Distorted Memory Leads to False Allegations

In the 1990s there was great attention on the idea of distorted memory. Young people were attending therapy sessions for issues with depression or low self-esteem, and through the therapeutic treatment uncovered memories of childhood sexual abuse.

The only problem is that these memories didn’t truly exist. The events that were the substance of the memories never happened.

Cases of “repressed memories” became popular vehicles for litigation. Cognitive psychology casts serious doubts on these instances of repressed memories. Researchers instead suggest that they are distortions of memories, and in some cases totally fabricated.

How Does Distorted Memory Happen?

Researcher Elizabeth Loftus is today considered by some the leading authority in repressed memory cases.

In her seminal paper, Memory distortion and false memory creation, Loftus exposed the issue of distorted memory. It is, she reports, based on a set of fundamental assumptions that are faulty, namely, that people have to repress or banish traumatic memories from their consciousness because they are too horrifying to remember. How peculiar it is that only special, specific techniques employed by therapists can “uncover” these hidden memories.

Cognitive research has found that there is absolutely no cogent scientific support to suggest that repression happens in this way. Loftus is quick to highlight that it isn’t that people don’t forget horrific memories, just that it is unfounded to suggest that people are completely unaware of extensive histories of abuse that they were exposed to.

Yet thanks to misplaced faith in repressed memory, patients have been encouraged towards litigation based on these newly-produced memories, and have brought forwards false allegations based on distorted memories.

From False Memories to False Allegations

In her paper, Loftus cites a 1995 New Hampshire case in which a daughter, Laura B, claimed that her father had molested her from the age of 5, including raping her days before her wedding. She had, it was alleged, repressed these memories until therapy sessions unsurfaced the memories of the abuse.

The case was a criminal case, where the majority of repressed memory cases were brought to the civil courts. According to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, initially, legislatures extended the statutes of limitations to permit for these cases. However, the courts appreciated the “significant evidentiary problems inherent in these cases.

According to the Psychiatric Annals in 1995, the conclusion was made that, due to the nature of the therapeutic relationship, people can be led to remember entire events that never actually happened.

There was a review of all studies from 1960 to 1998 in “Recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse”, which found that there was no evidence whatsoever of repression of traumatic memories. Similarly, the APA concluded that "the reality is that most people who are victims of childhood sexual abuse remember all or part of what happened to them."

Yet throughout the 90s and 2000s, the “Memory Wars” continued to rage, showing that there was a distinct gap between researchers and practitioners when it came to believing in the power of repressed memories. Rather than simply focusing on laypeople, one research study from 1995 found that around one in four psychologists whose beliefs and practices focused on memory recovery, reported high rates of memory recovery in their clients.

How to Forget False Memories

Today, the APA maintains that some recovered memories could be accurate, but most are not. Yet this does not mean that the threat of false memories cannot be a reality in today’s legal settings.

While skepticism among researchers may be high, among laypeople, up to 2 in 3 believe there is validity to the claims of repressed memories, in spite of the academic and psychological challenges.

Therefore, it’s vital in cases where distorted memories are believed to be present that those who decide your case understand how human memory works.

None of this can ease the trauma and pain of a family who has been severely and sorely impacted by allegations based on false memory cases, but for situations where a family member is accused of child abuse, the FMS Foundation has collected several guides on how to proceed during this difficult time.