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Down with Memory Lane

In response to:

The Revenge of the Repressed from the November 17, 1994 issue

To the editors:

The debate over repressed memory is, unfortunately, confounded by True Believers of various sorts who refuse to recognize any evidence that might refute their conception of how the memory works. In advancing his belief that long-lost memories cannont accurately reappear in adults [NYR, November 17], Frederick Crews dismisses my case (Cheit v. San Francisco Boys Chorus) by twisting what I told him and distorting the documented sequence of events. Professor Crews speaks with surprising authority about the “likelihood” of what happened in a case he knows almost nothing about. Crews read one or two newspaper articles and briefly talked to me on the telephone before rendering his (erroneous) judgment.

What Crews attributes to me is a composite of things I never said. I didn’t tell him anything about what I “tend to believer.” Indeed, I explicitly declined to advance any psychological theories. (I happen to think that several are plausible.) I told Crews unequivocally that I had not thought of the perpetrator in more than twenty years—although one would never know that from his account—and I never suggested that I had faint or “faded” memories.

Without any factual basis, Crews asserts that it is “more likely” that a book I read as an adult “refocused” my memory. Curiously, he omits the fact that I purchased that book three months after remembering the underlying events. In a telephone conversation on November 1, 1994, Crews acknowledged that he was wrong about the sequence of events. He insisted that his general interpretation, which apparently requires no factual basis at all, remains “more likely” because he “doesn’t believe in repression.” Crews is entitled to his belief; but why does he employ the language of science and feign an interest in the facts of particular cases?

Most incredible is his assertion that “logic” somehow renders my case “useless” in the debate over recovered memory. Apparently, in the world according to Crews, if you can dream up a reason to ignore contrary evidence, then you must ignore such evidence. I submit that my case now illustrates two important points: first, abuse can return years later with stunning accuracy; second, as Thomas Kuhn warned, scientists (and apparently English professors) are sometimes all too willing to distort and ignore evidence that does not fit with their cherished beliefs.

Professor Ross E. Cheit
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island

Frederick Crews replies:

Ross Cheit’s letter raises issues both of fact and interpretation. As for the former, I stand by my summary of what Cheit told me on September 7, 1994. At the end of that quite lengthy conversation, he explicitly approved the two statements that I said I wanted to use: that he “takes no position on the existence of repression” and that he “is inclined to doubt that he abruptly and completely consigned his experience to oblivion.” (The dispute phrase “tend to believe” does not occur in my article.) If my summary is inaccurate, I wonder why it so closely resembles what Mark Pendergrast, in Victims of Memory, reports on the basis of his own dealings with Cheit: “he does not know whether to call his memory ‘represses’ or not, nor does he necessarily believe the kind of massive repression reported by other Survivors….”

Cheit’s letter corrects my article in only one respect: the book he read about pedophilia could not have been involved in his recall. There is no question, however, that the book”refocused” his memory. He said as much both to Pendergrast and to US News and World Report (November 29, 1993, p. 55): “It was not until October when at his therapist’s suggestion Cheit went to a bookstore to buy Mic Hunter’s Abused Boys, that he felt the full impact of what he had remembered.”

Cheit is amazed that I could have called his case “‘useless’ in the debate over recovered memory.” But I didn’t; I called it useless as a demonstration that repression exists. The reasons for that fact include the necessarily subjective and anecdotal character of every reported act of long-delayed remembering, even when, as in Cheit’s case, the events at issue did occur. We cannot rule out the possibility that the moment of recall has been dramatically idealized or that information learned after that moment has gotten blended with it in subsequent retelling. Nor are there any agreed-upon markers that could clearly identify a given memory as having been repressed rather than merely neglected. If the existence of repression is to be confirmed, it will have to be accomplished in a more controlled setting than stories like Cheit’s.

Readers may wonder why, if Cheit is no partisan of repression, he is so concerned to attack the first half of my article. (He didn’t wait to read the rest of it.) The answer is that, as I have had several occasions to observe, Cheit is strongly disposed to believe allegations of abuse, no matter how flimsy their basis may be. He even tried to convince me that poor, deluded Paul Ingram is a child molester. In Cheit’s mind, then, my article makes light of sexual crimes.

I regard all such crimes as despicable and deserving of punishment. Unlike Cheit, however, I also care about the falsely accused. When the law itself embraces pseudoscience, and when a therapeutic fad resting on a dubious theory of mind is allowed to shatter the lives of innocent people, corrective action is required. It is regrettable that, thanks to his own unfortunate history, a lawyer and a college teacher of ethics finds himself insensitive to that need.

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