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Mangled Memories

Is sex so uniquely powerful that people repress the memory of it?

By Jim D'Entremont
The Guide, November 2002

Editor's Note with References

Dr. Paul McHugh seemed a fitting candidate for membership in the National Review Board created by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to address claims of sexual abuse by priests. The 71-year-old former chairman (1975-2001) of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins is a practicing Catholic who has described the priestly molestation crisis as "a major outbreak of child abuse" and questioned the Church's response.

His appointment, however, was denounced the moment it was made public last July. McHugh's critics span the political spectrum. His writings on the "deadly consequences" of sexual freedom have irritated sexual liberationists; his disapproval of sex-change operations has alienated much of the transgendered community.

Right-wing morality warrior Judith Reisman, who crusades against the legacy of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, has blasted McHugh for his association with Drs. John Money and Fred Berlin, co-founders of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic, accusing all three of covering up sex crimes and coddling pedophiles.

McHugh's most vehement opponents, however, are incensed by his role as scientific advisor to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), a Philadelphia-based organization set up to fight wrongful allegations of sexual abuse -- especially allegations based on the apparent retrieval of "repressed" memories.

Victims' rights advocates such as David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), deplore the fact that McHugh is the only mental-health professional among the 12-member panel of laymen, charging that McHugh's FMSF affiliation cinched his selection. USCCB spokesmen say the issue was never a factor.

But in the ongoing controversy over real and imagined sexual missteps by Catholic clergymen, repressed-memory issues are inescapably present. They figured in the early-'90s wave of cases that included the high-profile prosecution of ex-priest James Porter, who admits to sexual contact with dozens of children in the 1960s and early '70s -- but not the hundreds indicated by the recovered-memory testimony of scores of his alleged victims. They achieved their greatest notoriety shortly after Porter's 1993 conviction, when Stephen Cook, a gay ex-seminarian who later retracted his accusation, claimed to have remembered, through therapy, nonconsensual sex with Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Repressed memory plays a key role in the current round of lawsuits and prosecutions aimed at priests like Rev. Paul Shanley, whose principal accusers started conjuring memories when news reports suggested that Shanley had a sexual attraction to teenaged boys.

[See Holy Ghost Blowjobs, The Guide, April 2002.]

In April 2002, the Arizona Republic reported that in March, the Diocese of Tucson alone "settled 11 lawsuits totaling an estimated $15 million with plaintiffs who claimed they had repressed memories of sexual abuse by four priests in Tucson and Yuma during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s."

In 1995, Dr. McHugh served as an expert witness for the defense at the civil trial of Rev. A. Joseph Maskell, a Baltimore priest who was, along with the Archdiocese of Baltimore, unsuccessfully sued by two female parishioners who said he had repeatedly raped them in the 1970s, but that they had lost all memory of his attacks for 20 years.

In the early '90s, McHugh had been drawn into repressed-memory issues through a patient who appeared to be producing previously unimagined memories of incest. While treating this patient, who later recanted, he examined other cases involving similar claims, and came to doubt their validity.

To its defenders, repressed memory implies not mere forgetting, but a traumatic obliteration of memory as real as any caused by a hammer-blow to the head. Therapists prefer the term dissociative amnesia, which -- along with its stepchild, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) -- is enshrined in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard reference book used by American psychiatrists and psychotherapists.

According to DSM-IV,

"Dissociative amnesia is characterized by an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness."

Festering below the surface, such buried information is said to cause depression, eating disorders, development of multiple personalities, and other ills.

"The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness," insists psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery. But most memory researchers and behaviorists disagree. Harrison Pope, Herman's colleague on the psychiatric faculty of Harvard Medical School, points out that the existence of dissociative amnesia is not supported by any credible methodological study.

"The evidence is pretty clear and mounting that people do not 'forget,' repress, or dissociate memories of especially traumatic events," says social psychologist Carol Tavris. "The more severe and repeated, the more memorable. People can and do forget upsetting events they try not to think about, but that's normal -- just as when you go back to a high school reunion and suddenly remember embarrassing things you hadn't thought about in years."

A majority of mental-health professionals believe that in most -- perhaps all -- cases of supposed recovered memory, the shards of information bobbing to the surface are not recollections of actual events, but fantasies shaped by external stimuli -- usually in therapy, where therapist and patient can become coauthors of fictional narratives masquerading as fact. Bogus memories can emerge from therapeutic techniques like visualization, guided imagery, drug-induced age regression, EMDR, or hypnosis. In 1993, the American Psychiatric Association warned its members to be wary of pseudo-memories confabulated in treatment.

In the late '80s and early '90s, about half the United States nevertheless expanded their statutes of limitation on sex offenses to allow for the recovery of abuse memories years after the fact. Alleged victims had -- and continue to have -- considerable input into the drafting of new, draconian sex-offender legislation. In addition to precipitating criminal prosecutions, recovered-memory claims have spawned hundreds of lawsuits aimed at family members, clergymen, teachers, camp counselors, youth facilities, churches, and schools.

Repressed-memory therapy (RMT) began spreading in 1987 and peaked five years later, when studies showed that one fourth of American mental-health counselors practiced it. By 1995, as more and more clinicians and journalists questioned its reliability, the practice had fallen into disrepute.

Now, as fresh claims of recovered memories of abuse gain currency in the press and among law enforcement officials, a concept that many observers thought had been laid to rest is regaining acceptance.

"Once an idea [like recovered memory] enters the cultural mainstream," wrote Mark Pendergrast in Victims of Memory (1995), "it has a way of resurfacing like a bloated corpse every few years."

In a recent article, Pendergrast observes that "the corpse is rising again."

From pulp fiction to the TV news

Belief in traumatic amnesia is nurtured by a deeply rooted cultural affinity for magic thinking. The allure of RMT may also come from a need to pinpoint a single confrontable cause for one's inner problems.

"People often look for simple answers and fixes where there are none," says Pamela Freyd, Executive Director of FMSF.

Simple answers abounded in Michelle Remembers, a pulp-nonfiction exposé published in 1980 by Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith. The book, a trash landmark, popularized not merely the notion of repressed memory, but belief in widespread Satanist activity including ritualistic torture of children. Pazder, a Canadian psychiatrist, nudged Michelle, his patient, through the gory details of a story that supposedly began in the 1950s when her mother sold five-year-old Michelle to a band of devil worshippers.

"Her deeply buried memories, virtually untouched for 22 years, surfaced with a purity that is a phenomenon in itself," wrote Pazder.

What Michelle remembered with such purity included lying at the bottom of a hole while cult members pelted her with dead kittens, being tied to a stepladder and covered with spiders, witnessing baby slaughter, having dead babies shoved between her legs, and other Satanic outrages.

Michelle Smith and other "survivors" of Satanist horrors became heroes of a burgeoning abuse industry. Though Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) survivors were regarded as front-rank über-victims, the industry also embraced individuals who had experienced, or thought they had experienced, garden-variety sexual abuse.

The growing movement quickly acquired celebrity spokespersons like Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, Miss America of 1958, who swears that at age 24 she recovered memories of 13 years of sexual assault by her father. It spawned countless ad hoc support groups, as well as organizations like the International Council on Cultism and Ritual Trauma , and Citizens Against Child Abuse (CACA).

Gloria Steinem's Ms. magazine defended notions of recovered memory and SRA through the '90s.

(When Satanist conspiracies were thoroughly debunked, SRA became Sadistic Ritual Abuse in the pages of Ms.)

Talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey have encouraged belief in RMT and all the junk-science trappings of the recovery movement. Former sitcom star Roseanne says she has retrieved recollections of early childhood abuse by her mother.

In her autobiography Call Me Crazy, Anne Heche, the ex-partner of lesbian comic Ellen DeGeneres, discusses her recovered memories of sexual abuse by her closeted gay father, claiming the trauma gave her multiple personalities. Tabloid television serves up guests who have accessed memories of past lives where they were ravaged by Visigoths, or of medical exams aboard alien spacecraft where they were forced to endure the ever-popular anal probe.

Repressed memory is promoted by supermarket self-help books, best-selling novels like Andrew Greeley's Fall from Grace, and literary fiction like Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. But the publication that has most egregiously disseminated belief in repressed memory is The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. Now in its third edition, The Courage to Heal has sold more than a million copies. It shares a shelf with a smorgasbord of abuse books endorsing RMT: E. Sue Blume's Secret Survivors, which offers an "Incest Survivors' After-effects Checklist," Fred and Florence Littauer's Freeing Your Mind from Memories That Bind, and many more.

One frustrated anti-RMT activist compares debates with repressed-memory adherents to "arguing the divinity of Christ with Southern Baptists." In fact, fundamentalist Christianity and RMT can intersect.

In Olympia, Washington in 1991, deputy sheriff Paul Ingram's two teenage daughters "recovered" memories of sexual abuse by their father with the help of a Christian counselor from the Church of Living Water. Ingram, who began putting forth recovered-memory tales of his own, was convicted of abusing his children and remains in prison.

Tom Wright, a former Sunday school teacher at Faith Baptist Church in North Yarmouth, Maine, was luckier. Last April, Wright was charged with molesting several church members. Charges were dropped when the allegations were traced back to "theophostic" therapy sessions with a pastor who enlists the aid of Christ in recovering traumatic memories.

Secular therapists have done more damage, however. Psychotherapeutic counselors ranging from fully credentialed psychiatrists to self-appointed psychic healers, representing a range of techniques, philosophies, and educational backgrounds, have bought into RMT.

Disciples of Judith Herman, who compares sexual abuse to the Holocaust, routinely impart to patients the ideas

that recovered memories are almost always real;

that silence or denial by the accused abuser proves guilt as surely as confession;

that actual corroborating evidence isn't needed;

that skepticism sabotages healing;

that an instance of abusive sex defines one's life;

and that sex abuse is omnipresent and always horrific.

In abuse culture, an unwanted pat on the butt seems a graver offense than a punch in the face. True believers in repressed memory seem to suggest that while human beings can remember surviving mass executions by the Khmer Rouge, being groped by Father Monahan is just too awful to recall.

Fighting back

Late in 1991, several devastated families and concerned mental-health professionals from the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins met in Philadelphia to compare notes and share information about RMT. Their discussions led to the creation of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in March 1992. FMSF is now a 501(c)(3) organization that holds conferences, publishes a newsletter, and fights false accusations in public forums and in court.

The Courage to Heal bluntly states, "There is no such thing as false memory syndrome." False memory syndrome does not appear in DSM-IV, but the term false memory has been familiar to psychologists for decades. Its occurrence is being studied by researchers worldwide. False memory syndrome (FMS) has gained enough currency to appear in dictionaries; the Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary defines it as

"a psychological condition in which a person remembers events that have not actually occurred."

Around the time FMSF was established, the tide appeared to be turning against diagnoses of dissociative disorders and the sex-abuse accusations they engender. In 1991, a groundbreaking article in Harper's attacked "victim culture;" Mother Jones exposed the Ingram case.

In January 1993, an essay by Carol Tavris called "Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine" appeared in the New York Times Book Review. Later that year, broadcast journalists like Frontline's Ofra Bikel began casting a critical eye on abuse convictions.

There was also progress in the courts. In 1994, Gary Ramona, a California wine executive, successfully sued therapists who had convinced his daughter Holly that he had incestuously abused her. In 1995, US District Judge D. Lowell Jenson overturned the 1991 murder conviction of California firefighter George Franklin, whose daughter Eileen had sworn that in 1969 she had seen him kill one of her playmates-- and then repressed the memory for two decades.

In 1997, Lynn Carl was awarded a $5.8 million settlement after convincing a Texas jury that her therapists had deliberately worsened her condition to prolong expensive treatment sessions covered by her health insurance.

(In 1991, after Carl sought help for depression at Spring Shadows Glen, a Houston mental-health clinic, therapist Judith Peterson and others convinced her that repressed memories of Satanic abuse had split her psyche into 500 distinct personalities.)

The following year, MPD patient Patricia Burgus won a $10.6 million judgment in a suit against Chicago's Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital, psychiatrist Eva Poznaski, and Bennett Braun, founder of the International Society for the Study of Dissociation. Dr. Braun later forfeited his license to practice medicine.

Deep roots

Braun's ideas echo those of the 19th century French alienist Jean-Martin Charcot, who experimented on "hysterics" with hypnosis and explored the symptomology brought on by psychic trauma, and his disciple Pierre Janet, who first postulated the idea of dissociated memory.

Charcot's pupil Sigmund Freud, whose theories came to dominate psychotherapy, used hypnosis to help his patients summon forth apparent memories of sexual abuse. Freud originally believed that his patients' therapy-elicited tales of childhood sex experiences were entirely true, and that hysteria in women was typically caused by repressed awareness of paternal seduction. He later abandoned belief in the literal truth of repressed memories, reinterpreting his patients' sexual "memories" as largely symbolic. This shift in Freud's thought has made him anathema in certain therapeutic circles; it inspired a campaign by Gloria Steinem and others to shut down a Freud exhibit planned by the Smithsonian in 1994.

Testing the concept

Others believe that once Freud changed his mind, he was on the right track. In his 1994 account of the Ingram family's ordeal, Remembering Satan, Lawrence Wright suggests that pseudo-memories produced in RMT reveal

"the sexual power that underlies the dynamics of the family, and the anger that accumulates and gradually replaces the unrequited love of a needy child for an unavailable parent.
Seen in this way, the Ingram case becomes a vivid illustration of exactly why Freud abandoned the seduction theory in favor of the Oedipus complex."

Post-Freudian memory research indicates the existence of implicit memory, unconscious recollection that can influence behavior. For some of its adherents, RMT provides a bridge from implicit memory to conscious awareness. But memory is neither trustworthy nor stable.

In The Seven Sins of Memory, psychologist Daniel Schacter suggests that

"memory's malfunctions can be divided into seven fundamental transgressions":

transience (decay of memory over time),

absentmindedness (mislaid car-key syndrome),

blocking (failure to remember a familiar name),



suggestibility, and


The pitfall most commonly involved in "recovered" memory is suggestibility.

Despite its ensconcement in DSM-IV, scientific proof of dissociative amnesia is hard to obtain.

In 1987, Judith Herman collaborated with Emily Schatzow on a study that believers in memory repression still cite as proof. Their findings, based on group therapy sessions with 53 women, were published in the Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychology as "Recovery and Verification of Memories of Childhood Sexual Trauma." Only 15 of their subjects actually had what the researchers call "severe memory deficit." Less than half that number was able to offer evidence corroborating their abuse narratives; none of that evidence was verified by Herman and Schatzow.

Studies that discredit dissociative amnesia are more convincing. Forensic memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, cited by the Review of General Psychology as one of the top 100 psychologists of the 20th century, has produced compelling evidence that memory is far more malleable than most people suppose. In experiments where she has led subjects into believing fabricated childhood experiences like being lost in a shopping mall, and elicited false descriptions of major details in pictures and films, Loftus has established the ease with which memory can be manipulated and pseudo-memories can be implanted.

Her work, as she describes it in The Myth of Repressed Memory, has created a "new paradigm of memory," replacing the "video-recorder model" with one "in which memories are understood as creative blendings of fact and fiction." A frequent expert witness in court proceedings, Loftus is also a frequent recipient of threatening hate mail.

Never has she provoked more wrath than through her critique of David Corwin's "Jane Doe" study. Corwin's 1997 piece in the professional journal Child Maltreatment recounts the case of a woman who seemingly recovered memories of digital rape and other abuse by her mother. Corwin's article has been touted as irrefutable proof of dissociated memory. Jane Doe, videotaped at age six, appeared to disclose abusive incidents. Videotaped at age 17, she seemed not to remember the abuse, and then to recall it. Corwin claims to have corroborated the abuse.

Loftus and behavioral psychologist Melvin Guyer dismantled Corwin's findings, showing that Jane, the object of a contentious custody battle, was not spontaneously disclosing abuse in her original interview. They determined that Jane's answers were molded by her guardians and interviewers, that she had mentioned the abuse allegations repeatedly during the years between interviews, and that Corwin's "corroboration" was his own unreliable clinical assessment.

Victims' rights advocates and diehard RMT practitioners mobilized against Loftus and Guyer, precipitating ethics investigations. The University of Washington's Office of Scientific Inquiry seized Loftus's files. Cleared of charges of professional misconduct, Loftus protested her treatment by leaving the University of Washington after 29 years to teach at UC Irvine.

The Corwin study has lately been a favorite tool of prosecutors seeking to banish doubt about the accuracy of recovered memory. Its demolition increases hope that the number of jurisdictions in which repressed-memory evidence is inadmissible will grow. The Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled against allowing presentation of such evidence; in Texas, New Hampshire, and other states, its admissibility is limited.

This has not stopped zealous prosecutors -- backed by supportive media like the Boston Globe -- from pursuing recovered-memory prosecutions.

In Boston, the Paul Shanley case is a project of DA Martha Coakley, who built a career on her prosecution of Lowell, Massachusetts, grandparents Ray and Shirley Souza, freed last May after nine years' house arrest on trumped-up abuse charges hatched in therapy. As the Shanley case moves forward, similar cases loom around the country.

In Louisiana, the recovered-memory case against Father Gerald Prinz seems headed for the state supreme court.
A repressed-memory molestation case in Worcester, Massachusetts, was recently thrown out of court because it failed a statute of limitations test, not because its premise was discounted.

"It's as if the battle that we fought over false memory syndrome never happened," says FMSF New England representative Frank Kane.

The current wave of accusations against Roman Catholic priests has created a positive-feedback loop in which public and media feed each other's appetites for abuse, abuse, and more abuse. Among the instigators and beneficiaries of such sex-panic witch hunts are psychotherapists who gain wealth and respect from convincing fragile individuals that their discontents can be attributed to unremembered abuse, or that remembered sexual incidents not previously perceived as abusive amounted, in fact, to rape. As Ethan Watters and Richard Ofshe note in Therapy's Delusions, the psychotherapeutic profession has no

"internal mechanisms with which to stem the spread of ... unproven, dangerous techniques among its membership,"
and almost no regulatory oversight.

Almost anyone can call himself a therapist, solicit patients, and lead them down the path to pseudo-remembrance. But quacks are easily discredited. In the memory wars, the most culpable combatants can be found at the high end of psychotherapy.

Psychiatrists like Judith Herman, Bennett Braun, Lenore Terr and others, formulating scientific rationales for paranoid, erotophobic visions of life and society, have imparted prestige and credibility to the modern equivalent of snake oil.

"When caught up by the social suppositions of their time," wrote Paul McHugh in a 1992 issue of American Scholar, "psychiatrists can do much harm."

Editor's Note:

Read clinical psychologist Michael G. Conner's critique of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) at:

The homepage of Courage to Heal coauthor Ellen Bass, with poetry from her 2001 collection Mules of Love (including "Tulip Blossom," a loving tribute to her son's anus), can be found at:

Courage to Heal coauthor Laura Davis's homepage is at:

The text of an appendix to Ethan Watters and Richard Ofshe's Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, in which the authors discuss three key studies purporting to prove recovered memory, can be found at:

The full text of Elizabeth Loftus and Melvin Guyer's "Who Abused Jane Doe?" as published in the May/June and July/August issues of The Skeptical Inquirer. 

Read "The High Cost of Skepticism," an article by Carol Tavris describing efforts to suppress Loftus and Guyer's findings in the Jane Doe case.

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