The idea that recollections of traumatic experiences can be locked away only to suddenly re-emerge years later has once again become a hotly debated issue, with serious implications for investigations of historical abuse
6 October 2021
ON A February night 10 years ago, John Zebedee murdered his father. As John later told police, he was awoken by 94-year-old Harry Zebedee, who had dementia. When John went to check on him, Harry made a gesture that triggered John’s memory of childhood sexual abuse his father had inflicted. When the older man was found strangled to death, John confessed to the killing. He was later convicted of murder.
At the time of his arrest, John described in detail how his father had assaulted him when he was a child. But months later, John said his father hadn’t abused him after all. “He wrote to me from prison,” says psychologist Julia Shaw at University College London. He told Shaw that he had sought treatment for an alcohol use disorder and it was only then that the subject of abuse came up. “He says that… a therapist suggested to him that he must have been abused as a child,” says Shaw.
The idea that memories can be repressed, only to suddenly re-emerge years later, was debunked in the 1990s, when memory researchers pointed out that the concept goes against everything we know about how memory works. They also noted that it is so easy to implant false memories that it is impossible to tell a recovered memory from an implanted one.
With that, the idea should have been consigned to history. Yet in recent years, it has become clear that the belief in memory repression has lingered among some therapists, the public and in the criminal justice systems of many countries. “It has not ended at all,” says Henry …