Recovered Memory Syndrome

A Modern Witch Hunt

Posted Jan 06, 2010

Is it possible that someone can have a really scary experience early in life and then forget all about it until it comes out during psychoanalysis years later?

Since so many things are "possible" I suppose it could happen but that's a far cry from saying that it ever does happen or that it happens with any degree of regularity. Despite that, it wasn't too long ago when there was much hoopla involving something called Recovered Memory Syndrome. Along with a few professionals, a whole slew of marginally qualified therapists and councilors came forward to treat this questionable condition. The basic plot involved a repressed memory of some traumatic event (almost always of a sexual nature) that was now causing whatever it was the patient had...or could be convinced they had. Many people were actually told that if they didn't remember being molested as a child, it was proof positive that they had been. Lawyers and law enforcement then joined the bandwagon and a full-fledged Witch-Hunt began.

Perhaps the most notorious case played out in California where kids from a preschool were badgered into concocting hair-raising tales of sexual shenanigans occurring between playtime and naptime. Three teachers were jailed and the building itself was eventually razed. But still not satisfied by a total lack of any legitimate evidence, some parents went so far as to dig up the grounds in a fruitless search for hidden caverns. Similarly sensational stories then cropped up all across the country; ensnaring fathers, grandfathers and even a few altogether befuddled grandmothers in the ever widening net of accusations and persecutions. Families were split asunder and reputations were ruined as relatives and next-door neighbors with lurid imaginations and scores to settle expressed their damming opinions.

But perhaps the most tragic part of this entire episode is that anyone who ever took so much as a Psych 101 class should have been in a position to speak out against this lynch-mob mentality yet, to the best of my knowledge, only one person did. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, then at the University of Washington, ran the not inconsiderable professional and personal risk of calling the whole concept of repressed memories into question. She proceeded to publish more than a dozen articles and wrote three books; including The Myth of Repressed Memories. What her work made crystal clear is that memories are far less than reliable and can, all too often, be nothing but pure fantasy.

In one study, she interviewed a mother and her two sons both individually and as a group over a period of several weeks. They were, all three of them, normal subjects that, nevertheless, came to believe in an event that never occurred. Dr. Loftus introduced the idea of the younger son once getting lost in a shopping mall and finally being reunited with his mother and older brother through the efforts of a kindly stranger. Eventually this fabricated story became so real in the minds of the subjects that they offered a physical description of the imaginary stranger. He was an older man with a beard and red suspenders! One must wonder just how much, or how little, in the way of additional suggestions it would have taken to convince the family that the boy had been molested in the period between getting lost and being returned.

So when it comes to memories, you'll do well to remember that they are very unreliable. And when it comes to repressed memories, you'll do best to forget the whole thing.