Experts have often commented on the fallibility of memory, from Daniel Schachter’s classic book, The Seven Sins of Memory to Elizabeth Loftus’ TED Talk on the subject. Most of us are aware, at least intellectually, that memory can be flawed. Unfortunately, the discussion seems to end at the point where the fascination fades. Loftus’ showing us that we can’t identify which of the coins that are similar in appearance is the real penny, the convincing memory of your father driving on the right side of the road while vacationing in the UK when you were six — these are easy for us to get our minds around.
A recent internet cascade brought the problems of memory into a different perspective. This time, Reddit readers got into an extended discussion of a 1990s movie called Shazaam in which the celebrity Sinbad had played a genie. The New Statesman produced the story, which was then picked up by other media outlets. The opening of the article is where the implications for the field of assessing and treating sexual violence begin:
In the early Nineties, roughly around 1994, a now 52-year-old man named Don ordered two copies of a brand new video for the rental store his uncle owned and he helped to run. “I had to handle the two copies we owned dozens of times over the years,” says Don (who wishes to give his first name only). “And I had to watch it multiple times to look for reported damages to the tape, rewind it and check it in, rent it out, and put the boxes out on display for rental.”
Don is describing the movie that doesn’t actually exist. What is amazing is not the falsity of the memories, but the extent to which to which people cling to them:
“It feels like a part of my childhood has now been stolen from me. How does a movie simply vanish from our history?” This isn’t Don speaking, but another man – who he has never met – named Carl*. Carl, whose name has been changed because he wishes to remain anonymous, recalls watching a movie called with his sister in the early Nineties, and has fond memories of discussing it with her over the last 20 years.
The discussion of this movie apparently began in 2009 on the Reddit web site and escalated to the point where Sinbad had to comment repeatedly that he had not starred in the movie and had never even played a genie. Still, readers cling to the belief that he did, with confidence and vigor. This is where professionals in our field should sit up and take notice.
People providing treatment to those who have abused frequently accept nothing less than a complete accounting of a person’s sexual history. In many cases, this extends into accepting only those accounts that match the story of the person they abused. I personally watched as entire teams of clinicians insisted that a client in treatment should not move forward in treatment because his version had not matched the “findings of fact” issued by the court that had convicted him. The concern was not that he was minimizing his behavior and therefore was participating in treatment only superficially; it was that the minutiae of his story did not match those of the person he acknowledged he abused, as filtered through legal documents.
Holding someone back in treatment for the above reason is worrisome given what we know about memory; it simply doesn’t comport with the research. Also concerning is the confidence with which we professionals can assume that a client is actively lying or purposefully downplaying his or her actions. It is worth asking whether it isn’t more important to us to be confident in our certainty than it is to accept the limitations of our knowledge. In other words, no one wants to appear ambivalent or wishy-washy about their conclusions and opinions. Ironically, second-rate reports overflow with confidence, while first-rate forensic reports are written with confidence and openly acknowledge their limitations.
It is worth noting that many professionals in the US (and some other jurisdictions) also rely on the polygraph to verify their clients’ accounts, despite the scientific problems associated with it. Although polygraph advocates rightly point out its ability to elicit more information from clients, we still lack research to conclude that this information is always as accurate or useful as we would like. The fact that there is still no evidence to support the idea that polygraph examinations reduce subsequent abuse is beyond the scope of this blog post.
My point in raising these issues is not to discount the polygraph or the processes it entails. Rather, it seems important to note the many ways in which “the truth” can get lost along the way. People who are abused don’t necessarily remember every detail correctly (we’ll come back to this). People who abuse don’t necessarily recall every detail correctly. People who have been traumatized frequently have problems with memory; it’s a diagnostic criterion for the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. People writing the accounts of those who abuse and those who have been abused are not without memory fallibility either, and neither are the people who review those reports, often recycled over the course of years through evaluations and re-evaluations.
On the other hand, the accounts of traumatized people aren’t necessarily wrong either. Memories of abuse can be vivid and profound. There may be no greater insult to a person who has been traumatized than to distrust their memories. In his recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, trauma researcher and clinician Bessel van der Kolk discusses these facts at length. Professionals who doubt the memories of abuse survivors do their clients no service. After all, many aspects of the memories indeed may be perfectly accurate, or their memory might become fragmented, with some parts dissipating while others linger on, sometimes causing decades of distress the person who lived them.
Adding further insult to injury, Shane O’Mara recently published a review of the many ways that memory fails under high-stress circumstances in his book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation. While this may seem out of place, O’Mara draws on findings from diverse areas, including the effects of stress, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and other experiences that are common among clients in and around the criminal-justice system. Taken together, all of these points should raise concern among professionals.
As a final point, it is worth noting that my colleagues, Jill Levenson, Gwenda Willis, and I found that males and females who have sexually abused often have a higher rate of adverse childhood experiences in their histories, raising further questions about the effects of their lives on their memories.
It may be time to acknowledge once and for all that, while we are quite certain that abuse poses an unacceptable risk of harm to those who experience it, the research shows how much noise there is in our systems as we try to retrieve and understand the details. What’s missing (i.e. understanding the fluidity of memory) from our understanding of clients matters, and sometimes the most confident answer is that we don’t know the complete picture.
David Prescott, LISCW