Thanks for the Recovered Memories

Is it possible to forget a memory? Culturebox poses this paradoxical question apropos of the continuing fallout from CNN’s controversial newsmagazine segment on “Operation Tailwind.” To refresh your memory, the story’s central figure, Robert Van Buskirk, claimed to have watched as U.S. forces dropped sarin gas on a Laotian village. He also claimed to have killed two U.S. defectors with a phosphorous grenade during the mission. It soon emerged, though, that Van Buskirk had failed to note this seemingly noteworthy recollection in his 1983 book on Vietnam. Why? As other reporters poked holes in the CNN expose, Van Buskirk confessed that he had “recovered the memory.”

But how do we know that such memories represent real, rather than imagined, events?

Freud grappled with this very dilemma in turn-of-the-century Vienna. In 1895 he came up with his seduction theory, which linked hysteria to repressed memories of sexual molestation during childhood. A few years later, however, Freud decided that these were not, in fact, real memories; they were fantasies.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, the heyday of pop psychology. A backlash is brewing against therapists who are considered too skeptical of recovered memories, and a new movement is born: Repressed Memory Therapy. By the mid-1980s, bookstores are crowded with self-help guides on how to deal with “repressed memory syndrome.” The message is always the same: If you’re feeling alienated, disaffected, unmotivated, trust that inner voice–you probably were the victim of sexual abuse. Then the inevitable occurs: A California man named George Franklin is convicted of raping and murdering a playmate of his daughter 20 years earlier. The centerpiece of the prosecution’s case is a recovered memory.

It turned out, though, that the daughter had been hypnotized by her therapist to help remember the details of the event. The case was thrown out a few years back, but the question remains: What if these so-called repressed memories are simply the product of the power of psychoanalytic persuasion?

Culturebox asked that of Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist at UC-Berkeley, and his answer was refreshingly unambiguous: “There is no mental mechanism that could create this ignorance of memory. If anything, things of a traumatic character are more likely to be remembered than forgotten.” Recovered memory therapy? Ofshe prefers the term “psychotherapy malpractice.”

As for Van Buskirk, well, we may never know exactly what happened out there. But we do have some clues. A psychiatrist who treated World War II veterans reported that one man who had been in a tank regiment visualized being trapped inside a burning tank, though it never actually happened. And decades later, a Vietnam vet who had never been captured acted out the experience of having been tortured by the Viet Cong.

Even more bizarre: As Mark Pendergrast writes in his book Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, one participant in a support group for Vietnam veterans, Ed, recalled seeing a buddy’s head explode during a firefight. When one of his fellow group members called Ed’s parents to help put together a surprise party for him, his mother was shocked: “What? He’s in a veterans’ recovery group? But he was rated 4-F. He never was allowed to go to Vietnam!”

Jonathan Mahler