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A New Docuseries Explores The Reality of Memory Repression

Psychology's fraught history with repressed memory is on display in "Buried."

Key points

  • Showtime's "Buried" documents the trial of George Franklin that based on his daughter's recovered memory, was charged with murder.
  • Studies have found weak verifiable support that traumatic events can be long forgotten and recovered.
  • Alternatively, many studies have shown that false memories can be implanted in people, suggesting that people cannot trust recovered memories.

"I like to think about memory as akin to a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and edit it. But so can other people." – Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, Buried

 Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Scene from "Buried"
Source: Courtesy of SHOWTIME

In 1989, Eileen Franklin recovered a long-repressed memory of her father, George Franklin, raping and murdering her 8-year-old friend, Susan Nason, twenty years earlier. This caused Susan's long-cold murder case to be reopened and eventually resulted in the prosecution of George Franklin, the first murder prosecution in the U.S. based almost entirely on recovered memory.

Buried, a docuseries debuting this week on Showtime, chronicles the trial in detail, including the fact that it became as much about the validity of recovered memories as it did about George Franklin's guilt. There's an inherent irony in the series, which focuses extensively on the limitations and unreliability of memory, but tells its story mainly through interviews. People recount their (presumably limited and unreliable) memories of events that happened 30 to 50 years ago. For some reason, this is never acknowledged.

Nevertheless, the series offers a riveting and comprehensive look at the Franklin trial, which quickly spirals out beyond the mere question of George Franklin's guilt to raise questions of legal justice (Franklin, it turned out, had undeniably done some abhorrent things, but he wasn't on trial for them) and the basic science of memory. The trial ended up putting the science of repressed memory itself on trial, and it sparked a raging debate that became known as the Memory Wars.

One soldier in those wars, and an expert witness for George Franklin's defense, was memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus (she also appears in Buried). At the time of the Franklin trial, not much was known scientifically about repressed memory. Since then, thanks to work pioneered by researchers like Loftus, psychologists have learned much more, and what they've learned has led them to considerably doubt the idea that someone could forget a traumatic event for years and then suddenly remember it as Eileen Franklin did.

Weak Evidence for Repressed Memory

First, the documented evidence for repressed memory is relatively weak. Elizabeth Loftus and Deborah Davis have argued that convincing evidence of repression should demonstrate (a) that someone was abused in the past, (b) that they forgot the abuse, and (c) that they later remembered the abuse. But almost no studies meet all three of these conditions.

For example, some studies have observed recovered memories of abuse but verifying that abuse is exceptionally challenging. And one study that did manage to meet all these conditions, by tracking women who had been sexually abused and then interviewing them over 15 years later, found that the vast majority reported the abuse in final interviews -- not what you'd expect if traumatic events were commonly repressed.

Evidence That It’s Possible To Create False Memories

Alternatively, researchers like Loftus have pointed out that it is quite possible to create false memories in people using similar methods to clinicians who promote memory recovery.

Some of these techniques, like hypnosis and guided imagery, increase suggestibility and encourage the creation of mental images. These factors are known to increase the chances of creating a false memory. A significant point of contention in the George Franklin trial was whether Eileen Franklin recovered her memory under hypnosis in therapy because it would render her memory significantly less reliable.

 Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Elizabeth Loftus in "Buried".
Source: Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Multiple researchers have proven this point by implanting relatively benign false memories in people. Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell provided one of the first examples in 1995 by collecting childhood stories from older relatives of 24 people. They then gave the reports to the people and a made-up story about getting lost in a mall at the age of five and being found and helped by an elderly woman. The researchers asked the people about their memories of the stories in two follow-up interviews, during which they were encouraged to provide as many additional details as they could. By the end, 25% of people said they remembered the made-up story to some degree, compared to 68% of people who remembered the true stories.

Later studies have found that people can be made to "remember" more extreme things like committing a crime or even impossible things like meeting Bugs Bunny at a Disney resort. One analysis combined data from eight "false memory implantation" studies and found that about 30% of 423 cases "were classified as false memories and another 23% were classified as having accepted the event to some degree".

Do these studies prove that repressed memories aren't real? No. But they show that it is relatively easy for people to generate vivid false memories, especially in heightened suggestive states. So, especially in legal contexts, a recovered memory is not trustworthy enough to stand independently.

Are the Memory Wars Over?

George Franklin's murder trial took place amidst a wave of recovered memories of abuse. For example, in 1991, comedian Roseanne Barr, creator, and star of the sitcom Roseanne, publicly claimed her parents molested her as a child based on recovered memory, though she later recanted that claim. Interest in cases like Franklin's spurred new research by people like Elizabeth Loftus that today has led many psychologists to treat memory repression as largely a myth. But has the myth gone away?

According to a 2019 analysis by a group of researchers led by Henry Otgaar, not at all. They reviewed a series of opinion polls of clinicians, legal professionals, and the general public over the last 10-15 years. They found that about 60% of nearly 5000 surveyed had indicated some degree of belief in the reality of repression. Among 2000 clinicians surveyed, 70% stated belief in the existence of repression (that number increased to 76% when they included only the most recent surveys).

The lessons offered by the George Franklin trial in Buried are as vital now as they were 30 years ago.

All four episodes of Buried will be released to Showtime subscribers on Sunday, October 10th.

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