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Remembering Dangerously


Elizabeth Loftus

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 19.2, March / April 1995

Like the witch-hunt trials of old, people today are being accused and even imprisoned on ‘evidence’ provided by memories from dreams and flashbacks — memories that didn’t exist before therapy. What is going on here?

We live in a strange and precarious time that resembles at its heart the hysteria and superstitious fervor of the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Men and women are being accused, tried, and convicted with no proof or evidence of guilt other than the word of the accuser. Even when the accusations involve numerous perpetrators, inflicting grievous wounds over many years, even decades, the accuser’s pointing finger of blame is enough to make believers of judges and juries. Individuals are being imprisoned on the “evidence” provided by memories that come back in dreams and flashbacks — memories that did not exist until a person wandered into therapy and was asked point-blank, “Were you ever sexually abused as a child?” And then begins the process of excavating the “repressed” memories through invasive therapeutic techniques, such as age regression, guided visualization, trance writing, dream work, body work, and hypnosis.

One case that seems to fit the mold led to highly bizarre satanic-abuse memories. An account of the case is described in detail by one of the expert witnesses (Rogers 1992) and is briefly reviewed by Loftus and Ketcham (1994).

A woman in her mid-seventies and her recently deceased husband were accused by their two adult daughters of rape, sodomy, forced oral sex, torture by electric shock, and the ritualistic murder of babies. The older daughter, 48 years old at the time of the lawsuit, testified that she was abused from infancy until age 25. The younger daughter alleged abuse from infancy to age 15. A granddaughter also claimed that she was abused by her grandmother from infancy to age 8.

The memories were recovered when the adult daughters went into therapy in 1987 and 1988. After the breakup of her third marriage, the older daughter started psychotherapy, eventually diagnosing herself as a victim of multiple-personality disorder and satanic ritual abuse. She convinced her sister and her niece to begin therapy and joined in their therapy sessions for the first year. The two sisters also attended group therapy with other multiple-personality-disorder patients who claimed to be victims of satanic ritual abuse.

In therapy the older sister recalled a horrifying incident that occurred when she was four or five years old. Her mother caught a rabbit, chopped off one of its ears, smeared the blood over her body, and then handed the knife to her, expecting her to kill the animal. When she refused, her mother poured scalding water over her arms. When she was 13 and her sister was still in diapers, a group of Satanists demanded that the sisters disembowel a dog with a knife. She remembered being forced to watch as a man who threatened to divulge the secrets of the cult was burned with a torch. Other members of the cult were subjected to electric shocks in rituals that took place in a cave. The cult even made her murder her own newborn baby. When asked for more details about these horrific events, she testified in court that her memory was impaired because she was frequently drugged by the cult members.

The younger sister remembered being molested on a piano bench by her father while his friends watched. She recalled being impregnated by members of the cult at ages 14 and 16, and both pregnancies were ritually aborted. She remembered one incident in the library where she had to eat a jar of pus and another jar of scabs. Her daughter remembered seeing her grandmother in a black robe carrying a candle and being drugged on two occasions and forced to ride in a limousine with several prostitutes.

The jury found the accused woman guilty of neglect. It did not find any intent to harm and thus refused to award monetary damages. Attempts to appeal the decision have failed.

Are the women’s memories authentic? The “infancy” memories are almost certainly false memories given the scientific literature on childhood amnesia. Moreover, no evidence in the form of bones or dead bodies was ever produced that might have corroborated the human-sacrifice memories. If these memories are indeed false, as they appear to be, where would they come from? George Ganaway, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Emory University School of Medicine, has proposed that unwitting suggestions from therapy play an important role in the development of false satanic memories.

What Goes on in Therapy?


Since therapy is done in private, it is not particularly easy to find out what really goes on behind that closed door. But there are clues that can be derived from various sources. Therapists’ accounts, patients’ accounts, and sworn statements from litigation have revealed that highly suggestive techniques go on in some therapists’ offices (Lindsay and Read 1994; Loftus 1993; Yapko 1994).

Other evidence of misguided if not reckless beliefs and practices comes from several cases in which private investigators, posing as patients, have gone undercover into therapists’ offices. In one case, the pseudopatient visited the therapist complaining about nightmares and trouble sleeping. On the third visit to the therapist, the investigator was told that she was an incest survivor (Loftus 1993). In another case, Cable News Network (CNN 1993) sent an employee undercover to the offices of an Ohio psychotherapist (who was supervised by a psychologist) wired with a hidden video camera. The pseudopatient complained of feeling depressed and having recent relationship problems with her husband. In the first session, the therapist diagnosed “incest survivor,” telling the pseudopatient she was a “classic case.” When the pseudopatient returned for her second session, puzzled about her lack of memory, the therapist told her that her reaction was typical and that she had repressed the memory because the trauma was so awful. A third case, based on surreptitious recordings of a therapist from the Southwestern region of the United States, was inspired by the previous efforts.

Inside a Southwestern Therapist’s Office

In the summer of 1993, a woman (call her “Willa”) had a serious problem. Her older sister, a struggling artist, had a dream that she reported to her therapist. The dream got interpreted as evidence of a history of sexual abuse. Ultimately the sister confronted the parents in a videotaped session at the therapist’s office. The parents were mortified; the family was wrenched irreparably apart.

Willa tried desperately to find out more about the sister’s therapy. On her own initiative, Willa hired a private investigator to pose as a patient and seek therapy from the sister’s therapist. The private investigator called herself Ruth. She twice visited the therapist, an M.A. in counseling and guidance who was supervised by a Ph.D., and secretly tape-recorded both of the sessions.

In the first session, Ruth told the therapist that she had been rear-ended in an auto accident a few months earlier and was having trouble getting over it. Ruth said that she would just sit for weeks and cry for no apparent reason. The therapist seemed totally disinterested in getting any history regarding the accident, but instead wanted to talk about Ruth’s childhood. While discussing her early life, Ruth volunteered a recurring dream that she had had in childhood and said the dream had now returned. In the dream she is 4 or 5 years old and there is a massive white bull after her that catches her and gores her somewhere in the upper thigh area, leaving her covered with blood.

The therapist decided that the stress and sadness that Ruth was currently experiencing was tied to her childhood, since she’d had the same dream as a child. She decided the “night terrors” (as she called them) were evidence that Ruth was suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD). They would use guided imagery to find the source of the childhood trauma. Before actually launching this approach, the therapist informed her patient that she, the therapist, was an incest survivor: “I was incested by my grandfather.”

During the guided imagery, Ruth was asked to imagine herself as a little child. She then talked about the trauma of her parents’ divorce and of her father’s remarriage to a younger woman who resembled Ruth herself. The therapist wanted to know if Ruth’s father had had affairs, and she told Ruth that hers had, and that this was a “generational” thing that came from the grandfathers. The therapist led Ruth through confusing/suggestive/manipulative imagery involving a man holding down a little girl somewhere in a bedroom. The therapist decided that Ruth was suffering from a “major grief issue” and told her it was sexual: “I don’t think, with the imagery and his marrying someone who looks like you, that it could be anything else.”

The second session, two days later, began:

Pseudopatient: You think I am quite possibly a victim of sexual abuse?

Therapist: Urn-huh. Quite possibly. It’s how I would put it. You know, you don’t have the real definitive data that says that, but, urn, the first thing that made me think about that was the blood on your thighs. You know, I just wonder, like where would that come from in a child’s reality. And, um, the fact that in the imagery the child took you or the child showed you the bedroom and your father holding you down in the bedroom . . . it would be really hard for me to think otherwise. . . . Something would have to come up in your work to really prove that it really wasn’t about sexual abuse.

Ruth said she had no memory of such abuse but that didn’t dissuade the therapist for a minute.

Pseudopatient: . . . I can remember a lot of anger and fear associated with him, but I can’t recall physical sexual abuse. Do people always remember?

Therapist: No. . . . Hardly ever. . . . It happened to you a long time ago and your body holds on to the memory and that’s why being in something like a car accident might trigger memories. . . .

The therapist shared her own experiences of abuse, now by her father, which supposedly led to anorexia, bulimia, overspending, excessive drinking, and other destructive behaviors from which the therapist had presumably now recovered. For long sections of the tape it was hard to tell who was the patient and who was the therapist.

Later the therapist offered these bits of wisdom:

I don’t know how many people I think are really in psychiatric hospitals who are really just incest survivors or, urn, have repressed memories. It will be a grief issue that your father was — sexualized you — and was not an appropriate father.

You need to take that image of yourself as an infant, with the hand over, somebody’s trying to stifle your crying, and feeling pain somewhere as a memory.

The therapist encouraged Ruth to read two books: The Courage To Heal, which she called the “bible of healing from childhood sexual abuse,” and the workbook that goes with it. She made a special point of talking about the section on confrontation with the perpetrator. Confrontation, she said, wasn’t necessarily for everyone. Some don’t want to do it if it will jeopardize their inheritance, in which case, the therapist said, you can do it after the person is dead—you can do eulogies. But confrontation is empowering, she told Ruth.

Then to Ruth’s surprise, the therapist described the recent confrontation she had done with Willa’s sister (providing sufficient detail about the unnamed patient that there could be little doubt about who it was).

Therapist: I just worked with someone who did do it with her parents. Called both of her parents in and we did it in here. . . . Its empowering because you’re stepping out on your own. She said she felt like she was 21, and going out on her own for the first time, you know, that’s what she felt like. . . .

Pseudopatient: And, did her parents deny or —

Therapist: Oh, they certainly did —

Pseudopatient: Did she remember, that she—she wasn’t groping like me?

Therapist: She groped a lot in the beginning. But it sort of, you know, just like pieces of a puzzle, you know, you start to get them and then eventually you can make a picture with it. And she was able to do that. And memory is a funny thing. It’s not always really accurate in terms of ages, and times and places and that kind of thing. Like you may have any variable superimposed on another. Like I have a friend who had an ongoing sexual abuse and she would have a memory of, say, being on this couch when she was seven and being abused there, but they didn’t have that couch when she was seven, they had it when she was five. . . . It doesn’t discount the memory, it just means that it probably went on more than once and so those memories overlap. . . .

Pseudopatient: This woman who did the confrontation, is she free now? Does she feel freed over it?

Therapist: Well, she doesn’t feel free from her history... but she does feel like she owns it now and it doesn’t own her . . . and she has gotten another memory since the confrontation. . . .

The therapist told Ruth all about the “new memory” of her other patient, Willa’s sister:

Therapist: [It was in] the early morning hours and she was just lying awake, and she started just having this feeling of, it was like her hands became uncontrollable and it was like she was masturbating someone. She was like going faster than she could have, even in real life, so that she knew, it was familiar enough to her as it will be to you, that she knew what it was, and it really did not freak her out at all. . . . She knew there was a memory there she was sitting on.

Before Ruth’s second therapy session had ended, Ruth’s mother was brought into the picture — guilty, at least, of betrayal by neglect:

Therapist: Well, you don’t have to have rational reasons, either, to feel betrayed. The only thing that a child needs to feel is that there was probably a part of you that was just yearning for your mother and that she wasn’t there. And whether she wasn’t there because she didn’t know and was off doing something else, or whether she was there and she knew and she didn’t do anything about it. It doesn’t matter. All the child knew was that Mom wasn’t there. And, in that way she was betrayed, you know, whether it was through imperfection on your mother’s part or not, and you have to give yourself permission to feel that way without justification, or without rationalization because you were.

Ruth tried again to broach the subject of imagination versus memory:

Pseudopatient: How do we know, when the memories come, what are symbols, that it’s not our imagination or something?

Therapist: Why would you image this, of all things. If it were your Imagination, you’d be imaging how warm and loving he was. . . . I have a therapist friend who says that the only proof she needs to know that something happened is if you think it might have.

At the doorway as Ruth was leaving, her therapist asked if she could hug her, then did so while telling Ruth how brave she was. A few weeks later, Ruth got a bill. She was charged $65 for each session.

Rabinowitz (1993) put it well: “The beauty of the repressed incest explanation is that, to enjoy its victim benefits, and the distinction of being associated with a survivor group, it isn’t even necessary to have any recollection that such abuse took place.” Actually, being a victim of abuse without any memories does not sit well, especially when group therapy comes into play and women without memories interact with those who do have memories. The pressure to find memories can be very great.

Chu (1992:7) pointed out one of the dangers of pursuing a fruitless search (for memories): it masks the real issues from therapeutic exploration. Sometimes patients produce “ever more grotesque and increasingly unbelievable stories in an effort to discredit the material and break the cycle. Unfortunately, some therapists can’t take the hint!”

The Southwestern therapist who treated Ruth diagnosed sexual trauma in the first session. She pursued her sex-abuse agenda in the questions she asked, in the answers she interpreted, in the way she discussed dreams, in the books she recommended. An important question remains as to how common these activities might be. Some clinicians would like to believe that the problem of overzealous psychotherapists is on a “very small” scale (Cronin 1994: 31). A recent survey of doctoral-level psychologists indicates that as many as a quarter may harbor beliefs and engage in practices that are questionable (Poole and Lindsay 1994). That these kinds of activities can and do sometimes lead to false memories seems now to be beyond dispute (Goldstein and Farmer 1993). That these kinds of activities can create false victims, as well as hurt true ones, also seems now to be beyond dispute.

The Place of Repressed Memories in Modern Society

Why at this time in our society is there such an interest in “repression” and the uncovering of repressed memories? Why is it that almost everyone you talk to either knows someone with a “repressed memory” or knows someone who’s being accused, or is just plain interested in the issue? Why do so many individuals believe these stories, even the more bizarre, outlandish, and outrageous ones? Why is the cry of “witch hunt” now so loud (Baker 1992: 48; Gardner 1991)? witch hunt is, of course, a term that gets used lots of people who have been faced a pack of accusers (Watson 1992).

“Witch hunt” stems from an analogy between the current allegations and the witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an analogy that several analysts have drawn (McHugh 1992; Trott 1991;Victor 1991).As the preeminent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (1967) has noted, the European witch-craze was a perplexing phenomenon. By some estimates, a half-million people were convicted of witchcraft and burned to death in Europe alone between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries (Harris 1974: 207-258). How did this happen?

It is a dazzling experience to step back in time, as Trevor-Roper guides his readers, first to the eighth century, when the belief in witches was thought to be “unchristian” and in some places the death penalty was decreed for anyone who burnt supposed witches. In the ninth century, almost no one believed that witches could make bad weather, and almost everyone believed that night-flying was a hallucination. But by the beginning of the sixteenth century, there was a complete reversal of these views. “The monks of the late Middle Ages sowed: the lawyers of the sixteenth century reaped; and what a harvest of witches they gathered in!” (Trever-Roper 1967: 93). Countries that had never known witches were now found to be swarming with them. Thousands of old women (and some young ones) began confessing to being witches who had made secret pacts with the Devil. At night, they said, they anointed themselves with “devil’s grease” (made from the fat of murdered infants), and thus lubricated they slipped up chimneys, mounted broomsticks, and flew off on long journeys to a rendezvous called the witches’ sabbat. Once they reached the sabbat, they saw their friends and neighbors all worshipping the Devil himself. The Devil sometimes appeared as a big, black, bearded man, sometimes as a stinking goat, and sometimes as a great toad. However he looked, the witches threw themselves into promiscuous sexual orgies with him. While the story might vary from witch to witch, at the core was the Devil, and the witches were thought to be his earth agents in the struggle for control of the spiritual world.

Throughout the sixteenth century, people believed in the general theory, even if they did not accept all of the esoteric details. For two centuries, the clergy preached against the witches. Lawyers sentenced them. Books and sermons warned of their danger. Torture was used to extract confessions. The agents of Satan were soon found to be everywhere. Skeptics, whether in universities, in judges’ seats, or on the royal throne, were denounced as witches themselves, and joined the old women at the burning stake. In the absence of physical evidence (such as a pot full of human limbs, or a written pact with the Devil), circumstantial evidence was sufficient. Such evidence did not need to be very cogent (a wart, an insensitive spot that did not bleed when pricked, a capacity to float when thrown in water, an incapacity to shed tears, a tendency to look down when accused). Any of these “indicia” might justify the use of torture to produce a confession (which was proof) or the refusal to confess (which was also proof) and justified even more ferocious tortures and ultimately death.

When did it end? In the middle of the seventeenth century the basis of the craze began to dissolve. As Trevor-Roper (1967: 97) put it, “The rubbish of the human mind, which for two centuries, by some process of intellectual alchemy and social pressure, had become fused together in a coherent, explosive system, has disintegrated. It is rubbish again.

Various interpretations of this period in social history can be found. Trevor-Roper argued that during periods of intolerance any society looks for scapegoats. For the Catholic church of that period, and in particular their most active members, the Dominicans, the witches were perfect as scapegoats; and so, with relentless propaganda, they created a hatred of witches. The first individuals to be so labeled were the innocently nonconforming social groups. Sometimes they were induced to confess by torture too terrible to bear (e.g., the “leg screw” squeezed the calf and broke the shinbone in pieces; the “lift” hoisted the arms fiercely behind and back; the “ram” or “witch chair” provided a heated seat of spikes for the witch to sit on). But sometimes confessions came about spontaneously, making their truth even more convincing to others. Gradually laws changed to meet the growth of witches — including laws permitting judicial torture.

There were skeptics, but many of them did not survive. Generally they tried to question the plausibility of the confessions, or the efficacy of torture, or the identification of particular witches. They had little impact, Trevor-Roper claims, because they danced around the edges rather than tackling the core: the concept of Satan. With the mythology intact, it creates its own evidence that is very difficult to disprove. So how did the mythology that had lasted for two centuries lose its force? Finally, challenges against the whole idea of Satan’s kingdom were launched. The stereotype of the witch would soon be gone, but not before tens of thousands of witches had been burned or hanged, or both (Watson 1992).

Trevor-Roper saw the witch-craze as a social movement, but with individual extensions. Witch accusations could be used to destroy powerful enemies or dangerous persons. When a “great fear” grips a society, that society looks to the stereotype of the enemy in its midst and points the finger of accusation. In times of panic, he argued, the persecution extends from the weak (the old women who were ordinarily the victims of village hatred) to the strong (the educated judges and clergy who resisted the craze). One indicia of “great fear” is when the elite of society are accused of being in league with the enemies.

es it fair to compare the modern cases of “de-repressed memory” of child sexual trauma to the witch-crazes of several centuries ago? There are some parallels, but the differences are just as striking. In terms of similarities, some of the modern stories actually resemble the stories of earlier times (e.g., witches flying into bedrooms). Sometimes the stories encompass past-life memories (Stevenson 1994) or take on an even more bizarre, alien twist (Mack 1994).1 In terms of differences, take a look at the accused and the accusers. In the most infamous witch hunt in North America, 300 years ago in Salem, Massachusetts, three-fourths of the accused were women (Watson 1992). Today, they are predominantly (but not all) men. Witches in New England were mostly poor women over 40 who were misfits, although later the set of witches included men (often the witches’ husbands or sons), and still later the set expanded to include clergy, prominent merchants, or anyone who had dared to make an enemy. Today, the accused are often men of power and success. The witch accusations of past times were more often leveled by men, but today the accusations are predominantly leveled by women. Today’s phenomenon is more than anything a movement of the weak against the strong. There is today a “great fear” that grips our society, and that is fear of child abuse. Rightfully we wish to ferret out these genuine “enemies” and point every finger of accusation at them. But this does not mean, of course, that every perceived enemy, every person with whom we may have feuded, should be labeled in this same way.

Trevor-Roper persuasively argued that the skeptics during the witch-craze did not make much of a dent in the frequency of bonfires and burnings until they challenged the core belief in Satan. What is the analogy to that core today? It may be some of the widely cherished beliefs of psychotherapists, such as the belief in the repressed-memory folklore. The repression theory is well articulated by Steele (1994: 41). It is the theory “that we forget events because they are too horrible to contemplate; that we cannot remember these forgotten events by any normal process of casting our minds back but can reliably retrieve them by special techniques; that these forgotten events, banished from consciousness, strive to enter it in disguised forms; that forgotten events have the power to cause apparently unrelated problems in our lives, which can be cured by excavating and reliving the forgotten event.

Is it time to admit that the repression folklore is simply a fairy tale? The tale may be appealing, but what of its relationship to science? Unfortunately, it is partly refuted, partly untested, and partly untestable. This is not to say that all recovered memories are thus false. Responsible skepticism is skepticism about some claims of recovered memory. It is not blanket rejection of all claims. People sometimes remember what was once forgotten; such forgetting and remembering does not mean repression and de-repression, but it does mean that some recently remembered events might reflect authentic memories. Each case must be examined on its merits to explore the credibility, the timing, the motives, the potential for suggestion, the corroboration, and other features to make an intelligent assessment of what any mental product means.

The Case of Jennifer H.

Some writers have offered individual cases as proof that a stream of traumas can be massively repressed. Readers must beware that these case “proofs” may leave out critical information. Consider the supposedly ironclad case of Jennifer H. offered by Kandel and Kandel (1994) to readers of Discover magazine as an example of a corroborated de-repressed memory. According to the Discover account, Jennifer was a 23-year-old musician who recovered memories in therapy of her father raping her from the time she was 4 until she was 17. As her memories resurfaced, her panic attacks and other symptoms receded. Her father, a mechanical-engineering professor, denied any abuse. According to the Discover account, Jennifer sued her father, and at trial “corroboration” was produced: Jennifer’s mother testified that she had seen the father lying on top of Jennifer’s 14-year-old sister and that he had once fondled a baby-sitter in her early teens. The defendant’s sister recalled his making passes at young girls. Before this case becomes urban legend and is used as proof of something that it might not be proof of, readers are entitled to know more.

Jennifer’s case against her father went to trial in June 1993 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts (Hoult v. Hoult, 1993). The case received considerable media attention (e.g., Kessler 1993). From the trial transcript, we learn that Jennifer, the oldest of four children, began therapy in the fall of 1984 with an unlicensed New York psychotherapist for problems with her boyfriend and divided loyalties surrounding her parents’ divorce. Over the next year or so she experienced recurring nightmares with violent themes, and waking terrors. Her therapist practiced a “Gestalt” method of therapy; Jennifer describes one session: “I started the same thing of shutting my eyes and just trying to feel the feelings and not let them go away really fast. And [my therapist] just said ‘Can you see anything?’ . . . I couldn’t see anything. . . and then all of a sudden I saw this carved bedpost from my room when I was a child. . . . And then T saw my father, and I could feel him sitting on the bed next to me, and he was pushing me down, and I was saying, ‘No.’ And he started pushing up my nightgown and . . . was touching me with his hands on my breast, and then between my legs, and then he was touching me with his mouth . . . and then it just all like went away. It was like . . . on TV if there is all static. . . . It was, all of a sudden it was plusssssh, all stopped. And then I slowly opened my eyes in the session and I said, ‘I never knew that happened to me (pp. 58-59).

Later Jennifer would have flashbacks that were so vivid that she could feel the lumpy blankets in her childhood bed. She remembered her father choking her and raping her in her parents bedroom when she was about 12 or 13 (p. 91). She remembered her father threatening to rape her with a fishing pole in the den when she was about 6 or 7. She remembers her father raping her in the basement when she was in high school. The rape stopped just as her mother called down for them to come to dinner. She remembered her father raping her at her grandparents home when she was in high school, while the large family were cooking and kids were playing. She remembered her father threatening to cut her with a letter opener, holding a kitchen knife to her throat (p. 113). She remembered him chasing her through the house with knives, trying to kill her, when she was about 13 years old (p. 283).

Jennifer also remembered a couple of incidents involving her mother. She remembered one time when she was raped in the bathroom and went to her mother wrapped in a towel with blood dripping. She remembered another incident, in which her father was raping her in her parents’ bedroom and her mother came to the door and said, “David.” The father then stopped raping her and went out to talk to the mother. Jennifer’s mother said she had no recollection of these events, or of any sexual abuse. An expert witness testifying for Jennifer said it is common in cases of incest that mothers ignore the signs of abuse.

During the course of her memory development, Jennifer joined numerous sexual-abuse survivor groups. She read books about sexual abuse. She wrote columns. She contacted legislators. Jennifer was involved in years of therapy. She wrote letters about her abuse. In one letter, written to the President of Barnard College on February 7, 1987, she said “I am a victim of incestuous abuse by my father and physical abuse by my mother” (p. 175). In another letter to her friend Jane, written in January 1988, she talked about her therapy: “Well, my memories came out . . . when I would sit and focus on my feelings which I believe I call visualization exercises because I would try to visualize what I was feeling or be able to bring into my eyes what I could see” (pp. 247-248). She told Jane about her Gestalt therapy: “In Gestalt therapy, the sub-personalities are allowed to take over and converse with one another and hopefully resolve their conflicts. Each personality gets a different chair, and when one new one starts to speak, the individual changes into that personality’s seat. It sounds weird, and it is. But is also an amazing journey into one’s self. I’ve come to recognize untold universes within myself. It feels often very much like a cosmic battle when they ate all warring with one another” (pp. 287-288; see also page 249).

In one letter, written on January 11, 1989, to another rape survivor, she said that her father had raped her approximately 3,000 times. In another letter, dated January 30, 1989, she wrote: “Underneath all the tinsel and glitter was my father raping me every two days. My mother smiling and pretending not to know what the hell was going on, and probably Dad abusing my siblings as well” (pp. 244-245). In a letter written on April 24, 1989, to Mother Jones magazine she said that she had survived hundreds of rapes by her father (p.231).

Before October 1985, Jennifer testified, she didn’t “know” that her father had ever put his penis in her vagina, or that he had put his penis in her mouth, or that he put his mouth on her vagina (p. 290). She paid her therapist $19,329.59 (p. 155) to acquire that knowledge.

In sum, Jennifer reported that she had been molested by her father from the ages of 4 to 17 (p.239); that she was molested hundreds if not thousands of times, even if she could not remember all of the incidents; that this sometimes happened with many family members nearby, and with her mother’s “involvement’ in some instances; and that she buried these memories until she was 24, at which time they purportedly began to return to her. No one saw.

These are a few of the facts that the Kandels left out of their article. Jennifer was on the stand for nearly three days. She had “experts” to say they believed her memories were real. These experts were apparently unaware of, or unwilling to heed, Yapko’s (1994) warnings about the impossibility, without independent corroboration, of distinguishing reality from invention and his urgings that symptoms by themselves cannot establish the existence of past abuse. At trial, Jennifer’s father testified for about a half-hour (Kessler 1993b). How long does it take to say, “I didn’t do it”? Oddly, his attorneys put on no character witnesses or expert testimony of their own, apparently believing-wrongly-that the implausibility of the “memories” would be enough. A Massachusetts jury awarded Jennifer $500,000.

Good and Bad Advice

Many of us would have serious reservations about the kinds of therapy activities engaged in by Jennifer H. and the kind of therapy practiced by the Southwestern therapist who treated pseudopatient Ruth. Even recovered-memory supporters like Briere (1992) might agree. He did, after all, say quite clearly: “Unfortunately, a number of clients and therapists appear driven to expose and confront every possible traumatic memory” (p. 136). Briere notes that extended and intense effort to make a client uncover all traumatic material is not a good idea since this is often to the detriment of other therapeutic tasks, such as support, consolidation, desensitization, and emotional insight.

Some will argue that the vigorous exploration of buried sex-abuse memories is acceptable because it has been going on for a long time. In fact, to think it is fine to do things the way they’ve always been done is to have a mind that is as closed and dangerous as a malfunctioning parachute. It is time to recognize that the dangers of false-memory creation are endemic to psychotherapy (Lynn and Nash 1994). Campbell (1994) makes reference to Thomas Kuhn as he argues that the existing paradigm (the theories, methods, procedures) of psychotherapy may no longer be viable. When this happens in other professions, a crisis prevails and the profession must undertake a paradigm shift.

It may be time for that paradigm shift and for an exploration of new techniques. At the very least, therapists should not let sexual trauma overshadow all other important events in a patient’s life (Campbell 1994). Perhaps there are other explanations for the patient’s current symptoms and problems. Good therapists remain open to alternative hypotheses. Andreasen (1988), for example, urges practitioners to be open to the hypothesis of metabolic or neurochemical abnormalities as cause of a wide range of mental disorders. Even pharmacologically sophisticated psychiatrists sometimes refer their patients to neurologists, endocrinologists, and urologists. For less serious mental problems we may find, as physicians did before the advent of powerful antibiotics, that they are like many infections—self-limiting, running their course and then ending on their own (Adler 1994).

When it comes to serious diseases, a question that many people ask of their physicians is “How long have I got?” As Buckman and Sabbagh (1993) have aptly pointed out, this is a difficult question to answer. Patients who get a “statistical” answer often feel angry and frustrated. Yet an uncertain answer is often the truthful answer. When a psychotherapy patient asks, “Why am I depressed?” the therapist who refrains from giving an erroneous answer, however frustrating silence might be, is probably operating closer to the patient’s best interests. Likewise, non-conventional “healers” who, relative to conventional physicians, give their patients unwarranted certainty and excess attention, may make the patients temporarily feel better, but in the end may not be helping them at all.

Bad therapy based on bad theory is like a too-heavy oil that, instead of lubricating, can gum up the works -slowing everything down and heating everything up. When the mental works are slowed down and heated up, stray particles of false memory can, unfortunately, get stuck in it.

To avoid mucking up the works, constructive advice has been offered by Byrd (1994) and by Gold, Hughes, and Hohnecker (1994): Focus on enhancement of functioning rather than uncovering buried memories. If it is necessary to recover memories, do not contaminate the process with suggestions. Guard against personal biases. Be cautious about the use of hypnosis in the recovery of memories. Bibliotherapeutic and group therapy should not be encouraged until the patient has reasonable certainty that the sex abuse really happened. Development and evaluation of other behavioral and pharmacological therapies that minimize the possibility of false memories and false diagnoses should be encouraged.

Instead of dwelling on the misery of childhood and digging for childhood sexual trauma as its cause, why not spend some time doing something completely different. Borrowing from John Gottman’s (1994) excellent advice on how to make your marriage succeed, patients might be reminded that negative events in their lives do not completely cancel out all the positives (p.182). Encourage the patient to think about the positive aspects of life—even to look through picture albums from vacations and birthdays. Think of patients as the architects of their thoughts, and guide them to build a few happy rooms. The glass that’s half empty is also half full. Gottman recognized the need for some real basis for positive thoughts, but in many families, as in many marriages, the basis does exist. Campbell (1994) offers similar advice. Therapists, he believes, should encourage their clients to recall some positive things about their families. A competent therapist will help others support and assist the client, and help the client direct feelings of gratitude toward those significant others.

Final Remarks

We live in a culture of accusation. When it comes to molestation, the accused is almost always considered guilty as charged. Some claims of sexual abuse are as believable as any other reports based on memory, but others may not be. However, not all claims are true. As Reich (1994) has argued: “When we uncritically embrace reports of recovered memories of sexual abuse, and when we nonchalantly assume that they must be as good as our ordinary memories, we debase the coinage of memory altogether” (p.38). Uncritical acceptance of every single claim of a recovered memory of sexual abuse, no matter how bizarre, is not good for anyone—not the client, not the family, not the mental-health profession, not the precious human faculty of memory. And let us not forget one final tragic consequence of overenthusiastic embracing of every supposedly de-repressed memory; these activities are sure to trivialize the genuine memories of abuse and increase the suffering of real victims who wish and deserve, more than anything else, just to be believed.

We need to find ways of educating people who presume to know the truth. We particularly need to reach those individuals who, for some reason, feel better after they have led their clients—probably unwittingly-to falsely believe that family members have committed some terrible evil. If “truth” is our goal, then the search for evil must go beyond “feeling good” to include standards of fairness, burdens of proof, and presumptions of innocence. When we loosen our hold on these ideals, we risk a return to those times when good and moral human beings convinced themselves that a belief in the Devil meant proof of his existence. Instead, we should be marshaling all the science we can find to stop the modern-day Reverend Hale (from The Crucible), who, if he lived today would still be telling anyone who would listen that he had seen “frightful proofs” that the Devil was alive. He would still be urging that we follow wherever “the accusing finger points”!


  1. John Mack details the kidnappings of 13 individuals by aliens, some of whom were experimented upon sexually. Mack believes their stories, and has impressed some journalists with his sincerity and depth of concern for the abductors (Neimark 1994). Carl Sagan’s (1993:7) comment on UFO memories: “There is genuine scientific paydirt in UFO’s and alien abductions—but it is, I think, of distinctly terrestrial origin.”


Adler, J. 1994. The age before miracles. Newsweek, Marels 28, p.44.

Elizabeth Loftus

Elizabeth F. Loftus is Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology, and Professor of Law, and Cognitive Science in the Psychology and Social Behavior and Criminology, Law and Society departments in the School of Social Ecology at University of California, Irvine.