By Katy Butler
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, somedogmatically 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 $2.65 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 $5 million in claims against their therapists. The largest amounts were paid to clients of psychologist Judith Peterson of Houston, Texas, and psychiatrist Diane Humenansky of St. Paul, Minn. The cases frequently involved diagnoses of multiple personality disorder and Satanic cult victimization and, in the Peterson cases, year-long psychiatric hospitalizations and dramatic “abreactions” of memories while clients were held in restraints.
In a finding that may shed some light on how false memories develop, about half of 40 retractors in a 1995 study by Philadelphia psychiatrist Harold Lief said they had always recalled one or more limited instances of a brother, stranger or distant family member. Suggestive therapy, they say, led them to accuse innocent fathers or to imagine murders, additional perpetrators or Satanic rituals.
As such information emerges, the polarized black-and-white debate is shading into gray. “It seems we’re heading for a middle ground,” says psychologist John Briere, a leading child sexual abuse therapist and researcher at the University of Southern California Medical School. “We are realizing that some therapists are doing inappropriate things and some clients need special attention to make sure that they don’t freely confabulate during psychotherapy. We’re beginning to realize the risks involved in using hypnosis for memory recovery and the dangers of some suggestive psychotherapy techniques. On the other side, more researchers are willing to acknowledge that there are dissociated memories.”
Among the general public, the conventional wisdom remains that recovered memories occur mainly in middle-class white women exposed to suggestive therapy. But a 1995 study by psychologist Diana Elliott of UCLA suggests that this is not so. Elliott surveyed a group of 505 randomly selected, demographically balanced men and women across the country, of all races. An astonishing 72 percent said they had witnessed or endured a serious trauma, such as combat, assault, serious car accident, mugging, natural disaster, rape, child sexual abuse or drive-by shooting. Of those victimized, 15 percent (55) reported a period of total amnesia; of that relatively small minority, only 8 were in therapy when their memories returned. Most recollection was triggered by a book or media event like Oprah Winfrey’s TV show, by an incident reminiscent of the original trauma or by talking to family members. Combat veterans were more likely to report memories triggered by therapy than were sexual abuse victims. Elliott did not confirm the accuracy of the traumatic memories her respondents reported.
But at least one publicly corroborated case fits her finding that delayed recall can take place spontaneously, outside therapy. In 1992, a 26-year-old Michigan police clerk, who was not in therapy, was typing probation reports about child sexual abuse cases when she remembered being abused at the age of 8 in Ohio by her mother’s boyfriend. Ohio police detectives eventually tracked down former child psychologist David A. Hoffman in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; he confessed in 1994 and was sentenced to two years in prison. Hoffman had also been convicted of sexually abusing children at a New York State children’s home in 1986.
Four years ago, clinicians had plenty of theories of recovered memory, but few of their case studies had been validated in the public arena. Now a wealth of detail and raw research data is emerging from hotly contested court cases around the country. These still-baffling stories suggest that a wide range of mental mechanisms may be at play in genuine recovered memory. Perhaps the most intriguing recent case involves Cherese Franklin, wife of a Salt Lake City postal clerk, who entered therapy in 1992 for panic attacks. Using a technique suggested to contact her “inner child,” she used her left hand to record detailed memories of seemingly unbelievable abuse by a teenaged cousin, Kenton Stevenson.
Her vivid journal entries included bizarre accounts of being raped with sticks, being stuffed into the carcass of a dead deer and being made to watch her cousin mutilate a rabbit. Both the memory-recovery technique and the sadistic, seemingly preposterous, acts could excite immediate skepticism. But after recording her memories in a dated journal, Franklin hired a private detective, found Stevenson’s former wife and learned that Stevenson had been found to have abused his own children as well. At trial last August in Salt Lake City, Stevenson’s 16-year-old daughter, Rayne Burtchin, testified that her father had sexually abused her. A stepdaughter testified he had mutilated animals in front of her. The accounts were supported by a 1986Family Court divorce and custody ruling, finding that Stevenson had sexually abused his son and two daughters, and had raped one with a coat hanger. A Salt Lake City jury awarded Cherese Franklin $750,000. The verdict suggests that, in some court cases, the presence of substantial external corroboration may outweigh suspicions about the therapeutic techniques involved or the bizarreness of the reported abuse.
A 1996 Toronto case suggests that forgetting and remembering may also be functions of alcohol use. A 39-year-old Canadian actress, identified in court documents only as D.M.M., told the Networker that sheremembered repeated abuse by her family doctor when she joined Alcoholics Anonymous after years of heavy drinking. She had returned to Toronto, where the abuse took place, and was writing in a journal in 1991, she says, when her memories poured onto the page. Last March, a provincial justice ordered Leo Pilo, M.D., to pay her $95,000 despite the testimony of FMSF advisory board member and psychiatrist Harold Merskey, who suggested that D.M.M was probably suffering from “false memories.” D.M.M.’s accusations were supported by four other women who said Pilo had sexually abused them in childhood. Pilo’s medical license had been previously revoked in a separate proceeding in which he admitted the women’s charges.
Given the searing details recounted in court cases, it’s not surprising that people look to the cooler world of the research laboratory to end the uncertainty. Last July, for instance, new PET scan research by Harvard’s Daniel Schacter was prematurely hailed in some news headlines as a detector of “false memories.” In his experiment, 12 volunteers heard lists of 20 related words such as “sharp, pin, thimble, thread, sewing.” When the volunteers later were asked to pick out the words from a list on a computer screen, many also chose “decoy” words from the same family, like “needle.” PET scans showed increased brain activity in the hippocampus in both true and false word recognition. But only the memories of truly heard words from the areas behind the left ear, in the superior temple lobe. That area is associated with processing memories of recently heard sounds.
It’s a long way from misrecognizing the word “needle,” heard minutes ago, to misremembering a rape at 12, and Schacter cautioned reporters that his research does not yet contain the blueprints for a new mind-reader or lie detector test. Nevertheless, many still yearn for the day when space-age scientific divination will tell false memories from true, replacing the laborious detective work involved in weighing one person’s word against another’s and searching for corroborating or disconfirming evidence.
“There’s a faith that this sort of basic research is going to provide a resolution to the controversy, and it’s really misplaced,” says psychiatrist Scott Rauch, M.D., another leading-edge PET-scan researcher at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. “That’s not going to happen soon, if at all.”
©1996 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.