The Suggestible Truth

“I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” This quote from the conservative, American author William F. Buckley expresses a banal but often overlooked truth: intelligence, good knowledge or fine academic titles are no guarantees of good judgment. Universities’ representatives can sometimes even act as enemies of enlightenment and reason. Buckley’s statement was primarily aimed at social scientists’ undeserved authority in politics, but it has a wider application. The tendency for people to let themselves be seduced by the prestige of science has caused misery in many areas. Not least in psychiatry and the behavioural sciences, universities have played an important role in the spread of pseudoscience and quackery. This applies not least in Freudian psychoanalysis and the denial of the significance of biological factors in psychological phenomena. Here, I focus on the theory of repression of traumatic memories, because this theory still causes and perpetuates horrific human tragedies. Repression theory played a central role in Freud. The idea that one can displace anxiety-charged material from consciousness has been an important ingredient in Freudian psychoanalysis for more than a hundred years, but has mainly been applied to instincts rather than memories of trauma. The repression theory of memories of abuse came to flourish in the 1980s and swept like an epidemic through the Western world for a couple of decades. At universities today, the theory is on the verge of extinction, but the damage is still visible. Although the theory has a long history, the mass hysteria started with a few publicised cases in the U.S. during the late-1980s. One of the first happened in 1989, at a day-care centre in the small town of Edenton, North Carolina. A couple of parents accused two crèche owners, a married couple, of having exposed their children to sexual abuse. When this became known, psychotherapists travelled to Edenton, stayed at hotels in the city and offered their services to other families. It was not long before more children, who had never complained about their treatment at the kindergarten, started to get repressed memories of sexual intercourse, sodomy, assault and even murder. The stories became increasingly worse and increasingly improbable, but not even when they came to involve spacecraft and trained sharks were the suspicions of the judiciary aroused. Three people were convicted in court for abuse. Owner Robert Kelly was given a long prison sentence, but the verdict was annulled in 1995. His wife, Betsy, who saw their own children at risk of being without both parents, also spent a few years in prison but did not serve the entire sentence in exchange for a confession. She was released in 1994.

Another case that played a key role in the spread of the epidemic occurred in 1969 with an unsolved murder of a little girl in California. Twenty years later, a young woman named Eileen Franklin, who grew up in the same area as the murder victim, was having psychotherapy for mental disorders. With the help of the therapist, over a few months she got ever more detailed memories of sexual abuse, to which as a child her father would have subjected her. After additional therapy, she also recalled that she had witnessed the murder of the girl in the neighbourhood and that the killer was her own father. Technical evidence and contemporary witnesses were missing but, after the testimony of Eileen’s psychotherapist, who gave assurance that her recovered memories were authentic, Franklin’s father was convicted of murder. The case gave rise to extensive writings in the popular press, and was depicted even in a movie with Shelley Long in the lead role, Fatal Memories. The Eileen Franklin Story. In Sweden, the case was publicised by the then senior lecturer in psychology, Sven-Åke Christianson. In his book, Traumatic Memories (1994), Christianson completely accepted Franklin’s memories as authentic and categorically dismissed sceptical critics. The theory of repression of traumatic memories was thus not only further spread, but it also then had a scientific legitimacy. When the U.S. judicial system eventually woke up and annulled Franklin’s conviction, he had spent seven years in prison.

It is hardly a coincidence that a Swedish case with many parallels to the Franklin case occurred at this time. A young woman in western Sweden sought help from a child psychiatrist for mild depressive problems and eating disorders. With the help of therapists who embraced the theory promulgated in Christianson’s book – that eating disorders are caused by sexual abuse, especially, of course, forced oral sex – she started having nightmares in which her father molested her. Gradually, they came to be perceived as authentic memories. The abuse was mostly said to have taken place in her father’s truck during work trips, on which his daughter sometimes accompanied him. According to witnesses at the time, the girl happily went on such trips. That she did not hesitate at the prospect of being brutally raped was explained by her repressed memories. After another term of therapy, the girl suddenly remembered that she, as a six-year-old passenger in her father’s truck during a trip to Germany, witnessed how he killed a hitchhiker who rejected his sexual advances. The Swedish police wrote to their German counterparts to see if they had any unsolved murders of women from that time and were sent two black and white photographs of women murdered by unknown perpetrators. The driver’s daughter was confronted with these and pointed out the one her father ‘murdered’. He was charged, and at the trial Christianson’s book was used by the prosecutor to prove the authenticity of his daughter’s recovered memories. Christianson had promised to testify for the prosecution, but pulled out when it became clear that another witness would contradict the claims of repressed memories. The driver was acquitted on two counts. Most memory researchers now reject the theory of repressed memories. The typical cases related to a person, in a large majority of the cases a woman, who claimed for many years to have been subjected to regular abuse but had no conscious knowledge of it. Eventually she ends up at a therapist, and over the course of several months gradually more detailed memories of abuse emerge. Two explanatory hypotheses have been put forward: one says that evolution has given our brains a special mechanism to protect the individual against anguished memories by displacing them into the unconscious. The second hypothesis says that memories are the result of therapeutic suggestion, possibly assisted by popular culture with its countless magazine articles, books and television films. Repression theory is implausible for several reasons: first, it is incompatible with universal human experience. If our brains had been equipped with this alleged protection function, we should be able to document this suppression in historical records, which does not appear to be the case. Who has heard of concentration camp prisoners and torture victims who do not know what they’ve been through? In reality, people remember so well. In a classic study from 1990 (”The Memory of Concentration Camp Survivors”) Wagenaar & Groeneweg conclude that almost all witnesses had detailed memories of the Nazi concentration camps even 40 years later. Nor does there appear to be other types of historical example. However, there are literary depictions of the phenomenon, not least from Romanticism and onwards. In Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities from 1859, there is, for example, a person who forgets that he is a doctor after being incarcerated in the Bastille. Harrison Pope, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, argues that older records are missing. Pope and some of his colleagues announced a competition where the person who could find an earlier example was promised 1,000 dollars as a reward. The reward was paid to the person who suggested the opera Nina by Dalayrac and Marsollier from 1786. Older examples than this have not been found. Secondly, it is unlikely for purely theoretical reasons that nature would have provided the brain with the ability to repress traumatic memories. An important feature of such memories is that of making it easier for us to avoid such dangerous situations in the future. Though this is also granted to repression theory advocates, who argue that the repression is a protection that nature has developed against anxiety. That these memories provoke anxiety is an important part of their protective function. What advocates argue is that nature has first developed an alarm signal, but that these memories are so harmful that they require a muffler to protect us against the alarm. But the theory is stranger than that. The elimination of the alarm signal creates in turn so many problems that one must resist even the muffler. Patients have to go to therapy to bring back the memories nature tried to protect them against. Thirdly, there is no scientific evidence for displacement theory. A large number of reputable reviews of the scientific literature show this quite clearly; for example, Richard McNally’s Remembering Trauma (2003), Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham’s The Myth of Repressed Memory (1994), as well as my own essay, ”The Dangers of the Therapeutic Culture” in Modernity and Its Discontents (2005). A typical example is a report from the British Royal College of Psychiatrists in 1998. British doctors were puzzled by conflicting claims in the field and wanted science-based guidelines for the handling of alleged cases of repression. The society appointed a task force to search the scientific literature and it summarised its findings as follows: There is no evidence of the repression and return of verified, severe traumatic events … There is also a striking absence in the literature of well-authenticated cases of such repressed memories recovered through psychotherapy. Given the prevalence of sexual abuse of children, there should, even if just a small number of them have repression and some of them are subsequently recovered in therapy, be a significant number of substantiated cases. In fact, there are none.

One reason that repression appears plausible to so many may be that it is confused with other familiar phenomena. All of us have experienced a moment when we have not thought of an event for several years but have suddenly been reminded of it. But that does not mean that the memory has been actively repressed. One can also avoid thinking about an unpleasant event and avoid situations that activate the memory of it. If we succeed in this, it is conceivable that memory will fade with time, as with normal forgetfulness. Even this, however, is not repression. In the latter process, the memory is assumed to be totally inaccessible but still remains intact in the brain, and may even cause disease symptoms. In normal forgetfulness, the memory is available but fades gradually. Nothing here suggests that in this way one could forget the trauma of rape or murder. The normal human experience of traumatic events is, on the contrary, the more terrible the memories are, the harder they are to forget. There have been a few, fairly recent research studies on so-called ‘directed forgetting’. In the laboratory experiments, subjects had to study a list of words and were then instructed to forget some of them, and, to some extent, they succeeded. As critics pointed out, this is neither surprising nor relevant. First, the subjects had to forget a single word, not traumatic memories of protracted events. Secondly, it was argued that there was no evidence that the forgotten words were repressed in the sense that the memories were still inaccessible to consciousness for years, and then were possible to recover with therapy. (See John F. Kihlstrom’s ”No Need for Repression” in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2002) While strong arguments thus speak against the repression hypothesis, there are good reasons for alternative therapeutic suggestions. Several psychologists, such as Elizabeth Loftus and Steven Ceci in ”Suggestibility of the Child Witness” (1993), have shown what many parents have always known: it is quite easy to get children to believe that they have experienced things that never happened. Even many adults have themselves experienced how they thought they remembered things they actually fantasised about, or had been told. If one believes that one’s mental problems are due to unconscious memories of abuse, and if you sit and discuss this with a therapist every week for a few months, it is perhaps not so surprising if you start to dream about it. If you then learn that dreams are memories, it is natural if we come, over time, to remember such abuse.

Many have argued that therapists are careful to avoid anything that might induce false memories in patients, but it is actually not difficult to demonstrate therapeutic influence; in the case of the truck driver mentioned above, one can immediately see that in the investigation material. Here is a short excerpt from a police interrogation at a time before the girl’s alleged memories had become entrenched. Here we can clearly see the influence to which the girl (F) was exposed to by both the staff at the child psychiatric clinic and the police’s own interviewer (I):

 I: I know you have had anorexia … what do you think caused it?

F: The psychologists … think it was my dad who caused it by what he did … but it’s not something that anyone can say because I cannot remember myself.

 I: But when you say you do not remember – what is that? You must have some little memory of what he did?

F: Yes, I have.

I: Can you tell me about them?

F: No, not the memories … I’m not sure, but it’s about incest … we do not really know how.

I: You remember the occasions when it happened?

F: No, I do not, it’s just some memories but I cannot get a full picture of what happened.


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 I: But you remember that it was sexual abuse?

 F: I do not really know what to say … I do not remember anything … I remember that he touched me in a certain way … the staff at the child psychiatric clinic interpret it in their own way. I do not know, I cannot say…

Repression theory has caused terrible tragedies in Sweden. Families have been shattered and innocent men remain in jail because of testimony from Swedish psychologists. The two doctors who had their lives ruined when, in a grotesque mass-media hysteria, they were accused of having murdered and dismembered the prostitute Catrine da Costa have still not been vindicated. Among the ‘evidence’ adduced against the doctors was a story from one of the men’s daughters. This girl said, when she was 17 months old, that she was subjected to sexual abuse and also witnessed how her father and his colleague had slashed and defiled a woman in a medical examiners’ centre outside Stockholm. The girl, of course, did not say this directly because she had repressed memories. The putative specialists made an assessment of the child’s testimony for the court; the paediatrician Frank Lindblad and psychologist Margareta Erixon, said the girl’s indifference when she recalled the medical examiners’ centre was proof that she had repressed horrible memories. Even the case of Thomas Quick starts with repressed memories. The first stories about all the murders that Quick was supposed to have committed occurred in therapy, where the aim was to elicit such memories. Today, we know that the therapy succeeded beyond all expectations. In the debates on both the knife murder and the Quick scandal, the criticism was primarily directed against representatives of the judiciary, police, prosecutors and lawyers, but a large part of the blame probably lies with certain academics. Universities are supposed to be society’s last resort in terms of expertise and facts, but several scholars contributed greatly to the spread of repression theory. Then professor of forensic psychiatry, the late Lars Lidberg, and former lecturer in psychology, Sven-Ake Christianson, testified in one of Quick’s first trials that it was sexual abuse and severe traumatic events during childhood that lay behind abnormal behaviour.

It is easy to be horrified over the judiciary’s uncritical embracing of those fantasies, but one must remember that police officers and lawyers were bewildered by allegations of repression and understandably turned to those who were considered to be experts. If professors of forensic psychiatry and psychology assert this in academic textbooks and sit in courts as expert witnesses and declare the same thing, it is perhaps not surprising that lawyers will be led astray. In the Halmstad case, the prosecutor explicitly cited Christianson’s book and had also been promised his testimony. It is distressing to note that while this was at its peak, almost no experts spoke publicly to reject the insanity. An honourable exception is Lennart Sjoberg, professor of psychology at Handelshögskolan, but otherwise there was silence from the universities. It may seem as if the behavioural sciences, relatively speaking, are more prone to irrational trends than other subjects. Why is it so? One possible explanation could be that they affect people’s lives to a special degree and we all therefore have well-established views with which scientific arguments cannot cope. A senior psychiatrist once regretfully confessed to me that ”it is not easy to work in a clinical discipline where there are nine million specialists in the country”. This explanation is probably not correct. People without academic training seldom think that such fantasies can be taught at universities. For most, it is clear that certain types of brilliance are inherited, something vigorously denied by many professors, and they always react with wide-eyed wonder that educated people can believe in penis envy or multiple personalities. A more reasonable explanation is that the behavioural sciences hold methodological difficulties that place special demands on practitioners’ reviews. My own experience is that behavioural scientists, precisely because of these difficulties, are better schooled in the scientific method and significantly more methodologically sophisticated than most scientists. A third factor is that some subjects attract people whose interests and motives are not primarily scientific. For example, it is obvious that sociology has long attracted people with a political agenda rather than a scientific one, and that this has affected the subject’s scientific aspect. The question is whether behavioural sciences really are particularly vulnerable to pseudo-scientific fashion movements. Is it not rather the case that all fields that engage people emotionally – it can apply to political ideology, environmental and life issues – can tempt us to override rational argument.

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