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Old, cruel memories

Published Oct. 6, 2005

There is little in modern medicine as tricky as manipulating the human mind. Psychiatry and psychology, properly and judiciously applied, can do wonders for mental health. Misapplied or misinterpreted, they can wreak havoc lasting decades. Steven Cook's acknowledgement that he no longer trusted the reconstructed memories that prompted him to file sex abuse charges against Joseph Bernardin, the highly respected cardinal of Chicago's Catholic archdiocese, is a case in point.

Cook, 34, is a substance abuser dying of AIDS. Last November, in a $10-million lawsuit, Cook accused Bernardin and another priest of sexually abusing him when he was a high school student in a seminary program in Cincinnati. He said he waited 15 years to come forward because he had repressed the memories and recalled the abuse only after undergoing hypnosis. Now, after putting Bernardin through four months of hell, Cook says he made a mistake.

Bernardin says he harbors no ill feelings, that he prayed for Cook every day and is only glad the truth has now come out. Most men, similarly and so publicly maligned, wouldn't be so charitable.

But before condemning Cook, it should be understood that the vagaries of the mind might have made him a victim in this case, too. Recalling repressed memories through hypnosis has, for years, been accepted as sound practice to help adults with deviant or self-destructive behaviors identify the causes of their problems and deal with them. Lately, however, researchers have come to believe memories can be manipulated, deliberately or accidentally.

Often, time is compressed, and events spaced by years are recalled as sequential. What was merely a fear for the child is remembered as reality by the adult. Adult memories can be skewed by others' flawed descriptions of childhood events. Memories of events that never occurred can be planted, sometimes through a therapist's expectations of what a patient's memories contain.

Courses of treatment once accepted as legitimate are increasingly regarded with reservations by reputable researchers. The public and the news media would do well to adopt a healthy skepticism, too. Repressed memories without corroboration should not carry the weight of evidence, and never should they cost a man his dignity or his reputation.