From: Keith Henson (email@example.com)
Date: Tue 04 Mar 2003 - 02:21:21 GMT
This whole episode was a classic example of a meme, a fad in the legal and
psychological profession of coercing children into confabulating stories
and prosecuting people based on the stories.
Ending the 'Memory Wars' does not redeem the victims
Baltimore Sun, March 2, 2003
By Paul McHugh
Special To The Sun
Witch-trial zealotry has given way to sound psychiatry - after vast damage was
The Memory Wars are over. The voices of sanity in psychiatric practice won. But
while the wars lasted - from the mid-1980s until the end of the 1990s - they
did much damage to innocent people and to the public standing of psychotherapy.
The wars turned on a bizarre psychiatric opinion: that a child when sexually
abused by a trusted parent or teacher could "repress" and forget the experience
even while it was happening. These "repressed memories" could then produce
unexplained mental depression later in life unless a therapist drew them forth
with such procedures as hypnosis.
Zealous therapists encouraged thousands of patients to accuse their elderly
parents of sexually abusing them years before and to confront them with
lawsuits. Simultaneously - again based on the idea of "repression" - teachers
in nursery schools were accused of abusing their little charges. These latter
cases received much media attention.
The wars are ending for several reasons. The memories reported by many patients
became absurd. Satanic cults were imagined, and even alien abduction. Many
psychiatrists were rebuked for malpractice - sometimes professionally,
sometimes in civil court. And most importantly, patients after discharge
gradually began to doubt their memories, recanting their accusations and
rejoining their parents.
As the wars wind down, three books together give a full picture of these
events. One describes in vivid detail just how vicious the battles were and how
the falsely accused were mistreated by the judicial system. The second explains
just how false evidence and misdirected testimony were produced, leading to the
erroneous convictions and false memories. The third brilliantly explains just
how our minds are built so as to develop beliefs that go beyond evidence - and
how in most other circumstances this feature is advantageous.
The valiant Dorothy Rabinowitz, now an editor of The Wall Street Journal, has
pulled together her experience reporting on a series of court cases - primary
among them that of the Amiraults, a scandalous miscarriage of justice in the
Massachusetts courts - in a gripping book entitled No Crueler Tyrannies:
Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times (Free Press, 288
Rabinowitz began to scrutinize these affairs with the notorious Kelly Michaels
case in New Jersey. Michaels, a young woman of good character, became a suspect
when one of the 4-year olds she taught in a day-care center made an innocent
statement to a doctor that she measured his temperature.
The family and a nurse assumed Michaels used a rectal probe (actually, she used
a forehead plastic strip) and launched a campaign to investigate her as a child
abuser. They consulted "experts" and drew other families into the campaign so
that within weeks Michaels was accused of sexually molesting and terrorizing
dozens of children in the foulest of ways, all in the few hours she worked with
them in an open classroom.
Although many children denied the abuse and those who ultimately accused her
produced implausible narratives - one claimed she turned him briefly into a
mouse - the prosecution depended on the testimony of the "experts" who claimed
that even the emphatic denials of some children were all proof of the abuse.
Denials, they said, were typical symptoms of the "child abuse accommodation
syndrome." The jury believed this, and Michaels was sentenced to 47 years in
Rabinowitz ultimately watched as the judges of the New Jersey appeals court
excoriated the prosecutors (asking them whether they were "trying to bamboozle
the court") and, after she had spent five years in prison, acquitted Michaels.
But Rabinowitz learned the perversions of justice driven by these beliefs,
became a scourge of "experts" who were misdirecting the courts and eventually
won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting.
In this book, she documents common themes in the sex abuse cases. She describes
how belief in "recovered" memories is crucial and how the children were turned
into accusers by the "expert" true believers and prosecutors. The same
credulity toward child testimony, the same pressures to accuse, the same
blindness to misattributions found in the Salem witch trials of 1692 came into
play in U.S. courts in the 1990s and were led by distinguished American lawyers
(Janet Reno, for one).
Stephen J. Ceci and Maggie Bruck in their book Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A
Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony (American Psychological
Association, 336 pages, $24.95) describe more fully the methods employed to
produce false memories and to generate false accusations from children.
Here they note interviewer bias at the heart of the investigations. Then they
describe the grim effects of repeated questioning on children and how this
process induces their false accusations. The repeated questions were always
sweetened by prompting the children to give answers the interviewers wanted.
Ceci and Bruck show how the interrogators of the children misused
"anatomically" correct dolls to get indictments. Repeatedly they show from case records just how often common sense was flouted by investigators, prosecutors, judges and juries. Their recommendations and admonitions about interviewing children and bringing justice to the courts fortunately are now becoming standard throughout the country. Their work helped end this scourge.
The third book was also written as the Memory Wars were winding down. It spots
a silver lining in their black clouds. Profiting from his close study of the
several notorious cases of false-memory generation and mistaken child-abuse
accusations, Daniel Schacter, the chairman of the department of psychology at
Harvard, produced The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers
(Houghton Mifflin Company, 270 pages, $25).
In this readable account of how our memories can be distorted by
misattribution, bias, suggestibility and persistence (as in these false memory
cases), he asks how such vulnerabilities to untruth can be part of our natural
mental faculties. These faculties, after all, emerged with evolution and must
have some survival value. They surely cannot have evolved to make us false
Schacter argues convincingly that these seeming flaws - drawing opinions
without all the evidence - actually help us to live effectively. They encourage
us to develop reasonable opinions about a complicated world without knowing all
the facts. This capacity brings us confidence for action.
Schacter's idea actually explains much about psychotherapy even as it reveals
how the champions of "repressed memory" therapy went wrong.
Much of psychotherapy rests on suggestion. It moves beyond what could be
considered historical truth to evoke a narrative of hope and confidence in the
patient. Indeed, successful psychotherapists help patients re-order their
beliefs about their world so as to see how they have more control than they
imagine. They let the patient see the gist of their life experiences as
positive (despite many negative details). They agree with the mayor of
Baltimore - we must "believe," but in ourselves and our capacity for
responsibility and fulfillment.
Psychotherapy goes awry - and went radically awry during the Memory Wars - if
the message of the therapist is, "Those others did you in." Invalidism, anger
and isolation result. Psychotherapy goes well when you, the patient, are helped
to appreciate that ultimately you're in charge of your future (just as to a
degree you were in charge of your past).
The Memory Wars are over. Rehabilitation for many of its victims proceeds. We
have learned something very deep - not just about how the human mind can be
tricked and misled (useful as that is) - but how it has the powers to find
confidence and energy in facing the future.
Dr. Paul McHugh is distinguished service professor of psychiatry and former
psychiatrist-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. He is a member of
the Presidential Council on Bioethics. With Dr. Phillip R. Slavney, he wrote
The Perspectives of Psychiatry, a medical school text.
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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