Case spotlights repressed memory

Conviction divides family and those who practice psychological, psychiatric therapy

By Katie Merx / The Detroit News

The concept of repressed memory - one of psychology's most controversial - again has found its way into public thought with the conviction this week of a Macomb County man in an 11-year-old sexual abuse case.

Prosecutors say the victim never forgot the ordeal at the hands of her uncle, and waited to come forward because she was afraid the accusations would tear her family apart, as they have.

Defense attorneys said the girl didn't remember anything because nothing happened. Instead, they said she was the victim of an unreliable therapist who planted the idea of sexual abuse in her head and helped her to create a false memory.

Ronald Allen Shacklett, 37, of Clinton Township, was convicted Monday by a Macomb County jury on one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. The 17-year-old girl accused him of sexually abusing her in 1987 when she was 6. Charges were filed in 1996.

Debate rages

The case has divided the family in the same way that discussion of repressed memories has divided those who practice psychological and psychiatric therapy.

"It's really a controversial topic," said Clinton Township counselor Karen Allmacher. "I don't practice (recovered memory techniques). To me it's a little scary from the legal point of view. It's really divided therapists."

Those therapists who put stock in repressed memories say that memories recalled after a period of amnesia or memories recalled after a period of not thinking of an event are no less reliable than any other.

But the demand by those who seek help is for the realization of a forgotten trauma, and some therapists are too eager to supply that memory and may suggest, or implant, the seed of a "false" memory in the minds of people who already are in a vulnerable state, say critics.

Many therapists who help people recover memories say part of the problem comes from calling those memories repressed.

"It's better to talk about traumatic amnesia," said Judith Herman, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "Repression is a hypothetical explanation for what occurs."

Denial or obsession?

The two basic unhealthy ways that people deal with trauma are obsession (thinking about it all the time) and denial (blocking it out of their memories or storing it in such a way that its significance is lost) said Emmett E. Miller, a California psychiatrist.

Even when a memory is stored where the person doesn't think of it, traumatic events can cause fear, anxiety and embarrassment when the body senses a similar environment or experience, Miller said.

Joan Irvine, a doctor of clinical hypnotherapy in California, said people believe they have been abused because they can't recall the source of their fears or anxieties. But they sometimes learn that while the event was traumatic for a child, it did not involve any abuse. The problem with repressed memories is the term is not very accurate and what actually happens has been mystified, said Miller, the California psychiatrist.

"The point is, it's not some spooky thing, but it's stored in such a way that it is insignificant to the subconscious mind," Miller said.

The person then could be in a situation where a touch or a smell is familiar and brings back the fear, anxiety or embarrassment that accompanied the event they hadn't thought of for years, Miller said.

Remembering key

Until the person can remember the event in their mind, Miller said, it's difficult to eliminate the emotions that go with it.

"You have to dissociate it from fear or anxiety," he said.

The way to deal with that is to recall the memory and then put it into perspective with the person's life as it is now, Miller said.

But not all therapist do that, critics say.

Dallas attorney Skip Simpson has represented defendants in high-profile cases involving allegations of child sexual abuse recalled during recovered memory therapy.

Simpson calls repressed memory cases false memories and puts the blame for the "memories" of sexual abuse on a lack of therapists really working hard at what they do. In many cases, Simpson said, a therapist just needs something to sell and repressed memories are a hot commodity.

"Usually, if bad things happen to you, you remember them," Simpson said.