Tuesday, September 21, 2010

False Memory and Bad Medicine

Meredith Maran and her family were victims of a psychological fad that swept the country not very long ago. She told Michael Humphrey of Slate:

During the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of Americans -- most of them middle-class, 30-something women in big cities, like me -- became convinced that they'd repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, and then, decades later, recovered those memories in therapy.

In the years leading up to that mass panic, I was working as a feminist journalist, writing exposés of child sexual abuse, trying to convince the world that incest was more than a one-in-a-million occurrence. In the process, I convinced myself that my father had molested me. After five years of incest nightmares and incest workshops and incest therapy, I accused my father, estranging myself and my sons from him for the next eight years.

In the early 1990s the culture flipped, and so did I. Across the country, falsely accused fathers were suing their daughters' incest therapists. Falsely accused molesters were being freed from jail -- and I realized that my accusation was false. I was one of the lucky ones. My father was still alive, and he forgave me.

Memory is a flexible thing that responds to emotions and wishes, not a simple recording device. In the face of strong pressure, it can collapse. I am glad to hear of Maran's book because I do not have the sense that there has ever been a sufficient reckoning for this disaster -- or for the other, related disaster that arose when toddlers were coached into accusing their day care providers of abuse. People went to jail because of these accusations. The guilty party here is really the pseudo-science of psychology. Hundreds of therapists who are supposed to be experts on the human mind threw themselves into these fads, showing that their supposed knowledge was a weak thing compared to politics, group solidarity, victimhood, and the appeal of a theory that explains everything.

Michael Humphrey makes the obvious point about Maran's life:

There's an interesting arc in the book. As reports of molestation increase, you begin to believe you too were molested. And as reports of false memory increase, you realize that you were not, in fact, molested.

Maran responds,

It really shocked me, I must say, to see how much influence the external had on the internal. That the most intimate emotions and relationships can be so affected by the dominant paradigm. . . . I don't know if I'll ever be completely sure of anything again.

That might be going too far, but these stories do call on us to be modest about what we think we know. That modesty has costs. If people questioned their memories more closely, they might realize that stories they tell themselves about good and bad times in their lives are only something like the truth. Perhaps the certainty and coherence of our personal narratives are more important to us than their accuracy, and nothing would be gained from excessive scrutiny. But psychologists and judges should know the difference and act accordingly.

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