chapter  13
33 Pages

Recovered memories

WithJames Ost

In the last decade and a half psychologists were involved in the ‘memory wars’, one of the most contentious debates to date – contentious enough that Pezdek and Banks refer to it as close to a ‘religious war’ (1996: xii; see also Brown et al. 2000; Ost 2003). The question that has caused such a divide in professional opinion concerns the extent to which memories, such as those ‘recovered’ by Alice, reflect events that actually occurred. Partly due to the uncertainties surrounding cases like these, the statutes of limitations, previously barring such cases from being tried in court, were lifted in many states in America (although there are no time restrictions to bringing such charges under UK law). These changes enabled

individuals like Alice to sue, or bring criminal charges against, their parents (or other alleged abusers) where the only evidence was previously ‘repressed’ or ‘dissociated’ memories of childhood abuse that individual had allegedly ‘recovered’ in adulthood (Underwager and Wakefield 1998). One problem with allowing such testimony is that there is, in fact, no reliable evidence that individuals ‘repress’ or ‘dissociate’ memories of traumatic events (although they may choose not to report such events; see McNally 2003; cf. Brown et al. 1998). A further problem is that, as we shall see in this chapter, research has shown that it is possible for people to come to report compelling and vivid ‘memories’ of events that never occurred (Hyman et al. 1995; Loftus and Pickrell 1995; Pezdek et al. 1997; Porter et al. 1999; Ost et al. in press). This raises the serious possibility that at least some of these ‘recovered memories’ might, in fact, be iatrogenic productions of the therapeutic process itself (hence the term ‘false memories’).