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Le problème posé
Quelle est la réalité des souvenirs refoulés et retrouvés, notamment en thérapie, avec ou sans hypnose, vingt ans ou plus après les faits incriminés ? Dans quelle mesure ces souvenirs reflètent-ils des faits qui se sont réellement passés ? Est-il légitime d’allonger le délai de prescription dans ces cas ?
Pour avoir leur avis sur cette question, j’ai consulté deux chercheurs, Richard McNally et Scott O. Lilienfeld, Professeurs de psychologie dans deux Universités américaines et spécialistes des désordres de la personnalité, des aspects cognitifs des troubles anxieux, des pratiques en psychologie basées sur les preuves. Ils ont travaillé sur la mémoire retrouvée et les faux souvenirs.
L’échange avec R. McNally
Brigitte Axelrad – Nowadays there is in France an offensive of feminist associations to legitimate the memories recovered during a therapy up to 40 years after the legal majority (18). A new bill is in discussion in the French Senate to accept the claims of the victim without any other evidence or external corroboration, based only on the existence of repressed memories due to dissociation and the traumatic memory. The victim will have, if the bill is accepted, the rights to file a complaint to a court to seek for justice and claim for compensation to damages caused by offenses up to the age of 58.
We would be very happy to have your help in finding the right arguments on the subject of traumatic memory and dissociation.
Richard McNally – Oh, my; I had no idea this was occurring in France.
Many of these traumatic dissociative amnesia folks are right here in the Boston-Cambridge area. At any event, Jim, Bessel, Dan Brown, Judy Herman, Jim Chu, etc., etc. continue to parrot the same studies as providing evidence that people can encode traumatic memories and then become incapable of recalling them for years, thanks to the “mechanism” [sic!] of dissociative amnesia (a.k.a., “repression). I am unaware of any critiques of my arguments and criticisms of their interpretation of the evidence (see my book “Remembering Trauma,” 2003, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Unfortunately, they seemingly misunderstand the very studies they cite in support of the alleged phenomenon. I am attaching a relatively recent chapter detailing these issues. Clearly, the French court would not want to create a law based on an alleged phenomenon (repressed/dissociated memories of trauma) without having solid, replicable scientific evidence that the alleged phenomenon even exists! Feel free to quote/cite translations of the relevant paragraphs in the chapter.
Voici les réponses de Richard Mc Nally aux questions que je lui ai posées.
Brigitte Axelrad – You performed research on repressed memories could you explain your objectives and your method ?
Richard McNally – I conducted laboratory research on people reporting recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), people who believed that they had been abused but who had no memories, people who reported never forgetting their abuse, and people who reported never having been abused. We labeled these groups: 1) the recovered memory group, 2) the repressed memory group, 3) the continuous memory group, and the 4) control (i.e., contrast) group. Note that we used the label “repressed” for Group #2 not because *we* thought they harbored repressed memories, but because *they* thought that they harbored “repressed” memories of CSA.
BA -What are the arguments of supporters of repression? (see reply to Q8) Who are they ?
RMcN – People who have argued in favor of traumatic dissociative amnesia (i.e., “repressed memories of trauma”) include Drs. Judith Herman, Daniel Brown, David Spiegel, and Bessel van der Kolk).
BA – What are the arguments of their opponents? Who are they?
RMcN – People who argue otherwise include Drs. Elizabeth Loftus, Harrison Pope, Daniel Schacter, myself, and many others.
BA – Some therapists, journalists, psychiatrists, lawyers… use other words for repression as: traumatic amnesia, dissociative amnesia, traumatic dissociative amnesia. Is this the same thing than repression but said differently?
RMcN – The differences among these terms are trivial and irrelevant to the debate about repressed and recovered memories of trauma. All these terms imply that someone encodes a TRAUMATIC experience(s), and then becomes INCAPABLE of recalling the memory of the trauma BECAUSE it was so traumatic. Yet as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so dramatically illustrates, seriously traumatized people remember their trauma all too well. They experience intrusive, upsetting recollections of the trauma, not an inability to recall it. Indeed, the notion that people can be seriously traumatized and yet be entirely unaware that they have been traumatized — thanks to “repression” — is a piece of folklore devoid of convincing scientific support.
BA – What is the concept of traumatic amnesia for Janet? What is the concept of repression for Freud?
RMcN – Both men believed that the mind could protect itself from overwhelming emotional memories (or unacceptable wishes, too, in the case of Freud) by banishing them from awareness such that their recollection became very difficult. Janet attributed this inability to remember to fragmenting of awareness whereby the memory became “dissociated” from the conscious mind, whereas Freud attributed it to being pushed down into the unconscious mind. However, these theoretical differences are dwarfed by the similarities: both men believed that people can become incapable of recalling traumatic memories precisely because the memories are so emotionally upsetting.
BA – What assumptions have you tested in your research on the processes of memory and forgetting?
RMcN – We tested whether our “repressed” and “recovered” memory subjects were better at forgetting trauma-related information in the laboratory than were our “continuous” memory subjects and “control” subjects. They were not. We also tested whether the first two groups exhibited a propensity to develop false memories in simple word list paradigms in the lab. We found some evidence for this. We did similar results in other experiments involving subjects whose memories were almost certainly false (i.e., memories of past lives, and of space alien abduction). However, this propensity does NOT prove that their sexual abuse memories are false; it is merely consistent with this possibility. That is, laboratory research can test hypotheses about mechanisms supposedly operative in “repressed” memories or in false memories of sexual abuse, but we cannot ethically induce such memories in the laboratory.
BA – What are the possible confusion between repression and forgetting of trauma that can be explained otherwise? Can you explain why the following notions are different from repression?
– Inability to remember
– Incorrect encoding of the event
– Psychogenic amnesia
– Organic amnesia
– The non-disclosure of trauma
– Infantile amnesia
– “Do not think of trauma”
RMcN – Traumatic dissociative amnesia (“repression”) theorists cite many studies in support of their claims, but they seemingly misunderstand the evidence they cite. That is, they confuse this concept with other memory phenomena. For example:
- They confuse memory and concentration problems that occur following trauma with an inability to remember the trauma itself. Yet these studies merely show that traumatized people are often forgetful in everyday life AND experience intrusive recollections of the trauma. Indeed, recollections of the trauma likely contribute to their forgetfulness and concentration problems in everyday life.
- They confuse selective encoding with an inability to remember trauma. For example, during a traumatic event people often encode highly salient features of the trauma at the expense of less salient features, such as encoding (and remembering) a robber’s gun while failing to encode, and thus fail to remember, the face of the robber. Some relatively recent studies suggest that under extremely high arousal they may fail to encode even salient features of the experience, but this failure to encode must not be confused with amnesia. Amnesia implies that the person *has* encoded the experience, but is unable to retrieve it. If it was never properly encoded in the first place, the person cannot, by definition, recall it later.
- They confuse psychogenic amnesia with a specific inability to remember a trauma. Psychogenic amnesia refers to a rare syndrome when someone forgets everything, including his or her name and personal history. It is called “psychogenic” because evidence of brain damage (e.g., from a stroke) is undetected. Sometimes stressful events, such as marital or work problems, precede its onset, but usually antecedent stressors are subtraumatic. Moreover, psychogenic amnesia is global, not specific to a traumatic event, and complete recovery usually occurs within weeks without therapy.
- Occasionally they confuse organic amnesia with repressed memory of trauma. For example, children who were incapable of recalling lightning strike and kill a child have been cited as exhibiting repression of trauma. Yet these children had themselves been knocked unconscious by side flashes from the main lightning bolt, and hence had organic amnesia for the entire event. Children present, but not struck by lightning, remembered the event very well and were very emotionally upset by it.
- Some people deny having memories of abuse even though they later report remembering it very well. In these cases, they were unwilling to discuss it with the interviewer. Accordingly, one must be careful not to confuse unwillingness to disclose abuse with an INABILITY to recall it.
- Because the brain is so immature, people can recall very little from the first few years of childhood. This “infantile amnesia” must not be confused with repressed memories of trauma. For example, a child sexually fondled at the age of three or four is unlikely to recall it, thanks to infantile amnesia. One need not invoke repression to explain an inability to recall it.
- Many advocates of repression appear to confuse not thinking about something for a long time with an INABILITY to remember it. For example, in our research we assessed people who reported having experienced sexual molestation (e.g., fondling) when they were about seven years old, reported not having thought about the experience in many years, and then reported recalling it later, often in response to some reminder (e.g., a television show about incest). Many of them became extremely distressed when they remembered the experience, realizing for the first time (as adults) that they had been sexually victimized by a trusted adult. In these cases, the child did not understand what was happening, and did not experience the overwhelming terror associated with typical trauma (e.g., combat, rape in adulthood). They had encoded the event, but forgot it, not because it was so traumatic, but because it was NOT traumatic at the time of its occurrence, and nor was it understood as molestation. It may have caused anxiety and confusion, but not the terror of trauma. There is no evidence that the experience was repressed during the long period of time when it never came to mind; indeed, the memory popped into mind when the person encountered reminders in adulthood. Therefore, a person can have a recovered memory of sexual molestation without it having been emotionally traumatic at the time of its occurrence and without it having been repressed during the long period when it did not come to mind. The memory can become emotionally traumatic AFTER it is recalled because the person now understands the betrayal that occurred and understands it through the eyes of an adult. Needless to say, sexual molestation is always morally reprehensible regardless of the emotional response of the child.
BA – In France the legal limitation period to go to court is 20 years after the age of majority (18 years). There is currently an attempt to extend to 40 years this limitation for the crime of children sexual abuse for which memory has been recovered through hypnosis or other methods many years later. These abuses have been allegedly forgotten, due to traumatic amnesia caused by trauma. From a scientific point of view what is your opinion on this attempt?
The problem here is that convincing evidence of people being incapable of recalling truly traumatic events (i.e., traumatic dissociative amnesia) is not available. Accordingly, the proposed law seemingly rests on assumptions about memory that lack evidential support.
BA – What do you think about the methods like hypnosis, guided imagery… used by therapists to recover memories of abuse alleged to have occurred 30 or 40 years ago?
RMcN – These procedures possess no special capacity to unlock memories, but there is evidence suggesting that they can foster false memories. That is, the imagery that surfaces during these procedures can easily be mistaken as records of genuine events.