Memory Wars

  • Kathy Pezdek and William P. Banks (editors) The Recovered Memory, False Memory Debate. Academic Press, 1996.
  • Daniel L. Schacter {editor) Memory Distortion, how Minds, Brains and Societies Reconstruct the Past, Harvard University Press, 1997.
These two anthologies of research reports and essays highlight one of the major controversies of the present time, which has relevance for all the topics discussed in Magonia - the nature and reliability of memory. The most public face of this controversy has been the claims of recovered memories of child abuse by adults, years after the event; which is the theme of Pezdek and Banks's anthology, and is one of the topics in the Schacter volume.

The majority of the papers in Pezdek and Banks are more or less favourable to the idea of memory recovery; those in Schacter somewhat more sceptical What struck me about much of this literature, was that although it provided fascinating information on the the nature of childhood memory and the ease with which children remember or misremember past events, traumatic and otherwise, few of the contributors addressed the main phenomena of the recovered memory movement: the recovery by adults of powerful, emotion laden imagery, spontaneously or under various forms of therapy, which either the patient or the therapist interprets as memories.

Taken in terms only of childhood sexual abuse, it is not at all clear that the recovered memory/false memory debate can be resolved. However if we add in the material discussed in Magonia, claims of alien abduction, past lives, or that one had a lost alternate life as a CIA courier etc, then the balance tilts very dramatically infavour of the false memory interpretation. The memories of alien abduction or past lives have the same powerful effect-laden quality and sense of reality as do recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Alien abduction narratives or secret courier narratives also have another factor in common with the more extreme abuse narratives, that of the secret, parallel life, which the experient knew nothing about.

It should be also noted that other people may label this powerful imagery on other folkloric lines, for example as episodes of clairvoyance or precognition. This suggests that while it is by no means impossible that isolated cases of sexual abuse may be forgotten along with many other features of childhood, only to be recalled in horror later, with adult awareness of the meaning of the event, claims of total repression of multiple sadistic abuse should be regarded with extreme scepticism.

False and distorted memories do not only relate to these dramatic, headline situations, and both volumes contain material which will be of interest in he study of the distortion of the memory of everyday occurrences, to say nothing of the apparently anomalous experiences discussed in Magonia. Many of these memories contain elements of real events mixed with fantasy, something which became very apparent in studies of students memories of the Challenger dssaster. (I can point to an example myself, I was quite surprised when a 30th annivesary programme on the death of JFK showed how distorted was my apparently clear memory of how the news was broken on British television).

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