Wednesday, January 19, 2011

RatCave Book Club, January 19, 2011

Updated 2011.08.24

Welcome to the second installment of the RatCave Book Club. Here's another round of interesting books I've read over the years...

Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D. & Katherine Ketcham
The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse

This will probably be one of the oddest "book reports" you've ever read....

This is one of the scariest and most gut-wrenching books I've ever attempted to read. Forget Stephen King. Forget Clive Barker, Edgar Allen Poe and Lovecraft. Forget Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter. Forget John the Revelator and Kerry Thornley.

I made it to page 41 of this book. Page forty-fucking-one. I know because that's where I left the bookmark. I couldn't stomach any more. How Loftus and Ketcham even managed to write it without throwing up is a mystery to me. Maybe they took turns.

In the Eighties and Nineties something really bizarre began happening in America. Horrific stories were cropping up all over the place about extreme cases of sexual abuse of children, including cases of serial abuse, followed by stories of "ritual Satanic abuse". Let me assure you up front that it was/is all bullshit, the result of bad psychotherapy and crazed, paranoid Christians looking for Satan under every rug. We know that now. But at the time it was all shocking and mystifying. How could all this be going on under everyone's nose all this time? Where will it end?

In the first 41 pages of this book the authors describe numerous cases of abuse by psycho-"therapy". How young women were cajoled, conned, and coerced into believing that they had been abused in ways that only only a writer of torture porn flicks could think of. In fact, this was one of the "proofs" given of their validity. No one could make this sick shit up so it had to be true.

Lives were ruined. Families torn apart; innocent, baffled parents sent to prison. Many of these young women were only marginally troubled, suffering from mild depression or anxiety when they entered therapy. Before it was all over they were emotional wrecks, even suicidal. Some of them were institutionalized multiple times. Things didn't get better until they finally broke with their therapists.

Loftus is an expert on memory. She's testified as an expert witness in many criminal cases. In time, thanks to the testimony of experts like her, many of these cases were overturned on appeal and a number of therapists defrocked and sued. But the damage had been done.

I'm not sure how to recommend this book. It's an important story that needs to be told. It's amazing that, cynical as I am, I couldn't get very far. Being bipolar didn't help; this sent me straight into hypomania. This is not a bedtime story. Even though it was written in 1994 (when Newt Gingrich was still a rising star and working on wife #3) and much has come to light in the last 15+ years, it's still relevant. There are still people making these ridiculous claims to this very day (note that Newt Gingrich is no longer relevant).

For those who are already scared off of this book here's an article by Loftus that's an excellent overview of the topic if you have the balls to read it. She mentions alien abduction; the abduction craze and the abuse frenzy really got rolling around the same time and have a lot in common. Both rely on people highly prone to suggestion and fantasy, an interrogator that uses authority as a velvet club and, most important of all, improper use of hypnosis. In the right setting, using the right technique, you can get some people to make up "memories" of the most amazing things and actually believe their own fiction. Things like being ass-raped when you were eleven months old or kidnapped by aliens and being given a physical. Note that some people get a start on the road to fantasies of abduction or demonic attack because of the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. I've experienced it myself but no aliens ever showed up. Damn.

BTW, it's funny how these technologicallly-advanced "aliens" seem to always use needles during these "exams". Did Dr. McCoy use fucking needles in the sickbay of the Starship fucking Enterprise? No. Hell no. Fuck no. So why are these stupid Greys so fucking backward? They must be sadistic bastards who get their jollies out of sticking L'humains.

Remember when I said that the sheer incredibleness of this crap was used as proof of its validity? As mentioned in the Loftus article above, one high-profile victim of this approach to the alien abduction madness was Dr. John Mack, professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. Despite his death by drunk driver his Institute is still cranking out the woo.

In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan devotes a good deal of space to this rubbish and demolishes it with ease. It's an excellent place to start. In fact it's such a good book that you should stop everything you're doing right now and read the damn thing already.

Back to Loftus. She co-authored a paper with Melvin J. Guyer entitled "Who Abused Jane Doe? The Hazards of the Single Case History". The paper was a withering critique of a case history of recovered memories of sexual abuse published by psychiatrist David Corwin and his collaborator Erna Olafson in 1997. It was such a hot potato no peer-reviewed journal would publish it. Eventually it was published in Skeptical Inquirer in 2002 (part 1part 2):
Case histories make contributions to science and practice, but they can also be highly misleading. We illustrate with our re-examination of the case of Jane Doe; she was videotaped twice, once when she was six years old and then eleven years later when she was seventeen. During the first interview she reported sexual abuse by her mother. During the second interview she apparently forgot and then remembered the sexual abuse. Jane’s case has been hailed by some as the new proof of recovery of repressed or dissociated traumatic memories, and even as proof of the reliability of recovered memories of repeated abuse. Numerous pieces of “supporting evidence” were given in the original article for believing that the abuse occurred. Upon closer scrutiny, however, there are reasons to doubt not only the “supporting evidence,” but also that the sexual abuse ever happened in the first place. Our analysis raises several general questions about the use of case histories in science, medicine, and mental health. There is a cautionary tale not only for those professionals who advance the case history, but also for those who base their theories on it or would readily accept it as proof.
 I read it when it was originally published. The inevitable litigation began. And ended:
After wending its way for years through the California courts, ending with a ruling in early 2007 by the California Supreme Court, the case was finally resolved. Taus lost resoundingly on twenty of the twenty-one counts. The Skeptical Inquirer’s right to publish the articles was completely supported; Loftus, Guyer’s, and my right to write and talk about the case was given complete protection; and the Supreme Court ruled that because the defendants won the “overwhelming majority” of Taus’s claims, we were entitled to recover fees and costs.
The follow up article Whatever Happened to ‘Jane Doe’? details the legal wranglings and includes a concise summary of the original paper for those whose eyes glazed over while attempting to read it.

I can't go any further. There's more that could be said but I'm burnt. So much for the "books" I was going to review. It's amazing how these things can get out of hand.

Enjoy the SI articles, they're great. My next book review will shorter—hopefully.

There's a list of all my books reviews here.

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