In Part I, we saw that a questionable science claim—that memories of early childhood sexual abuse are often blacked out but can later be recovered via special techniques, including hypnosis—led to a moral panic. During the early 80s through to the mid-90s, the most sensational aspect of recovered memories therapy (RMT) was headline claims about satanic sexual abuse. Of course, many therapy clients accused male relatives in much more routine circumstances. Many broke off all connections with their families and some launched lawsuits or pressed charges.

Responding to the wave of concern, a number of American states passed laws waiving the statute of limitations on sexual abuse claims in recovered memory cases. That, of course, resulted in a significant increase in claims, cases, and settlements. Jurors tended to believe the memories, whether they were vague, vivid, or occult.

Meanwhile, researchers into human memory were troubled by the lack of science discipline. As cognitive scientist Elizabeth Loftus* points out,

One psychiatrist who has seen more than 200 severely dissociative patients explicitly referred to such anecdotes as “empirical observations lacking in scientific underpinnings”. One researcher described them as “impressionistic case studies” and claimed that they could not be counted as “anything more than unconfirmed clinical speculations”.

As well, hypnosis—a popular technique in the RMT field—has been found to increase confidence in memories more than accuracy.

At first, science-based doubt could not compete with the hype, any more than science-based doubt about “transgender tots”  today (more on that in Part III). But here are some doubts that, persistently advanced, resulted in the eventual discredit of RMT:

Some clients asserted that they had recovered memories of sexual abuse from very young ages, even one year old. But research has shown that few people remember any events at all before they are three years old.

Recovered memories therapists rarely showed a normal level of skepticism. They saw affirming the client’s perception as their job. Some even promoted the idea of early sexual abuse to the client. One problem was, if the client dreams of incest after having talked extensively with the therapist about it, is that recall or suggestion?

The therapists’ criteria tended to be vague: low self-esteem, self-destructive thoughts, and sexual dysfunction were cited, but these problems may have multiple origins.

Still, readers may well ask, how could the memories not be authentic, when so much suffering resulted? As researchers have demonstrated in numerous experiments, human memory is malleable and may incorporate events seen, heard, or read about as personal experiences.

For example, recollections of sexual satanic abuse that were not closely tied to religious communities might originate in the spate of films about the occult that followed the success of Rosemary’s Baby (1967). Bestsellers on childhood sexual abuse such as The Courage to Heal (1988) may have provided “scripts” for clients who sought some way of expressing their troubles with life.

No science-based researcher claims that the client is “lying” or “making it up.” She honestly attributes her suffering to an event, but it may be an event of doubtful certainty. The suffering is real, but the identified cause may not be. This is actually a common situation. We may assume that we have a medical disorder, from our reading on the internet, but personal medical tests may point to a quite different disorder.

Meanwhile, we have learned that even memories of traumatic events can alter. More than one-third of the people questioned about where they were when they heard of the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986 were “wildly inaccurate” when questioned three years later.

Admittedly, these people were not on the scene of the tragedy. But a 1992 study of eyewitnesses to the heart failure and near death of a high school football player demonstrated serious errors of recollection six years later:

Moreover, when exposed to misleading information about this life-and-death event, many individuals absorbed the misinformation into their recollections. For example, more than one fourth of the subjects were persuaded that they had seen blood on the player’s jersey after receiving a false suggestion to this effect.

Implanting a false memory of a traumatic event is ethically problematic. But when it can be done safely, the results are revealing: In one seminal study (Loftus and Pickrell 1995), 5 of 24 adult participants falsely recalled an implanted story of getting “lost in the mall” at between four and six years old. Other research has found that (Hyman and Pentland 1996), “at least some kind of false memory could be implanted in between 20 percent and 40 percent of participants.”

We can see this happening today. A number of people have recently reported (false) sightings of creepy clowns. For example:

Late Monday night and into early Tuesday morning, hundreds of Pennsylvania State University students mobbed streets around campus searching for clowns fellow students had supposedly seen on campus. Police, when asked, said they had no reason to believe the rumors …

At some point, whether this began because there was a creepy clown or because someone said there was doesn’t matter after a point. The rumors have tipped into reality, and they have started to spread so rapidly it becomes hard to control. More.

Our memories do not function in quite the way we think. Nonetheless, Target has had to stop selling clown masks for Hallowe’en.

In the end, lab-based memory research resulted in profound skepticism of RMT. By 2005, it was being dismissed a “urban legend”.

But now, what about the impact of claims of sexual abuse on the accused and on other family members (apart from prison, bankruptcy, and social disgrace). Few sources discuss that problem in any detail. Chris French offers at the Guardian (2009):

There are some cases where the accused are willing to go public but are prevented from doing so by legal gagging orders and are thus not free to present their side of the story. But much more common is the situation where the accused do not want to jeopardise their chances of obtaining the one thing they want more than anything else in the world: reconciliation with their estranged children. Furthermore, to go public with such stories inevitably will invite suspicion. Unless one is very familiar with the scientific research relating to false memories, there may well be the temptation to assume that there’s no smoke without fire. More.

Usually, the reconciliation is never achieved.

In my view, several little-mentioned factors powered the recovered memories hysteria. First, recovered memories offered hope for healing. But they offered another benefit as well: In a world where midlife adults who consult therapists are not usually unconscious, innocent victims, the recovered memories entirely absolve the sufferer of responsibility for her pain. Crime analyst Kenneth Lanning has noted that most adults who recalled satanic sexual abuse also had a variety of mundane stresses, problems, and failures that might derive from a series of poor choices over time, as opposed to an exotic underlying cause.

Second, because so many recovered memory clients cut off all contact with their families, they tended to form mutual support groups for continued healing. The group could be a warm substitute family. But membership depended on maintaining one’s identity as an unconscious victim of abuse. Growing the group would require identifying more such victims, which amounted to saying it had become a way of life.

By the mid-Nineties, the recovered memory syndrome (RMS) had started to collapse of its own unpersuasiveness—in the jargon of science, “explanations in search of facts.” Retraction accounts and letters began to appear. Unfortunately, most of the damage would be very difficult to undo.

Now, in the light of this history, which shows just how extreme and damaging a trend based on supposed childhood psychology can become, let us compare, in Part III, science findings on childhood gender identity with the current transgender claims.

Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.

Note: The outline of Part II is taken from cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus’s summary of the debate and the research findings here. Many further sources are noted there.

See also: Transgender tots? Part I: The “recovered memories” hysteria is a warning from recent history

What’s wrong with social science today? Did it all begin with Margaret Mead’s giddy portrait of guilt-free promiscuity in the 1920s?

How did UTexas sociologist Mark Regnerus get to be so hated? A study of gay parenting exploded when it hit the media


Seven myths of social psychology

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...