To believe or not to believe

A case study on the credibility of repressed memories


Credits: Pixabay

Priyanka Giri

When people go through extremely traumatic experiences, whether it be experiencing sexual abuse, witnessing a crime, or fighting a war, the intensity of the experience and the emotions that come along with it are so high that it is buried in the individual’s unconscious. In other words, the person does not have a conscious recollection of the event, hence making it a repressed memory.

In this case, a 24-year-old adult woman accuses her father of sexual abuse 20 years ago on the basis of a "recovered memory". She did not remember the abuse until a month ago but now feels that she has a clear memory for the abuse. Her lawyer wants the woman to testify about her recovered memory of abuse.

However, one must take several things into account. Sometimes, many factors, including similar emotional circumstances, places, scents, etc, contribute to making the person remember small fragments of the event that was buried for years. But, more research is required into the relationship between the amygdala and hippocampus, that are responsible for memory, to understand this occurrence. Hence, such recovered memories can be unreliable. The extent to which it can be believed as true is highly debated to date.

The lawyer who defends her father argues that scientists have shown that such recovered memories cannot be real memories and that this testimony should not be allowed from the woman because it may emotionally bias the jury against the father, and rightly so. There are different concepts that justify the defendant.

The concept of imagination inflation - when an event is imagined to such an extent that people believe it to be true. The misinformation effect - when people distort details of an event post its occurrence, hence making the details of the original event less accurate. Finally, the possibility of childhood amnesia - where some people cannot recall, in vivid detail, episodic memories of their life until the age of 10. Also, scientifically, the hippocampus is not yet fully developed to store memories so that it can be recalled in adulthood. Some therapists believe that such memories are false memories implanted into a person’s mind by persuasion when the traumatic event did not even occur in reality.

The woman's lawyer, however, counters with the argument that recent scientific evidence supports the possibility that the recovered memory may be accurate, and that the woman should be able to present this testimony to the jury. As a judge, I would allow the woman to testify after some heavy consideration. Yes, some therapists believe that such memories are trustworthy and real, as they are accompanied by intense emotions. Also, it was a repressed memory, which means the experience was indeed traumatising, and hence, possibly, real.

Some research has been conducted among therapists to understand the reliability of repressed memories. In a press release by the Association for Psychological Science in 2013, Lawrence Patihis, a researcher from the University of California conducted an online survey among research psychologists and therapists on the accuracy and reliability of repressed memories. 60-80% of respondents believed that repressed memories could be recovered through therapy. However, less than 30% believe in the validity of these memories.

Further, the case of Eileen Franklin might help prove otherwise. Almost. In 1990, Eileen Franklin, from California, accused her father of raping and killing her childhood friend Susan Nason, and he was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. This became one of the first criminal cases where repressed memories were used as evidence with people from Eileen’s circle supporting her claims. However, Eileen’s sister later claimed that Eileen had been hypnotised, and the California Supreme Court considered such memories unreliable, hence reversing the conviction.

Due to these reasons, linking back to the case study of the 24-year-old woman, it is indeed very difficult to believe a recovered memory that dates back 20 years. However, if there is convincing evidence and people to support and testify for her claim, proving that the memory was indeed real, she should be allowed to testify in a court of law. Otherwise, it might become another Eileen Franklin case. Not allowing the woman to testify means not taking the chance of the claim to be real, which might have an adverse consequence if proved otherwise.

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