Amytal Interviews and "Recovered Memories" of Sexual Abuse: A Note
August Piper Jr.*
ABSTRACT: The literature on Amytal interviews from 1930 to late
1993 was reviewed. Twelve studies examined patients' abilities to
tell the truth while under the influence of the drug. None of
these research reports endorsed using Amytal as a "truth
serum." Instead, they noted deficiencies of the procedure
that destroy the ability to accurately relate past events.
During the past decade, a remarkable new kind of lawsuit has begun to
surge through American courts. In these cases, adult plaintiffs
"recover" memories of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred
while the plaintiffs were children years or even decades before
suit is brought. Because Amytal interviews are widely believed to
involve "truth serum" that draws forth concealed true-to-life
memories stored in the brain, plaintiffs have attempted to use these
examinations to corroborate their claims of abuse. In some recent
cases, judges have allowed into evidence information obtained from these
interviews. It is unlikely that this tide of recovered-memory
cases has crested; thus, factfinders are likely to hear more requests to
admit into evidence information obtained from these interviews.
I reviewed the medical literature on the Amytal interview, hoping
that the effort might help the legal community decide how to respond to
such requests. The complete results will be published in a future
issue of The Journal of Psychiatry and Law. However, Ms.
Wakefield, Dr. Underwager, and I thought the information was sufficiently
important to warrant early publication of this Note; by doing so, we
wish to quickly notify a wide audience of the review's conclusions.
To perform the review, I examined the literature, by hand and by
computer, from approximately 1930 to late 1993. The search was
intended to find every English-language study ever published in which
investigators administered intravenous Amytal to patients and then
assessed the patients' abilities to tell the truth while under the
influence of the drug. Twelve studies (see references) that met
these criteria were found; most of them dated from the 1940s and
1950s. Although the studies' research methodologies did not, of
course, meet modern standards, the unanimity they showed was
striking. None of these papers endorsed using Amytal as a
"truth serum." Rather, they pointed out four
deficiencies of the procedure that destroy its ability to assess the
truth or falsity of allegations of past events.
First, people interviewed under Amytal are more suggestible than they
are in their normal waking states; this renders them vulnerable to
leading questions and to other contaminating influences of the
interviewer. The procedure itself is suggestive, lending an aura
of authenticity to any information that is unearthed during the
examination. Thus, there is a real danger that the suggestive
power of the Amytal interview will falsely confirm patients' preexisting
suspicions of past abuse.
Second, people can and do tell lies while under Amytal;
a number of studies have shown this.
Third, the research shows that during Amytal interviews, patients
demonstrate numerous phenomena characteristic of hypnotic states.
These signs of hypnosis include catalepsy, a sense of lassitude,
susceptibility to suggestion, willingness to suspend critical judgment,
amnesia, hypermnesia, and the readiness to sharply focus one's attention
at the behest of another. By definition, then, Amytal interviews
To define the Amytal interview in this way has a major consequence:
the procedure, and any information derived from it, should be treated in
both medical and legal settings in the same manner that hypnosis would
be. The literature on hypnosis concludes: 1) Subjects frequently
recall more information under hypnosis than they do in a nonhypnotized
interview. However, these recollections contain both accurate and
inaccurate details. 2) No techniques that are based on an
individual's statements can reliably discriminate between a true and a
false memory report. 3) Hypnosis can increase a subject's
confidence in his or her answers, but it does not increase their
accuracy. 4) In the absence of independent verification, neither
the hypnotist nor the subject can distinguish between pseudo- and actual
memories. In summary; any memory surfacing under Amytal should be
considered to be of questionable reliability until it is independently
Fourth, nearly all the investigations reviewed indicate that under
Amytal, patients often distort reality. This distortion causes a
serious difficulty for those who believe barbiturate-facilitated
interviews have a role in discovering "truth." Because
people may produce grossly distorted or even frankly psychotic material
after administration of intravenous Amytal, claims made by those who are
under the influence of the drug cannot be assumed to be literal and
accurate representations of something that actually happened to those
In conclusion, the Amytal interview cannot be considered to guarantee
access to anything remotely resembling "truth." The
procedure does not necessarily recover accurate memories of past events,
and is likely to reduce the factfinder's ability to render a just
verdict. Its claims to prove conformity to fact are illegitimate and
have no place in the courtroom.
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Piper Jr. is a psychiatrist at 901 Boren Avenue, Suite 701,
Seattle, Washington 98104. [Back]