Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky leaves the Centre County Courthouse after being sentenced in his child sex abuse case on October 9, 2012 in Bellefonte, Penn.
The son of convicted serial child molester Jerry Sandusky came forward recently in an interview with Oprah Winfrey to corroborate reports of his adopted father’s abuse. In a broadcast of “Oprah Prime,” Matthew Sandusky said that while listening to the court testimony of a man known as “Victim 4″ about abuse at the elder Sandusky’s hands, he recognized and remembered aspects of his own abuse including oral sex.
During the interview Winfrey asked Matthew Sandusky how people can know that his newly-recovered memories are real and not simply an unconscious adaptation of Victim 4′s experience. Sandusky replied, “I would say my story has been well-documented… And if you really want to find out what my story is and you really can objectively look at it, it’s in the record.’”
Unfortunately the record is unclear; as an Associated Press story noted:
“The claim of oral sex was specifically denied in an audiotape of his 29-minute interview with police detectives that NBC obtained at the time of Jerry Sandusky’s 2012 trial. Matt Sandusky told investigators two years ago that Jerry Sandusky had rubbed along or against his genitals but that he did not recall any penetration or oral sex. He said then that he was getting therapy and memories were coming back to him.”
While Matthew Sandusky’s account may be completely accurate, the fact that memories of abuse are “coming back to him” concerns many psychologists. This is because the research shows that there are real questions about the validity of “recovered memories,” especially those that surface only years later in therapy.
Memories, Real and False
For most people who have endured traumatic events, ranging from military combat to physical and sexual abuse, the problem is not trying to remember the events but instead trying to forget them. Contrary to popular belief, the brain does not simply bury or erase painful memories. The evidence shows that memories elicited in therapy — and especially under hypnosis — are very susceptible to unintentional influences by the therapist and outside information, such as hearing another person’s emotionally compelling account. For this reason claims about recovered memories should be carefully corroborated with independent information.
Memory expert Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, writes in her book “Memory:”
“Memory is imperfect. This is because we often do not see things accurately in the first place. But even if we take in a reasonably accurate picture of some experience, it does not necessarily stay perfectly intact in memory. Another force is at work. The memory traces [in the brain] can actually undergo distortion. With the passage of time, with proper motivation, with the introduction of special kinds of interfering facts, the memory traces seem sometimes to change or become transformed. These distortions can be quite frightening, for they can cause us to have memories of things that never happened. Even in the most intelligent among us is memory thus malleable.”
“Although many issues remain to be resolved regarding the scientific status of discovered memories… a few unambiguous conclusions seem warranted,” writes Professor Jonathan Schooler of the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara in “Recovered Memories of Child Sexual Abuse:”
“First, there seems little question but that individuals are capable of generating and believing false memories. Moreover, the aggressive memory therapies in which some discovered memories are elicited involve precisely the type of suggestive and coercive conditions that are known to produce false memories. On the basis of such observations, it seems clear that an abusive episode occurred simply because an individual sincerely recalls it…. We can neither accept nor reject discovered memories out of hand.”
In other words, the memories — as sincerely believed and as convincing as they may be — might not be real.
Experimenting With Memory
Why is there such uncertainty about whether memories that only surface during therapy are valid? There are several reasons, such as the fact that there is still much we do not understand about the brain, including exactly how memories are created, stored and retrieved. But beyond that, as Schooler notes:
“Investigations of both the production of false memories and the discovery of true memories of abuse are hampered by important ethical concerns. We cannot ethically attempt to implant memories of severe trauma, nor can we induce actual trauma and then investigate its subsequent forgetting and recollection.”
Though experiments to understand the nature and differences between real and false memories would be unethical, researchers can still learn much from real-world cases. For example memories of people known to have been victimized can be compared to memories of people who were known for certain not to have been victimized (but believed they had been).
The 1980s and 1990s saw many child abuse cases — often said to involve Satanic cults — which rested on little more than claims of recovered memories. Children claimed to remember long-forgotten sexual abuse that never occurred, and innocent people were arrested and jailed.
In one notorious case, Gerald Amirault, his mother Violet Amirault and his sister Cheryl LaFave were accused of torturing children at the Fells Acres Day Care Center in Malden, Mass. Several other notorious cases appeared across the country, including the Little Rascals and the McMartin Preschool trials.
Children “remembered” being abused in a secret tunnel underneath a school; being taken to a church where strangers killed a rabbit and forced them to drink its blood; children digging up dead bodies at a cemetery, being fed to sharks, and so on.
Often there was little or no corroborating evidence to support the children’s stories (for more information about this subject see the Oscar-nominated documentary “Capturing the Friedmans”).
In some cases victims of false memories have successfully sued therapists; a woman who said her therapist convinced her she had been raped by a satanic cult and had killed an infant was awarded $200,000 by a California jury in 1999.
As for Matthew Sandusky’s recovered memories, Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University and co-author of several books including “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology,” told Discovery News: “I can’t offer any informed opinions regarding the reality or lack thereof of these specific abuse claims. At the same time, I can say that there is presently little or no convincing scientific evidence that memories of childhood sexual trauma can be lost entirely for decades and then recovered in accurate form in adulthood. At the very least, such recollections should not be regarded as trustworthy without solid corroboration from other sources.”
There is no doubt that Jerry Sandusky sexually abused many children between 1994 and 2009, and his son Matthew may be among them. But his recovered memory of the abuse, by itself, cannot prove it either way. We all like to believe that everything we remember actually happened the way we think it did, but psychologists know that’s simply not the case.