The widely debunked concept of repressed memories has been rebranded as traumatic dissociation.
The widely debunked concept of repressed memories has been rebranded as "traumatic dissociation." metamorworks/Getty Images

In 1983, a 26-year-old woman named Nancy Tyson took her father to court in Washington state. Tyson claimed that her father, Dwayne Tyson, had sexually abused her on a regular basis when she was between the ages of three and 11, and that she had been so traumatized that she blocked out all memory of it. It wasn’t until she started going to therapy as an adult that she’d remembered what had taken place.

Nancy Tyson wanted to sue her father for damages, but there was a problem: The statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse was, at the time, just three years after an alleged assault or the victim turned 18, and she was well past both.

Tyson v. Tyson went all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court, but the court did not rule in Nancy’s favor: The majority decided that the potential adverse effects on the state judicial system—as well as the lack of empirical evidence supporting her claims—were serious enough side with the defendant.

Two years later, however, the Washington State Legislature did what the court refused to do, and passed a law revising the statute of limitations: Instead of requiring suits to be filed within three years of the alleged crime or the victim turning 18, now the statute of limitations would be expanded to three years after the victim discovered or remembered it. It was the first state in the nation to do this, but others would soon follow suit.

Nancy Tyson was one of tens of thousands of adults and children who claimed to remember horrific physical or sexual abuse after undergoing psychiatric counseling. Many of these cases have become famous: In 1995, for instance, 43 adults in Wenatchee, Washington, were arrested on 29,726 charges of child sexual abuse involving 60 children. Parents and Sunday school teachers were accused of participating in an organized sex abuse ring called "The Circle," where they passed children around at sex parties and church events. After the allegations were made, children were taken from their families and placed into foster care, and in all, 18 people went to prison.

The problem was, it wasn’t true, and later, after law students and faculty at the University of Washington Innocence Project Northwest took up the case, all the verdicts were overturned or the charges reduced. This saga is now remembered as the “Wenatchee witch hunt,” and it’s not the only case of “repressed memories” gone wrong in Washington state.

In another famous case, Paul Ingram, a deputy in the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department and chair of the county Republican Party, was accused by his daughters of molestation. The family were members of a Pentecostal church that preached the idea that Satan could take over peoples’ minds, force them to commit unspeakable crimes, and then wipe all traces from their memories. Ingram’s children accused a number of their father's colleagues in the Sheriff’s Office of partaking in hundreds of satanic rituals and of murdering 25 babies. One of Ingram’s daughters said she’d gotten pregnant and caught an STD from her dad—claims later disproved by a physician.

All the accused were eventually cleared of charges except for Ingram, who quickly admitted his guilt when questioned by law enforcement. He couldn’t remember abusing his daughters or anyone else, so, he thought, he must have repressed it. He later recanted his confession but still spent 10 years in prison.

Stories like this happened all over the country through the ‘80s and ‘90s as people reported memories of just-recalled abuse. Some said they were kidnapped, tortured, and raped by satanic cult members who stole into their childhood bedrooms at night and whisked them away to secret locations. They were so traumatized by these events that they forget they even occurred and were only able to access them, years later, through therapy.

The roots of the “repressed memories” movement is often credited to Sigmund Freud, who was influenced by the hypnotists of his era. Freud believed that the aim of psychoanalysis was to make the unconscious conscious. Many clinicians specializing in repressed memories claimed to do just that, arguing that recovering the repressed trauma is necessary for the patient to find relief from it. Like many of Freud’s theories, this was more based on his imagination than empirical evidence, but the concept has persisted through time.

In 1973, the idea of repressed memories became popularized with the publication of Sybil, a “nonfiction” book by journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber. Schreiber claimed that under psychiatric treatment, a patient whom she called Sybil recalled severe abuse by her mother, abuse that later manifested as 16 different personalities that all lived within her. The book sold over 400,000 copies and was later made into a movie, bringing the idea of both multiple personality disorder, and repressed memories, into pop culture.

Sybil was later reinvestigated by journalist Debbie Nathan, who concluded that most of the story was based on lies. But the book sparked an industry. Therapists all over the country began to specialize in this treatment, and more and more books and articles were published legitimizing wild, outlandish stories of abuse.

Michelle Remembers, for instance, a 1980 memoir written by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist-turned-husband Lawrence Padzer, detailed memories that Smith “recovered” while under Padzer’s care. Smith had initially gone to Padzer for treatment for depression after a miscarriage, but over the course of treatment, which included over 600 hours of hypnosis, Smith began recalling what she thought were repressed memories from her childhood. She said that she had been tortured and raped, made to drink blood, had witnessed murders, and that she was forced into a car with a human corpse—a car that was intentionally crashed. Smith said her torturers, which included her mother, were members of a satanic cult that performed rituals to summon the devil himself. The cover of Michelle Remembers shows a young girl in a blue dress, holding a baby doll and surrounded by candles. Above her, a devilish face with pointed ears looks down, cackling. The book, which was used in social work training programs, became a best-seller.

After publication, Padzer became famous. He was considered the expert in the phenomenon of recovered memories, and he appeared on 20/20, where he talked about satanic cults that he said where infiltrating previously quiet communities all over. He lectured to law enforcement, took part in seminars on satanic ritual abuse, testified in court, and, by the end of the decade, claimed to have consulted in over 1,000 cases involving recovered memories of ritual abuse. The media ate it up, as did many social workers, clergy members, and feminists, including Gloria Steinem: A 1993 cover of Ms. Magazine showed a baby being swaddled in a serpent’s tail. The text on the cover reads: “BELIEVE IT! Cult Ritual Abuse Exists.”

The problem is, it didn’t. The FBI investigated and found there were no cults terrorizing American suburbs at night and no teenage mom being force-fed their own babies and then forgetting about it by the time the school bus came the next day. In 1992, the Department of Justice concluded that widespread ritualistic satanic sex abuse cults were a myth. Eventually, many of the criminal cases were overturned and lawsuits were filed against the therapists and police departments who investigated them. The psychological establishment went through quite a reckoning, and after much research and internal debate, the entire concept of “repressed memories” was largely debunked. This episode went down in history as a moral panic, not that different from the Salem Witch Trials or the persistent idea that Halloween candy is regularly laced with poison or razor blades.

And yet, not that many years after the repressed memory craze has ended, it’s coming back. The terms have been updated: Today, “repressed memories” are called “traumatic dissociation,” but the concept is the same, and a new review of the research published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science found that 76 percent of clinical psychologists believe traumatic memories can be blocked for many years and then recalled later on, a rate that has grown since the so-called "Memory Wars" of the 1990s. They also found high rates of belief among law enforcement personnel, judges, and jurors. In fact, laypeople were actually less likely to believe in this concept than psychologists and other clinicians. The group least likely to believe it? Scientists working in the field of memory.

One of the more well-known skeptics of repressed memories is Elizabeth Loftus, a former professor at the University of Washington (her time at UW is a story in itself) and a co-author of this latest study. (Loftus also developed the "lost in the mall" experiment, which demonstrates how easily false memories can be implanted. Basically, if you tell people they were lost in the mall as children, they tend to "remember" it, even if the event never happened.)

Today, Loftus serves as an expert witness in abuse cases, and I spoke to her a few months ago, before this latest paper came out. “We've pretty much demolished the idea of mass repression as having any credible scientific support,” she told me. “So what the clinicians did to try to sell the idea is, they started calling it ‘dissociation.’ You can't really say there's no credible evidence against ‘dissociation’ because it's an umbrella term that includes many phenomena that do exist, things like thinking, ‘Oh my god, I can't remember if I shut the garage before I left.’ But I don't care what you call it. Show me any proof that you can be raped for years and be completely unaware of it and reliably recover it later. Just show me the scientific evidence.”

Loftus maintains that memory doesn’t work that way. Instead, she argues, trauma tends to be seared into the memory, and while memories are malleable and can be easily manipulated, evidence suggests that people do tend to remember traumatic, life-changing events.

“The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry,” wrote Harvard psychologist Richard McNally in a letter to the Supreme Court when it was hearing a case that stemmed from recovered memories in 2005. “It has provided the theoretical basis for ‘recovered memory therapy’—the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”

And yet, not only do therapists continue to treat people for “traumatic dissociation” (including at least one of the children who accused Jerry Sandusky of abuse) it’s also coming back in media and popular culture. In December 2018, a few months after Christine Blasey Ford testified against Supreme Court Justice Bret Kavanaugh in Congress, Cosmopolitan published an article about “Zoe,” a woman who claims to have been raped and remembered it years later. The author’s only acknowledgment that the entire concept of repressed memories has been debunked is captured in one parenthetical: “(the term ‘repressed memories’ is controversial among psychologists).” She goes on to define it as “a form of dissociative amnesia, a disorder in which a patient doesn’t actively remember something traumatic that happened to them, usually because they detached mentally during the event as a coping mechanism.”

According to Loftus and others, this is just repressed memories, updated and rebranded for the current era. And there is real danger to this: As we saw during the last repressed memory craze, believing allegations without evidence can, has, and will ruin lives. The psychological establishment, as well as victims’ advocates and the press, would do well to remember the past and work to prevent it from taking hold once again.