When is it legitimate to help people remember?

Lena Hellblom Sjögren 1998,  review unpublished

 When is it legitimate to help people remember?

Cognitive interviewing is recommended in a new  Swedish book, Advanced interrogation and interview methods, Natur och Kultur, Stockholm 1998,  by a memory researcher called Sven-Åke Christiansson, and two of his students., one of them a police, who questioned two little sisters in a very questionable way with leading questions (see my the first chapter in my book Secrets and Memories. To investigate reliability in sexual criminal cases, Norstedts Juridik 1997).

The presentation of the cognitive interviewing (a method to help witnesses remember what they have encoded) is correct as far, as I can see, but I find for example Gisli Gudjonsonson´s summary in Interrogations, Confessions and Testimony, 1992, more clarifying.

The book is recommended by the director for the Swedish criminal police to be used for the training of policemen nationwide, but I hope it will not. Why? It´s because it includes speculations about human memory. 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 the following problems with            remembering the event.”

remembering the event.”

If you

If you combine the cognitive method with unscientific speculations about repression/dissocation it is very dangerous. You make it legitimate for policemen and others to help those questioned to remember events that may never have  happened, by helping them to remember what happened when they  ”dissociated” – something you as an interrogator influenced by Christiansson, and Putnam, van der Kolk, and others he refers to, take for granted.

In the book MPD, Multiple Personality Disorder, is presented as a form of psychogen amnesia, which in turn is explained as a defense dissociative reaction, which gives rise to a state where you do not have access to your memories. Christiansson teaches that not only the victims, but also the perpetrators, can dissociate (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  behavior 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.”


The argumentation is circular. 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 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.

His recommendations are against Swedish and international  recommendations for interrogation and must be questioned from all we know of suggestibility.

But the problem is that this is not a question about rational arguments. A policeman on an international 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 say, after having read this new book, that she believes in dissociation,  is no improvement.


Lena Hellblom Sjögren, PhD, licensed psychologist