Friday, November 26, 2010

True Stories of False Memories

True Stories of False Memories

By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

False memories allow us to forgive ourselves and justify our mistakes, but sometimes at a high price: an inability to take responsibility for our lives. An appreciation of the distortions of memory, a realization that even deeply felt memories might be wrong, might encourage people to hold their memories more lightly, to drop the certainty that their memories are always accurate, and to let go of the appealing impulse to use the past to justify problems of the present. If we are to be careful about what we wish for because it might come true, we must also be careful which memories we select to justify our lives, because then we will have to live by them.

Certainly one of the most powerful stories that many people wish to live by is the victim narrative. Nobody has actually been abducted by aliens (though experiencers will argue fiercely with us), but millions have survived cruelties as children: neglect, sexual abuse, parental alcoholism, violence, abandonment, the horrors of war. Many people have come forward to tell their stories: how they coped, how they endured, what they learned, how they moved on. Stories of trauma and transcendence are inspiring examples of human resilience.

It is precisely because these accounts are so emotionally powerful that thousands of people have been drawn to construct "me, too" versions of them. A few have claimed to be Holocaust survivors; thousands have claimed to be survivors of alien abduction; and tens of thousands have claimed to be survivors of incest and other sexual traumas that allegedly were repressed from memory until they entered therapy in adulthood. Why would people claim to remember that they had suffered harrowing experiences if they hadn't, especially when that belief causes rifts with families or friends? By distorting their memories, these people can "get what they want by revising what they had," and what they want is to turn their present lives, no matter how bleak or mundane, into a dazzling victory over adversity. Memories of abuse also help them resolve the dissonance between "I am a smart, capable person" and "My life sure is a mess right now" with an explanation that makes them feel good and removes responsibility: "It's not my fault my life is a mess. Look at the horrible things they did to me." Ellen Bass and Laura Davis made this reasoning explicit in The Courage to Heal. They tell readers who have no memory of childhood sexual abuse that "when you first remember your abuse or acknowledge its effects, you may feel tremendous relief. Finally there is a reason for your problems. There is someone, and something, to blame."

It is no wonder, then, that most of the people who have created false memories of early suffering, like those who believe they were abducted by aliens, go to great lengths to justify and preserve their new explanations. Consider the story of a young woman named Holly Ramona, who, after a year in college, went into therapy for treatment of depression and bulimia. The therapist told her that these common problems were usually symptoms of child sexual abuse, which Holly denied had ever happened to her. Yet over time, at the urging of the therapist and then at the hands of a psychiatrist who administered sodium amytal (popularly and mistakenly called "truth serum"), Holly came to remember that between the ages of five and sixteen she had been repeatedly raped by her father, who even forced her to have sex with the family dog. Holly's outraged father sued both therapists for malpractice, for "implanting or reinforcing false memories that [he] had molested her as a child." The jury agreed, exonerating the father and finding the therapists guilty.

This ruling put Holly in a state of dissonance that she could resolve in one of two ways: She could accept the verdict, realize that her memories were false, beg her father's forgiveness, and attempt to reconcile the family that had been torn apart over her accusations. Or she could reject the verdict as a travesty of justice, become more convinced than ever that her father had abused her, and renew her commitment to recovered-memory therapy. By far, the latter was the easier choice because of her need to justify the harm she had caused father and the rest of her family. To change her mind now would have been like turning a steamship around in a narrow river -- not much room to maneuver and hazards in every direction; much easier to stay the course. Indeed, Holly Ramona not only vehemently rejected the verdict; she bolstered that decision by going to graduate school to become a psychotherapist. The last we heard, she was encouraging some of her own clients to recover memories of their childhood sexual abuse.

Yet every once in a while someone steps forward to speak up for truth, even when the truth gets in the way of a good, self-justifying story. It's not easy, because it means taking a fresh, skeptical look at the comforting memory we have lived by, scrutinizing it from every angle for its plausibility, and, no matter how great the ensuing dissonance, letting go of it. For her entire adult life, for example, writer Mary Karr had harbored the memory of how, as an innocent teenager, she had been abandoned by her father. That memory allowed her to feel like a heroic survivor of her father's neglect. But when she sat down to write her memoirs, she faced the realization that the story could not have been true.

Copyright © 2007 by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson from Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me); Published by Harcourt, Inc. May 2007; .00US; 978-0-15-101098-1

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist, lecturer, and writer whose books include Anger and The Mismeasure of Woman. She has written on psychological topics for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Scientific American, and many other publications. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science, and a member of the editorial board of Psychological Science in the Public Interest. She lives in Los Angeles.

Elliot Aronson is one of the most distinguished social psychologists in the world. His books include The Social Animal and The Jigsaw Classroom. Chosen by his peers as one of the 100 most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is the only psychologist to have won all three of the American Psychological Association's top awards -- for writing, teaching, and research. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Article from

No comments:

Post a Comment