Are ‘Recovered’ Memories of Childhood Abuse Reliable?

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False memory

In the 1970s, a Canadian woman named Michelle Smith sought psychiatric treatment for depression following a miscarriage. Her psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder, felt that her symptoms indicated early experiences of child sexual abuse, and he then used hypnosis to help “recover” her memories of such incidents.

Over the next 14 months, Smith went on to “remember” horrific experiences of satanic ritual abuse at the hands of her mother and others when she was five years old. Smith and Pazder (who would eventually marry), went on to publish a best seller of the recovered memories called Michelle Remembers, sparking a wave of claims of ritualised sexual abuse in the 1980s.

Was there any truth to these claims? Can you really “recover” forgotten memories of abuse?

Understanding Satanic Panic

The term “satanic panic” refers to the rise in fears and beliefs of satanic cults in the 1980s and early 90s, primarily in North America but with some notable examples in Australia and New Zealand.

Some features of satanic panic included a belief that popular movies and music were corrupting youth through hidden messages, and that even the quietest suburban neighbourhoods had a hidden occult underbelly involved in child sexual abuse, human and animal sacrifice and other nefarious deeds.

Books such as Michelle Remembers provoked parents to be hypervigilant of signs of abuse in their own children, as well as a wave of adult patients recovering memories of historical satanic abuse.

Many claims of satanic ritual abuse made during this time were later proven to be false, and the practice of “recovering” memories through hypnosis widely discredited. 

Some of the more horrific consequences of 1980s satanic panic were best exemplified by the prosecution and harassment of the staff members of McMartin preschool.

In 1983, a mother accused the owner of the preschool, Virginia McMartin, and several of her staff members, of sexually abusing her son. This accusation led to an investigation by law enforcement, which eventually grew into one of the most extensive and expensive investigations in US history.

Over the course of the investigation, dozens of children who had attended the McMartin Preschool were interviewed by investigators and asked about potential abuse. The children made a number of allegations, including that they had been sexually abused, photographed, and forced to participate in bizarre rituals involving animals and blood.

Psychologists who subsequently reviewed footage of police interviews, found that the questioning of children was highly leading and that many of the allegations were inconsistent and highly improbable (involving staff members flying around rooms on broomsticks etc).

Nevertheless, this questionable testimony was used to make several arrests of preschool staff as well as a series of prosecutions initiated throughout the 1980s.  After seven years of attempts, no convictions were obtained and the case is often cited as a clear example of moral panic leading to the prosecution of innocent individuals.

Can You Really “Recover” Memories?

The nature and reliability of recovered memories of abuse is a divisive topic amongst forensic psychologists.

In terms of case histories, there are numerous examples of adults recovering memories of childhood abuse and, as a result of investigation, finding strong corroborative evidence of those experiences. However, there are equally strong examples of adults recovering memories that are later proven to be impossible or highly unlikely.

Long term memory is not a straightforward process, involving the semantic “encoding” of experiences followed by an active recreation of events during recall. Recalling memories of the past always carries the potential for some inaccuracies. 

Whether traumatic memories, such as experiences of child sexual abuse, can ever by truly “forgotten” and then remembered later in life in full accuracy is a subject of intense debate.  

Some psychologists believe that traumatic memories can be “blocked” from awareness and then gradually recalled and understood later in life. Others believe that memories can be “stored” somatically, leading to an array of bodily symptoms that can only be fully understood once the traumatic memory is processed.

However, there are also many psychologists who question whether traumatic experiences can ever be completely blocked from awareness, and question the reliability of “recalled” narratives. 

There is also a “middle ground” approach, such as that taken by Dr Elke Geraerts, who distinguishes between memories recovered gradually within the context of suggestive therapy, which are generally unreliable, and those that are spontaneously recovered, without extensive prompting or explicit attempts to reconstruct the past.

Overall, there isn’t a clear answer on the reliability of recovered memories with each case requiring an individual consideration of its accuracy and plausibility.

How Would Recovered Memories be Challenged in Court?

Challenging the veracity of recovered memories at trial can involve cross-examining the complainant about their memories as well as providing expert opinion on the reliability of recovered memory evidence.

During cross examination the complainant may be asked about inconsistencies or implausible aspects of their story, as well as to consider whether their recall of events is accurate.

If suitable, the defence may also call an expert witness to give evidence on the unreliability of recovered memories.

In R v Bartlett, the Victorian Court of Appeal acknowledged that it was suitable for the defence to call a qualified expert to challenge the veracity of recovered memories. This case involved allegations of an indecent assault and false imprisonment of a nine-year-old girl, which was reported to have occurred 13 years before the trial. The complainant had recovered memories of her alleged abuse whilst undertaking therapy. 

The suitability of either of these defence strategies will depends greatly on the nature of the allegations and the existence or non-existence of corroborative evidence of abuse.

Going To court?

If you have been charged with a criminal offence, call Sydney Criminal Lawyers anytime on (02) 9261 8881 and let our profession-leading defence team provide you with accurate advice, explain your options and fight for the optimal outcome.

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Jarryd Bartle

Jarryd Bartle is an Associate Lecturer in Criminology and Justice Studies at RMIT University and a consultant for the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative, which investigates claims of wrongful conviction and advocates for systemic reform to protect against miscarriages of justice.

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