Book Review - The Recovered Memory-False Memory Debate

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1998, Volume 15, Number 2, pages 225-229. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - The Recovered Memory/False Memory Debate. 

Kathy Pezdek, & William P. Banks. (Eds.). San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1996, 394 pages.

What does an edited book about false memory of child sexual abuse (CSA) written by 34 psychologists have to offer those interested in cults? Quite a bit, if the reader can plow through its scholarly jargon.

The false memory controversy started when adult children accused their parents of sexually abusing them as children. Many of these accusers claimed to have recovered these memories in adulthood, after years of suppression. Like parents of cult recruits, anguished parents formed alliances with lawyers, theologians, exit consultants, and, most pertinent here, with social scientists and mental health specialists. These behavioral scientists, mostly academic psychologists and sociologists, assembled evidence that recovered memories (especially as proposed by psychoanalytic theorists and practitioners) were unsupported and that children’s memories were inaccurate and distorted. They claimed that allegedly incompetent and irresponsible therapists, as well as overzealous court officers misused mind control methods to implant false memories of CSA. Other “experts” supported the accusers. They claimed that memories of CSA, whether or not they were forgotten and then recalled, were based on real events. Hence the false memory debate among authorities, much like the controversy between apologists and critics of new religions, continues in court, at professional meetings, and in learned journals. In fact some of the cult critics, most notably Margaret Singer and Richard Offshe, have also been active in combating false memories.

Parenthetically, I became interested in false memories because of my professional colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, Pamela and Peter Freyd. When their adult daughter, Jennifer, an academic psychologist, accused her father of CSA, her parents’ pain and outrage reminded me of cult victims’ parents (my wife and I included) when a beloved child is entrapped in a manipulative group. The Freyds have founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Like its “cousins,” the American Family Foundation and Cult Awareness Network, the FMSF in defending those accused of CSA, has generated both support and criticism. As is evident in this book, however, the two sides in the false memory debate are by no means identical to the sides in the cult controversy. For example, I am not aware that the supporters of recovered memories have been corrupted, as some scholars have been in defending new religions.

In The Recovered Memory/False Memory Debate, the contributors seem fair minded, even handed, balanced, and evidence-oriented, whatever their positions about memory. Personal attacks are absent. Each essay stakes out a position. However, if the reader is unacquainted with the primary sources cited, it is difficult to evaluate the argument. The “debate” is more like a series of interpretations than a courtroom controversy or the heated give and take of a town meeting.

As an educator of professional psychologists, I am aware that academic psychologists tend to reason differently from clinicians about human behavior. Practitioners rely heavily on anecdotal evidence based on direct experience and on theory - often some variation of psychoanalysis. Academic psychologists prefer to generalize cautiously from data yielded by well designed experiments. In this volume about the memory of CSA, the 34 contributors cite more primary sources than can be summarized here in detail. Therefore, for convenience, I will paraphrase some of the major scientific and applied interpretations.

The academic psychological perspective views memory as complex and involving many variables. In the case of CSA, it is necessary to account for (among other things) the extent of emotion and stress during and after the event, the child’s point in her development, her age, her understanding, her personal autobiography, and her temperament. Memory thus varies in accuracy and can be influenced to some extent in some children. Although false memories have been created in laboratories, there is very little experimental evidence about the truth or falsity of alleged traumatic sexual events. Verification of a particular alleged CSA is essential. Popular beliefs, supposedly originating in Freudian theory, are unfounded. For example, many therapists assume that certain psychopathologies in adults indicate possible CSA and that if childhood memories of abuse are not remembered initially, they can be recovered during counseling.

According to some scientific psychologists, however, therapeutic methods of memory retrieval, such as hypnosis, age regression, guided imagery, drugs, and direct suggestion, are invalid. In fact, well designed studies show that such methods can create false memories.

Many clinicians say, “Of course, memories of CSA are true. I’ve encountered them in my own work.” According to a survey of 810 chartered psychologists in the U.K., a majority (90%) reported CSA among their patients and over half of these clinicians cited recovered memories of some kind among their clients. Therapists argue that if a child or adult says she was sexually abused, she probably was. Furthermore, in their opinion, the experimental evidence from laboratory studies that memories can be false is not representative of real life. The profound trauma of CSA by a beloved parent or relative, like posttraumatic stress syndrome in war veterans, differs in its effects on memory from other painful experiences. For example, although some studies do show that some child patients do forget real and painful medical procedures, in the opinion of practitioners, a single vaginal and anal evaluation of five to seven year old girls is just not the same as the profound insult of repeated sexual abuse and its devastating consequences over years.

I noted a striking gap in these contributions. There was almost no mention of the alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse. Studies of deviant priests and ministers who victimize choirboys, of perverts, experimenting adolescents, and straying husbands are not included. What, if anything, are proved abusers willing to remember? And what is the effect on the lives of those charged but later proved innocent? How can sexual abuse be understood and prevented? Most important, how can true victims of false charges be distinguished from true abusers?

This volume concludes with two official reports, one by a working party of the British Psychological Society and an interim report by the American Psychological Association. The APA working group included both distinguished scientific and clinical psychologists, all of them contributors to this book. They concluded in part that “It is possible for memories of abuse that have been forgotten for a long time to be remembered…It is also possible to construct convincing pseudo memories for events that never occurred…” (p. 372).

The British Psychological Society’s working report, concerning recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, is much fuller than the APA interim report. Among its overall conclusions are “Normal event memory is largely accurate but may contain distortions and elaborations,” and “With certain exceptions, such as when there has been extensive rehearsal of an imagined event, the source of our memories is generally perceived accurately.” (p. 390). The BPS report succeeds in pulling together diverse perspectives and in pointing the way for productive collaboration and further research. It also provides helpful guidelines for chartered psychologists.

Perhaps it is time for scholarly cult critics and uncorrupted investigators of new religions to revisit the “brainwashing” controversy. The Recovered Memory/False Memory Debate would provide a helpful model of constructive fair mindedness.

Arthur A. Dole

Emeritus Professor Graduate School of Education

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Trenton, Maine

Cultic Studies Journal Volume 15 Number 2 1998