NO SCIENTIFIC QUESTION RAISED by memory's malleability and persistence has reverberated more deeply recently than that of "recovered memories." Can an accomplished writer really forget for years and then suddenly recall that she was molested by a fisherman, as Isabel Allende describes in her memoir Paula? Can outwardly normal people .suddenly remember repeated childhood molestations by an uncle, father or cousin as an Ohio dairy farmer's wife, a Seattle computer analyst and a Salt Lake City homemaker have claimed in civil trials? Can people really be led to fabricate elaborate memories of Satanic rituals or to falsely accuse their fathers, as women in Texas, California, Minnesota. Colorado and elsewhere have claimed in lawsuits against their therapists? And can science distinguish false memories from true?
In 1992, accused parents in the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) challenged the psychology professions to come up with hard scientific proof that traumas could be forgotten and then remembered; they compared them to recollections of abduction by space aliens. Now a more complex picture of false and traumatic memory is emerging. The validity of a handful of recovered memories is now far better documented and so are some false memories. And science is still far from developing a litmus test to distinguish one from the other.
In the last four years, more than a dozen cases of well-corroborated recovered memory have surfaced, and the popular press has begun to back off from the notion that all recovered memories are bogus. As Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley wrote last July, "Just two years ago, some dogmatically asserted that traumatic memories are never lost and recovered memories are always fabricated. Now a more balanced viewpoint is emerging. Some victims of childhood abuse do forget single episodes and perhaps multiple incidents."
In the spring of 1992, for instance, John Robitaille. a Providence, R.I., communications consultant, heard a news report about the notorious pedophile priest Father James Porter, and suddenly recalled that he, too, had been his victim. His specific memories were confirmed by two classmates: Porter later pleaded guilty to molesting 28 of 153 reported victims. Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian surveyed 43 of them in 1993 and found another 8 or 19 percent who reported no thoughts or memories of the childhood abuse until the case broke in the media. Others reported years of forgetting.
In 1994. Brown University professor Ross Chest marshaled five corroborating witnesses and a taped confession from a man who molested him 25 years earlier at a San Francisco Boys Chorus summer camp, winning an apology from the chorus and a settlement of $35,000. Jury awards in other recent cases have reached as high as S2.65 million.
"There are corroborated cases that I accept as validated," says Harvard University memory researcher Daniel Schacter, whose book Searching for Memory argues for the existence of both false and genuine recovered memories. "They tend to involve events that occurred some time ago, not yesterday, and single or small numbers of events. What's still missing are similarly well-described and corroborated accounts of cases where the forgetting is much more extensive such as years of much more horrific kinds of abuse."
Retractors have also come forward with well-validated accounts of suggestive, abusive therapy that led to bogus memories. More than 250 have contacted the False Memory Syndrome Foundation directly, and FMSF parents report that another 100 sons and daughters have privately retracted. (Others have reconciled without retracting.) In malpractice suits against therapists, 22 retractors have won judgments and legal settlements ranging from $120,000 to more than S5 million in claims against their therapists. The largest amounts were paid to clients of psychologist Judith Peterson of Houston, Texas, and psychiatrist Diane …