Recovered Memory

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Related to repressed memory: False Memory Syndrome

Recovered Memory

The remembrance of traumatic childhood events, usually involving Sexual Abuse, many years after the events occurred.

The heightened awareness of child sexual abuse that developed in the 1980s also brought with it the controversial topic of recovered memory. Some mental health therapists contended that children repress memories of abuse so completely that years later they have no memory of it. These therapists believed that through the use of recovered memory therapy, victims are able to recover the memories of the traumatic events and begin dealing with their psychological effects. Others in the medical community, however, held deep reservations about the idea of repressed memory and the therapy techniques that purported to recover them. These critics argued that without established standards or procedures, a psychotherapist faced the danger of implanting false memories in a patient. By the mid-1990s these fears were justified, as patients won multimillion dollar verdicts against their therapists based on claims that they created false and destructive memories.

During the 1980s many adults who recovered memories of child sexual abuse through therapy sought to hold their abusers accountable in a court of law. However, under Statute of Limitations provisions, the time for a lawsuit had expired. Courts and legislators responded by changing these laws. Typically, these laws provide that the action must be filed within a certain number of years after the plaintiff either reaches the age of majority or knew or had reason to know that sexual abuse caused the injury.

Once the statute of limitations problem was resolved, a number of civil lawsuits were filed alleging sexual abuse that happened many years before. Lawsuits against Catholic priests using recovered memories as evidence resulted in large damage awards in several cases. Criminal charges were also successfully brought against alleged abusers on the basis of recovered memory. Apart from the award of damages, some therapists believe that a trial and a confrontation between the abuser and the abused is essential to restoring the victim's mental health. In the 1980s courts allowed recovered memory testimony into evidence, despite objections by defendants that there was no scientific basis for believing memories could be recovered. In addition, defendants contended that the memories were untrue, implanted in the patient through a mixture of drug therapy and suggestive questioning.

By the early 1990s, there was a backlash against recovered memory and its use in the law. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was established as a support group by members of families who claimed they had been falsely accused of abuse by their children through recovered memory. Mental health professionals also contested the validity of recovered memory. Some argued that it is never reliable, whereas others believed it is sometimes reliable but only when elicited by a properly trained professional. In 1994 the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a policy statement that proclaimed that recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse are often unreliable and should not be assumed to be true. The AMA statement concluded that few cases in which adults make accusations of abuse can be proved or disproved using recovered memories because there is no way to distinguish the truth of memories from imagined events. That same year the American Psychiatric Association also expressed misgivings about recovered memory.

In 1994 a California jury awarded $500,000 in a malpractice case brought against two therapists by Gary Ramona, a father who claimed that the therapists had implanted false memories of childhood sexual abuse in his daughter. In 1996 a Minnesota jury awarded David and Lisa Carlson $2.5 million after the longest psychiatric malpractice trial in U.S. history. The Carlsons sued Lisa Carlson's therapist, charging that she used hypnosis, drugs, coercion, and pressure to implant false memories.

By 1995 a number of state courts had issued decisions that attacked the validity of recovered memories and held that these memories were insufficient to sustain a lawsuit unless supported by independent evidence. Statutes of limitations also continued to be a problem for those seeking to file lawsuits. For example, in Dalrymple v. Brown, 549 Pa. 217, 701 A. 2d 164 (1997), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a sexual assault claim based on recovered memory. The alleged victim stated that the defendant had assaulted her in 1968 and 1969 when she was a young child but she had only recovered the memories of the assaults in 1990. The defendant asked the court to dismiss the case because under Pennsylvania law the statutes of limitations required the victim to sue within two years after her eighteenth birthday.

On appeal the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the plaintiff's contention that a discovery rule granted her an exemption from the two-year time limit. This rule holds that if the injured party does not originally know an injury, then the limitations period does not begin until the discovery of the injury is reasonably possible. Typical examples of the discovery rule are found in Medical Malpractice cases, where a doctor's error is unknown to the patient until its effects become physically evident. The court held that the discovery rule applies only when the nature of the injury is such that plaintiffs cannot detect it, stating that "it would be absurd to argue that a reasonable person, even assuming for the sake of argument, a reasonable six year old, would repress the memory of a touching so that no amount of diligence would enable that person to know of the injury."

Further readings

Lazo, Joy. 1995. "True or False: Expert Testimony on Repressed Memory." Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 28.

Mason, Mary Ann. 1995. "The Child Sex Abuse Syndrome." Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 1.

Rogers, William. 1995. "Recovered Memory" and Other Assaults Upon the Mysteries of Consciousness: Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Fraud, and the Mass Media. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.


Child Abuse; Statute of Limitations.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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