A Truce in the Memory Wars?

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Book recognizes true and “false memories” of abuse

By Richard P. Kluft

BETRAYAL TRAUMA: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse
By Jennifer J. Freyd, C’79
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996, 232 pp., $24.95

“Memory wars” is now playing in a consulting room, family, academic department, court of law, or in the media near you. This term is often given to the polarized, politicized, and frequently vicious debates and controversies surrounding the validity of recollections of childhood traumatization, especially those recalled after having been forgotten for many years.

The sexual abuse of children, especially when the alleged abuser is a parent or close relative, is among the most unsettling subjects with which our society must contend. Until recently, we avoided it with denial and neglect, as individuals and as a society. Only twenty years ago, major psychiatric texts reported the incidence of incest as between one and two cases per million.

Feminism has been preeminent among the social forces that raised the consciousness of the mental health professions about the sexual exploitation of women and childrenthese abuses are commonplace events rather than rarities. Unfortunately, an atmosphere in which those who alleged such abuses were routinely disbelieved was replaced by a zeitgeist in which they were all too often given uncritical credence.

Now we are witnessing a backlash, an emphasis on the defense of those accused of sexual abuse, especially on the basis of recovered memories, and an attack on accusers and their therapists. We can observe a determined effort to challenge whether painful experiences can be blocked out, to question the validity of certain mental disorders commonly associated with childhood sexual abuse, and to put forth the argument that a veritable “industry” of abuse therapists has developed, dedicated to the notion that child abuse is at the root of many mental disorders.

Furthermore, these therapists are said, by using techniques that encourage false memories of child abuse, to virtually create the conditions they purport to treat. They are alleged to do untold damage to innocent persons and to undermine, if not destroy, numerous innocent families. No firm evidence for such epidemic misadventure has been demonstratedwe are awash in a flood of opinion, of charge and countercharge.

Rational views of the available evidence are rather uncommon, because so many prominent academicians have rushed to take polarized stances that disregard data that contradict their points of view.

That, in addition to the intrinsic merit of the book, is what makes Jennifer Freyd’s Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse, such an exceptional document, and raises it to the level of a landmark contribution.
Betrayal Trauma is a feat of superb scholarship and remarkable objectivity and integrity, all the more deserving of respect and admiration because Freyd, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, has spent the last few years in the eye of the “memory wars” hurricane. She was already a well-respected scholar in cognitive psychology when, in the early 1990s, she began to recover memories of having been abused. Her allegations were repudiated by her parents, who proceeded, with others, to establish the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an organization that has sought to publicize and support the stance that most recovered memories of childhood mistreatment are confabulationsthat is, “false memories.”

Freyd is among a growing group of scholars who openly acknowledge that there is credible evidence both for the recovery of once-unavailable accurate memories of childhood mistreatment, and for the occurrence of inaccurate recollections that can be experienced, and will be reported to therapists and legal authorities, as compellingly real.

Adroitly employing everyday experiences to make potentially complex processes and concepts immediately accessible, Freyd reviews the literature on both the distortion of memory and the preservation of memory with admirable evenhandedness. She demonstrates not only that memories can be disrupted and that inaccurate memories can be created, but also that such distortions are far from unique or inevitable; it is difficult to support many of the broad generalizations about the creation of pseudomemories that have been made in the false memory debate from the limited findings of laboratory studies.

Freyd’s own theory is simple and elegant. She bypasses the terminologic and conceptual confusions associated with such terms as “repression” and “dissociation” by using “knowledge isolation” as an overarching concept. In addition to the traditional motivations for not knowing avoidance of pain, avoidance of being overwhelmed, and avoidance of unacceptable wishes, he proposes a fourth and primary motivation for knowledge isolation: avoidance of information that threatens a necessary attachment.

We are social creatures, dependent on relationships, alliances, and trust. Betrayal violates the basic tenor of human relationships, and although we recognize it, we may stifle our recognition to serve the greater goal of survival. A child who is sexually abused by an adult with power and authority over the child is in a bind because the child must trust his or her parents and caregivers. Freyd writes: “Child sexual abuse perpetrated by a trusted caretaker is therefore a prime example of the kind of event that can create information blockage in the mind of the victim. To know is to put oneself in danger. To not know is to align with the caretaker and ensure survival. Some degree of amnesia or unawareness of the abuse is thus a natural reaction to childhood sexual abuse. Forgetting occurs not for the reduction of suffering, but to stay alive.”

This information leads to many testable hypotheses about which data already has been collected. Freyd methodically reviews this information and makes a powerful argument for betrayal trauma; she also suggest avenues for future research.

For the scholar, the mental health professional, and the intelligent lay reader, Freyd’s rich and rewarding work offers powerful testimony that a scholar with integrity and compassionate rationality can withstand the onslaught of impassioned hysteria and redirect a field’s attention to its basic concerns. She has set a new standard for responsible scholarship in this frequently troubled and troublesome area of study. Let us hope that her example proves influential.

DR. RICHARD P. KLUFT, GM’73, is clinical professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine and visiting lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His recent research has documented both the corroboration of memories of abuse recovered in therapy and the occurrence of inaccurate pseudomemories of abuse in clinical populations.

A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

A CRISIS OF MEANING: How Gay Men are Making Sense of AIDS.
By Steven S. Schwartzberg, C’80.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 258 pp., $25.
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This book focuses on how gay men find a way to rebuild a world of meaning amid the trauma and uncertainty of the AIDS crisis. It includes in-depth interviews with nineteen men living with HIV. Interwoven with their stories are observations from the author’s psychotherapy practice in Cambridge, Mass. Schwartzberg, who also is a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School, passes no judgment on the coping strategies he describes, but insists on the need for balancing somber reality with life-sustaining hope.

Edited by Kenneth W. Taber, W’78.
St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1996. 717 pp., $105.
A treatise on New York employment law and a handbook for resolving the nuts-and-bolts issues faced by practitioners, this book includes chapters by many of the pre-eminent employment litigators in the state. Taber heads Christy and Viener’s Employment Law Group and has litigated a full range of employment matters, including sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and wrongful termination.

INDUS AGE: The Writing System.
By Gregory L. Possehl, Faculty.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. 244 pp., $45.
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Possehl, professor and chair of the department of anthropology and curator of the South Asia section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology/Anthropology, has written a book about the undeciphered writing system of the Indus Civilization. Many attempts to decipher this pictographic script, invented by the people of Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, and other settlements in Pakistan and northwestern India, have been judged failures.This book is an in-depth survey of the nature of Indus writing and a comprehensive review of the most prominent decipherment efforts. It ends with some thoughts on the direction that future research should take.

Translated by David Townsend.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. 214 pp., $37.50.
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The typical undergraduate may not have heard of Walter of Chatillon’s ten-book Latin epic on the life of Alexander the Great, but it was required reading from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries. Townsend, an associate professor of medieval studies and English at the University of Toronto, has achieved the first English verse translation of the work since it was written in the 1170s.

CONTESTING THE NATION: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India.
Edited by David Ludden, Faculty, C’72, Gr’78.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. 320 pp., $39.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
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Ludden, an associate professor of history and South Asia regional studies, explores Hindu majoritarian politics over the last century and its dramatic reformulation during the decline of the Congress Party in the 1980s. Twelve prominent scholars provide perspectives from the fields of political science, religious studies, ethnomusicology, history, art history, and anthropology, comparing trends in India with ethnic, religious, and cultural movements in other parts of the world.

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