(like a world without child abuse?)

Guest article by Paul Turner

Paul is a member of the pwylls. You can write to them at

There seems to be little or no doubt that it is possible to remember things which one has not experienced. Repeated experiments (Loftus 1989, p. 607) have shown that memory can be significantly altered by postevent misinformation. As we will see, however the results of these experiments are frequently used to answer questions on which they have no bearing, namely: "what is the validity of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse (CSA)", or, more to the point: "Am I to believe that my friends, colleagues, and other respected members of my peer group are capable of committing atrocities?".

The standard misinformation acquisition experiment goes as follows (Loftus, 1989, p. 609): First, subjects are shown a series of 79 slides depicting a story in which a robbery takes place. Then, they read a description of the events in the slides which, they are told, was written by a professor who watched the same slides closely. The text contains either neutral or misleading information about four particular items in the slides. For example the text might say "he placed the stolen calculator under a tool" for the neutral condition, or "under a screwdriver" for the misleading condition, when in fact the tool in question is a hammer. After a 10 minute filler activity, subjects are given a test of some sort, either forced choice or yes/no answers, depending on the study, about all of the items pictured in the slides, both the test items and the controls, about which accurate information is given in the text. The test results are then subjected to statistical analysis with regard to variables such as accuracy and confidence level (measured by response time).

These experiments, however, say nothing about repressed memories of CSA. For one thing, because the interval between information acquisition and testing is only ten minutes, the test only applies to short term memory, not to the long term autobiographical memory (Baron 1994, p234), where memories of CSA would be stored. Further, the subjects in the experiments are likely to be in a state of little or no arousal, and the objects they are asked to remember have no relevance in their lives. The psychophysiological reality of CSA victims is a very different story, especially with regard to memory. CSA survivors dissociate more frequently and profoundly than the normal population (Putnam and Trickett, 1993, p. 84), and show signs of dissociative state dependent learning (Putnam and Trickett, p. 88, Baron, 1994 pp. 228-229). Also there is evidence of hormonal changes in survivors of CSA (Putnam and Trickett, pp. 89-90). All of these factors are likely to have a profound psychological, and even neurological, effect on the storage and retrieval of memory, and they are not addressed at all in misinformation acquisition studies. Clearly to generalize from these studies to repressed memories of CSA is more of an example of confirmatory bias (Loftus 1993, p. 530) than of sound research practice.

"The Reality of Repressed Memories" (Loftus, 1993, pp. 518-535) is often cited (eg. Baron, 1994 p. 233) as an authoritative work in this field, so it will serve as an example of the rest of the 'evidence' in denial of the truth of repressed memories. After giving us a graphic description of the "living nightmares and broken hearts" (Loftus 1993, p. 520) of the accused perpetrators, Dr. Loftus follows with eight pages, half the manuscript, of anecdotes. She makes no attempt to ascertain the prevalence of the therapeutic practices described, and nowhere does she indicate any possibility that the clients' memories she so graphically depicts might be true. The remainder of the text consists of statistics without any indication of sampling criterion, except one "small, non-random sample", and reference to misinformation experiments as discussed above. It is important to remember, at this point, that Dr. Loftus is considered a careful researcher, and a moderate in the dispute over repressed memory.

In 1994, however one study was published which may shed some light (L.M. Williams, 1994, pp. 1167-1176). In 1970, a group of 129 girls (ages 10 months-12 years), who were admitted to the hospital due to sexual assault, took part in a survey. Details of the sexual assaults were recorded, along with interviews with the girls, and hospital records. 17 years later, these women were interviewed about their memories of the original incident. Care was taken to make the estimate of forgetting as conservative as possible (Williams,1994, p1169). Women who recalled the abuse but placed it at the wrong place in their life history were considered to have recalled the abuse. Still 38% had no recall of the original incident. Of the women who remembered, another 16% said that they had no recall at some time in their life (Williams, 1994,p1170). Forgetting was more common among the younger women (the 2-4, and 4-6 year old, at the time of abuse, age groups) and among those whose perpetrators were well known to them, or family members (Williams, 1994, p. 1171). However, forgetting took place in all age groups and categories. The "recovered" memories were found to be no less accurate than the continuously held ones (Williams, 1994, p. 1184). So, there is, at least, some solid evidence that memories of CSA are in fact suppressed in some manner, and can be recovered with as much accuracy as those not suppressed.

This leaves us with an interesting quandary. Critics decry the theory of repressed memory as having only anecdotal evidence to support it (Loftus, 1993, p. 519). Yet these same critics have only anecdotal evidence to support their denial. Similarly, Dr. Loftus, the moderate, derides repressed memory supporters for making an unsupported claim that the women in the Williams study are amnesiac, and in the same paragraph makes an equally unsupported claim that these women are experiencing ordinary forgetting (Loftus, 1994, p. 1178).

Others claim that data which indicates that 35% of subjects will misremember after exposure to misinformation (Loftus, 1989, p. 615) proves that all recovered memories are false. Such a condition of hypocrisy is supposed to induce cognitive dissonance, so why doesn't it? The answer may lie in social psychology. The vast proportion of the people being accused of child abuse, by recovered memories, are in the same peer group as the researchers; middle aged, successful, and with high standing in their communities. On the other hand, the survivors of CSA are the same age as the researchers' children, and frequently have severe behavioral problems like borderline personality disorder, depression, and even multiple personalities. This sets up an in-group/out-group dynamic that is only excacerbated by the fact that the few psychologists who believe in repressed memories are clinicians, while those who deny are researchers.

The disturbing implications of believing survivors of CSA also have an effect. Until recently CSA was considered a rarity (Williams 1994,p1185). Current surveys place the prevalance of CSA at over 25% (Putnam and Trickett, 1993 ,p. 82). More victims means more perpetrators, so, one of one's friends and acquaintances is almost certainly a secret child molester if one is a member of the generation of the survivors' parents, a difficult concept to accept. So, we see that answering the question of whether a memory can be false is much more complicated than proving or disproving a simple theory, and has implications in personal and social psychology as well as research.

Baron, R.A., Psychology, 3rd ed, Allyn and Bacon, 1994

Loftus E., "The Reality of Repressed Memory", American Psychologist, May 1993, pp. 518-535

Loftus, E., Donders, K., Hoffman, H.G.,"Creating New Memories that are Quickly Accesed and Confidently Held", Memory and Cognition, 1989, volume 17, #5, pp. 607-616

Loftus, E., Garry, M., & Feldman, J.,"Forgetting sexual trauma: What does it mean when 38% forget", Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1994, #62, pp. 1177-1181

Loftus, E., Hoffman, H.G., "Misinformation and Memory: the creation of new memories", Journal of Experimental Psychology, General, 1989, volume 118,#1, pp. 100-104

Putnam, F.W., & Trickett, P., "Child Abuse, a model of Chronic Trauma", Psychiatry, 1993, volume 56, pp. 84-92

Ross, C.A., Multiple Personality Disorder, Diagnosis, Clinical Features and Treatment, 1989, John Wiley and Sons

Terr,L.C., "Childhood Traumas, an outline and overview", American Journal of Psychiatry, 1991, volume 148, pp. 10-20

Williams, L.M.,"Recall of Childhood Trauma: a prospective study of womens memories of child sexual abuse.", Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1994, #62, pp. 1167-1176

Williams, L.M.,"What does it mean to forget child sexual abuse: A Reply to Loftus, Garry, and Feldman", Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1994, #62, pp. 1182-1186

of the pwylls

Astraea's Bookstore... a full line of books on multiplicity & beyond

Email | Multiplicity | Astraea home | Religion | Politics | Silly

Back from whence you came