Book Review: The Myth Of Repressed Memory

Over the last couple of weeks I slowly and painfully slogged my way through “The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse.” The book, written by Doctor Elizabeth Loftus, purports to bring the laboratory research on the malleability of human memory into the touchy debate about repressed memories in clinical psychology and counseling.

Right up front I will say that this was a very disappointing book. I read it all the way through, and gave it two out of five stars on Goodreads. I read it for Psych 100 because I was interested in Dr. Loftus’ memory research which was briefly covered in our textbook. However I was disappointed to find that the book contains only the briefest mention of that research, and no details or even summaries of the the experiments conducted. The pivotal experiment that she conducted at the University of Washington in the early 1990’s involved implanting memories in participants without their knowledge. The researchers succeeded in getting 20% of the subjects to “remember” an event that never happened, namely that they were lost in a shopping mall at a young age, or that they had lost their child in a shopping mall at a young age. You can read the whole experiment here.

Because of her work on memory, Dr. Loftus became embroiled in a series of bitter courtroom battles between plaintiffs who claimed sexual abuse as children and defendants who were accused of having perpetrated the abuse, the catch being that the memories had been “repressed” for years, and in some cases decades, before being “recovered” in therapy. To further complicate the matter, at least in the cases described by Dr. Loftus, there was no other evidence to indict the defendant except the “recovered” memory.

I expected the book to be about memory research. It was not. It was about these cases of alleged abuse based on recovered memory. I was completely unaware of this background going into the book. I was familiar only with the shopping mall experiment, which has been very controversial in its own right. (I will note that the controversy about the shopping mall experiment tends to be as polarized as the therapeutic memory debate, and along the same party lines, and mostly focused on the ethics and applicability of the results rather than on the results themselves).

Even if I had been looking for information about that wave of accusations and trials of the 80’s and 90’s, I would not recommend this book. It is clearly biased against the existence of repressed memories. I would have no problem with that bias if she would present the experimental data which supports that conclusion in enough detail to be meaningful. Instead, she merely mentions it in passing before going back to sensational descriptions of outlandish and crucible-esque trials. For a research scientist, the book contained very little hard science, and her discussion of the differences between implanted memories and so-called “repressed” memories was superficial and incomplete, so minus 1 star there. Even her discussion about the famous (or infamous) shopping mall experiment is truncated, absurdly so. After spending an entire chapter describing its origin and approval, she does not describe its implementation, results or discussion.

The second star is taken off for the unnecessarily graphic and frankly sensationalist details of alleged sexual abuse and satanic torture that makes up the bulk of this book, or at least the most memorable portion. It was disgusting and sickening. I understand the gravity of the crimes being discussed. You do not need to paint word pictures in my head, they only confuse the real issue. Such lurid details are irrelevant to the question of whether or not there is such a thing as repressed memory.

The third star is taken away because I get the feeling that Dr. Loftus has focused heavily on the extreme fringe cases of a wave of sexual abuse cases, and, perhaps because she is not a sociologist, she does not provide any data or even estimate of what percentage of the overall sexual abuse cases in that time period rested solely upon the testimony of recovered memory. In fact, her entire treatment of the opposite side of the debate, while superficially respectful and sensitive, seemed fraught with generalizations and, again, no hard data. No numbers of cases, no percent without other corroborating evidence, nothing but case studies, which as every scientist knows, prove nothing.

I do not recommend this book. The history of cases is hand-picked and biased, and the lack of hard science, which is purportedly her area of expertise, makes it little more than an opinion piece. However, after having read it, I was able to glean the following points:

  • Human memory is faulty. This is obvious to any casual observer, but has been repeatedly validated in study after study in carefully controlled conditions. The question is not whether human memory makes mistakes, but how serious those mistakes can be.
  • To date, I have not seen one single case of a repressed memory that has been corroborated as such. Repressed memory is, by its nature, unprovable, as is the more modern term of “dissociative” memory. In order to prove it you would have to:
    1. Create a traumatic event under controlled conditions and inflict it on a number of children
    2. Document that trauma
    3. Allow the children to grow up, having ample time to forget or repress the memory of that trauma, and assess the level of forgetfulness.
    4. Recover that memory under therapeutic conditions
    5. Compare the recovered memory to the documented event.
  • Repressed memory could, in theory, be demonstrated by corroborating a recovered memory with outside evidence. To my knowledge, this has never occurred, and Dr. Loftus certainly gives the impression that it has never occurred. I have not conducted an exhaustive review of the literature, so I am willing to be convinced.
  • It seems obvious that no one should ever be convicted of a serious crime such as child sexual abuse based solely on human memory.

In conclusion, I do not recommend this book, despite the fact that it does contain some good information (i.e. the points listed above) and there is a need for a better summary of the current state of memory research.

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