Revised as of Jan. 14, 1999
Recovered Memories and the Holocaust
by Mark Pendergrast
Copyright 1999. Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved.
As I read, however, I couldn't help wondering about some passages, including the one above, in which the young Wilkomirski -- apparently only two or three years old -- survived having his head bashed into a wall. Then I read the back cover of the book. "Only in adulthood did [Wilkomirski] find a way to recover his memories." Oh, no, I thought. Recovered memories! I realized that I was probably reading a book filled with false memories of the Holocaust -- not necessarily lies, but perhaps delusions, created either alone or with the help of psychotherapy.
As the author of Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives, I knew that subject all too well, having spent several years researching it. In the course of the research, I learned a great deal about human memory, and I concluded that so-called "massive repression" -- in which years of traumatic childhood events are completely forgotten, then recalled later in adulthood -- is probably a myth. Unless people suffer massive organic brain damage, they do not forget the worst events of their lives, particularly if the traumatic events were repeated for years. There will never be a way to prove that massive repression does not occur, since one cannot prove a negative. There is, however, no scientific evidence to support the theory of massive repression, nor any convincing anecdotal evidence.
Memory is a confusing, fascinating topic. Our memories are subject to distortion and reshaping. We do not record the past in neat computer-like bits and bytes. It is almost impossible to discuss the mechanisms of memory without employing misleading metaphors. Plato compared the mind to a wax writing tablet, the advanced technology of his era. For Freud, the brain functioned something like a giant plumbing system or steam engine, with uncomfortable material stashed away in the cesspool of the subconscious and leaking out when the pressure reached a critical point. Modern researchers have used other metaphors: the mind as a giant filing cabinet, videotape, or computer.
The trouble with all such comparisons is the implication that we remember everything that has ever happened to us -- every smell, sound, sensation, joy or trauma has been encoded somewhere in the brain, and, if only the proper command or button is pushed, it will all come flooding back. Pop psychologists have repeatedly promulgated this notion, as in this passage from Unlocking the Secrets of Your Childhood Memories (1989): "Every experience we've had since birth has been recorded and tucked away safely in our brains. Like the most sophisticated computer in the world, the brain retrieves [memories] we need when we need them."
But the brain does not function that way, as every modern memory researcher knows. "One of the most widely held, but wrong, beliefs that people have about memory is that 'memories' exist, somewhere in the brain, like books exist in a library, or packages of soap on the supermarket shelves," writes psychologist Endel Tulving, "and that remembering is equivalent to somehow retrieving them. The whole concept of repression is built on this misconception."
British experimental psychologist Frederic Bartlett first made this point in his classic 1932 text, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. "Some widely held views have to be completely discarded," he asserted, "and none more completely than that which treats recall as the re-excitement in some way of fixed and changeless ‘traces.' " To the contrary, he held that remembering is "an imaginative reconstruction." Bartlett's general conclusions have been confirmed by modern researchers such as Endel Tulving, Elizabeth Loftus, Ulrich Neisser, and a host of others. In other words, the human species has evolved a brain that is adaptable, nimble, versatile and imaginative, but not always accurate. We literally "re-member," patching together the puzzle bits of our past. When we picture what happened, we are engaging in re-vision.
That is not to say that our memories are utterly inaccurate. By and large, they serve us relatively well. We may not get all the details precisely correct, but we generally recall major events accurately. We tend to remember best the worst and the best events of our lives, which makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. It stands to reason that, in order to survive, we recall the good things in order to attempt to replicate them, and we remember the bad in order to try to avoid them in the future. Normally, we recall the highs and lows of our lives, with very little in between.
Indeed, there is evidence that traumatic events tend to be recalled better than others. In the last decade, scientists concerned with the mysterious inner workings of the brain have produced many interesting studies. None either prove nor disprove the existence of repressed memories, though work on the chemistry of highly emotional memories tends to verify the 1891 observation of philosopher and psychologist William James: "What interests us most vividly at the time is...what we remember best. An experience may be so exciting emotionally as almost to leave a scar on the cerebral tissues." In other words, strong emotions (whether positive or negative) produce strong memories, less subject to distortion and decay than normal memory.
That is not to say that we remember every terrible thing that ever happened to us. People who have undergone prolonged trauma never forget the experience -- they know very well what happened to them in general -- but they probably do not recall every horrific episode, since they all tend to blend together. I have not had a very difficult life, but I had bad teeth as a child, and I hated going to the dentist. I vividly recall the fear, the feeling of the needle pumping novocaine, the sound of the drill. But I could not tell you about many specific visits, nor which teeth were decayed. Similarly, those who were victims of prolonged sexual abuse, or who endured for years in concentration camps, may not recall everything that happened, but they certainly know what happened to them in general.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, a troubling form of psychotherapy convinced many people that they had been raped all during their childhoods and had completely repressed the memories. If they had the "symptoms" -- depression, troubled relationships, eating disorders, or almost any other problem -- they must come from such repressed memories. These therapists encouraged patients to "remember" these hypothetical traumatic events through pseudoscientific methods such as hypnosis, sodium amytal interviews, dreams, or misinterpretation of panic attacks or vague bodily pains.
Memories retrieved under hypnosis or sodium amytal are often contaminated mixtures of fantasy and truth. In many cases, outright "confabulations" -- the psychologists' term for illusory memories -- result. As the 1989 Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry stated, "An overwhelming body of research indicates that hypnosis does not increase accurate memory, but does increase the person's willingness to report previously uncertain memories with strong conviction.... There is a high likelihood that the beliefs of the hypnotist will somehow be communicated to the patient in hypnosis and incorporated into what the patient believes to be memories, often with strong conviction.
When a subject agrees to be hypnotized, he or she tacitly agrees to abide by the suggestions of the hypnotist. This state of heightened suggestibility can work quite well if the goal is to stop smoking, lose weight, enhance self-esteem, reduce perceived pain, or improve one's sex life. But it is not an appropriate method for retrieving supposedly repressed memories. Unfortunately, many recovered "memories" of sexual abuse, multiple personalities, alien abduction, and past lives have been produced through hypnosis, in which the subject tends to fulfill the expectations of the hypnotist. Nor is it necessary to call it hypnosis, since guided imagery, visualization, meditation, or even prayer can produce the same false memories in a trance state.
Hypnosis is the most clearly leading method to encourage a belief in recovered "memories" -- though it is certainly not necessary to enter a hypnotic trance in order to create false memories. Simply by believing that something must have happened, many people can visual it, particularly if they are among the 10 percent of the population who are fantasy-prone.* The retrieval of "memories" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Told that memories will return as dreams about abuse, people obsess over it and then, predictably, dream about it. Told that they may have panic attacks or "body memories," they worry themselves into them.
Knowing all of this, I was extremely concerned about the Wilkomirski book, particularly because the author appeared to believe in many myths about memory -- that it can be massively repressed, that clear visualizations equal reality, that memory is pristine, that fragmentary images must be real. "My early childhood memories are planted," he wrote, "first and foremost, in exact snapshots of my photographic memory and in the feelings imprinted in them, and the physical sensations." And yes, Wilkomirski was in personal psychotherapy and has espoused (and taught) recovered memory therapy. His therapist may have helped him visualize these scenes and to create so-called "body memories" (physical sensations interpreted as memories) to accompany them. Thus, his earliest memories are as Wilkomirski puts it, "a rubble field of isolated images and events...mostly a chaotic jumble, with very little chronological fit." But with effort, Wilkomirski has taken these "isolated images" and formed them into a coherent narrative.
Such descriptions echo that of Renee Fredrickson in her 1992 book, Repressed Memories, one of the most disturbing texts on how to recover "memories" of sexual abuse. Fredrickson's description of "imagistic memory work" -- actually a form of hypnosis -- is detailed and revealing. First, under the guidance of a therapist or friend, you seat yourself, close your eyes, and relax, breathing deeply. Try to picture some kind of abuse. "If nothing surfaces, wait a bit, and then give your best guess in answer to the questions [of your guide]. If you feel resistance or skepticism, try to go past it." Afterward, your guide should follow up with questions to "fill in any blanks." You should consider any scene you envisioned as a "freeze-frame photograph" out of sequence. "You want to develop a sequenced slide show, showing the action from beginning to end.... You need to let yourself imagine or picture what might have happened to you." Fredrickson advises: "Avoid being tentative about your repressed memories. Do not just tell them; express them as truth."
Wilkomirski has apparently followed that advice, billing his book as non-fiction rather than as a work of the imagination. On April 20, 1998, I wrote identical letters to Holocaust scholars Elie Wiesel, Lawrence Langer, Raul Hilberg, and David Scrase, expressing my doubts about Fragments. "The book quite possibly contains a mixture of real and confabulated memory, but most of it appears to be confabulated," I wrote. "We learn at the end of the book that his birth certificate says that he was born on Feb. 12, 1941. It may be incorrect, but I imagine it is probably close to his real birth date. That would mean that he was barely four when he was liberated from the camps. Consequently, he would be subject to the period of infantile amnesia during most of the time he purportedly recalls here in fragments. Therefore, it is unlikely that he remembers much about his time in the camps -- assuming he really was in the camps, for which we have only his word."
The period of "infantile amnesia" refers to the time before the age of three, when no one recalls anything, because the hippocampus -- an area of the brain essential to long-term memory -- is not yet sufficiently developed. Nonetheless, many "recovered memories" of sexual abuse have come from that improbable time period, such as actress Roseanne Barr's accusations that her father abused her in the crib when she was six months old.
I concluded my letter: "I would very much appreciate it if you would have a look at the book and render your opinion.... It is important that Holocaust scholars cast light on claims such as this, which dilute the reality of the real horror by turning it into the stuff of fiction."
Raul Hilberg called me. Only days after receiving my letter, he said, he had attended a Notre Dame Holocaust symposium at which Binjamin Wilkomirski spoke. In the speech, Wilkomirski touted a method used to recover memories that purportedly enabled people to remember accurately back to one year of age. "I was the only one who sat on my hands during the standing ovation," Hilberg told me. Hilberg expressed grave doubts about several historical aspects of the book, but he wanted to study the German edition before going public with his concerns.*
Then, on Aug. 27, 1998, Swiss writer Daniel Ganzfried -- himself the Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor -- published an article in the Zurich paper, Die Weltwoche, in which he revealed that Wilkomirski was born in Switzerland in 1941 as Bruno Grosjean, the illegitimate son of Yvonne Berthe Grosjean, a Christian. He was given up for adoption in 1945, taking the name of his adoptive parents, Doessekker. Ganzfried found pictures of the young Bruno at a villa in Zurichberg in 1946, two years before he supposedly came to Switzerland. Thus, Wilkomirski/Doessekker was adopted, as he wrote in his book, but he apparently had loving adoptive parents, not the unfeeling foster parents described in Fragments.
Doessekker studied the Holocaust intensively, collecting an impressive library and interviewing many survivors. In the Afterword of Fragments, the author described his "years of research, many journeys back to the places where I remember things happened, and countless conversations with specialists and historians [which] helped me to clarify many previously inexplicable shreds of memory." In other words, he had indeed visited Majdanek and Auschwitz, but only as a tourist. In the midst of a mid-life crisis and severe depression, Bruno Doessekker had sought therapy. Somewhere in the process, like those who recover memories of "past lives," Doessekker created a new past and identity based on his extensive research.
It is now widely recognized that Fragments is a work of fiction, but it is unclear whether Wilkomirski/Doessekker was perpetrating an intentional hoax or -- as I suspect -- he truly has come to believe in his recovered "memories." Daniel Ganzfried believes that the story is a simple lie. He points out that Wilkomirski/Doessekker hired a lawyer who attempted to block research into his real past. "I believe that this is a really banal case [in which] a mediocre musician ventured out, trying to be something really special," Ganzfried wrote to me. Raul Hilberg agrees that this is a case of conscious fraud, since Doessekker accepted money from the Swiss state when his biological mother died. "I believe he is just using the whole recovered memory as a tool," Hilberg told me, "not that he believes it necessarily."
Nonetheless, I doubt that Wilkomirski/Doessekker is consciously lying. It is probable that he has rehearsed his memories so thoroughly that they have become real to him. He has unconsciously incorporated many elements from books and interviews, just as many who incorrectly identify themselves as having multiple personalities often include scenes from the movie Sybil in their own "memories." Swiss psychologist Alice Miller, author of works such as Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries, has promoted the notion of repressed memories, and it would not surprise me if Wilkomirski/Doessekker had been influenced by her books. His primary therapist was Marianne Matta, a Zürich practitioner who believes in "eclectic" methods. In addition, Wilkomirski/Doessekker may have also entered therapy with Elitsur Bernstein, who lived in Zürich before departing for Israel, and who is an exponent of recovered memory therapy.
Thus far, despite all of the publicity about the book's inaccuracies, no one has focused on how the author arrived at his false memories. I suspect that he retrieved them under a form of hypnosis during his psychotherapy, coupled with his obsession with the Holocaust and emotional visits to the sites of concentration camps. He has certainly absorbed many of the stereotypical platitudes of the incest survivor movement. "It is so easy to make a child mistrust his own reflections, to take away his voice," Wilkomirski wrote in Fragments, echoing Alice Miller and every other recovered memory guru.
Now that Fragments has been publicly debunked, Wilkomirski/Doessekker won't submit to interviews, but he apparently claims, via third parties, that he has always recalled these horrors. Yes, he was in therapy, but only for personal problems. Such an assertion is highly suspect, probably a rationalization and yet another rewriting of the more recent past. If he has always remembered all of this, why would he allow the publisher to call them recovered memories on the book's back cover? Why would he stress the fragmentary, chaotic nature of his "memories," writing about how "the first pictures surface one by one, like upbeats"? Why would he have referred to recovered memories in speeches? In November 1997, Wilkomirski/Doessekker spoke at a Holocaust conference in Vienna, along with Israeli psychologist Elitsur Bernstein, on "The Problematics of Identity of Surviving Children of the Holocaust: A Proposal for the Interdisciplinary Cooperation between Therapists and Historians." They asserted that, using their method, even preverbal memories could be recovered accurately fifty years later.
But if Wilkomirski/Doessekker truly believes in his "memories," how do I explain his having taken money from the Swiss state when his biological mother died? How do I explain his trying to thwart Daniel Ganzfried's research into his past? As far as the money goes, it is no surprise that people will accept money, regardless of the source. It also does not surprise me that Wilkomirski/Doessekker would actively try to avoid facing his real past. During my research for Victims of Memory, I found cases in which women were medically examined and found to be virgins -- yet they still insisted that their "memories" of childhood rapes were accurate. Rationality is not one of the hallmarks of recovered memory. When people invest in a belief system and have based their very identity on it, it is astonishing how difficult it is to shake them, even with the best logic.
Wilkomirski/Doessekker is not unique in casting himself in the role of false historical victim. During my research, I uncovered several such cases. Psychiatrists treating World War II veterans found that leading patients to dramatically "relive" fictional events seemed to help them as much as recalling a real trauma. One man who had been in a tank regiment vividly visualized being trapped in a burning tank. "This had never actually happened, though it must have been a persistent fear of his throughout the campaign," his doctor noted. Similarly, under the influence of sodium Amytal, a 35-year-old Vietnam combat veteran "lived out" a feared fantasy of having been captured and tortured by the Viet Cong, though nothing like that had actually happened to him.
An even more interesting war-related case occurred recently. In a Vietnam veteran's support group, Ed recounted how he had watched a buddy's head explode during a firefight. He had relived this and other harrowing memories in therapy. But when one of his group members called Ed's parents for help in staging a surprise birthday party, his mother said, "What? He's in a veterans' recovery group? But he was rated 4-F. He never was allowed to go to Vietnam!" Even when confronted in the group, however, Ed maintained that his story was true. He had fantasized his "flashbacks" so successfully that they had become real. Psychologist Michael Yapko reports a similar case in which a man convinced his wife, therapist, and apparently himself that he was experiencing excruciating flashbacks to his imprisonment in a Vietcong bamboo cage. After he committed suicide, his widow tried to locate his official military record and discovered that he had never been in Vietnam.
During my research for Victims of Memory, I contacted Elie Wiesel, Lawrence Langer, and Raul Hilberg to ask whether they had ever encountered cases of massive repression, in which Holocaust survivors had totally blocked memories and did not recall their time in the camps at all. None had.
In Massive Psychic Trauma, a 1968 work edited by Henry Krystal, that psychiatrist wrote: "Many memories of persecution have become hypermnesic, at the same time occurring with such clarity and being so threatening that the patient cannot be sure that the old horrors have not, in fact, reappeared." Most Holocaust survivors have "indelible memories," he observed. But Krystal also claimed to observe "far-reaching memory defects with total or partial amnesia for various traumatic events, marked vagueness of the capacity to recollect, and the emergence of acute episodes of confusion and anxiety when urged...to remember what the events were." I suspect that Krystal and his colleagues, who presumed the existence of repression, confused "repression" or "amnesia" with an unwillingness to talk about the horrors of the past, or an inability to recall specific episodes in a flood of horror. Certainly, no Holocaust survivors have ever forgotten the trauma they endured, as a totality.
In time, I hope that Wilkomirski/Doessekker will be able to reclaim his real past and embrace his adoptive parents, whom he has apparently vilified unjustly as part of his revision of his personal past.
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