False Memory Syndrome and the Inquisition
Memories are modified by circumstance and environment
There is a new witch hunt in the United States. It has no need for proof and there is no reprieve. It is sufficient to be accused, and the lingering stench never fades. It is sexual abuse of children. The accusers are children with recovered memories of abuse and the accused are their parents. My interest in the current therapy of recovered memories has to do with the physiological aspects of the memories created.
If we look at witch hunts in history there is much evidence both written and pictorial that we as a species are able to create, believe and promote unreal events and circumstances. When asked to think of unimaginable horrors most people can dredge up horrors that rival and surpass the worst available on today's' theater. If circumstances favor it, these horrors become real memories and part of our world. Then let's look at the how and why of our psychology. If we do not learn from these experiences we are in dread danger of suffering from these events again. It has already begun.
In a rather famous memory experiment memory creation was examined in detail. The experiment illustrates why one can never trust psychologists. They are tricky people, but they are required to explain all - debrief - at the end of their time with the experimental subject. In this experiment an individual was interviewed prior to the actual `test trials' s/he was to undergo. During that interview they were reminded of a time as a child when they had been lost. When the subject did not remember being lost, they confirmed with a relative or close friend and provided this person with details about the incident. The subject was then given time to consider and remember the incident more clearly. In subsequent conversations the subject would remember more and more detail about the incident - location, people encountered, emotions felt, clothing, etc. At the end of each psychological experiment the professionals are required to debrief the subject and explain the purpose of the experiment. In this case the experimenters confessed that the `test trials' had been a ruse. The main purpose of the experiment had been to see how effectively false memories could be designed and implanted.
In fact, these subjects had never been lost as a child. They had been tricked, it never happened. `But, of course it did', protested the subject, `Aunt Bessie (or whoever) remembers it.' The experimenters explained that Aunt Bessie - or the friend - was a cohort - one who assists in setting up experimental conditions to allow study of a particular event or situation. However, these people now remembered being lost in the mall, store or whatever. They defended the newly recovered memory vehemently, and provided great amounts of substantiating detail. Even when assured by the acquaintance/cohort that it had never happened, they were extremely resistant to believing the recovered memory was false.
Our memories are so malleable that when presented with pictures and text, within a week subjects so exposed actually remembered `pictures' of things they had only read about. (AmerJourn of Psy, 1992 Spr Vol 105(1) 101-114. This ability directly links into our ability to visualize events only reported on, not directly experienced. Misleading information deliberately presented after an event can lead people to report false events or situations. (Journ of Exp Psyc Gen 1989 Mar Vol 118(1) 100-104.)
The Inquisition used, either inadvertently or deliberately these very techniques. The inquisition was a court or tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church for the discovery, examination, and punishment of heretics (Funk and Wagnalls' Standard Dictionary). Punishment typically referred to torture to elicit confession and with the desired result of producing compliance and/or belief in a variety of unbelievable recollections. Having sexual relations with satan, sucking blood, having sexual relations with sleeping men, stealing infants from their cradles, wild orgies which produce children later sacrificed on the eighth day of their lives and their ashes used for horrendous rites. (A History of Witchcraft, Russell, J.B., pps 58-62) Is it possible that the origination of these systems spread from the very nature of our physiological psychology?
In Olympia, Washington charges were filed against Paul Ingram by his daughters for gross sexual abuse. (Remembering Satan, Wright, L.) Paul was considered a good man, a good parent, and a good Christian. But both of his daughters brought these accusations to him. He was appalled, but as a sheriff and head of a police department he had heard much of these repressed crimes. With great earnestness he told investigators - his fellow officers - that although he knew his children did not lie, he couldn't remember anything such as this. He examined himself, he submitted to the wisdom of his church's minister. His spiritual advisor told him to seek within for these memories. And he found within wisps of thoughts which might lead to evidence of the crimes suggested by his children. On the advice of his religious mentor, he confessed to these crimes in order to release the memories of his deeds. And he did begin to remember. So, did his daughters. Ultimately his daughters remembered even more of the actions forced upon them. They finally remembered their secret pregnancies, dark and foul rituals and sacrificial victims buried in the yard. When their father searched deeply for some confirmation, he also began to recover clues about such ceremonies and crimes. "He developed a technique for recovering memories. He took each fresh, unfamiliar accusation and prayed over it until he went into a trancelike haze. Two or three days later he would offer his interrogators a detailed script of the scene, complete with dialogue and a cast list." (Time, May 16, 1994, Skow, J.) He also remembered bodies buried. He confessed. He named other members of the police force, friends, and family members as accessories. This is not just another story about horrific crimes hidden from our consciousness. The girls had never been pregnant and neither of them had any of the scars they claimed to have received from ritual burnings and knifings. They also had remembered at the prompting of a Christian Counselor. A woman at the summer camp told one of the girls that God had spoken to her and revealed that the girl had been sexually abused. Although the daughter denied it, ultimately she remembered. But, there was no physical evidence of any kind. None of the crimes listed above ever happened.
In 1985 Laura Pasley went to a therapist for treatment of an eating disorder. The therapist' name was Steve. He listened to her unrestrainedly, she said, without boundaries. No matter what she had to say, no matter what speculations she indulged in. He had her total loyalty by giving her the one thing she could not otherwise get - total attention. And Steve was important to her. Laura began seeing him once a week, then twice a week. She could call him any time night or day and talk as long as she needed, unless he got mad and hung up on her. She recounted to him many things of her adult life, but these were discounted by her therapist. He told her that these things were not important. That the pain was deeper and repressed. (Skeptic, Vol.2 No. 3 Pasley, L.)
As the course of her therapy progressed her therapist became more insistent that other history was the basis of her unhappiness. If she expressed concern about her family, Steve would `get mad.' As therapy proceeded Laura began to get strange wisps of memories. Steve would `walk her through' these flashbacks, establishing identities and details. If she denied such situations, he would drill her over and over to accept that her family members had been abusive, even to the extent that her brother had tried to kill her as a child.
Finally, she joined a therapy group. And she watched as an entire group of women were led from eating disorders, to sexual abuse victims, then to incest victims, then satanic ritual abuse victims and finally to multiple personality disorders. Members of the group were isolated from their family, becoming a created family within the therapy group itself. Laura's memories included "group sexual abuse, a dead man hanging from a rope, killed by my grandfather; being sexually abused by animals, and much more." Laura says now, "I believe that if you constantly fill your head with vile images, it will spit out vile images."
In a typical inquisition situation an accusation was made against a woman. She, and perhaps her whole family, were arrested and moved to a holding area. At this holding area the accused witch was totally isolated, and unaware of the actual nature of the charges. The `witch' is interrogated, and tortured. She was supplied with descriptions of her supposed crimes, demonic interactions and heretical actions to confess to. In many places rules indicated that torture could only take place once, but through a provision of those rules, it also could be paused and then resumed for days on end. She would be given time to recover between sessions and asked the same questions again. "The tortured were confronted by standard lists of questions and in their agony usually confessed to most of what was put to them." (History of Witchcraft, p 81, Russell, J.B.)
There are many detailed and horrifying accounts of actual cases. Estimates range from 1 to 9 million deaths stemming from the charges of witchcraft and/or heresy. While I am aware of these, my interest lies in how did and do we as intelligent human beings find it possible to believe such incredible things could happen?
What struck me most strongly amongst these accounts was the similarities. If we look back at the account of how memories are created, the primary requirements are: the seed or outline of the memory required, an authority which insists the memory exists (though buried), time to search ones' mind for wisps of such memory, and pressure to produce such a memory. As we saw earlier in this article, people have a unique ability to create memories from written, oral or stated opinions. These are not people who are lying. They actually create `real' memories that are not distinguishable from other true personal history. The only indicator so far that these created memories differ significantly from verifiable history is that these memories seem more vivid and distinct. There was no account in my research that had studied whether or not actual historical memories could be emphasized or recalled until they approached a similar brilliance, but that could be the case. Again, I emphasize, these are real memories in every testable sense. And particularly real to the subject.
Etienne Delcambre argues that most judges were honest, sincere, and idealistic men who believed that they were performing a necessary service for society, God, and even the accused, whose soul they hoped to save by extracting confessions. (History of Witchcraft, p79, Russell, J.B.) He may well be right. Although there is significant evidence that most of the goal of the Inquisitor may have been financially motivated, there was a start to it and there are so many folks were involved that did not gain financially, there had to be another aspect.
Memory. An honest priest approaches the accused. Remember, there was no media in those days, only what the church passed on through clergy. There were no written accounts, no histories. Only oral histories passed from family to family. Religion was a major part of the communities' lives, and fear of transgression of all or a part of God's Law and Will was a constant theme in day to day life. Under these circumstances, each person was constantly aware of sin, of failure and of the influence of the Dark. When an earnest woman examined her inner self to look for a wisp of a thought that indicated she might have been involved in sinfulness, she was bound to find it. Where else do we find our largest worries, but amongst those things we strive so hard to avoid? And like other cases, such as Paul Ingram's and Laura Pasley's, when we search honestly we can find memories. Especially if the parameters for the crimes are well defined. Paul found faint wisps of the crimes he knew of and would never commit, but those wisps were seen as indicative of memory and he built the entire history to support the crimes as described. Laura's therapist and later her therapy group provided a complete framework around which to create memories. Our accused witch found within all the thoughts about evil that she strove to vanquish and now saw those thoughts as evidence that she had done evil. And she began to find memories of all that her priest had told her she had done.
Over time the priest was able to bring more than one accused to admit to what he knew had happened. The Church issued lists of exactly what to look for, and when the priest presented the outline of the suspected heresy to the unsuspecting victim, the parameters became part of the descriptors of the memories sought and ultimately found.
The priest had managed to save the eternal soul of the accused by obtaining - by whatever means - a confession of dark and heretical deeds. Under sufficient time and duress the accused created detailed and complete memories, perpetuating the belief that such events were real. Even to the emotions experienced and fears about crimes never committed. And the priest was convinced. And continued in his holy duties. Creating false memories and destroying human lives.
There are many explanations for the Inquisition. Some are much less humane in scope than others. But it appears that one of the instigating factors may well have been our own physiological psychology. We can be lead to remember vivid, emotional events that never happened.
The Inquisition is over and done with. We will only see endless squabbling over details that cannot be proven from this vantage. But this view of memory offers some unsettling insight into how we have had such destruction as Hitler's Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Salem Trials/Deaths, and the current uproar over Recovered Childhood Memories. It also explains how cults can be so faithful to events that are so unlikely, goals that are unachievable and how young Nazi's can so faithfully and adamantly deny that Hitler's Holocaust ever happened.
Our memories provide a body of experience on which to draw. They are not an inviolable data bank which stores precise digital accounts of our lives and our world. And our memories only represent part of the whole. While in some ways they contain vast amount of accessible data, from a survival point of view it is more likely that the race will survive if we are able to revise memories to make the unacceptable acceptable. But this leads to other potential difficulties in a world that is now delivering data and stimulus to us at a rapidly escalating rate. There is no answer to this malleability, except for consensual reality. And that too is subject to the same revision.
I am much more careful these day in how I say I see the truth of any event. Indeed, my loved one and I are now doubly careful. We never argue over our memories - who said what, who promised what., etc. The course of this research has only given more surety that we as a species do not have concrete memories, only information and impressions filtered through our assumptions and fears. And now we know that definition does not adequately convey the limitations. I write a lot of stuff down these day, so does he.
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