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 induce hypnosis.

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 corroborated.

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 individuals.

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.

References

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Dysken, M. W., Steinberg, J., & Davis, J. M. (1979). Sodium amobarbital response during simulated catatonia. Biological Psychiatry, 14, 995-1000.

Dysken, M. W., Kooser, J. A., Haraszti, J. S, &. Davis, J. M. (1979). Clinical usefulness of sodium amobarbital interviewing. Archives of General Psychiatry, 36, 789-794.

Gerson, M. J., & Victoroff, V. M. (1948). Experimental investigation into the validity of confessions obtained under sodium Amytal narcosis. Journal of Clinical Psychopathology, 9, 359-375.

Goetz, K. L., Jiminez, R. G., & Nathan, R. S. (1987). Sodium Amytal and psychosocial withdrawal. Psychiatric Journal of the University of Ottawa, 12, 51-52.

Goodard, C. (1932). "Truth serum," or scopolamine in the interrogation of criminal suspects. Hygeia, 10, 337-340.

Hoch, P. H., Cattell, J. P., & Pennes, H. H. (1952). Effect of drugs: Theoretical considerations from a psychological viewpoint. American Journal of Psychiatry, 108, 585-589.

Lambert, C., & Rees, W. L. (1944). Intravenous barbiturates in the treatment of hysteria. British Medical Journal, 2, 70-73.

Mann, J. (1969). The use of sodium amobarbital in psychiatry. Ohio State Medical Journal, 65, 700-702.

Redlich, F. C., Ravitz, L. J., & Dession, G. H. (1951). Narcoanalysis and truth. American Journal of Psychiatry, 107, 586-593.

Ripley, H. S., & Wolf, S. (1947). The intravenous use of sodium Amytal in psychosomatic disorders. Psychosomatic Medicine, 9, 260-268.

Weinstein, E. A., & Malitz, S. (1954). Changes in symbolic expression with Amytal sodium. American Journal of Psychiatry, 111, 198-206.

* August Piper Jr. is a psychiatrist at 901 Boren Avenue, Suite 701, Seattle, Washington 98104.  [Back]

 

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