- Kaitlin Snapp
Memory and Memory Disorders
Reaction to McNally and Geraerts Recovered Memory Proposal
McNally and Geraerts’s work, “Reaction to the Recovered Memory Debate” critically analyzes the previously proposed methods of recovering memories describing childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Finding fault in both existing theories, McNally and Garaerts suggest a third explanation for memories of CSA recovered years after the event. In the past, via the “repression interpretation,” scientists suggested that CSA memories are inaccessible until much later in life when it is psychologically safe to bring them to mind. On the contrary, the “false memories interpretation” suggests that CSA reports should be considered through a skeptical lens since traumatic emotional memories are usually thoroughly consolidated and frequently revisited. Therein, those memories that are called to mind via memory-recover methods such as hypnosis or guided imagery could likely be falsified. McNally and Geraerts challenge both existing analyses advocating instead the role of suppression, lack of retrieval cues, and affective association to explain gaps between CSA reflections and the time of the event for corroborated accounts.
Accounts of CSA are of huge importance to the world of criminal law, child development and child protection. False memories of an occurrence of abuse can have major implications against the perpetrator or against the victim. A false memory of CSA that leads to prosecution of an innocent suspect undermines our nation’s justice system. On the other hand, a false memory that is presented and then proven wrong beyond reasonable doubt to the jury or judge can negatively affect future victims of true CSA, as they may not be viewed as credible. How then can psychologists help predict whether an account is true or false?
The CSA accounts of most concern in this study were those that are presented years following the traumatic event. As stated before scientists usually believed these accounts were either, true (and just repressed) or false (and fabricated due to therapeutic priming). McNally and Geraerts suggest that delayed CSA accounts can be true, and yet not delayed due to repression, a concept of great controversy in clinical psychology due to little empirical support. Through studying ways a delayed retelling of a CSA memory maintains validity of its occurrence, court related factions may be better prepared to make a verdict on presumed cases of childhood sexual abuse. That will not only support our nation’s prosecution process but it will also support victim’s of CSA by encouraging them to share their experiences with the authorities.
By their proposition, McNally and Geraerts concluded that CSA memories are suppressed rather than repressed, meaning the memories are not inaccessible to the victim, but rather heavily avoided in reflection of past events. They found this explanation plausible based on the idea that at the age of abuse, most victims were not able to understand the traumatic implications of the offense. A study of 27 corroborated accounts concluded that only 2 of the children being abused perceived the experience as traumatic. These two were, not surprisingly, the only two children to understand the sexual nature of the perpetrator’s activity at the time of the offense. The remaining 25 interviewed adults recognized the event at the time that it occurred as a little unordinary or uncomfortable, rather than traumatic. This explains why the memory may have been so easily dismissed. It also counters the argument that CSA memories shouldn’t be repressed due to their highly emotional nature.
As a daycare associate last summer at a program for government-assisted homes, I witnessed the lack of understanding of a sexual offense against a young child. One of my nine-year old students registered halfway through the summer at the daycare where I worked. Her reasons, she explained in a very matter of fact, sematicized way, was because she had been raped twice in the past two months. First by her babysitter’s father and then her mother’s boyfriend, both known and trusted figures in her life. Due to HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) confidentiality regulations, I am not able to share much more on this case; however, I did recognize that the concern I held for the child’s well-being was much greater than that which she held for her own circumstances. She was hardly aware of how that sexual predation was a huge violation against her female rights. This tragic revelation makes it hard for me to agree with people who believe that CSA would undoubtedly seem tragic to any child, despite their young age. What we fail to recognize, is that until sexuality is better understood through adolescence, children have difficulties discerning a “loving touch” from an “inappropriate touch”.
Another argument supporting the credibility behind McNally and Geraerts’s third interpretation of CSA recovered memories is the lack of retrieval cues existing throughout the victim’s lifetime. McNally and Geraerts concluded that some people have better executive control of their memory than others, especially when it concerns emotionally negative recollections. This fact, paired with a lack of reminders of the abusive event, may very well account for the victim’s ability to suppress the memory. Additionally, McNally and Geraerts argued that throughout their lives, CSA victims may have previously recalled the experience but later when recalling it over again, they feel as though it is the first time they are remembering the event. This happens most often when the affective association of the event changes from subdued or accepted to terrified and ashamed. If the abuse memory first came to mind as a subtle recollection with minimal emotional links, it could have easily been dismissed as a mundane afterthought. Then when it is re-remembered and taken in a more emotionally unsettling light, it will likely feel as though this spontaneous recollection is the first since the event. Both pieces of evidence support the possibility of suppression of CSA memories whose spontaneous retrievals corroboration rates are insignificantly different from those memories always maintained by victims (compare 37% to 43% respectively).
A clear, and life like example of these two concepts delineated by McNally and Geraerts comes through Stephen Chbosky’s literary work “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. In this piece, the protagonist Charlie was sexually abused by his beloved aunt at a very young age. Charlie could only spontaneously clarify these moments of trauma, however, when he faced specific retrieval cues. These included similar weather to a time when his aunt visited, witnessing his sister being abused by a boyfriend (a situation his aunt faced), the death of his aunt in a car accident, and Charlie’s first emotionally charged sexual experience with a friend he loved. Charlie did not need therapy to bring these memories out gradually; rather, he needed specific cues and an understanding of the events’ traumatic implications. The recollections were always accessible.
The suggested third interpretation of CSA recovered memories described by McNally and Geraerts is well supported empirically and aligns with a high corroboration rate. It would be inappropriate to imply that all memories recovered via the “repression” or “false memories” methods are inaccurate; nevertheless, there is something to be said about a victim’s account that surfaces in McNally and Geraerts manner. The backing for this theory will hopefully allow court judges and jury members to make more informed and accurate decisions for or against the prosecution. When used in the appropriate way, these psychological discoveries can have profound effects on the legitimacy of our nation’s criminal justice system.
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