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Memories On Trial

July 31, 1994

Although Katy Butler might have made more clear why Gary Romona won in the landmark repressed-memory trial, she did clarify the issues ("A House Divided," June 26). But she failed to challenge the now conventional wisdom in the debate--that there are only two options regarding those memories: They are either true or false.

A third option should not be ignored, one that is associated with Freud. These memories may be remembered fantasies, part of the childhood dream world, inspired by the natural attraction of children for the parent of the opposite sex. Repression of fantasies occurs when the child senses that the fantasies and the feelings they spring from are too threatening. (The child feels that the parent of the same sex would harm him or her if he or she knew.)

That option would account for the difficulty of retrieving the memories. Few remember fantasies easily, but those who were in fact victims of childhood sexual abuse never forget it. It also would account for the connection between the memories and later emotional and even physical problems, since those can be caused by the repression of such a basic part of the self as sexual feeling.




In trying to strike a balance between the stories of Ramona and his daughter, Butler forgot the journalist's most important role: to report the truth. Commentator Edward R. Murrow did not try to strike a balance between Joe McCarthy and the senator's falsely accused victims. Was there a balance between the so-called witches of Salem and their accusers?

Butler cites one scientific study that "proves that some instances of recovered memory are credible." Yet, a closer review shows that the study was not about recovered memory at all.

The child-abuse hysteria, beginning with the McMartin day-care case a decade ago, has lasted longer than any other episode of hysteria in American history and destroyed thousands of American families. If you don't know the major role The Times has already played in promoting this hysteria, I suggest a review of its admitted misreporting of the McMartin case. The Times has a special responsibility to get this story right. Too much is at stake for the true victims of this hysteria.


La Crescenta


The most chilling statement in Butler's article was: "In July, Holly will complete work on her MA in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University; she wants to work with abused children."

Neither experts nor Holly can figure out what did or did not happen to her. Her history of problems has left her confused, angry, distraught and troubled. That Holly could possibly get into a position where she can influence the mental state of young, hurt and easily manipulated children is unthinkable.




While Butler does a good job at placing the Ramona trial in its historical context and discussing the issues underlying its great interest, she also showed a subtle bias and a rather naive acceptance of unsubstantiated claims about traumatic memory.

One example of bias was in the description of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which was formed, Butler says, when "there were enough agonized fathers protesting their innocence to spawn a support group . . . ." What she neglected to say was that the foundation was formed by a group of families and professionals who were concerned about questionable therapeutic practices. She omits the fact that the foundation's Scientific Advisory Board includes some of the most prestigious memory researchers in the country and the world. Butler frames her discussion in terms of "fathers," leaving out the information that 40% of the accusations of abuse are against mothers.

As for unsubstantiated claims about traumatic memory, Dr. Lenore Terr's testimony that a person's dislike of bananas and whole pickles is a sign of past sexual abuse has no validity. And while the Linda Meyer Williams research is an advance in the methodology of studying memories of past sexual abuse, it in no way can be said to provide "scientific support for the proposition" that there is any special mental mechanism that operates in traumatic situations. If Butler would read the Williams study with greater care she'd note, for example, that a majority of the 38% of women did not say that they had not been abused, but rather they told about abuse situations other than the particular one the researchers had in mind.

Butler also neglected to mention that both the American Psychiatric Assn. and the American Medical Assn. have said that in cases of recovered memory "there is no completely accurate way of determining the validity of reports in the absence of corroborating information."






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