Showing posts with label child abuse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label child abuse. Show all posts

Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Myth of Repressed Memory- Elizabeth Loftus - Book Review

The Myth of Repressed Memory   

False memories and

Allegations of

Sexual Abuse


  Elizabeth Loftus &

  Katherine Ketcham

Reviewed by

  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.

 Related reviews

A related story of a false identification of a man accused of rape is Picking Cotton. See book review.

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.

 The Malleability of Memory: A Conversation with Elizabeth Loftus



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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Sunday, December 20, 2020

Spotlight- Movie Review



  Tom McCarthy


  Tom McCarthy

  Josh Singer

US Release

6 November 2015

My wife and I saw the award-winning film, Spotlight. We both came away shocked and disturbed. The actors did a superb job at evoking a strong emotional response to the outrageous behavior of church and community leaders who covered-up child sexual abuse in Boston. The damage to human lives is horrendous.

For me, the timing of the film is ironic. Two days before seeing the film, I reviewed proofs on my book A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. The book represents two years of work examining sexuality in the church from the perspective of moral psychology. I aim to promote open discussions of healthy Christian sexuality. But I also wrote about sexual abuse because it would be irresponsible to ignore it. As Spotlight illustrates, sex abuse happens in the church and a lot of people get seriously hurt.

Spotlight is the name of the investigative unit at the Boston Globe Newspaper. The movie, Spotlight, is a dramatic film of the investigation into the cases of child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the area of Boston Massachusetts. 

The investigation begins in 2001 when the new managing editor, Marty Baron, meets Walter "Robby" Robinson of the spotlight team. Baron read an article alleging a cover up of a priest's child molestation by Cardinal Bernard Law and encourages the team to investigate. The investigation leads to more discoveries of abuse by many more priests.

Spotlight Lessons

There’s so much that could be said about sex-abuse scandals in churches. Here’s a look at six lessons using a moral framework of six dimensions derived from the work of Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind ) and his colleagues.

1. Care vs. Harm

We expect churches to be in the business of caring about people—not just souls but wholes—as H. Norman Wright says. In Spotlight we find a common practice of caring more about one’s colleagues than about the damage done to the victims and survivors. The message of the Christian gospels directs attention to the social outcasts during the time of Jesus’ ministry.

Our moral impulse is to care for the young and vulnerable. Children do not survive without parental care. Righteous anger naturally rises when we see harm done to children. It’s a perversion of morality to turn the care-harm focus on an organization rather than the people an organization ought to serve.

Estimated percentages of child sexual abuse in the U.S. are
27% for girls and 16% of boys. 
See “Nature and Scope…”

2. Equality and Justice

The film shows the lack of justice accorded those who suffered deeply from child sex-abuse. A friend of mine, psychologist Ev Worthington, often speaks about the problem of the “justice gap.” We all have an innate sense of injustice. We are motivated to close the gap—to seek justice. Anger fueled vengeance seeks to right the wrongs in society. And sometimes it’s personal as seen in the film. I felt angry. Anger is a good thing when destructive people and their unjust systems are dismantled or reformed.

3. Oppression and the need for freedom

Following the publication of the sex abuse scandal, the Boston Globe was inundated with phone calls from area victims. The breaking of the sex-scandal was like blowing up a dam. People in chains to memories of sexual violence came forward. The silence of churches and organizations is oppressive. Silence can prevent victims from becoming survivors. Christian attitudes toward ethnic minorities and women are two other examples of religiously justified oppression. Faith ought to set people free. Too often leaders of faith keep people in chains.

Silence can prevent victims from becoming survivors.

4. Respect for Authority

A society cannot survive if the participants do not respect legitimate authority. Religious and political leaders are human beings who often act out of self-interest. Sadly, religious leaders often hide behind a cloak of godly authority. At times religious leaders have acted as if an attack on the clergy or the church is an attack on God.

It’s always been that way. Christians fret about the deteriorating morals of society. Unfortunately, many religions have lost their historic claim to moral authority. The scandal revealed in Spotlight is one massive example of the importance of holding leaders accountable in any organization that wants to have a moral voice.

5. Loyalty vs. Betrayal

In Spotlight we see efforts to encourage people to be loyal to the home team. Loyalty to Boston and the Catholic church is a virtue. Don’t destroy the works of good people because of a few “bad apples.” It’s interesting that the film focuses on numbers as if a quantifiable critical mass of bad priests is needed before one feels justified to “betray” the church.

Loyalty is indeed a virtue. But where one’s loyalty lies is important. Christians, and all moral people, are continually tested to determine whether their loyalty lies with their church/religion, pastor, political party, nuclear family, extended family, school, and so forth. At times, the ties that bind us to others must be broken. Spotlight shows what can happen when misplaced loyalty reinforces destructive church practices.

6. Purity vs. Degradation

The church has often portrayed sex as dirty and unclean. Shining the Spotlight on the filthy frocks in the church reveals dirt instead of the moral purity expected of its leaders. Sexual purity remains a focus of many Christian groups who periodically rail against premarital sex and pornography.

The film, Spotlight, evokes disgust. Disgust over sexuality provokes the desire to be clean. We find the behavior of the priests and the church disgusting. Disgust moves us to protection. Disgust can be a good thing. But we must protect those who have been hurt not an organization that perpetuates harm.

As long as churches are led by people, problems of uncontrolled sexual behavior will persist. The people who govern any organization ought always to be disgusted enough to “clean up” their organization. But churches must focus on those who have been hurt by the actions of their leaders. People who have been sexually abused often report feeling dirty. I once heard a woman say of the Christian leader who abused her, “I felt like trash-- a piece of paper that he wadded up and tossed in the trash.”

Read more about Sex and Christian morality, in  A House Divided

For related works, see my book list and reviews about Sex and Religion 



To learn more about the problem of child sexual abuse, see the Catholic Church report on the abuse of minors for the period 1950 to 2002. It is available from the USCCB.

Link to a 2002 Spotlight team report at the Boston Globe.

The story behind the movie, Spotlight at the Boston Globe.

Clergy Sexual abuse is not just a Catholic issue. Newsweek story 7 April 2010.

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