Forgetting and "Repression"

[Note: Friends of Justice is a personal blog. I speak only for myself.]

Dear Friend of Justice,

The theory of “repressed memory” – or, alternatively, “dissociative amnesia” – posits something radically different from ordinary forgetting. Indeed, were this not so, there would be no need to invent special terms.

Almost all of the confusion in the repressed-memory debate arises from people confusing the two phenomena.

We are all prone to forgetting – and forgetting about – things that have happened to us. We even forget about traumatic events, sometimes for years.

Consider this excerpt of an email from a colleague, a distinguished professor of psychology:

Is it possible to forget major traumatic events and later remember them? I am convinced it happens quite frequently. It happened to me.

As a teenager I was violently mugged and injured by a gang in Central Park and ten years later when I entered grad school I told my colleagues I had never been a victim of violent crime while actively searching my memory for anything that would count. The next day the entire mugging memory came back in full detail even though I had apparently not thought of the event several years. This is not scientific but I believe it is strongly analogous to sexual abuse cases. I don’t believe I repressed the memory, I believe that moving to Hawaii in my early 20s made the memory irrelevant and thus I forgot it through normal cognitive mechanisms.

This is an ordinary case or forgetting and remembering. The memory was delayed by a few hours after the recall attempt was made, but that is not unusual. I suspect that similar things have happened to all of us.

It is also common for people to forget – or forget about – childhood sexual abuse. But in this instance, memory scientists and those believing in dissociative amnesia make very different predictions.

Dissociative amnesia is supposed to protect the individual from traumatic memories. Thus the more traumatic event, the more likely it is to be repressed. Many even believe that traumatic events can be repressed immediately after they occur. For example, many believe that a father can violently rape a daughter during the night and that the daughter can sit down to breakfast with him in the morning as if nothing untoward had happened.

My colleague instead has this to say:

Most importantly one needs to know if force was alleged. If no force was used and if the child believed at the time that the behavior was acceptable then I believe it is possible to forget even repeated sexual contacts and in adulthood regain access to the memories. Furthermore I do not believe this to be repression. If the child is able to fit the behavior into some type of schema for acceptable behavior then the child will be more likely to simply forget it as he or she moves on through life.

According to popular culture, adults who have sex with children are violent rapists who obtain the child’s silence through violent threats. If these sex offenders exist, they are quite rare. The fact that an adult wants to behave sexually with a child doesn’t mean that he or she is stupid. The last thing they want is to get caught.

The usual pattern instead is not to frighten the child but to befriend the child. Children and adults have different moral senses. What is obviously wrong to an adult may not necessarily seem wrong to a child.

When I posted my account of the recent Shanley hearing, I made the following observation:

When Shaw expressed the opinion that the theory of repressed memory was “junk science,” Judge Neel asked if it wasn’t the case that Dr. Elizabeth Loftus believes that it does exist but is very rare. Shaw disputed this. I am sure that he was right. As a scientist, Dr. Loftus would never state that the nonexistence of repressed memory has been proven. She may have said something like, “If it exists, it is very rare.”

It turns out that what Loftus actually said in her affidavit was that traumatic events “rarely slip from awareness.” Now “slipping from awareness” is radically different from “repression.”

Judge Neel doesn’t know the difference between “repression” and ordinary forgetting. And the reason he doesn’t know the difference is that Shanley’s trial lawyer, Frank Mondano, didn’t do his job.

My guess is that Mondano himself never grasped the difference. Thus it is not surprising that he was unable to educate the judge and jury. And as a result Paul Shanley was undeniably deprived of his right to a fair trial.

-Bob Chatelle