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 legal system.

"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).

Judge: Did you see the shot that was fired?
Witness: No your honor,  I only heard it.
Judge: 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.

Judge: Come back here, Mr. Witness.  You may not laugh at me.  I shall hold you in contempt of court.
Witness: Did you see me laugh?
Judge: No, but I heard you.
Witness: 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, 1980, p.1).

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):

1. 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.
2. 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 boast.
3. Deprive them of all their prayer books.
4. Forbid their rabbis henceforth to teach.
5. Deprive them of the right to move about the country.
6. Forbid them the business of usury, and take from them all their belongings.
7. 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 testimony" (p.391).

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 like:


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).

Maloney commented:

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 real baby.

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 being investigated.

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 literature, conclude:

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. 326-327).

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, state:

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 an end.

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, p. 8).

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" (Salter, p.9).

Pavlov, in his "brain washing" research as summarized by Sargant (1965), hypothesized:

1. 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.
2. Reactions to stress depend on inherited constitution and environment (nature and nurture).  Nurture, however, does not change the basic temperament.
3. Breakdowns happen when stresses or conflicts become too great for the nervous system to bear.
4. Upon breakdown, behavior begins to vary from that of the inherited type and previous conditioning.
5. 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.
6. 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 imperturbable.
7. 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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* William J. Ronan is a clinical social worker at Applied Behavioral-Health Care, 1001 Wayzata Boulevard, Suite 100, Minnetonka, Minnesota, 55343.  [Back]


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