Skepticism also abounds in the criminal cases in which individuals have tried to argue that their crimes should be forgiven because they are suffering from dissociative identity disorder, a diagnosis often associated with repressed memories. Death-row inmate David Pellegrini, for example, tried to block his execution, claiming that when he shot a convenience store clerk, he was suffering from multiple personality disorder that his lawyer should have argued that he was innocent by reason of insanity (Pellegrini v State, 2001). The Nevada Supreme Court rejected his argument.Skeptically Received, But Costly
In some states, child sexual assault charges can be brought long after the alleged victim reaches the age of majority. Under New Hampshire law, for example, such charges can be brought until a victim's 40th birthday (Belluck, 2002). Other states have resisted such procedural vehicles.
In 2001, the Connecticut legislature considered a bill that would have allowed an alleged victim of child sexual abuse to seek criminal charges against the accused perpetrator up until the victim attained the age of 48 years. Supporters argued that the bill recognized legitimate delays in reporting. Opponents stressed that the bill would not give the accused a reasonable chance to defend themselves, defeating the purpose of the statute of limitations. Testimony could hardly be particularly reliable 30 years after the complainant reached 18 years of age. The legislation failed.
The Connecticut Law Tribune (Advisory Board, 2001) called the bill odious and concluded by first acknowledging the unpleasant reality of sexual abuse and then going on to say that calling "alleged perpetrators of unthinkable crimes to task many years after an incident, after memories have faded and witnesses have passed away, or when a memory is 'restored,' is unjust."Implications for Patients and Therapists
It does appear that the laws in many states allow patients to legally pursue their claims based on repressed or dissociative experiences that are recently revived. But in practice, patients face much skepticism from judges and juries. The legal allowance thus means that accused defendants suffer greatly, while patients experience renewed frustrations.
In appreciating these costs, psychiatrists may wish to avoid encouraging their patients to seek legal redress. In addition, psychiatrists might consider whether they have an obligation to inform their patients of the risks of pursuing claims based on de-repressed memories.
A major risk is that, in some cases, the patient may be liable not only for their own attorney fees, but for the defendant's attorney fees as well. Often, the patient's medical records will be scrutinized, not only in civil cases, but also in criminal cases where the records are frequently subject to in camera inspection.
Finally, patients may face costly counterclaims brought by those whom they accuse in court. This occurred in a case brought by the 48-year-old son of a Las Vegas gynecologist. Quincy Fortier Jr. contended he recently recovered "long-frozen memories" of sexual abuse inflicted on him by his father (Thevenot, 2002). The father filed a counterclaim, accusing his son of intentionally inflicting emotional distress and portraying him in a false light. While the father's counterclaim was eventually dismissed by the judge, the jury returned a verdict on behalf of the father in the main claim after deliberating less than an hour. In other cases involving counterclaims, accusers have been found liable for defamation or emotional distress and subject to substantial damages.
Once a case does find itself enmeshed in the legal process, psychiatrists who enter as experts might do well to keep a few things in mind. There is a relatively new position statement, put out by the American Psychiatric Association (2000), that acknowledges the problem associated with denying genuine abuse but also reminds professionals, "Memories can also be altered as a result of suggestions, particularly by a trusted person or authority figure." It goes on to caution that, when providing expert opinion about memories of abuse, psychiatrists should refrain from making public statements about the historical accuracy of uncorroborated reports of new memories based on observations made in therapy.
Perhaps the legal system may not be the best place for resolving repression claims, either for patients or their psychiatrists. Perhaps a committee should be convened to explore whether some other arena would be better for arbitrating such disputed claims.
The old Peanuts cartoon showing Lucy's repressed-memory extraction work reflected that state of affairs. But the cartoonists these days seem to have changed their tune -- in a positive way -- when they depict mental health humor. In mid-2001, Lucy again hung out her shingle and offered psychiatric help for five cents. Charlie Brown complained that he needed someone to tell him he's doing the right thing. Lucy, instead of talking to him about his repressed memories, first simply told him he was right and eventually offered this advice: "You need more in life than just having someone around to tell you when you're doing the right thing." Although that last bit of advice cost Charlie another five cents, the cartoon expresses a much kindlier humor directed toward the mental health care profession than we saw a decade ago.