The Myth of Repressed Memory by Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D., and Katherine Ketcham, St Martin's Press, New York, 1994, $22.95

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

This book is the latest work of prolific writer, experimental psychologist, and memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus. Dr. Loftus, one of the important spokespersons on the False Memory Syndrome, has appeared on television talk shows and has testified in many court cases concerning the validity of repressed memory. If her book was about the fact that there have been miscarriages of justice, and that some have been falsely accused and jailed as a result of a daughter's or step-daughter's overactive imagination, I would have no quibble with it. But, unfortunately, this book's argument is that the whole concept of repressed memory is invalid. If Loftus' proposition that repressed memory does not exist would be accepted, we would have to remove the center plank of primal theory and other regressive therapies. Her main argument seems to be that there are no controlled scientific experiments to prove that repressed memories actually exist.

The denial that repression exists is a relatively new position, but it is no longer a purely academic question. The denial began with the proliferation of lawsuits by women seeking monetary damages from their parents or step-parents who claimed to have had been sexually abused by them in childhood. However, in their enthusiasm to defend and protect those being accused of such crimes, the whole concept of repression began being attacked by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

The Myth of Repressed Memory contains three detailed case histories of individuals who were falsely accused of sexual molestation as well as an interesting discussion between the author and Ellen Bass, who wrote The Courage to Heal, a popular workbook used to elicit and support emerging sexual abuse feelings and memories.

Since the author does not believe in repressed memories, it is understandable that she has very little to say whether a memory can be partially repressed, nor of the implications of this lack of complete repression. In a sense, her position is understandable since those who don't believe angels exist usually won't discuss the various orders of angels! But in not giving both sides of the discussion, Dr. Loftus is unfair since she does not consider the position of her opponents who with logic on their side, for example, might discuss the significance of a memory being conscious but with its feelings completely or partially repressed. It is not simply a question of whether a memory is retrievable, but the degree of retrieval is also an important consideration. Loftus seems to imply that her attackers believe that repression is an all or nothing phenomena.

The Myth of Repressed Memory is mostly about convincing her readers, her students, and in court, the jurors, that too many innocent people are being unjustly persecuted and too many families are being split apart. However, she does not totally dismiss the concept of repression. The author admits that in theory it might be possible for the mind to repress a catastrophic trauma. But even if it does, Loftus feels that the memory combines with other memories so that it no longer exists in a pure form.

But in any event, she claims that what is missing is scientific proof that the mind can repress a trauma. Furthermore, in her discussions, the author does not distinguish between an early childhood trauma and one much later in life. This distinction is an important one since repression is much less active and less common in adults than in infants and very young children.


There are a number of ways to prove or at least to show that repression can and does occur. However, attempts at experimental proof would be unethical because it would be illegal to traumatize a person while doing the research. But an inference of the existence of complete (robust) repression could be made by comparing the claims of a person whose memory has been retrieved with another person who knew as a fact that the trauma did occur to the person under study. For greater validity, this would require the subject to have a complete repression of the trauma.

Repression is not a rare and exotic defense mechanism, but rather a common occurrence which psychologically protects the person from a painful and devastating experience. Probably the best way to prove that repression is real is for the skeptic to enter primal therapy since all of us (the skeptic included) have repressed traumas. At that point, experimental studies would be superfluous. However, re-living the trauma would only be convincing to the person undergoing the regression. Thus, most of Loftus' colleagues who believe in the false memory syndrome would still remain unconvinced that repressed memories do in fact exist.

How can you suffer from a deprivation in later life if you do not remember, on some level, that you did indeed not have certain of your needs met? The fact that a deprivation results in neurosis means that, on some level, it had to be remembered; perhaps on an unconscious level, or perhaps on a cellular level. But how could the organism not develop properly without the knowledge that its early needs were not met?

Deprived infants and very young children who are abused carry the results of this deprivation with them into their adulthood. A seemingly innocuous lack of touch in infancy can be a serious deprivation. If the infants don't "remember" the fact that they did not receive touch when it was needed, they will be negatively affected as adults. A number of experiments has proven this. So obviously there is a need for the victim to "know" that he was not touched when needed. This deprivation is remembered on some level even if not on the level of ordinary memory.

The question is not being able to prove that memory exists, but rather whether early deprivation and abuse are encoded in the human brain? And if they are, whether they encoded correctly or not? The meeting of early needs are as essential to a normal life and as real as the need for vitamins. If that is so, one must conclude that this deprivation of needs must somehow be "remembered" by the infant in some way for its pernicious effects to influence the child's later life.