Twenty-two years ago today, the New Yorker published a remarkably exaggerated and unsupported claim. It was in the second part of “Remembering Satan,” Lawrence Wright’s article about the Paul Ingram case. (Some of Wright’s claims about this case have since been debunked by Karen Olio and William Cornell’s peer-reviewed article, “The Facade of Scientific Documentation: A Case Study of Richard Ofshe’s Analysis of the Paul Ingram Case.”) Beyond the Ingram case, however, Wright asserted that what happened to the Ingrams was “actually happening to thousands of other people around the country who have been accused on the basis of recovered-memory testimony. Perhaps some of the memories are real; certainly many are false” (Wright, Remembering Satan–Part II, New Yorker, May 24, 1993, p.76).
What evidence did Wright provide in support of his claim that there were “thousands” of cases? On what basis was he “certain” that “many” of those were false? None whatsoever. The “thousands” claim is pure fiction. There were thousands of phone calls to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which were often mischaracterized by the Foundation as “cases.” But Wright did not investigate any cases beyond Paul Ingram’s, so his certainty that hundreds, maybe thousands, of other cases were “false” is a measure of his prejudice, not a product of his reporting. Wright is an accomplished and award-winning author; but in this important instance, he got it wrong.
There was a piece in the New Yorker in March called “Remembering a Crime that You Didn’t Commit.” It begins with a brief description of the McMartin Preschool case that omits virtually all of the evidence of guilt, while exaggerating the extent of satanic claims in the case. (See this post for more detail.) The author then pivots to a description of Elizabeth Loftus’ Lost-in-the-Mall study, claiming that the experiment caused “six of the twenty-four test subjects [to] internalize the story, weaving in sensory and emotional details of their own.” But the vaunted fact checkers at the New Yorker were wrong about more than the McMartin case. They apparently failed to consult the original Lost-in-the-Mall study which makes it clear that the 25% figure includes those who “remembered” the event “either fully or partially,” and partially includes “remembering parts of the event and speculations about how and when it might have happened” (p.722). Speculations, of course, are not memories. And remembering, say, the “part” about being lost is hardly remarkable, since everyone has been lost at one time or another. In short, the original article never claimed that 25% of subjects internalized the false story. A much smaller number did.
Memory experts are quick to point out that memory is constructed and it changes over time. Curiously, those who cover memory researchers rarely, if ever, pause to ask whether professors describing their own research might reconstruct their “findings” over time, remembering results they didn’t actually find. That seems to be the real, but unrecognized, legacy of the Lost in the Mall study. To many, the study stands for much more than it ever actually found.
Maureen Dowd writes today that “NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography.” Williams has stepped down, at least temporarily, from his anchor position at NBC News. An investigation by NBC is underway. But Lawrence Patihis, a graduate student in psychology at UC-Irvine, doesn’t need to wait for the results. Patihis told the New Republic that he found Williams’ explanation, that is was a genuine memory error, “credible.”
At last, we have discovered the kind of person who false-memory researchers find credible: someone charged with lying, who claims to have been confused, but whose mistake just happens to have inflated their credentials in some way. The real news will be the day when Patihis and his advisor, Elizabeth Loftus, find the testimony of a victim of sexual assault to be “credible.”
ADDENDUM (I): A blog entry by James Taranto (“Brian Salad Surgery: Science, Journalism, and ‘Moral Authority'”) puts the pontificating professors of false-memory in their place, pointing out why their research sheds no light on stolen valor and other forms of self-aggrandizement.
ADDENDUM (II): Faye Flam, writing in Forbes: We can accept the experimental evidence that memory is fragmented and subject to distortion, but nevertheless, we realize that some of us manage to go through life without being insufferable blowhards.
ADDENDUM (III): Mike Daisey in Slate: “Misremembered”? Come on, man. People want to be treated with respect—they don’t buy that the life-threatening episode event he described was a product of mistaken remembering.
In 1995, two ethics complaints involving recovered-memory cases were filed against Professor Elizabeth Loftus. The complaints asked the American Psychological Association (APA) to examine misrepresentations made about two successful civil cases, one brought by Lynn Crook, the other by Jennifer Hoult. Hoult’s complaint is documented in detail at this site. Crook’s case is documented here (Case No. 19).
The complaints were never investigated because Professor Loftus resigned from the APA shortly after they were filed. The strange circumstances of her resignation–coming by fax, shortly after two complaints were filed–raised questions about whether Professor Lofus was “tipped off ” about the complaints and given an opportunity to resign before they could be investigated.
Jill Neimark of Psychology Today branded those claims nothing more than “rumors” and Professor Loftus has denied them repeatedly to reporters and in testimony under oath. But now there is powerful evidence that contradicts Professor Loftus’s claim. Dr. Gerry Koocher, past president of the APA, published an insider’s account of the matter last year in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. He reported that the APA’s CEO, Raymond Fowler, told Koocher and Norine Johnson (also an APA president) six years later that he had “gotten word” to Loftus about the ethics complaints. According to Koocher, “[Fowler] expressed the personal belief that an ethics investigation of a high-profile psychologist at that time in APA’s history would have severely damaged the organization.”
Would the finding of unethical behavior against a high-profile psychologist damage the APA more than the revelation that they conspired to avoid the investigation of a complaint? Does the APA still consider some psychologists “too big” to be held accountable to their code of ethics?
The Washington Post published a powerful essay by Danielle Bostick, who recently came to remember that she was sexually assaulted by her swimming coach, Christopher Huott, beginning when she was 7-years-old and Huott moved into her house. Bostick writes of hearing about the Rick Curl case in 2013, a case involving a swimming coach from the D.C. area who was charged and later convicted of sexually abusing a girl he had coached in 1986. Hearing news of Curl’s arrest, Bostick says: “I felt unsettled, but wasn’t sure why.” She did not identify herself at the time as a victim of her own coach.Within a year of hearing about the Curl case, Bostick approached the police with what she described as “little more than memory fragments and a gut feeling that I had been abused” by her own swimming coach, Christopher Huott.
The police arranged for a monitored telephone call to Houtt. As she described it, “for nearly two hours, [Houtt] confessed to abuse more horrifying than I had imagined or feared.” Huott was later charged with abusing Bostick; he eventually pleaded guilty to one felony count of child abuse and was sentenced to 10 years. Bostick’s case involves repeated sexual abuse that she had forgotten entirely and that was more than corroborated by the perpetrator. This case cannot be written off as “normal forgetting.” By all appearances, it is a corroborated case of recovered memory of severe childhood sexual abuse that occurred over a period of years.
Dr. Walter Sipe, a San Francisco-based psychiatrist, testified earlier this week in a recovered-memory case in Jackson County, Missouri. Described in the Kansas City Star as a someone “who has extensively studied the impact of trauma on memory,” Dr. Sipe told the jury that the phenomenon of repressing traumatic memories is well recognized. According to Dr. Sipe, the “controversy” about recovered memory “is not about whether it occurs but whether valid recovered memories are the norm.” Precisely. In other words, those who deny the existence of the phenomenon are extremists; they ignore extensive evidence to the contrary.
UPDATE: A few days after this testimony, right before the jury would have gone into deliberations, the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph agreed to pay nearly $10 million to settle 30 lawsuits concerning sexual abuse by priests.
An Australian newspaper reports that a 65-year-old man, who was originally convicted of sex abuse of two girls in 2008, had been convicted again in a retrial in County Court. The case apparently began with the report of a recovered memory of abuse by PL, the younger of two sisters. She reported the man to police in 1998. The man’s defense “was concentrated almost solely on the younger sister.” But PL “had not received any counseling before going to the police.” Moreover, her sister corroborated the charges. The jury found the man guilty for a second time, after his original conviction was overturned. The second conviction was just upheld on appeal. In short, this is apparently another corroborated case of recovered memory–from long after the era of discredited cases
Those famous for saying there is no “scientific evidence” supporting repression or recovered memory are finding it ever harder to maintain that position. As indicated in the previous post, several courts have rejected Dr. Harrison Pope’s extreme position. Add to that the evidence from a study published last year based on magnetic resonance imaging that concluded:
“This pattern of results fits exactly to the psychodynamic theories of repression as a mechanism for avoiding conscious access to conflict-related material. One relevant future project will be to test the effects of individually-designed stimuli, e.g. derived from psychotherapy or operationalized psychodynamic diagnostics (OPD). Furthermore, it will be interesting to apply this paradigm to clinical populations whose psychopathology is assumed to depend on repression, for example patients with conversion disorders or dissociative pseudo-seizures. Possibly, brain activation patterns during this paradigm may point towards relevant unresolved conflicts – reminiscent of the initial ideas of C.G. Jung, and in line with previous research in the emerging new field of ‘‘Neuro-Psychoanalysis.’’’
Schmeing et. al., “Can the Neural Basis of Repression be Studied in the MRI Scanner? New Insights from Two Free Association Paradigms,” PLOS ONE (April 2013), vol. 8, Issue 4 (e62358), pp. 56–58.
Judge Ronald B. Rubin issued an opinion in Montgomery County Circuit Court yesterday finding that “dissociative amnesia has been sufficiently tested by the psychiatric and psychological community using research methods generally applied in those fields and that it is generally accepted” (p.19). The court rejected as “unrealistic and unnecessary” Dr. Harrison Pope’s claim that laboratory studies are necessary, noting that “no complete laboratory study could ever be completed on repression of events as traumatic as sexual abuse.” The court also found that the methodological criticisms of studies offered by the plaintiffs “were effectively rebutted by the testimony of Dr. Silberg, the plaintiff’s hearing exhibits and the well-regarded medical literature” (p.18).
Dr. Pope offered a survey he conducted as evidence that dissociative amnesia was not generally accepted. Judge Rubin concluded: “Dr. Pope’s after-the-fact ‘survey’ of a small number of psychiatrists who are dissatisfied with the work of DSM committees is not persuasive evidence of anything other than some doctors disagree” (p.16). It is worth noting that Pope’s survey found a higher rate of acceptance of dissociative amnesia disorder than the problematic study by Patihis et. al., discussed in an earlier post.
The court also cited the “carefully written and reasoned opinion of the federal judge in Clark v. Edison,” another case that rejected Dr. Pope’s position, as a “further indication that the theory [of dissociative amnesia] has attained general acceptance” (p. 19). This encouraging decision suggests that the science of recovered memory is starting to overcome the politics.
We are pleased to announce The Witch-Hunt Narrative, a new blog to accompany the new book by the same name. The book is about sexual-abuse cases from the 1980s and early 1990s involving children. The book is not about recovered memory, although the two issues have often been conflated.
The FMSF said very clearly in its early years that cases involving children were not its agenda. That changed in later years for reasons we will discuss in the future. Anyway, issues about recovered memory will stay on this blog, issues about children’s testimony and child sexual abuse more generally will be discussed at The Witch-Hunt Narrative.
If you put recoveredmemory.net into a web browser, you do not end up here. You end up at the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Why? Because Pamela Freyd bought the domain name and instituted auto-forwarding to her site. Does that mean she is cybersquatting? In a word, no. We did not trademark the name of this site, nor has Freyd tried to sell us the .net domain name at a profit. And we are quite content simply being recoveredmemory.org. But most important, we believe in free speech and we would much rather engage Pamela Freyd on the facts than waste time on arguments about domain names. Why does this come up today? We will have more to say about that in the future. In the meantime, Pamela, recoveredmemory.com is still available if you want it.
Patihis, Ho, Tingen, Lilienfeld, and Loftus recently published a research article in Psychological Science related to the “Memory Wars.” The article carries the provocative title: Are the “Memory Wars” Over? A Scientist-Practitioner Gap in Beliefs About Repressed Memory.
The article is so flawed that one scarcely knows where to begin. It is a sure sign that something is seriously wrong when an article contains a significant misrepresentation in the second sentence. So it is with Patihis et. al., who summarize Professor Jennifer Freyd’s work as standing for the proposition that “memories of traumatic events can be repressed…and yet recovered accurately in therapy.” The authors cite, without a page number or quotation, a single publication of Freyd’s from 1994 that makes no such claim. Instead, Freyd makes the uncontroversial claim that psychotherapy can be useful for those who have experienced childhood trauma. Freyd also cautions, on page 320: “This aspect of psychotherapy and memory recovery also has the potential to lead to distortions in the interpretation of sensory, affective, and behavioral memories.”
One wonders why the authors did not portray the nuance in Freyd’s position. One also wonders why they ignored the substantial body of Freyd’s work in the years since 1994, including her highly-regarded Harvard Press book, Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Freyd’s work is notable in part for highlighting two independent features of memory: continuity and accuracy. Freyd has always acknowledged that memory, both continuous and non-continuous, can be inaccurate. See her useful 2004 presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Misleading and Confusing Media Portrayals of Memory Research. It applies directly to Patihis et. al. and the attendant media coverage. Read more…
In a recent TED talk about memory, psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus misrepresented the basic facts of a case study that led her to hire a private investigator and write an article that prompted the subject of the case study to sue her for invasion of privacy. Loftus has mentioned the civil suit frequently in recent appearances and told audiences how terribly unfair it was that she was sued. Given the importance of these events to Professor Loftus, one wonders why she misrepresented the basic facts of the underlying case.
Loftus said the case was about a women who “accused her mother of sexual abuse based on a repressed memory” (See the 13-minute mark of this talk). That is not true. The accusation against her mother came in an evaluation when the child was 6 years old! What makes the underlying case so important is that the girl forgot the details, which had been videotaped at the time, and recalled them spontaneously at age 17. Here is the article that documents those events, which occurred under the supervision of the doctor who conducted the original interview. (She had sought him out because she wanted to know what happened to her as a child.) There is much more to say about how Loftus investigated this case. But for now, it is telling, to say the least, that Loftus misrepresented the facts. Presumably she thinks that audiences are more likely to find her actions in this matter sympathetic if the underlying case was an accusation based on a dubious-sounding recovered memory. Whatever her motivation, there is no question the version presented in her TED talk is false. We await the correction that should occur after a scientist commits an error like this.
A loyal reader of this site pointed our attention to a curious entry in the tax returns filed by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in 2005 and 2006. In 2005, the organization spent $63,500 on something identified only as “book project.” They spent $52,227 more the next year. Their 2006 tax return lists “the Sturgis Group” as “authors” of the book they are funding. (See p. 10 of this document.) But there was never a book published after this date with the FMSF or the Sturgis Group listed as the author. Indeed, there was never even an announcement in the FMSF Newsletter informing its members that a book they spent more than $100,000 on had been published. One wonders why.
Here is what we have surmised from the available evidence. The president of the Sturgis Group is Mark Lasswell; the address for his advertising and promotion business is a Park Avenue apartment building where he lives with his wife, Clare McHugh, who happens to be the daughter of Dr. Paul R. McHugh, a controversial professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. Dr. McHugh is listed as the sole author of a book published in 2008 called Try to Remember. The book reads like an FMSF newsletter. So it is not surprising that the preface states that Pamela Freyd suggested the book and “patiently supported” it. But there is no indication what kind of support Freyd, the Executive Director of the FMSF, provided. The preface also acknowledges a “yearlong collaboration” whereby McHugh’s daughter Clare “helped [him] put down an accessible draft.” Dr. McHugh mentions her “devotion,” but there is no mention of what happened behind-the-scenes: the FMSF paid Dr. McHugh’s daughter and her husband up to $115,727 to “author” this book.
The book was heralded by the FMSF on the opening pages of this newsletter; but the Foundation did not reveal anything about its significant financial interest in the project. Nor did Dr. McHugh disclose that his book received significant financial support from an advocacy organization. Disclosures of this nature are expected, of course, by the ethical norms and policies for scientists. The $115,000 question is why neither Dr. McHugh nor the FMSF decided to disclose their financial connection when the book was published. Was Dr. McHugh trying to create the false impression of having done this work independent of any financial support from an organization that is discussed favorably in his book? Did the FMSF conclude that the book would appear more scholarly if the public was unaware of their six-figure subsidy? Would reviewers have been more skeptical had they known this was practically a work-for-hire by the FMSF?
On Monday, the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office released a 155-page “Conviction Integrity Review” of a multi-victim child sexual-abuse case that ended in 1988 with a guilty plea by Jesse Friedman. The report includes four appendices with almost 1,000 pages. As stated in this New York Times story, the report concludes: “By any impartial analysis, the reinvestigation process prompted by Jesse Friedman, his advocates and the Second Circuit, has only increased confidence in the integrity of Jesse Friedman’s guilty plea and adjudication as a sex offender.”
The Friedman case has nothing to do with recovered memory. At least, the actual facts of the case have nothing to do with recovered memory. But ever since the movie Capturing the Friedmans (2003), the defense has been making claims that hypnosis poisoned the case against Jesse Friedman. The Times reported in October 2007 that “Friedman and his lawyer, Ron Kuby, say they have evidence indicating that some of the other youths who accused the Friedmans were hypnotized before testifying to the grand jury.” As it turns out, they did not have any evidence to that effect. The Conviction Integrity Review concluded that there was no credible evidence that hypnosis was used on any complainants in the case (pp. 77-79).
One underreported aspect of the report is the documentation of how misleading Capturing the Friedmans was in several places. We said as much in 2009, with this video critique.* The new report makes it clear that the Gregory Doe excerpt in the movie is even more misleading than we ever imagined. That is the excerpt that made it appear that the man did not disclose anything until after he started therapy. But the review panel examined the interview “in its unedited form” and concluded that it “reveals an account that is dramatically different” from what is portrayed in the movie (p.79). The man actually told the filmmakers that he disclosed to police “the very first night” (negating any claims that therapy that started three weeks later created his claims), that “he threw up for three days after he first disclosed to police,” and that he “developed an anal fissure after being sodomized.” As the report notes, all of those details were left out of the movie.
There are a few studies of “false memory” that have attained almost iconic status. These studies are widely known, but not necessarily well understood. Perhaps the most cited but least understood study of all is the “Lost in the Mall” study by Professor Elizabeth Loftus. As part of an interesting new project at the New England Law School, Professor Wendy Murphy and two law students recently analyzed that study in light of the Daubert and Frye cases. Here is their critique. This project holds great promise for unmasking some of the myths and other inaccuracies that have crept into academic discussions of memory issues.
Professor Jennifer Freyd has a new book with Pamela Birrell called Blind to Betrayal. The book, officially published today, explores various case studies involving betrayal, its effects and how victims come to grips with it. Most relevant to the Recovered Memory Project is the chapter about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and how Pamela and Peter Freyd invaded Prof. Freyd’s privacy and tried to sabotage her career. That chapter also contains excerpts from a letter that Pamela Birrell wrote to Advisory Board Members of the organization in 1992 about the fallacies of the FMSF. The authors report that only two members of the board responded and neither was willing to engage in dialogue.
This is an important book for understanding the problem of betrayal trauma and for adding to the historical record about the early and indefensible actions of Pamela and Peter Freyd.
In an article about memory in the current New York Review of Books, Oliver Sacks displays a surprising myopia for someone who is generally sensitive to complexity and appreciative of case-based evidence. Dr. Sacks repeats the same fallacies about recovered memory that advocates for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation have long promoted. Sacks, who refers to “so-called” recovered memories, seems to think that because some recovered memories are false, none are true. The archive of over 100 corroborated cases of recovered memory at this site was created to counter that misconception.
Dr. Sacks also describes some of the well-known research that demonstrates that eyewitness testimony can be inaccurate. No doubt that is true. But no reasonable person takes that evidence to mean that eyewitness testimony can never be true! Nor would any reasonable person argue that eyewitness testimony should not be admitted in court unless it is corroborated by other sources. But that is precisely the position that false-memory partisans take about recovered memories. Dr. Sacks apparently has a similar view. One wonders why. (If Dr. Sacks disagrees with these extremists, we hope that he will clarify his position in the future.)
What is most disappointing about Sacks’ article is his credulous acceptance of the claims that there were “thousands” of cases of false memory in the 1990s. Remarkably, Dr. Sacks employs the phrase “almost epidemic” without substantiation of any sort. As it turns out, the evidence for that claim is beyond flimsy. It generally stems from surveys of those who claim that other people have experienced false memory. There are obvious reasons why the people answering such surveys might be dishonest. Evidence from the person supposedly afflicted with this “syndrome” is never included, violating the principles that created the Goldwater Rule. Would Sacks accept an estimate of the number of false convictions in criminal court that was based entirely on a survey of prisoners? Would he diagnose someone as having a neurological disorder (his field of expertise) without ever examining the patient? Assertions about “thousands” of cases of false memory suffer from both of these problems. For further elaboration, see this critique.
Of course memory is fallible. Who has ever claimed otherwise? Indeed, those claiming to be victims of false memory might be the ones who are misremembering the past, although curiously that possibility is never raised by false-memory partisans. (Their memories are apparently the ones that they consider infallible.) But one would hope that a doctor like Oliver Sacks would not extend the simple idea that memory is fallible to reach one-sided conclusions that ignore the case evidence and peer-reviewed studies about recovered memory. One would also hope that a doctor would never invoke the word “epidemic” without actual scientific evidence.
There was a powerful article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine on January 27 about the devastating effects of child pornography on victims whose images have been spread around the world on the Internet. It is the kind of article that would seem to generate only sympathy and concern for victims. But the “National Center for Reason and Justice” proved otherwise. This Orwellian-named organization used the occasion to question whether real harms occurred and to smear Dr. Joyanna Silberg, one of the therapists named in the article. In a letter to the New York Times, published on the NCRJ website, the president of the organization, defense lawyer Michael Snedeker, claimed that “Joyanna Silberg, the therapist of one young woman in the story, is notorious for advocating the debunked myth of satanic ritual child abuse.” Snedeker also asserted that “obsessive attention paid to victims can paradoxically make their feelings of trauma worse, or even cause them in the first place.” He closed by expressing concern about giving “pseudoscientific, dangerous therapists another gravy train.”
These statements are wrong in every particular. Dr. Silberg is not even the therapist for the woman she mentions in the story! That woman lives in another city. Dr. Silberg merely conducted assesments for the purpose of litigation. Dr. Silberg did not receive a percentage of any legal judgments, nor has she received any payment other than the set fees for conducting an evaluation. The insinuation that she may have engaged in therapy that made the woman worse is beyond false, it is defamatory. It is also a claim that defies common sense. It is clear from the article that what Snedeker calls “feelings of trauma” were hardly caused by the therapists in this case. They were caused by the appalling actions of those who took these images and disseminated them. Moreover, Dr. Silberg has never advocated or endorsed anything pertaining to satanic ritual abuse. Instead, she is apparently a target for these smears because she has spoken up for victims of sexual abuse through the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence.
There is real irony in the fact that an organization that claims to worry about false accusations would levy several of their own. One can only speculate why the NCRJ is so threatened by an article about victims of child pornography that it would make such baseless claims. Whatever the reason, their response reveals a great deal about their true values.
Note: we will be engaging the NCRJ’s extremist position on recovered memory in a future post.