Repressed Memories: True and False

By Reisner, Andrew D. | The Psychological Record, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Repressed Memories: True and False


Reisner, Andrew D., The Psychological Record


There seems to be agreement that child sexual abuse is common and that this abuse can have severe emotional consequences (Briere & Zaidi, 1989; Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990; Grand & Alpert, 1993; Loftus, 1993). A national survey found that 27% of women and 16% of men reported having been sexually abused in childhood (Finkelhor et al., 1990). Briere and Zaidi (1989) found that 70% of women in their sample who presented at a psychiatric emergency room, reported, when specifically asked, that they had histories of sexual abuse. It was also found in this study that women who had been abused as children, as compared to those who had not been abused as children, were more likely to present in the emergency room with problems involving drug abuse, sex, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and severe personality disorder, especially Borderline Personality Disorder. Sexual abuse of children represents a significant problem in our society.

In recent years, however, concern has been raised over the validity of recovered repressed memories of abuse and the damages that can be done when false accusations of abuse result from false memories (Baker, 1992a; Coleman, 1990; Gray, 1993; Jaroff, 1993; Loftus, 1993, 1995; Ofshe & Watters, 1993; Pendergrast, 1995; Steele, 1994; Wakefield & Underwager, 1992). Specialists in the area of sexual abuse investigation and treatment have been criticized for using methods which may be leading and which may result in false memories and false accusations (Coleman, 1990; Gardner, 1991; Hicks, 1991; Ofshe & Watters, 1993, 1994; Wakefield & Underwager, 1992). Prosecution and imprisonment of possibly innocent people based largely upon evidence from questionable recovered repressed memories, or from leading, biased interviews with children have several authors comparing the current situation to the Salem Witch Trials. The term "witch hunt" is being used by some to describe the situation (Gardner, 1991; Hicks, 1991; Jaroff, 1993; Loftus, 1995; Sauer & Okerblom, 1993).

Experimental and other empirical evidence indicates that long term memory, rather than being a reliable tape recording, is a reconstruction which is subject to distortions based on later experience and influence (Baker, 1992a; Loftus, 1993; Spanos, 1994; Yapko, 1994). Questions have been raised as to whether the psychotherapy process, particularly when hypnosis is used, can result in false memories of such experiences as UFO abductions, past lives (Baker, 1992a, 1992b; Ganaway, 1989; Yapko, 1994), and ritual satanic abuse (Hicks, 1991; Mulhern, 1991; Ofshe & Watters, 1994; Spanos, 1994). Similarly, misdiagnosis or the iatrogenic influence of therapy has been suspected in the creation of many, if not most, cases of Multiple Personality Disorder (Aldridge-Morris, 1989; Freeland, Manchanda, Chiu, Sharma, & Merskey, 1993; Merskey, 1992a; Piper, 1995; Reisner, 1994; Simpson, 1995; Spanos, 1994; Spanos, Weekes, Menary, & Bertrand, 1986). Such patients often report the most extreme and bizarre forms of abuse and are known to be highly suggestible and subject to memory distortions (Ganaway, 1989; Mulhern, 1991). The phenomenon of iatrogenesis, and the convincing evidence that false memories exist, raise questions as to the accuracy of reports of recovered repressed memories of more mundane varieties of abuse.

It has been established that the veracity of memories cannot be established by either the confidence of the subject in the reality of the memory or by the strength of the affect displayed (Baker, 1992a; Yapko, 1994). If this were not the case, we would have to accept the reality of abduction and abuse of humans by aliens in UFOs. These UFO abduction patients report high confidence in their recollections (often obtained under hypnosis) and, at times, display symptoms similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Hopkins, Jacobs, & Westrum, 1992). The evidence for the reality of UFO abductions is exceedingly poor and alternate explanations have been offered (Baker, 1992a, 1992b; Klass, 1993; Reisner, 1993; Sagan, 1993; Stires, 1993). …

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