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Battle of the Shrinks

Forbes Magazine by Daniel Lyons, 9 June 2003

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The Gregory Ford case in Boston relies on a controversial theory that has split the world of psychology into bitterly opposing camps for more than a decade: the notion that people can wipe out memories of severe trauma, then recover these repressed memories years later.

Some shrinks say this makes perfect sense. Others say this notion of "recovered memory" is junk science. The Ford case will feature two of the world's best-known experts on the subject: psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who views recovered memories with skepticism; and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, a professor at Boston University who supports the theory. These two shrinks have been duking it out for years in court cases and in scientific journals.

Loftus is past president of the American Psychological Society and last year was named one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century by the Review of General Psychology, a scientific journal.This year she is to be elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Yet Ford's attorney, Roderick MacLeish Jr., dismisses recovered memory naysayers as "on the fringe" and "outside the mainstream" of psychological thought.

But it is MacLeish's expert, Dr. Van der Kolk, who appears to be more on the fringe. He believes traumatic memories can be repressed by the mind and stored in the body--mysterious vaginal pains might indicate a long-forgotten rape--and later retrieved. Dr. Van der Kolk treats trauma sufferers with a technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), in which he waggles his fingers back and forth in front of a patient's eyes, believing the eyes' side-to-side movements help the brain cope with painful memories. "How it works I would not dare speculate, but that it works is clear," he says.

Er, maybe not, says Richard McNally, a Harvard psychology professor who has published articles comparing EMDR with mesmerism, a craze in 18th-century France. Like Loftus, McNally, too, thinks recovered memories of trauma are questionable. He has conducted numerous studies on memory, particularly with sexual abuse victims. He says people don't forget a trauma like anal rape. They might forget something like being fondled as a child, but that's because the fondling was not traumatic, he argues. "It might be disgusting, upsetting--but not terrifying, not traumatic."

McNally's take on this subject has set off a hometown feud with Daniel Brown, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School who is a leading proponent of recovered memory. The two archrivals have never met, engaging instead in a "battle of the books."

In 1998, when Brown won an award for his 786-page tome, Memory, Trauma Treatment & the Law, McNally wrote a scathing review that criticized Brown's methodology. In March of this year McNally published his own book, Remembering Trauma, in which he bashes repressed-memory theory and criticizes Brown's work yet again.

Brown won't be involved in MacLeish's civil lawsuit, but he did play a role in the related criminal case. Last year he testified before the grand jury that indicted the priest accused of raping Greg Ford and his friends, "so that the grand jury would see recovered memories as a legitimate phenomenon," Brown says.

It's worth noting another kind of recovered memory case: Sometimes patients wake and realize that, uh, they weren't actually in a Satanic cult after all. Then they sue their shrinks.

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