At first glance, The Myth of Repressed Memory seems like it might be an offensive read that denigrates the experiences of millions of abuse and incest survivors. Yet according to Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham, the phenomenon of repressed memory is largely a myth. The authors' motives for writing The Myth of Repressed Memory seem noble enough on the surface: to retain the credibility of their professions and prevent the unnecessary traumatizing of clients who were never abused but who are instead duped into believing so. Yet the reader cannot help but wonder why Loftus and Ketcham are so adamant, almost angry, about the scores of stories related to repressed memory.
What Loftus and Ketcham describe in The Myth of Repressed Memory is disturbing; that psychologists routinely tell their patients that buried deep within their psyche is a sexual abuse memory that is causing their current state of anxiety, addition, or depression. Feeding a billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry, many such psychologists might mean well but others could be doing a deliberate disservice to their patients and to the professional community of psychiatrists and psychologists as well. Loftus and Ketcham claim that the myth of repressed memory is basically a type of popular (pop) psychology, which is not grounded in empirical research. The authors provide the empirical research in order to persuade their readers that repressed memories rarely, if ever, exist.
The authors also bank on their credibility, in the hopes that their readers buy their case based on their being experts in their field. Granted, the credibility of the material in The Myth of Repressed Memory is strong. The authors point out that they are indeed qualified to write The Myth of Repressed Memory, which, although ironically a trade book, is predicated on scholarly research and case study. In Chapter 2, the author asserts, "I am considered an authority on the malleability of memory, I've testified in hundreds of court cases where a person's fate depended on whether the jury believed" the testimony or not (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p. 3). If The Myth of Repressed Memory were a scholarly, rather than a trade book, then it would have added credibility because it would not seem like there may be some ulterior motive in its authorship.
Memory is a malleable thing. Few readers would disagree with this premise, and neither would the empirical evidence. While reading The Myth of Repressed Memory, then, numerous questions are raised about the efficacy of the Loftus and Ketcham claim. Surely some cases of repressed memory exist. Especially with regards to trauma, repression of a memory is a defense mechanism. The phenomenon is called dissociative amnesia. And Loftus and Ketcham stand firmly on one side of the argument: that it doesn't happen. Or at least it doesn't happen with regards to repressing childhood sexual abuse.
In spite of, or because of, what Loftus and Ketcham claim, "the scientific validity of dissociative amnesia has remained contested ground," (Pettus, 2008). Whereas Loftus and Ketcham argue on the grounds that there is simply no evidence that supports the phenomenon, some researchers have claimed that dissociative amnesia is culturally bound. That is, it is unique to our modern and post-modern worlds because there is no evidence of it in literature prior to 1800 (Pettus, 2008). This unique literary-historical analysis fits neatly alongside The Myth of Repressed Memory. Perhaps repressed memories don't exist, after all.
The claims made in The Myth of Repressed Memory seem all the more plausible when it is considered that dozens or more of people have been coming forward, risking public shame and humiliation, to speak out against their own childhood sexual abuse by priests and BBC entertainers. These actual memories were not repressed; they lingered there in the psyches of these people, causing what must have been considerable psychological harm. The act of repression would not necessarily lead to an all-out forgetting. Perhaps Loftus and Ketcham are correct, after all. Memory is malleable, but it isn't entirely erasable, only to resurface at the coaxing of a psychologist. Loftus and Ketcham find great damage can be done to those who are coaxed into believing they were abused. After all, the image of their parent, uncle, or priest abusing them becomes their new lived reality. The non-memory becomes real, and causes genuine psychological damage in the here and now. It is as if the repressed memory phenomenon is creating trauma in therapy, giving patients PTSD over something that never actually happened.…