Memory, Testimony and Justice

In the 1690's, Salem was raging. The Court of Oyer and Terminer, convened in 1692, convicted 19 people of witchcraft, and hung them. Much of the incriminating testimony came from a group of young girls who claimed to have been possessed by the devil.

One such accuser, Elizabeth Knapp, had lengthy fits, barked like a dog, made apish gestures and said that she would be unhealthy until the witch, her tormenter, was apprehended. Her minister, who observed her closely, was almost certain that the fits were real and that the devil was indeed speaking through her. Later, however--after the trials were over--Knapp admitted that the "apparitions she had spoken of were but fancies." Her mind, apparently, had deceived her.

Now, three hundred years after the close of the trials, the excesses the "possessed" spawned appall us. One wonders how people could be convicted to death on such slim evidence, and one feels grateful that our modern legal system is not so vulnerable to gross error. But in fact, some seem to say, the injustices of Salem are not so remote; the people now accusing childhood authority figures of sexual abuse based on previously repressed memories are perhaps as deceived as the possessed children of Salem were. Their imaginations, too, might be out of control.

Doubting abuse victims' claims is legitimate. Memories of abuse often surface in therapy, and in therapy subjects are often open to suggestion. Elizabeth Loftus, a memory researcher at the University of Washington, has been able, in experimental situations, to trick people into believing that they underwent unpleasant incidents as children. She implants these false memories by having an older sibling whom the subject trusts recount the episode.

Injections of "truth serum," which some psychiatrists use to help patients recover their memories, have also been accused of inducing false memory. In these cases, doubters of the "abused" say, people's imaginations are inventing memories in order to shift blame for their problems onto other people. A recent U.S. News & World Report article said that skeptics believe the accusers "may embrace a `discovery' of past abuse because it offers a single, unambiguous explanation for complex problems and a special identity as `survivors.'" Skeptics, then, also seem to believe that the desire for attention, as it did the possessed in Salem, motivates today's accusers.


Lastly, some perceive a feminist agenda as informing the current accusations, most of which are made by women against male relatives. In this, the present situation is not analogous to but opposite of that in Salem. There the accused and convicted were almost all women, many of them women with power and property--too much for their own good. The agenda behind the witchcraft trials and executions was ten times as misogynist as the current agenda--if it indeed exists--is feminist. None of today's convicted have hung.

So while it is worth while to recognize parallels with the travesty of justice that was the Salem witchcraft trials, it is also important to recognize differences. Certainly, the mind can deceive us. But evaluated correctly, its impressions can also inform us.

While we must be vigilant in our examination of accusations and allegations, we must also acknowledge that forgetting something does not erase it, and years do not smooth the pain of buried memories. We forget things all the time; this doesn't mean they didn't happen. Suppose you went sledding with some friends last Christmas. You might not remember until you clean your closet and uncover the snowpants you wore, or until someone asks whether you had been sledding lately.

Some might argue that yes, small experiences like sledding trips are easily forgotten; incidents of child abuse are not. But that very painful memories can be buried is documented; studies show that 18-59 percent of victims of sexual abuse forget about their suffering for some period of time. That victims must forget about the experiences in order to function is evidence for the horror of the crimes, not their nonexistence. Crimes too painful to remember should not go unpunished; they should be punished the more for their insidiousness.

And in the current debate over the legitimacy of testimony based on an individual's thoughts, hysteria does not grip the courts. Defendants are not convicted without corroborating evidence; countersuits against accusers and their therapists are being successfully pursued. In some cases, the courts may be favoring the defendants; many states have not altered their statutes of limitations to allow victims to bring charges for crimes that occurred many years ago.

Such statutes of limitations must be modified. Perhaps in cases where it would be impossible for the accused to mount a defense because of witnesses' deaths, the statutes should remain as they are. Or perhaps if a statute were suspended, a greater burden of proof should fall on the plaintiff. But the alleged victims must be allowed their day in court, even if the court they enter operates under different rules.

The forgetting is not the fault of the victims; it is the fault of the criminals. Certainly, due process must be adhered to. But if society and courts dismiss the accusations based on memory, then they are also dismissing the rights of all children, who are too often seen as helpless and therefore convenient victims; the testimony of psychiatrists and brain researchers, who say that memory can be buried; the possibility that the mind is fluid, better understood by its possessor than by lawyers. And they will be dismissing one of the lessons of Salem, too: that the power structure of the day, composed now as then of men, goes to great lengths to defend itself against assaults that would deprive it of power, property, authority and honor.