Paul Shanley Trial Blog
On this page, experts on trauma and memory offered commentary on issues raised by the criminal trial of Paul Shanley --the former Boston priest convicted of child rape. This was not a forum where we speculated on guilt or innocence. We felt those were issues for the jury to decide. Instead, we used our expertise to respond to important issues or questions raised by the Shanley case.
Blog is written in reverse chronological order
Yesterday, Paul Shanley was sentenced to 12-15 years. David Clohessey, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests stated: "We're relieved and grateful and believe Massachusetts is a safer place because of this decision."
The Leadership Council will post scientific information that will help readers understand the Michael Jackson trial in coming weeks.
The guilty verdict in the Shanley case, has led to renewed discussion about traumatic memory and delayed recall in the press. On February 8th, Slate's legal analyst, Dahlia Lithwick, joined Madeleine Brand on National Public Radio (NPR) "Day to Day", and discussed the science of memory in a piece titled: Slate's Jurisprudence: Repressed Memories and the Courts.
Members of our advisory board, many of whom are strong supporters of National Public Radio, were surprised by the one-sided presentation offered by this radio show. The following is a response to the show by one of our advisory board members. The letter was sent on February 11th:
The February 8th, 2005 program "Day to Day" as broadcast on National Public Radio was filled with misinformation about the controversy over delayed recall of traumatic memories. In fact, this phenomenon has been recognized in the psychiatric and psychological literature for over 200 years (Ellenberger, H. F. (1970). The Discovery of the Unconscious . New York : Basic Books).
It was never controversial when traumatized soldiers described complex forms of amnesia for battle during the two World Wars, the Korean conflict, and the Vietnam War. Studies of soldiers during the Battle of Dunkirk during World War II reported that 14% of soldiers could not recall the battle they had just fought, in a dose dependent manner: of those in the worst combat, almost one third lost their memory. This finding was not explained by medical cause or head injury (Sargent, W., & Slater, E. . Amnesic syndromes in war. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 34 , 757-764). In fact, hypnosis and amytal narcosynthesis were considered standard treatments for these conditions during World War II ( Henderson , J. L., & Moore , M. . The psychoneuroses of war. New England Journal of Medicine, 230 , 273-279.). There was no controversy about memory fallibility using these methods.
The controversy really begins with the rise of the feminist movement and the discovery that women's reports of childhood sexual abuse were those of real events, not wishful fantasies, as promulgated by the male-dominated psychiatric establishment, and the society at large. Some feminist psychotherapists urged women to confront and/or sue their abusers. Many state's statutes of limitations disallowed these suits, unless a "delayed discovery" rule could be used, hence the focus on amnesia for trauma. This led to the promulgation of the term "repressed memory" since it was used by attorneys and state legislators, as well as some naïve therapists. It is a term considered misleading and inaccurate by serious scholars of trauma and memory. The McMartin Preschool case did NOT involve "recovered memory" claims, use of hypnosis, etc., but claims of leading questioning by prosecution experts hired to evaluate a large number of children. This complex case is almost NEVER reported upon accurately in current media accounts. . . .
Rigorous evaluation of the work of Loftus, who is not a clinical psychologist and has no competence in clinical work, shows that it has little relevance to the phenomenon of delayed trauma recall (see Brown, D., Scheflin, A. W., & Hammond, D. C. . Memory, Trauma, Treatment, and the Law . New York : Norton.). Further, she often overstates the results of her studies in public discussions. In fact, the famous "mall study" has never been published in a peer reviewed journal and many of subjects were the children of Loftus's research associates, hardly a group immune from potential bias. In fact, Loftus has authored a study in which 19% of the subjects reported this amnesia for trauma. She reluctantly agreed, during her cross-examination in the Shanley trial, that forgetting of trauma does exist (Loftus, E. F. . The reality of repressed memories. American Psychologist, 48 , 518-537).
In reality, the science is overwhelmingly on the side of delayed trauma recall: over 70 studies have documented this phenomenon in clinical, non-clinical samples using prospective and retrospective design and a variety of methodologies. No study that has investigated this phenomenon has failed to find it!! Population samples of those reporting histories of childhood maltreatment (sexual, physical abuse, etc.) consistently document the presence of delayed recall/amnesia for trauma, as do studies of natural disasters, survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, Cambodian Holocaust, et al. In reality, these memories frequently return to the person under a variety of circumstances, not just during therapy: a combat veteran watching a news report about the Vietnam War; and incest survivor's child reaching the age at which she was first abused, etc. ( Chu , J. A., Frey, L. M., Ganzel, B. L., & Matthews, J. A. . Memories of childhood abuse: Dissociation, amnesia, and corroboration. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156 , 749-755).
Explanatory theories for this phenomenon are much more complex than simple distress or pain in the victim as reported by Ms. Lithwick (see Brown, D., Scheflin, A. W., & Hammond, D. C. . Memory, Trauma, Treatment, and the Law . New York : Norton.)
NPR has done a disservice to its listeners with this report. The jurors in the Shanley trial, 12 ordinary people, found the victim's evidence convincing beyond a reasonable doubt.
Richard J. Loewenstein, MD
Medical Director, Trauma Disorders
Sheppard Pratt Health Systems
6501 N. Charles Street
Baltimore , MD 21204-6819
This panel discussion by members of the media focuses on the need for solid investigative reporting in bringing Paul Shanley to justice.
WGBH.org -- Greater Boston
Click on View Clip, bottom page to watch the video
"Seeing Shanley's victim break down on the stand on national television may help the public become more sensitized to how painful sexual abuse can be to the survivor even years later. The process of testifying can be grueling for the victim, and sometimes may upset a victim's already fragile emotional state. However, some survivors of abuse find the opportunity to testify as an empowering process."
--Joyanna Silberg, PhD, Clinical Child Psychologist
"The damage abuse victims suffer leaves them looking distressed and overwhelmed, while the accused seems calm and contained. The ravages of abuse: substance abuse, chaotic lives, psychiatric problems can make the victim not look credible. The early life problems that make victims targets for pedophiles may be used against them in court to make it seem that they are avoiding the issue of damage from other sources. The accused seems just the opposite. It is a huge burden the victim must overcome with a jury."
--Richard J. Loewenstein, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD
"The Shanley tragedy has as much to do with abuses of power as it does with sex. The depredations of this one priest could not have injured so many boys had he not been enabled by the leaders of a religious hierarchy that time and again abandoned its moral and ethical responsibilities, protecting him by hiding his offenses, reassigning him to new congregations when boys reported his raping them, assuring him of their support, and intentionally ignoring legal requirements to report child abuse and the advice of leading professionals."
--Eli H. Newberger, MD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School ; Author of the book, "The Men They Will Become"
"The victim is a real hero. Not only did he withstand over fourteen hours of cross-examination about irrelevant painful personal details, he continued to testify even after he begged the judge to put a stop to the grueling trial process. Unbelievably, the defense then had the gall to ask for a mistrial because the victim cried in front of the jury. There's something gravely wrong with a legal system that allows innocent victims of rape to be battered gratuitously on the stand in the name of 'justice'."
--Wendy Murphy, JD, Attorney and nationally recognized victim rights advocate
"Whether he knew it or not, the victim who testified against Shanley was a stand-in for the many millions of abuse survivors whose suffering has gone unrecognized. I heard from a number of abuse survivors who tuned into the trial. They told me that they cried when the victim recounted his abuse; and when the defense attorney tried to paint him as a liar, they too felt like they had been attacked. I think the guilty verdict gives all abuse survivors hope."
--Stephanie J. Dallam, RN, MS,
"We hope that victims, witnesses and prosecutors will more assertively pursue criminal prosecution because of this trial. Within an hour of the Shanley decision, we got a call from a male victim who said that the guilty verdict gave him the hope to report his abuse for the first time."
--David Clohessy, Executive Director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)
Defrocked priest Paul Shanley was found guilty. The jury deliberated for nearly 15 hours before finding Shanley guilty of all charges: two counts of child rape and two counts of indecent assault and battery on a child.
The debate concerning whether traumatic memories may be recalled after having been inaccessible has been severely hampered by the use of improper terminology. Although the terms "repression", "repressed memory" and "recovered memory" have become the standard currency of discourse, in fact, the proper term is "Dissociative Amnesia." The term "recovered memory" is redundant. ALL memories are recovered -- that is what it means for something to be a memory.
Science must proceed on the basis of precision, especially in regard to the description of the events being examined. Some writings purporting to be scientific examinations of Dissociative Amnesia claim that while traumatic memories may in fact be unavailable for a period of time, thereby correctly acknowledging that this phenomenon is possible, they claim that the mechanism for the unavailability is "simple forgetting." However, the DSM-IV, which sets the standard of care for mental health professionals in clinical and most legal settings, defines "the inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by normal forgetfulness " (p. 478). Thus, by definition, Dissociative Amnesia occurs in situations where ordinary forgetting would not be a proper explanation .
The term "recovered memory therapists" has been used pejoratively to label mental health professionals who believe in "repressed" memories. In fact, there is no school of "recovered memory therapy," and, in fact, most therapy, including psychoanalysis, involves discussion of patient histories. Indeed, any request for a mental or medical history involves recovering memories.
Science can only proceed on the basis of truth and accuracy, not on the basis or rhetoric and ideology. When incorrect terms are used, especially when used deliberately to bias and distort legitimate scientific inquiry, everyone is harmed.
For more information see:
Memory, Trauma Treatment, and the Law: An Essential Reference on Memory for Clinicians, Researchers, Attorneys, and Judges. (1997, W.W. Norton). This book has won numerous awards including the 1999 Manfred S. Guttmacher Award from the American Psychiatric Association.
Today the jury is still deliberating about the guilt or innocence of Paul Shanley. The issue of repressed memory, highlighted on our first blog page of January 31, became a central theme of this trial where the expert for the prosecution and the defense differed greatly in their views on whether traumatic memories could be forgotten for long periods of time and later remembered reliably.
Joanna Weiss, a reporter for the Boston Globe wrote that the "jury in the Shanley case heard from a witness who says recovered memories are real: Dr. James A. Chu, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont . But under cross-examination, Chu acknowledged that some in his field disagree with his view." Weiss noted that "Loftus is among the best known of those dissenters." (See: Shanley Defense to Call Just One Witness, Boston Globe February 3, 2005).
Yesterday, Elizabeth Loftus, PhD, took the stand on behalf of the defense and testified that she saw no convincing scientific evidence for the "robust repression" of memory. She refused, however, to comment on Dissociative Amnesia.
On cross-examination, the prosecution pointed out that some of Loftus' own writings promoted the idea of repressed memory. Dr. Loftus agreed, but stated she had changed her mind over the years. Loftus discussed the type of research that changed her mind. For example, in one study she persuaded some lab subjects that they had been lost in a shopping mall as a child; in another study she was able to get some subjects to falsely remember hugging Bugs Bunny at Disneyland .
A critical response to the misapplication of the Bugs Bunny study to child abuse victims ("rabbits are not rape!") was written by cognitive psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Freyd: Commentary: Response to Media Reports on Loftus' Bugs Bunny Study (February 2003).
The prosecutor pointed out that in their write up of the Lost-in-the-Mall study, Loftus and her co-author noted that they had purposefully designed the study so that it would not be about a painful event. Loftus said she did not recall writing this. Her memory was refreshed upon reading a passage from her 1995 article "The Formation of False Memories":
"Procedure. Interviews with the relative for each subject were conducted to obtain three events that happened to the subject when they were between the ages of four and six. The stories were not to be family "folklore" or traumatic events that the subject with either remember easily or find painful to remember. In addition, the relative provided information about a plausible shopping trip to a mall or large department store in order to construct a false event where the subject could conceivably have gotten lost."
Loftus admitted that she was not a clinician and had never treated patients who had been sexually abused. She also admitted that many clinicians believe in the reality of Dissociative Amnesia as outlined in the DSM-IV. (The DSM-IV is the official diagnostic manual published by the American Psychiatric Association and sets the standard of care for mental health professionals in clinical and most legal settings. According to the DSM-IV, a diagnostic feature of Dissociative Amnesia 300.12 is "a reversible memory impairment" p. 478).
When asked, Loftus stated that she had participated as an expert in approximately 100 criminal trials and in 99 she had testified for the defense. The accused criminals that she has testified for include serial killers such as Ted Bundy and The Hillside Strangler.
The prosecution concluded the cross by pointing out that in her book Repressed Memories, Loftus and her co-author expressed "deep gratitude" to a number of people. At the top of her list was Raymond and Shirley Souza Souza, who were convicted of child rape in 1993.
Today, Elizabeth Loftus will be taking the stand on behalf of Paul Shanley. Below we examine who she is, and why she is controversial.
Profile of Defense Expert Witness
Elizabeth F. Loftus, PhD
- Distinguished Professor, University of California, Irvine
- Affiliate Professor, University of Washington , Psychology Dept. and School of Law
- B.A., with highest honors in Mathematics and Psychology, UCLA, 1966
- M.A., Psychology, Stanford University, 1967
- Ph.D., Psychology, Stanford University, 1970
Bio: Loftus is a professor of psychology at the University of California , Irvine and an affiliate professor of psychology and law at the University of Washington . Loftus was president of the American Psychological Society (1998-99) and is the current president of the Western Psychological Association (2004-2005). She is also a board member of numerous organizations including the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a group that advocates for parents who claim that they were falsely accused of child molestation.
For the last 20 years, Loftus's research has focused on the fallibility of memory and inaccuracies in eyewitness testimony. Drawing from her research, Loftus has testified in over 150 criminal cases, almost always on behalf of defendants. Loftus has been an expert witness or consultant for the defense in many high profile cases including for Ted Bundy, the Hillside Strangler, the officers accused of beating Rodney King, and the Michael Jackson case. In 1991, Loftus published a professional autobiography, Witness for the Defense. She also wrote the book The Myth of Repressed Memory (1994) which argues that "recovered memories" are unreliable.
The Controversy Surrounding Loftus' Work
Loftus is considered a controversial figure among her colleagues. Some of the reasons for the controversy include the following:
1. There are inconsistencies about traumatic amnesia in her own writing.
Loftus rarely cites her own past research which is discrepant from her defense position. In one article from 1982 she describes how mental shock can cause amnesia. [See: Loftus E. F., & Burns, T. (1982). Mental shock can produce retrograde amnesia. Memory & Cognition, 10 (4), 318-23.]
Other research by Loftus shows it is not uncommon for people to report having forgotten and later remembered having been sexually abused in childhood. In a study of women in outpatient treatment for substance abuse, 54% of the 105 women reported a history of child sexual abuse. Of these, 59% reported that they always remembered the abuse. 12% reported that they remembered parts but not all of the abuse, and 19% reported that they forgot the abuse for a period of time, and later the memory returned. [See:
Loftus, E. F.; Polonsky, S., & Fullilove, Mindy Thompson. (1994). Memories of childhood sexual abuse: Remembering and repressing. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18(1), 67-84.]
In one of her books Loftus recognized the validity of a recovered memory but notes it may have been preferable for the memory to have remained forgotten. In the book, Loftus discussed a case in which a college professor, R.J., who experienced a massive forgetting (e.g., of her own name, what she did for a living, where she lived, or who her friends were) after a series of traumatic events including the breakup of her marriage and witnessing her mother's death.
"Eventually, R.J. was able to remember all of her traumatic experiences; when they returned, so did all of her other lost memories. Even though the return of her memories made her wiser, she was also much sadder. More than most of us ever will, R.J. understood the true meaning in Christina Rossetti's words in Remember: 'Better by far you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad.' " (1988, p. 73).
Loftus, E. F. (1988). Memory: Surprising new insights into how we remember and why we forget. New York : Ardsley House. (Originally published 1980)
2. Loftus applies her laboratory research on normal memory to the traumatic memories of abuse survivors.
Loftus often refers to her famous "Lost-in-the-Shopping-Mall" study, which she contends establishes that false memories can be created in normal subjects. Her study showed that a quarter of subjects could be totally or partially convinced that they were lost in a mall that they frequented as a children. However, subjects who recalled the false event were less confident about their memories than for those of their true events.
Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories . Psychiatric Annals, 25 , 720-725.
Loftus uses the findings of her Lost-in-the-Mall study to suggest says that people who remember being abused by parents, teachers, or priests might also be suffering from false memories. Critics point out the obvious problems in applying the study to people claiming to have been abused. Does accepting your family's assertion that you got lost in a mall as a child prove that people can develop false memories that loving parents sadistically abused them? Think about your own life. Could someone convince you might have been lost in a mall? Possibly. Could someone convince you your favorite uncle is really a sadistic abuser? Probably not.
Loftus herself has admitted that being lost in a mall is at worst mildly traumatic and does not approach the painful intensity of child sexual abuse or other traumas. [See: Olio, K. A. (1994). Truth in memory. [Comment]. American Psychologist, 49 , 442-3.]
Some have argued that to extrapolate from research on normal memory to traumatic memory is both inappropriate and inaccurate. [See:
Crook, L.S., & Dean, M. (1999). "Lost in a shopping mall"--A breach of professional ethics. Ethics & Behavior , 9(1), 39-50.
Crook, L.S., & Dean, M. (1999). Logical fallacies and ethical breaches . Ethics & Behavior , 9(1), 61-68.]
The possibility of implanting entire multiple scenarios of horror that differ markedly from the individual's experience has not been substantiated by research. Several researchers conducted a replication and extension of the design used by Loftus and Pickell (1995) in their lost-in-the-mall study. Two different false events were suggested: being lost in a shopping mall (which a pilot study had previously shown to be a high-frequency childhood experience), and receiving a rectal enema (which had been shown to be a low-frequency event). Although, 15% of the subjects "remembered" being lost in the mall, none was willing to accept the suggestion that they had received a rectal enema. These findings suggest that it is difficult to implant pseudomemories of uncommon events. [See: Pezdek, K., Finger, K., & Hodge, D. (1997). Planting childhood memories: The role of event plausibility. Psychological Science, 8, 437-41.]
3. Ethical concerns have been raised about Loftus' work .
Loftus has been the subject of several ethics complaints. APA is the most prominent professional body for psychologists. According to an article by David Calof , Loftus had been an active member of the American Psychological Association (APA) since 1973. She resigned January 16, 1996, shortly after the filing of two ethics complaints against her. Although she denies this was the reason for her sudden resignation, two different abuse survivors had written to the APA to say that Loftus had misrepresented their cases in print. Both women had brought successful civil suits against fathers for child sexual abuse based on delayed memories. At their trials, both victims presented corroborative evidence that met the requirements for judicial proof of their allegations. However, they later discovered published articles or books in which Loftus misrepresented the facts of their cases to make it appear that their memories were false. [See: Calof, D. L. Notes from the controversy: Ethics complaints filed against prominent FMSF board member. APA declines to investigate. Treating Abuse Today, 5 (6) & 6(1), Nov/Dec 1995 & Jan/Feb 1996, 71-73.]
Loftus has also been named as a defendant in a lawsuit where she is charged with "invasion of privacy, defamation, libel per se and slander per se, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress and damages." The suit was brought by an abuse survivor who claims to have been harmed by Loftus' behavior towards herself and her family. [See: Taus vs. Loftus et al., Superior Court of the State of California, County of Solano - Case No.: FCS021557.]
"Repression, dissociation, and denial are phenomena of social as well as individual consciousness" --Judith Herman, MD, Trauma and Recovery
Skepticism, disbelief, and contempt are common reactions to stories of recovered memories of child sexual abuse. Recently, a number of commentators have asserted in the national media that recovered memories of abuse are always false or should be considered inherently unreliable. In truth, the genuineness of any memory --continuous or recovered-- cannot be known without some type of outside corroborating evidence. However, what many people seem to have forgotten is that some reports of recovered memories have been accompanied by strong corroboration, including confessions by the accused.
Consider the case of Father Porter. In 1989, at age 39, Frank Fitzpatrick says he was happily married, a proud father, and a successful businessman; yet he found himself inexplicably depressed much of the time. According to Fitzpatrick, he sat alone for hours one day trying to figure out the source of his unhappiness. First came memories of pain and betrayal. Then the sounds came back. Fitzpatrick realized that he had been molested as a child and that he had somehow pushed the memory out of his awareness for many years.
Over the next several weeks the recollections became increasingly clear. Fitzpatrick remembered being molested by his parish priest, Father James Porter, when he was a 12-years-old alter boy. He remembered that Father Porter invited him to the Boston Garden, but instead of taking him to the sports arena, Porter took him to a private home, drugged him with pie doused in rum, and then raped him.
As an insurance adjuster, Fitzpatrick was schooled in the techniques of investigation. Seeking corroboration of the memories, he began to investigate what he was remembering. He contacted childhood friends and learned that most remembered being abused by Porter. Fitzpatrick then tracked down Porter and confronted him. In a series of phone conversations (which Fitzpatrick taped), the former priest acknowledged that he had molested "anywhere from 50 to 100" children, though he didn't remember any of the children's names. Porter claimed to now be cured and said that he had not molested any children since voluntarily leaving the priesthood in 1974. Fitzpatrick found that the diocese had been aware of Porter's activities and transferred Porter to numerous different parishes when parents complained. In order to end the cover-up, Fitzpatrick went public with his story.
In 1992, after media coverage of Fitzpatrick's story, men from each of the states Porter had worked in came forward to tell of their sexual abuse at Porter's hands. One man, Dan Dow, 34, came forward after he saw a Newsweek article about Fitzpatrick's story. Dow said his memory of the abuse had been blocked from consciousness for more than 20 years, but upon seeing the article, he says his memory came rushing back. Another man, Jim Grim said that he remembered his abuse by Porter after he read a news report. Parents also came forward saying that they had discovered the abuse and complained to church officials who had assured them that they would take care of the matter.
In July 1992, James Porter admitted publicly that he abused children while he was a Roman Catholic priest, but claimed that he had not any sexual contact with a child since 1974. His brief statement was issued through his attorney and came on the same day that lawsuits were filed by seven of his alleged victims. The church settled with 68 of the more than 100 men and women in five states who say they were abused by Porter. In October 1993, Porter pled guilty to criminal charges resulting from his sex abuse of 28 children under the age of 16 while a priest 30 years ago. In a separate proceeding, Porter was found guilty of molesting one of his children's babysitters during the 1980s. He was sentenced to 18-20 years in prison.
And then there is the case of Father McRae in Keene, NH.
See the following news accounts for more information on the Porter story:
- The Boston area's first predator priest case
- Kenneth Woodward, Carolyn Friday, and Karen Springen. The sins of the father: A tiny town reels from mass allegations of sexual abuse by a trusted priest. Newsweek , 119(22), June 1, 1992, pp. 60-61.
- Elizabeth Mehren. Unlocking painful secrets from the past . Los Angeles Times , June 7, 1992, E1.
- Chuck Haga & Paul McEnroe. Sins of the father . The Minneapolis Star Tribune , July 19, 1992, pp. 1A, 14A.
- Victoria Beening. Porter's alleged abuse victims angry with Vatican . Boston Globe , Oct 25, 1992, p. 28.
- Martha Sawyer Allen. Ex-priest admits abusing children: 7 suits filed in Minnesota cases . The Minneapolis Star Tribune , July 15, 1992, p. A1.
- Fox Butterfield, Diocese reaches settlement with 68 who accuse priest of sexual abuse . New York Times , Dec. 4, 1992, p. A22.
- Tom Coakley. Porter pleads guilty to assaults as priest admits molesting 28 youths in 1960's. Boston Globe , Oct. 5, 1993, p. 16.
- Robert Correia & Linda Borg, ` I'm Sorry,' Porter weeps; Victims, judge unmoved; he gets 18-20 years, Providence Journal-Bulletin, December 9, 1993, p. 1.
Profile of Prosecution Expert
James A. Chu, MD
Memorable Quote: "Truth Matters"
Today Dr. James Chu, witness for the prosecution, stated he has seen over a thousand patients during his career and estimated that about 20% of people with severe trauma histories have the experience of recovering memories that were previously inaccessible to them. He also suggested that whether or not a memory is true matters even in clinical practice. One way that he judges what his patients tell him is how their story hangs together and and whether it makes sense. He also referenced his own reserach which found that some patients who recover memories are able to find evidence that corroborates their memory.
Chu, J., Frey, L., Ganzel, B., & Matthews, J. (1999). Memories of childhood abuse: Dissociation, amnesia, and corroboration. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 749-55.
This study investigated the relationship between self-reported childhood abuse and dissociative symptoms and amnesia. The presence or absence of corroboration of recovered memories of childhood abuse was also studied. Participants were 90 women inpatients admitted to a unit specializing in the treatment of trauma-related disorders. The researchers found that participants reporting any type of childhood abuse demonstrated elevated levels of dissociative symptoms compared to those not reporting abuse.
Participants who reported recovering memories of abuse generally recalled these experiences while at home, alone, or with family or friends. Although some participants were in treatment at the time, very few were in therapy sessions during their first memory recovery. Suggestion was generally denied as a factor in memory recovery. A majority of participants were able to find strong corroboration of their recovered memories.
Current Position: Chief of Hospital Clinical Services, McLean Hospital, Belmont, MA; Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, MA
Clinical Interests: Posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders, personality disorders
Bio: Dr. Chu is Chief of Hospital Clinical Services, McLean Hospital , Belmont , MA -- a major teaching facility of Harvard Medical School , McLean Hospital maintains the largest program of research in neuroscience and psychiatry of any private psychiatric hospital in the United States . Dr. Chu's publications in the psychiatric literature include both basic research on the effects of childhood abuse and discussions concerning the nature and techniques of treatment of abuse survivors. He is the author of the 1998 book Rebuilding Shattered Lives (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). Dr. Chu is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and a Fellow and a past president of the International Society for the Study of Dissociation, and the recipient of that organization's Cornelia B. Wilbur Award, Distinguished Achievement Award, and Pierre Janet Writing Award for outstanding contributions in the field of dissociative disorders.
Currently, the topic of traumatic memory for child sexual abuse is contentious and emotional. However, it has not always been this way. Although the mental mechanism is not fully understood, the ability for the mind to block out painful memories is well-accepted scientifically. The criterion "difficulty remembering important aspects of the trauma" has always been part of the PTSD diagnosis since it was introduced in the DSM-III in 1980. This occurred at a time when PTSD was associated most strongly with combat trauma. It wasn't until the early 1990s that memory loss associated with trauma became contentious. It was during this time period that some adults began to sue parents based on claims of incestuous child sexual abuse. Because of the short legal statute of limitations for child abuse (generally one to two years after the child reached age 18), few suits had ever been brought against abusers. However, an exception was made for delayed discovery. Some courts did not start the clock on the statute of limitations until a person had an opportunity to discover that they had been harmed. Through this legal mechanism some courts allowed survivors who recovered memories of the abuse to sue their perpetrator (often their father) for damages.
The successful prosecution of several legal cases based on recovered memories, prompted defense attorneys and some academic investigators to question the accuracy and authenticity of these child abuse claims. In short order, the courtroom became a battle ground where scientific experts for the accused were pitted against those for the alleged victim. At this point all of the emotional intensity and controversy surrounding allegations of child sexual abuse began to be mixed into the science of memory. The adversarial nature of the courtroom added to the tension. Before long, the fight spilled out of the courtroom into the academic arena.
Of course scientific issues aren't settled by the legal system. They are settled by careful research.
In the case of delayed memories of child sexual abuse, research has unequivocally shown that the phenomenon does exist.
There are literally 100s of clinical reports and research studies that have demonstrated that people can and do forget and later recover memories for traumatic events, including memories of child sexual abuse:
"In just this past decade alone, 68 research studies have been conducted on naturally occurring dissociative or traumatic amnesia for childhood sexual abuse. Not a single one of the 68 data-based studies failed to find it" (p. 126).
Brown D, Scheflin A, & Whitfield CL: Recovered memories: the current weight of the evidence in science and in the courts. The Journal ofPsychiatry and Law 26:5-156, Spring 1999. See also: The Evidence for Dissociative Amnesia
"The data converge on the conclusion that many survivors of childhood sexual abuse claim periods of amnesia for the traumatic experience" (p.250).
Sivers, H., Schooler, J., & Freyd, J. J. (2002) Recovered memories. In V.S. Ramachandran (Ed.) Encyclopedia of the Human Brain , Volume 4. (pp. 169-184). San Diego , CA : Academic Press.
"Even the most conservative assessment of the evidence indicates that traumatic memories can fluctuate in their persistence, with periods of time in which the memories are relatively less accessible" (p. 174).
Edwards, V. J., Fivush, R., Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., & Nordenberg, D. F. (2001) Autobiographical disturbances in childhood abuse survivors. In J. Freyd & A. DePrince, Trauma and cognitive science: A meeting of minds, science and human experience (pp. 247-263). Binghamton , N. Y.: Haworth Press.
Unfortunately, the fact that we don't fully understand the mechanism behind traumatic memory (which isn't unusual since we don't yet fully understand how even normal memory works) has been used by some to suggest that the phenomenon of delayed memory doesn't exist. An example is the following: "There is just no mechanism in the mind for keeping the door shut to traumatic memory." (quote attributed to Richard McNally, a clinical and experimental psychologist at Harvard, by JoAnn Wypijewski in "The Passion of Paul Shanley" CounterPunch , January 29, 2005)
While we do not yet have a complete scientific understanding of the memory processes involved in amnesia for traumatic events, we do know the phenomenon exists . We are getting closer to understanding the mechanisms behind traumatic amnesia. A variety of terms and theories have been offered to explain how and why this occurs. These include the following:
- Motivated forgetting -- Anderson, M. C., et al. (2004). Neural Systems Underlying the Suppression of Unwanted Memories. Science, 303 Vol 5655: 232-235. (Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) researchers confirmed the existence of an active forgetting process in the brain and established a neurobiological model for motivated forgetting.) See also BBC article: We Can Control Memory
- Stress-induced impairment of memory systems in the brain -- Bremner, J. D. et al, (1995). Functional neuroanatomical correlates of the effects of stress on memory. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8 (4), 527-53. (Using new neuroimaging technology researchers have found that abnormalities of hippocampal function or dysfunction of thalamic gating may result in the altered memory recall typical of dissociation).
- Betrayal Trauma theory -- Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting childhood abuse . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Betrayal trauma theory posits that there is a social utility in remaining unaware of abuse when the perpetrator is a caregiver or trusted adults whom the child is dependent on).
- Dissociative Amnesia - American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), WashingtonD.C.: Author. (Dissociation is defined as a separation of mental processes that are normally integrated. Memory disturbances are also part of PTSD-- Further elaborated in: Whitfield, C. L. (1995). Memory and Abuse: Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma. Deerfield Beach , FL : Health Communications)
- Repressive coping style --Myers, L. B., & Brewin, C. R. (1994). Recall of early experience and the repressive coping style. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103 , 288-92. (Use of repressive coping style is associated with reports of adverse childhood experiences and widespread inhibition of negative memories from both childhood and adulthood).
In summary, when a phrase like repressed or recovered memories is used, it is important to know whether people are referring to the phenomenon (what) or purported mechanism (how).
As Joyanna Silberg, PhD, a prominent clinical child psychologist, writes: "The fact that researchers have not yet settled on what theory best explains the phenomenon does not invalidate the observations that have led to these various speculative theories [regarding how it occurs]. Similarly, cosmologists offer many different theories regarding the origins of the universe, but few people would say the lack of agreement about a theoretical explanation implies the universe does not exist at all!" --Silberg, J. L. (2003) Drawing conclusions: Confusion between data and theory in the traumatic memory debate. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 12 (2), 123-128.
What about Accuracy?
Clearly, the fact that the chief witness in the Shanley case claims to have recovered his memories doesn't make the allegations true. Nor, however, does it make them false. In fact, the current scientific evidence suggests that memories of sexual abuse that are recovered after a period of forgetting are just as likely to be true as memories that were never forgotten.
See for example the following studies:
Dalenberg, C. J. (1996). Accuracy, timing and circumstances of disclosure in therapy of recovered and continuous memories of abuse. Journal of Psychiatry & Law,24 (2), 229-75.
This study sought to confirm or disconfirm memories of women who alleged father-daughter incest. Both alleged victims and accused perpetrators participated in evidence collection. Memories of sexual abuse were found to be equally accurate whether recovered or continuously remembered.
Williams, L. M. (1995). Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8 (4), 649-673.
This prospective study investigated the memories of 129 adults whose abuse during childhood had been documented by medical professionals. Williams found that "in general, the women with recovered memories had no more inconsistencies in their accounts than did the women who had always remembered" (p. 660). In addition, retrospective reports of the abuse were remarkably consistent with what had been documented when the abuse victims had been examined 17 years before.
Also see "Conflating memory accuracy with memory persistence "