In the 1980s and 1990s there seemed to be a surge of patients who reported to their psychiatrists that they had repressed memories, and many of them reported their parents had abused them as children and they blocked it out. It brought many experts to ask the questions: Are repressed memories of child abuse common? Can these old claims be substantiated? and Are these memories true?
It was later found that many of these claims were placed into the minds of the patients by their psychiatrists, and the abuse never actually happened. The false memories were coached into the minds of the patients, and they actually believed they did happen.
There is no more a haunting concept in psychology than that of repressed memories, or disassociative amnesia. When a tragic event occurs the mind often pushes the memory back to a dark and recessed corner of the unconscious to protect it. The memory may come back to the surface, in the conscious mind, at some time but it may not be the same as the actual event.
A landmark case in Redwood City, California in 1990 involved 51-year-old George Franklin Sr., who was accused of murdering 8-yr-old Susan Kay Nason in 1969. Franklin’s daughter was 8 at the time as well, and provided evidence that her father murdered the young girl. According to his daughter, Eileen, she had repressed the memory of the event for over 20 years and it began to come back to her in flashbacks while she was playing with her 2-yr-old son, Aaron and her 5-yr-old daughter, Jessica.
She recalled the look of betrayal in Susie’s eyes just before the murder, and that her father had assaulted the girl in the back of a van. She recalled the girl struggling and pleading with him to stop. Her memories became more vivid with time, and she described to the jury her father picking up a large rock and lifting it above his head, and then Susie screaming. Eileen walked over to Susie’s body, covered in blood, and noted the silver ring smashed on her finger.
Eileen reported her memories to her therapist and several family members, and to the San Mateo County district attorney’s office. The jury believed her and her father was convicted of murder. It was the first time an American had been convicted on the basis of repressed memories.
Were Eileen’s memories real, and did she actually witness the death of her friend? Although her relaying of the story was very detailed and sounded authentic, all things she reported could be found in the newspapers and news during the timeframe. To add to the questions, it seemed that Eileen’s story changed over time. In one statement her sister, Janice, was with them. In another statement there was no mention of Janice. At one point she said she didn’t realize Susie was missing until after school, and another time their father was driving her and her sister to school when he stopped to pick up Susie. Some or all of the memories could have been real, but there is no way to verify the facts. If Eileen’s memory is not authentic, where else might all those details come from?
A number of the claims that arose in the 80’s and 90’s were retracted after it was found the victim’s therapists swayed their memories by various psychological techniques. The subject of dissociative amnesia has been a hotly contested area of psychology for some time.
Researchers have been trying to validate repressed memories over the centuries but have not been able to authenticate any claims. According to one Harvard researcher, The challenge falls upon anyone who believes that repressed memory is real to explain its absence for thousands of years. Researchers from Brown University take the opposite tack and conclude, Literature can provide important information about human experience, but it cannot prove or disprove traumatic amnesia any more than it can prove or disprove the existence of bacteria or dragons. Literary passages and modern scientific data do reveal descriptions and data, respectively, that depict dissociative amnesia as a naturally occurring traumatic sequels.
So the debate goes on.
About the author:
Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory expert
University of Washington – The Reality of Repressed Memories: aculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/lof93.htm
Harvard Magazine — Repressed Memory: http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/01/repressed-memory.html