Much like the defense of Bill Cosby, media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s defense team says they’ll bring up “false memories” during his trial on multiple charges of sexual assault. In short, this line of defense argues that survivors remember sexual assaults that did not happen.
As trauma psychologists, our research and experience show that false memory claims are scientifically inaccurate, damaging to survivors and unhelpful to the public. These assertions not only obscure the truth but also invalidate survivors and keep them from receiving the support they deserve.
Widespread abuse, deeply buried
Over centuries, women who have spoken up about surviving sexual assault have been met with claims by their perpetrators and others that their minds have failed them. They stand accused that they made up the abuse or dreamed it, that someone else implanted memories of assaults in them that never actually happened.
Building on this history, Weinstein’s defense team has prepared to call witnesses to argue that women who came forward to accuse him suffer from “the formation of fully false memories for events that never happened.” This is not a suggestion of normal problems with memory or recall, but the unlikely proposition that his accusers somehow developed entire memories of sexual assault that never actually occurred.
The notion of false memories has its roots in the 1990s. At that time, a robust women’s movement had ushered in marches, clothesline projects and legislation to make visible the realities of violence against women and girls. Survivors of sexual assault began talking more openly about their experiences and advocating for change. In addition, public allegations of child sexual abuse began to emerge from large institutions, such as the Catholic Church. The Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994 and seemed to signal a new day whence people would start taking women’s stories of sexual assault seriously.
However, out of those seeds sparking a public accounting of sexual violence grew a contentious backlash and so-called memory war about the nature of memories for traumatic events, particularly sexual abuse.
The strong, adverse reaction made sense in some ways. From the public’s perspective, enormous numbers of survivors, mostly women, were coming forward to say they had been abused and harmed. Revelations that sexual abuse and sexual assault were more common than previously thought would likely have challenged people’s assumptions that we live in a just and kind world. Today we know that one in four girls in the U.S. is sexually abused. One in five young women is sexually assaulted on campus. Society’s aggressive pushback against these realities stemmed from what we psychologists call an “institutionalization of disbelief.”
‘She would’ve called the police’
Early in the memory war, claims of false memories tended to focus on cases where (mostly) women went years without disclosing their sexual assaults. Some women may not have remembered the assault for a period of time, while others might not have thought or talked about it for years.
A dangerous set of flawed assumptions arose back then that echo today. Things like, if sexual assault really happened, the victims would never forget it. Or, if it was rape, women would have called the police. Therefore, women who did not fully remember or disclose immediately must have false memories, the thinking went.
In 1996, pioneering psychologist Jennifer Freyd introduced the concept of betrayal trauma. She made plain how forgetting, not thinking about and even mis-remembering an assault may be necessary and adaptive for some survivors. She argued that the way in which traumatic events, like sexual violence, are processed and remembered depends on how much betrayal there is. Betrayal happens when the victim depends on the abuser, such as a parent, spouse or boss. The victim has to adapt day-to-day because they are (or feel) stuck in that relationship. One way that victims can survive is by thinking or remembering less about the abuse or telling themselves it wasn’t abuse.
Since 1996, compelling scientific evidence has shown a strong relationship between amnesia and victims’ dependence on abusers. Psychologists and other scientists have also learned much about the nature of memory, including memory for traumas like sexual assault. What gets into memory and later remembered is affected by a host of factors, including characteristics of the person and the situation. For example, some individuals dissociate during or after traumatic events. Dissociation offers a way to escape the inescapable, such that people feel as if they have detached from their bodies or the environment. It is not surprising to us that dissociation is linked with incomplete memories.
Memory can also be affected by what other people do and say. For example, researchers recently looked at what happened when they told participants not to think about some words that they had just studied. Following that instruction, those who had histories of trauma suppressed more memories than their peers did.
Attempts to create so-called false memories in laboratory studies generally only succeed in getting people to make mistakes about details. That is, people can be easily tricked into thinking that a word was on a list they studied earlier – even if it wasn’t – if they saw similar words. However, people are quite resistant to believing that whole, implausible events happened when they did not, such as having a childhood enema.
Memory often misunderstood
Researchers have also learned that some of people’s instincts about memory warrant examination. For example, judges and juries might worry that alcohol use leads to more memory error or even false memories. However, a recent meta-analysis of 10 studies with more than 1,000 participants shows otherwise. More alcohol consumption at the time that participants witnessed an event led to recalling fewer details, but not more memory errors.
People have also worried that memories that were unavailable are inaccurate when later remembered. However, going days or months or years without recalling information doesn’t mean the memories are false when they are finally remembered. In fact, there is much evidence that long-inaccessible memories are accurate.
As the Weinstein trial continues, it is important to remember that claims of false memory are a demeaning and dangerous distraction that have long been used to deny the realities of violence against women. Science can guide society in general, and a jury in particular, to thoughtfully evaluate survivors’ – and offenders’ – descriptions of their memories for sexual assault.
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