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Unchained memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found.

The debate over recovered memories and the idea that veridical memories or an abusive childhood can emerge in adulthood after long periods of partial or complete amnesia has been fiercely fought both in the United Kingdom and in the USA. Recently, Ofshe & Watters (1994) and Loftus & Ketcham (1994) have put the sceptical case that all such 'memories' are false, the product of suggestions by committed therapists who interpret a wide spectrum of patient symptoms as indicative of abuse. This book by Lenore Terr, a distinguished psychiatrist, is perhaps bound to be seen as a statement for the defence. However, her position seems more subtle than this: memories can come and go, be transformed, elaborated and certainly falsified. In short, at the level of the individual patient, there is more to memory than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio (or Endl, Larry and Beth).

Terr is perhaps best known for her studies of the 'Children of Chowchilla', a group of Californians who were kidnapped from their school bus and held for 27 hours in an underground chamber. Terr's conclusions from her studies of these and similar groups of traumatized children were that the memories staved with them ('Nobody repressed, and nobody forgot'). The child's particular anxieties and preoccupations might show through the fabric of the narrative in places, but the basic shape of the original events was well preserved over time.

Terr has gone on to argue that such 'one-off' incidents produce 'Type 1' trauma victims, who show no dramatic loss of memory for the events concerned. By contrast, 'Type II' trauma victims are subject to repeated trauma (as in the typical familial sexual abuse case), and such persons may show partial or complete loss of memory for the relevant events in adulthood. Most controversially, Terr expounded her Type I/Type II theory in her expert evidence in the Franklin case in 1990, the first murder case to be decided on the basis of recovered memories.

A 28-year-old woman, Eilleen Lipsker, had a revelation that at the age of eight years she had witnessed the murder of her schoolfriend, Susan Nason, at the hand of her father, George Franklin. The police had recovered Susan's remains from a shallow grave, and Lipsker's vivid account was strikingly corroborated at some (but by no means all) points by the forensic evidence. The defence sought to argue that Lipsker could have gleaned the facts from newspaper files, and that the therapy she was receiving for her marital problems could have been the unwitting source for her belief.

At Franklin's trial, Terr testified for the prosecution and Elizabeth Loftus for the defence. Terr argued that the mixture of correct gist combined with incorrect detail characterized real traumatic memories. Moreover, Lipsker was a Type II victim, on the grounds that Franklin had also physically abused her as a child (a fact not disputed by the defence), and these experiences, added to the murder, constituted repeated trauma. Faced with the rival testimonies, the jury convicted Franklin of first-degree murder, a verdict upheld on appeal.

The Franklin case constitutes the opening chapters of Terr's book. The remainder consists of other case studies, all carefully chosen to illustrate the impact upon the individual of memories lost or found. Terr writes from a personal perspective with an eye for the telling detail but a weakness for long passages of direct speech, the provenance of which is inevitably dubious. From time to time, she breaks off from her narrative to take in some nugget of recent experimental or neuropsychological research on memory that illustrates a feature of the troubled memories in question. Her grasp of this material is rather like her characterization of recovered memories: correct in gist but sometimes a little uncertain with regard to the details.

The case material is vivid and compelling, but like most such material it inevitably falls short as scientific evidence. The revelation by a scientist that he had been the subject of a drowning attempt by his mother as a child provides a neat explanation for his obsessive interest in high diving but lacks external corroboration. What are we to make of the former Miss America, who only remembered in middle age that she had been the subject of physical and sexual abuse by her pillar-of-the-community father well into her teenage years? Terr is well aware of the honest but mistaken witness; indeed, she includes one demonstrably fictitious memory case in her selected studies. However, she argues that the qualities of the true victim of recovered memory can be distinguished from those of the fabricators, for whom the events are 'just a story'. According to Terr, true victims show symptoms such as behavioural enactment, returning perceptions, trauma-specific fears and compulsive behaviour. By these criteria, Miss America is admitted to the canon.

Terr's book is an attempt to influence the public debate over recovered memories, to try to move the debate away from the polarized 'all recovered memories are true/false' position. Its case material is unlikely to convince the sceptic, though less committed readers may find in her fascinating insights and observations a basis for more empirical studies. In particular, further research is required into the mechanisms hypothesized to be responsible for memory loss (Terr has an orthodox belief in the Freudian concept of repression) and the Type I/Type II trauma distinction. The recent research of Williams (1994) provides ample support for the view that traumatic episodes from childhood can be forgotten, but little for the view that prolonged abuse is more vulnerable to attrition.

GRAHAM DAVIES (University of Leicester)

Loftus, E. F. & Ketcham, K. (1994). The Myth of Repressed Memory. New York: St Martin's Press.

Ofshe, R. & Watters, E. (1994). Making Monsters: False Memory Psychotherapy and Sexual Hysteria. New York: Scribners.

Williams, L. M. (1994). Recall of childhood trauma: A prospective study of women's memories of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 1167-1176.
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Author:Davies, Graham
Publication:British Journal of Psychology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1997
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