Memory, Suggestion and Truth
William J. Ronan*
ABSTRACT: The interviews in the McMartin Preschool case illustrate
how confusing the roles of therapist and investigator can result in
leading and coercive questioning that creates memories for events that
never happened. Therapy techniques have their roots in suggestion
and social influence. Since hypnosis is best understood as a form
of enhanced suggestibility, the research on hypnosis can be generalized
to psychotherapy. Pavlov's research suggests that it is the
healthiest individuals who are the most easily influenced. The
combination of suggestibility to influence and obedience to authority
means therapists must be very cautious about information elicited from
clients in therapy. There is a difference between truth as dealt
with in therapy and truth that involves others, particularly in the
"It isn't as astonishing the number of things I can remember, as
the number of things I can remember that aren't so" (Paine, Mark
Twain: A Biography, 1912, Vol.3, p. 1269).
||Did you see the shot that was fired?
||No your honor, I only heard it.
||Aha! I hereby state this is pure hearsay. It is
not admissible as evidence.
The witness left the witness stand and, with his back turned to the
judge, laughed loudly.
||Come back here, Mr. Witness. You may not laugh at
me. I shall hold you in contempt of court.
||Did you see me laugh?
||No, but I heard you.
||According to your rules, Judge, that's inadmissible evidence.
What is admissible and what isn't admissible in the search for
truth? Is there a difference between therapeutic truth and legal
truth? Are all truths the same? Is there a "best"
way to determine truth? Can therapy be based on the assumption of
a falsehood and still be therapeutic? Is the judicial system
concerned with truth or winning? Are therapists truly interested
in truth or in advocating a particular view of life, a kind of
psychotheology? The Bible says, "Know the truth and it shall
set you free." Is what sets the patient free from his
symptoms the "truth"? If the patient is also the
defendant or the plaintiff will truth set each of them free? Is
truth immaterial and irrelevant?
History and Truth
In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals,
they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of the
excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We
find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object
and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become
simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till
their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the
first (MacKay, 1841/1852/1932).
Truth is seldom evident in history except when it coincides with what
is desired by each historian. "Official truth" should
always be suspect. The word "Pravda" meant truth.
No doubt today it has another meaning in the USSR. Propaganda used
to mean "to enlighten the people to the truth." Since
Hitler's time and that of his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels,
it has come to mean something sinister although it may well have
always meant something sinister to the the American Indian. How
many students are aware that Columbus wrote in his diary upon his
"discovery" of America:
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton ... They willingly
traded everything they owned ... They were well built with good bodies
and handsome features ... They do not bear arms, and do not know them,
for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves
out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made
out of cane ... They would make fine servants ... With fifty men we
could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want (Zinn,
From 1492 to 1508, over three million people in the Americas had
perished from war, slavery, and working the mines. (Zinn 1980).
How many people are aware that Martin Luther was referred to as
Hitler's spiritual ancestor for statements he is said to have
made? Indeed, four centuries before the world ever heard of the
"Nurenberg Laws," Brother Martin compiled an anti-Jewish code
of his own (Wiener, 1945):
||Set fire to their synagogues and schools; and what will not
burn, heap earth over it so that no man may see a stone or relic
of them forever.
||Pull down and destroy their houses since they perpetrate the
same nefarious things in them as in their schools. Pack
them all under one roof or stable, like the gypsies, that they
may know that they are not lords and masters in our land as they
||Deprive them of all their prayer books.
||Forbid their rabbis henceforth to teach.
||Deprive them of the right to move about the country.
||Forbid them the business of usury, and take from them all their
||Hand the strong young Jews of both sexes flail, axe, mattock,
spade, distaff, and spindle; and make them work for their bread
in the sweat of their brow, like all the children of Adam.
Confiscate their property and drive them out of the country.
Later he wrote: "The Jews deserve to be hanged seven times
higher than ordinary thieves" (Luther's Works, Vol. 47, p.
525, reported by Wiener, 1940). Luther's opinion on women will win
him few supporters from the feminist movement: "The word and work
of God is quite clear, viz. that women were made either to be wives or
prostitutes (W12, p. 94, reported by Wiener, 1945).
These are just a few of the myths we have accepted as fact or
"truth" concerning our history. Perhaps history has to
be accepted based on the meaning of the literal word
his-story. When viewed as one person's interpretation we should
allow for considerable discrepancies between what the person
"saw" and what actually may have happened. This is
doubly compounded when the representatives of such "truth" may
very well wish to see the world in a way that benefits their desires and
satisfies their prejudices.
It appears that people seek the truth they are comfortable with, and
live with that. If a point of view that does not coincide with our
world view is presented, it is difficult to include it as part of our
preferred map of the world.
Memory, Truth, and the McMartin Case
For the criminal justice system, the object of an interview is to
elicit factual data from each participant. However, the therapist
must deal with the "victim's" symptoms of emotional distress
(Mason, 1991). Therefore the roles of the criminal investigator
and therapist may be entirely contradictory.
Kee MacFarlane headed the team of social workers at the Children's
Institute International, a private child therapy center, that
interviewed the children in the infamous McMartin Preschool Case in
California. After six years the jury acquitted the defendants on
52 counts and deadlocked on 13. In their exit interviews the
jurors said that they could not tell from the videotaped interviews if
the interviewer put ideas into the children's minds and even words into
their mouths (Mason, 1991). Although the tapes were made for the
prosecution, they ultimately helped the defense since the leading and
coercive questioning of the interviewers raised a reasonable doubt as to
the guilt of the defendants.
One of the jurors, John Breese, said, "We didn't find out so
much what the child knew as what the interviewers wanted to
know.... Once the kids started saying it, the parents believed
it. When the parents believed it, the kids started believing
it" (Playboy, p. 47). MacFarlane claimed her team
needed to "unblock the children," and therefore suggested to
children being interviewed that all the other children had told of their
own sexual abuse (Mason, 1991, p. 391).
But even when the interviewer understands the children may be easily
influenced it is not an easy matter to avoid suggestion. Mason
points out that whereas in therapy, it is appropriate to encourage a
child to tell about a horrible event, this is inappropriate behavior for
an investigative interviewer. She notes: "The therapist must
build a bond of trust that deals with the child's subjective
reality. The therapist must take a supportive role, not a
critical, investigative role (p.393).... An investigator must be
constantly vigilant to questions that might influence the child's
Dr. Michael Maloney, a psychologist who testified for the defense,
commented on the social pressure and coercion involved in the
interviews: "The interviewers don't just say all (your classmates)
have been interviewed. They tend to say all these kids ... have
told us those 'yucky' things.... There becomes an expectation that
the child should also do the same thing" (Playboy, 1990, p.
47). Maloney describes one interview where Kee MacFarlane asked a
7-year-old boy what the "stuff" from Buckey's penis tasted
|We're trying to figure out if it tastes good.
|He never did that to (me) I don't think.
MacFarlane then asked a puppet what it thought had happened:
|Oh, well Pac-Man, would you know what it tastes
like? Would you know if it tastes good like candy?
|I think it would taste like yucky ants.
|Oh. You think it would be sort of
you think that it would be sticky, like sticky yucky ants (PIayboy,
1990, p. 47).
I don't recall any child saying Ray had ejaculated before this
issue had been brought up.... They gave the premise that it did
come out (and) ... presented the child as having had the
experience.... If a child believes something bad happened at the
school, (that) hundreds of children have said it, (that) it was a
yucky thing, (if) they've been presented with issues of sex to this
point ... and Ray introduced as a person who needs police
surveillance. I don't think it takes a great leap to identify
him as the potential person who was involved in all those things that
have already been placed on the stage (Playboy, 1990, p. 47).
Ironically, not one parent had reported abuse. Not one child
had disclosed anything suspicious. None of the children made
statements about abuse until after they were interviewed by Kee
MacFarlane and the staff at Children's Institute International.
In a special report, the Playboy Forum (1990) describes the
growth of the allegations in the McMartin case. As the children
were interviewed, they described underground tunnels that were never
found. They told of killing a horse with a baseball bat, although
the farm, on whose property this was to have taken place, was not
missing any horses. They described digging up coffins and then
reburying them between 9 AM and noon. They told of being molested
at a car wash during business hours and identified community leaders,
gas-station attendants and store clerks as molesters. They picked
the pictures of the chief councilman of LA and actor Chuck Norris out of
a stack of pictures as being abusers.
The children claimed that Ray Buckey had molested them for
years. However, some of the children had left the school one and
one-half years before Buckey began teaching there and others were never
in this class. Of all the accusations, the prosecutors found only
two children for whom molestation was even a remote possibility.
Judy Johnson, the mother who filed the first complaint against Ray
Buckey, was an alcoholic and diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.
As time passed, her allegations became increasingly bizarre. She
told the police that her son had been sodomized by Buckey while he stuck
the boy's head in a toilet. He taped her son's mouth, eyes and
hands and stuck an air tube in his rectum while wearing a mask and
cape. He made the boy ride naked on a horse and molested him while
dressed as a cop, a fireman, Santa Claus and a clown.
Later, Judy Johnson added others to the allegations. She
claimed her son had been sodomized by an AWOL Marine and by three health
club employees identified by her son from an ad. Three months
later she accused her son's father, from whom she was separated, of the
same thing. She said that the McMartin teachers jabbed scissors
into his eyes and staples into his ears, nipples and tongue. She
claimed her son told her that he flew to Palm Springs, where he met some
people wearing Army uniforms. She claimed that three women at
McMartins were witches who had buried him in a coffin and that her son
had told her about a ritual in which one of the teachers had killed a
The Playboy Forum (1990) notes the similarity between the
McMartin case and the witchmania in the Middle Ages:
In the Middle Ages, witchmania was the result of official policy
(Pope Innocent VIII believed in witchcraft), an overeager and
bloodthirsty bureaucracy, and a superstitious, fearful populace.
In the McMartin case there were similar ingredients. The country
had been primed for hysteria by alarmists. The overeager police,
prosecutor, social workers and doctor all told the parents that their
children had been abused, and the McMartin parents reacted with
predictable anger, guilt and protectiveness (p.48).
Hypnosis and Suggestion
How could all this happen? Virtually all therapy techniques
have their roots in suggestion and social influence. There has
been much research on the nature of hypnosis and it is generally
understood to be a form of enhanced suggestibility. Freud
developed his theories of ideationally caused disorders directly out of
hypnosis. Pavlov studied extensively the relationship between
stimuli and suggestion (hypnosis). Although many definitions exist
for hypnosis the suggestion explanation is probably the best we have.
Van Pelt (1956), President of the British Society of Medical
Hypnotism and Editor of the British Journal of Medical Hypnotism,
defined hypnosis as such and compared it to emotional states that
concentrate the mind around stimuli consistent with the existing
emotion. That is, people are more likely to accept ideas that are
consistent with their existing emotional state. Therapeutic
hypnosis is the concentration of the mind in a neutral state so that an
objective resolution of a problem could be achieved. Often age
regressions into traumatic events change the experience from one of calm
to one consistent with the emotions existing at the time of the incident
There has been extensive research on hypnosis. For example,
Rosenthal (1944) discovered that hypnotic subjects showed more enhanced
recall of stressful material under hypnosis than without it.
However, O'Connell, Shor and Orne (1970), using an age regression
procedure, found that recall was greater under hypnosis, but so was
confabulation. Some childhood classmates remembered with great
vividness were actually not even in the class. Orne (1979) notes
that the actual number of factual events recalled was no greater under
hypnosis than in the waking state. Putnam (1979) reports that
hypnotized subjects make significantly more errors on recall,
particularly for leading questions.
There is general agreement concerning several aspects of hypnosis
(Cardena & Spiegel, 1991; Council on Scientific Affairs, 1985; Orne,
Soskis, Dinges, Orne, & Tonry; 1985; Putnam, 1991; Spanos, Quigley,
Gwynn, Glatt, & Perlini, 1991). Under hypnosis, people are
more suggestible and are therefore more likely to agree with a
persuasive communication. But there are serious problems with the
accuracy and validity of memories that appear with the aid of
hypnosis. Despite this, the individual is apt to experience these
memories, which can be quite vivid and detailed, as real. This
increases subjective confidence in the reality of the memories.
Scheflin and Shapiro (1989) observe, "From our own perspective,
hypnosis is best characterized as intense, focused concentration.
Any hypersuggestibility is secondary to the relationship between the
hypnotherapist and the particular patient. Hypnosis is viewed as
eliciting neither more nor less confabulation, susceptibility to demand
characteristics, or artifacts than waking therapy states" (p.
69). Therefore, according to these authors, hypnotic suggestion
can be seen as similar, if not identical, to suggestions used in
traditional therapy. Therefore, conclusions about hypnosis can be
generalized to those of traditional therapy. Indeed, it is a rare
hypnotist who does not feel the effects of hypnosis can be created
outside of hypnosis. Hypnosis is simply a part of the total
continuum of human experience.
Suggestion, through hypnosis or traditional therapy, may not affect
recall as much as it does confidence in the accuracy of the
memory. This is particularly important in a courtroom, since
eyewitnesses who are more confident tend to be more believable to the
jury (Deffenbacher, 1980). Diamond (1980) considers this an
inevitable outcome of hypnotically (therapeutically) refreshed
testimony. Laurence and Perry (1988), in a review of the
It (hypnosis, therapy etc.) increases confidence in the veracity of
both correct and incorrect recalled material. This is perhaps
the most consistent finding to date; virtually every study that has
been examined, the issue of confidence has found this increase ...
(this finding) underlines the possibility that with hypnosis an
unshakable witness can be created. This in turn, means that a defendant
may lose his or her right to confront an accuser who has become immune
to cross-examination (Warner, 1979) (Laurence & Perry, 1988, pp.
Orne, Dinges, and Orne (1984) note that since 1979 many courts have
refused to admit hypnotically elicited testimony as evidence. For
example, the Minnesota Supreme Court in State vs Mack 292 N.W2d
764 (1980) ruled against the admissibility of testimony from a witness
whose memory had been refreshed by hypnosis and observed: "Because
the person hypnotized is subjectively convinced of the veracity of the
'memory,' this is not subject to attack by cross
examination." In contrast, a Canadian court in Queen v. Clark
(Alberta, 1984) concluded: "There would appear to be nothing to
distinguish hypnotically-refreshed testimony from testimony refreshed by
other means" (Scheflin & Shapiro) 1989, p. 171).
Memory does not appear to reproduce objective facts; instead it is a
mixture of the "facts" as subjectively experienced and
generalized. As the neurolinguistic programmers have pointed out,
when we take in information we delete that which we find irrelevant, we
distort that which we do receive and then we generalize this information
back to the world in which we all exist. Therefore communication
of accurate information is going to be extremely difficult.
Several researchers have reported on the incompleteness, confabulated
(made-up) nature, malleability, unreliability and dishonesty of
eyewitness memory (Clifford & Hollin, 1983; Loftus, 1975, 1979a;
Loftus & Ketcham, 1991; Loftus, Korf, & Schooler, 1989; Loftus,
Miller, & Burns, 1978; Wells, Ferguson, & Lindsay, 1981; Wells
& Loftus, 1984).
Haward and Ashworth (1980), citing Bartlett's (1932) pioneering work,
What the man in the street is not usually prepared to accept is the
empirical fact that much of what is later recalled with vividness and
detail, and with complete conviction as to its authenticity, has in
fact undergone a degree of distortion between the perception of the
event and its recall, in some cases to such an extent that the
testimony is completely false (p. 474).
The unreliability and reconstructive nature of memory in general
suggests that hypnosis should not receive special treatment in the
courtroom situation. Hypnosis may be no more or less reliable than
other means of retrieving memories. This is especially true in
situations like the McMartin Preschool case in which young children were
subjected to multiple interviews with leading and coercive
questions. Memories recalled under hypnosis may be no more likely
to be hardened and difficult to cross-examine than those obtained
through other methods. The process of hypnosis simply more conveniently
lends itself to experimentation than other methods of psychotherapy in
that the process can be made very identifiable and given a beginning and
What is Suggestion?
Although there are many theories as to the nature of hypnosis, I view
hypnosis as nothing more than an aspect of the conditioned reflex
established by Pavlov (1927). Although Pavlov referred to it as a
conditioned reflex, an associative reflex might be a more useful
term. Associative reflexes do not involve volitional
thinking. Such conditioning does produce physical changes.
Words (suggestion), along with inflection and gestures, are the bells of
associative reflexes. Certain words in an appropriately
conditioned person can produce actual bodily sensations or reactions.
The phenomenon of hypnosis is based on associative reflexes that use
words as the triggers of reactions through the use of verbal or other
associative reflexes. Pavlov states, "Speech, on account of
the whole preceding life of the adult, is connected up with all the
internal and external stimuli which can reach the cortex, signaling all
of them and replacing all of them, and therefore it can call forth all
those reactions of the organism which are normally determined by the
actual stimuli themselves. We can, therefore, regard 'suggestion'
as the most simple form of a typical conditioned reflex in man (Salter,
Under these circumstances it is virtually impossible to determine
when traditional communication begins and hypnosis begins, if indeed
there is a difference. What is referred to hypnotic communication
is along the continuum of human experience. For these and other
reasons, no doubt, Kreskin, the "stage hypnotist" mentalist
offers $100,000 to any psychologist, psychiatrist or hypnotist who can
prove the existence of the "hypnotic trance." He, thus
far, has not parted with a dime (Kreskin, 1991, p.84-85).
According to Bechterev (1928), "Every word being a sign, is, in
accordance with the association-reflex scheme, associated with secondary
stimulus, or with some state, posture, or movement of the individual in
question. The word consequently plays the role of an external
stimulus, and becomes a substitute, according to the association
established, for an external influence or a certain inner state"
Pavlov, in his "brain washing" research as summarized by
Sargant (1965), hypothesized:
||Organisms respond to imposed stresses or conflict
situations according to their different types of inherited
temperaments. The four types are 1) the strong excitatory,
2) the lively, 3) the calm imperturbable, and 4) the weak
inhibitory. The first two types are a more balanced
temperament. The normal response to stresses or conflict
is increased excitement or more aggressive behavior.
However, where the strong excitatory type often turns so wild as
to be out of control, the lively type's reactions are purposeful
and controlled. The other two types respond with more
passivity or "inhibition," than aggression. The
more stable of these two is the calm imperturbable type.
The weak inhibitory type meets anxieties and conflict by
passivity and avoidance of tension. Any strong stress
imposed on its nervous system would reduce to a "fear
paralysis." However, the other types, with enough
stress will respond similarly.
||Reactions to stress depend on inherited
constitution and environment (nature and nurture).
Nurture, however, does not change the basic temperament.
||Breakdowns happen when stresses or conflicts
become too great for the nervous system to bear.
||Upon breakdown, behavior begins to vary from that
of the inherited type and previous conditioning.
||The amount of stress that one can handle before
breaking down also is a factor of physical conditioning. A
lowering of resistance can be brought about by fatigue, etc.
||Once excited beyond the capacity to respond
normally for long periods, responses become inhibited,
independent of its temperament type. The weak inhibitory
and the strong excitatory will break before the lively and the
||This breakdown is protective and results in
altered behavior. Three distinguishable phases of the
breakdown occur: the "equivalent" phase, in which we
see the same responses to both strong and weak stimuli; the
"paradoxical" phase, in which the responses are more
active to weak stimuli than to strong; and the
"ultraparadoxical" phase, in which conditioned
responses and behavior patterns turn from positive to negative
to positive. Although this theory was tested in animals,
it resembles hysteria in humans.
According to Pavlov's theory, it is the healthiest (those most
responsive to social influence) who can be thus influenced. That
is, those individuals who respond most to ideas therefore can be
influenced both positively and negatively by society. Therefore it
is not the misfit who is most easily influenced, but rather the person
who traditionally conforms the most to society, whatever it might
be. For example, if Anita Hill did "hallucinate" her
accusations against Clarence Thomas, it would not necessarily be because
of her detachment to reality, but to her ability to relate to and to
respond to others around her, and to the thoughts that are conveyed to
her, as well as her own thoughts. These are the very
characteristics that may have propelled her from a life of poverty
through the Yale Law school and beyond.
Obedience to Authority
According to Milgram (1974), "Behavior that is unthinkable as an
individual may be executed without hesitation when carried out under
orders" (p. xi.). Therapists need to constantly remind
themselves of the leadership position they play and the authoritarian
leadership they exert over their clients. Even in the purest of
the Rogerian model the client will still place the therapist in a one-up
position. No matter how much we might strive for the "I'm OK!
You're OK" position it is not achieved while therapy continues.
The witnesses in the McMartin case were obedient to the
therapist. The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the
most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority (Milgram,
1974). The children in such a case may have found it
psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when they were only an
intermediate link in a chain of evil but were far from the final
consequences of their action. This agrees with the experiments of
Milgram. Hitler, after all, did not, indeed could not, get the
kind of cooperation he needed from perpetual misfits, but rather from
those who accept and follow the premises of society.
In summing up conditioning and hypnosis, Salter (1963) concludes,
"With hypnosis (suggestion) nothing but an aspect of conditioning,
we can see that it should be possible to train involuntary antisocial
behavior into a subject ... that appropriate procedures, which need not
necessarily be subtle, can make hypnotized (those being suggested to)
persons perform antisocial acts, even to the extent of criminally
harming themselves or others ... the conception of people acting against
their best interests should not startle us. We see it ... in
politics every day" (p.14).
With conclusions and statements such as these it is not difficult to
see how the minds of witnesses, victims, and perpetrators of crimes can
easily be influenced. Repeated coercive and leading questions,
such as those used by the McMartin interviewers, could lead innocents to
make statements and even develop subjectively real memories for the
kinds of crimes detailed in that unfortunate case. If memories are
not created but statements are made about events that did not occur,
then the factor of obedience to authority must be figured in.
What To Do?
Relinger (1984) strongly recommends the free recall method, both to
enhance accuracy and to reduce the influence of external bias.
This ironically was the same conclusion Freud reached many years ago
when he abandoned hypnosis or suggestion to discover what could be
elicited from the patient with as little contamination from the
therapist as possible. Geiselman and his colleagues (Fisher &
Geiselman, 1988; Fisher, Geiselman, & Amador, 1989; Geiselman &
Fisher, 1989; Geiselman, Fisher, MacKinnon, & Holland, 1985;
Saywitz, Geiselman, & Bornstein, 1992) developed what he calls a
"cognitive retrieval Mnemonic interview" that he believes is
removed from hypnosis and therefore more likely to gain admissibility in
the court. However, some researchers (e.g. Barber, 1962) might
well claim there is little difference between the two procedures.
Proponents of either side of the issue can view the same evidence and
claim support for opposite point of view with supporting
documentation. Thus it is reasonable to evaluate the dilemma of
the McMartin case in light of the research done, and arguments
surrounding hypnotically (suggestively) refreshed testimony.
As an advocate of hypnosis (suggestion) in therapy, we as therapists
should be very cautious about what is elicited from our clients and
should refrain from promoting a particular hypothesis as to the causes
of a particular patient's symptomotology. Memory by itself is very
likely to be distorted without any outside interference. In
therapy our goal is to help free persons from their problems. As
the Bible says, "Know the truth, and the truth shall set you
free!" But the truth that sets a patient free may not be
truth when it is used to involve another. We must deal with the
way a patient has interpreted his or her experiences as that person's
subjective truth. We should be much more cautious when it involves
others outside of the therapy office.
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J. Ronan is a clinical social worker at Applied
Behavioral-Health Care, 1001 Wayzata Boulevard, Suite 100,
Minnetonka, Minnesota, 55343. [Back]