January 30, 2005

A trip down memory lane

Boston Globe

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist | January 30, 2005

The Cambridge courtroom in which Paul R. Shanley is being tried for the rape and sexual abuse of a child will become a political forum as well as a judicial arena this week when testimony turns to the reliability of human memory.

The tears of the now 27-year-old accuser during his testimony last week against the defrocked Catholic priest were no more than a manipulation by an avaricious charlatan, according to the defense, which wants the jury to dismiss as junk science the notion that people can forget traumatic events. Those tears were no less than a manifestation of the pain of a little boy who was molested for years by a trusted parish priest, according to the prosecution, which wants the jury to believe that the sexual abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston triggered his long-dormant memories.

It is hard to think of a topic that incites more passion and less insight than the often-ugly public debate about the role of memory in sexual abuse cases. That science has yet to definitively explain the mysteries of how the mind stores and retrieves our memories has not made partisans more humble in their view; it has only fueled their fury to debunk the opposition. The Shanley case is unlikely to settle the matter.

Prominent on the witness list for the defense is the memory researcher whom Psychology Today magazine once dubbed "the diva of disclosure." Elizabeth Loftus is a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California at Irvine whose research on the malleability of memory first called into question the reliability of eyewitness accounts of crime and accident scenes. She is better known, however, as a best-selling author and a busy expert witness called by defendants in sexual abuse cases to discredit the legitimacy of claims of "repressed" or "recovered" memories.

The problem in the courtroom as well as the laboratory is how loaded those words have become politically, the scientifically neutral question they raise about the function of memory hijacked by the well meaning and the self-serving alike. The phenomenon of recalling previously unremembered incidents of abuse is itself put on trial, the defendant and accuser reduced to onlookers.

Posted by kshaw at January 30, 2005 05:03 AM