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False Memories

Michael Jackson, Truth Serum, and False Memories

Press coverage of Michael Jackson omits one key fact.

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In the wake of the recent death and funeral of pop superstar Michael Jackson, many public comments have naturally turned to his, well—rather unusual—life and lifestyle. Some of these comments have been thoughtful, others considerably less so. And a few have been irresponsible. A number of prominent figures, among them New York Congressional Representative Peter King, have recently asserted without qualification that Michael Jackson was a child molester. Over the July 4th weekend, King referred to Jackson as a "pervert," "child molester," and "pedophile." In evaluating these comments, it's crucial to note that Michael Jackson was never found guilty of child molestation, although he settled such charges out of court for millions of dollars.

I do not know whether Michael Jackson ever molested a child. I suspect we will never know for sure. Clearly, Jackson was guilty of eccentricity, naïveté, and exceedingly poor judgment—such as allowing children into his bed—on multiple occasions. But eccentricity, naïveté, and poor judgment are not against the law.

I do know, however, that recent press coverage of the sexual abuse charges against Jackson has typically omitted one crucial fact. One of the two charges that received the most press coverage surfaced in 1993, when Evan Chandler filed a lawsuit against Jackson for sexually abusing his 13-year-old son, Jordan. At the time, the news media reported widely that Jordan Chandler accused Jackson of performing oral sex on him, and that Chandler provided law enforcement authorities with a description of Jackson's genitalia. Eventually, Jackson settled this case out of court for $22 million; some have argued that this settlement is prima facie evidence of his guilt, whereas others have argued that Jackson understandably wanted to avoid a prolonged and emotionally grueling civil trial. I do not know which side is right, so I will withhold judgment on that issue here.

So what crucial fact has most of the press coverage omitted? It's that Jordan Chandler apparently never made any accusations against Jackson until his father, a registered dentist, gave him sodium amytal during a tooth extraction. Only then did Jackson's purported sexual abuse emerge; Jordan Chandler's reports became more elaborate and embellished during a later session with a psychiatrist.

Sodium amytal is a barbiturate and one of the most commonly used variants of what is popularly known as "truth serum," a spectacular misnomer. There's no scientific evidence that sodium amytal or other supposed truth serums increase the accuracy of memories. To the contrary, as psychiatrist August Piper has observed, there's good reason to believe that truth serums merely lower the threshold for reporting virtually all information, both true and false. As a consequence, like other suggestive therapeutic procedures, such as guided imagery, repeated prompting, hypnosis, and journaling, truth serums can actually increase the risk of false memoriesmemories of events that never occurred, but are held with great conviction.

In fact, because the physiological actions of barbiturates are similar in many ways to that of alcohol, the effects of ingesting sodium amytal are probably similar to those of imbibing a few stiff drinks. When we're rip-roaring drunk, we're more likely than when sober to say lots of things, only some of them accurate. Moreover, as Piper notes, there's overwhelming evidence that people can distort the truth or lie while under the influence of truth serum.

None of this proves, of course, that Jordan Chandler wasn't sexually abused. But that his reports of abuse apparently surfaced only after the administration of sodium amytal means that we should view these reports with more than a dose of healthy skepticism.

As always, in evaluating claims of sexual abuse, we need to walk a fine line. We need to be careful not to dismiss any such claims cavalierly, as we know all too well that some of them are true. At the same time, we need to be careful not to jump the gun against the accused, as we also know all too well that some of these claims are false. And of particular relevance to the Jackson case, scientific evidence reminds us to be especially dubious of claims that emerge only after the administration of suggestive memory procedures.

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