From Incest to Ivan the Terrible: Science and the Trials of Memory

By Nathan, Debbie; Haaken, Jan | Tikkun, September/October 1996 | Go to article overview

From Incest to Ivan the Terrible: Science and the Trials of Memory


Nathan, Debbie, Haaken, Jan, Tikkun


From Incest to Ivan the Terrible: Science and the Trials of Memory

Debbie Nathan is co-author, with Michael Snedeker, of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt (Basic). Jan Haaken, professor of psychology at Portland State University and a practicing psychotherapist, is completing a book on women and childhood memory.

The recovered sex-abuse memory wars are winding down, after half a decade of bitter conflict. On one side, the troops have been adults--many of them women in therapy--who recalled images of childhood incest that they and their clinicians insisted really happened. Opposing them has been the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), a group of parents who indignantly deny the accusations, joined by researchers who assert that memories can be grossly transmuted, even falsified, by influences like therapy.

Battles raged through the early 1990s, but it is now generally agreed that although people can suddenly recall long-forgotten incidences of sexual assault that really happened, they can also "remember" abuse that never occurred. It's also by now a truism that memory is no audiotape or camcorder documentary of past events. Instead, it is constantly constructed and reconstructed, which means that the passage of time can add material that isn't literally true.

One of the main proponents of this position is FMSF board member and University of Washington memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus. In her experiments, she has implanted subjects with false memories--of everything from imagined stop signs to fantasied recollections of being lost in a shopping mall. Loftus has carried out her work using empirical models. A given number of individuals are shown the same film of a traffic accident; later, each is misleadingly asked about a nonexistent detail such as a stoplight. Statistics on how many subjects "remember" the light are then tallied to compute the odds of altering memory.

The precision of such experiments gives the scientist an infallible authority in court, where guilt is supposed to be adjudicated by finding facts, and where facts are based on what can be seen, tasted, heard, smelled, touched--and therefore measured. Vicissitudes of imagination and fantasy have no place here, and rightly so.

But what happens to the authority of the scientist when we leave court and reenter the overdetermined world with its dense (re)collectivity of historical, political, and cultural memory? And what happens when the scientist herself is embroiled in this world that her method ignores?

To explore these questions, let us shift our discussion from memories of incest to remembrance of the Holocaust. The venue is different, but the protagonist is the same: Elizabeth Loftus. Long before therapeutically recovered sex-abuse memories became an issue, Loftus was serving as a defense expert in trials where damning evidence came from witnesses who claimed they had seen all manner of grisly crimes, including homicide. Loftus often testified on behalf of accused murderers--serial killer Ted Bundy was a client--that the investigations that fingered them were fraught with mistakes that could produce false witness.

Homicide expanded to genocide when Loftus's help was sought by lawyers for John Demjanjuk. Demjanjuk was the Ukrainian immigrant who was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981, extradited to Israel, and sentenced to death in 1988 for murdering almost a million Jews at the Treblinka death camp. The case had begun in 1975, before any link was suspected between Treblinka and the bespectacled, retired auto mechanic from Cleveland. At that time, Justice Department officials suspected that Demjanjuk had done guard duty in Sobibor, a smaller camp not far from Treblinka, where 250,000 Jews perished. Although guards at Sobibor participated in the atrocities common at all the death camps, authorities had no evidence that Demjanjuk personally murdered anyone. …

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