Does repressed memory exist? Although courts and legislatures use the term repressed memory, the proper term is dissociative amnesia. This is the definition that appears in the DSM-IV, section 300.12: "Dissociative amnesia is characterized by an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness."
The appearance in the DSM-IV indicates that the concept of repressed memory is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community. This satisfies courts following the Frye v United States, 293 F.1013 (1923) or Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharmaceutical, 113 S. Ct. 2786 (1993) rules regarding the admissibility of scientific testimony into evidence in court. Opponents of repressed memory are what the law considers, at best, a respectable minority under the two schools of thought doctrine (Jones v Chidester ; Kowalski, 1998). The burden of proof is on the minority school of thought to demonstrate that it is respectable, not on the majority to prove that it is right.
The DSM-IV definition provides a mechanism to distinguish dissociative amnesia from ordinary forgetfulness (Scheflin and Spiegel, 1998). It is echoed in the characterization of the repressed memory issue by Pope and Hudson (1995a, 1995b) as follows: A substantially traumatic event occurs of the type not normally likely to be forgotten. Voluntary access to memories about the event is unavailable for a significant period of years. After this passage of time, memories return that can be demonstrated to be accurate.
When functionally defined, the debate about the semantics of repression disappears. According to Pope and Hudson (1995a), "to reject the null hypothesis and demonstrate 'repression,' one need only exhibit a series of individuals who display clear and lasting amnesia for known experiences too traumatic to be normally forgettable." As Pope and Hudson (1995b) point out, in the studies in which the traumatic abuse is known to have occurred, and in which the trauma is so severe that "no one would be reasonably expected to forget it, the postulated mechanism of the amnesia-whether it be called 'repression,' 'dissociation' or 'traumatic amnesia'-is unimportant." As with the DSM-IV definition, Pope and Hudson's formulation eliminates semantic quibbles and provides a mechanism for distinguishing repression from forgetting because the trauma involved is of the type not likely to be forgotten. This point was completely misunderstood by the court in Doe v Maskell, 342 Md. 684, 679 A.2d 1087 (1996) when it said that repression and forgetting were identical.
Brown and colleagues (1999) surveyed the world literature and found 68 studies in which the totality of the evidence met the Pope and Hudson criteria. Every one of the studies, which followed several methodological designs, found repressed memory to exist. The first round of studies were surveys that used clinical samples of people in therapy or therapists. Those who do not believe in the validity of repressed memory criticized this method on the grounds that it involved people who were in psychotherapy. A second round of studies sought to correct for this by using community samples. Some of these studies involved forensic cases, such as people who claimed to be victims of Father James Porter. Porter, a priest, confessed to and was convicted of sexually molesting dozens of boys and girls in 1993. This method was criticized on the grounds that there was still sample selection and experimenter bias.
A third round of experiments responded to this objection by surveying nonclinical targeted and/or random samples-people not in or entering therapy. Some of these studies used college students, while others used random samples of people who responded either to advertisements in newspapers, telephone calls or mailed questionnaires. Once again, however, complaints were made that these retrospective studies failed to corroborate sufficiently the existence of the alleged childhood sexual abuse.