Victims of Memory

Increasingly, scientists are urgin caution: seemingly long-buried memories sometimes can be pure fantasies or distortions

7 October, 1991, Los Angeles Times


Monday, October 7, 1991 Section: Living Page: 1C

By: IRENE WIELAWSKI, Los Angeles Times

ON THE "Geraldo" show one afternoon last month, three women offered horrific accounts of sexual and psychological torture inflicted upon them as young children -- abuses they say they only recently began to recall.

The women spoke of monstrous acts against them almost as soon as they could walk and of later being forced to torture others. One woman claimed to have murdered 40 children in service of a satanic cult to which her family belonged. They claimed to have had no memory of these abuses until therapists helped unearth them.

Theirs is no longer such an unusual tale. Remarkable accounts of repressed memories and childhood abuse are piling up. Court cases now turn on such recollections, and support groups are cropping up for victims.

Just over a week ago, comedian Roseanne Arnold received massive attention with her story. Both parents abused her, she told a group of incest victims in Denver, but the memories stayed buried for three decades. Arnold's parents have issued a denial and say they are considering a lawsuit.

Last May, former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur Atler went public with what she said were long-repressed memories of sexual abuse by her father.

Carolivia Herron, a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, announced upon publication of her latest novel, "Thereafter Johnny," that its theme of incest and sexual torment was largely autobiographical. Writing the book triggered long-repressed memories of almost constant abuse between the ages of 3 and 5, Herron said, including a ghastly period as a child prostitute in a hometown brothel. Through therapy, Herron says, she has pieced together memories of 83 separate rapes.

Vivid as they are, are these memories accurate? Can people really suppress events so horrible? Can they recall them in remarkable detail so many years later?

Increasingly, scientists are urging caution: Seemingly long- buried memories sometimes can be pure fantasy or distortions of anything bad that happened to a child. They can contain elements of truth, but may not give the full picture. The harshest critics say that repressed memory has become a fad diagnosis, used wrongly and sometimes harmfully to explain all manner of psychological suffering.

"This is a very soft area of science," said Mark J. Mills, a specialist in psychiatry and law who is often called on to evaluate the reliability of witnesses. When frightful things happen, the problem for most people, according to Mills, "is that they remember too well, not that they can't."

That memories can be repressed is generally accepted. Scientists believe the phenomenon is one defense against trauma, though just how the mind buries memories and why some people are more prone to lapses remain big unknowns.

Researchers have collected accounts of fleeting memory loss in soldiers after battle, in accident and torture victims and in witnesses to disaster, as well as in victims of childhood abuse.

This sort of amnesia is part of a broad range of psychologically linked memory problems called "dissociative disorders." Multiple personality disorder is an extreme form of dissociation, in which memories of traumatic experiences are thought to be locked away in one or several separate identities, unavailable for recall by the other personalities. In almost every multiple personality case studied, severe and often repeated trauma in childhood was a factor.

But experts are troubled by a surge in newly remembered incidents that generate ample publicity but no corroboration.

New memories of satanic cult abuse have reached "epidemic" proportions while independent verification is in short supply, says Dr. George K. Ganaway, a specialist in psychiatric aberrations of memory.

Those claiming to have been victims are not necessarily lying. Rather, Ganaway says, they have been persuaded -- by friend, therapist or something they have read or have seen on television -- to adopt a plausible explanation for their emotional pain. For highly suggestible people -- an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of the population -- it is a short step to vivid, albeit fantastic, memories of things that never happened.

Yet flashbacks of long-ago, long-forgotten events are being used to put people on trial. In the process, the very nature of memory is being tested in the courtroom.

Last January, in what many consider the first criminal case to rest heavily on repressed memory, George T. Franklin was sentenced to life in prison for raping and murdering 8- year-old Susan Nason in Foster City in 1969.

The girl's body was found shortly after she was killed, but the case went unsolved for 19 years until Franklin's daughter came forward. Eileen Franklin-Lipsker testified persuasively to seeing her father commit the crimes, even though she did not recall it for nearly two decades.

A Washington state rape case also put memory on trial, but with a twist. Paul Ingram, a former Thurston County sheriff's deputy, was charged with repeatedly raping two female relatives over a period of 15 years. Satanic rituals allegedly were involved.

Ingram pleaded guilty in 1989, but now says that he was brainwashed by a police psychologist into believing that he had repressed memories of the events. He says that his "recollections" of abusing the girls came only after the psychologist put him in a hypnotic trance. A court hearing is pending in Ingram's fight to withdraw his guilty pleas.

Ganaway, a clinical assistant professor at Emory University, believes that poorly trained therapists are partly responsible for the satanic sexual-abuse scare, and may also have led patients to believe that they were abused when they were not. False memories can be planted through tone of voice or the phrasing of a question.

"I have seen families wrecked because therapists say to a patient, 'You sound like the kind of patient who has been abused. Tell me what your father did to you,' " said David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and author of numerous articles on trauma and dissociative disorders. Patients suffering from memory lapse or multiple personality disorder have been shown to be extremely vulnerable to this type of suggestion. They are "highly hypnotizable," Spiegel said. "They can intensely fantasize about things that may or may not have happened."

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and an early investigator of memory repression, developed his own doubts about adult memories of childhood experiences. Freud initially believed the accounts of adult patients who said they had been sexually abused as children. But he changed his mind in the late 1890s, writing that he could not accept such abuse as widespread. Instead, he said that the patients' stories were fantasies, stemming from their own taboo desires.

For the next 60 years, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts gave short shrift to accounts of childhood trauma, writing virtually all of it off as fantasy, according to Lenore Terr, a noted child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of a book on childhood psychic trauma, "Too Scared to Cry."

Not so today. Studies have shown sexual abuse of children and adolescents to be far more prevalent than ever acknowledged in Freud's day. The most commonly used estimates by behavioral scientists put the number of girls who have had sex forced upon them by an adult as high as 1 in 3. For boys, 1 in 10.

Terr generally believes accounts of such trauma -- even those that have been long repressed, provided there is psychological evidence such as depression, phobias or other symptoms to back them up.

"There are a few liars out there with bad motives," she said, but hundreds more who truly have suffered.

Like most psychoanalytic theories, those about memory and trauma were developed to alleviate symptoms in people suffering from depression, phobias or other conditions. But theories cannot determine whether memories are accurate. They cannot prove whether the woman on the "Geraldo" show did indeed murder 40 children. And they cannot prove whether Arnold was truly abused as a child. If her parents wish it, that will be for a court to decide.

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Last Updated: 26 Nov 95 -- Mark Pritchard

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