Recovered Memories and Sexual Assault – Part Two

[CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault, abuse, trauma. Also, read Part One first, otherwise you’ll be lost.]

But what happens if someone is biased? Or ignorant of the sexual assault and trauma literature? Psychology is a big field, after all, so you could easily be an expert in one area and clueless in another. I suspect this is the case with Elizabeth Loftus. She’s definitely an expert on memory, especially recovered memory, and has published in that area since 1974.[15] I don’t see a lot of evidence she’s aware of the literature on sexual assault or trauma, though; one of Loftus’ few excursions into childhood sexual abuse checked if subjects had “forget the abuse for a period of time,” yet as shown above it’s a lot more likely they re-labeled the event instead of remembering it.[16] Turning to the Jerry Sandusky trial, there’s a noteworthy passage in his hearing for a retrial:

Dr. Loftus had a different opinion based on “impressions” from Gillum’s book, statements Struble made two years after the trial, and the fact that the victims whose excerpted trial testimony she reviewed did not give consistent stories to the police, the grand jury, and the trial jury. (Id. at 71-90). Having been rendered after an uncritical review of an absurdly incomplete record carefully dissected to include only pieces of information tending to support Sandusky’s repressed memory theory, however, that opinion was entirely ineffective to rebut Gillum’s and Struble’s definitive denials.

Her argument before the court was that the childhood sexual assault victims did not have a consistent story, ergo their memories were false. There’s no evidence she considered the possibility that the victims had undergone a traumatic event, ergo they had difficulty forming a coherent story. The fact that she saw no problem with the pre-selected evidence placed in front of her, suggests Loftus was so confident there were no other credible alternative theories that even poor evidence would suffice. That’s inconsistent with someone up-to-date on the literature of sexual assault and trauma.

The other major players here fare worse. The recent controversy in the skeptic movement was triggered by a review of Mark Pendergrast’s recent book on Jerry Sandusky, written by Frederick Crews. This isn’t Mark Pendergrast’s first book, and of the many he’s written one in particular stands out.

Pendergrast, an investigative journalist and author of the well-received For God, Country and Coca-Cola, here abandons any pretext of objectivity in an emotionally charged diatribe against the recovered memory movement. Accused of sexual abuse by one of his daughters on the basis of recovered memories, he describes his personal anguish and inability to find out any specifics of the allegations. Prime targets of his wrath are manipulative therapists who “facilitate” recovery of childhood memories of abuse, which they claim to be the cause for whatever mental illness their patients (usually, but not always, female) may suffer. Using hypnosis, psychotherapy, age regression, dream work, automatic writing, sodium Amytal, they guide troubled patients into remembering lurid scenes of sexual abuse (graphically described by Pendergrast), satanic rites and demonic possession. The unfortunate “incest survivors” usually cut off all contact with their families, becoming dependent on therapists for years. Pendergrast devotes four chapters to interviews he conducted, but without scientific control or scholarly basis, the narratives of therapists, survivors, the accused and retractors (those who have taken back their allegations) lack weight. Also detracting from his thesis are the repetitious accusations and titillating accounts of sexual abuse, which, after several hundred pages, seem obsessive and needlessly sensational. Pendergrast is a skilled journalist, but his book would have benefited greatly from substantive editing and a more scholarly approach to this controversial subject.

Pendergrast has a very personal connection to the literature on recovered memories. Regardless of whether or not he was guilty of sexual abuse, he’s got a pretty strong motive to deny the existence of recovered memories, and it’s plausible that’s warped into a skepticism of childhood sexual assault. Surprisingly, Loftus appears to be a fan of Pendergrast’s work, as she wrote a glowing review of his book on Sandusky. As for Frederick Crews

Crews mounts a slashing critique of Sigmund Freud’s mistaken diagnoses, sexist hectoring of patients, exaggeration of results, equivocation and attempts to cover up therapeutic disasters. According to this distinguished critic and professor emeritus (UC Berkeley), Freud ascribed to some patients repressed oedipal sexual desires after he had unsuccessfully goaded them to remember childhood incest or molestation. Furthermore, Crews maintains, Freud in 1905 retroactively changed the alleged seducers of infants to fathers, whereas in his reports of the previous decade, they were said to have been siblings, strangers, teachers, governesses. Freud’s brainchild, psychoanalysis, was and remains a pseudoscience, in Crews’s estimate. Its offspring, he asserts, is today’s recovered-memory movement, which he believes is deluding countless patients, mostly women, into leveling false charges of sexual abuse based on supposedly recovered memories that, in Crews’s opinion, are often manufactured through overzealous or incompetent therapists’ suggestions. This volume contains three articles that Crews published in the New York Review of Books in 1993 and 1994, together with his fiercely contentious exchanges with 19 letter-writers, mostly psychoanalysts, who challenged his views.

… he’s also a harsh critic of recovered memories. He sits on the board of a foundation devoted to opposing recovered memories, has been aware of both Loftus and Pendergrast for some time, yet his primary degree is in Literature. Neither Pendergrast nor Crews have a background in psychology, nor demonstrate a strong knowledge of sexual assault or trauma literature, so I place even less trust in their word that Loftus.

That doesn’t mean I dismiss them entirely, however. What would convince me would be evidence that’s specific to recovered memories but absent from sexual assault and trauma: “repeated interviewing, the suggestive and coercive nature of the questioning and the length of the interrogations.” This should be easily within the grasp of all three, given their backgrounds.

So, according to Crews, on what grounds does Pendergrast doubt Sandusky’s accusers?

  • Mike McQueary, who witnessed an attack, gave testimony that was inconsistent on small details.
  • Mike McQueary acted strangely when he witnessed the incident, delaying going to his superiors with his story.
  • A few months after the incident, Mike McQueary participated in a golf tournament in honour of Sandusky.
  • The coach, Joe Paterno, delayed in acting on these incidents and downplayed them.
  • Allan Myers, the child victim Mike McQueary witnessed, defended Sandusky and said no assault occurred.
  • The mother of one of the child victims, Dawn Daniels, liked to hang out in bars and drink.
  • Daniels’ son initially denied any assault by Sandusky, talking instead of normal physical contact.
  • Daniels’ son was sent “to the psychotherapist Mike Gillum, who was, in all respects except the name, a recovered memory psychologist.”
  • Gillum wanted to be involved in police interrogations.
  • Daniel’s son took a long time to come forward with his story, and when he did finally did so appeared “distraught and confused.”
  • Daniel’s son’s experienced multiple assaults (“why had the boy returned, again and again, for more of what was traumatizing him?”)
  • Daniel’s son was “a mentally fragile teenager who kept changing his story.”
  • Debra McCord asked the police to investigate if Sandusky had abused her son, and they failed to find any evidence he had.
  • For a dozen years after that, McCord allowed her son to hang out with Sandusky.
  • The Deputy District Attorney was convinced Sandusky was guilty.
  • Sandusky published a book called “Touched,” where he was shown draping his arms around boys and talked of wrestling with them. (Yes, this is considered a defense of Sandusky: “would a child molester be likely to have allowed such a work to see print?”)
  • Multiple boys confessed to being touched by Sandusky, including some who had been kissed by him, but they thought nothing of the incidents.
  • “Among so many young men drawn in by the dragnet, however, there were bound to be a few who, in bad financial straits that were sometimes worsened by criminal records, caught the scent of money. ” (What sort of monetary gain they could earn is never discussed.)
  • Two victims were discovered because they called into a hotline set up after Sandusky’s abuse became public.
  • Dustin Struble, another victim, partied with Sandusky even after his incident and said nice things about him on multiple occasions.
  • Struble changed his story after therapy and interactions with another victim.
  • Michal Kajak, another victim, changed his story and only came forward many years after the traumatic event.
  • Michal Kajak’s story “would be worth millions to him and his lawyer.” (Again, the details are never mentioned.)
  • Michal Kajak hung out with Sandusky, even after the incident.
  • Jason Simcisko, another victim, changed his story and only came forward many years after the traumatic event.
  • Brett Houtz, another victim, “was a rebellious adolescent—by all accounts a habitual liar and manipulator who neglected school, dropped out of sports, used drugs, stole a car, and got sexually involved with a young girl.”
  • Brett Houtz only came forward reluctantly, and changed his story.
  • Brett Houtz’s lawyer made a lot of money from the case.
  • Brett Houtz never talked about his assaults with anyone, and hung around Sandusky even after being assaulted.
  • Sabastian Paden, another victim, denied Sandusky assaulted him at first.
  • Sabastian Paden continued to interact with Sandusky even after being assaulted.
  • Ryan Rittmeyer, another victim, had done jail time and assaulted someone.
  • Ryan Rittmeyer “was probably hard up for money when the Sandusky hotline posed an opportunity for sudden improvement in his fortunes.” (Yet again, how he could have earned cash from coming forward is never mentioned.)
  • Ryan Rittmeyer may never have known Sandusky (this is never elaborated on).
  • Too many people came forward to accuse Sandusky (“a man with little time to do anything but scurry from one unreported molestation to the next.”)
  • Ronald Petroskya janitor, testified about what Jim Calhoun, another janitor, told him about Sandusky 12 years ago.
  • Ronald Petrosky’s testimony about events which occurred 12 years ago had some inconsistencies.
  • Ronald Petrosky and Jim Calhoun didn’t come forward to warn the authorities 12 years ago.
  • Jim Calhoun said Sandusky was a pretty good guy, back when his dementia was just beginning.
  • Jerry Sandusky was a good Christian.
  • Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son Matt said good things about his father, for a while.
  • Matt Sandusky only came forward with his tale of abuse after the trial started.
  • The press was harsh on Sandusky, and won prizes for their coverage of him.
  • Jerry Sandusky was a great guy.
  • Jerry inherited his desire for physical touch from his father, who was also very hands-on with boys.
  • Attorney General Linda Kelly acknowledged recovered memories played a key factor when she said “It was incredibly difficult for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the shocking abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.”

Yeah, that’s the most blatant case of anomaly hunting I’ve seen. For any skeptics in the audience:

What pseudoscientists do is look for “apparent” anomalies – things that cannot be immediately explained, or (even worse) are just quirky coincidences. Often they also look at the edges of detectability where data becomes fuzzy and anomalies are easier to imagine. Think of the fuzzy pictures of Bigfoot or UFOs, with believers looking at details smaller than the resolution of the images and declaring the presence of anomalies.

They imagine that if they can find (broadly defined) anomalies in that data that would point to another phenomenon at work. They then commit a pair of logical fallacies. First, the confuse unexplained with unexplainable. This leads them to prematurely declare something a true anomaly, without first exhaustively trying to explain it with conventional means. Second they use the argument from ignorance, saying that because we cannot explain an anomaly that means their specific pet theory must be true. I don’t know what that fuzzy obect in the sky is – therefore it is an alien spacecraft.

What pseudoscientists often fail to recognize is that if you take any complex natural phenomenon, historical event, object or process and you look for apparent anomalies (broadly defined), you will find them. Humans are great at pattern recognition, and so if you look for coincidence in the data you will detect them. You will also find features that resulted from a complex interplay if unique events and therefore will be impossible to prove a specific explanation.

If Crews is even half-way accurate, Pendergrast must have combed through the court testimony looking for things that looked like false memories to him, without considering alternative theories. It’s like repeatedly dropping a pencil on the floor, and using that evidence to conclude Aristotelian gravity is correct. Yes, the inconsistent stories of childhood victims of sexual assault are compatible with false memories, but they’re also consistent with the memory issues children can deal with in the aftermath of sexual assault. Coming forward late with your story? Consistent with false memory and an assault taking place. Hanging out with your assaulter? Consistent with false memory and denial of abuse combined with a fear of the consequences if you refused to. Providing evidence for one theory does not necessarily falsify all other theories.

The result here is something like shotgunning. There are a good 120 proofs of the Pythagorean theorem, but you only need one to establish its truth. This is true even on the inductive side of things, provided you’ve been open to alternative theories. If the evidence for recovered memories was so convincing, Pendergrast would not need to mention the drinking habits of a victim’s mom (complete with photo), nor assert many of them were in it for a sweet payout from [UNKNOWN] (again with a photo!), or what he thinks the prosecutors thought, or that Sandusky published a book, or that Sandusky was a touchy-feely guy. The fact that he did, suggests that on some level he realizes his arguments only work with a helping of subjective validation and selective thinking. The result is a raving conspiracy theory about the unluckiest person on the planet, as Crews outlines:

Many factors contributed to the Sandusky debacle: a prurient misconstruction of well-meant deeds; excessive zeal by officials, police, social workers, and therapists; scandal mongering by the media that preempted the judicial process; the greed of abuse claimants and their lawyers; and a political vendetta against Penn State’s President Spanier by then Governor Tom Corbett. But the main ingredient in the witches’ brew, the one that rendered it most toxic, was something else: bogus psychological theory.

Before sitting down to write this, I was going to cut Shermer and Coyne some slack. They knew of Elizabeth Loftus’ work on memory, thus thought her authority extended to the Sandusky case. Their endorsements could be explained as misplaced trust. But both of them must surely have read JFK assassination conspiracies, or 9/11 Truthers, or creationists. They both should be able to spot anomaly hunting at fifty yards, especially at this scale. The fact that neither did speaks poorly of their bullshit detectors, even if they were ignorant of the science on sexual assault and trauma. It doesn’t help that Crews makes no attempt at all to appear impartial; how the hell did passages like this fail to trigger alarm bells?

In reality, the extraverted but high-principled Sandusky didn’t fit any model of deviance. No doubts about his sexual orientation or conduct were raised before he was 54 years old. No pornography was found on his computer. Disapproving of sex out of wedlock, he had been happily married to his only spouse since 1966. His domestic lovemaking, he and Dottie separately attested, was conventional in frequency and nature. He was disgusted by the idea of anal or oral copulation. His testosterone level was abnormally low. And if Jerry had been an unscrupulous homosexual pedophile, his adopted boys would have been prime targets; but until Matt became afflicted with pseudomemories, all five of them considered the charge to be outlandish. […]

Mark Pendergrast has demonstrated that the obituaries of our lamentable recovered memory movement were premature. Its virulent misconceptions, originally propagated by ideologues and ignorant psychotherapists, will surely continue to wreak havoc. Forewarned is forearmed. But who, meanwhile, will restore Jerry Sandusky’s liberty and good name?

I’m not completely out of charity, though. Again, I still gave a way for Loftus, Pendergrast, and Crews to prove their case to me despite all the bias they’ve shown:

In theory, the resolution is fairly easy: if there are signs of “repeated interviewing, the suggestive and coercive nature of the questioning and the length of the interrogations,” you can start to tip the scales towards away from “sexual abuse” to “false memory of sexual abuse.” Even then, abuse is common while “repeated interviewing” is rare, so our priors should be weighted towards “sexual abuse.” It takes a lot of knowledge of both literatures to accurately tease them apart, and a clear and unbiased approach.

It’s highly unlikely Crews or Pendergrast would have skipped key evidence about false memories, but it’s theoretically possible they’re that incompetent. It’s highly unlikely Loftus failed to find that evidence herself, or failed to communicate it effectively despite decades of practice, but we’ve already seen evidence she was a poor scholar in this case. If I can find evidence that recovered memories were used to convict Sandusky, then everyone else looks like The Keystone Cops but at least the core of their argument will have been borne out. Let’s engage in a little steel-personing.

Although he was denied access to the victims’ psychological records, Sandusky was permitted to call witnesses to explore whether the victims had undergone repressed memory therapy prior to trial, and he did explore that subject with Dustin Struble (“Struble”), Michael Gillum, Aaron Fisher, Brett Houtz, and Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, none of whom affirmed the defendant’s hypothesis.

During his direct testimony, Gillum, Fisher’s treating therapist, plainly and credibly stated, “I don’t deal with repressed memory [and] I don’t work with anyone who claims to have repressed memories or anything along those lines.” (PCRA, 03/24/2017, p. 159). He further articulated his negative assessment of repressed memory therapy and why he did not engage in it. (Id. at 164-165). While Struble acknowledged that he and his therapist had discussed methods of unearthing repressed memories, moreover, he stated definitively that he had not undergone that type of therapy prior to the defendant’s trial. (Id., 05/11/2017, p. 20).

Oh right, I forgot about Sandusky’s recent appeal. See, the judge let Sandusky bring up the possibility of recovered memory, and even let him bring in Loftus herself to question the original councilor and three of the victims. His lawyers also had nearly two decades of case law to draw on, which definitively established the possibility of false memories in legal cases. Even with all that in his favor, the second judge wrote Loftus’ “opinion was entirely ineffective to rebut Gillum’s and Struble’s definitive denials,” as I quoted earlier.

So if Loftus, Pendergrast, and Crews are correct, Sandusky is the victim of dozens of police officers and multiple prosecutors who were out to get him, several social workers who hated him, many reporters across the globe who were out to smear his name, nearly a dozen witnesses who all happened to develop false memories of abuse, at least one councilor who lied about using recovered memory techniques under oath, two teams of incompetent lawyers defending him, an entire jury who were so convinced of his guilt that they returned a unanimous verdict in about a day, multiple improper court procedures (according to his second set of lawyers), two judges who turned a blind eye to the evidence in front of them, and thirty years worth of scientists that falsified their findings on sexual assault and trauma. And both Shermer and Coyne buy into that, too?

When did the atheo-skeptic community become a bunch of science denialists and conspiracy kooks?


[15] Loftus, Elizabeth F., and John C. Palmer. “Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction between Language and Memory.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 13, no. 5 (October 1, 1974): 585–89.

[16] Loftus, Elizabeth F., Sara Polonsky, and Mindy Thompson Fullilove. “Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Remembering and Repressing.Psychology of Women Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1994): 67–84.