having stereotypic beliefs or to not know you have them. Or to forget a string of 10 numbers. Forgetting an assault, an entirely different animal. In my brief searching through the literature I didn't find any experimental evidence of this kind of forgetting. Could it be possible people forget terrible moments? Of course it's possible but there's little evidence, and on the flip side, plenty of evidence humans are very adept, sometimes too adept, at recalling terrifying events. We have trouble remembering all kinds of information, think of your childhood. How much do you remember? Exactly, you remember some but not much in great detail. The photos and family stories act as memory aids.

Despite the lack of evidence the common belief still runs through our culture that people repress thoughts about terrifying or tragic events (especially children), or taken to the extreme, develop entirely separate personalities to cope. Some call this multiple personalities. Psychiatrists and psychologists know it as Dissociative Identify Disorder, an official but highly controversial diagnosis that describes considerably less dramatic behavior than the movie Sybil. It's not the same thing as schizophrenia, a better documented disorder. Mainstream psychiatry and psychology all but dismiss the MPD of moviedom (sorry Roseanne) though it was especially popular around the same time as the false memory mania, as were incidentally, accounts of alien abductions and satanic ritualistic abuse.

What we do know for sure is just how frighteningly easy it is to make people believe they've experienced frightening events that never happened (i.e. pseudomemories).  One of the most famous cognitive psychologists working today, Elizabeth Loftus had been studying memories for decades before the false memory turmoil began, in fact, was already an acknowledged expert on the pitfalls of eyewitness testimony. She and her colleagues have repeatedly successfully implanted pseudomemories in research participants. Her classic 1995 study involved implanting memories in young adults of being lost in a shopping mall as a young children. True, not exactly the same scale as sexual abuse, but that would never have passed the Institutional Review Board, the organization dedicated to protecting college students and lab rats alike. So of course some critics do not see this mall scenario as trauma enough to forget. Objections aside, the mall study, available online, is a good read if you're interested. What strikes me reading it again, is just how elaborate the experience became for some subjects, how realistic. They embellished the accounts provided by the experimenters (supposedly written by the subject's relatives), adding their own specific details.

When I first encountered Loftus' work in the mid-90s I felt a great sense of relief. After all, back in the late 80's, I was a psych major working on a study of female sexual-assault survivors, immersed in piles of horrifying transcripts, having nightmares from said transcripts, and perhaps not coincidentally, marching in Take Back The Night and working my way through the Women's Studies curriculum (but thankfully also statistics and research methods). Within my feminist/clinical psychology circles, I couldn't escape repressed memories, it was big back then and it would be several years until Loftus published her ground-breaking shopping mall studies. Because I had little experience with real-life children, I didn't appreciate their penchant for merging fact and fiction or their desire to please adults by giving the "correct" answers. Like so many others I found it difficult understanding how young children could mistakenly report genital touching. If they said it, it must have happened. And of course it was nearly verbotten to challenge them. At one point a friend and I discussed the possibility that maybe we'd been molested but just didn't remember it. We were disconcerted to say the least.

But not as disconcerted as the parents with children attending the suspected daycares and schools. Imagine the stress. After the initial shock wears off you try to understand how it could have happened (or if it did) but you give up because it's just so inexplicable and scary and the graphic details continue pouring out over the next days, weeks, and months as more evidence stacks up as more children are questioned by well-meaning therapists, maybe even your child. What did those of you who were parents at the time think of all this? How about those of you working with children or in the mental health field?

So it was an awful and yet fascinating era that provides the heebie geebies for those of us who wonder how half-baked ideas and exaggerated fears can ignite cultural trends, influencing even memory and behavior with significant widespread consequences - all of this regardless of the truth, the lack of evidence, and as we can admit now, a lack of common sense.

I am still amazed by it all. How wrong so many people, those in authority even, got it back then. How ridiculous the claims. Hundreds, maybe thousands of children horribly abused without nary an adult witness. This would never have happened today, we're too plugged in, too sophisticated. Yes, we're more savvy about probing for child sex abuse, probably more aware and tuned in to it, probably better at treating the survivors though I don't know if we're any better at preventing it or rehabbing the perpetrators (anyone?). Something like this would not happen again.

Right?

How would such infinitely dramatic fare play out in our 24/7 constant streaming media? Would the blogosphere suppress Repressed Memories or the reverse? What role would Facebook play? It certainly would have been one epic battle today, making the breastfeeding vs. bottle brouhaha seem quaint. But it has already happened to some degree in our hepped-up, hyper-protective digital parenting sphere. Inaccurate and rash theories have stalked and stirred and scared and scarred parents over the past few years. Sometimes the misinformation comes from "experts" with long-lasting repercussions (e.g., Dr. Andrew Wakefield) and sometimes, if we're lucky, non-experts with relatively minor consequences (e.g., the Bring Back the Old Pampers moms on Facebook).

I do know one thing. We do forget disturbing chapters in the history of parenting like the false memory mania. Or at least forget enough so as not to carry those lessons learned over to the next threat or health scare.

P.S. Sorry about the lack of photo today. Could not imagine picking a child for this doozy.  
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