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Brown Recovered Memory Project: Questionable Criteria

December 17, 2011

Since it is common for recovered memory proponents to raise the straw man issue and falsely accuse anyone who challenges them as being in favor of sexual abuse or protecting child abusers, that is not the case, so let me be perfectly clear from the outset. Child sexual abuse is horrible and devastating to victims. People who come forward with false accusations based on being subjected to suggestive therapy techniques (and no, these are not limited to hypnosis) do a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse and most victims do have continuous memories that they wish they could forget, but cannot. Some who experienced acts of abuse that did not involve penetration or physical pain, as the research of  Richard J. McNally and Elke Gerarets and Susan Clancy has shown, were too young to understand what happened to them at the time of the abuse and did not experience it as a trauma at the time. Many of these people did not think about the abuse for a period of time, not because they repressed it, but because they didn’t understand what it meant. As adults, when these people came to realize the horror of what was done to them, it is then that they experienced devastating emotional aftereffects.

That does not, however, preclude the fact that there are a number of cases where false memories of abuse were recovered in therapy, where the therapist used hypnosis or other suggestive techniques. Note that denial of the use of hypnosis does not preclude recovery of false memories, as there are many other techniques that do not use formal hypnotic induction, yet are suggestive (e.g. guided visualization, the authority and certainty of the therapist that the person must have been abused and forgotten about it, group influence and many others).

The Brown University Recovered Memory Project claims to have 110 cases of recovered memory of trauma. However, there are some serious problems with their criteria that need to be considered. The problems fall into two categories 1) The criteria for corroboration and 2) There do not appear to be any criteria for what constitutes repression or traumatic amnesia, as opposed to other reasons for not remembering (e.g. the events in question happened at a very early age, physical brain damage, ordinary forgetting).

First, let’s look at their inclusion criteria and possible problems. They state that at least one of these criteria being met is a basis for inclusion.

a. confession, guilty plea, or self-incriminatory statement

This is highly problematic. It is well known and solidly substantiated that interrogation techniques can produce false confessions.  Guilty pleas can be part of plea bargains and do not necessarily mean that the person is actually guilty. If someone is faced with a life prison sentence, they might well be motivated to pleading guilty as part of a plea bargain to a lesser crime that would still involve abuse, so they can have a lighter sentence, if they don’t want to risk a guilty verdict that could produce a life sentence. “Self-incriminatory statement” is vague. How is this defined? There is no indication. People can say all kinds of things under pressure, even when innocent, that may sound “self-incriminatory”. Just look at the case of Amanda Knox, who was pressured into a false confession and later acquitted.

b. testimony from other victims (or from an eyewitness to the abuse), or corroborative documentary evidence that is vitally relevant to the charges at issue

Again, this is vague. What is meant by “corroborative documentary evidence” and testimonies from other victims may or may not be evidence. What if the alleged victims were all treated by the same therapist or by the same facility? There have been cases where a number of patients in a particular treatment facility recovered highly improbable recovered memories of Satanic Ritual abuse. Such cases would fit Brown’s criteria, since they would have multiple “witnesses”.

c. corroboration of significant circumstantial evidence

Again, this is very vague. What is meant by “significant circumstantial evidence”?

Nevertheless, some of the cases presented do appear to have compelling corroborative evidence, but there is another problem that has not been addressed. What are the criteria for establishing a memory was “repressed”  or that there was actually amnesia induced by the trauma, rather than ordinary forgetting?

For example, in the study by sociologist Linda Williams and her colleagues is a famous study frequently cited and cited in this project as well as support for corroborated recovered memories. The study interviewed 129 women between the ages of 18 and 31 about sexual abuse that was documented to have occurred 17 years earlier by hospital records and found that 38% (46 women) interviewed did not remember the particular incident of abuse that had been documented. Although 33 of the women remembered other incidents of abuse, 16 women reported they had no memories whatsoever of any abuse.  However, of the 129 women, 42 had experienced the abuse from ages 0 to 6 years old and 25 of those were in the group that could not remember the event. Their failure to remember is better explained by the fact that they were too young at the time of the abuse to remember. It is normal not to remember an event, traumatic or not, that happened in early childhood or infancy.  Also, not all of the hospital documentation was based on physical evidence. Although 60% did have such evidence, 40% did not. Some were based on disclosures by young children of events that happened at earlier ages, which even Williams acknowledged that they “may be attributable to information they received later in life.” So is this study solid documentation that repression exists? Hardly.

As Richard J. McNally pointed out, for traumatic amnesia to exist, it would have to mean that the person failed to remember an event, when presented with cues. It is not uncommon for the person not to think about a trauma for a period of time, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify as repression. For example, someone might have been sexually abused as a child, not thought about it for a period of time and then suddenly had memories come flooding back when the victim herself gave birth to a child. In that case, having a child of ones own was the cue to the memories coming back. Or visiting an old childhood location could bring back memories. Or someone was abused by a priest, didn’t think about it for a period of time, but the memories came back when they heard on the news that someone else had been abused by the same priest. If the memories were truly repressed, the person would be unable to remember, even when presented with such cues.  This can even happen with non-traumatic events. I don’t see that this was ruled out in the cases that are presented.

Other possibilities not ruled out in cases presented as evidence for repression in the Brown archives and also in the very frequently cited book, Memory, Trauma Treatment and the Law (Brown, Scheflin and Hammond, 1998, Norton) would include:

  • Some children or even adults, when interviewed, may remember the abuse but just be too uncomfortable to talk about it.
  • Physical brain damage that could be responsible for memory loss not being ruled out (especially the case where traumatic amnesia was claimed for studies on Holocaust survivors or combat veterans, most of whom have vivid memories but some who were said to have amnesia).
  • Trauma victim reported forgetting of everyday current things in life, but not the trauma itself, yet this was incorrectly labeled as traumatic amnesia.
  • Some of the studies were based on the self-reports of the person who had the trauma saying that he or she had spoken to others and corroborated the abuse, but the investigators did not independently corroborate the events by speaking to the witnesses themselves. They took the person’s word for it.
  • Details of the traumatic event were not encoded in the first place. For example, a crime victim was looking at the attackers weapon, rather than his face, and hence is not able to identify the attacker, not because of repression, but because the victim was not looking at the face in the first place.
  • Suppression, not repression. There is a big difference. People who suppressed memories (deliberately decided not to think about them) admitted in interviews that if asked, they could have easily remembered. People who repress memories and have traumatic amnesia, would not have the ability to do that.
  • And last but not least, people who were too young to understand the significance of sexual abuse that did not involve penetration and was not physically painful and hence, did not encode the memory of abuse as a trauma at the time it happened and did not think about it for a period of time, only to later remember it as an adult when reminded of it and come to the painful realization of the violation that had occurred. This was not repression or traumatic amnesia, but rather, cases of young children who did not understand the significance of what happened to them.

For a very thorough review of all the problems with the studies cited in the book, Memory, Trauma Treatment and the Law, see Chapter 7 of Richard J. McNally’s, Remembering Trauma. The “corroborated” cases of the Recovered Memory Project suffer from some of the same deficiencies.

The problems with this archive are important to consider, in light of recent discussions and myths about trauma and memory that are being spread by impassioned proponents of recovered memory and DID following the publication of Debbie Nathan’s book, Sybil Exposed and the recent malpractice lawsuit brought against Castlewood Treatment Center and psychologist Mark Schwartz, by a former patient.  Although some had thought these myths went away in the 1990s after more research emerged, recent people subjected to such therapy are now coming forward, showing that unfortunately, it is still being practiced and has passionate devotees repeating discredited myths about trauma and memory.

To sum things up, here is an excerpt from an Amicus Brief for Taus v Loftus filed by a number of “nationally and internationally prominent psychiatrists, psychologists and behavioral scientists, Federal grant recipients, private foundation grant recipients, members of professional journal editorial boards, journal reviewers, recipients of national research awards, collectively publishers of thousands of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, and/or licensed clinical health care practitioners” . Go here to view their names and affiliations (note this is not an argument from authority because they provided extensive scientific evidence to back up their position):

As we examine these issues in greater detail throughout this brief, it is important for the court to remember that it is the consensus opinion of the relevant scientific community that there is no credible,
methodologically sound scientific evidence whatsoever for the theory that trauma survivors truly “repress” and then later “recover” memories of events that were experienced as traumatic at the time. Although a vocal subset of clinicians (therapists) believe in the “repression” hypothesis, research conducted over many years involving thousands of trauma-abuse victims demonstrates and emphasizes the persistence of trauma memories. “Repressed and recovered memory of trauma” is thus best described as a dangerous, piece of psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing scientific evidence.3 In our collective opinion, this unsupported theory has caused incalculable harm to the fields of psychology and psychiatry, damaged tens if not hundreds of thousands of families, severely harmed the credibility of mental health professionals, and also misled the legislative, civil, criminal and family legal systems into many  miscarriages of justice. (Taus v Loftus, Amicus Curiae Brief of the National Committee of Scientists for Academic Liberty in support of Defendants and Appellants, Elizabeth Loftus, et al. p. 8 )

ISST-D members have implied, at various times, that those who challenge their views are part of some kind of lunatic fringe group and that they (the ISST-D) are the scientific mainstream. Examination of the names on this list conclusively demonstrates that precisely the opposite appears to be the case. It is also important to recognize that contrary to unfounded assertions by proponents of recovered memory type therapies that this is all just some conspiracy by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), that is not the case with this Amicus. In fact, most were never members of the FMSF and the brief states that:

Prior to the litigation at issue, they were not organized in any formal way, and many, if not most, of them have never met the individual defendants in this case (p. 6).

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7 Comments
  1. I was under the impression that “traumatic amnesia” was the mechanism under which people forget situations where they were severely hurt, For example, forgetting part of a battle where you lose multiple limbs, or how Christopher Reeve never remembered the accident where he broke his neck. I heard it summed up once as “no one really wants to remember smashing their skull on the pavement after being thrown from a car.”

    • The reason someone wouldn’t remember breaking their neck is much better explained by the physical, not psychological trauma. “No one wants to remember…” is a perfect example of the kinds of misattribution that is made by proponents of traumatic amnesia in the popular media. Of course someone would not likely remember smashing their skull — the obvious reason being brain damage that has nothing to do with whether they “want to”, People who do not have brain damage remember all kinds of horrors that they do not want to remember. Just look at concentration camp victims who have horrific, vivid memories 50+ years later, aside from the ones who suffered from physical brain damage. Traumatic amnesia in terms of psychological amnesia is largely a myth. Amnesia caused by brain injury/damage, sometimes temporary, sometime permanent, is very real.

  2. There is a problem from the top of this project down starting with Professor Ross E. Cheit. He constantly writes about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and Drs. Pamela & Peter Freyd in particular.

    The lies, misinformation, & disinformation he spreads is shameful for someone who enjoys the status of “professor’.

    I will disclose that I volunteered at the False Memory Syndrome Foundation around 1994-1995. I know the Freys, those who staff the foundation, how it works, what it stands for, and know many of the advisory board members. I know first hand the assaults on the organization by those who would like to obliterate its existence.

    Dr. Cheit needs to get his act together. When professors lie and cheat, they do a huge disservice to students who follow them – those students in turn continue to spin lies – knowingly or not.

    I challenge students and readers of Ross Cheit to do more homework. At best, know that when you finish reading him, know that much of the information you come away with is not accurate or true. Fair warning.

  3. sorry, it’s Dr. Freyd.

  4. As you yourself stated, many of the cases have corroborative evidence beyond simply a guilty confession or a witness. This evidence included, at times: previously prosecuted inappropriate advances and sexual relations with other minors, later prosecution involving sexual assualt on other minors, or corroboration from medical records.
    As well, many of the witnesses and other victims had never repressed their memories of the abuse; their memories were continuous.
    In some cases, private detectives were hired, and major investigations such as Project Jericho were involved.

    Of the cases, 53 had passed through court, and some had withstood appeals. One of these cases ended in prosecution despite the testimony of FMSF advisory board member and psychiatrist Harold Merskey, who suggested that D.M.M. was probably suffering from “‘false memories.’”

    You ask, “What are the criteria for establishing a memory was ‘repressed’ or that there was actually amnesia induced by the trauma, rather than ordinary forgetting?”

    When you really get down to it, the people in these studies were remembering trauma for the first time in years. It doesn’t matter if the memory was truly repressed or simply forgotten. When you really get down to the fact, “repressed” memories are simply memories that the mind has consciously or unconsciously chosen not to remember. The people in these studies experienced what many other people with “repressed” memories do. It doesn’t matter in court if the memories were truly repressed, it only matters that they have a chance of being accurate enough to prosecute.

    You mention the study by Linda Williams et al. You mention, as well, that of the 46 people who could not remember the abuse, 25 of them had been between the ages of 0 to 6. However, this does nothing to discount the study. Memories from the age of 3 and on are entirely possible. As you have not indicated how many of the woman were younger than 3 when the abuse happened, your argument is rendered invalid. Also, you said that 25 women who were abused from ages 0 to 6 could not remember the abuse, but this indicates that the other 17 women from that age group still could. Also, it shows that the other 21 women who could not remember their memories were not from this age group, and their age could not be used as an explanation.

    Secondonly, you mention that not all of the women had physical evidence. That is true. However, a testimony by a young child has a very good chance of being the truth. Jones and McGraw examined 576 child sexual abuse referrals in 1987. They found that only 1% of the cases were fictious.
    Jones, D. P. H., and J. M. McGraw: Reliable and Fictitious Accounts of Sexual Abuse to Children. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2, 27-45, 1987.
    Case notes of all 551 sexual abuse reports to the Denver Department of Social Services that occured in 2000 within 12 months were reviewed. Only 14 (2.5%) instances were judged to be erroneous. Three cases were made in collusion with a parent, three cases involved misinterpretation of an innocent event, and eight cases were false allegations.
    Oates, R. K., D.P. Jones, D. Denson, A. Sirotnak, N. Gary, and R.D. Krugman: Erroneous Concerns about Child Sexual Abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect 24:149-57, 2000.
    Child protective service workers gave Everson and Boat an estimated rate of 4.7 to 7.6% of false allegations for child and adolescent reports of sexual abuse.
    Everson, M.D., and B.W. Boat: False Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Children and Adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 28, 230-5, 1989. 
    Mikkelsen, Gutheil, and Emens concluded that: “False allegations of sexual abuse by children and adolescents are statistically uncommon, occurring at the rate of 2 to 10 percent of all cases.”
    Mikkelsen, E.J., T.G. Gutheil, and M Emens: False Sexual-Abuse Allegations by Children and Adolescents: Contextual Factors and Clinical Subtypes. American Journal of Psychotherapy 46: 556-70, 1992.
    Four different states- Florida, Missouri, Vermont, and Virginia- reviewed Child Protective Service (CPS) records and determined that intentionally false reports comprised less than 1% of all unsubstantiated reports of child abuse (0.00999634 or less than 1 out of 100 unsubstantiated reports)

    While it is not solid documentation, it is a good argument for the existance of repression. That is why it was recorded in the Recovered Memory Project with other studies that suggest the same thing.

    Many women “recover” memories in exactly the methods described in the studies. Some of the methods involved were the memories being cued to the surface due to a traumatic event or seeing a child around the age they were when they were abused. Other methods involved recovering memories in therapy. As these are the most common ways for people to “recover” memories, what matters is not whether or not these memories are truly “recovered,” only that remembering things in the described methods does not automatically render them invalid and fictuous.

    Recovered memory is defined by many exactly as you insisted it was not. Dr. J. Freyd, for example, is of the believe that remembering where you have put your keys is an example of recovering a memory; after all, you did not remember one moment, and then you did the next.
    Freyd, J.J. (2010). What about Recovered Memories? Retrieved 2/20/12 from http:// dynamic.uoregon. edu/~jjf/whatabout.html
    A repressed memory is simply a memory that, for one reason or another, is not remembered by the conscious mind. It’s not near so complicated as you’re making it out to be.

    • You say:” When you really get down to it, the people in these studies were remembering trauma for the first time in years. It doesn’t matter if the memory was truly repressed or simply forgotten. ” So now you’re attempting to change the terms of the debate to things that nobody disagrees with. Yes, it does matter very much. No one disagrees with the fact that there are cases where people simply do not think about traumatic events for a period of time, are cued by something and then remember them. The essence of the controversy is the idea that people actually repress memories and that is where the evidence is lacking. I am not the one who introduced the complications here. It is the proponents of traumatic amnesia who have done that, only to now attempt to back pedal and say they didn’t really mean it, when challenged by people such as Richard J. McNally who have completely demolished their theories.

      Most people who are criticizing recovered/repressed memories would agree that the majority of people who are claiming this are only speaking about memories they had not thought about for a period of time and then remembered. There are people who recovered false memories in therapy through suggestive techniques, but they are in a different category. It is interesting to see that recovered memory apologists are now attempting to conflate these two categories when these are really two very different types of cases. Neither, however, involves traumatic amnesia and repression as has been claimed by the main theorists in the field.

  5. Brain Fart permalink

    I’d be interested to know how you and Dr. Mann view BTT, e.g., as advanced by Jennifer J. Freyd in “The state of betrayal trauma theory: Reply to McNally–Conceptual issues and future directions”. Apparently a more recent study was favorably reviewed at wendymurphylaw(dot)com/JD_PhDbetrayaltrauma.pdf.

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