Repression is a defence mechanism proposed by Freud, where a person unconsciously forgets disturbing/traumatic thoughts. They exclude distressing thoughts, feelings and memories from the conscious mind and repress them into their unconscious mind where they are no longer accessible. A method which can be used to bring repressed memories back into conscious thinking is psychoanalysis, which includes free association and dream analysis.
Williams (1994) investigated the extent to which women who had suffered abuse in their childhoods could recover memories of the abuse that took place. Williams interviewed one hundred twenty-nine women who had documented histories of sexual violence in childhood. It was found that 80 of the women who had reported sexual abuse seventeen years earlier recalled the abuse. 16% of the women interviewed reported that they had forgotten the abuse at some point in the past. It was also found that women who had experienced a period of forgetting were those who had been abused at a younger age and therefore had received less support.
In recent years there has been a debate over the reliability of people being able to recall repressed memories of abuse in childhood. This applies in particular to when there is a delay in remembering the abuse. There has also been an increase in reported memories of child abuse. Reporters of the abuse have alleged that the memories were repressed for many years. Loftus (1993) suggested that these recovered memories could be fabricated by therapists or other adults. Therefore the reliability of the repressed memories that come to light many years later could be further questioned e.g. are there sources of detail which can affect memory?
A famous case of a falsely recalled memory took place in 1990, when George Franklin, a 51 year old defendant was accused by his daughter of murdering an 8 year old girl 20 years earlier. Eileen, George Franklin’s daughter, claimed that she could now remember the murder of the victim Susan Kay Nason taking place, and accused her own father of carrying out the murder. She claimed that the memory had been repressed for the past 20 years. After 6 years in prison, Franklin was released when irregularities were discovered in Eileen’s evidence: it was discovered that she had been hypnotised before testifying. This case is evidence of how much damage a falsely recalled memory can do. In order to improve methods of collecting information about abuse in childhood, researchers need to be careful about how they word questions. If a question is worded wrongly, this could cause people to recall memories which are in fact false. They must also be very careful not to plant false memories in the patient’s mind, as this can cause a great deal of damage. When researchers are investigating abuse in childhood; which is a sensitive topic for the people in question, they need to be especially careful.
Williams (1994) Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories. Journal of traumatic stress 8, 4, 649-673.
Loftus (1993) The reality of repressed memories American Psychologist, Vol 48(5), May 1993, 518-537. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.48.5.518
For more information about the George Franklin case follow this link: http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/02/implanting-false-memories-lost-in-mall.php