Recovered Memories, Forgotten Lessons, and Cloudy Skies

If you’re a certain age, and a New York Times reader, this piece may (or ought to have) caught your attention:

New York Times — September 27, 2022

The Forgotten Lessons of the Recovered Memory Movement

Mr. Watters is a journalist and author whose work focuses on psychiatry and social psychology

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.”

The effects of this “catastrophe” spread far beyond the mental health field. Many innocent people had their careers and lives ruined. Further, the moral panic planted and spread conspiracy theories, especially in fundamentalist and evangelical church groups, about vast networks of satanic cults kidnapping, breeding, torturing and murdering tens of thousands of children, and doing so, under the noses but somehow beyond the reach (or even protected by) police, the FBI/CIA, or liberal Democrats. As Watters recounts:

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.

Oprah: she was a believer.

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 1994 revealed 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.

Fortunately, what was eventually exposed was that, while child abuse was real enough, a vast satanic conspiracy was not behind it, and “recovered memories” were mainly coerced compliance with credulous adult fantasies masquerading as therapy or religion. Michelle Remembers , among other accounts, was extensively and effectively critiqued.

However, while the “moral panic” it produced soon subsided, like a latent virus, the notion of cult child kidnappers and cannibals never entirely disappeared. Abetted by social media, a new version of it, called Pizzagate, emerged in 2016 from the toxic mix of dark internet channels, social media, and rightwing conspiracy broadcasts such as Infowars. This time many allegations named Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as the center of a murderous child sex trafficking ring, which supposedly had a torture chamber hidden in the basement of an obscure Washington DC pizza parlor.

In December, 2016 a North Carolina man, Edgar Maddison Welch,  invaded the pizza parlor brandishing an AR-15 assault rifle, ostensibly to rescue child captives. Welch fired the weapon, but no one was injured, and he was arrested. The pizza parlor was “revealed” as having neither a basement, any captive children, nor evidence implicating Hillary Clinton.

Yet Pizzagate soon morphed into part of the melange of conspiratorial fantasies now known as QAnon, which are now becoming a prominent feature of the burgeoning neo-fascist insurgency. Watters does not speak of this connection directly, but the links seem plentiful and obvious:

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 . . . 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 began with vague symptoms of distress and ended up 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 had new 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.

Or, for many of us, more familiar, or more current: every day I read or hear people lamenting the drastic change that has come over relatives, friends, associates; and I lament such changes too; and agonize about their potential social /political outcomes.

I also have memories of my own:

In 1991, I reported on a case involving some British Quakers in the print predecessor of this blog. The house of a Quaker family living quietly on the Scottish isle of Orkney was suddenly invaded at dawn by police and child protection workers, their children seized from their beds and taken away, and the parents threatened with major legal charges, based entirely on unconfirmed allegations of being part of this intercontinental satanic child-abusing conspiracy. The full article is  online here. (No paywall.

Wikipedia also has a helpful summary of the case and its  lengthy aftermath here.
Can it happen again? It already has, a year ago in January at the Capitol and itssimmering toward another boil. Watters does not offer a facile. “How-To-Prevent-A-New-Panic (or Panics)” list. He notes that the exposure and discrediting of the recovered memory infestation was largely the work of reporters and detectives outside of the mental health field, who had not, pardon the expression,  drunk the kool-aid; it took years. And his conclusion is not upbeat:

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 . . . . 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 and new 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.

2 thoughts on “Recovered Memories, Forgotten Lessons, and Cloudy Skies”

  1. The magic cure is to teach critical thinking early on.
    As a mental health practitioner living in NY state at the time repressed memory retrieval was flourishing, I attended many workshops at prestigious institutions featuring examples of multiple personality disorder.
    While I don’t profess to have challenged them, neither did I jump on the therapeutic bandwagon. I’m not sure why, but in the back of my mind I questioned the widespread acceptance of horror stories, wondering how they could have escaped the attention of thinking adults.
    Maybe it was the influence of my skeptical mom, who used to say:”were you there, Charlie?” upon hearing a fishy tale.

  2. I, too, remember people harmed by these crazes. At some point I started wondering whether encouraging people to be “believers” in relatively benign supernatural elements may loosen a culture’s grasp on rationality and make its members susceptible to the effects of more destructive group fantasies.

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