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Ground Lost: The False Memory/Recovered Memory Therapy Debate: Page 3 of 3

Ground Lost: The False Memory/Recovered Memory Therapy Debate: Page 3 of 3

To correct for this objection, a fourth round of studies was conducted, this time involving a prospective design. Researchers started with hospital records of actual abuse and located the victims decades later. However, this methodology was also objected to because it failed to add a follow-up clarification interview as described by Femina et al. (1990). A fifth round of studies then used the prospective design and included clarification interviews. This was followed by a sixth round of studies, involving prospective longitudinal designs that began with documented trauma and included repeated follow-up interviews on a regular basis.

This research reached the same conclusion as all of the other studies-a subsection of the population of sexually abused individuals represses the memory of the abuse. As their last refuge, critics have responded that any study involving any self-report is unscientific because self-reports are untruthful or self-deceptive.

Those who do not believe in the validity of repressed memory have argued that most people do not forget trauma. Their point is accurate, but it hardly refutes the argument that some percentage of people do not consciously remember severe trauma. Some of these critics have appeared in court with citations for almost five dozen articles of remembered traumatization. But again, the fact that most people remember trauma is not relevant to the point that some do not. Of even greater importance, Brown et al. (1999) have demonstrated that none of these studies falls within the Pope-Hudson guidelines. Two-thirds of them are irrelevant because they do not address the issue of amnesia one way or the other and fully one-third of them actually do demonstrate dissociative amnesia. While people may continue to believe that repressed memory does not exist, there is no scientific support for that proposition. Expert testimony that repressed memory does not exist should, therefore, be subject to ethical sanctions.

Are repressed memories accurate? Both those who argue that repressed memories are always false and those who argue that repressed memories are always true (because, like the fly caught in amber, they are solidified and impervious to later contamination by influence or suggestion) appear to be mistaken. Although the science is limited on this issue, the only three relevant studies conclude that repressed memories are no more and no less accurate than continuous memories (Dalenberg, 1996; Widom and Morris, 1997; Williams, 1995). Thus, courts and therapists should consider repressed memories no differently than they consider ordinary memories.

The science clearly directs us away from the distracting issue of the existence of repressed memories, and toward the psychologically and legally significant issue of the validity of particular memories. The therapy room and the courtroom both benefit from distinguishing true and false memories (Scheflin, 1998). The science of memory shows that 1) memory is remarkably accurate for the gist of events, and less accurate for peripheral details; 2) all memories, repressed or continually remembered, may be influenced by later events or by the method of retrieval; and 3) all memories, whether implicit or explicit, may exert an influence on behavior (Schacter, 1999). With a renewed concentration on how memories are retrieved or influenced, therapists and lawyers might again be able to work as associates, not adversaries.

Lost Ground

It was noted earlier that science, the law and psychiatry have lost ground as a consequence of the repressed memory debate. The fit between law and science has suffered a two-stage assault with regard to memory. In the 1980s, courts were told by many experts that hypnosis and related techniques inevitably contaminate memory. In the 1990s, courts were told that repressed memory does not exist and that memory is easily contaminated by even a hint of suggestion. In both decades, courts were told that memory is fundamentally untrustworthy. These views are wrong, and judicial reliance on science to support them has brought injustice to countless litigants. When the courts looked to experts for guidance, the experts failed to deliver with accuracy what the science said. Some experts have remained resistant to updating their opinions even in light of new studies.

Psychiatry especially has lost ground. From the public's perspective, the repressed memory debate has made the field look foolish, no matter which side of the issue a member of the public supports. One need only read the majority opinion in the first appellate decision dealing with repressed memory (Tyson v Tyson, 107 Wash.2d 72, 727 P.2d 226 [1986]) to see how judges have developed highly negative attitudes about the mental health professions. Because mental health professional organizations have failed to provide guidance or clarity to the public or their own constituents and have failed to protect their constituents when under attack in courts of law, they have further added to the perception of the mental health area as a truly "soft" science.

The recovered memory debate includes an internal ideological struggle. Some of the biological psychiatrists are enjoying, if not contributing to, the battering that psychodynamic psychiatrists currently are taking in court. It is not wise, however, to ignore Lincoln's incisive comment, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." The very legal precedents being established to sue psychodynamic psychiatrists now constitute a growing infrastructure for the inevitable subsequent legal assault on the biologically inclined healers. Indeed, the theories for such lawsuits are already under construction and will soon be field-tested in courts. In the acrimony and litigation surrounding the debate over who is right and who is wrong, psychiatry has developed dissociative identity disorder. It is time for the profession to heal itself.




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