Out in the Open

How a teen's apparent flashback of childhood abuse set off a debate over repressed memory

At 17 years old, Nicole Kluemper seemed to remember sexual abuse that she’d described to a psychiatrist a decade earlier. And then a false memory expert claimed it never happened.
Nicole is pictured at the age of four. Years later, her apparent recollection of childhood sexual abuse by her mother became the subject of a dispute among experts on the reliability of memory. (Courtesy of Nicole Kluemper)

Nicole Kluemper's parents separated when she was very young.

Her father won the custody battle in court. And over the years, Nicole lost contact with her mother. But it wasn't clear to Nicole why the dispute hadn't gone the other way.

"I remembered more about the actual court proceedings than I did about what precipitated them," Nicole says.

As Nicole grew into her teen years, her father became ill and moved into nursing care. That sent Nicole into the care of friends, group homes and foster parents.

"I was just at a point where, living with a foster family and being away from my dad most days ... I was feeling pretty unattached to the world," she says.

So, for the first time in years, she contacted her mother and arranged a meeting.

"I think I was looking for another point of attachment."

But her reunion with her mother was "difficult," she says. Nicole felt anxious, and found that her mother was reluctant to talk about the past.

Nicole, at seven years old. (Courtesy of Nicole Kluemper)

Around that time, Nicole was contacted by a child psychiatrist named David Corwin. He had interviewed Nicole at five and six years old as part of her parents' custody dispute. He had videotaped those conversations, and had been showing those tapes in training exercises. He would periodically reaffirm the permission of Nicole and her father to keep showing those videos.

With her father in the final stages of his life and her mother having reappeared, Nicole told Dr. Corwin that she wanted to watch the tapes herself. She wanted to find out what she had told him about her parents.

So, at 17 years old, Nicole visited Dr. Corwin to watch the videos from more than a decade earlier.

"He asked me what I remembered about the videos … and my memory was quite sparse," she says.

"And then asked me, specifically, do you remember anything about allegations about sexual abuse?"

Dr. Corwin was taping this interview, too. And in transcripts he later published of that conversation, Nicole first responds "No" to the abuse question. And then, after a moment, says: "Wait a minute, yeah, I do."

"And then I proceed to tell him about this memory I have," Nicole says.

She says she had a flash of her mother, bathing a young Nicole in a bathtub. In the transcript, Nicole talks about her mother hurting her as she "put her fingers too far where she shouldn't have," though it's not clear to Nicole whether that was intentional or accidental.

Nicole and Dr. Corwin then watch the tapes from years earlier. And in the videos, a six-year-old Nicole describes the incident in the bathtub, adding that her mother asked her if it felt good, and that it happened "much more than once."

Nicole now says that, before going to visit Dr. Corwin at 17, she had "no memory" of the incidents. But after watching that video from her childhood, she felt convinced about what had happened to her, and what had led Dr. Corwin to testifying in favour of her father.

Dr. Corwin published an academic paper about Nicole, calling her "Jane Doe." Here was a girl who described repeated sexual abuse at six years old, apparently forgot it ever happened, and then seemed to bring a memory of it back at age 17.

Dr. Corwin didn't use the term "repressed memory," but that's the debate he was wading into. Could a person bury a painful memory of childhood abuse, then recover that memory later?

A well-known psychologist named Elizabeth Loftus didn't think so. She was an expert in false memory, and had previously demonstrated how people can come to "remember" events that never actually happened.

In reaction to Dr. Corwin's paper, she co-authored articles of her own about the "Jane Doe" case. She criticized Dr. Corwin's work, and hypothesized that Nicole's father and stepmother had effectively planted false ideas of abuse in the little girl's head during the bitter custody dispute.

"With everything I know about the case, I think it's consistent with the idea that this was a suggested memory," Dr. Loftus said in a phone call.

"Personally, I have to say, in my heart, I believe this mother is innocent."

Dr. Loftus went on to assert that there's no strong scientific support for the mind's ability to repress painful memories, beyond normal forgetting and remembering.

Elizabeth Loftus testifies for the defence in a child abuse trial in 2005 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Loftus is an expert in false memory, and co-authored articles about the 'Jane Doe' case. (Jodi Hilton/Getty Images)

Out in the Open also spoke with Nicole's mother, who said she loves her daughter and denies ever abusing her. She said the accusations were devastating and "almost killed me."

And for their part, Dr. Corwin stands by his work, while Nicole's stepmother denies influencing Nicole's memories.

Nicole doesn't believe her six-year-old self was so suggestible. But now, more than two decades after that sudden remembrance, she doesn't still have a memory of the alleged abuse.

So does she still believe her mother abused her?

"Some days I do and some days I don't," Nicole says. "That's the most definitive answer I can give you."

Nicole Kluemper is now a child psychologist. (Courtesy of Nicole Kluemper)

She has found the uncertainty about her own past to be "completely unnerving."

"It made it very difficult for me in interpersonal relationships … because I just didn't know who I was supposed to be."

That struggle is made more complicated by the fact that she's still in touch with her mom.

"She's come in and out of my life many times over the years," Nicole says.

"She asserts that she never did this, and part of me feels tremendously guilty for having put her through it if she never really did this."

Nicole is now a child psychologist. It's something she resolved to do when she was young, to help kids like her.

"I want people to know that it's important to find people who can reflect back to you who you really are," Nicole says.

"Know that you do have some control over who you are and who you want to be. The past is the past. While it is always a part of us, it doesn't have to completely define us."