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 Kluemper 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. (Submitted by Nicole Kluemper)
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Story originally published on Nov. 19, 2017. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Rewriting History."

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

Her father won the custody battle in court. And over the years, Kluemper lost contact with her mother, but it was never clear why the dispute hadn't gone the other way.

"I remembered more about the actual court proceedings than I did about what precipitated them," Kluemper told Out in the Open's Piya Chattopadhyay. 

As she grew into her teen years, her father became ill and moved into nursing care. That sent Kluemper 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 said.

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 said. Kluemper felt anxious, and found that her mother was reluctant to talk about the past.

Recollections of sexual abuse 

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

Kluemper, at seven years old. (Submitted by Nicole Kluemper)

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

At 17, Kluemper visited 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 said.

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

Corwin was taping this interview, too. And in transcripts he later published of that conversation, Kluemper first responded "no" to the abuse question. And then, after a moment, said: "Wait a minute. Yeah, I do."

"And then I proceed to tell him about this memory I have," Kluemper said.

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

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

Debating 'repressed memory'

Kluemper now says that before going to visit 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 Corwin to testify in favour of her father.

Corwin published an academic paper about Kluemper, 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.

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 Corwin's paper, she co-authored articles of her own about the "Jane Doe" case. She criticized Corwin's work, and hypothesized that Kluemper'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," Loftus said in a phone call.

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

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 Kluemper'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, Corwin stands by his work, while Kluemper's stepmother denies influencing the child's memories.

No definitive answer

Kluemper 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," Kluemper said. "That's the most definitive answer I can give you."

Nicole Kluemper is now a child psychologist. (Submitted by 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," Kluemper said.

"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."

Kluemper 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," Kluemper said.

"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."