The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse.

JurisdictionUnited States
AuthorBeaver, James E.
Date22 December 1996

By Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham. St. Martin's Press 1994. Pp. 290.

Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham have produced another provocative, timely, and persuasive book, The Myth of Repressed Memory. The book is timely because the United States is riddled with episodes of recaptured memory of child abuse.(1) The book is persuasive because it primarily consists of a long parade of horribles; shocking examples of families destroyed, probably innocent persons condemned to the penitentiary, and abominable perversions of justice.

Dean Pound, a former Harvard Law School Dean, once observed that the eighteenth century was the Age of Reason, the nineteenth century the Age of Empiricism, and the twentieth century, the Age of Sentiment.(2) There is much evidence of this thesis. In the present century numerous people have been murdered because of their religion, their race, their class, or their beliefs.(3) At least in the thirteenth century Genghis Khan had a more practical purpose: the Mongols needed more pasturage for horses!

It is in this late twentieth century that some psychotherapists, and perhaps a number of politically-correct psychoquacks, have "helped" thousands of people discover "repressed memories" of childhood sexual abuse. Many(4) of these "memories" may be false. In the case of certain types of insecure or unsuccessful people, "discovery" of childhood abuse offers a convenient and rewarding scapegoat. As Dr. Richard Gardner, a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at Columbia University, observes:

You're 35 or 40 and your life is all screwed up, and someone offers this very

simple solution. "Ah, I never realized I was sexually abused. That explains it

all!"-It's a simple answer for the therapist as well as the patient.(5)

Across America people are going to jail and families are torn apart because of the revived memory fad in psychology and the therapeutic professions. Events of the forties or sixties or seventies are "recovered" in the 1990s, leading to children suing their parents-and often they are awarded damages. The theory is that when the mind has suffered a horrifying experience, it may bury the memory of the event so deeply in the subconscious that the memory can only be recovered with great effort-therapeutic effort.(6) The recovered memories usually relate to child abuse, though sometimes they may recapture visions of murder and other events.

According to Dr. Loftus, there is no evidence, notwithstanding enormous effort to discover such evidence, that memories of traumatic events are routinely or frequently banished to the subconscious to languish for decades, from whence they are later reliably recovered.(7) Dr. Loftus does not assert that child abuse does not occur or that memory of it is never repressed. But she does establish through many of her case examples that many of these memories are complete fabrications, usually elicited by overzealous, sometimes incompetent, and often fanatical politically-correct therapists.(8)

The Loftus book appeared in 1994. Since then, more "repressed memory" cases have received public scrutiny. Perhaps the most famous current instance is the Amirault case,(9) which would make one or more additional chapters for the Loftus book, and which may be helpful to consider here. Ms. Dorothy Rabinowitz, in a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal, of which she is an editor, has lobbied hard for release of the-she says-unjustly convicted Amiraults.(10) The Amirault story concerns the people who ran the Fells Acres Day School in Malden, Massachusetts. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts charged several members of the Amirault family with child abuse at the school. In 1984, the number of the accused, the number of the crimes, and the monstrosity of the offenses, escalated swiftly. Son Gerald was convicted and sentenced to thirty to forty years in 1987. His mother and sister were later sentenced to eight to twenty years each.

The monstrous crimes included raping children with knives-miraculously failing to leave any objective indicia of wounding-and tying a naked child to a tree in front of all the teachers and children, while the Amirault daughter cut the leg off of a squirrel. These offenses were proven by the testimony of children who had undergone therapy.

Police and therapists apparently cooperated in bribing and intimidating witnesses. Ms. Rabinowitz reports that the school's teachers were questioned, but none could be found who saw anything wrong at the school. Although frightened by unsubtle threats from the police, the teachers reported nothing amiss.(11)

The nurses and social workers developed most of the children's allegations of abuse. In the interviews, the children repeatedly said nothing happened, nobody took their clothes off, et cetera. However, the interviewer persisted, perhaps because "[i]n the world of these examiners, children are to be believed only when they say abuse took place. Otherwise, they are described as 'not ready to disclose.'"(12)

The children were given positive and negative reinforcement and one child was "played-off" against the others. The interviewer told one child that "Sara had said 'the clown had you girls take your clothes off in the magic room.'"

Child: "No, she's lying."

Nurse: "She's lying? Why would she lie about something like that. . . ?"

Child: "We didn't do that."

The interviewer next tells this child: Nurse: "I really believed her [Sara] because she told me all about it, and she even told me what the clown said." Child: "What was it?"

Obviously, this case was built upon fabricated evidence. The fabrications, Ms. Rabinowitz says, were "wholesale."(13) No reasonable person, she says, who looked at the trial transcript, could doubt that three innocent citizens were imprisoned on the basis of some of the most fantastic claims ever presented to an American trier of fact.(14)

Two of the Amiraults were denied parole-because they continued to assert their innocence.(15) The judge who presided at their trial thereupon issued an order to revise and revoke their sentences. "Agitated prosecutors" (Ms. Rabinowitz's term) secured a reversal of the order-unprecedented in Commonwealth history.(16) Like the witch trials of an earlier Massachusetts, this prosecution will someday be the source of "amazement and horror." Meantime, "Violet Amirault lies locked in prison along with her son and her daughter, while the days and years of life slip past."(17)

A self-congratulatory seminar entitled "The Fells Acres Day School Case-A Model Inter-disciplinary Response," was held shortly after sentencing. Malden Police Inspector John...

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