Experts divided over increasing reports of repressed memories of youth abuse

December 05, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Ginny Cook Smith, incest survivor, could have been a guest on "Oprah" or "Geraldo" if Jane Smiley had not made her up.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Thousand Acres," Ms. Smiley tells this story: the adult Ginny stretches out on her childhood bed, and suddenly images cascade forth. Her body trembles as the teen-age memories of her rapes rush back.

The way Ginny first denies the incest but then remembers it bears an uncanny -- and, Ms. Smiley says, unintended -- resemblance to a tale told with numbing frequency on the afternoon talk shows: an adult recovering a long-buried memory of sexual abuse.

The concept of repressed memory is reverberating through the culture, not only in fiction but also in pop-psychology best sellers, incest recovery groups, celebrity confessions, made-for-TV movies, therapists' offices, living rooms and courtrooms.

Experts are as divided over why the idea has struck such a chord as they are over whether such memories are credible.

Some suggest that what may seem like memories are unreliable: Feelings of oppression and resentment, whether at the hands of parents or priests, are converted through some mysterious alchemy into "memories" of physical abuse. Others say the accounts of suddenly recalled incest are so prevalent because such abuse is indeed rampant.

A father in California was convicted of a 20-year-old murder in 1991 based on his daughter's testimony of a repressed memory, an incident that was almost immediately made into a TV movie.

Some accusers of James R. Porter, a former priest who later confessed to abusing children, based their charges on newly recovered memories. And earlier this year, a parishioner said he had recently remembered abuse at the hands of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who has denied the charges.

Those who believe that memories can indeed be repressed for many years argue that a traumatic event such as childhood sexual abuse can cause a kind of instant amnesia, until therapy or a particular sight or sound triggers an instant recall.

But skeptics argue that studies have shown that memories are unreliable and easily manipulated, and they doubt that fragments of memories extracted by a range of therapeutic techniques, including hypnosis or the use of truth serums, provide clear evidence that abuse occurred.

Recently, a number of widely publicized cases have strained credulity: accounts of Satanic cults in which adults charge that they were branded and mutilated but have no scars; memories of rapes occurring at 6 months old, although most experts agree that children cannot recall events before they were 2 or 3; a patient in Ohio injected 141 times with sodium amytal in order to retrieve her memories.

Janice Haaken, a psychologist at Portland State University in Oregon, who has studied the incest survivors movement, believes that what feels like a repressed memory often expresses the emotional, not the literal, truth of a woman's experiences.

Many women grew up with domineering fathers and resented being raised in a family and society that long considered women little more than property, as does the father in "A Thousand Acres." As Ms. Smiley said, "I wanted to link a certain way of looking at land with a certain way of looking at women."

A number of psychiatrists, such as Paul McHugh of the Johns Hopkins University, say that in the hands of an incompetent or ideologically driven therapist, a patient might easily confuse dreams with memories, unconsciously building long-held resentments into a case of forgotten molestation.

"Maybe an account is wrong in literal fact," Professor Haaken said, "but maybe it describes something very deep about her experience in the family and the culture."

The problem comes, Professors Haaken and McHugh suggest, when people blur the line between emotional and physical abuse. Freud argued that even when a patient's story was not the literal truth, it could express an emotional experience that was just as traumatic.

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