The idea that hidden memories can be “recovered” in therapy took the nation by storm 20 years ago, when a rash of false memories dominated the airwaves, tore families apart, and put people on the stands for crimes they didn’t commit. Thoroughly and publicly discredited since then, the therapeutic practice of memory recovery never really went away, however. Pacific Standard tells the story of a dangerous idea’s persistence by recounting the harrowing experience of one family: a father accused of sexual abuse by his daughter in 2011; his ordeal in the courts; and his eventual discovery of other young women who alleged that they had been prompted to “remember” scenes of ritual abuse while at the same prominent St. Louis facility where his daughter had been receiving treatment.
Ed Cara’s Pacific Standard feature is available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—now, and will be posted online in full on Monday, November 03. Until then, an excerpt:
Across the country, many law enforcement agencies conducted investigations, and sometimes excavations, looking for evidence of satanic cults engaged in murder, cannibalism, and torture. FBI special agent Ken Lanning, then a member of the bureau’s behavioral science unit, examined hundreds of satanic ritual abuse claims and found no compelling evidence that such cults existed. He wrote in a 1992 report, “Now it is up to the mental health professionals ... to explain why victims are alleging things that don’t seem to have happened.”
Parents and others who had been accused of abuse based on false recovered memories also became a force in the growing public debate. In 1992, Pamela Freyd and her husband, Peter Freyd—who had been accused by his daughter of abuse—founded the non-profit False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which publicized the work of Loftus and other scholars who were skeptical of recovered memory therapy. The group listed many prominent researchers and clinicians as advisory board members.
But the tide really began to turn when former patients started to doubt their own recovered memories. In dozens of lawsuits, patients described coercive therapeutic techniques including hypnosis, guided visualization, and dream analysis, and the pressure of group therapy, often used on them when they were at their most vulnerable. Some former patients related terrifying experiences of being confined in mental health wards stocked with people who believed they had dozens of personalities. Therapists, some of the lawsuits claimed, both encouraged these beliefs and accused patients who expressed doubt of succumbing to programming they received from a cult. Some settlements from the lawsuits reached into the millions.
By the end of the 1990s, many of the trauma clinics that had specialized in recovered memory therapy had shut down. The daytime talk shows about satanic abuse and multiple personalities became less frequent, and the courts became wary of testimony based on recovered memories. Richard McNally, the director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology at Harvard and author of the book Remembering Trauma, put it bluntly in a friend-of-court brief: “The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry.”
For more on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletters and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Google Play (Android) and Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8).