Repressed and Recovered Memories

While one cannot deny that repressed and recovered memories have had an effect on individuals, their families, and our legal system, little credible evidence exists for massive repression. Moreover, most claims of repression and recovered memories have alternative explanations such as ordinary forgetting or exposure to suggestive situations. This entry examines issues relating to claims of repressed and recovered memories, the role of these claims in the legal system, research that bears on these claims, and alternative explanations for what might appear to be repressed and recovered memories.

At the end of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud popularized the term repression to describe a mechanism by which horrifically traumatic events are pushed into some inaccessible corner of the unconscious. Later, they may return to consciousness. The process is thought to involve something other than ordinary forgetting and remembering, and is sometimes called massive repression or robust repression. Since Freud’s day, the term “repression” has had a nebulous meaning for many in the field of psychology, often being used interchangeably with dissociation and traumatic amnesia and subject to great controversy. Some have suggested that repression has never been proven to exist. Because of the controversy, some writers now refer to an umbrella term recovered memories—memory experiences that someone is conscious of after not thinking about them for a long time. This experience happens commonly and need not be controversial unless one assumes it involves more than ordinary forgetting and remembering.

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The topic of repressed and recovered memories has been a hotly debated issue within the mental health profession for almost two decades. Although there is no credible scientific support for massive repression, many individuals who claim to have recovered repressed memories of childhood abuse have subsequently pressed those claims in civil and criminal courtrooms. Most of the repressed and recovered memory reports involve claims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Some have involved claims of recovered memories of murders and satanic ritual abuse. Many claims of recovered CSA memories have been made by individuals accusing family members, former neighbors, or other family friends. Often, but not always, these memories are recovered in individual or group psychotherapy.

Surge in Recovered Memories and Their Effects

Media Contribution

During the late 1980s and early 1990s numerous individuals claimed to have recovered memories of CSA. During this period, accusations of CSA and satanic ritual abuse escalated and peaked in the 2-year period of 1991 to 1992; since that peak, the number of accusations has steadily declined. Many recovered memory cases appeared in the media, which may have contributed to the surge in repressed memories that were recovered in therapists’ offices throughout North America. As a result of media coverage of an unusual murder case, repressed memories were brought into the public eye.

In a landmark case that went to trial in 1990, George Franklin was accused of a murder that occurred more than 20 years earlier. The victim, 8-year-old Susan Nason, was a friend of Franklin’s daughter, Eileen. Eileen was 8 at the time of the murder; however, it was she who provided the only evidence against her father. Eileen claimed that she had repressed the memory of witnessing her father murder Susan, a repression that lasted for 20 years. When her “memory” returned in the late 1980s, she brought these allegations to the police. George Franklin was found guilty of murder based solely on Eileen’s testimony of her recovered memory. It was the first time that a U.S. citizen had been tried and convicted of a murder on the basis of a recovered memory.

Around this time, The Courage to Heal, a self-help book by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, was written to assist victims of CSA. Even in the absence of memory, the purported victim was encouraged to recover memories of abuse and to confront alleged molesters. Critics of The Courage to Heal contended that it caused widespread harm to many innocent people— both the alleged perpetrators and the accusers whose lives may have been negatively affected by false revelations. Bass and Davis have no formal training in psychiatry or psychology, and some critics have argued that their book encourages the recovery of memories that may not be true. Given that their book has sold more than 800,000 copies, The Courage to Heal, some felt, contributed greatly to the surge in the number of recovered memory cases by encouraging people to embrace their recovered memories.

Statute of limitations

Concurrently, the legal implications of recovered CSA memories were propelled into the limelight particularly in the United States. In 1989, Washington State became the first state to toll the statute of limitations for repressed memory cases. People with newly recovered memories of abuse had 3 years from the time of remembering to sue their parents, other relatives, or any alleged molesters. Many states followed, and thousands of lawsuits were filed.

Most provisions applicable to victims of CSA fall into the categories of minority tolling and delayed discovery doctrine. A tolling doctrine is a rule that postpones the date from which a statutory period begins. In the case of minority tolling, it is a statute that might run 3 years from when the child turns 18, the legal age of majority. This is in recognition of the problem that some children may not feel secure enough to confront abusers while still in childhood.

The delayed discovery doctrine has historically been used in different types of cases, for example, in cases of medical malpractice. To give a medical example, the statute of discovery would be extended for a patient who undergoes surgery and only much later realizes that subsequent abdominal pain is due to the doctor failing to remove a sponge during surgery. Such a patient’s statute of limitations to sue for medical malpractice begins to accrue at the time the sponge is determined to be the cause of the abdominal pain. Those in support of applying the delayed discovery doctrine in recovered memory cases purport that such a medical malpractice claim is analogous to an individual who alleges recovery of CSA memories, in that the source of their pain would be realized when the memories are recovered. Such an individual would have some number of years (say, 3) from the date on which they assert that the memory was recovered in which to pursue legal action.

As a result of the tolling of the statute of limitations in repressed memory cases, a large number of victims began to sue their alleged abusers for compensation. But these were not the only ways in which repressed memories entered the courtroom. In an ironic twist, a few of those accused of CSA began to sue their accusers’ therapists for planting false memories of childhood abuse. A somewhat larger group who also sued call themselves “Retractors.”

False Memory Syndrome and Retractors

There have been a number of adverse effects of recovered memory therapy, especially when there has been no history of sexual abuse. Devastating effects can occur, for example, when a daughter accuses her father of child abuse. Many such accusations have resulted in litigation that often forces other family members to choose sides, causing great strain and often separation within the family.

Another adverse effect is the development of new symptoms unrelated to the primary concern for which the patient went to the therapist in the first place. These symptoms include false beliefs and memories of having been abused—a syndrome now referred to as false memory syndrome. These symptoms may take the form of flashbacks, which include detailed memories and even hallucinations and delusions of the abuse. Thus, the patient believes that she has specific recollections of abuse that may not have occurred.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was formed in 1992 by a group of families and professionals who saw the need for an organization to determine and prevent the spread of false memory syndrome and support and attempt to reconcile families who were torn apart by claims of repressed CSA. In recent years, there have been a number of CSA accusers who have reestablished family relationships and acknowledged that their accusations were false. These “retractors” typically blame their therapists for suggesting to them that they were victims of CSA and for encouraging memory recovery that led to the false memories of abuse.

In 1997, a remarkable legal case was settled in which a retractor sued her therapist. Ms. Burgus, a patient of Dr. Braun’s, originally sought treatment for postpartum depression but was diagnosed as having multiple personalities. Dr. Braun believed that her symptoms resulted from sexual and ritual abuse including cannibalism and torture; in other words, the purported sexual and ritual abuse was what led her to be diagnosed with having multiple personalities. Although Ms. Burgus had no recollection of the sexual and ritual abuse, Dr. Braun encouraged her to try and remember these instances of abuse through hypnosis. Ms. Burgus eventually realized that these allegations were not true and subsequently retracted her previous abuse accusation. She sued her former therapists, including Dr. Braun and the hospital, for negligence, breach of the standard of care for uncritical acceptance of a clinical diagnosis, and the use of hypnotic techniques without first advising her of the risks involved. The lawsuit was settled for $10.6 million.

Research in the Field of Repressed and Recovered Memories

Research on repressed and recovered memories has primarily involved women victims of CSA. There are three primary resources of information in the extant field: retrospective studies, prospective studies, and case histories. Retrospective studies rely on individuals whose initial disclosure of abuse happens years after the supposed abuse took place. Prospective studies use cases documented by social workers or the police to establish abuse, while case histories consist of data collected from an individual.

In one of the first retrospective studies, more than half of the participants (mostly women who were referred to the study by their therapists) stated that they did not remember their first incident of sexual abuse at some point in the past. Compared with those who remembered the abuse continuously, individuals who reported a lapse in memory also reported that they were abused at a very young age. Regrettably, it is difficult to construe this research as evidence of massive repression in CSA victims, because the main question posed to participants was complex and the answers uninterpretable. In another retrospective study, researchers tried to probe what people meant when they claimed to have forgotten abuse at some point in the past. In a large sample of people who were questioned about their sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, more than a quarter reported some form of abuse. Of the participants who claimed to have forgotten their memories of abuse, just less than half also claimed that they had avoided thinking about the instances of abuse. The researcher noted that lack of continuous memory for an event does not necessarily constitute repression and suggested that therapists should proceed with caution when dealing with patients who claim to have recovered memories of abuse.

Retrospective studies rely on an individual’s self-report of sexual abuse at a much later date. Such studies are not ideally designed because the initial disclosure and subsequent recovered memories of abuse cannot be verified and, therefore, may be inaccurate or altogether false. Prospective studies, on the other hand, rely on documentation of CSA at the time of the incident (e.g., by police report). Individuals are later contacted to see what they can remember.

In one often-cited prospective study conducted by the sociologist Linda Meyer Williams, 38% of participants failed to report documented abuse when interviewed 17 years after the reported abuse occurred. Williams found that the younger a participant was at the time of the documentation, the less likely she was to report the specific incident. Some of these cases may be accounted for by a phenomenon known as childhood amnesia, which is discussed in the following section. Critics of the study also point out that just because a woman didn’t report the abuse did not mean she did not remember it; perhaps she simply did not want to tell the interviewers about it. Also complicating the picture, a more recent prospective study showed that only 8% of people with documented abuse failed to report it to interviewers much later.

Case Histories

Perhaps the least reliable research from which to draw generalizable results is the single case history. An example of a case history in the field of repressed and recovered memories is the case of Jane Doe. When Jane Doe was 6 years old, she was the subject of an intense custody battle and, therefore, underwent psychological evaluation to determine who should retain custody of her. A psychiatrist videotaped a particularly emotional session in which Jane accused her mother of sexually abusing her. After the psychiatrist concluded that Jane was abused by her mother, the mother was forced to relinquish custody of Jane and all visitations.

Years later, the psychiatrist-evaluator captured on video Jane first not remembering and then remembering abuse by her mother. This case was put forth as proof of repression; however, it is questionable as to whether it was truly evidence of repression. Subsequent investigation of Jane’s case history revealed new important information that had been left out of the original account. The later investigation revealed that Jane had discussed the alleged abuse many times between the time of the first videotaped session and when she claimed to have recovered the memories of abuse, casting doubt on the case history’s support for the concept of total repression. Additionally, documentation and interviews raised significant doubt that the sexual abuse of Jane by her mother had ever occurred in the first place. Thus, it is necessary to be skeptical of case histories when attempting to use their findings to make generalizations about repressed memories.

Alternative Explanations for Repression

Many scholars believe that virtually no good evidence for repression exists. There are several other possibilities where these richly detailed memory reports may have come from. The reports could reflect true memories that have simply been forgotten by normal memory processes and are triggered by a retrieval cue. They could, of course, reflect out-and-out lies. Another explanation is that these memories are the result of therapists’ suggestions and other activities that planted false beliefs.

True Memories

In any given case in which a person reports recovering a memory, the statement could be an accurate reflection of the individual’s experience; however, it may be an instance of ordinary forgetting. For example, an adult who was abused as a child may not think about the abuse for a given period of time. In this case, ordinary forgetting would occur, and the person may forget the abuse altogether until a trigger reminds him or her of the abuse. This is not a case of repression; rather, it is a case of ordinary forgetting.

False Memories

In most cases, it is not possible to tell a true memory from a false one without independent corroboration. There are a few situations, however, where we can say with some confidence that the memory report is probably false. Some individuals have claimed to remember abuse that allegedly occurred to them before the age of 2 years—even as early as 6 months in some case reports. But as adults, we do not have concrete and reliable episodic memories for events that occurred in the first couple of years of our lives— a phenomenon known as childhood amnesia. Some adults’ earliest childhood memories are even later. Thus, these very early “memories” are almost certainly false.

One must still consider the instances where individuals claim to recover memories for events that occurred after the offset of childhood amnesia. Research on human suggestibility and the malleability of memory has revealed that individuals are susceptible to forming false memories and believing them to be true. In research where rich false memories have been planted, a significant minority of subjects have been led through a suggestion to believe they had experiences like being lost in a shopping mall or being attacked by a vicious animal. These studies have shown that people are highly susceptible to embracing false memories as their own. Once planted, the individual can report the false event with a great deal of detail, confidence, and even emotion.


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Return to the overview of Eyewitness Memory in Forensic Psychology.