“False” Memories, “False” Reports

[Trigger warning for sexual assault, discussion of false memory syndrome, victims being fined/jailed for “false” reporting that later is proven to be true.]

Well, it’s still Sexual Assault Awareness Month for the rest of today, and I’ve been meaning to post something about this since March, so I’ve decided to just make myself write it today. This post contains SPOILERS for Star Trek Voyager, season four episode seventeen, “Retrospect.”

This episode really pissed me off. The writers say they believe they “successfully differentiated this episode from a television movie about date rape, and that the decision to remove the sexual aspects from the script had been made ‘wisely’.” But I don’t think they did at all. Right off the bat, I immediately knew this was a social commentary on sexual assault. The way that the Captain and the Doctor responded to Seven’s descriptions of what she remembered was exactly the same way they would respond to someone who said they had been raped. And let’s face it, Seven is a highly sexualized character in the minds of the audience (and several of Voyager’s crew members). Whether or not the writers stripped the sexual content from the assault doesn’t really matter, because that will be provided by the audience’s imagination. It’s good in a sense, because it makes the episode marginally less triggering for people who have actually been assaulted, but at the same time, there’s a lot of triggering content there anyway. It just seems like a way to fool the censors to me.

But the thing that really pissed me off? The episode presents no evidence that Seven’s memories are false. The new evidence they discover near the end only proves that they cannot prove that they were true. And yet everyone, including Seven herself, treats a lack of evidence as if it is the same as having evidence that proves that what she remembers cannot have happened. Tuvok, at the very least, should have known that this is a logical fallacy. So should Captain Janeway and the Doctor, and so should Seven herself. For Janeway and the Doctor, especially the latter, it’s at least conceivable that the characters might have made this logical blunder. The Doctor’s self-doubt could easily have blinded him to the possibility that Seven’s memories might still have happened, and Janeway could have been swayed by the Doctor’s concerns. But Tuvok? Tuvok is Vulcan. He lives logic. It’s a HUGE mistake purely from the viewpoint of consistent characterization to have this escape his notice. At the very least Tuvok should have pointed out to the others that it’s still possible Seven’s memories were true.

Seven of Nine is arguably the most logical character in the show herself, after Tuvok. On several occasions she has been shown to point out logical fallacies herself, and given that these are her memories, it strikes me as very odd that she would just accept the idea that they are false, even though they have not actually been proven to be. She resists the idea initially, but this is presented as an unreasonable emotional reaction since nobody, not even once, mentions that she could still be right. It’s just taken as an implicit assumption that of course she was wrong. There is a scene where she discusses feeling regret for Kovin’s death, which seems to be meant to show her acceptance of her “mistake.” Her remorse over her perpetrator’s death would be understandable even if her memories are true, but if Kovin would sooner die than let himself be transported to safety even after they tell him that they can’t prove he did it? That, to me, sounds more consistent with guilt. And yet, we are meant to believe that he was innocent, that he was so upset over the possibility that his life would be ruined that he ruined it himself.

I think this comment by one of the writers is telling:

Staff writer Bryan Fuller remarked, “That’s kind of what we had to fall back on for this one.” Regarding false memories, he commented, “We hear so much about how they can essentially ruin peoples’ lives, how well-respected and credited doctors have been completely dethroned, how teachers and parents have been humiliated.” (The Official Star Trek: Voyager Magazine, issue #18)

Yes, we do hear so much about it, don’t we.

So, I ask you this: Do we really need to hear MORE about it?

Especially in the context of an episode that takes an uncritical view of the idea that a lack of evidence proves that something didn’t happen?

When people make that mistake in real life, this kind of thing happens. Rape victims who lack the evidence (at the time) to prove their case are fined $500 or more, in some states even jailed, for making a “false” report. Can you imagine how much more damage that inflicts? It’s bad enough not to have enough (or any) evidence, but can you imagine then being told that because you didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute, you must therefore be lying and you will be punished for it?

Can you imagine how much stronger seeing things like this, where that logical fallacy is never corrected even by the most logical and reasonable of characters, where the accused destroys himself even though his guilt can’t be proven, would make the idea that not having enough evidence to prove your case true means that you must be wrong, and therefore must be ruining someone’s life?

The fact is, the prevalence of false rape reports is HUGELY exaggerated. For some reason, the most frequently cited study on the subject is a 1994 study by Eugene Kanin, which puts the rate of false reporting at (a ridiculous) 41%. The study was tremendously flawed, since Kanin made no effort to fact check to determine whether the reports were actually false, or whether they reflected the biased perspective of the investigators. More reliable, methodically sound studies have concluded, fairly consistently, that the actual rate of false reporting is between 2% and 8% (which is comparable to the rate of false reporting for other crimes). So why is it that people choose to believe the shitty study over the ones with some merit? Why is it that people choose to believe that false reporting is rampant? Why do people refuse to believe that sexual assault happens as frequently as it does?

I’d highly recommend that everyone read this, by the way. It covers the issue of false reporting in detail, including what a false report as opposed to a real report tends to actually look like. False reports tend to follow stereotypical ideas of what rape is, whereas real experiences usually contradict rape myths in some way, which leads victims to think people won’t believe them and omit facts.

As a side point, I wonder if the reason why the word “victim” tends to be seen so negatively among survivors (the typically accepted term) is partially because of this perception that the false reporting rate is so high, and the frequent accusation that they are “playing the victim” rather than actually being a victim. I’ve observed an attitude in recovery literature that “acting like a victim” is a very bad thing. Yet one victim, H, told me this:

I’ve been pretty open about everything that happened, mainly because since I couldn’t get legal justice, the only thing I can do to not let the Asshole completely get away with it is to proclaim my own victimhood–which is why I reject the “survivor” label and use “victim.” A survivor is someone who makes it through something terrible, something that has the feeling of coming from out of nowhere and of being unstoppable. You survive an earthquake. You survive a flood. You survive a fire. All of them are things that have no rhyme or reason–but a victim is someone that someone did something to. Being a victim implies that someone willingly and willfully did something to hurt you, and taking away the “victim” label also takes away the “criminal” label from the asshole. I did not survive an act of god; I was victimized by a rapist, and I won’t give him the power of his crime and his culpability being erased by turning what he did into a faceless, agentless thing that just happened, and I see no weakness in it at all–something terrible was done to me BY another person.

I think that makes a lot of sense. For some reason, “victimhood” tends to be defined by all the negative coping strategies and emotional distress, but none of the positive coping strategies, none of the personal strength that a person who has been assaulted exhibits. Those things get relabeled as traits of a “survivor.” I wonder why that is. But this is a little bit of a tangent.

The bottom line is that the writers of television shows, books, movies, and so on need to be conscientious about the things they put in their works. They need to be critical of ideas they see presented in popular culture, and they need to do in-depth research to try to get at the truth of the matter, because fiction presents truths through lies. Failing to do so creates real harm in the world. The writers of “Retrospect” failed spectacularly, and contributed to a very serious problem in doing so. This episode reinforces a cultural myth that claims of sexual assault are taken as fact uncritically, without a full investigation of evidence (whereas in reality, time and time again, police dismiss these claims as false without a thorough investigation of the evidence), and the lives of the accused are (regularly!) completely ruined because of it. This episode reinforces a culture where claims of sexual assault are automatically seen as suspect, and outright untrue not because it has been proven that they cannot be true, but because there is not enough evidence to prove that they are true.

And we wonder why the reporting rate is so low.

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4 thoughts on ““False” Memories, “False” Reports

  1. I think you are missing a very important distinction between false memories and false reports. The Star Trek writer (even if the episode did not reflect this) was probably thinking of false memories created by repressed memory therapy. According to Freudian folklore, many of people’s problems could be traced back to traumatic experiences in childhood that they had repressed. It was quite popular in the 80s for psychologists to probe people until they “remembered” these experiences. Sometimes these memories involved child abuse, and people were prosecuted on this basis. But by now, the creation of false memories is well established, and I don’t think repressed memory therapy is used much anymore (certainly the courts no longer take it seriously).

    Anyway, I hope that it’s clear that this is distinct from sexual assault reports. For one thing, a psychologist is usually involved, and there’s a period of time when the victim does not have any recollection of the experience. I bet these false memories also follow some sort of stereotypical (but unrealistic) narrative of what abuse is like.

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    • Um… what? There is no question that memories and reports are different. I am fully aware of what false memory syndrome (FMS from here on out) is, I know its history, I know the problems with repressed memory therapy, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. (I am a skeptic, so I’ve read all about this, and I certainly have issues with Freud’s theories in particular.) But that isn’t what this post is about. Is the phenomenon of FMS real? Sure. But can you say, just because you can’t prove that something happened, that it couldn’t possibly have happened? No.

      People say that about memories of sexual assault, and people also say that about reports of sexual assault. They are… really, very related, actually. If you make a report, and all you have to go on is memory, without proof? Well, you can’t prosecute, obviously. But unless you have evidence that proves that it didn’t happen, you don’t have grounds for saying that the memories couldn’t have been true, just because there isn’t evidence to prove that it did happen. It might have, or it might not have.

      This post is about the danger of perpetuating that logical fallacy, so I didn’t think it necessary to discuss the history of false memory syndrome or repressed memory therapy (which, yes, is bullshit). Whether it is possible to have false memories or not (it is, in case that’s not clear) is besides the point.

      However, I think it’s also important to keep in mind that FMS is often used by perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) to cover their tracks. My best friend from high school told me that she remembers her father telling her and her sister in the car once when they were little, “You know girls, one day, you’re going to grow up and remember things that never happened.” It made no sense to her at the time, but now she knows that he was talking to her sister, whom he had been sexually abusing, most likely for years by that point. I think a lot of people, not just perpetrators, would like to believe that FMS is a lot more common than it actually is, and many people tend to assume such memories are false whether or not repressed memory therapy was ever used in the case they’re assessing. The commonly accepted rate of false reporting comes from that terrible study that put the number so ridiculously high; I think there is very good reason to suspect that in the popular imagination, the rate of FMS is also greatly inflated.

      If the episode had included even just one character explicitly stating that although memories can be very unreliable, and although there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute, the evidence they discovered did not prove that what Seven remembers couldn’t have happened, then that would have been okay. But you know, they didn’t even include a scene where Seven remembers what really happened. It’s just assumed by everyone (wrongly), that because they didn’t find evidence that proves that he did do it, therefore Seven MUST be just having either an entirely false memory, or misattributing what happened to her with the Borg to Kovin. Their conclusion doesn’t follow from the evidence presented in the episode. Since the writers never presented any evidence to back up that assumption, they are therefore perpetuating a logical fallacy that has some VERY harmful effects in the real world. They definitely need to be called out for that.

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      • Okay, you know about the history of false memory syndrome, but your post didn’t really talk about it, leading me to believe you had missed something important. And I do think it was important to mention, because it explains where the Star Trek writers were coming from.

        The way I see it, the major mistake the Star Trek writers made was an utter failure to distinguish between false memories (created by RMT) and memories that are simply unconfirmed. They wanted to write something criticizing the former, but the scenario they wrote was really more like the latter.

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        • Yeah, it was more like the latter, which indicates to me that they didn’t do much research at all. And since it plays into really nasty cultural beliefs, it’s… a pretty egregious mistake.

          ETA: Also, I don’t think it’s necessary to try to explain where the writers are coming from, because RMT has been very well publicized, to the extent that it’s my assumption that pretty much everyone already knows what they were actually trying to do. I’ve… never met someone who DOESN’T know about FMS. Is there anyone who is truly unaware of it?

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