Letter January 1999 about worries regarding repeated questioning and repression/dissociation

Professor Graham Davies                                              Täby January 20, 1999

Dear Graham,

Thanks for the letter I got after the Krakow conference. As I know you are a very busy person I apologize for writing such a long letter. And please forgive my ”swinglish.”

I do not have any results in English to present. I should very much like to deepen the discussion about how to interrogate children  the best way, ”best” in reference to the    child´s needs and to the need of having as reliable information as possible from the child. One project that I have come to think of for  the future is to analyze how the children in the ”Kevin-case” (se below) were questioned and interpreted.

Yesterday there was a program on the radio about little Kevin,  killed in August 1998 in a little town in the middle of Sweden,  probably by his mates when playing. The police in charge for the investigation told about how they first thought Kevin had drowned, then that he was a pedofile´s victim. After several weeks they suspected that he had been killed by some other children. Something they now consider a fact. About 140 children were interrogated, according to the police. Although many children had been down at the lake the day of Kevin´s death, they had not earlier been interrogated about what they had done or seen.

When I first heard about all these children being interrogated  I phoned the police and asked if I could have copies of the interrogations as I was a researcher investigating children´s statements. He told me about the great help he had from Sven-Åke Christiansson and psychologists and psychiatrists from a local clinic. The police explained to me that he had now learnt that it takes time to remember and that you have to help children remember by asking them over and over again. An evaluation was going to be made by Christiansson and the clinical experts who had been involved, he said.

If I wanted to have access to the material I ought to write an application. So far I have not done that – I want to ask for your opinion and if there could be a chance of you being interested to somehow cooperate in a research project  (although I am not linked to any institution or university and is considered to be controversial).

Back to the broadcasting program. Two brothers had told their parents when they came home the day of the murder, accordning to the police, that ´Kevin is floating down among the reeds.´ After months of repeated questioning, often in 6-7 hour-sessions, where the actual interrogation of perhaps 1 hour was videotaped, the police and his helpers got all the details, the police said in the program. Helpers were both female and males picked out by the police, supervised by Christiansson.  Christiansson had looked at the videotaped sessions and then told the police what was relevant and what was from the setting around the boys, explained the police.

How where  two brothers picked out as  perpetrators? There was no information about that. Had any of all the other 138 children been on the police station for whole days, eating and playing to create an atmosphere of telling, such as the one created for the two brothers they wanted to help to tell about what happened?  What had the other children and the two brothers actually said? How were the questions put?

The real task, said Christiansson in  the program, is to create a safe setting so that the children feel comfortable and can tell.  It is important that there are people the children can trust and who dare receive the horrible memories the children tell about, he said. You cannot expect a child to tell freely, he said. Children need ”reference information”, they need questions. He told about body memories and how they had helped the two brothers tell by taking them out to the place of the crime repeatedly. Christiansson explained to the journalist, that all his recommendations and all that had been done in this case was founded on strict research (not any research that I know of). As this was a single event there was no risk with leading questions as there can be when interrogating  children about repeated  sexual abuse, Christiansson explained. These two boys had shut something inside that hey acted out the day of the crime, he explained.

When asked what the role of the interrogator is Christiansson answered that it was to be a supervisor so that the children feel that they can tell and be confirmed (not as I see it to find out as close as possible what actually happened).

Such an attitude makes it legitimate to ask closed questions. To deepen the discussion and as a background to my concern about how children are being interrogated I want  to give some information about Christiansson´s new book written together with a police who has become a researcher under Christianssons supervision and a female psychology student who he is also supervising, ”Advanced interrogation-and interview methods” (Natur och Kultur, Stockholm 1998, ).

The book  is recommended by the director for the criminal police in Sweden  to be used in the training of policemen nationwide. This worries me. Christiansson et al state, thereby  teaching policemen how to think ”psychology” (in the speculative psychodynamic tradition, p.271, my translation):

”In the cases where you have perpetrators with psychogen amnesia you can see a tendency to a certain behaviour. It´s often individuals that during their childhood have not been  confirmed by their parents, never have considered          themselves as seen and therefore have learnt to shut off the feelings of abondonment and deceit that was the consequence. Following this they learnt how to establish and master a  behaviour which imply that they can shut  their feelings on  and off as they apprehend the situation calls for that kind of  defense reaction.

Therefore they can comit serious crimes and  shut off the actions from their consciousness by help of the shut off automacy they so  cleverly handle.”  

What worries me most is that this book includes so called

”facts” about dissociation stating that experiences of for example sexual abuse can be separated from other ”memory information.” I quote

If an experience is so traumatic that you cannot get mental  control over your experience, this can lead to dissociative  reactions, and sometimes to following problems with  remembering the event.”(p 78)

These authors  present  MPD, Multiple Personality Disorder, as a form of psychogen amnesia (p.255), which in turn is explained as a defense reaction:

When an experience gives rise to emotional stress that is overwhelming, and takes on unbearable proportions, a defense reaction is automatically put on. ”

This is then described as a state where you do not have access to your memories, you cannot pick your memories out – and need help to do that (somethin S-Å Christiansson helped the alleged serial killer Tomas Quick alias Sture Bergwall to do).

Combining  the cognitive method to help people remember more with these unscientific speculations about repression/dissocation is  dangerous, as I see it. Do you agree? It makes it legitimate for policemen and others to help those questioned to remember events that have never happened, by helping them to remember what happened when they ”dissociated” – something you as an interrogator influenced by Christiansson, Putnam, van der Kolk and others Christiansson refers to seem to take for granted.

The message repeated is that it takes time to remember. The best way of interrogating is therefore, it´s argued, to question repeated times and have long sessions  as Christiansson himself has had with Thomas Quick, a person who has confessed a long series of murders. This person has been encouraged by Christiansson to imagine himself to be directing a film as a method of helping him remember.  Christiansson has also, when giving lectures to policemen and social workers, and when interviewed in the press, stated that you have to put leading questions to a child, because the problem is to get the child to tell. This was also said by him concerning the Kevin-murder investigation.

As far as I know Christianssons recommendations are against Swedish and international  recommendations for interrogation and must be questioned from all we know about suggestibility. But the problem is that this is not a question about rational arguments. A policeman on the seminar about true or false memories in Stockholm in June 1998 summarized what it´s all about. She said that she believed in repression. To hear her now say that she believes in dissociation would be no improvement.

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