Responses to Criticisms of the Archive

March 13th, 2015

The Recovered Memory Project Case Archive has been criticized in two publications: (1) by Dr. August Piper in Ethics and Behavior, and (2) by Professor Richard McNally in Remembering Trauma (Harvard University Press). Interestingly, Piper significantly understated the number of cases in the Archive. He stated that the Archive contained only 35 cases, although by the time his article was submitted to Ethics and Behavior in November 1998, there were 44 cases. When my response to Piper was completed — it was published in the same issue as Piper’s critique — there were 65 cases. The Archive was expanded to 80 cases in 2001 and it currently has 101 cases. McNally on the other hand, overstated the number of cases in the Archive that had been barred by the statute of limitations. A few such cases are included in the Archive, but only with corroboration; but those cases were by no means a significant portion of the Archive then or now.

1. Piper (1999) Dr. August Piper, an Advisory Board member to the misnamed “False Memory Syndrome Foundation”, published a critique of the Archive in Ethics and Behavior (1999).  Piper’s response was filled with inaccuracies or serious misrepresentations of fact. A detailed account of those errors and omissions was published in the same issue. See, Ross E. Cheit, “Junk Skepticism and Recovered Memory: A Reply to Piper,” (PDF 1.7MB) Ethics and Behavior 9(4), 295-318. This file containing a lengthy excerpt that documents Piper’s misrepresentations about the seven cases in the Archive which he responded to.

2. McNally (2003) Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally, in his new book Remembering Trauma, stated that this Archive is an “important step toward providing the evidence for recovered memory of traumas.” While calling the Archive “an important contribution,” McNally offered a few caveats. The first is that out-out-court settlements should not be equated with admissions of wrongdoing. I agree. But that caveat does not take into account that all of the cases involving out-of-court settlements also involved additional corroborative evidence. Still, I agree that these cases do not carry as much weight as cases with more fully developed evidence and a more definitive outcome. It is likely that a much fuller investigation of the cases that were settled out-of-court would result in some cases appearing weaker than they do based on existing information and some cases appearing to be stronger. While the former possibility is raised by McNally, but the latter possibility is never acknowledged.

McNally’s primary objection concerns the possible financial motives that people might have to claim recovered memory. McNally argues that “state laws seldom permit people to file suit against alleged perpetrators unless the memories were entirely repressed.” He concludes that this “is a serious problem” for the legal cases in this archive because people have a motive to claim recovered memory even if they actually have continuous memory.

McNally is incorrect about the law. There is no need or incentive to claim recovered memory in any of the states that also stop the statute of limitations for psychological delays in comprehending the significance of childhood abuse that has been always remembered. Indeed, in those states, one could bring an action as an adult without making a recovered memory claim. Since a comprehension-based claim is not subject to the same controversy as a recovered-memory claim, the “incentives” — if that was what truly motivated these cases — would be against making a claim of recovered memory in those states. As it turns out, when Mary Williams did a careful survey of these differences in statute statutes, published in 2000, there were only six jurisdictions (including the District of Columbia) that were “recovered-memory only.” See Williams, “History and Analysis of Delayed Discovery Statutes of Limitation in Adult Survivor Litigation,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 3, no. 2: 49-71. McNally’s “serious problem,” applies at best to a handful of cases in the Archive.

Given McNally’s strong concern about impure motives on the part of claimants, it is surprising that he does not take note of the many cases in which there was no financial claim. There are criminal cases in the Archive that did not involve a civil claim for damages. There are civil cases where the claimant did not expect to collect anything, including a few from the “recovered-memory only” states. And there are cases where the recovered memory could never be subject to a financial claim: that is, the murder cases. One might think that someone so worried about impure motives would seek out the cases where such motives cannot possibly be said to exist. But McNally (and Piper before him) declined to identify, let alone examine, the myriad cases in the Archive that contradict this concern.

Finally, it is curious to note that critics who are quick to question the financial motives of anyone who might receive compensation for a recovered-memory claim never seem to raise the same concern when considering those who have recovered enormous financial payments in “false memory” cases: the so-called “retractors.” The one-sidedness of this skepticism can best be explained as politics, not science.

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