The Forgotten Lessons of the Recovered Memory Movement
Most students in psychology and psychiatry programs today are too young to have any firsthand memory of the moral panic engendered by the recovered memory movement in the 1980s and early 1990s. This was a time when therapists proudly advertised their ability to help clients unearth supposedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse; the accusations that followed shattered families and communities across the country.
The belief that such memories could be repressed and then recovered through special techniques was widespread among mental health professionals for well over a decade. In books and on television, therapists portrayed themselves as the first generation of healers to understand both these mechanisms of repression and how to unlock them without contaminating the story that emerged. The results were dramatic: Patients often recovered abuse memories that began in infancy and lasted for decades. Some came to believe not only that they had repressed memories but also that their minds had fractured into many personalities to manage the pain and betrayal.
With a few decades’ perspective, it’s clear this level of confidence led to disastrous results. In 2005 a Harvard psychology professor, Richard McNally, called the recovered memory movement “the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”
At the height of the controversy in 1994, I co-wrote a book, “Making Monsters,” on the topic with the sociologist Richard Ofshe. In writing it, we hoped to help stop the practice that was harming so many. We also wanted to create a historical record that might help prevent the profession from going down another rabbit hole.
Just what happened to lead so many well-intentioned people down such a road is not a simple story. Understanding the power of recovered memory therapy requires an examination not just of the memory retrieval techniques used by individual therapists but also of how the movement created a tide of popular belief that bordered on mass hysteria. Recovered memory stories were, for a time, pervasive and inescapable. These stories influenced both patients and therapists as they hunted for hidden histories of abuse.
Considering the speed at which ideas spread on the internet and social media, a deep understanding of how cultural trends and psychology interact is more important than ever. We tend not to want to believe that we or our healers are susceptible to social contagions — which is why the recovered memory movement remains a cautionary tale with much to teach us.
The seeds of recovered memory therapy were planted in the 1970s, as the women’s rights movement brought attention to the subject of sexual abuse. As women began to fill academic and clinical positions, the topics of incest and child sexual exploitation began appearing in scholarly and popular books. The public reckoning revealed that child sexual abuse was far from uncommon and that these horrors had been largely dismissed or ignored for centuries.
Some writers at the time argued that public attention on the topic had unlocked the ability of individuals to recover their abuse memories. “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness,” wrote Dr. Judith Herman in her book “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.” She argued that the human mind could hold trauma memories in its consciousness only with the support of “political movements that give voice to the disempowered.” If the personal is political, as the popular slogan had it, it made a kind of sense that individuals might have repressed their memories, in the same way society had long repressed collective awareness.
In step with these new ideas, therapists of the time reanimated an early Freudian theory that repressed early experiences of sexual abuse were the root cause of all hysterical symptoms. Freud had subsequently pivoted to argue that symptoms came not from repressed memories but from repressed sexual fantasies — but Dr. Herman and others argued that Freud was right the first time.
What happened during recovered memory therapy sessions is no mystery. Therapists candidly revealed their techniques in books, conference speeches and academic papers and on daytime television talk shows. The process of hunting for abuse memories and overcoming the patient’s “denial” was not a subtle one.
Therapists used relaxation exercises, age regression, dream interpretation, psychodrama, sodium amytal and hypnosis to help clients visualize abuse. All of these techniques, we know now, are much more likely to distort memory than to enhance recall. Still, it is hard to believe that these tactics alone could have persuaded so many people to rewrite the histories of their childhoods so dramatically; what is often underappreciated is that much of the belief-building power of recovered memory therapy came from outside the consultation room.
In the late 1980s, self-help aisles began to fill with books about recovered memory therapy, written mainly by therapists or former patients. This small publishing boom took off with the 1988 success of “The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse” by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. They were not mental health professionals, but they reflected the certainties of the movement. “So far, no one we’ve talked to thought she might have been abused and then later discovered that she hadn’t been,” they wrote. “The progression always goes the other way, from suspicion to confirmation.”
Lists of the symptoms that supposedly indicated repressed abuse often went on for pages in these texts. E. Sue Blume’s book “Secret Survivors” listed over 70 symptoms indicative of repressed abuse. The psychologist Renee Fredrickson’s book “Repressed Memories” describes over 60. Do you have trouble trusting your intuition? Do you neglect your teeth? Have joint pain? Do certain foods nauseate you? Do you sometimes space out or daydream? If you have some of these warning signals, “you probably do have repressed memories,” wrote Dr. Fredrickson. In their books and papers, therapists described themselves as clever detectives searching patients’ lives for unexplained emotional responses or feelings, which might be the first sign of hidden pasts.
While it often took weeks or months, by all accounts, the therapists were remarkably successful at convincing patients that their minds had hidden horrible abuse memories. The most effective methods appeared to be hypnosis, relaxation exercises and other semitrance states. When the scenes finally surfaced, they were nothing like normal memories of childhood. Therapists expected patients to experience supposedly repressed abuse scenes as if they were living through the experience in real time. Patients “may re-experience the events quite vividly,” wrote one therapist in the journal Women & Therapy. “Physical responses such as vomiting, incontinence or fainting will sometimes occur.” The intensity of the emotional abreactions, as they were termed, often convinced the therapist and the patients of the validity of the recovered memories.
For memory experts like the psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus, the type of recall being described by recovered memory therapists seemed wholly new. Researchers had documented how people experiencing fear or panic will often have diminished or imperfect recall of a disturbing event. They also knew that people can be motivated not to think about a distressing memory and that they could recall an incident from childhood and realize, as an adult, it was sexual abuse.
But these and many other forms of memory distortions were nothing like the repression being described. Therapists across the country were suddenly certain that horrendous and repeated abuse could instantaneously be walled away in the unconscious, where it would remain inaccessible for decades, until unlocked in therapy and re-experienced with perfect clarity. For Dr. Loftus and others, there was simply no support in the scientific literature or in all the historical stories of human suffering that supported this type of repression and retrieval.
It was partly because of its novelty that stories about recovered memory therapy were, for a time, everywhere in popular culture. Recovered memory therapists became go-to guests on daytime television talk shows. Well-known celebrities came out to tell their stories of recovering memories of abuse. Promoters of recovered memory therapy held regional and national conferences; states changed their statute of limitation laws to allow for criminal prosecutions based on repressed memories. The movement rode a tide of public belief that therapists helped create.
That popular culture influenced what happened in therapy is clear. Recovered memory therapists themselves recognized that abuse beliefs were, to a degree, contagious. One therapist recommended that patients struggling to uncover memories should continually expose themselves to stories of incest and abuse by reading articles and popular books, attending lectures and seeing movies on the topic.
Pop culture also seemed to drive two of the more incredible outgrowths of the movement: the precipitous rise of multiple personality disorder and the widespread belief that satanic cults were abusing children on an industrial scale. Two best-selling books, “Sybil,” published in 1973, and “Michelle Remembers,” published in 1980, were critical in stoking public interest. Both books tell supposedly true stories of therapists helping their patients recover memories during therapy. Both were later thoroughly debunked — but not until long after they had their impact.
“Sybil,” which was made into a TV movie in 1976, introduced many Americans to multiple personality disorder — the idea that abuse could cause the psyche to split into many personalities. Before “Sybil,” a handful of split personality cases existed in the medical literature. By the early 1990s, multiple personality clinics could be found across the country, for a disorder that the Cleveland Clinic today describes as very rare, affecting just 0.01 to 1 percent of the population. Over 40,000 patients, by one estimate, had come out of therapy believing they had many individual personalities.
Stories of satanic cults have arisen in different times and places for over a millennium, but “Michelle Remembers” gets credit for kicking off the particular hysteria that struck the 1980s. The book describes the treatment of Michelle Smith, who recovered memories of being held captive in cages filled with snakes and witnessing the butchering of kittens and stillborn babies.
The popularity of “Michelle Remembers” was a precursor to hundreds of stories that began popping up across the country about day cares and preschools suspected of harboring Satan-worshiping child abusers. In a parallel development, patients in recovered memory therapy began to “recover” stories of satanic abuse from their childhoods. These types of memories were far from uncommon: One survey of clinicians taken in 1994revealed that 13 percent reported seeing at least one case of a patient remembering ritualistic abuse. Thousands of patients described truly incredible scenes of ritual murders, cannibalization, gang rapes and forced pregnancies.
For quite a long time, there was a broad consensus in popular opinion that memories recovered in therapy — including the outlandish satanic cult tales — were true. Nearly a decade after the publication of “Michelle Remembers,” Ms. Smith appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show. Her stories of torture and human sacrifice were portrayed by the host as if they were indisputable facts.
Other prominent believers in the validity of recovered memories and satanic ritual abuse ranged from the feminist icon Gloria Steinem to the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson to the talk show host Geraldo Rivera. In 1993, Ms. magazine published a cover story with the warning “Believe it! Cult ritual abuse exists.” These prominent and well-respected public figures were seemingly convinced that an international cult of satanic child abusers would soon be fully exposed.
We’ll never know how many people experienced recovered memory therapy. However, a 2017 poll of adults in the United States conducted by the psychology professor Lawrence Patihis and the author Mark Pendergrast provides some clues. They found that 20 percent of people they surveyed who went to treatment sometime in the past five decades reported being treated by therapists who suggested the possibility that the client had repressed memories of abuse.
Whatever the actual number of patients who came to believe they had unearthed repressed memories, it would drastically understate the number of people affected. Parents, relatives and other accused parties were expected to confess or be shunned. Criminal and civil litigation based on recovered memories tore apart families and sometimes whole communities.
How could the mental health profession have had such a catastrophic misadventure?
Across history, patients have shown themselves willing to adopt their healers’ beliefs and manifest expected symptoms accordingly. Doctors and other health professionals can unwittingly engage in what’s been called symptom amplification by focusing on and legitimizing certain symptoms and ideas and ignoring others. Through this process, cultures develop what the historian Edward Shorter calls “symptom pools” — behaviors that healers at a given time and place understand to be a legitimate communication of suffering.
Healers have always been key players in identifying and broadcasting which symptoms or beliefs are valid, creating an interplay among themselves, their patients and the culture at large. The philosopher Ian Hacking calls this the “looping effect” — the process by which emotional distress or unusual sensations are shaped and channeled by social reactions and diagnostic labeling, which, in turn, dramatically affect the course and expression of the illness.
With historical distance, it’s easier to see how this process works. In the 1880s, Jean-Martin Charcot, the leading neurologist of his day, became world famous for the regular performances he held with his hysterical patients. For audiences of other doctors, he had his patients demonstrate the dramatic symptoms of the disorder, including fainting, muscle spasms and semierotic convulsions.
With his prominence in the profession and his gift of showmanship, he deeply impressed other learned men — including the young Sigmund Freud, who idolized Charcot. As more and more healers spread their certainties about hysteria through culture, more and more patients showed up in treatment consciously or unconsciously predisposed to express their distress through those well-known symptoms. Hysteria reigned for several decades as the quintessential mental health malady across Europe and America; a generation later, hysteria in its 19th-century configuration had essentially vanished from the symptom pool.
It’s important to remember that people seeking therapy are a vulnerable population, often entering treatment because they’ve lost a sense of coherence and are looking for a compelling narrative to express their inner turmoil. The troubled human mind appears uniquely attuned to clues from social settings, mirroring behaviors, feelings and beliefs with little or no conscious awareness. In her 2021 book “The Sleeping Beauties,” the neurologist Dr. Suzanne O’Sullivan wrote compellingly of immigrant children falling into comalike states and groups of young women experiencing seizures without organic cause. Her insights into the connection between culture and these unique symptoms of psychopathology are trenchant. “We embody narratives,” she explained. “Some are told to us by powerful people — doctors, politicians, activists, public figures, celebrities.” She continued, “If a model for illness is vivid enough and the basis for the illness is sufficiently salient, it is easily internalized by the individual and then passed from person to person.”
The recovered memory narrative, along with multiple personality disorder, became, for a time, one of those compelling and socially contagious models for illness. Healers, politicians, activists and celebrities were all involved in making the story salient and legitimate. The cultural currents they collectively created were strong.
Sometimes, as with the populations Dr. O’Sullivan studies, cultural influences on patients’ symptoms are entirely unconscious, and the vectors of the contagion are difficult to identify. But the impact of cultural beliefs on the rise of recovered memory therapy is simply impossible to ignore. The process that recovered memory therapists describe in their books was the looping effect on steroids. Patients beganwith vague symptoms of distress and endedup with a compelling story of why they were unhappy — a story that was embraced and promoted in both the mental health profession and popular culture. In the end, the patients hadnew memories, a new designation as a survivor and altered relationships with everyone in their lives. The transformation into a new identity — a new way of being — could hardly have been more dramatic.
But what motivated therapists to buy into recovered memory therapy? Certainly there was the competition for patients and the financial rewards of a treatment regimen that often lasted for years. But I think these reasons are secondary. The therapists’ writings from the period reveal their passion and zeal for the movement. This was a group of healers who believed that they not only had discovered the key to their patients’ suffering but also were exposing a hidden evil across society. The therapists, in short, were as caught up in the cultural currents as their patients.
Concepts like Dr. Hacking’s looping effect and Dr. Shorter’s symptom pools have never caught on in the West. Dr. O’Sullivan found few patients, caregivers or kin willing to entertain the idea that seizures, comalike states or other debilitating symptoms could be caused by something as ephemeral as cultural beliefs and social expectations. Americans, in particular, tend to reject the notion. We believe in the egocentric mind. We are captains of our own ship and abhor the idea that our most profound sense of self might be malleable to cultural forces outside our control.
Beginning around 1994, criticism of recovered memory therapy slowed the movement for a time. With a few notable exceptions, skeptics came from outside the mental health field. Critically, several feminist writers — including Carol Tavris, Wendy Kaminer, Elaine Showalter and Debbie Nathan — began questioning the satanic cult stories and the coercive techniques of recovered memory therapy. They all faced angry accusations that they were revictimizing abused women. When Dr. Tavris challenged some of the movement’s tenets in the pages of The New York Times Book Review, Ms. Blume, the author of “Secret Survivors,” responded that Dr. Tavris had taken the side of those who support molesters, rapists and pedophiles.
But the evidence for the harm done in therapy continued to pile up, and more people and institutions became skeptical. Courts began to reject testimony based on recovered memories as unreliable. Some former patients successfully sued their therapists after realizing they had been badly misled. Dissociative disorder units that specialized in recovered memories and multiple personality disorders were shut down. The stories of cult abuse became too incredible to be believed, and the satanic panic broke like a fever to go dormant for another generation.
Recovered memory therapists, for the most part, never admitted culpability. Some changed their focus from memory recovery, and others conveniently forgot how fervently they had embraced and promoted the trend. Some of the more dogmatic language in books like “The Courage to Heal” was modified in subsequent editions. For the leaders of the movement, however, there was little room for retreat. The idea that they had harmed those they had sought to help created too much cognitive dissonance for them to accept responsibility.
Unfortunately, many of the mistaken assumptions about memory and trauma remain part of popular culture. Among clinical psychologists, the belief that the unconscious mind can block out memories of trauma is commonplace. Memory researchers and scientists, for the most part, remain highly skeptical. In 2019 a group of seven memory scientists, including Dr. Loftus, concluded that therapists were still using techniques that had the potential for creating false memories and that the practice continued to pose a substantial risk, “potentially leading to false accusations and associated miscarriages of justice,” they wrote. While the so-called memory wars rage on over the issue of repression, clinicians and their professional organizations have largely “feigned forgetfulness” of the recovered memory movement’s excesses, as the author and psychology professor Richard Noll once wrote.
Recently, I spent an afternoon watching various TikTok channels under the hashtags #recoveredmemory and #dissociativeidentitydisorder. The ideas and themes I heard, mostly from young adults, were disturbingly familiar. Belief in memory repression and the idea that the mind can split into dozens of distinct personalities are alive and well. Across social networking sites, I also found a maelstrom of information, opinion and conversation about mental health topics, including Tourette’s syndrome, gender dysphoria, attention deficit disorder, self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety, depression and suicide. The internet as we know it didn’t exist during the rise of recovered memory therapy, but it is a powerful cultural force now and may be ground zero for the creation of new symptom pools, new looping effects andnew ways of being.
What takes place on social media will, no doubt, influence what develops during private therapy sessions. Effectively treating this new generation will require an understanding of how culture is once again shaping the symptoms of patients and the certainties of healers. Without that knowledge, mental health professionals will risk engendering new hysterias that they can neither control nor cure.
Ethan Watters is a co-author of “Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria” and the author of “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche.”
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