The Sex-Abuse 'Memory' Crimes

They say they were raped and forced to kill—and that they just now remember it, 20 years later. Casey Schwartz on a mind-boggling claim of "recovered memory" rocking a tiny Missouri town.

Ed Zurga / AP Photo

Years ago, beginning in 1988, a group of children was coerced into participating in unspeakable acts: incest, bestiality, kidnapping, murder.

Or maybe they weren’t.

Last week, the tiny town of Bates City, Missouri (population: 245) was turned upside-down by such allegations. Six members of the Mohler family—four brothers, their uncle, and their father—were arrested on charges of sexually abusing one of the brother’s children for a period of several years starting in the late 1980s. The accusers, now adults, made other lurid allegations as well, including the claims that a girl was held captive in their basement long enough to give birth to two babies (one of which they say the men buried underneath the basement floor) and that they were forced to help kidnap and kill a man, brutally stabbing him to death.

The accusers claim that a girl was held captive in their basement long enough to give birth to two babies and that they were forced to help kidnap and kill a man, brutally stabbing him to death.

So far, authorities have filed 42 charges against the men, who have not yet entered a plea. Police are still recovering evidence from the Mohler household; on Friday, they found video tapes that they believe may contain footage of some of the assaults.

But what makes the accusations even more explosive is that they are coming out now, nearly 20 years later, because one of the plaintiffs says that she only recently fully remembered the events. Now 26 years old, the unidentified accuser says she “recovered” the memories after years of repressing them. The question now facing law-enforcement officials is how much credence to give these so-called recollections.

Few issues spur as much disagreement in the psychological community as that of recovered memory. Ever since Sigmund Freud asserted that repressed memories of sexual abuse were the cause of hysterical symptoms in patients (giving rise to psychoanalysis, or "the talking cure"), the subject of recovered memory has polarized psychologists, especially in criminal cases, when such memories have been used to give alleged rapists and molesters lengthy prison sentences.

Dr. Harris Stratyner, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, says the existing research on recovered memories is “split down the middle,” with one side arguing such memories are symptoms of a "false memory syndrome," and the other saying they shouldn't be assumed to be pure fiction. Dr. Peter Freed, assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia, points out that spontaneously remembering or realizing things happens all the time, and that such memories shouldn't really be thought of as "recovered."

“Have you ever 'suddenly realized' that you had a crush on your best friend? Or 'suddenly realized' that you are mad at your mom? Or 'suddenly remembered' that in second grade you wet your pants on the Ferris wheel? There is no real traction in thinking of these as recovered memories. In a sense we are constantly having 'recovered' memories—we don't have a choice. Working memory is tiny.”

“The real question,” Freed believes, “is why are certain things suppressed for so long?”

In recent years, "recovered memories" have made some high-profile court appearances. In 2005, a defrocked Boston priest named Paul R. Shanley was convicted of a decades-old rape largely based on the recovered memories of the victim, who said he'd suddenly remembered the abuse after seeing a news report. The defense was unable to convince the jury that the memories had been "planted" in his mind by friends and lawyers. And in the 1980s, amid a public panic about child abductions and Satanic cults, a rash of recovered-memory cases involving daycare centers made headlines, most famously at a Manhattan Beach, California, daycare where children who initially denied remembering any abuse later said they recalled being molested—after the leading questions asked by therapists and social workers apparently convinced them they did.

It's this whiff of witch-hunting, in cases where therapists may have inadvertently encouraged patients to remember something that never happened, that has made recovered memory such an uncomfortable topic. But the case unfolding in Missouri could shift the dynamic. Since the arrest of the six Mohler men, investigators have discovered what may turn out to be hard evidence that corroborates the victims' memories. According to at least one report, when police arrived at the home of Burrel Mohler Sr., the grandfather of the 26-year-old plaintiff, his wife showed them incest-themed porn that she had found in his living quarters in the basement (to which she had previously banished him—one can only imagine why).

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Investigators have also been digging up the backyard of Mohler’s former residence, where much of the alleged abuse took place. So far, a search using radar revealed a box buried beneath the basement floor. And they reportedly found shards of glass buried in the yard. (The accusers say that as children, they wrote down what was happening to them and buried the notes in glass jars.)

Hard evidence is rare in cases as old as this one; often the plaintiffs' testimonies become the primary thrust of the case. But without proof, jurors may be uncomfortable relying on something as theoretical as recovered memory.

There is, as yet, no firm answer to the question of whether memories that spontaneously surface years after the fact can be true. But one thing that most everyone agrees on is that memories are constructions, not reproductions. Some can seem as clear as a mug shot, each element identifiable and unchanging. But in reality, they’re unstable, susceptible to even extreme alteration. Unconsciously, we weave new information into old events, so that, over the course of years, they morph into some combination of fact and interpretation.

Neuroscience reveals many opportunities for reconstruction. The process of remembering any single event requires four distinct stages: encoding (what we take in at the time the event occurs), consolidation (the extent to which that experience gets processed and strengenthed), storage, and retrieval. Each one of these stages involves different brain structures and processes, and each one is uniquely vulnerable to the effects of emotional associations, hormones, and other chemicals.

But in recent years, a spate of experiments has turned up the possibility of a fifth stage in the process: reconsolidation. The concept is based on the discovery that when any memory, however old, is called into consciousness, it becomes vulnerable to all manner of edits. In the brain, it behaves just like a new memory, shaky and soft, its continued existence up in the air.

The new science makes clear that false memory is not created out of dishonesty. We experience our memories to be truthful, even when we’ve unconsciously rewritten them. The fact that it’s difficult to be skeptical of our recollections may help to explain how so many people come to be convinced—with some outside prompting—of new versions of events that they think they're remembering accurately.

“Confabulation certainly can take place, where people think they’re telling the truth, they think they’re really filling in these recovered memories,” Stratyner says. “There may be some truth in it, but it may also be an exaggeration.”

The new research seems to thrust even more doubt onto the notion of recovered memory. Indeed, even Freud eventually had a change of heart, arguing instead that many of his patients’ recovered memories were based on fantasy. In recent years, historians have portrayed Freud’s turnaround as cowardly expedience. Many of his young female patients were the daughters of Vienna’s upper class—it would have been bad for business to accuse their fathers and uncles of sex abuse.

Yesterday, investigators in Missouri returned to the crime scene to continue digging for the glass jars, hoping to find one that contains a descriptive note written long ago by one of the children. Should one of those jars be unearthed, and the note within it corroborate what the plaintiffs say happened, it would be the most literal kind of recovered memory one could hope for—and could legitimize the kind psychologists have been debating for half a century.

Casey Schwartz is a graduate of Brown University and has a Masters Degree in psychodynamic neuroscience from University College London. She has previously written for The New York Sun and ABC News. Currently, she's working on a book about the brain world.