Monday, September 22, 2008

False memories in Atonement

Atonement was a novel by Ian McEwan, adapted to film in 2007. Its main character is Briony Tallis, a rather imaginative girl who seems destined to become a writer. But at 13, she does something that she ends up spending her entire life trying to atone for.

It all starts when she witnesses her sister, Cecilia, stripping down for the housekeeper's son, Robbie. The truth is that Cecilia was stripping down so she could get something at the bottom of the fountain, but Briony never finds out until later. Later, Briony sees a sexually explicit letter from Robbie that was never meant to be delivered. And then, later, Briony sees Cecilia and Robbie making love, and assumes that Robbie was assaulting her sister. In short, through a series of misunderstandings, Briony is convinced that Robbie is a sex maniac after her sister.

This could easily be sitcom material, but instead there is a tragic turn. In the dark, Briony encounters someone raping her friend, Lola. The rapist runs away, but Briony imagines that she saw Robbie's face. She gives her testimony, putting Robbie in prison. This separates Robbie and Cecilia, who have fallen in love with each other. Briony comes to deeply regret her actions as a 13-year old, thus the title of the novel.

I am not going to review this movie, because I am not what you call a "good" movie critic. Instead, I intend to comment on the false memories in the story. The story of false memories is one of the more dramatic stories in the world of skepticism. There is an idea in psychology that traces back to Sigmund Freud that the cause of many psychological conditions is a traumatic event during childhood. People generally can't remember any such event because such traumatic memories are usually repressed. I don't have an exact timeline, but it became especially fashionable in the 70s 80s for psychologists to try to recover these memories. And so it was that many people "remembered" being abused by their parents (or other adults) when they were young. As you can imagine, the resulting legal actions were disastrous to many families. It was a modern-day witch hunt.

But the skeptics eventually won! Nowadays, psychologists know about false memories. Studies have shown that it is not only possible to implant false memories in people, but it is very easy to do so. The truth was that psychologists everywhere were inadvertently implanting childhood memories of traumatic events in their patients by the power of suggestion. It is no coincidence that the psychologists found exactly what they expected! Certainly, not every single memory of child abuse was false, but most of them were. Anyways, there is little evidence that most psychological conditions are caused by traumatic childhood incidents. And there is little evidence to suppose that memory recovery would actually help a patient. To top it all off, the very existence of "repressed" memory is now disputed (note that temporarily forgetting something is not necessarily a repression of memory).

In short, psychology has sinned, and sinned greatly. I do not personally know anyone who has been affected by all of this, but I feel their pain. Families destroyed... feelings of anger, betrayal, and regret... I truly feel that this is one of the greatest tragedies of science.

In the world of fiction, it's different. Part of it is that many scientific theories tend to linger around much longer among the liberal arts than they do in the sciences (I, for one, am disgusted that Freudian psychoanalysis is still popular in some liberal arts). But I think that it's mainly because the manipulation of memory is simply a very useful plot device. It allows you to switch around the order of what the audience sees. Or it allows for character development, or the development of relationships. And because few conflicts go unresolved in fiction, most characters will recover from their amnesia. For extra suspense, they could recover through a series of dramatic flashbacks! Whatever the reasons, it is disproportionately common for fictional characters to have amnesia or repressed memories, and then recover from these. Some of these stories are plausible, if unlikely, but most are not realistic at all.

Atonement is refreshing in that it treats memory far more realistically. Rather than treating memory as a mere plot device, Atonement has at its center a real phenomenon: false memories. Briony "recalls" seeing Robbie's face on the rapist. Here, there is no psychologist who is inadvertently implanting memories through suggestion, instead Briony is wrongly biased against Robbie. Perhaps, if she had not been convinced that Robbie was a sex maniac, she would not have been so quick to blame him. She is also a very imaginative and impressionable girl. As an aspiring writer, she tends to play back her memories in her mind, each time becoming more dramatic. I don't think all these things are necessary to create a false memory, but they probably help.

The consequences of Briony's false memory tap into many of the same emotions caused by "recovered" memories in the 70s. Cecilia and Robbie are, of course, very angry at Briony. They think she was simply being overly imaginative, or worse, outright lying. Briony herself is at first sure of herself, but this wears out as she gets older. She comes to understand the gravity of her action. She becomes less sure of her memory. She blames herself. And even if she did retract her eyewitness account, who would believe her second account over the first one? And who would accept that as a sufficient apology?

Knowing what I know about false memories, I could not blame Briony for her action. I see it as more of a "girl against nature" sort of conflict. Through a fatal trick of psychology, she was put in a situation that no one deserves to be in. And since no one understood false memories back then, the consequences were dire.

But there was one other aspect of the story I thought was sad. After Briony becomes convinced that her testimony was unreliable, she "recalls" the rapist to be the man who eventually became Lola's fiance. I suppose that canonically, her new memory is the correct one, but I can't help but think it is just as unreliable as her first memory. The situation is pretty much the same as it was before. Briony is still an imaginative and impressionable girl, if a bit older now. Now instead of having mixed feelings about Cecilia's relationship with Robbie, she is having mixed feelings about Lola's upcoming wedding. Really, we have to be suspicious of any memory that is "recalled", for the first time, years after the fact.

As it plays out, Briony can't summon the courage to tell Lola of her new memory. Frankly, I was relieved.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but it does sound interesting. The idea of false memories is a rather scary one, since it means we can't ever really trust our own memories of events. Yay for science helping us to extract truth from our faulty minds!

I don't know if you've read Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World, but I just finished it and he goes into great detail about false memories, particularly in the contexts of the child sex abuse witch hunts you mentioned and of alien abductions. It's pretty fascinating!

miller said...

I haven't gotten around to reading The Demon Haunted World, unfortunately. I read Why People Believe Weird Things, which had a chapter that described false memories as a modern-day witch hunt. What the book did not capture, however, was the emotion caused by the betrayal of our own memory.

Anonymous said...

Recovered memories of child abuse were still being found by psychologists as late as 1990 or 1991. I know someone who "discovered" through hypnosis that her parents sexually abused her horribly. She told me no earlier than 1990, and I think it had just happened. Her elderly parents vehemently denied it and her brother would not back her up, so she refused to see her parents again until their deaths within a few years. In the middle of her treatment, her psychologist (or was it psychiatrist?) suddenly quit and refused to see her again or talk to her again, with no explanation at all, and she was traumatized even more. She talked to me about it for hours several times, but I am not a professional, and I didn't do anything except listen. It was some months or maybe a year or two later that I first started hearing about the scandal of recovered memories. Maybe this was old news to the psychologists, and that this woman's psychologist or psychiatrist decided not to try to fix things up, but to drop the patient and keep quiet due to liability issues. Unfortunately, I never see this woman anymore so I do not know if she ever decided that the recovered memories were false.
At the same time as this woman told me about her child abuse, which she never remembered before the hypnosis, there were news stories about various celebrities "discovering" that they had been abused as children. I think I can remember the names of two of them, but I won't say because they may be false memories. (That wasn't meant to be funny.)

miller said...

I think I got the decade wrong, actually. Recovered Memory Therapy became popular in the 80s and was discredited in the late 90s. Tens of thousands of families were affected. By now, the issue is considered settled, though many people's lives remain affected.


Anonymous said...

In the mid 1970's, when I was in college, I had a sociology 101professor who assigned students to do a report, oral and written, on almost any topic pre-approved topic. I remember that one topic he suggested, but no one took, was to report on research as to why incest basically never occurred - it was considered as rare as, say, cannabalism. I did come across studies on the topic where there was speculation that the taboo was biologically hard-wired into the brain. The rarity of brother-sister incest was studied by studying the kibbutzim of Israel, where unrelated children were raised together, and were encouraged to later marry the children they grew up with, but very rarely did they marry. It was in the 1980s that it began to be widely realized that incest was not all that rare, and then the pendulum started to swing the other way. People began to believe that incest and child sexual abuse was very common and a kind of hysteria resulted.
One of the most sensationalist long-running news stories was that of the McMartin pre-school (find it on Wikipedia). There was a trial that lasted for years. There was an investigation of the family that ran the school, and the family was accused of sexual abuse, then of weird satanic rituals involving hundreds of pre-school children. At no time did they find any physical evidence, even though, if I remember correctly, they eventally razed the building and sifted for crumbs of evidence. Millions of Americans were certain that evidence had to exist. The only evidence was the testimony of small children, and the public widely insisted that children don't lie or don't lie about those things. Yet the children were asked leading questions many, many times over by child psychologists - it was in the newspaper that it sometimes took weeks to get at the truth (because the truth was so painful to the children!). They were given dolls and told to point at where they were touched, and were asked over and over until they said what the adults wanted. Over time, the stories got more and more lurid, as the adult expectations got worse and worse, and therefore the leading questions got worse and worse. Even when the trial was over, the jury was widely denounced for letting the criminals go free. And now, as I think of it, it seems as ridiculous as the Salem witch trials. Any educated adult should see from only reading the newspaper accounts that the parents and psychologists were leading the children to sheer fantasies and that the suggestible children even came to believe the stories themselves.