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Recovered Memories or Modern Witchhunts

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Recovered Memories or Modern Witchhunts

by Douglas E. Hill, copyright 1994

There was a time when allegations of child sexual abuse were not believed.  Accusations of this heinous and evil act were generally ignored or denied.  We now know that child molestation is an all too real crime, more widespread than previously thought.  But we seem to have gone from a time where nothing was believed to a time when anything is believed.  And the number of such claims has increased dramatically in recent years due to recovered memory therapy.

But are recovered memories reliable, or have they been induced by the leading questioning of vulnerable people, even if often done by caring therapists out of the best of intentions?  And are memories of abuse repressed?  In general, the more traumatic an event is, the more difficult it is to forget.  Why should sexual abuse be so different?1

Allegedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse are often remembered in the context of satanic rituals.  These allegations often include memories of child sacrifice.  Quite gruesome, and perhaps even plausible.  There is just one problem concerning all this.  There is no corroborating evidence.  Special agent Kenneth Lanning, the FBI's leading expert on child abuse, has testified that after ten years of examining these claims, he has never found any evidence that ritual abuse exists.2

And in June 1993, Christianity Today ran a cover story debunking claims of satanic ritual abuse.3  Whatever you may think of this magazine, the leading Evangelical Christian publication in this country, be sure that they have no interest in defending satanism.  That they would run this article is a powerful argument of both the ubiquity and falsehood of these stories.

Also being remembered are UFO abductions and past lives.4  All of this should make us at least a bit of skeptical regarding the accuracy of recovered memories.

Accusations stemming from recovered memories tend to take two forms.  The first are allegations made by children against those who work with them.  These allegations are made after extensive questioning of children by social workers and other therapists.  Probably the most famous such case was the McMartin case here in Los Angeles County, which resulted in the longest and costliest criminal trial in American History.  This case produced no convictions.5  But the scientific research of Dr. Stephen Ceci, a psychologist at Cornell University, has shown that persistent questioning of young children can lead them to describe elaborate accounts of events that never occurred, even when at first they denied them.6  But the McMartin case is not alone.  In San Diego in November 1993, a jury acquitted Dale Akiki, who already suffers from the genetic disease Noonan's Syndrome, after he had spent two-and-a-half years in jail.  One juror described this as a 'witch hunt'.7

And in North Carolina, Robert F. Kelly was convicted and sentenced to twelve consecutive life terms and K. Dawn Wilson was sentenced to one life term in the Little Rascals case of Edenton, North Carolina.8  Other defendants were held for years without bail waiting for trial, and some are still waiting.  This case was profiled on PBS's Frontline in July 1993.9 In none of these cases were there any adult eyewitnesses nor conclusive physical evidence, and all included fantastic claims by the children, including child sacrifice.

But even if you don't work with children, don't think that this can't affect you.  The more common form of accusations from recovered memories are those made by adults about events that allegedly occurred years ago.

Usually parents are accused, causing many families to fall apart.  The "Bible" of "survivors" of alleged incest is a pop-psychology book entitled "Courage to Heal."  Here are some passages from this book:

If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were... If you don't remember your abuse you are not alone.  Many women don't have memories, and some never get memories.  This doesn't mean they weren't abused.10
Many parents have been sued, and some are in jail.  To quote the Wall Street Journal:
A decline in public respect for the presumption of innocence is no minor matter.  A society that lets a notion like "recovered memory" gain such force that it overwhelms its most basic judicial principles has waded into deep and dangerous waters.11
Often clergy members have been accused, and one of the most celebrated cases of "recovered memory" was Steven J. Cook's allegations and lawsuit against Cardinal Joseph Barnardin of Chicago.  On February 28, 1994, Steven Cook dismissed the case saying that his memories, which arose during and after hypnosis, were unreliable.12

Accused father Gary Ramona, of Napa, California fought back.  Following recovered memory therapy, his daughter Holly made accusations that cost him his job and his marriage.  He sued his daughters's therapists and was awarded $500,000.13

In research and therapy, as in life, there is always a danger of finding what you are looking for, whether it's there or not.  Thus scientists take precautions when doing research, to avoid having their expectations bias their results.  A drug would require double-blind placebo-controlled studies before being released.  But repressed memory therapists fail to take these precautions, and no such tests were done on this kind of therapy before turning it loose on the public.  The scientific tests that have been done since its release have not been favorable.14

Child abuse does occur, but it is being aggressively sought even when there is little or no evidence for it.  There is a danger of crying wolf — we may return to a time when no allegations of abuse are believed.  In response to this, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded in Philadelphia in 1992.15  It is supported by eminent psychiatrists and its task, according to science writer Martin Gardner, is "to combat the greatest witch hunt and mental health scandal of this half century."16