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The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse Paperback – January 15, 1996
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“Astute, scientifically informed, and compassionate towards the movement's casualties.” ―The New York Review of Books
“The descriptions [of] the 'therapeutic' practices by which memories are recovered are a frightening indictment of at least some members of the burgeoning industry.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“[A] thoughtful, scholarly book . . . concerned with exposing the damage caused by, and the falsity of, the practice of recovered-memory therapy.” ―The Washington Post Book World
About the Author
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, is also the author of Witness for the Defense and Eyewitness Testimony.
Katherine Ketcham is also the co-author of Under the Influence, The Spirituality of Imperfection, Beyond the Influence, The Power of Empathy, and other books.
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This book is an amazing diverse collection of stories, personal experiences, research, interviews and facts all focused on carefully examining the assertion that "repressed memories" are historically accurate accounts of past experiences. In many accounts the "Repressed Memories" are used, as stand alone evidence to accuse, isolate, sue, prosecute, jail and imprison innocent people (some for more than a decade). This book carefully and gently leads the reader to the conclusion, based on the accounts and interviews, that "repressed memory" can not possibly provide anyone with reliable accounts of the highly emotional traumatic recollections years or decades later as claimed. In fact the events may never have taken place historically and may be the result of confabulations, distortions, assumptions, suggestive therapy, coercive questioning or source confusion among other factors (or any combinations of these possibilities).
She examines the historical roots of how Sigmund Freud initially viewed "repressed memories". Freud initially thought the memories were actual historical recollections but he quickly came to the conclusion that the stories were actually fantasies. Freud's initial errant insight that these fantasies were factual memories (pg 49-50) has been lifted for use by clinicians and writers who came to see "repressed memory" as the explanation for a wide variety of maladies. This notion has fueled book sales, personal therapies and group therapy sessions (pg 50-59).
The book carefully documents how suggestive and/or coercive comments, inquiries, influences and therapies through counselors, friends, relatives and interrogators can help create imagined events which are then labeled "repressed memories." Some of the stories are personal accounts. Dr. Loftus relates that she had a detailed memory develop when told that as a child. that she had found her mother drowned in a pool. In fact she had not (pg 39-40). Throughout the book story after story details how accusers in court cases influenced by friends, police and therapists find "repressed memories" that describe in amazing detail horrid behavior including incest, physical abuse, murder and satanic rituals. Even cursory investigation along with an obvious lack of physical evidence often causes very reasoned doubts that the memories are genuine historical events even if they appeal to our strong natural emotional urge to protect children.
I found the most interesting part of the book to be Chapter 11 "Sticks and Stones". In this chapter Dr. Loftus reveals personal meetings and exchanges she has had with famous proponents from the "recovered memory" movement. It is amazing how gracious and amiable she managed to be with those who have publicly disparaged her and her positions. Toward the end of the Chapter 11 Dr. Loftus shares with a recovered memory therapist (Barbara) how she was sexually abused when she was 6 years old by a 15 year old male babysitter (pg 225-226) named Howard. Dr. Loftus states "In his mind, I suspect, he (Howard) was taking a minor risk, experimenting with someone 'safe'. A little girl who wouldn't reject him or tattle on him....He wasn't cruel he just didn't think...But I never forgot this memory, nor did I repress it" (pg 226). Dr. Loftus shares that when she and the recovered therapist "parted later that night we hugged" (pg 226). A week later she received a paper with a drawing in the shape of a body labeled "HOWARD". It had pins in the chest and where sexual organs would be. The pins tips were colored bright red. Barbara had sent this to Dr. Loftus (pg 226). This is the point in the book that solidified (for me) how repressed memory zealots manage emotional issues (using symbols). Those like Dr. Loftus manage the emotional trauma differently. I will leave it at that.
I have read all the one star ratings of this book. None of them display the evidence of having read the book but here I address some of the errant assertions:
(1) The book is referenced with 15 pages of citations to a wide variety of literature both in scientific journals and popular reading materials. Most impressive is the careful reading of "recovered memory" books that she cites in her book (something the recovered memory books do not do of her writings!)
(2) She is an abuse victim herself and her book reflects great care for those who genuinely are victims (she is even gentle with those who sincerely think they are abused because of memories nurtured by poor therapy). I was genuinely touched.
(3) She clearly distinguishes between the DSM description on dissociate amnesia and "repressed memory" which is NOT in the DSM. In fact this book does the best job in contrasting these two very different concepts better than any other book I have read.
(4) She does not deny the Holocaust because none of the validated recollections of the Holocaust were ever claimed to have been "repressed." These memories were recorded and cataloged at the time and the victims have remembered all along what happened to them (this has been well documented in multiple studies).
(5) Dr. Loftus has never been found to have a secret pact or relationship with any known satanic or right wing conspiracy leaders since the writing of the book more than 20 years ago.
(6) She never lumps the incest survivor stories using "repressed memories" with repressed memories of space alien abductions or repressed memories of previous lives as roman soldiers or repressed memories of satanic rituals involving dark lit areas with large altars and screaming victims. She could have but she does not.
I think EVERY aspiring therapist should read this book. Every parent (or family member) who is being falsely accused should read this book. It will allow you to see more clearly how your accuser is truly a victim. Not because of you but because of a cultural myth called "repressed memory".
I was interested in this subject because it always seemed to me strange that (particularly in the day care abuse cases of the past few decades) children would come up with the most fantastic stories about hidden tunnels and clowns and ritual murder but there was never, ever any evidence uncovered to that effect. I often thought well, if these satanists are murdering scores of babies in their rituals, why aren't we hearing about the strange disappearance of infants from their cribs? It never made sense to me. It still makes no sense that people hold on to these explanations when, as Loftus points out, all the evidence (and plain common sense) points to the fact that they never happened, that memory is not an object existing in time, but a construct, the product of imagery and suggestion and fear and vulnerability.
Loftus demonstrates, through descriptions of her own scientific studies, just how it easy it is to create a memory of an event that never happened and how, once this memory is implanted, the person having the "memory" will defend it as being absolutely real. It's important that we know this.
Loftus uses the Salem witch trials and more specifically, Arthur Miller's play, "The Crucible" as a literary touchstone for this conversation. It is extraordinary, the parallels between what Miller wrote and what Loftus describes. We are programmed to see monsters under the bed, it seems and Loftus describes this neurological programming with clear and compelling detail.
This book is a description of science and of a sociological/psychological phenomenon, but it reads like a detective novel--a real "can't put it down" piece of writing.