Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Art of Forensic Psychology

Recovered Memories

Virginia McMartin
Virginia McMartin

In Manhattan Beach, California, Virginia McMartin ran a daycare center with several members of her family. In 1983, an unstable woman named Judy Johnson dumped her son off there, despite having been told the enrollment was full, and after he returned home she apparently found something wrong with him that she attributed to abuse from the school. It later came out that Johnson suffered from delusions and hallucinations, but before that time, the police had begun an investigation that involved alerting parents of children enrolled in the center, including all parents who had ever had children enrolled there. They wanted to know the details from the children themselves.

Remembering Trauma
Book cover: Remembering

Although the children initially denied that anything had happened to them at the center, they were put into therapy with social workers, led by a woman named Kee McFarlane, who spotted "symptoms" of abuse and reinforced them by pressuring other children to corroborate the stories. Recovered memories of abuse became the main theme, and the children were subjected to lengthy interviews until enough material was gathered to charge all the teachers at the daycare center. At the time, recovered memories were thought to be reliable and thus many people across the country were imprisoned after testimony (usually supported by a therapist) about their alleged atrocities. Only later did it become apparent that memory--including suppressed or recovered memories---was highly malleable and prone to error. By then, many lives were ruined.

The district attorney actually stated that the McMartin's school's primary purpose was to procure young children for adult pleasures, and one of his assistants insisted on the existence of millions of pornographic photographs taken at the school. Yet no one produced them. In fact, no evidence of any kind was found to support the allegations -- no tunnels, no plane trips, and no exhumed corpses. Yet 360 children were diagnosed as having been abused in some form at the McMartin preschool. It became the longest and most expensive legal proceeding in American history to that point, and several people were imprisoned for months, even years.

Book cover: The Seven Sins of Memory
Book cover: The Seven Sins
of Memory
, by Daniel L.

Dr. Richard McNally documents and debunks it all in Remembering Trauma. A Harvard psychology professor, McNally analyzed the research on recovered memories and determined that standard memory retrieval methods are problematic. He also indicated that traumatic memories would not likely be repressed. Unless a person experienced a physical shock to the brain, was younger than two, or suffered some extreme physical demands such as starvation, traumatic experiences are generally bettered remembered than ordinary ones. The inability to recall a memory is no indicator of trauma and repression, but more likely a signal that no such experience happened. If it cognitively registered at all, it should be available to retrieval without the use of trance-induction.

The idea that accurate memories can be retrieved is now suspect, thanks to researchers focusing on the many foibles of memory. Chair of Harvard's psychology department, Daniel Schacter, documents even more areas of concern in The Seven Sins of Memory. These research psychologists often end up in court, as do those who study other psychological issues that play a part in a criminal or civil case. But beyond the court, psychologists may also serve as consultants in the investigative process.

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