The move to silence therapists and child abuse survivors in making claims about childhood abuse moved into a new direction in the 1990s. Elizabeth Loftus joined Paul McHugh in denouncing memories of survivors, especially in the area of trial law. She conducted experiments with people, successfully convincing some that they were “lost in a shopping mall” as a young child and used films of car accidents in her research. She then blatantly stated that this naturally meant that false memories of child abuse could be implanted into client’s heads and used her “research” during lawsuits. As I told my therapist, “You’re good, but you’re not that good.”
I can see where someone could possibly be tricked into thinking they might once have lost a loved puppy or got lost in a mall. Making me believe someone forced me to perform oral sex or that I was sodomized is a pretty far stretch.
What Elizabeth Loftus didn’t bother to explain to people is that it is unethical to torture someone in a laboratory, then 30 years later conduct experiments to see if those memories of abuse are real or not. This has been said much more scientifically by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk as shown below. And remember from my earlier post (Dissociative Disorders - Part 10), she documented studies herself about the validity of repressed memories. It appears that it was much more profitable for her as a plaintiff’s witness in lawsuits defending child molesters to change her tactics, and as a result she enjoyed a lot more notoriety with the gullible media who still refuse to do in depth journalism on the subject.
“For over 100 years, clinicians have observed and described the unusual nature of traumatic memories. It has been repeatedly and consistently observed that these memories are characterized by fragmentary and intense sensations and affects, often with little or no verbal narrative content…People may lose all memory for sexual abuse experiences and retrieve them at a later time…For over a century this observation had been consistently reported in the psychiatric literature on other traumatized populations…Despite the power of these clinical observations, these phenomena have not been systematically studied in the laboratory. The problem is not that laboratory science cannot study traumatic memories, but that laboratory science cannot study traumatic memories under conditions in which the memories studied are for events that take place in the laboratory. The event encoded into memory simply cannot be a ‘controlled’ variable in the laboratory science sense, as in the landmark work of Loftus and her colleagues with systematically altered films of car accidents. This is so because for ethical reasons, not scientific ones, the extreme terror and helplessness that precede the development of PTSD simply cannot be replicated in such a setting…Memories of trauma, or at least of certain forms of trauma, are encoded by processes, such as repression and dissociation, that make them difficult to retrieve as coherent verbal narratives.”1
“Since trauma arises from an inescapable stressful event that overwhelms people’s coping mechanisms, it is uncertain to what degree the results of laboratory studies of ordinary events are relevant to the understanding of traumatic memories…Dissociation refers to the compartmentalization of experience: elements of the experience are not integrated into a unitary whole, but are stored in memory as isolated fragments consisting of sensory perceptions or affect states…When people feel threatened, they experience a significant narrowing of consciousness, and remain merely focused on the central perceptual details… Students of traumatized individuals have repeatedly noted that during conditions of high arousal, ‘explicit memory’ may fail. The individual is left in a state of ‘speechless terror’ in which he or she lacks words to describe what has happened…However, while traumatized individuals may be unable to give a coherent narrative of the incident, there may be no interference with implicit memory: they may “know” the emotional valence of a stimulus and be aware of associated perceptions without being able to articulate the reasons for feeling or behaving in a particular way…Of the 36 subjects with childhood trauma, 15 (42%) had suffered significant or total amnesia for their trauma at some time in their lives.”2
By reviewing my earlier blogs in this series, you can see that Dr. van der Kolk adds his research to the ones studied over 100 years ago. Unfortunately, the media prefers sensationalizing the lives of adult survivors of child abuse with multiple personalities instead of adding truth to the general knowledge of Americans about what millions of us have to cope with on a daily basis in healing from our childhood traumas.
1 “Exploring the Nature of Traumatic Memory: Combining Clinical Knowledge with Laboratory Methods,” Bessel van der Kolk, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 4, 9-31
2 “Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: Overview and exploratory study,” Bessel van der Kolk, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8, 505-525, 1995