Experts disagree on existence of repressed memories

Arizona Republic/February 15, 2005
By Kerry Fehr-Snyder

Forget repressed memories for a moment.

Even contemporary memories are iffy, especially when their recall could become the basis of a lawsuit or other financially motivated action, according to a Tucson forensic psychiatrist.

"Memories are much more fluid and flexible than we like to think. Studies have been done that show under even fairly innocuous conditions, you can cause a person to believe that the incident had happened or likely had happened," said Dr. Bennett Blum, who specializes in forensic and geriatric psychiatry.

Blum said the validity of repressed memories - those recalled years after an alleged event - are even trickier to judge because there often is no corroborating evidence to accompany them. Repressed memories that were at one time written down or backed by other victims' accounts often are more reliable, he said.

He offered no opinion on allegations against priests, including Monsignor Dale Fushek, pastor of St. Timothy parish in Mesa, who was placed on administrative leave recently while his superiors investigate an allegation of a sexual nature brought by a former parishioner. The former parishioner claims he was sodomized by another priest who has since been convicted in yet another sexual abuse case as Fushek watched and masturbated.

The alleged incident occurred nearly 20 years ago but was repressed and recalled last year after a friend, who is also in the clergy, touched the former parishioner's thigh.

Center of court cases

The allegation comes after other sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. Last week, a jury in Cambridge, Mass., convicted Father Paul Shanley of raping and fondling a 6-year-old boy over a six-year period in the 1980s.

The accuser, a 27-year-old firefighter from suburban Boston, had recently recovered memories of the abuse. Shanley, a 74-year-old defrocked priest, could get life in prison at a sentencing scheduled for today.

Blum said he knew none of the details in the Fushek or Shanley cases but has consulted on several high-profile legal cases involving repressed memories by both perpetrators and victims.

"I came across many cases where people claimed to have repressed memories that came to the fore many years later. These were all who claimed to be sexually abused, usually by a parent or by a caregiver or a cult leader in some cases. And they gave very vivid stories that were filled with graphic detail. However, in every case, there turned out to be, at the very best, no evidence that supported their claim. And in many cases, evidence turned up that strongly contradicted those claims," he said.

Pamela Freyd, executive director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation based in Philadelphia, said recalled memories often hurt innocent people.

"It's fairly clear at this point that there has been a significant number of false accusations based on claims of recovered memories. There's been a great deal of research, sound solid research that has also shown that people are able to imagine events and scenarios that never happened," Freyd said.

Group aids the accused

Freyd founded her group in March 1992 after her adult daughter believed she had repressed memories from her childhood. She declined to expound on them other than to say, "It's so sad because we have a brilliant, talented daughter who believed she had recovered memories."

The organization typically tries to help people who are falsely accused of improper behavior recalled by an alleged victim during psychotherapy.

"The only way to know the truth or falsity of any memory . . . is through external corroboration," Freyd said.

"If people's memories were so great, we wouldn't take notes, we wouldn't need tape recorders, we wouldn't take photos. The tragedy of the sexual abuse (allegation) is that these things don't happen in public, so it's quite difficult to know the truth," she added.

"It's those cases that become extremely iffy because there's virtually no way to know the truth," Freyd said.

Individuals tend to either believe or disbelieve in the validity of repressed memories based on whether they come from a scientific or psychotherapy background, she added.

Blum, the Tucson psychiatrist, said doctors in his profession tend to fall into either one of two camps: one that believes in repressed memories uncovered through psychotherapy and one that believes such therapy plants false memories.

The Skeptics Dictionary states there is no scientific evidence to support the theory of unconsciously repressing memories of a traumatic experience, adding that the notion is controversial.

Traumatic experiences

"Most people do not forget traumatic experiences unless they are rendered unconscious at the time of the experience," according to the dictionary.

Blum tended to agree.

"The whole question turns out to be problematic because it's so easy to make people reassess information and put it together in a different way, to tell and re-tell a story and make themselves believe it. It's possible for people to reassess their own past and come up with a different interpretation, which is completely normal as you grow and mature with a changing world view. But that can be completely innocuous or can become a painful, nearly malignant interpretation of the past," he said.

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