Forgetting To Remember

For two decades, the murder of 8-year-old Susan Nason was a mystery. Police Fin the San Francisco suburb of Foster City, Calif., ran out of leads not long after finding Susan's decomposed body in a wooded ravine. Then, in January 1989, Eileen Franklin-Lipsker, Susan's best friend at the time of the murder, looked into her 6-year-old daughter's eyes and suddenly remembered. The murderer, she claims, was her father, George Franklin Sr. Franklin-Lipsker, now 30, says she watched helplessly as her father molested Susan and then smashed the child's skull with a rock. When her father threatened to kill her if she told anyone, Franklin-Lipsker locked the horror deep in her subconscious, a traumatic response psychiatrists label "repressed memory." Years later her daughter's blue eyes--the same color as Susan's--triggered the flood of remembrances.

As incredible as the story seems, Franklin-Lipsker's recollections were vivid enough to convince a jury that her father was guilty. Last week Franklin, now 51, was sentenced to life in prison. "This may be the only case in which someone is convicted of murder solely on the basis of repressed memory," says Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who testified for the defense.

No other eyewitnesses nor any other physical evidence tied Franklin to the crime. Instead, the trial hinged on a complex debate over the validity of the concept of repressed memory. The prosecution's expert witness, San Francisco psychiatrist Lenore Terr, believes that traumatic memories can be "far clearer, more detailed and more long-lasting" than ordinary memory--even when repressed for so many years. But Loftus contends that memories of terrible events are often distorted by shock or fear. Both experts agreed, however, that repressed memory is a real phenomenon that can be unblocked spontaneously by an unrelated event.

Even without Susan's murder, Franklin-Lipsker says she had a nightmarish childhood. She testified that her father sexually abused her numerous times and that she learned to protect herself by "forgetting" what had happened. Defense lawyers presented other possible motives for Franklin-Lipsker's sudden recall. They claimed that she could have unconsciously woven a false memory out of her anger and fear of her father. Or, they suggested, she might have made up the whole story for the $500,000 book and movie deal she has signed.

Franklin's probation report, not part of the trial but given to the judge before sentencing, corroborates some of his daughter's testimony. An ex-girlfriend interviewed by police said Franklin asked if he could have sex with her 8-year-old daughter. He also reportedly told the woman he belonged to a society whose motto was "Sex before 8 or it's too late." Franklin's lawyer, Douglas Horngrad, says his client will appeal.

Whatever the outcome, it won't be the final verdict on repressed memory. Psychiatrists still aren't certain whether such cases represent fact or fantasy--or both. For now, the phenomenon remains as mysterious as Susan Nason's murder once was.