Allegations of Recovered Memories

This is discussed elsewhere in these volumes, but we will provide a few observations regarding recovered memory allegations in sexual abuse cases (also see Wakefield and Underwager, 1992, 1994b). In recovered memory cases, there are no memories for years because the abuse is said to have been completely "repressed" until, generally with a help of a therapist, it is then "recovered." These cases may lead to some type of litigation, most likely civil, but there have been criminal prosecutions as well. Several states have extended the statutory period of limitations in civil cases until several years after abuse is remembered and/or after it is understood there was damage done by the abuse.

Attorneys must understand the claims, the scientific basis for these claims, and the therapeutic techniques often used in recovered memory cases. Therapists specializing in recovered memory maintain that memory deficits, amnesia, and dissociation are characteristic of trauma. Many maintain that large numbers of women have been sexually abused but that up to half of all incest survivors do not remember their abuse. Many believe that abuse survivors must be helped to retrieve their memories in order to recover. They often retrieve memories with intrusive and unvalidated techniques including direct questioning, hypnosis, reading books, attending survivors' groups, age regression, dream analysis, and a variety of unorthodox procedures.

These "repressed" or "dissociated" memories are thought to differ from the simple forgetting or not thinking about an event that may have been unpleasant but was not particularly traumatic. No psychologist disagrees that many events are forgotten and that persons may be reminded of them years later. Also, the phenomenon of infant amnesia means that most people's earliest memories are not before the age of about three or four (Fivush and Hamond, 1990; Howe and Courage, 1993; Loftus, 1993; Nelson, 1993). But the assumption in recovered memory therapy is that the abuse was repressed or dissociated because it was too traumatic to be remembered.

The recovered memory therapists support their assumptions through concepts such as repression, dissociation, traumatic amnesia; body memories, and multiple personality disorder. However, there is no scientific support for the way these concepts are used, nor any credible evidence that it is common for children to undergo traumatic sexual abuse but, as adults, have no conscious memories of the abuse until it is uncovered by a therapist "skilled" in such matters.

Repression is not generally accepted in the scientific community except among analytically-oriented therapists, who base their beliefs on anecdotal reports and clinical case studies. Traumatic amnesia can occur for a single, traumatic event, such as a rape, but there is no support for the claim that it is common for individuals to be completely amnesiac for repeated episodes of sexual abuse. There is no support that such events will be completely repressed for years, only to be accurately remembered years later. Diagnoses of Multiple Personality Disorder often appear in recovered memory cases, especially when the alleged abuse is violent and sadistic, and many people claim most individuals diagnosed with MPD were abused as children. But MPD itself is controversial and, despite its inclusion in DSM-III-R and DSM-IV, cannot be said to be generally accepted in the scientific community.


Special Problems with Sexual Abuse Cases


The Beginning of the Problem

Misconceptions That Increase Error

The Child Witness

Interviews of Children

Some Common But Unsupported Interview Techniques

Anatomically-Detailed Dolls

Interpretation of Drawings

Other Unsupported Techniques

Medical Evidence

Behavioral Indicators and Child Abuse "Syndromes"

The Nature of the Allegations

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Assessment of the Accused Adult

Psychological Testing

Misuse of the MMPI and MMPI-2

Scale 5 0verinterpretations

Overinterpretation of the K Scale in Court or Custody Settings

Failure to Recognize the Situational Factors in a Scale 6 Elevation

Departing from Standard Administration Procedures

Overinterpretation of the MMPI Supplementary Scales

Ignoring a Within Normal Limits Profile and Finding Pathology with Projective Tests

Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI and MCMI-II)

Multiphasic Sex Inventory

The Penile Plethysmograph

Testimony About the Plaintiff in Personal Injury Cases

Allegations of Recovered Memories

Court Rulings Relevant to Expert Testimony in Child Sexual Abuse Cases



Footnote 1


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