To: MIT.EDU!witchhunt Date: Sat, 10 Dec 94 13:19 WET (c) The Baltimore Sun Company, 12/4/9
From: romulus.ehs.uiuc.edu!m-net.arbornet.org!aaron (Aaron Larson)
Date: Sat, 10 Dec 94 13:19 WET
(c) The Baltimore Sun Company, 12/4/94, Pg. 6F
Examining repressed memory: recovered fact or abused truth?
By Bruce Clayton
When I was in junior high I saw an older student kill a teacher.
We were walking down the hall when the teacher, coming from behind,
tapped the young man on the shoulder. He whirled around, threw a
punch, and hit the teacher in the face. The teacher died when his
head smacked the floor. It's vivid in my memory. I can see it; I
remember the student's name. It still causes a chill to run down
One problem: The tragedy did occur, but at a high school across
town, and several years earlier, when I would have been only 9
years old. I had lived, somewhat uneasily, in the grip of this
false memory for years. The truth emerged when I began poking around
in my past by interviewing old friends and doing some elementary
checking in newspapers. To my amazement, I found that my memory
had played a number of tricks on me.
None of this will surprise either Elizabeth Loftus or Richard Ofshe,
scholars who have added sane, critical voices to the clangorous
debate over "repressed memory." In a number of circles, recovering
long-dormant memories is the key to unlocking women's (and some
men's) imprisonment in a past which was obviously filled with sexual
abuse, mainly incest. Dr. Loftus and Dr. Ofshe, scholars writing
with the help of co-authors, argue for extreme caution and label
much that we remember "false memory."
The debate splashed into the public consciousness in 1989 when
Eileen Franklin, then a young California mother of 29, had a sudden,
flash of memory. She could "see" her father killing a young girl
20 years earlier. Bewildered, she told her therapist (yes, she was
already in therapy), who reassured her that she wasn't crazy, that
she had merely "repressed" the truth, and now it had burst forth.
In the celebrated trial that followed, Ellen Franklin's testimony
sent her father to prison, where he sits today.
Dr. Loftus, a psychologist at the University of Washington and a
recognized scholar on memory, testified as an expert witness for
the defense. She did so because her research (along with others')
has convinced her that human memory, at best, is highly fragmented
and unreliable. Our memories are a compound of truth, dreams,
fantasies, stories we've heard and stories we've told. Contrary to
the popular view, distant memories erode greatly over time. Mainly,
In "The Myth of Repressed Memory," Dr. Loftus devotes a long, moving
chapter to the Franklin trial. She doesn't doubt that Eileen Franklin
believes her story, but writes: "There is a very real possibility
that the whole concoction was spun not from solid facts but from
vaporous breezes of wishes, dreams, fears and desires." Dr. Loftus
argues, usually in a voice of scholarly restraint, that no one
should believe anything that cannot be proved.
Such a view, of course, puts her at odds with an army of psychologists
and therapists who have helped hundreds of thousands of people
(mainly women) to see that they are, in the title of E. Sue Blume's
best seller, "Secret Survivors" of childhood sexual abuse. The
abuse must be "remembered" and "worked through" in therapy (no
matter how painful) and thrown back at the abusers. Only then can
the patient be whole. Such is the self-help message of "The Courage
To Heal," the bible of the recovered memory movement, by E. Bass
and L. Davis.
Dr. Loftus and Dr. Ofshe, who have high regard for each other's
work, are not denying that sexual abuse occurs, though both scoff
at the contention by Ms. Blume and others that incest is "epidemic."
Their argument is with the assumptions and practices of the recovered
memory movement, whose leaders say that if patients "feel" they
were sexually abused, they were. No more proof is necessary.
Both Dr. Loftus and Dr. Ofshe shudder when they think of whole
families being destroyed by accusations supported only by feelings
or nothing more than "truth" based on memories recovered by zealous
therapists. Both authors lament that cherished values are thrown
out the window -- whether it's a proper regard for evidence or that
the accused are innocent until proven guilty. Each contends that
therapists who always find sexual abuse in their patients' buried
pasts obviously went looking for it. (One distraught, accused father
hired a detective to pose as a patient. Sure enough, the therapist
uncovered sexual abuse in the woman's past.)
Dr. Ofshe, a professor of social psychology at Berkeley, is
particularly angry. His tone is often polemical. He's convinced
that far too many therapists, however well-meaning, are "poorly
trained, overzealous and ideologically driven." They are blinkered
by an extreme feminism and "pseudoscience" that ends up making
monsters out of patients who, for a variety of reasons, need help.
(Dr. Loftus quotes Nietzsche: "Whoever fights monsters should see
to it that in the process he does not become a monster.")
Dr. Ofshe and Dr. Loftus argue that the proponents of recovered
memory all too often defend their practices in language that suggests
religious fervor, not scientific reasoning or even logic.
Not even the brightest stars of the "movement," Dr. Ofshe writes,
understand that they are in fact "revictimizing women." The patients
come in with real problems -- from depression to drug addiction --
and need help to cope with the here and now. They need to learn
how to stand on their own two feet. Instead, they are led to believe
that they were sexually abused and that everything in their lives
hinges on traumatic events in the past.
Writes Dr. Ofshe: "Patients are encouraged to view themselves not
as complex individuals with free will and the strength to shape
their lives, but as one-dimensional creatures who share a single
defining experience -- sexual abuse."
The controversy over repressed memory and its reliability will
continue to boil. Dr. Loftus and Dr. Ofshe's words could help
elevate the debate. As historians know, remembering the truth about
the past is sometimes hard enough; false memories of any sort only
complicate life further.
Dr. Clayton, the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny
College in Meadville, Pa., is the author of several biographies.
Title:"The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations
of Sexual Abuse"
Authors: Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Length, price: 290 pages, $ 22.95
* * * *
Title: "Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria
Authors: Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters
Length, price: 340 pages, $ 23
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank