Recovering memories: How the Satanic Panic led to false reports of horrific abuse


Chris French
Chris French is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is also Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. He frequently appears on radio and television casting a sceptical eye over paranormal claims. He writes for the Guardian and The Skeptic magazine and is a former Editor of the latter. His most recent book is Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience.

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Content note: this article contains mentions of extreme violence

There are some great quotations regarding lessons from history. Winston Churchill is one of many to express the notion that, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Aldous Huxley wisely noted, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history” while Stephen Hawking opined, somewhat cynically, that, “We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity.”

All of those quotations have some relevance to the topic I intend to cover in this two-part article: the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and, in the second part, the risk that such a phenomenon could be repeated if we are not careful. Back in the 1980s, the idea took hold that Satanic ritual abuse was a widespread problem involving large international networks of very powerful people. Such abuse was said to be of the most extreme form imaginable, involving group orgies, rape, forced abortions, paedophilic acts, incest, animal and human sacrifices (including babies), the eating of flesh and faeces, and the drinking of blood.

Given the allegedly widespread nature of this activity, why were there not hundreds of people turning up at police stations to report these heinous crimes? Firstly, those involved, as stated, were said to be very powerful and thus, it was claimed, able to remove any physical evidence. But a second major factor was one that had huge implications for our understanding of the human mind itself. It was widely accepted that victims of such abuse simply could not remember being abused.

Such a belief was based upon acceptance of the psychoanalytic concept of repression. The idea is that when someone experiences extreme trauma, especially sexual abuse, an automatic psychological defence mechanism kicks in and pushes the memory for the trauma into an unconscious part of the mind where it is no longer accessible. That does not mean, however, that the trauma memory can no longer do any damage. It is claimed that it can still cause severe psychological problems, albeit that the cause of the problems may not be immediately apparent. Sometimes the repressed memories may subsequently spontaneously re-emerge into consciousness but more often than not they will only be brought back into awareness as a result of psychotherapy. Many psychotherapists believed that such memories had to be recovered, no matter how emotionally painful that process may be, if psychological health was to be achieved.

A family photo album from the side on - the photos aren't identifiable from the shot.

Back in the 1980s, there appeared to be an epidemic of such cases. Individuals would enter into therapy suffering from common psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem, believing that they had enjoyed a happy, normal childhood. Many would end up believing that they had, in fact, been the victims of horrendous abuse, typically at the hands of their own parents, and they would have vivid, painful memories to support that belief. In some cases, the memories involved ritualised abuse at the hands of Satanic cults. It was claimed that such extreme abuse often caused the complete fragmentation of the mind, resulting in what used to be called multiple personality disorder but is now known as dissociative identity disorder. It was claimed that, in such cases, the individual no longer had a single unified sense of self but instead consisted of multiple selves (or ‘alters’), each with its own name, personality, preferences, mannerisms, and even memories.

To give a relatively simple hypothetical example, Personality A, an individual’s central personality, may have no awareness whatsoever of Personalities B and C – or of ever being the victim of abuse. Personality B may have access to Personality A’s memories but not those of Personality C. Personality C may have no awareness of the other two but s/he will be the only one to recall the original trauma. The individual suffering from dissociative identity disorder was typically unaware of their condition until it was diagnosed by a psychotherapist. Instead, they were simply aware of a puzzling personal history in which they would suddenly find themselves in strange cities with no knowledge of how they got there or else being told by friends of things that they had done but with no corresponding memories. In some cases, it was claimed that individuals might have dozens or even hundreds of alters. Lurid tales of Satanic abuse were featured heavily in magazines and on daytime TV shows as the number of such cases continued to grow.

It goes without saying that these allegations had very serious consequences. Families were torn apart. Accused parents stood trial and were often convicted and sentenced to years in prison. The big question was, of course, were these real memories of events that had taken place in objective reality? Or were they false memories, produced unintentionally by the therapy itself?

This was not, however, the only line of evidence supporting the existence of widescale Satanic abuse in the 1980s. There was also a spate of allegations in the US claiming that workers in day care centres were engaged in these despicable acts. One of the most notorious cases was the McMartin Preschool case. Over 350 children were identified as victims leading to the arrest of Raymond Buckey, his mother, and five other workers at the centre in 1984. By 1990, charges were dropped against all but Raymond Buckey and his mother due to lack of evidence. At trial, Buckey was acquitted of most charges and his mother was acquitted of all. It had been the longest and most expensive trial in US legal history. Buckey was retried on eight charges but the case was dismissed after the jury was deadlocked. During this period, over a hundred centres were investigated over similar allegations, including some in the UK, Europe, and Australia.

The one silver lining to emerge from this nightmarish situation was that it generated much research into the question of susceptibility to false memories. The results of such studies demonstrated conclusively that people are far more susceptible to the development of false memories – including detailed memories for entire events that simply never happened – than most of us might have assumed.

One technique that has been used by experimental psychologists in many studies to reliably implant false memories in volunteers was first used by renowned memory expert, Professor Elizabeth Loftus. It is sometimes referred to as the “lost in a shopping mall” technique. In the first studies of this kind, volunteers were interviewed ostensibly to get them to recall, in as much detail as possible, events from their own childhood. Participants were assured that all of the incidents referred to had really happened, as confirmed by other family members. In fact, this was true of all but one incident – getting lost in a shopping mall at a young age, being distressed, and ultimately being reunited with parents. Other family members confirmed that this had actually not happened. Not surprisingly, when first asked about this incident, participants reported that they could not remember it. However, they were asked to go away and see if they could recall any details at all. They were interviewed again on two further occasions and by the third interview, a quarter of the participants reported false memories for the event, sometimes adding many further details to the original suggestion. Since then, studies using this technique have successfully implanted false memories for a range of other events including being the victim of a serious animal attack, being injured by another child, and being involved in a serious accident.

Various other techniques have also been developed that can achieve similar effects, many of which, like the repeated interviewing technique just described, mimic to some extent the techniques used in dubious forms of psychotherapy to allegedly recover traumatic memories. These include getting individuals to simply imagine events which they initially report never happened to them, dream interpretation, and hypnotic regression. It is worth noting that hypnotic regression is also used to ‘recover’ memories of alien abduction and ‘past-life memories’.

In light of the findings from such studies, the risks of generating false memories during certain forms of psychotherapy became more widely appreciated. Lindsay and Read succinctly summarised why these therapeutic contexts were so risky:

… extreme forms of memory work in psychotherapy combine virtually all of the factors that have been shown to increase the likelihood of illusory memories or beliefs: (a) a trusted authority communicates a rationale for the plausibility of hidden memories of long-ago childhood trauma (that many clients have hidden memories, that the client’s psychological symptoms, physical symptoms, and dreams evidence them, and that doubt is a sign of “denial”) and (b) a trusted authority provides motivation for attempting to recover such memories (that healing is contingent on retrieving hidden memories); (c) the client is repeatedly exposed to suggestive information from multiple sources (anecdotes in popular books, other survivor’s stories, comments and interpretations offered by the therapist, etc.), providing a “script” for recovering memories as well as suggestions about particular details; and (d) techniques such as hypnosis and guided imagery enhance imagery and lower response criterion such that people are more willing to interpret thoughts, feelings, and images as memories.

It became increasingly apparent in the 1990s that memories of alleged Satanic abuse recovered during therapy simply could not be trusted. In many cases, it was possible to prove beyond all doubt that these memories did not correspond to any real events whatsoever. Furthermore, the concept of dissociative identity disorder was rejected by many critics who argued convincingly that it was unintentionally produced by the therapy itself. The tables were turned and suddenly it was certain therapists who found themselves in the dock, accused of implanting false memories.

But what about the testimony from hundreds of children in day care centres? With the benefit of hindsight, we can clearly see that the children were subjected to entirely inappropriate forms of questioning. Essentially, repeated denials from the children that they had been abused were completely disregarded until eventually the children would simply give up their denials and assent to the suggestions of abuse that were put to them. At this point, they would be praised and rewarded.

Another important factor in leading many people to realise that, in fact, Satanic abuse was not occurring was the complete lack of any physical forensic evidence to back up the claims. Bearing in mind the nature of the horrendous crimes that were alleged to have taken place, there ought to have been at least a smattering of bodily fluids to occasionally be found – not to mention, bodies of murdered victims – but no, there was absolutely nothing.

The heated debate regarding whether or not memories for traumatic events really are repressed raged throughout the 1990s and on into this century. Recently, however, a number of commentators have declared that the so-called “memory wars” are over – and that the sceptics won. They believe that no one takes seriously either the concept of repression or the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. If only that were true. Sadly, there are many signs that the memory wars are far from over, as I will discuss in my next article.

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