Recovered Memories Not Inherently Less Accurate

The Register-Guard - Thursday, February 5, 1998


Section: Letters to the Editor's Mailbag

Page: 12A

A quotation attributed to University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer (Jan 31) may lead to the unfortunate impression that in order to believe in a recovered memory one must believe in a particular "theory of recovered memory," or even that recovered memories are likely to be false.

Forgetting traumatic experiences has been well been documented. For instance, Myers (1940) and Kardiner (1941) gave detailed descriptions of forgetting traumatic experiences. More recently there has been an explosion of empirical research in this area, especially research on memory for childhood sexual abuse. Study after study has documented forgetting abuse and other traumas.

The really important question is whether recovered memories are any more or less accurate than continuous memories. The evidence we have so far is that recovered memories are not any more or less likely to be accurate. For instance, Linda Meyer Williams (1995), investigated the memories of women who, 17 years earlier as children, had been admitted into a hospital emergency room for sexual assault. Williams noted: "In general, the women with recovered memories had no more inconsistencies in their accounts than did the women who had always remembered." Further, "In fact, when one considers the basic elements of the abuse, their retrospective reports are remarkably consistent with what had been reported in the 1970s."

I have no idea whether the allegations in the university case are true, and have no reason to doubt the wisdom of Frohmayer's decision to have the case reconsidered. But I am worried that the quotation may lead readers to mistakenly conclude that recovered memories are inherently less accurate than are continuous memories. Each case deserves to be considered on an individual basis whether recovered memory is involved or not.

Jennifer Freyd



The above letter was published in the Register-Guard, copyright Jennifer J. Freyd, 1998. The following references, although included with the submitted letter, were not included in the Register-Guard version:

Kardiner, A. (1941). The Traumatic Neuroses of War. New York: Hoeber.

Myers, C.S. (1940) Shell scock in France 1914-18. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Sargent, W. & Slater, F. (1941) Amnesic syndromes in war. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 34, 757-764.

Williams, L. M. (1995). Recovered Memories of Abuse in Women with Documented Child Sexual Victimization Histories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8, 649-674.

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Jennifer Freyd Last update 7 Feb 1998
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