Which hunt? Repressed memory... and other '80s fads

By the mid-1980s, it wasn't at all unusual for women to remember they'd been molested as children. At the same time, news accounts of daycare centers as hotbeds of sexual abuse and satanic rituals abounded.

What caused grown women to suddenly "remember" they'd been abused as children?

The "repressed memory" movement arose from theories that the mind could repress or disassociate trauma, which was then "stored like a videotape" in memory, explains UVA sociology professor Joseph Davis. The idea was that, with the help of a therapist, memories of childhood sexual abuse could be remembered.

"Trauma research has debunked that theory," says Davis. "Memory is not like a videotape. Normally when people experience trauma, they can't forget it."

Davis, who's working on a book called Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Psychotherapy, and the Moral Construction of Psychological Knowledge, says that memories of trauma are so persistent that researchers are developing drugs to help victims forget "because they can't get over it."

While there was a backlash against the therapists who used hypnosis to help patients "recover" those memories of abuse, Davis also blames the rhetoric of self-help books, particularly one called The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis.

The Courage to Heal encourages journaling and has a checklist popular with women trying to figure out why they suffer from depression or eating disorders. "If you check three," says Joseph Davis, "you were probably abused." He calls the concept "really bad therapy."

In the most famous "repressed memory" case, George Franklin was convicted in 1990 of the 1969 murder of a playmate of his daughter– largely because of a hypnosis-induced memory his daughter revealed more than 20 years after the crime. Franklin's conviction was overturned in 1996.

Such cases came to be dubbed "false memory syndrome," a term coined by the families who were accused of sexual abuse by their now-grown daughters who sincerely believed memories of events that never happened. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded in 1992.

About the same time repressed memory was gathering steam, so too was the ritual abuse panic. Some believe another book, Michelle Remembers, contributed to the hysteria. Published in 1980 by Michelle Smith and the psychiatrist who became her husband, the book recounts a five-year-old's alleged memories of abuse by a satanic cult.

In 1983, a woman accused Ray Buckey at Southern California-based McMartin Preschool of sodomizing her two-year-old son, launching a nationwide wave of accusations– and imprisonments– of daycare workers who supposedly had the children participate in satanic rituals.

Neither of the two McMartin trials resulted in convictions, but they did raise questions about some of the claims that didn't get into the courtroom: that people had flown through windows, killed lions, and had sexual encounters with giraffes. And that naked games and satanic rituals occurred in secret tunnels under the preschool.

"Nobody can find any cases of intergenerational satanic abuse," says UVA's Davis. He attributes the false and even absurd accusations by children to social workers leading them in their accounts and to prosecutorial zeal.

And in 1999, the New Republic noted that the perversions people were accused of "corresponded more and more suggestively to a toddler's notion of unspeakable transgression rather than to any known profile of adult sexual perversion." For example, in one case, the accused was supposed to have stuck candy up his own behind and stuck fish up the children's bottoms.

Davis cites one other factor in the satanic cult trend: the so-called multiple personality disorder. The theory is about a hundred years old, over which time a handful of cases emerged.

But then, "In the mid '80s and '90s, there were 40,000 cases, and therapists were linking multiple personalities to childhood abuse," he says. "The question is whether [multiple personalities] exist or is something clinicians invented. And out of the multiple personality literature came the most florid of examples of satanism– the eating of children– that have largely been debunked."

Almost one in five cases of recovered memory also includes allegations of ritual abuse, according to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

How widespread is false memory syndrome? Davis says it's unclear because there are only a few hundred "retractors"– women who have recanted their recovered memories.

And while the False Memory Syndrome Foundation claims that 20,000 families have contacted it, "They don't investigate the claims," says Joseph Davis. "The fact parents claim they're innocent doesn't mean they didn't abuse their children. And just because a daughter retracts, that doesn't mean she wasn't molested."

The real danger of these therapeutic trends– besides the lives destroyed by witch trial-like hysteria– is that sexual abuse is very common.

"There's a lot of it, and false memory can create the impression it's pretty rare," says Davis. "Satanic rituals and false memories became a public sideshow. Because they were wrong or false discredits the whole social problem of sexual abuse as if it didn't exist."

For those who suffer from or want to learn about the latest in psychological trends, Davis's new area of study is social anxiety disorder. "It was invented 20 years ago, and the number of cases have exploded."

The book credited with fanning the recovered memory flames.