I’ve written before about the role respected experts played in the ritual child abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s. (cf. “They trusted the experts") At the heart of many of these cases were “victims” who “recovered” suppressed memories with the help of therapists. These new “memories” then were recounted in court where judges and juries accepted them as conclusive evidence.
A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back
Eventually courts came to realize that recovered memories were dangerously problematic. Serious scholars destroyed what little scientific support the concept once had. Most of the convictions were overturned.
It seemed that rationality had reasserted itself.
I ran across this Weekly Standard article from 2003 which struck exactly that optimistic note:
The End of a Delusion
AT THE END of the nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud--ever anxious to present an overarching, universal explanation for mental unrest--suggested that "repressed memories" of childhood sexual abuse are a common cause of adult mental disorders.
He quickly abandoned the idea (replacing it with the concept of infantile sexuality) when he saw that it harmed rather than helped his patients. But such ideas seem to have lives of their own, and a hundred years after Freud first proposed it, the idea of repressed memories rose again in new and even gaudier clothing. Grown beyond Freud's unadorned view of domestic misconduct, it came to include beliefs that many of these sexual traumas--which the troubled patients' shocked minds had repressed--took place during Satanic rituals and experiments aboard alien spacecraft.
It is today almost impossible to understand how anyone ever believed this absurd and ridiculous notion, but it was less than a decade ago that the idea was flourishing in America. The American psychiatric and psychological establishment bears a shame that will be hard ever to wash away. Thousands of patients--thousands of sick, damaged people who had come to medical professionals for help--were destructively misdirected into trolling through their pasts in search of hidden sexual trauma. By the late 1980s, wards and clinics in university psychiatric departments, eminent hospitals, and even the National Institute of Mental Health were devoted to uncovering these repressed memories.
The craze for this psychiatric madness was never universal, and, to their credit, some theorists and practicing psychiatrists resisted the practices and ideas in what Frederick Crews aptly dubbed the "memory wars." The importance of Richard J. McNally's new book "Remembering Trauma" lies not just in the superb and definitive survey McNally makes of the history of repressed memories, but also in what the book stands for: "Remembering Trauma" is the monument built to mark the end of the memory wars. The repressed-memory diagnosis has finally been repressed.
Sadly, there are no final victories in the war between rational thought and pseudoscience. Oprah, after all, did more than anyone to promote the Recovered Memory movement and now our cultural elite want to make her president.
Or take the Netflix series “the Keepers” which was nominated for an Emmy in the Documentary category. Ostensibly about the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in Baltimore in 1969, it devotes much of its running time to horrific stories of sexual abuse suffered by students at Keough High School. The perpetrators were an organized ring which included priests, policemen, and other powerful men in the city.Oprah 2020? @davidzurawik says Winfrey's Golden Globes speech addressed a "moral vacuum in leadership. This country really wants to hear someone speak about morality in the White House" https://t.co/EPUuDwATDh— Reliable Sources (@ReliableSources) January 14, 2018
“The Keepers” wants us to believe that Sister Cathy was murdered because she was going to expose the abuse. Her murder is unsolved, of course, because the perpetrators of the abuse included powerful figures who could quash the investigation.
And at the center of the revelations are witnesses who came forward after undergoing recovered memory therapy.
They even persist in their praise when physical evidence undercuts the narrative.Emmys get it so right for once with nomination for 'The Keepers' as best documentary series. https://t.co/sD2Hx4ZuNo— David Zurawik (@davidzurawik) July 14, 2017
But remember. They are “elite” and expert so shut up and listen.