STATEMENT BY HARVARD PROFESSOR
RICHARD J. MCNALLY
The journal Child Maltreatment is published by the American
Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC). They published
an often-cited article by Dr. David Corwin, co-founder of APSAC, which supports
memory repression. Using documents in the public record, Dr
Elizabeth Loftus and Dr. Mel Guyer independently studied the material on which
Corwin's article was based. They published their conclusions in Skeptical
Inquirer (SI) magazine. 1,2
Dr. Carol Tavris also published an article in SI which discussed research
difficulties that Loftus and Guyer experienced in their study.
Although they carefully preserved the anonymity of the subject
of the case study as "Jane Doe," the actual client initiated a lawsuit
against Loftus, Guyer, Skeptical Inquirer and Tavris arguing invasion of privacy
and defamation of character.
The following Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court) brief was submitted by
Richard J. McNally in support of the defendants, Elizabeth Loftus et al. on
2005-JUN-03. 4 It gives an
excellent overview of the current status of recovered memory.
Honorable Ronald M. George, Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the
California Supreme Court
350 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102-4797
RE: Nicole Taus vs. Elizabeth Loftus et al.
(1st D.C.A. Civ No. A104689, Solano County Superior Court
Dear Chief Justice George and Associate Justices:
I am Professor and Director of Clinical Training in the Department of Psychology
at Harvard University. I have 250 publications, many in the field of traumatic
stress and memory, including the book Remembering Trauma (2003, Harvard
University Press). My research, funded by the National Institute of Mental
Health, includes laboratory studies on cognitive functioning in adults who
report having been sexually abused as children. I served on the American
Psychiatric Association’s committee for revising the diagnostic criteria for
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I am among the approximately 260
psychologists and psychiatrists identified by the Institute for Scientific
Information as “highly cited” (i.e., top one half of one percent of all
published psychologists and psychiatrists worldwide in terms of citation
impact). Accordingly, I am deeply familiar with the scientific issues involved
in the Taus vs. Loftus et al. case. I respectfully request that you accept the
Petition for Review in the above-cited case.
Statement of Interest:
How victims remember trauma is the most controversial issue confronting
psychology and psychiatry today. Clinical researchers capable of understanding
the relevant science realize that traumatic events -- those experienced as
overwhelmingly terrifying and life-threatening -- are remembered all too well.
Informed clinicians and scientists realize that emotional arousal enhances
memory for trauma; it does not result in blocked memory for trauma. Indeed,
people who develop PTSD are haunted by intrusive memories of horrors that they
Yet some clinicians claim that the mind protects itself by banishing memories of
trauma, making it difficult for victims to recall their most terrifying
experiences until safe to do so years later. These clinicians believe that a
significant minority of victims, perhaps as many as 30%, are incapable of
remembering their most terrifying experiences. They believe that victims
repress, dissociate, or block out these memories precisely because the memories
are so upsetting.
As I and others have shown, there is no convincing evidence for the claim that
victims repress and recover memories of traumatic events. To be sure, some
victims may not think about disturbing events for many years, if the events were
not experienced as traumatic -- terrifying and life-threatening -- at the time
of their occurrence. But not thinking about something for a long time is not the
same thing as being unable to remember it, and it is inability to remember that
lies at the heart of repression theory.
For example, a child exposed to an episode of nonviolent sexual abuse (e.g.,
being inappropriately touched by a stepfather) and who fails to understand the
experience as abuse, may experience confusion, anxiety, and disgust, but not
traumatizing terror. Such a child may not think about the event, only to be
reminded of it years later. But this would not constitute repression, nor would
it constitute a recovered traumatic memory because the event was neither
understood as abuse nor experienced as terrifying at the time of its occurrence.
The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the
most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry. It has
provided the theoretical basis for “recovered memory therapy” -- the worst
catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.
The case of Jane Doe has assumed extraordinary significance in the fierce debate
over the reality of repressed and recovered memories of trauma. Videotapes of
Dr. Corwin’s interviews have been shown at professional conferences, and the
case has routinely been cited as proof that horrific memories can be blocked and
then recovered. Accordingly, the investigation done by Loftus and Guyer has
profound scientific, clinical, legal, and public significance because it reveals
that this case is far more complicated than repression theorists have led us to
believe. More specifically, it is not at all clear that Jane Doe was ever
actually abused, and the second videotape may depict her recollection of the
accusation of abuse, not of any abuse itself. Needless to say, repression
advocates have vigorously attempted to frighten clinical scientists from
discovering the truth about cases regarding alleged repressed and recovered
memories of trauma. Legal action against Loftus et al. appears to be little more
than an attempt to squelch inquiry into matters of profound social significance.
Accordingly, I urge the Court to grant the defendants’ Petition for Review and
to reverse the Appellate Court’s decision.
Richard J. McNally, Ph.D.
Director of Clinical Training
- Elizabeth F. Loftus and Melvin J. Guyer, "Who Abused Jane Doe?
Part 1," The Hazards of the Single Case History," Scientific Inquirer,
2002-MAY/JUN. Online at:
- Elizabeth F. Loftus and Melvin J. Guyer, "Who Abused Jane Doe?
Part 2," The Hazards of the Single Case History," Scientific Inquirer,
2002-JUL/AUG. Online at:
- Carol Tavris, "The High Cost of Skepticism: Here's what happened to two
scientists who believed that tenure and the First Amendment would protect
their rights to free inquiry," Scientific Inquirer, 2002-JUL/AUG. Online at:
- "Richard McNally Amicus letter," National Center for Reason and
Justice, 2005-JUN-03, at:
Copyright © 2005 & 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally posted: 2005-JUN-07
Latest update: 2006-APR-06
Author: B.A. Robinson