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Debate over repressed memories heats up with $1,000 challenge

Oedipus Rex forgot who his mother was. The fearless Siegfried of Wagner's opera forgot his love for the gorgeous Brunhilde. King Dushyanta, a hero of ancient Sanskrit lore, wooed and won the affection of a woman and then forgot all about her.

These are among the colorful new figures that are entering the long-running battle over whether the memories of traumas such as childhood sexual abuse can be repressed and then later suddenly resurface.

Two senior Harvard psychiatrists, Dr. Harrison Pope and Dr. James Hudson of McLean Hospital, are offering a $1,000 prize to anyone who can dig up from before 1800 an example of traumatic memory that has been repressed by an otherwise healthy, lucid individual and then recovered. Even a fictional case out of literature would suffice, they say.

The $1,000 challenge is meant to test Pope's theory that if repressed memory were a ``naturally occurring human psychological phenomenon," it would have been written about for thousands of years. Rather, he argues, though it is certainly real to the people who experience it, it appears to have somehow evolved, or been invented during the Victorian era -- when it appeared in the works of Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, and Emily Dickinson.

It ``has now woven itself into the fabric of popular belief," he said.

Posted on about 30 websites since March, the challenge has yielded dozens of old stories of forgetting from eager researchers, ranging from ancient Greek epic to Arthurian legend, but none has quite fit the bill, Pope said. Oedipus, for example, had forgotten his origins not because of trauma but because it is normal to remember nothing of infancy. Siegfried and King Dushyanta, made famous in a Sanskrit play from the fourth century AD, both forgot about their love -- a pleasurable thing, not a trauma. [To submit a case, e-mail Pope at harrisonpope@mclean.harvard.edu; to see an ongoing discussion on the topic, go to: http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=443814]

Given the current power of computer searches to scan tens of thousands of historical documents word-by-word with the click of a mouse, ``I'm relatively confident that if there were a case, somebody, somewhere, would have brought it to our attention," Pope said. He and Hudson plan to write up their results -- or lack of them -- and submit them to a scientific journal, he said.

The website challenge adds a novel salvo to the ``memory wars," as the battle over recovered memories is widely known, but appears unlikely to win anyone over from the other side.

The $1,000 challenge ``is not research, it's a stunt," said Ross Cheit, a political scientist at Brown who runs a website, www.recoveredmemory.org, that gathers documented cases of recovered memory.

In trials and in writings, Pope has questioned the authenticity of recovered memories even in the present day, so, Cheit contended, he's unlikely to believe a case from the distant past, either.

Pope ``is not actually looking for cases, he's looking for the ability to say, `I offered a reward and found no cases,' " Cheit said. ``So people are actually trying and what do you know? Everything people bring up, he'll find a problem with it."

The debate over whether traumatic memories can be forgotten and later recovered heated up in the 1980s, after the publication of books that encouraged people to recover repressed memories through therapy, and remained hotly contentious well into the 1990s. Many court cases involved adults who, sometimes under the influence of therapy, said they had suddenly recovered memories of sexual abuse inflicted on them when they were children. The record was mixed, but many of the cases resulted in convictions. Though fewer in number now, such cases continue to be brought: In April, a judge threw out a case brought against singer Michael Jackson; it was based on a 39-year-old man's recovery of a ``repressed memory" of being molested by Jackson 22 years ago.

The issue has quieted down in the new millennium but never really gone away. In the past several years, the clergy abuse scandals centered in Boston brought a new series of people who said their memories of sexual abuse had long been buried but then suddenly returned.

The topic remains controversial, but something of a consensus has formed among psychologists as a result of research on the fallibility of memory and the power of suggestion, said Rhea Farberman , spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association. ``I think it's fair to say that the majority of the mental health community would also be skeptical of this concept of repressed memories," she said.

The consensus, ``certainly among researchers and probably also among clinicians," Farberman said, is that although a memory could conceivably be repressed and then recovered, that would be unlikely ; it is far more likely for someone to confidently believe they remember something, even though it never occurred.

``There's a lot of research to show how that can happen," she said. ``Memory is very fallible."

Also, she said, research data show that most people who were abused as children never forget it, though they may not easily divulge it.

Pope has long been a vocal skeptic of recovered memory. But the impetus toward turning to history to bolster his views came in the 1990s, he said, when he was reading Rudyard Kipling's ``Captains Courageous" aloud to his children.

In the 1897 book, a character named Penn, a preacher who has lost his entire family in a flood, forgets the tragedy and his profession, and remembers them only after a devastating boat collision. Pope recalls explaining to his children that ``you frequently see stories like this in romantic novels but in reality, real people don't become unable to remember traumas.' " And then, he said, ``I began to think: Are there examples of this elsewhere in literature?"

Most recently, Pope said, he realized that enough historical documents have been digitized and enough researchers could be enlisted online to make his quest possible.

Thus far, Pope said, it seems that the earliest case of repressed memory in literature appears in Charles Dickens' 1859 novel ``A Tale of Two Cities," in the person of Dr. Manette, who forgot about much of the time he was imprisoned in the Bastille.

Carey Goldberg can be reached at goldberg@globe.com.

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