Sexual Trauma & Repressed Memory

Sexual Trauma & Repressed Memory

Cambridge, Mass.


Cambridge, Mass.

JoAnn Wypijewski, in her March 16 “Carnal Knowledge” column, tells us that Paul Shanley’s “defense counsel offered not a single study or witness to rebut” the legitimacy of repressed memory. Is she unaware that the highly aggressive discreditor of repressed memory Elizabeth Loftus was put on the stand by Shanley’s highly aggressive (and expensive) lawyer? Or did Wypijewski repress that memory? Also, I would find it amusing if it were not so ludicrous that Wypijewski thinks this is “a case that some powerful interests no doubt hoped was as settled as the grave.” And exactly which powerful interests might that be: survivors/victims of Paul Shanley?


New York City

As a longtime Nation reader I was surprised and profoundly disappointed to read the piece of propaganda by JoAnn Wypijewski. It is filled with unsupported statements that reveal a bias against research and a failure to appreciate the complexity of the long-term consequences of violence against children. There is an abundant neurobiological literature that documents and explains the mechanism of dissociative memory and a growing appreciation for the difference between dissociation and repression. While we understand now that memory is unreliable, we also understand that traumatic memory from childhood haunts people and can wreak havoc with their lives as adults. Dissociative amnesia, along with other dissociative disorders, is a researched, documented diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. False memory of childhood trauma remains a polemical tool in the hands of a few angry individuals.

Associate clinical professor of psychiatry
Weill College of Medicine, Cornell University

Wypijewski Replies

New York City

How touching that Lucia Mudd believes that the Boston priest scandal was a simple dispute between victims and criminals. That was always a comforting fiction, as if the media, which boosted their sales; and the Boston Globe, which wangled a Pulitzer for its Spotlight accusation team; and the personal injury lawyers, who made millions; and the DA, Martha Coakley, who advanced her political career; and the memory therapists, who spouted their cockamamie theories and collected their fees; and the advocacy groups, whose members brandished images of Satan and (as I witnessed) spat on people who disagreed with them outside churches, were all selfless actors in the public service.

The Catholic Church must be most glum about renewed attention. Having formerly shunned real victims of abuse, it made itself a cash register for anyone with an allegation, just to make the scandal go away. Its estimated $1.4 million check to Gregory Ford was the largest individual payout of the scandal. Ford had started the chain reaction of nearly identical recovered memories that landed Paul Shanley in prison, but he was dropped from the criminal case after prosecutors discovered that, as a teenager, he’d accused family members and a neighbor of rape, accusations his family never had an interest in pursuing.

Dr. Hopenwasser says in passing, “we understand now that memory is unreliable.” Exactly my point. And memory that was not even memory–that is, inaccessible, banished from consciousness–until “triggered” by newspaper articles and the prospect of monetary gain is even more unreliable. In large part, our understanding of how memory works, and doesn’t, owes a debt to decades of brilliant research by Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus was a defense witness at trial, badly handled by Shanley’s then-lawyer, who did not even come back for redirect after a misleading cross-
examination. Mudd either misremembered or misread the first passage she quotes, which concerned the pretrial hearing, the only venue where the admissibility of repressed memory was considered. There, bizarrely, the defense called on the prosecution’s expert, who naturally affirmed the prosecution’s position.

“Repression” has been taking a beating in the psychological profession for years (e.g., Harrison Pope et al.’s review of 120 studies of memory and trauma in 1999; Yacov Rofé’s review of decades of studies, including those on memory, and disputatious theorizing on repression in the Review of General Psychology last year), so other names have gained favor. The prosecution’s experts spoke of “dissociative traumatic amnesia,” which they defined as “massive repression” and called “dissociation” for short. But “dissociation” also covers depersonalization and derealization, so it is no more precise than “repression.”

By whatever name, the belief that the mind protects itself by blocking memories of repeated traumatic experience so that people are incapable of remembering anything at all until years later is unsupported by any neuroscientific evidence that serious researchers in the field have studied. That is why courts that have weighed the research and heard opposing expert testimony in evidentiary hearings have been rejecting cases that rely on repressed memory/dissociative amnesia since the late 1990s.

Many readers, firm in their belief in repressed memory, have written in angrily, and carries (in addition to the falsehood that Shanley was connected to NAMBLA or its predecessor) a post offering links to literature supposedly supporting their view. Indeed, there are many clinical reports of patients who claim traumatic amnesia, and of clinicians who make that diagnosis based on what patients tell them, sometimes under hypnosis. That is not the same as research. The diagnostic manual mentioned by Dr. Hopenwasser includes “dissociative amnesia” because of those clinical reports. As a dictionary of psychological diagnoses, it substantiates nothing about how the brain actually works. The current edition of the manual notes the controversy over repressed memory and cautions against its forensic use.

There is also a body of flawed research (without controls or error rates; with faulty methodology; with subjects who report abuse in infancy and therefore would not remember because of normal infantile amnesia; with subjects who suffered brain injury along with trauma; etc.), or flawed conclusions from studies. These have been scrupulously analyzed by Dr. Pope, recently in an affidavit in the Shanley case, which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court obviously found compelling.

No one doubts that traumatic memories are haunting, but they have to be memories, and the signal event has to have been traumatic. People who were tortured may not remember every detail of their agony, but they cannot forget it. Children old enough to remember surviving the Nazi death camps or the trenches of the many My Lais may have gaps in memory and may have successfully managed not to think about the experience, but they were never incapable of thinking about it. In terms of the memory process, there is no reason the experience of sexual violence–as alleged in the Shanley case–should be different.

But sex is different, and forgettable, if it was not violent, not experienced as trauma, or even as sexual. Interested readers should see recent intriguing memory research by Richard McNally of Harvard and Elke Geraerts of the University of St. Andrews, in Britain, in the March issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. Why people might define weird, nontraumatic experiences as trauma later in life has as much to do with culture as anything, and requires far more attention than can be given here.


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