The Myth of Repressed Memory
False memories and
Elizabeth Loftus &
Geoffrey W. Sutton
The Myth of Repressed Memory is a classic worth reading. Those of us who are psychotherapists along with colleagues in healthcare, spiritual care, and the justice system are well aware that so many people have been abused sexually and otherwise as children and adults. We hear their stories and sense their anguish.
Those of us who have studied memory, cognition, and neuropsychology as a part of our preparation for clinical work also know about the fallibility of memory and the work of Elizabeth Loftus. Those of us who were working when Loftus’ memory research trickled across America became acutely aware of the impact of her studies on prosecuting attorneys and their referrals for assessment.
Although the book is old in the sense that many are well aware of the malleability of human memory and the problems with the ideas of repressed memories pervasive among therapists a few decades ago, it is still worth reading because people have not yet learned the lessons of humility when it comes to the inaccuracies of old memories, the limitations of interviewing techniques to discover truth, and the harm that can be done when psychotherapists stray from the tether of evidence-based effective interventions.
I recommend clinicians and graduate students in the behavioral sciences read The Myth of Repressed Memories. It is an exercise in scientific thinking and a cautionary tale of the harm that can be done in the name of therapy.
In my hardback edition, there are 13 chapters and 269 pages. Following are some things we can learn by reading this work from 1994.
1. We can appreciate what it is like for a psychological scientist conducting research that has implications for society in general, and individuals in particular. Dr. Loftus was challenged in so many ways. The challengers attacked her character as well as the quality of her work. Although she had many supporters and has won many awards, highly intelligent scientists like Loftus do hurt.
2. It is incredibly difficult to combat beliefs when educated clinicians accept unproven beliefs as fact and write compelling stories about ways to evaluate and help people who suffer from the considerable distress associated with childhood trauma or other conditions.
The truth is that many girls and boys have been sexually abused as children. And they have struggled with the memories of that abuse for years. In addition, many recall traumatic events when memories are triggered later in life. Unfortunately, some clinicians are too often guided by untested ideas rather than science. In the case of “repressed memories,” considerable harm was done to clients and their families. A take home point is to be careful with ideas that have not been supported by evidence.
3. Clinicians often learn from case studies. This book contains real cases of families that were torn apart when unsupported memories were brought out using questionable strategies as presented in chapter 9, Digging for Memories.
4. Spirituality can become problematic when vulnerable people want to do what is right but are bullied into accepting the views of interviewers whose views of spirituality encourage a confession to unsubstantiated allegations. See the case of Paul Ingram in chapter 12.
There’s more to learn from this valuable work. Perhaps a few points are worth considering.
Many girls and boys have been abused. Abuse can be physical and emotional. Abuse can be sexual and nonsexual.
Ending abuse must continue to be a community and national priority. We must protect children and adults.
Many women and men suffer severe symptoms linked to childhood abuse. Nothing in this book undermines the reality that many people struggle because of abuse.
Treating people who suffer from mental distress, regardless of the cause, is an important component of total health care.
Our memories are imprecise and subject to change each time we recall a past event and in response to questions about a memory.
Sometimes we can recall events that happened but get important details wrong. Sometimes those details can make a difference in our lives or those of others.
Sometimes we can recall events that never happened. This is strange but it happens.
Memory errors that involve other people can destroy important friendships and relationships—especially when the memory includes a crime.
Naïve interviewers can create false memories or extract false confessions. And experienced interviewers do not necessarily obtain the truth.
Evangelical scholar Craig Keener considers the role of memory and cites Loftus’ work in his look at the gospels in the recent textbook, Christobiography: Memory, history, and the reliability of the gospels. See book review.
Loftus, E. & Ketcham, K. (1994). The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
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