Memory Repression: A Dubious Theory That’s Sticking Around

By Ian Graber-Stiehl | July 6, 2017 10:34 am
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Compared to the other generational tragedies of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the rise of memory repression cases is hardly remembered. But nevertheless, during that time hundreds of abuse cases in the courts hinged on unproven theories of Sigmund Freud, tearing hundreds of families asunder and solidifying memory repression in clinical lore. Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally famously called repressed memories “the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy.”

For journalist Mark Pendergrast, it was the start of his career as a science writer. Falling into a rabbit hole of research on Freud for another book on Coca Cola, he began investigating memory recovery therapy. The resulting book, “Victims of Memory,” debunked many of the claims buttressing memory repression, and he painted an uncomfortable picture of a justice system that filed an some 800 criminal cases based on what may amount to pseudoscience.

But far from being a one-time phenomenon, belief in memory repression remains a prevalent notion. So Pendergrast has written two new books on the subject: ‘Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die,’ and an academic textbook ‘The Repressed Memory Epidemic: How It Happened and What We Need to Learn from It.’ He incorporated new incorporated new research, conducted in partnership with Southern Mississippi University’s Lawrence Patihis, in his new work. Discover spoke with Pendergrast about why he decided to revisit a topic he dug into more than two decades ago.


pendergrastWhat made you want to focus on memory repression in the first place?

I just couldn’t get over the fact that you could get people to remember, in great detail, horrible things that never happened. And you could get them to remember this about people that were close to them. Memory is certainly subject to distortion. No memory is ever totally perfect. We tend to make our best guess at what really happened. Every time we remember something, we literally are re-remembering it—putting it back together.

What made you revisit this subject? Why now?

I kept hearing of new cases. People would contact me. I have a website; I’m easy to find. People would call me and say, “My daughter or son has cut off all contact.” So I knew the cases were still going on, but I thought it was at a very low level.

Then in 2014, I read an article by psychologist Lawrence Patihis. He had conducted a survey of college students, psychologists and the general public about their belief in repression. His findings were startling and upsetting. About 60 percent of the therapists still believed in repression. That alarmed me.

And that led you to do a survey with Patihis for the book?

To do a true, random survey over the phone, or to hire somebody like Roper or Gallup, costs over a $100,000. So, it’s never been done. I told him now would be a good time to do it. Enough time has passed since the heyday (of memory recovery therapy), and people might be more willing to talk about it. And [Lawrence] said we might be able to to it through Mechanical Turk.

We called it a life experiences survey, and you didn’t find out it was about repressed memories until sometime farther into it. We got 2,500 people to answer this. We did it by age group so it mirrored the proportions of the U.S census.

What we found was quite astonishing. We found that about 5 percent of all the people in the study had gone to therapy and had remembered child abuse that they had never remembered before. If you multiply that by the number of people across the U.S., you get over 10 million people. Lawrence adjusted it down to 4 percent, but that was still over 9 million people.

So confidence in memory repression is still strong, but outside of the occasional movie, is it still relevant?

Books and movies use repressed memory all the time. Bessel van der Kolk is one of the prime movers of “body memories,” or this idea that the body remembers what the mind forgets. He came out with a book a few years ago, and it received very good reviews in major scientific publications. He had two chapters all about how he believes in repressed memories and dissociated memories.

None of the reviews took him to task for this… I’m finishing a book right now that is going to be published in November, about the Jerry Sandusky case. “The Most Hated Man in America.” The case is chock full of repressed memory therapy. It’s not just repressed memory therapy, it’s a complex and complicated case, which is why it deserves its own book—but it has certainly gotten into the court system again.

Nowadays, most states have either banned repressed memories or require a hearing before they will allow a witness to testify on the basis of them, but some states have not. It’s not a slam dunk, where you can automatically kick testimonies based on repressed memories out. It should be.

For a long time, people have not been allowed to testify with memories that have been enhanced under hypnosis, because most courts recognize that when you’re hypnotized you were placed under a highly suggestive state. So the memory is just as likely to be a confabulation.

Well, pop culture can perpetuate the idea of memory repression’s validity; why are we so drawn to believe in the infallibility of our own memories?

It’s a matter of searching desperately for answers. If you’re troubled and you’re trying to figured out why your marriage didn’t work, why you hate your boss, your children aren’t nice to you, you’re depressed, or you have an eating disorder, any number of problems, then, you get the idea that some horrible thing that happened to you as a child. And the only way you’re going to get better is by remembering it. That can be very persuasive.

Given the sensitivity of the subjects memory repression cases involve, and the way we tend to hold onto particularly emotional memories, how likely is it that someone can be convinced to doubt memories of abuse or neglect?

If you get the idea that the people who were looking out for you were actually hurting you, it’s so appalling that you either have to dismiss that or totally embrace it. All too often, they totally embrace it.

In  our survey, Patihis and I found that 92 percent of the people who came to believe that they had been abused and it was repressed, still believe it. Only 8 percent questioned it. That’s terrifying. That’s sad, because there are all these people with a delusion that’s harmful to them.

One of the things some therapists tell you is that you have to get worse before you get better. Well people get a lot worse. Many of them have grown suicidal and have killed themselves. This is not a small matter. And of course, it completely destroys one of the most central relationships in their lives. Many of them cut off all ties to anyone in their family who doesn’t believe them.

Sexual abuse and physical abuse and neglect happens, and it happens quite frequently. And it often happens at the hands of the people who are supposed to be the caregivers. That’s why this this whole theory seems plausible to people.

For many years, we sort of swept child abuse under the rug, and it’s good that it’s out in the open now. I certainly am not trying to say that child abuse is not a problem. It is. You remember it. You might not talk about it. There might be people who are ashamed or don’t want to talk about it. You might not want to think about it, or try to push it your of your mind, but you don’t completely forget it happened.

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  • OWilson

    Like with Fake News, or AGW Climate change, there is always a seed of truth at root that can be nurtured, pampered, stroked and brought to epidemic proportions.

    Memory repression is real, but has been, like all biological and neurological phenomena, used by charlatans for nefarious purposes :)

    Good to see this particular issue is getting a little more attention.

    Hopefully the idea will spread that many houses of cards have been built on shaky foundations, by “conventional wisdom”, and “consensus”. :)

    • Jim

      There is a massive amount of data on Anthropogenic Global Warming, which is so clear and consistent that virtually all qualified scientists in related fields agree that it is real.

      You totally destroyed your credibility by lumping it in with “Fake News” and dismissing it as “a seed of truth … pampered, stroked and brought to epidemic proportions.

      The consensus on AGW stands as far above what is usually meant by “consensus” as Everest does over an anthill.

      However you did provide a clear example of “a seed of truth . nurtured, pampered, stroked… etc But not in the way you intended.

      PS note well: _qualified_ scientists_ _in_related_fields_ – which rules out virtually all of the alleged “scientists” disputing that global warming is real and that it is caused by man.

      • OWilson

        Yeah, I know what the word is on the street.

        But the truth is, according to the NOAA satellite record since 1979, is that we have a scientifically statistically insignificant slight warming anomaly of 0.21 over the 38 year record. At this rate, even if it continues without any pause, which is scientifically unlikely……well, you can do math, I presume? :)

        There’s also a scientific concept known as Standard Deviation, or to you, margin of error, that further clouds these arrogant certitudes, but we can even leave those aside, for now! :)

        As I was saying Man Made Global Warming is one of those “Dubious Theories That’s Sticking Around”.

        They are NOT spending $billions daily on “new studies” to prove “Settled Science”!

        • Jim

          Taking one time frame out of a massive set of data, carefully selected to give an impression as divergent as possible from the overall trend, then dismissing it as “insignificant” without any least trace of justification is, at best, “confirmation bias on steroids” and more likely, IHMO, willful deception.

          They are doing further studies for exactly the same reason as meteorologists do further analysis when they get solid indications that a very severe storm is approaching: you want to know as closely as possible where and when it will hit and how much damage it’s likely to do so you can prepare both defensive measures and emergency services.

          As for “Dubious Theories That’s Sticking Around” I strongly suspect that’s the way you would describe evolution as well.

          There is a technical term for desperately seizing on absurd excuses for dismissal of evidence indicating major problems. (and, no, it’s not a river in Egypt.)

          • OWilson

            “True Believer? :)

  • Sarahmarie Harwood

    Testimony in court hearings & trials based on (or including) repressed memories needs to be excluded for much the same reason that polygraph results and hypnosis-produced evidence are today. All three are inherently unreliable and are subject to external manipullation, both intentional and unintentional.

    Just as hypnotherapists can plant suggestions in a client’s subconscious mind, psychotherapists and psychologists can subconsciously lead a client to reach a conclusion subconsciously desired by the therapist/counselor. When a therapist helps a client “recover” a memory of a traumatic past event, in whose life did it occur? The client’s? Or the therapist’s?

  • Neal Owen

    I had a false memory. I got told by a shrink it was false. The truth of it came to me many, many years later. Earning money from witchcraft should be illegal.

  • John Deckenbach

    Memory repression is related to humans having the ability to disconnect from their own emotions, whether past or present. Disconnecting from particular emotions and events is exactly what creates anti social personality disorder. Its not theoretical that traumatic memories and their associated emotions can become hidden by our own lack of desire to experience them again. When people are said to “bury things down deep” what they are really talking about is cutting off access to part of their own empathetic systems, which is why people are said to become “hardened” or “jaded”. This decrease in brain activity is shown in the scans of those with ASPD as well as depression and other conditions associated with past traumas.

    • ECarpenter

      Yes, people forget things. But the “memory repression and recovery” that therapists speculate about has been proven to be false.

      I have watched hypnotists create false memories, a memory that the recipient “knows” is a true memory, even though a whole group of people watched it being created. And hypnotists are just doing explicitly what many other people, including psychologists, do without realizing it. Going into trance states and altering our thoughts is a normal part of our lives, we just don’t think of those parts of our daily lives in those terms.

      Human memory just isn’t the static, mechanical thing that many psychologists seem to think it is. They should have paid more attention to the research side of their field, and less to the unsupported speculative side.

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