Letter by J Freyd about Recovered Memories in Women's Review


Copyright, 1998, Jennifer J. Freyd, jjf@dynamic.uoregon.edu

Freyd, J. (1998) Letter to the Editor.
The Women's Review of Books.
Vol. XV, No. 7/ April 1998, page 5.

To the Editor:

Despite what has been asserted in the February letters by Moira Johnston and Paula Tyroler, forgetting traumatic experiences has been well documented for a variety of different classes of events. Indeed, so far the coverage of this topic in the Women's Review has been lopsided and naïve, partly because of the books you have chosen not to review, and partly because of the statements and opinions that have been so far published in reviews and letters.

The issues in this domain of memory and trauma and feminist politics are truly complicated. How about we feminists hold on to the complexity and uncertainty with which we are currently faced? The collective act of bringing hidden oppression into the light in a big way may include the unfortunate side-effect of false accusations (this has been the case with rape, with domestic violence, and arguably with all feminist efforts to reveal the hidden violence, crimes, and injustices). How about we take responsibility for our accomplishments and strive to correct our errors without demanding we abandon causes that are complicated and not one hundred percent perfectly realized?

OK, so we must live in a time of uncertainty about very complex issues but there are some things we do know and let's be clear about them-so far such clarity on this topic has been missing from the pages of the Women's Review. Forgetting (and later remembering) traumatic events is not some invention of radical feminists that sprung up for the first time in the mid-1980s, although it is true awareness of these issues comes and goes with changing political contexts (Herman, 1992). Over a century ago Pierre Janet suggested that most of his (mostly female) patients with hysterical symptoms suffered from dissociated traumatic memories (and the primary traumas were, he thought, those of sexual abuse in childhood). Half a century ago Myers (1940) and Kardiner (1941) gave detailed descriptions of forgetting traumatic experiences in their books on combat neuroses. Sargent and Slater (1941) reported that 144 of 1,000 consecutive admissions to a field hospital had amnesia for their trauma. 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. [...]

Some recovered memories, like other memories, are not very accurate. Memory is at its best not perfectly accurate and most of the time most of our memories are distorted in certain ways. Study after study has documented that memory is subject to error. But the question implicit in much of the recovered memory debate is not whether people sometimes forget (and later remember) traumatic events, nor whether memory is sometimes false-the answer to both those questions is "yes"-the question is whether recovered memories are, on average, 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 than continuous memories. For instance, Linda Meyer Williams (1995) investigated the memories of women who, seventeen years earlier as children, had been admitted into a hospital emergency room for sexual assault. Williams noted that "In general, the women with recovered memories had no more inconsistencies in their accounts than did the women who had always remembered" (p. 660). [...]

This is unquestionably at least in part a feminist issue because it is the memories for sexual and domestic events-as opposed to say memories for combat events-that are especially likely to be vigorously contested and ultimately not believed. Yet despite all the hoopla, the data indicate that recovered memory is not only possible, it's common. How and why this happens are important questions, and in fact questions I take up in my own book (Freyd, 1996)-but the answers to how and why are not required to believe the data that show that traumatic events may be forgotten and later recalled. Because of this, and because accuracy of memory seems to be a separate issue entirely, each case deserves to be considered on an individual basis whether recovered memory is involved or not.

Jennifer Freyd
Eugene, OR


Materials cited:

Freyd, J.J. (1996) Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Herman, J. (1992) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Kardiner, A. (1941) The Traumatic Neuroses of War. New York: Hoeber.
Myers, C.S. (1940) Shell Shock in France 1914-18. Cambridge, UK: 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 April 1998jjf@dynamic.uoregon.edu
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