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Memory: Adversaries Agree

Many consider Lucy Berliner to be the leading Victim Advocate in this country, while Elizabeth Loftus (author of "Witness for the Defense," St. Martin's Press, 1991 and "The Myth of Repressed Memory," St. Martin's, 1994) is revered by those who believe the ‘‘Child Abuse Industry’’ is out of control and that false reports of sexual abuse (SA) are a common phenomenon.  But these two frequent professional adversaries combined their knowledge and talents to define some common ground regarding sexual abuse accusations. (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Dec. 1992)  Here’s what they agree on:

WHAT WE KNOW:

Prevalence: SA is experienced by many children and represents a serious legal and moral violation.  When it happens it is associated with serious psychological consequences for many but not for all victims.  Percentage of True Reports: Most accounts from older children, teenagers and adults are true.  The percentage becomes much murkier when we are talking about very young children, and claims from severely disturbed teenagers or adults.  Accounts containing bizarre elements or ‘‘memories’’ emerging only after extended exposure to therapy are also suspicious, especially when the abuse has been suggested by the therapist as an explanation for symptoms and the patient had no memory of the events when he or she entered therapy.  (Though not mention by Berliner and Loftus, accusations emerging in the context of acrimonious divorce or child custody proceedings are also generally thought to contain a much higher percentage of falsehood. - ed)

Profiles: There is no profile of a child or adult victim or of an offender that can be used to accurately classify people into either group, nor is there a completely reliable way to distinguish true from false accusations.  There is no typical scenario within which SA occurs. 

Disclosure: Sometimes SA is reported immediately and sometimes it isn't.  Delays may extend into adulthood and reports may contain inconsistencies, hesitancies and even retractions.  True reports as well as false ones may contain any or all of these features. 

Memory: Events can be recalled accurately and even young children can remember and describe experiences.  However, memory is not always accurate or complete and it is subject to influence in various ways and due to various factors. 

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW:

It may be possible to suggest an entire event that never occurred - there is however, no proof of that as yet.  If it is possible, what would be the conditions under which it can occur?  What is the mechanism of forgetting or not being aware of significant events?  What aspects of memory, if any, are influenced or distorted by traumatic events?  How does hypnosis or sodium amytal affect suggestibility for abuse?  Is it possible to distinguish between those elements of an account that are accurate and those that are not accurate?  If so, how?

SOURCES OF BELIEF:

Both accusers and the accused who deny guilt can be convincing.  Who we choose to believe is not strictly a scientific process, but often represents a ‘‘leap of faith.’’  Our relationship to the particular individual and our role in the situation make a difference whom we believe.  Therapists, for example, are basically trained to accept patients’ versions of events, particularly if affect is congruent with history.  Lawyers on the other hand, must act as advocates for clients regardless of personal belief.  Evaluators are supposed to be more neutral and objective, but even so, the end result of an evaluation is still just an opinion. 

Anyone may be influenced by the outcome of their beliefs - for example, the mother of an incest victim might feel compelled, to leave the perpetrator, thereby bringing the entire family to poverty, if she believes the victim.  If the offender is an older sibling, the parents, feeling compelled to love and support both of their children, may ‘‘minimize’’ the offense because it is the only way they know to support and go on loving both children. 

Even professional evaluators are not immune to selfish motives, so their beliefs may be influenced by wanting to please those who hired them.  And all of us hope that there are those on whom we can count, should we ourselves ever be falsely accused.  It is important, say Berliner and Loftus, for professionals to pay attention to possible explanations for the intensity of feelings that often arises in professional situations.  That is, belief may contain both scientific and emotional components.  Good experts are aware of their emotions, and do their utmost to restrict their conclusions to those that are supported by scientific evidence.  Believing something does not make it true.  For further rational discussion of this issue see:

  1. "Repressed memories of Sexual Abuse," Adele Mayer, Learning Publications, 1995
  2. "The Suggestibility of Children's Recollections," John Doris, American Psychological Association, 1991
  3. APA and AMA Position Papers on Repressed and Recovered Memories