I’m in the middle of a series on the problem of abuse, memory, and recovered memories. You can see the first two posts here and here. But, before I go on to address the matter of dissociation, repression, and re-remembering abuse, I want to point out that motivated forgetting doesn’t just happen to victims. It also happens to perpetrators.
Even when forensic evidence exists, it is common for perpetrators to deny their participation (or downplay it at least) in the offense. Some are quite capable of passing lie detector exams. They appear to able NOT to recall or respond in ways that would signal lying. From a theoretical point of view, we could offer two plausible answers
- They are extraordinary liars. They have perfected their craft and are able to beat the best technologies we have to detect their conscious lying.
- They have forgotten. By means of practicing an alternative story, by means of inability to see outside their own perceptions, by means of dissociation during the event, they have somehow forgotten.
Could it be that perpetrators use psychological mechanisms to forget–at least in part? I am still taken with Jean Hatzfeld’s accounts of his interviews with imprisoned genocidaires in Rwanda. In Machete Season, he documents how mass killers (already imprisoned and so thus with less need to maintain one’s innocence) seemed unable to speak about their actions in the first person but could speak with greater detail when using 2nd or 3rd person (we…they…).
To my mind, this suggests we are capable of forgetting many things (the motivation for forgetting how you chopped someone up is clear) but that we may remember when using a different portion of our brain and accessing a different perception of self/other. Self-deception takes many forms and is motivated by many (often unknown to us) reasons.
To read another post I had on this book, see this link.