The underlying science appears to be as bad as the law. This 15 March 2005 paper by John F. Kihlstrom, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, discusses how clinical therapists working with supposed victims typically have no means of independently corroborating what their patients "remember." In this vacuum, the inference that certain symptoms are manifestations of a repressed traumatic memory is taken, circularly, for the corroboration itself. As Richard Webster similarly writes in this excerpt from his 1995 book Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis, "[P]roper caution is replaced by credulity. 'If you think you were abused,' write Ellen Bass and Laura Davis [in The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (2nd Ed., 1990)], 'and your life shows the symptoms, then you were'."
Kihlstrom also points out that studies supporting the theory of recovered memory show "an unhealthy reliance on self-reports--both that the trauma in question actually occurred, and that it was actually forgotten." In addition, the cases put forth as proof are retrospective; if sexual abuse of children causes dissociative amnesia, however, there should be a certain incidence of it going forward from indisputable cases of abuse. To the contrary, as Kihlstrom writes, "[E]vidence based on random or prospective samples" indicate that "multiple personality disorder and other dissociative disorders simply do not figure prominently among the sequelae of documented child sexual abuse." In summary, quoting Kihlstrom, "[E]verything we know about emotion and memory tells us that emotional involvement makes events more memorable, not less." (In these articles in the 17 November 1994 and 1 December 1994 issues of The New York Review of Books, Frederick Crews provides a classic, trenchant debunking of recovered-memory theory and its uses. Click here for an entry on false memory from The Skeptic's Dictionary.)
Even to laymen, recovered-memory theory reeks of the con artist's foolproof reasoning. In Debbie Nathan's Village Voice article above, for instance, she describes an interviewing method for children used in the McMartin preschool case which was modeled on Los Angeles psychiatrist Roland Summit's "child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome," a theory about incest holding that "if there is evidence of sex abuse and a child denies it, this is only further proof that it happened." The appeal of recovered-memory theory--being able to trace the unmanageability of your life to a single cause for which you bear no responsibility--is in itself suspicious. Many of us have thought, Something must have happened to me when I was young--I can't naturally be this fucked up. But intellectual honesty dictates that you double your guard, rather than dismiss it, when assessing such seductive theories.