The Myth of False Memories

Guest article by Paul Turner and Titania Miyamoto

Paul Turner and Titania Miyamoto are members of the pwylls. You can write to them at

THE MYTH OF FALSE MEMORIES a cognitive and social overview of traumatic memories lost and found by Paul Turner and Titania Miyamoto
psyc 135 feelings and emotions

Nobody likes to think about the terrible things that happen to some children in our culture. When Freud first published "The Aetiology of Hysteria"(1) in 1896, he opened the door of the dark closet where western civilization keeps its scariest monsters. These monsters include child molesters, the emotional carnage the create in their children, all of the social consequences of that carnage, and two concepts that have divided Psychology since its inception.

One of these notions is the idea of repression. This is the idea that crucial, traumatic episodes in childhood can be completely erased from memory. The other, oddly enough, was also first proposed by Freud, in 1897. This is the notion of false memory, which Freud called the fantasy theory. This theory holds that these same crucial traumatic episodes are can be manufactured entirely out of fantasy. Both of these notions derive from misunderstandings about the nature of human memory.

In the modern world, the fantasy theory has a high level of social legitimacy. This is largely due to the efforts of an organization called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. This well organized group of White, wealthy, academics, and professionals, including doctors and lawyers, publishes newsletters and articles in professional journals, provides expert witnesses for the defense of anybody who they discover has been accused of child abuse (regardless of the plausibility of the prosecution's evidence), and occasionally pickets or harasses clinicians who specialize in treating survivors of child abuse or academics who do research on authenticated cases of repressed and recovered memory.

The repression and recovery view has no such social support. There is no such thing as a recovered memory foundation. Repression is mostly believed in by survivors of child abuse and their families and therapists. Feminism, the only political movement that addresses the issues of survivors of child abuse, is constitutionally anarchistic, and does not believe in forming the kind of monolithic, hierarchical, political organization that our society prefers. To make matters worse, many survivors of child abuse are mentally ill as a result, which lessens their credibility considerably.

Few holders of the repression view have the academic qualifications to become an expert witness, and even if they did, there is no central organization to find and pay them. The only factor that acts in favor of the repression view in the world of Law and Public Opinion is that believers in repression are also experiencers of repression. They speak with absolute conviction about their experiences, regardless of the empirical validity of their beliefs, or the verifiability of their memories.

Fascinating as they are, the political, legal and social questions only distract scientific inquiry from asking the research questions that must be asked before political legal and social issues can even be addressed in an informed manner, including: "what is the nature of human memory?"; "is traumatic memory different than ordinary memory?"; "if so, how?"; "does any form of human memory preserve veridical information about traumatic events?"; and, "how can this information be retrieved?". these questions are tricky. Much of cognitive psychology is dedicated to answering the first in a laboratory. The others, only a Nazi would design experiments around. Unfortunately the answers to these questions must still be found, even if that means leaving the lab and turning to the experiences of actual survivors of childhood sexual trauma. This is a difficult, ugly, and emotionally charged undertaking which many excellent experimenters would rather avoid. Instead they tend to like answering questions that can be answered in a nice safe lab where everything stays replicable, observable, testable, and ethical. One popular question of this sort is: "can you remember something that never really happened?". this seems like a nice innocuous research question, one that can be safely given as an essay topic to first year psychology majors. It's even a handy question for a lawyer to ask in court if he/she is trying to establish reasonable doubt about someone's testimony. However, anyone who can remember the plot to yesterday's soap opera can answer this question. "Can you remember something that never really happened?" has been answered for centuries. If you couldn't we would not have fiction or mythology. That the cognitive psychologist who first posited this question as a research question and then did the bulk of the empirical research on it happens to be the all-star expert witness for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation is, of course, purely a coincidence.

The question "what is the nature of traumatic memories, and what, if anything, is accurately recalled about childhood traumas?", on the other hand, is shoved down the throat of every working clinician before they even get their license by the high co- morbidity of a history of child abuse with just about every mental illness. However, clinical answers can be colored by the emotional experience of being a clinician. Practitioners who deal with more severely abused survivors hear tales of an entirely fantastical nature told with absolute conviction. Many of today's abuse survivors were abused during the 1960's, an era when drug use and cult activity was not uncommon. Survivor's tales of satanic ritual abuse, UFO abduction, and such anomalies as fallopian consciousness may be entirely accurate if seen as reflections of their abusers bizarre beliefs and perhaps the drugs those abusers forced their children to ingest. However, when embraced as veridical by empirically trained clinicians they lend an ugly hue of unreality to all clinical observations.

Between experimentalists who cant or wont ask the questions, and clinicians whose answers are fantastical, the actual suffering of abused children, and the answers we need to help end it, get obscured. Fortunately, there is a large amount of reliable data about authenticated cases of abuse, a number of more objective clinicians, including those who deal with less damaged clients, and some who study larger populations, and huge body of empirical work about the nature of memory in general. Turning to these sources we can begin to conceptualize an approach to answering the question of traumatic memory and its storage and retrieval.

We must have a clear conception of trauma before we can look at traumatic memories. Medically trauma is : " a term used to indicate disorders due to wounds or injuries"(2). Psychological trauma, then, would mean psychological disorders due to wounds or injuries, including psychological ones. Physical trauma, and the threat of physical trauma, can lead to psychological trauma, and, in the case of self mutilators and suicides, vice versa. Sexual trauma, rape, combines physical pain and danger with crushing psychological damage. Lenore Terr (3) makes another very useful distinction in our taxonomy of trauma. She distinguishes between type I trauma, a single distinctive traumatic episode, and type II trauma, chronic repeated trauma. According to Terr, type II traumas are the most likely to undergo the anomalous storage and retrieval we know experientially as repression. Most of the court cases the False Memory Syndrome Foundation fights have to do with chronic sexual and physical trauma inflicted by a close relative or caregiver. This is the most emotionally destructive form of trauma a human can experience. Even children in Auschwitz were not tortured by their parents. The traumas we encounter in our search for traumatic memory range from this extreme to the "trauma" we experience watching a character get shot on television, a "trauma" most Americans experience willingly on a nightly basis.

In the hundred years or so western science has been investigating memory, we have come up with a great deal of information, but only a few reliable generalizations. One is that we really don't know what's going on. Another is that more than one thing seems to be happening. The third is that a great deal of what's happening is happening without our conscious knowledge. Endel Tulving (4) cited several "a priori reasons" for abandoning the notion that "memory is memory", and adopting a more multiplex view of human memory. The first is simply that no profound generalizations can be made about memory. In the laboratory context this idea is instantiated in double dissociations, where the same 'treatment' lowers the score on recall in one condition, but raises it in another (5), and stochastic independence, where two differing results can be proven to be probabilistically unrelated (4), between test scores in different conditions. A single system operating in different modes would, the theory goes, create at least some kind of correlation between test results. Everyday experience supports these findings. We struggle relentlessly to "cram" our minds full of data in order to prepare for a test, or to give a lecture. Then, on the way there, a song from a radio, or the smell of a bakery, effortlessly evokes a crystalline, lucid, impression of the feelings and sensations we felt on our fifth birthday. It is difficult to imagine a system that requires so much work for so little information of one sort, and yet retrieves so much, so effortlessly of another.

Tulving (4) also cites the nature of the brain itself as a reason for conceiving of memory as multiple. Memory takes place within the structure of the brain. The human brain is an amazing piece of wetware capable of converting raw, analog, sensory inputs from uncountable individual neurons into the richly textured linear narrative we experience as life, at real-time speeds, in three dimensions, with a level of resolution that allows for home-run hitters and virtuoso violinists. All the while, it simultaneously records enough of the information it is processing to repeat or reproduce the experience later at will. That recording is memory. If a single mechanism is responsible for all of those levels of nuance and detail, it has to be a mechanism akin to the mechanism by which all information stored on any computer anywhere is encoded as simple binary patterns of open or closed microcircuitry, or perhaps the mechanism by which 48 chromosomes map the entire range of human diversity. While understanding this code could be quite handy for building robots, or designing artificial intelligence, the average human has a much greater need to understand how to utilize his/her emotional and cognitive software without damaging his/her self, others, or the environment we need to sustain us. At that level, memory is multiple.

One of the obvious and distinctive properties of our evolutionary software is that most of it operates without our knowledge. We have no idea that the accurate approximations of size, shape, distance, and color we think of as sight are actually processed out of a tiny distorted and inverted image on the back wall of our retina. If we had to process it consciously we would go mad. We also have no clue as to how we remember how to ride a bicycle, instantly, even after 20 years of not riding. Cognitive psychologists refer to the difference between what we know, and what we know that we have no idea that we know as the difference between explicit and implicit memory. Implicit memory is often tested using a phenomenon called repetition priming. Experiments in priming usually involve subjects being shown a stimulus, for example a word. Later they are asked to perform a task involving that word. One common task is word fragment completion, where the subjects are asked to complete words that appear only as fragments (e.g. Concept=_o_c_p_). Sometimes the original word is shown to the subjects to fast for conscious recognition using a device called a tachystiscope. In any case, subjects are not asked to recall the earlier stimulus, so if they score higher on the items that have been "primed" by seeing them earlier, this is taken as evidence that implicit memory processes are at work.

Another variant of this task is called stem completion. In stem completion, the first three letters of the word are used as a fragment (e.g. Concept=con____). The exact same stimuli can then be used for an explicit test called graphemic cued recall, where the first three letters are used as a cue for recalling the word. Using these paradigms, researchers (6) were able to establish stochastic independence between explicit and implicit recall performance for the exact same stimuli, with the only difference in the two conditions being the instructions. The same experiment also showed intact priming in amnesic subjects, who are incapable of conscious recall.

Implicit memory itself appears to be, at least functionally, multiple. For example, the combinations of muscle movements that go into making a simple facial expression are some complicated that the most sophisticated computers we have cannot even recognize them, much less duplicate them. The average human, however learns how make facial expressions sometime during his/her first year of life and never forgets. This memory of how (7) is preserved even in people with Korsakov's syndrome and other organic brain disorders. As far as human experience goes this kind of memory is something different than repitition priming for words. Tulving's (4) model of human memory is a mono-hierarchical structure, with this procedural memory forming its base. His next two levels, semantic and episodic memory, are both explicit. Apparently, Tulving views all implicit processes as being some form of procedural memory. According to Tulving, procedural memories can only be acquired through overt behavioral response to the environment.

If we consider sensory processing as a behavior, this generalization can include priming and other perceptual phenomenon. Schacter (8) takes the view that implicit learning takes place as a result of modifications of perceptual processes in response to stimuli. Both of these theoretical constructions imply that implicit memory is only activated by actual events that happen to the body.

A separate implicit system working directly off of sensory input would help explain the superiority of recall of pictures over words (9). The sensory processes involved in forming a mental image of the picture are considerably more complicated than those involved in decoding a word. This in turn leads to a higher level of implicit excitation, giving the memory of the picture the advantage of being stored in more of the brain. The same logic extends to the superiority of picture/sound combinations over either pictures or words independently (10). More sensory input leads to more implicit activation leads to superior recall.

Implicit memory is not effected by performing a secondary task at the time of encoding (5), or by level-of-processing manipulations (6). This implies that implicit memory takes place entirely independent of conscious focus of attention. This would tend to make it less susceptible to post-event cognitive distortion. In all, we seem to have an implicit memory that functions alongside our consciousness, is encoded directly from sensory input, is extremely durable, even in brain damaged individuals, and is not susceptible to conscious alteration. This implicit system functions in several different ways, including priming and procedural memory. Some theorists posit that these differences are differences in process rather than different systems (11), but these distinctions are irrelevant to our questions about traumatic memory. What is relevant is that any event, including any traumatic event, will be encoded by both the explicit and the implicit memory, and that the implicit memories will be coded directly from sensory input, invulnerable to mental manipulation, and extremely durable.

Explicit memory fits nicely into Tulving's (4) categories of semantic and episodic. Semantic memory refers to any domain of rules, and to the units those rules pertain to. This applies equally to the rules of chess, the board and the pieces, to a language, its grammar, and its vocabulary, or to the rules of mathematics and the actual numbers. Episodic memory is simply the autobiographical narrative we use to explain our self and our world to ourselves. Tulving sees semantic memory as being composed of complicated patterns of procedural processes, and episodic memory as complicated clusters of semantic meaning arranged as a narrative. Episodic memory, then, is the memory that is closest to conceptual processing, just like procedural memory is the closest to perceptual processing. Episodic memory is tested in any conscious recall paradigm. This means it is the memory that is inevitably tested when searching for "false memories" in a laboratory. It is also the memory that you need in order to testify in court. Unfortunately, episodic memory is really more of a narrative than a memory in the sense of an encoding of an experience. This narrative accompanies memories, and provides a context in which to derive meaning from them, but unlike semantic or procedural memory, it is governed by rules pertaining to meaning as well as by its contents. These rules make it possible to delete part of the narrative that interfere with the production of meaning, repression, or add new contents more congruent with the meaning than the "historical" facts, false memories. Implicit memories of the actual sensory data representing the historical facts are not altered by this conceptual alteration, so we cannot say the memory as a whole is lost. In fact, it seems plausible that an strong enough sensory cue retrieve this sensory data. If that happened the person could re-delete the newly retrieved data, in which case them memory would remain "repressed". If, on the other hand, the person was up to the emotional task of integrating the data into their ongoing biographical narrative, they could "recover" the memory. A real life analogy of this process goes as follows. The episodic memory is the testimony of the shopkeeper who has been robbed. The implicit memory is the video security camera, but it's locked in a box, so we can't see the tape. The right sensory cue opens the box, but only the shopkeeper sees the tape. If the robber is a close family member, the shopkeeper might say, "it never happened", repression; or he might say " it was some random punk who robbed me", false memory; or he might say "it was my son-in- law, send the bum to jail!", recovery.

Having explored some of the empirical findings about the nature of memory in general, we can now turn to some of the clinical findings about the nature of the experiences that produce the memorial anomalies the whole controversy revolves around. Readers who are interested in the gory details should purchase one of the many popular memoirs of abuse on the market. The individual incidents of most abusive childhoods are difficult, if not impossible, to be certain of. However, a substantial body of clinical experience points to several identifiable patterns in the memories these incidences produce.

First of all, one time distinctive traumas are less subject to "memory loss", but they do suffer some post event distortion. Secondly traumas involving abuse by primary caregivers and close relatives are more likely to be repressed. Finally, repression appears to be one of a large cluster of symptoms which covary with the intensity and nature of the trauma in question. Some victims experience no symptoms at all, and no syndrome, or precise identifying pattern of symptoms, has been found that definitively identifies survivors of abuse.

Lenore Terr (12) has made a number of observations about how children remember traumatic events. Her studies include examinations of normal children who experienced traumas, like the children in the famous Chowchilla school-bus kidnapping, as well as her clinical clients, many of whom are survivors of chronic child abuse. Terr concludes that singular traumatic events are remembered quite well. Somedistortion or deletion happens to the details, but, on the whole the memory remains clear, conscious, and distinctive. Victims of chronic abuse, on the other hand, are more prone to forget or repress. To Terr this is an indicator that "repression" is a learned skill(12). If the episodic memory, where repression takes place, is, in fact, more of a narrative for creating personal and social meaning, this conclusion makes a lot of sense.

Chronically abused children have the same need to feel that they live in a meaningfully predictable world, and can trust their caregivers to protect them, that all children have. However, they also have to deal with incoming data, the abuse, that contradicts and negates these notions of safety, stability and trust which are vital for healthy emotional development. In order to form a functional schema for appraising emotional relationships in their life, they must find a way to ignore this data. It is hardly surprising, then, that they later decide to believe in a life story that also excludes it. Milton H. Erickson (13) discusses this process in detail in a series of clinical case studies he did in 1938 concerning the reversal or retraction of legal testimony.

Chronic abuse implies that the abuser has regular, private access to the child. In other words, the abuser is either a close family member or trusted caregiver. L.M. Williams (14) conducted a study of 129 women with emergency room records indicating that they had been sexually abused in childhood. Thirty eight percent of these women had no memory of the abuse incident 17 years earlier. If we view the episodic memory as a narrative, the difference between women who "actually" don't remember and those who "just say" they don't remember becomes irrelevant. Because of laws requiring that Child Protective Services investigate emergency room visits that appear to be the result of child abuse, information about the perpetrators was included in the hospital records. Among the women with abused by strangers, the portion of recallers to forgetters was 82% to 18%. Among those abused by family members the proportion was 53% to 47%. J. Freyd (15) also came to the conclusion that repression is related to abuse by family members in her 1996 overview of confirmed cases of repression. Her theory is that the emotional damage done be the element of betrayal causes the repression phenomenon. This idea fits nicely with the idea that repression occurs as a result of needing to leave certain information out of the developing child's episodic life-story narrative.

Williams also found that the intensity of the abuse, contextualized in terms of penetration versus nonpenetration, was a predictive factor in the repression of the abuse memory. More intensity made for less memory. A recent survey of 45 studies of symptoms in abused children (16) found similar patterns. These researchers found that penetration, frequent abuse, use of force, and a close relationship between the perpetrator and the victim were strongly positively correlated with the intensity and number of symptoms. While these studies do not directly address adult recovery of repressed memories, repression is clearly a symptom, and it fits the pattern. These authors suggested four interrelated factors in the development of symptoms by abused children: traumatic sexualization, betrayal, stigmatization, and powerlessness. All of these factors relate directly to the child's developing appraisals of self and world. We base these appraisals on a schema derived from our episodic, autobiographical memories. Thus a purely cognitive model of repression is possible. Some memories generate cognitions which are destructive to the developing schema, so we remove them from the narrative on which we base that schema, our internal autobiography, which cognitive scientists like to call the episodic memory. The actual memories are deleted from the narrative, not from our brains. The mechanism for this deletion is cognitive, and, as Terr points out, can be learned. Powerful and secret psychodynamic forces and other Freudian speculations are not necessary.

Experiments which address the episodic memory of normal individuals in a lab situation suddenly start to look a lot less important and evidential from this perspective. We know that the contents of the episodic memory are nowhere near our entire memorial store. Further, the narrative nature of our episodic store makes it more susceptible to distortion. Proving this by altering episodic memories with post event misinformation accomplishes nothing. We might as well do "experiments" to "prove" the existence of gravity.

The nature of the experimental situation and the subject pool presents substantial challenges the generalizability, internal, and ecological validity of this experimental paradigm. As far as our implicit processes (or systems) are concerned, the sensory data from sitting in a lab in one condition are much the same as the sensory data for sitting in a lab in another. The misinformation acquisition paradigm does not actually test the subject's ability to remember the difference between a true situation and a false narrative. Rather it tests the subjects ability to discern which of two stimuli the experimenter has decided is the "truth". In a real life context, this is comparable to trying to remember the difference between two television shows. In both situations the rememberer has very similar sensory inputs corresponding to the situation for both conditions, in one the first case, two stimuli in the same lab, and in the other two stimuli in the same living room. In neither case does the stimulus in question have any bearing on the subjects emotional life. The episodic memory seems to be closely connected to our emotional schema, so this is likely to be highly relevant. Considering the amount of violence in the media in general, to call the violence in Loftus' experimental stimuli emotionally arousing is a dubious assertion at best. Bringing it all into perspective, the fact that I can't remember which episode of "the X-Files" the character of "the Smoking Man" was introduced in, has absolutely nothing to do with whether I can remember my father whacking my best friend on the head with a rock and killing her.

Survivors of child abuse apparently handle their episodic memory somewhat differently than most people, so any experiment exploring episodic memory should distinguish those subject with traumatic backgrounds from those without. Otherwise, a limited symptomatic after-effect of trauma, effecting only trauma survivors, could appear to be a characteristic of a percentage of normal episodic recall. Despite the fact that the eternal subject pool, college students, contains survivors of abuse, this screening process is not part any of the hundreds of misinformation acquisition protocols. The conclusions drawn from these experiments are likely, then, to reflect these memorial symptoms. Specifically, the 30- 40 % (16) who misremember details in Loftus' lab may, in fact, be abuse survivors who are complying with the authority figure of the experimenter by matching their episodic narrative to the one the experimenter seems to prefer. It is possible that child abuse survivors in courtrooms are being accused of false memories because child abuse survivors in laboratories acted on their accurate procedural memories of how to deal with authorities without being punished.

Studies which deal with loss of detail in memories for emotionally disturbing stimuli (17) that do not include long term follow through to determine if those memories ever actually return, may, in fact, be laboratory instantiations of repression in action. Studies that involve entire emotional narratives (18) that have been falsely implanted only prove that we can be "suckered" by a plausible but nontraumatic narrative. Trauma refers to a disorder. Any story that could cause a disorder would not be ethical to use in an experiment. Even if a traumatic narrative could be used it would only create a type I trauma, and we already know that memories of type I trauma may contain spurious details. Artificially instilling one would only show that type I traumas are handled at the same level as nontraumatic narratives. In all, the experimental data supporting the false memory theory can be pretty much summed up as being either a description of replicable, observable and testable experimenter effects, or irrelevant proofs of the obvious. None of it is generalizable to type II traumatic memories of child abuse, which are, after all, what the fuss is all about.

The episodic memory is not the place to look for the truth about childhood sexual abuse. The phenomena known as false memories and repression are essentially folk tales constructed to describe distortions and deletions in the episodic autobiographical narrative which arise as a result of understandable social and cognitive processes. Abuse memories, particularly memories of abuse by caregivers, tend to undergo these deletions and distortions, so we must look outside of the narrative to find them. Procedural memory as described by Tulving (4) is a likely place to start. Knowledge in this store can only be expressed as" overt responding according to a relatively rigid format determined at the time of encoding" (4). In other words, something actually has to happen to be encoded, and once it is encoded it doesn't change. Post-event misinformation and cognitive manipulation would have absolutely no effect on procedural memory. Unfortunately procedural information can only be retrieved in patterns of action, which makes it difficult to determine the details of who did the action in the first place, when it occurred, and why. Procedural memories can tell us that something happened, but not exactly what.

One instantiation of procedural memory is another Freudian construct, the transference. Freud's transference is the concept that certain early relational patterns, especially those that involve the primary caregiver, transfer to other relational contexts and are repeated throughout life. In cognitive terms, transference is a procedural memory of the relationship we had with our primary caregiver that serves as a template or schema for later relationships. Transference patterns have been found to be present, durable, and robust in both clinical and non-clinical populations (19, 20). In real life these patterns drive the experiential phenomenon of abuse survivors ending up in abusive relationships, and non-survivors finding themselves repeating themes in their relationships.

Kendall-Tackett et al(15) found much higher rates of sexual symptoms in sexually abused children. Terr (13) has observed that many trauma survivors re-enact their trauma on some level. These findings imply that the procedural memory is engaged in traumatic situations.

Procedural enactments like transference and symptoms help us to determine if a given individual has experienced a trauma. In the social/legal context, this can eliminate a certain amount of falsehood. Memories of events that never happened produce narratives, but no procedural enactments. In other words, an entirely false memory is easy to spot, it won't have accompanying behavioral components. However, while there seem to be some correlational patterns between the nature of the abuse and the symptoms (15), no identifying syndrome for child abuse has been identified.

Some abuse survivors show no symptoms whatsoever. Procedural enactments can lend plausibility to the notion that a given abuse memory is accurate, but they are a long way from proof.

Eileen Franklin Lipsker is the unquestioned cover-girl for the whole controversy over repressed memory. Her recovered memories put her abuser in jail, for murder. Her case is a good example of the ideas we've been discussing in action. Her mother and her sister both testified that her childhood environment was fraught with violence and abuse(13). This makes her a type II trauma survivor, the type most likely to repress. Her life history contains promiscuity and prostitution, both potentially behavioral re-enactments of childhood sexual abuse. During the years right after the murder she had a symptom of pulling out her hair in exactly from the area on her head corresponding to where Susan Nason's head was crushed by the rock. According to her testimony she retrieved the memories while looking at her 6 year old daughter. Photographic evidence presented at George Franklin's trial shows that Eileen's daughter Jessica, at 6, looked almost exactly like her murdered friend Susan Nason. The retrieval, then, could have easily been cued by repetition priming of the implicit memories of the events in question. Her recovered narrative is also highly plausible. George Franklin is a violent man, as his wife's hospital records show. Eileen's memory is of a simple act of mundane violence, by a violent individual, using a rock. No aliens or satanic cults here. Eileen Franklin Lipsker is a plausible survivor, with plausible procedural re-enactments of abuse, and a corroborated abusive background. Her recovery of the memories in question was triggered by an understandable implicit mechanism, repitition priming. Her narrative is realistic, fits the known facts about the murder, and contains no fantastical elements. All of the clues line up. It is easy to see why the jury decided to convict.

The Franklin case is unusually plausible, but some recovered memory cases are unusually bizarre. Each case must be decided on its individual merits. To accomplish this, a largish group of independent judges could go through the remembered testimony after being informed by experts on the nature of memory. In America, we call that a jury trial. The whole idea behind juries is that if you can convince twelve of your peers that your telling the truth, you probably are. Included in this social compromise is the knowledge that the system is fallible. The laws of Evidence would not have allowed George Franklin to be given a death sentence on the testimony of one eyewitness, The jury system is designed to deal with the fact that witnesses do not always tell the truth. A wholly false memory is no different, in this regard, than any other lie.

This bring us to one of the more disturbing questions of this whole issue. Just exactly what is the False Memory Syndrome Foundation trying to accomplish? Obviously if recovered memories never convinced a jury, there would be no such organization. What the False Memory Syndrome Foundation is fighting, then, is not the fact that survivors of abuse take their abuser to court on the basis of their recovered memories, but the fact that they sometimes win. These victories have two major social implications: a) they create a judicial precedent and in turn a social climate which leans towards zero tolerance of child abuse, and, b) they mean that repeatedly and brutally abusing a child until that child is forced to repress his/her memories is no longer a means of escaping conviction. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation, then, is dedicating to preventing these changes in our society from coming to pass, and maintaining the status quo, wherein it is very difficult to convict for domestic violence, rape, and child abuse. This difficulty is due in part to the focus that has been placed on studying the one kind of human memory which we know is easily distorted, rather than on how a jury might be able to find some level of truth in recovered testimony. To bring it all into context, if George Franklin had been serving a term in jail as a wife-beater and baby-raper, he would not have been available as a suspect, or a perpetrator in the murder of Susan Nason. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation is dedicated to preserving, and even strengthening, the social structures that kept Franklin's wife and children from reporting him, or getting a conviction. If we, as psychologists, are concerned with social issues and the injustices of the jury system, we would do better to try to handle the problems of young African American males, who are far more likely to be convicted and serve hard time than White males convicted of the same crime, rather than focusing on a few wealthy White professionals, who might be serving time on the basis of a recovered narrative with a few spurious details in it.


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17). "Creating new Memories that are quickly accessed and confidently held"; Loftus E., Donders K., Hoffman H. G. ; and Schooler J.W.; 1989; Memory and Cognition; v17(5) p 607
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20). "Juxtaposed scripts, traits, and the dynamics of personality" Thorne A; 1995; Journal of Personality; 63:3
21). "A verification of Freud's grandest clinical hypothesis: the Transference"; Luborsky, L. Et al; 1985; Clinical Psychology Review; v5(6) p 231

Paul Turner & Titania Miyamoto

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