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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Second Web Papers
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The Validity of Repressed Memory and Sexual Abuse

Anna Tomasulo

As we discussed in class, every person's understanding of reality is slightly different. We all have different experiences and different perceptions of the same experience or event. Therefore, we must also have different memories of the same events. I decided to further research memory and how it affects individual people. In doing so, it has come to my attention that a specific area of the human memory has been given a lot of attention in the past few decades: recovered memory. Recovered, or repressed, memory is "a traumatic event unconsciously retained in the mind, where it is said to adversely affect conscious thought, desire, and action" (1) . Many sexual abuse trials have dealt with recovered memory. Often people will experience something that will trigger a spontaneous memory. Sometimes this memory will be of traumatic events such as sexual abuse. In this case, some have sought therapy to recover more of these memories and have then taken their sexual abuse cases to court. However, the concept and validity of recovered memory is not supported by all. There are those that support the recovered memory movement, and those that propose an alternative response to these spontaneous memories. These people believe in false memories and the False Memory movement. In this essay I will examine arguments from both sides with the hope of determining which argument I agree with, and hopefully sharing some valuable information about our memory, how it functions and its weaknesses.

Repressed memory was first examined by Sigmund Freud in the late 1890's while he was studying the unconscious (2). He performed case studies on women who were victims of sexual abuse and concluded that when we experience trauma, a mechanism in the brain unconsciously represses this trauma from our awareness. It is a way for us to protect ourselves from these haunting experiences (3). The Recovered Memory movement began in between the mid 1980's and lasted until the late 1990's, encouraged by Freud's studies and the book The Courage to Heal by Laura Davis (4). This book influenced women who were suffering from either physical or mental difficulties to visit therapists because there was a good chance that their suffering was due to repressed memories of abuse from childhood. The idea was to uncover these repressed memories in therapy and to heal them, also healing the troubles the person was currently suffering from (5). Thus started the craze of recovered memory therapy.

Lenore Terr, Linda Meyer Williams and Dr. Judith Lewis Herman support the beliefs put forward by the Recovered Memory movement. Psychologist Lenore Terr suggests that there are two types of traumatic events, Type I, which is a single traumatic event and Type II, which is a repeated traumatic event (6). Terr argues that repeated traumatic events are those that are repressed unconsciously(1) . Williams conducted a study on 129 women who had been sexually abused in the 1970's. Almost two decades after the sexual abuse of these women, in the mid 1990's, Williams questioned these women. The answers varied; 38% of the women did not remember being admitted into the hospital, 12% do not remember the actual abuse, and 16% claimed that for a period of time they did not remember the abuse, however they recalled the memory at a later date (6). These answers support the idea that traumatic events can cause memory loss and perhaps an unconscious repression of the event itself. Dr. Judith Lewis Herman conducted a study similar to that of Williams on women who had been sexually abused. She found that two thirds of the sexual abuse victims suffered from memory loss (7). There are also individual cases of recovered memory that have proven to be true. For example, college professor Ross Cheiter woke from a dream one night about a former camp counselor molesting him. After research and therapy, he found the camp counselor who admitted to molesting young boys(6). Clearly there is support for this movement and reason to look further into repressed memories and their validity.

It is a reasonable desire to search for understanding of our dreams and our current psychological troubles. However, as pointed out by critics of the Recovered Memory movement, this theory and these case studies have their flaws. For example, in reference to Lenore Terr's argument, there is evidence that repetition increases the ability to remember something. According to memory expert, Daniel Schacter, "hundreds of studies have shown that repetition of information leads to improved memory, not loss of memory, for that information" (1) . So how is it possible that a repeated traumatic event can be unconsciously repressed? Further, in the studies by Williams and Herman the ages of the women who had been sexually abused were not stated. Victims could have been infants who would not remember the events because the brain of an infant is not developed like that of an adult therefore it has little capacity to remember such things(6). Critics of the Recovered Memory movement also suggest the flaws with recovered memory therapy. In Daniel Schacter's book The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, he identifies memory's weaknesses: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, suggestibility, bias, persistence, and misattribution (8). Critics of the Recovered Memory movement, such as Schacter, aruge that therapists are largely responsible for "sins" such as suggestibility (8). It is argued that therapists practice ask questions and offer suggestions that influence our memories. For example, the child psychologist Jean Piaget was convinced that he was kidnapped at the age of two, and was able to give details of the kidnapping such as the description of the police officer chasing his kidnapper. This story was confirmed by his babysitter and his parents. However it is doubtful that a child of such a young age would be able to vividly remember such an event. Years after the "occurrence" the baby sitter admitted to making up the entire story. Because of the suggestions by the baby sitter, Piaget created his own detailed memory of the event(9).

What Schacter and fellow critics of this movement suggest as an alternative to the Recovered Memory movement is the False Memory movement(7). This movement supports that our brains are able to consciously suppress or block memories of traumatic events, but there is no known mechanism that enables us to unconsciously repress these memories(1) . The movement also suggests that due to weaknesses of the memory, such as the seven "sins" identified by Schacter, our minds can create false memories. Several false memories have been identified such as that of Jean Piaget. Another example of a false memory occurred when a woman accused a doctor of raping her. She had been preparing for a live interview with the doctor when the rape occurred. According to Schacter, she confused the memory of the rape with that of the interview and accused the wrong man of raping her(9). Failures of the memory and false memories are dangerous to those experiencing them as well as to others. This is another reason why the Recovered Memory movement has so many opponents. Because the validity of these memories is so weak and because not enough is known in this area to really determine their truth, many families have been destroyed by false accusations of sexual abuse(9).

Another alternative suggested by Schacter is that these traumatic events have not been repressed, but dissociated. Schacter refers to a dissociative order as a disorder that prevents individuals from integrating specific aspects of an experience in our brains thus making it difficult to remember(6). Personally, I agree with Schacter. In the case of a traumatic event such as sexual abuse, I believe that the victim would not want to think about or remember the event at all. This means that the victim would most likely refuse to analyze the sequence of events that made of the traumatic experience. Further, this means that there is no repetition of information, which also increases the memory of an event or experience.

The debate continues today and there is much to be learned about our brains and the complex function of memory. This essay does not provide a solid answer with proof to the absolute validity to of either the Recovered or False Memory movement, however, to me, it seems that there is more logical evidence supporting the idea that memories can be consciously suppressed or "lost" by dissociation. Further, I believe that therapy patients with claims of recovered memories of sexual abuse should be more thourougly investigated. This does not mean that I discredit them; sexual abuse is an extremely serious affair and should be dealt with in a severe and efficient manner. However, false accusations can be equally as traumatizing for those suffering the accusations. What is also worrisome to me is the realization that our memories are not as reliable as I believed them to be. As implied by Daniel Schacter, they are quite easily manipulated. The question that next comes to mind is if our memories are so easily manipulated, what about our life experiences and what we view as our past? Are we truly aware of all that we have lived and experienced? Once again, questions for another essay.

Web References:

1)The Skeptic's Dictionary , "Repressed Memory"

2)Sigmund Freud, "Sigmund Freud"

3)A Guide to Psychology, "Repressed Memories"

4) Recovered Memory Therapy and False Memories, "Psychologists Educating Students to Think Skeptically"

5)Repressed Memory , "Imaginary Crimes"

6) Debate of Memory Repression of Childhood Sexual Abuse, "Greendoor Resolutions P.L.L.C."

7) Fletcher, Camille L. Journal of Law and Policy. Vol. 13:335 "Repressed Memories: Do Triggering Methods Contribute to Witness Testimony Reliability?" 2003.

8) APA Online, "Seven Sins of Memory"

9) The Skeptic's Dictionary , "False Memory"

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