The Myth of Repressed Memory Review

Elizabeth Loftus is one of the top scientific experts in the world on human memory. Throughout her career she has been a strong, sometimes lonely, voice against the criminal hysteria of the “recovered memory” movement. I respect and applaud her for having written an important and useful book.

Whatever therapeutic merit it may or may not have to play make believe with troubled women and convince them that their emotional problems stem from childhood sexual abuse they somehow “forgot,” such techniques have no place in the criminal justice system. If someone is to be convicted of a major crime, it should be on the basis that the accusations are true, and not on the basis that believing the accusations enabled a therapy patient to feel better.

While substantively I certainly agree with the author, I did not always find the book itself fully satisfying. It is a little too chatty, a little too autobiographical, a little too stream-of-consciousness for my tastes. Perhaps these things make it a more enjoyable read for a general audience, but I would have appreciated a more tightly organized, logical presentation.

Instead, it feels as if she jumps around from a part of an argument for her thesis that “recovered memories” are largely a myth, to an anecdote about someone falsely accused of child sexual abuse, to an account of the author being unfairly attacked by zealots emotionally committed to the other side of the issue, to a little more of the argument, to another anecdote, to a bit more of the argument, to another run-in with a critic, etc.

In spite of the fact that Loftus defends a position opposing the alleged phenomenon, at times she makes liberal use of the rhetorical device of trying to paint herself as a “moderate” between the irrational extremes of those who accept the phenomenon dogmatically and those who reject it dogmatically. She’s desperate to find common ground with the “recovered memory” advocates, desperate to avoid seeming to denounce them or come right out and say that they’re just plain wrong.

Which is perhaps admirable on some level, and/or perhaps strategically wise in not antagonizing readers. But I admit at times I wanted to see a little less conciliatory and more frank tone, as is justified by the evidence.

As I alluded to above, one question that kept coming back to me is why the kind of pseudo-science represented by this movement was ever admissible in court to begin with. The standards for criminal conviction are supposed to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt. On this basis, we exclude things like polygraphs, which tend to be somewhat reliable, but not quite reliable enough. The likelihood that these “recovered memories” are reliable seems to me to be so miniscule as to make it far, far inferior to polygraph evidence. Unfortunately, the hysteria over child sexual abuse has caused many people in our society and in our criminal justice system to override principles of law, logic, common sense, and decency to ensure as many convictions as possible.

In any case, again I am grateful for Dr. Loftus’s valuable contributions on this issue. The “recovered memories” movement appears to be a highly dangerous piece of pseudo-science that has damaged countless lives, and I commend those who’ve taken a stand against it on the basis of rationality and science.