In the 1980s the so-called Recovered Memory or false memory syndrome (as its critics termed it) exploded onto the American scene with a vengeance. Not a few people were sent to prison based entirely on memories of abuse, much of it centered around alleged widespread Satanic cult conspiracies, that they claimed they repressed as children but were able to “recover” as adults with help from therapists. Sexual abuse guidebooks like Courage to Heal went so far as to suggest that most mental maladies faces by women, from low self esteem to overeating to depression, were likely caused by repressed memories of sexual abuse.
The recovered memory movement’s own excesses were its downfall. Although many people were credulous of the claims of Satanic conspiracies and repeated the mantra that victims could never be doubted, in fact the claims made by recovered memory therapists and patients became so bizarre that all but the true believers began to wonder if something else might be going on.
Elizabeth Loftus, an expert in memory who did pioneering studies on the fallibility of eye witness accounts of crime, helped take a lot of air out of the recovered memory claims by demonstrating that it was relatively easy to implant false memories into experimental subjects. Add to that the fact that many of the therapy techniques advocated by repressed memory experts used exactly the sort of methods Loftus found likely to result in fake memories, and by the mid-1990s recovered memory therapy was in full retreat. Some recovered memory therapists found themselves on the short end of civil lawsuits brought by their patients and/or people they had help put in jail based on recovered memory.
In an upcoming study to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Loftus, Giuliana Mazooni and Irving Kirsch should manage to finally put the nail in the coffin of the recovered memory movement. In previous experiments, Loftus had demonstrated that false memories of routine events, such as being lost in a mall as a child, could be implanted, but now she’s managed to show that false memories of fantastic events — in this case demonic possession — could be implanted even in subjects who were initially skeptical about the very existence of the phenomenon.
In the experiments, conducted on 200 Italian students, subjects were asked to give a detailed life inventory including how plausible they felt demonic possession was and whether or not they had ever been possessed by a demon as a child. All subjects initially said they didn’t think demonic possession was very plausible and they had never experienced a demonic possession as a child.
Some of the respondents were then given a series of articles to read that dealt with demonic possession and portrayed it as something that was plausible and not uncommon. They were then asked to fill out a questionnaire about fear and anxiety, and some of the respondents were then falsely told that their particular set of fears indicated that they probably witnessed a demonic possession as a child. This is important because, again, the modus operandi of books like Courage to Heal is to tell people that if they are depressed or suffering from sexual dysfunction or whatever, it is likely a symptom of having been sexually abused as children regardless of whether the person has a memory of such an incident.
On a follow-up interview, 18 percent of the people told their responses indicated they had witnessed a demonic possession changed their original position and now agreed that not only was demonic possession plausible, but claimed they had witnessed a demonic possession as a child. Three-quarters of the rest of the subjects also changed their mind about demonic possessions, but not quite as drastically as the one-fifth who claimed to have witnessed a demonic possession themselves as a child.
“Previous experiments created memories that were plausible,” Loftus told Wired magazine, “But even something that’s implausible can be infused with plausibility. It’s a two-stage process. First you increase the plausibility of an event and then suggest it happened to the subject. It mimics the kind of thing that happens in a physician’s office. It’s like getting an X-ray and having the doctor tell you that you have pneumonia. But in this case, low self-esteem and depression means you were abused as a child. It’s an analog for that kind of situation. … This shows why people watching ‘Oprah’ or those in group therapy believe these kinds of things happened to them. People borrow memories from others and adopt them as their own experiences. It’s part of the normal process of memory.”
Most courts have already started routinely rejecting recovered memories as reliable for testimony, and this should help further that trend as well as helping to end the debate with those who still insist that recovered memories of ritual sexual abuse are genuine. Thanks to Loftus’ efforts, countless innocent people will be spared the horror of false accusations of sexual abuse and those who suffered from the witch hunt in the 1980s and 1990s might be able to restore a semblance of their lives.
Those memories can be made or simply borrowed. Scott LaFee, San Diego Union-Tribune, October 25, 2000.
Beware a rash of exorcisms. Leander Kahney, Wired, October 31, 2000.
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