“Can you remember something that didn’t happen?”
The question was first posed to me as an undergraduate psychology major. “Of course not,” I thought.
But after being confronted by research on and real life examples of the fallibility and malleability of human memory, I realized, to my horror, just how unreliable our memories can be, especially when it comes to the traumatic.
Sometimes it’s harmless – like when participants in a research study I conducted incorrectly remembered me reciting them certain vocabulary words when I had actually recited related, but different words.
Other times, these false memories can be far more devastating – like rape survivors inaccurately remembering what their rapist looked like, and accusing the wrong person in a police lineup. (Yes, this has actually happened.)
Even more troubling, fairly recently, there were multiple instances of people retrieving memories of child abuse with the “assistance” of their therapists, although the abuse had never happened.
See, back when I was getting a master’s degree in counseling, I was repeatedly warned to never imply or suggest to my clients that they had been abused. We were (rightfully) taught to word questions about potential abuse very carefully.
“People are suggestible,” one professor warned us. Of course, if a client shared memories of abuse (or even recovered them on their own), we were trained to express empathy and offer validation and support – but not to automatically accept every aspect of the memory or to pass judgment on their alleged abuser.
Fast forward to today. After the emergence of the #MeToo movement and the coattail-riding #BelieveWomen movement, it seems that the kind of scrutinous, balanced approach to understanding abuse allegations that I was trained in is on its way out the door. Its replacement? A careless, blanket acceptance of the veracity of any allegation of assault and abuse of a woman, as well as the condemnation of the alleged aggressor.
This Isn’t Just Bad, It’s Anti-Science
Ignoring the reality that false memories happen (which means false accusations of abuse and assault can also happen) not only damages the credibility of the fields of counseling and psychology, but also hurts the actual survivors of assault and abuse.
Accusing those who question the veracity or reliability of certain abuse or assault allegations of “sexism” or of “blaming the victim” focuses the public’s attention on the victimhood rather than the strength of survivors of actual assault or abuse. And it infantilizes these survivors, while making an outright mockery of the pursuits of both truth and justice.
Ironically, many mental health professionals who make a point of calling individuals who have been abused or assaulted “survivors” send a troubling implicit message: that these women are weak, perpetual “victims.” By shouting down those who mention the reality of false accusations (since this reality will supposedly “trigger” survivors), counselors do a disservice.
Rather, in my own professional opinion, an abuse/assault survivor who is triggered by mention of the real phenomenon of false memories might benefit from some distress tolerance skills, and a therapeutic reminder that their experience is unique and is not necessarily being referenced as a false memory.
Going forward, I also suspect that bias against law enforcement and the legal system in my field will also be worsened, since criminal investigations of abuse and assault will eventually be viewed as unnecessary. After all, if everyone must #BelieveWomen completely, 100 percent of the time, then figuring out where the evidence (or lack thereof) points kind of seems like an unnecessarily traumatizing waste of time and taxpayer money, doesn’t it?
It is a fact that human memory is messy, often suggestible, and even malleable. But acknowledging this scientific fact of human existence is no longer politically expedient, nor sufficiently progressive for 2018.