When are we justified in thinking that we “know: something?: A Case Study regarding Martha Beck and “Leaving the Saints”

I posted something this morning at http://www.exmormon.org/boards/w-agor… relative to Beck and her well-worth-reading book. A little while ago I received an email form someone whose views I respect politely taking me to task for some aspects of what I said there. Since I think that my response outlines some things that are important regarding how we think we come to “know” things relative to whatever moves us powerfully at the emotional level, I will reproduce here some of what I said to my friend, edited to make it appropriate to this forum.

All the best,


My friend started out by asking me to read something related to Elizabeth Loftus (she is referred to extensively in my review of Martha’s book athttp://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.leav…).

I replied:

Thanks for that. I have read a lot about Loftus and the Jane Doe case, but had not read that. I don’t think, however, that it changes anything with regard to the recovered memory issue. Here is the quote I like best in that regard (from my review):

“Are repressed memories accurate? Both those who argue that repressed memories are always false and those who argue that repressed memories are always true (because, like the fly caught in amber, they are solidified and impervious to later contamination by influence or suggestion) appear to be mistaken. Although the science is limited on this issue, the only three relevant studies conclude that repressed memories are no more and no less accurate than continuous memories (Dalenberg, 1996; Widom and Morris, 1997; Williams, 1995). Thus, courts and therapists should consider repressed memories no differently than they consider ordinary memories.

“The science clearly directs us away from the distracting issue of the existence of repressed memories, and toward the psychologically and legally significant issue of the validity of particular memories. The therapy room and the courtroom both benefit from distinguishing true and false memories (Scheflin, 1998). The science of memory shows that 1) memory is remarkably accurate for the gist of events, and less accurate for peripheral details; 2) all memories, repressed or continually remembered, may be influenced by later events or by the method of retrieval; and 3) all memories, whether implicit or explicit, may exert an influence on behavior (Schacter, 1999). With a renewed concentration on how memories are retrieved or influenced, therapists and lawyers might again be able to work as associates, not adversaries.” (seehttp://www.psychiatrictimes.com/p9911…)

What we are really talking about is when a person is justified in believing that something did, or did not, happen. This is of course central to the formation of all beliefs, including our beloved Mormon beliefs (as they were). So, let me reframe our discussion of Beck’s book along those lines.

I agree with most of what you said re. the consistency of her symptomology, etc. to that of people who have suffered sexual abuse. But the woman has a PhD in sociology. She has read all kinds of self-help books as well as academic research. Her memories were recovered during the height of this issues publicity in Utah. For some background on that topic, see http://www.cesnur.org/2001/archive/mi… Are we not believe that Martha was not familiar with what “worked” and did not work from a symptomology point of view? And we need look no further than her book itself to find evidence that she remembers things selectively and in Technicolor as required to spice up a story. Her trauma and the way human memory functions in general could easily do the rest that was needed to produce her story. And again, I am not saying that they did. I am saying that they well could, and she has not discharged her burden of proof in that regard as far as I am concerned. So, I am not prepared to say that just because she told the story in a manner consistent with how it is told by people who are proven to some degree of certainty to have been abused means that she was also abused.

I am familiar with her evidence re. vaginal scarring, and mentioned it in my review several times. The point there is that she asserts something that could be interpreted in many ways, and the physical evidence could range widely in nature once it is actually examined. One would need medical expert testimony to see what the evidence actually indicates.

I agree with your analysis of why kids who have been abused often repress their memories. However, the probability of anyone remembering an emotionally charged event accurately is far less likely than remembering a less emotionally charged event accurately. And, the probability of remembering more than the “gist” of any event accurately is remote. Nonetheless, we are inclined toward certainty in our memories.

So, are kids abused? Absolutely. It is hard to figure out what happened? Terrifically hard. By chance, last night I was at the memorial service for one of my partners (cancer; 50; very sad; wonderful service without a single mention of god) and spent half an hour chatting with a family court judge. She was talking about some of her recent cases in which child sexual abuse is an issue. This is abuse that is either alleged to be occuring now, or in the recent past, and is part of the landscape for custody battles. She made a number of comments that were telling. First, the incidence of this allegation has skyrocketed during the last 15 years. She believes that in a high percentage of the cases the allegations are false, but does not accuse anyone of lying. She is well versed in the memory research. I was surprised, and pleased, by how well informed she was re Loftus and other researchers. She believes that the emotional turmoil of the divorce and custody battle causes both spouses to use anything they can get their hands on as weapons and warps their perceptions of reality. The kids are caught in the middle and have things suggested to them by well meaning parents and others. Most counselors in the larger centers do a pretty good job avoiding this (because of the publicity people like Loftus gave to the false recovered memory thing years ago), but in the smaller centers some of the counseling is off the wall.

This is what I thought as I listened to this wise woman last night – If it is so hard for someone with the tools of the court at her disposal, whose job it is every day to find out “what happened”, to get comfortable with what happened six months ago (or even a few weeks ago) in a sexual abuse allegation case, it seems a real stretch for those who are inclined toward certainty in something like the Beck case before the relevant evidence has even been gathered or tested.

You suggested that the “alien abduction” scenario gives the argument against recovered memories an unwarranted pejorative twist. I think that you and I are emphasizing different aspects of the alien abduction research. McNally started in that area looking at recovered memory and ended up studying sleep paralysis. That is the axis that interests me, because there is a link there that has strong predictive ability. If someone shows the physical symptoms related to sleep paralysis and has certain terrifying memories, we should be more skeptical of what they have remembered. That does not mean that we dismiss their story, but we should be more skeptical. I think it is fair to point out that for people who exhibit the sleep paralysis symptoms (rooted in a REM sleep dysfunction) we should not be skeptical of those who report alien abductions but not bat an eye at those who report sexual abuse. Indeed, alien abduction reports often include sexual abuse of ritual and other types.

On the other hand, where sleep paralysis does not seem to be relevant we should not use what the research in that area has shown to cast more doubt than already exists on those who report sexual abuse. The important thing here is that we have some traction regarding sleep paralysis in things that can be medically tested. If we can use this, great. If not, it is not helpful as a diagnostic tool. Perhaps I did not make that clear enough in what I posted earlier.

I agree that the alien abduction stuff could be used inappropriately, and as noted above I would be critical of anyone who attempted to wave that flag over someone’s story so as to dismiss it without a fair hearing. Martha will get the most fair hearing you can imagine from me. It is still going on. But she will not get me to accept her story with regard to something as earth shattering as an incest allegation without more than the assertion of incomplete and untested evidence. By “incomplete” I mean that the other side of the story has not been heard. One of the first things one learns as a lawyer is that your clients’ case is usually at its best just after you have heard it from your clients. This is not because all your clients are liars, it is because the nature of human beings it to perceive reality so as to justify their day-to-day actions and overall way of life. So, as the other side’s story comes out and evidence is tested, I ALWAYS expect the story my client told me to change and usually to weaken.

The alien abduction stuff is also relevant because it shows how moving things that only happen in our heads can be. We should expect some experiences of this nature of be utterly compelling. This is a cautionary flag that we should raise for all to see, not just with regard to Beck but with regard to all life events that have powerful emotional content, such as many linked to our Mormon experience. They are the ones most likely to be misinterpreted along axes most likely to justify our dominant social drivers. This is what puts Mormons into denial regarding many aspects of their history and culture, for example. Again, I don’t suggest that Martha is doing this. I am pointing out a broad based phenomena that affect the standards of justified belief with regard to particular phenomena. Anyone who comes forward with the kind of allegation Martha has should bear a heavy onus of proof. Until she has met it, the responsible thing to do if one does not have to make a decision is to hold fire. And I say this with theutmost respect for her personally and the work she has done and is going on various fronts. This may be a little like Mike Quinn, or Newton for that matter. Martha Beck’s reputation and utility as a scholar or person does not stand or fall in my mind on whether she is accurate in her recollection of what happened between her and her father. History is full of people who made profoundly important contributions in certain areas while being utterly mistaken about other (usually emotionally laden) things, while acting in good faith.

I note that Martha could have told her story differently. You would enjoy Karen Armstrong’s “The Spiral Staircase” (about leaving a Catholic nunnery) I am sure, which is much more measured than “Leaving the Saints”. Martha could have said: “Here is what I remember. I remember it vividly. It is more real than anything else I have ever experienced. I believe that it happened. I am also aware of alien abductions etc. that seem more real than real. If this did not really happen to me, then it is evidence of how badly twisted I was by the experience of growing up Mormon as the daughter of Hugh Nibley. But in any event, here is my story.” By not taking that detached, and more credible point of view, and by using unwarranted hyperbole throughout the book, she has dramatically weakened the strength of her presentation.

So, I think her story is plausible, but there are many ways in which the evidence could be tested, and would be tested either if she tried to make her claim of incest legally stick, or her family tried to make sure it was laid to rest another way. So, I accept that Martha’s story is consistent with having been abused, if not exactly as she indicates then in some other way. I also accept that her story is consistent with sexual abuse. But remember my judge friend. Once you get to testing evidence, cross-examining etc., the picture usually gets foggier in her experience, not clearer. This is my experience as well. This is a function of the heavy emotional waters in which the judge deals with these issues. The waters in which Martha swam were not just heavy, they were abusive from an emotional point of view. So we should proceed with great care.

I am sensitive to the charge that by taking the approach I am I will re-victimize people who have been harmed. I think that we should take care to protect those who need protecting. My judge friend errs on the side of protecting children who might be at risk. That is the right thing to do with phenomena about what we cannot be reasonably certain. So those who may be at risk should be protected. And all of us should be educated as to how our minds work so that we can made better decisions as to what and when to believe, and of what and when to be more skeptical.

And I note that I find myself in the odd position of defending the agnostic position re. Beck’s story against smart people (like you) who evidence sound critical thinking skills in many areas, and yet who seem to me to be either unduly certain that “it” did, or did not, happen based on the extant evidence. As is usually the case these days when I see certainty where I don’t believe it to be warranted, I look for emotional issues that might be clouding otherwise clear minds. In the case of the newspaper editor I mentioned in my post, I think I know what those issues may be. Am I off base in your case if I suggest the same sort of thing might be in operation?

I do not have a personal stake in sexual or other forms of physical abuse (of which I am aware, anyway). So, I am not clouded by emotion on this issue and have done my best to research it as I would a legal case. I have been wrong before and may be wrong now, but nothing I have seen so far warrants certainty in this case.

Thanks for writing. I respect you and have learned from each of our exchanges.

All the best,


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