Ending the ‘Memory Wars’ does not redeem the victims

Witch-trial zealotry has given way to sound psychiatry – after vast damage was done
The Baltimore Sun, Mar. 2, 2003
http://www.sunspot.net/
By Paul McHugh, Special To The Sun

The Memory Wars are over. The voices of sanity in psychiatric practice won. But while the wars lasted – from the mid-1980s until the end of the 1990s – they did much damage to innocent people and to the public standing of psychotherapy.

The wars turned on a bizarre psychiatric opinion: that a child when sexually abused by a trusted parent or teacher could “repress” and forget the experience even while it was happening. These “repressed memories” could then produce unexplained mental depression later in life unless a therapist drew them forth with such procedures as hypnosis.

Zealous therapists encouraged thousands of patients to accuse their elderly parents of sexually abusing them years before and to confront them with lawsuits. Simultaneously – again based on the idea of “repression” – teachers in nursery schools were accused of abusing their little charges. These latter cases received much media attention.

The wars are ending for several reasons. The memories reported by many patients became absurd. Satanic cults were imagined, and even alien abduction. Many psychiatrists were rebuked for malpractice – sometimes professionally, sometimes in civil court. And most importantly, patients after discharge gradually began to doubt their memories, recanting their accusations and rejoining their parents.

As the wars wind down, three books together give a full picture of these events. One describes in vivid detail just how vicious the battles were and how the falsely accused were mistreated by the judicial system. The second explains just how false evidence and misdirected testimony were produced, leading to the erroneous convictions and false memories. The third brilliantly explains just how our minds are built so as to develop beliefs that go beyond evidence – and how in most other circumstances this feature is advantageous.

The valiant Dorothy Rabinowitz, now an editor of The Wall Street Journal, has pulled together her experience reporting on a series of court cases – primary among them that of the Amiraults, a scandalous miscarriage of justice in the Massachusetts courts – in a gripping book entitled No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times (Free Press, 288 pages, $25).

Rabinowitz began to scrutinize these affairs with the notorious Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey. Michaels, a young woman of good character, became a suspect when one of the 4-year olds she taught in a day-care center made an innocent statement to a doctor that she measured his temperature.

The family and a nurse assumed Michaels used a rectal probe (actually, she used a forehead plastic strip) and launched a campaign to investigate her as a child abuser. They consulted “experts” and drew other families into the campaign so that within weeks Michaels was accused of sexually molesting and terrorizing dozens of children in the foulest of ways, all in the few hours she worked with them in an open classroom.

Although many children denied the abuse and those who ultimately accused her produced implausible narratives – one claimed she turned him briefly into a mouse – the prosecution depended on the testimony of the “experts” who claimed that even the emphatic denials of some children were all proof of the abuse. Denials, they said, were typical symptoms of the “child abuse accommodation syndrome.” The jury believed this, and Michaels was sentenced to 47 years in prison.

Rabinowitz ultimately watched as the judges of the New Jersey appeals court excoriated the prosecutors (asking them whether they were “trying to bamboozle the court”) and, after she had spent five years in prison, acquitted Michaels. But Rabinowitz learned the perversions of justice driven by these beliefs, became a scourge of “experts” who were misdirecting the courts and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting.

In this book, she documents common themes in the sex abuse cases. She describes how belief in “recovered” memories is crucial and how the children were turned into accusers by the “expert” true believers and prosecutors. The same credulity toward child testimony, the same pressures to accuse, the same blindness to misattributions found in the Salem witch trials of 1692 came into play in U.S. courts in the 1990s and were led by distinguished American lawyers (Janet Reno, for one).

Stephen J. Ceci and Maggie Bruck in their book
Dr. Paul McHugh is distinguished service professor of psychiatry and former psychiatrist-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. He is a member of the Presidential Council on Bioethics. With Dr. Phillip R. Slavney, he wrote