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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.”

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