The Recovered Memory Ruse

Ilana Mercer, March 26, 1999

  The North Shore News
  March 26, 1999

Mike Kliman is a Richmond educator who has endured three trials, the loss of a career and financial ruin because of the Crown’s attempts to convict him of sexual assault based on memories recovered in therapy. Mr. Kliman’s five-year ordeal, which ended in January 1998, prompted British Columbia’s attorney general to conduct a review of the case. The recommendations, however, are hardly earth moving. The ministry should have barred evidence based on recovered memories from the courtroom. It didn’t. Instead, British Columbia prosecutors have been told to proceed with caution in prosecutions involving recovered memory, to seek corroboration of the memories where possible, and to consult experts on the recovery process. These timid steps are not enough to defang a therapeutic confidence trick that has wreaked havoc in thousands of lives. Neither do these measures in any way approach those instituted in Britain and the US. But mostly, the recommendations fail to militate against a problem that plagues the mental health profession as a whole, experts and non-experts alike.

After an extensive investigation, the British Royal College of Psychiatrists issued a ban prohibiting its members from using any method to recover memories of child abuse. Memory retrieval techniques, say the British guidelines, are dangerous methods of persuasion. The courts in the U.S. have responded as well by ruling to suppress the admission of all evidence remembered under therapy. “Recovered memories”, said Alan Gold, president of the Canadian Criminal Lawyers Association, “are joining electroshock, lobotomies and other psychiatric malpractice in the historical dustbin.” Altogether it seems clear, except to BC’s Ministry of Justice, that memories recovered under therapy have no place in a court of law.

Elizabeth Loftus is a leading world authority on memory who testified at Mike Kliman’s last trial. In the course of her 20 years of research, Loftus has planted many a false memory in the minds of her research subjects, sometimes with the aid of nothing more than a conversation peppered with some suggestions. “A tone of voice, a phrasing of a question, subtle non-verbal signals, and expressions of boredom, impatience or fascination”—these are often all it takes to plant suggestions in the malleable human mind. Loftus does not question the prevalence of the sexual abuse of children or the existence of traumatic memories. What she questions are memories commonly referred to as repressed: “Memories that did not exist until someone went looking for them.” However, repression, the sagging concept that props up the recovered memory theory is without any cogent scientific support. The 30 odd studies the Recovery movement uses as proof for repression do not make the grade, says Loftus. These studies are retrospective memory studies and rely on self-reports with no independent corroboration of information.

Still, the concept of repression remains seductive. We want to believe that our minds record the events of our lives meticulously, and that buried in the permafrost of our brain, perfectly preserved, is the key to our woes. Unfortunately, scientific research negates the notion that forgotten memories exist somewhere in the brain and can be accessed in pristine form. Even in the absence of outside influence, memory deteriorates rapidly. “As time goes by”, writes Loftus in her book, The Myth of Repressed Memories, “the weakened memories are increasingly vulnerable to post-event information”. What we see on TV, read and hear about events is incorporated into memory to create an unreliable amalgam of fact and fiction.

How prevalent is this excavation business? Although the media have continued to imply that only a few bad apples—a small number of unqualified and ill educated sorts—perpetrate this therapy, this is not so. Researchers into this debacle, such as Berkeley professor Richard Ofshe, have long warned that on the recovered memory front there is no difference between academic and non-academic therapist, accredited and non-accredited therapist; not in the nature of the ideas nor in their prevalence.

The expert for the Crown in the Kliman case had “helped” one of the complainants in the case recover the kind of memories that would have made the Marquis de Sade blush. Harvard affiliated psychiatrist Judith Herman is another respected academic who has thrown her weight behind the movement. And clinical psychologist Renee Fredrickson not only promotes the trend in her book, A Journey to Recovery, but also offers psychotherapists a grab bag of tricks with which to extract memories.

Lenore Terr is an acclaimed psychiatrist who purports to prove the existence of repressed memories. Instead, what she offers up in her tome is a medley of anecdotal cases together with research on fruit flies! Some of these individuals are popular authors; others serious academics. All are widely respected clinicians. And all practice recovered memory therapy.

Equally recriminating are the survey data. Psychologist Michael Yapko surveyed 860 psychotherapists attending conventions in 1992. The fact that all these professionals had an education beyond a master’s degree didn’t lessen their propensity for wrong-headed mythical thinking. Fully 84 percent of respondents thought hypnotic age regression a useful technique, three quarters believed that hypnosis enabled people to accurately remember forgotten events (the opposite is true), and 28 percent believed hypnosis could be used to recover accurate memories of past lives!

In another national random survey of Ph.D.-level American psychologists, Poole and Lindsay found that 85 percent said that at least some clients, who initially denied any memory of sexual abuse, subsequently recalled it during therapy. This information, concluded the authors, indicates that “the majority of American therapists sometimes hunt for repressed memories of sexual abuse”. Clearly, errors made by recovered memory therapists are just a symptom of a larger problem in the profession.


CATEGORIES: Criminal injustice, Popular Culture, Pseudoscience, Psychiatry & The Therapeutic State