Memory -- the stuff of poetry and love songs, campfire stories and tradition. But memory can also be the stuff of nightmares. Anyone who has ever jolted awake from a bad dream, gasping for breath, heart racing, maybe clinging to the edge of the bed in terror, understands full well the powerful physical reactions which can be elicited by nothing more than brain power. And what happens when the brain offers up memories that are distorted by time and emotion, or even worse are outright false? How dependable is human memory, especially of very early times in our lives? Author Karl Sabbagh explores these issues, and the controversy surrounding them, in his sometimes disturbing book Remembering Our Childhood: How Memory Betrays Us.
Sabbagh begins with a thoroughly detailed and documented review of memory research. Studies in the field address questions such as what is memory, how does it work and is it reliable. One of the earliest researchers noted in this slim volume is Frederic Bartlett of Cambridge, who said of work he completed during the First World War: "It is fitting to speak of every human cognitive reaction -- perceiving, imaging, remembering, thinking and reasoning -- as an effort after meaning" (61). This effort is dissected from several perspectives, but Sabbagh focuses most specifically on the recovered memory theory and the idea that early childhood memories can be suddenly recalled in vivid accuracy years after an event. Much of this work has centered on adults who have come forward with horrific tales of child sexual abuse at the hands of family and friends, often following the intervention of what Sabbagh feels are overbearing psychotherapists who are quick to attribute any emotional distress to early trauma.
The controversy revolves around how much, and from what age, a person can accurately "re-member" events from the past. Memories evolve from the visual, snapshot sort of images which can be recalled by the very young to those which take on what Sabbagh calls a "narrative structure," that is, a context with meaning and interaction that can be related. The power of suggestion, the repeated exposure to parental retelling of a family incident, and the development of imagination and language all come to bear on what we call memory. He recounts a handful of headline-grabbing cases from the '80s and '90s which tore apart families, destroyed careers and reputations, and resulted in jail terms which were later overturned on appeal. Sabbagh cites several prominent studies by those who believe such recovered memories are less than believable, including work by memory researchers Richard McNally (Harvard) and Jonathan Schooler (University of British Columbia), and psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, whose professional career has come under fire for her defense of the accused in recovered memory cases.
The work of recovered memory proponents is described as well, including Jennifer Freyd, a University of Oregon research who developed a "betrayal trauma theory" that faces heavy scrutiny in Sabbagh's review. Of interest is the anecdote that Freyd's parents are founders of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation which offers support for families destroyed by alleged historical abuses, as theirs was when Jennifer came forward with recovered memories at age thirty-three.
Unfortunately, Sabbagh often slips into thinly-veiled sarcasm, referring at one point to the "flakiness" of recovered memory therapy (135) and its various methods. Such commentary detracts somewhat from the overall strength of his arguments and their supporting research. A particular focus of his scorn is a 1988 self-help book, The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. He devotes a great deal of word count to debunking its theories and value, and quotes House of Commons MP Clair Curtis-Thomas (a mechanical engineering researcher and professor) as saying, "Many responsible psychiatrists and therapists regard it as one of the most dangerous self-help books ever written" (187). Other more prominent names in memory research echo her sentiment, but Sabbagh's citation of a seemingly unrelated and unqualified individual is puzzling.
Ultimately, Sabbagh addresses the central issue of the controversy: "Aggressive strategies by both sides can lead to tragic injustices -- sexual abusers remaining at large, certainly, but also entirely innocent parents or teacher having their lives destroyed by imprisonment and stigmatization. And, of course, the children at the centre of such miscarriages of justice usually have their immature emotional lives sullied by constant questioning and discussion of often bizarre forms of sexual abuse" (152). Remembering Our Childhood: How Memory Betrays Us is a useful primer in a novice attempt to understand the nuances of its subject, but while Sabbah offers detailed insight into the arguments for and against recovered memory therapy, he provides few definitive answers to the important question of its validity.
© 2010 Cynthia L. Pauwels
Reviewer Cynthia L. Pauwels holds a BA in Humanities with a World Classics certification and an MA in creative writing (June 2010) from Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Pauwels is the author of Historic Warren County: An Illustrated History as well as numerous short fiction, non-fiction and technical writing pieces.