Repressed Memories Dealt a Serious Blow

The “memory wars” continue with unabated ferocity. Almost twenty years ago I wrote a book entitled “Once Upon A Time: A True Story of Memory, Murder and the Law.” It told the story of Eileen Franklin’s “repressed memory” of her father murdering her playmate twenty years earlier. The jury convicted the father based solely on Eileen’s uncorroborated “recovered memory,” although the federal courts later reversed the conviction on other evidentiary grounds.

At the time the conversation between the two camps—those who supported repressed memory and those who challenged it as having no scientific basis—was highly charged and oftentimes vicious. The few who had the courage to stand up and question the validity of repressed memories, like Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, were hammered relentlessly by their colleagues and professional organizations.

As time went on, the war gradually swung in favor of the scientific unreliability of repressed memories, largely based on the studies of Loftus showing that false memories could be implanted. Other scholars stepped forward to argue the lack of science supporting repressed memories.

Still, the war continues. A book recently published by Harvard University, “Betrayal Trauma Theory,” purports to provide a new basis for the validity of repressed memories. Two dueling foundations, the Recovered Memory Project (“pro repressed memory”) and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation hurl accusations back and forth with regularity.

The “pro repressed memory” side received a serious blow by a Minnesota Supreme Court decision issued on July 25, 2012, which held that repressed memory is an unproved theory.

James Keenan sued the Catholic Church in Minneapolis in 2006 claiming that the since-defrocked priest Thomas Adamson had abused him four times in 1980 and 1981. The state has a six-year statute of limitations, and to avoid that Keenan claimed that he had recently recovered a repressed memory of the abuse. The trial court refused to allow into evidence the testimony of experts attempting to validate the theory of repressed memory as science. The court of appeals reversed the trial court, and on July 26 the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals.

The Court held that the studies claiming to prove the existence of repressed memory “lacked foundational reliability.” The Court stated that “This finding is more than adequately supported by the record” of experts who testified at the trial court. While acknowledging that some courts have admitted repressed memories into evidence, others have “ruled that evidence of repressed memories is insufficient to (overcome) statutes of limitations.” The dissenting justice criticized church leaders and argued that the church was well aware that Adamson was molesting children in his care.

If I might add an editorial note, this criticism is completely beside the point. The issue was the scientific validity of “repressed memories,” not the alleged wrongs that had been done Keenan and other children. One can’t argue that, “Well, this man was grievously harmed as a child, as were others, by this priest’s conduct and because of that we should ignore the statute of limitations.” The science of memory must support the admission of repressed memories on its merit alone.

Along this line, I would also note that of the two sides the “pro repressed memory” people have never any compunction in launching vicious personal attacks on those who challenge the validity of repressed memories. Elizabeth Loftus was subjected to bitter condemnation from other psychologists and professionals for daring to challenge the theory. While touring on the book, I was attacked more than once for daring to question the validity of Eileen’s memory (which changed every time she recounted it). One caller suggested that I was either a child molester myself or actively involved in protecting child molesters.

I thought the hysteria had died down somewhat, until I read that Loftus and other professionals who challenge repressed memories are now labeled “deniers,” that morally-laden judgment once reserved for those who denied the existence of the Holocaust.

The Minnesota case is but one volley in the ongoing memory wars. But both sides had staked a much on it, and it can only be seen as a major victory for the “deniers.”

James Ford Seale –The Uncertainty Continues

One week ago yesterday, the Supreme Court announced its decision not to hear Seale’s appeal on the statute of limitations issue.  Justices Scalia and  Stevens dissented, arguing in essence that the matter was important, affected other cases, and should be heard and decided once and for all.

So Seale remains in jail, and no one knows what to do about the two dozen other cases. If you investigate and prosecute, you could spend all the time and resources, get a conviction, only to see it later overturned. Or you may wait and decide to see what the Court eventually does on the issue, which could take a couple of years, and meanwhile witnesses and defendants die and cases grow even colder.

The urgency of the matter apparently meant nothing to the seven other justices.  They simply didn’t want to hear the case, apparently wary of setting a precedent that would end up overloading their docket.

So administrative, procedural concerns seem once again to have outweighed concerns that justice, however delayed, be done once and for all the victims of these old race murders.

There may be some truth to the adage that justice is too important a matter to be left to the lawyers.

Court Turns Down James Ford Seale

On November 1, the Supreme Court issued a decision declining to hear the appeal of James Ford Seale on the question of whether the statute of limitations applied to his case. Justice Scalia and Stevens agreed for once that the Court should hear it, because it would affect many other cases, but they were overruled by the other justices.

The implications of the case are many. In the short term, it means that Seale will remain in prison. It also means that the appeal will continue, and that the Court could consider the issue at a later time.

In a larger sense, it means that the issue of the applicability of the statute of limitations to crimes such as Seale’s remains unsettled. The 5th Circuit estimated that two dozen other cases may be affected by the ruling.

If prosecutors in Mississippi and other southern states proceed with prosecutions of race murders from the sixties with the same statute of limitation problems, any convictions could later be overturned. This would result in a waste of resources, resources that could otherwise be used prosecuting these types of cases that don’t have statute of limitations problems.

Meanwhile, the odds look better and better that James Ford Seale, a very ill man, may well die in prison before the issue is finally resolved.

To get the Mississippi perspective of the story, see this article in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

Book Tour in the South

Well, not the whole South, but I did TV, radio and print in Jackson, Oxford and Memphis. In the old days, an escort picked you up at the airport, drove you to the hotel, and transported you to each and every appointment. These days, unless you’re John Grisham, you drive yourself and be glad your publisher is paying to tour you at all.

I knew Jackson pretty well from my months there researching “The Past Is Never Dead,” but Oxford and Memphis were a different story. It rained for all four days of the trip–and I mean “rained”–and the GPS that came with the rental car was busted, so I was on my own. I hydroplaned on highway 55 heading north to Oxford, and nearly slid into a semi.

The noon magazine TV format in Jackson was a little over two minutes, the radio station about ten, so I was pleased to have a one-hour interview with the former mayor and owner of Square Books in Oxford which was taped on C-SPAN and will be on a show called “After Words” on the weekend of November 7 and 8. The owner is a wonderful man,  who had actually read the book and had a list of thoughtful questions. I don’t know how it’ll appear on TV, but it was fun doing it. I was waiting for John Grisham to walk in and ask for his book to be autogrpahed, but I learned that he’s moved to Charlotte.

Some of the stuff has a delayed fuse. A radio station in Memphis did a thirty minute interview, but it was taped and won’t be played until the weekend after Thanksgiving.  That interviewer was also knowledgeable on the subject. In fact, most of the interviewers, TV and radio alike, were appreciative of the fact that I felt that Mississippi was not given credit for the progress that it had made and was generally misunderstood by the Great White North. The owner of Square Books thanked me for writing the book.

All in all, a great adventure, or a continuation of the great adventure that began when I decided to to write the story of the trial of James Ford Seale and poke in the shadows and turn over the rocks in modern day Mississippi. Stay tuned–the fun has just begun.

Publication Day

October 5, publication day for “The Past Is Never Dead,” arrived on the heels of the NPR  “All Things Considered” interview, which played twice on both Saturday and Sunday. I taped the interview on Thursday at the  Colorado Public Radio studio in Denver, and was fairly hyped on caffeine, since I hadn’t slept much the night before. The parts where I talked too much and too fast were mercifully edited out. The interviewer, Guy Ras, had actually read the book, which is not always the case, and I found his questions to be well-thought out and surprisingly focused on the trial itself.  The thirty-minute interview was cut to 7.5 minutes and I thought was edited to make both of us sound like we knew what we were talking about, which is good.

I was a little groggy for an interview on Air America at 5:30 (MT) this morning, but the interviewer, Lionel, was clearly awake and wired. His questions were less about the trial and more about what led up to it. You have to learn to adjust to the interests of the interviewer, but still get your points in, and I’m such a nice guy it’s a little hard to assert myself.

I began Publication Day with a trip to the Tattered Cover, Denver’s famous and much-revered independent bookstore. The book was stacked flat on a table in the new non-fiction area, so I relieved another nearby book of its plastic stand and stood “The Past Is Never Dead” straight up, to look the prospective reader/buyer in the eye. I might need to stop in every day or so and check on its display.

For you Denver people, my signing at the Tattered Cover on Colfax is this Friday night at 7:30. On Sunday, I fly to Jackson for a signing at Lemuria on the 12th, then on to Oxford, for a signing at Square Books on the 13th, which will be taped by C-Span, and finally to Memphis on the 14th for a signing at Davis-Kidd.  I’m glad for an opportunity to talk about the new  book. In this tough publishing world, many authors aren’t touring at all.