Review: The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse

Elizabeth F. Loftus and Katherine Ketchum, The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2013). This is the 2013 ebook of the original 1994 publication.

At the outset of this review, I would like to make it clear that reading this particular tome should in no way be seen as an attempt to diminish the suffering of those who have been the victims of the horrible crime of child sexual abuse. That crime is heinous, and anything that can be done to eliminate it from society should be undertaken; anything that can be done to support those who have survived the predations of perpetrators should be done.

I have been privileged (it’s the only word I can use) during my public ministry to meet with and listen to the stories of survivors. I have been required to read case files presented by survivors, which have profoundly impacted my humanity. I will be forever grateful for the courage of survivors coming forward to be heard.

This book was recommended to me by a psychologist friend as I struggled to make sense – a logical sense which may not be immediately accessible – of the stories I have heard from survivors, both directly and through written accounts. I struggled to understand the nature of remembering in the context of those stories. While I acknowledge that many survivors of child sexual abuse take many years, if not decades, to be prepared to tell their story, I was left wondering how memory is formed and remembered across an extended period.

Elizabeth Loftus is an American psychologist whose research expertise is in human memory and the impact of external forces on memory. At the time of the original publication of this book, Loftus was a professor at the University of Washington, though she subsequently left that role and pursued other opportunities. Her work in human memory, particularly her criticism of repressed memory techniques, has brought her a certain level of infamy among some psychological and therapist community elements. And it is this criticism of repressed memory techniques that is the subject of this book.

Reading this book has provided many insights into how human memory is a malleable reality and which, when misused, can produce devastating results that can destroy the lives of families and individuals. When so-called recovered memories are the only evidence of alleged sexual abuse and other criminal acts, Loftus argues for additional corroborative evidence to be sought. The examples provided in this book show just how easy it is for the memories of both alleged victims and perpetrators to be manipulated – most often unwittingly – towards a particular end, an end that does not always serve the needs of either party.

Additionally, reading this book has provoked more questions than answers. While there is some insight into how human memory works and how human memory can be unwittingly manipulated, I continue to struggle with the nature and reality of memory and the act of remembering. I do not doubt that those who remember specific events happening in a particular way at a certain time believe those memories to be true for them – and, more often than not, containing more than a kernel of objective fact. In the stories and cases I have been privileged to hear and read, there is often much in the way of corroborative evidence to support those events remembered by the victim, even in the absence of one hundred per cent correspondence.

This book was a good read, although dealing with some particular harrowing cases. It has helped this reader understand the nature of human memory and the act of remembering. However, there is more to grasp before I can say I have a comfortable understanding of those subjects. The book is easily accessible and well-written, which allows the average reader to get the thrust of Loftus’ arguments with relative ease.