In the 1990’s there was a lot of press about recovered memories of child sexual abuse (CSA), most suggesting that they were false memories implanted by therapists. I’ve been researching this area for my thesis and was surprised by what I found. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded by Peter and Pamela Freyd after their daughter, who is also an academic, accused her father of CSA. The most significant proponent of this theory is Elizabeth Loftus who argued that recovered memories were not reliable or necessarily true. Her research has been used in many criminal cases, including the Cosby trial, to ‘disprove’ claims. This isn’t the first time that memories of abuse have been questioned. Sigmund Freud first concluded that such memories were real before changing his mind and deciding that they were fantasies. You can read all about that here.
In contrast, there is clear evidence that repressed memories are possible. For example, Linda Meyer Williams interviewed 129 women with previous documented experience of CSA and found 38% did not remember. She found it was most common where the child had been very young at the time of the abuse and/or abused by someone they knew. Indeed, in a recent Australian case a perpetrator, convicted of assaulting multiple victims, confessed to abusing a boy and the victim, now older, did not remember although he does have PTSD. Repressed memories have also been demonstrated to be just as accurate as other trauma memories.
It is important to consider why people are making such arguments – in this case a man who was himself accused of abuse. All academics have reasons why we research particular things. I think that we should be open about what they are particularly when our research affects real people especially children.
The idea of false memories are still under debate within the academic and medical community as well as wider society. In general the pendulum has swung from disbelief of memories in the 1990’s to more acceptance now. However, it continues to affect people’s reactions and should be challenged by highlighting its origins.
Loftus, E. (1993) ‘The Reality of Repressed Memories.’, Am Psychol, 48(5), pp. 518–537. doi: 10.1300/J229v03n01_03.
Masson, J. M. (1984) ‘Freud and the Seduction Theory: A challenge to the foundations of psychoanalysis’, The Atlantic, February. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1984/02/freud-and-the-seduction-theory/376313/
Rydberg, J. A. (2017) ‘Research and clinical issues in trauma and dissociation: Ethical and logical fallacies, myths, misreports, and misrepresentations’, European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. Elsevier Masson SAS, 1(2), pp. 89–99. doi: 10.1016/j.ejtd.2017.03.011
Scheflin, A. W. and Brown, D. (1996) ‘Repressed Memory or Dissociative Amnesia: What the Science Says’, Psychiatry & Law, 24, pp. 143–188.
Williams, L. M. (1994) ‘Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women’s Memories of Child Sexual Abuse’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, pp. 1167–1176. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.62.6.1167.