Were the memories “recovered”?

Frederick Crews, whose latest book is the wonderful Freud: The Making of an Illusion, has a review-article on a new book about “recovered memory” and a criminal trial.

Until now the work has been almost entirely ignored by reviewers. Yet it comes with the strong endorsement of a world-renowned psychologist and memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus, and a leading expert on coercive interrogation methods and false confessions, Richard A. Leo. If they are right, Mark Pendergrast’s 391-page The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment can erase the shame of both Penn State and Sandusky, who languishes in solitary confinement, for 22 hours a day, in a maximum-security state prison.

Pendergrast is an independent scholar and science writer who has long been concerned with the psychology and disastrous consequences of falsely “recovered memory.” Like nearly all consumers of mainstream news, Pendergrast at first took the reports of Sandusky’s misdeeds at face value. But when, in 2013, he received a tip that there appeared to be a recovered memory aspect to the case, he was intrigued. After studying all pertinent documents, corresponding with Sandusky and twice visiting him, and interviewing family members, alumni of Sandusky’s Second Mile program, and other figures involved in the case, Pendergrast assembled an imposing argument against the consensus.

It’s unsettling. Could the Sandusky case be just another McMartin Preschool case?

Many factors contributed to the Sandusky debacle: a prurient misconstruction of well-meant deeds; excessive zeal by officials, police, social workers, and therapists; scandal mongering by the media that preempted the judicial process; the greed of abuse claimants and their lawyers; and a political vendetta against Penn State’s President Spanier by then Governor Tom Corbett. But the main ingredient in the witches’ brew, the one that rendered it most toxic, was something else: bogus psychological theory.

The indefinite and unsupported concepts of dissociation and repression, wielded without allowance for the distorting effects of suggestion and autosuggestion, lent forensic weight to nightmarish scenes that were “retrieved” in a climate of fright. Without that bad science, imparted first by therapy (Fisher) and then by social contagion (McQueary), there would have been no case at all against Sandusky. Attorney General Linda Kelly acknowledged as much in her triumphant press conference following the conviction. She praised the accusers for their courage and persistence in struggling toward a negation of their original statements to authorities. “It was incredibly difficult,” she proclaimed, “for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the shocking abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.”

When you hear prosecutors talking about “long-buried memories” you should be suspicious. Long ignored or avoided memories are one thing, but buried ones are another.

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