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The Revenge of the Repressed

The fact that memory therapy lay at the very heart of the Franklin case was manifested in little-noted testimony from one of Eileen’s therapists, Kirk Barrett. According to Barrett, as Ofshe and Watters report,

Eileen’s memories “developed” over the course of the therapy sessions and often during the encounter itself. With the relaxation exercises and the free-association techniques, these memories often became more detailed during their hour-and-a-half meetings….

Barrett remembers that from June [1989], when she initially visualized the first element of what was to become the crime scene, through July, Eileen worked both in and out of the sessions trying to sort out the meaning of her feelings, visualizations, and memories. He assured Eileen at the time that it “wasn’t important… whether her visualizations were real or not,” and that they could “sort that out later.” In and out of therapy the details slowly cohered into a narrative. One day she came in and reported to Barrett that she had seen a flash image of someone hitting Susan with a rock—but that she couldn’t make out who the person was. According to Barrett it was several sessions later, in a highly emotional moment, that Eileen revealed that she was finally able to see the face of the man who killed [Susan]. It was her father’s.

Eileen Lipsker originally told her brother that the murder scene had revealed itself to her in hypnosis during her therapy. Later, she told a sister that she had dreamed the crucial knowledge—an equally suggestive fact, since recovered memory therapy often employs either hypnosis or dream analysis or both. Lenore Terr wants us to regard these statements as forgivable “lies” and to put our trust in the more enchanting image of Eileen’s single flashback to the murder scene. It makes a good deal more sense to suppose that Eileen only belatedly learned that evidence from hypnosis had recently been deemed inadmissible in California courts.

Kirk Barrett’s neglected testimony does exculpate Eileen Lipsker in one respect: she had sincerely come to believe that her father was the murderer. Once committed to having him put away, however, she allowed her “memories” to evolve as expediency required, picking up new details and dropping others as newspaper reports disclosed the content of old police records. As Ofshe and Watters remark, virtually the only correct details in her original report were “that Susan had been killed with a rock and that her ring had been crushed—facts that she had told Barrett she had known all her life.”12

There remains, however, the one striking detail that captivated both the jurors and, I am sure, the early readers of Terr’s book: the bleeding bald spot that was said to have marred Eileen Franklin’s pate for five straight years after the murder. Quite simply, it turns out to be a figment of Eileen’s adult imagination. As Ofshe and Watters discovered, more than forty photographs of her in the relevant period—potential exhibits that the prosecution wrongly withheld from the defense—show no trace of missing hair. Eileen’s mother, Leah, who has changed her mind about George’s guilt after finding the narrative in Unchained Memories so erroneous, has told Ofshe and Watters that she couldn’t have failed to notice any such disfiguration if it had occurred even once. An older and a younger sister have also refuted this claim. If, as Terr believes, every symptom tells a story, in this instance the story is a fairy tale.

Once understood in its true lineaments, the Franklin/Lipsker matter turns out to be highly typical of other recovered memory cases. There is, in the first place, the eerily dreamlike quality of the “memories” themselves, whose floating perspective, blow-up details, and motivational anomalies point to the contribution of fantasy.13 There is the therapist’s reckless encouragement of the client to indulge her visions and worry “later”—usually never—whether or not they are true, along with his “supportive” absence of concern to check the emerging allegations against available knowledge. There is the interpretation of the “survivor’s” moral frailties as further evidence that she is a “trauma victim.”14 There is also, we can infer, the therapist’s false promise that excavation of the repressed past will lead to psychic mending instead of to the actual, nearly inevitable, result—disorientation, panic, vengefulness, and the severing of family ties. And there is the flouting or overlooking of what is scientifically known about memory, leaving the field free for dubious theories exfoliating from the original dogma of repression.

One remaining feature of the Lipsker case turns out to be reproduced in nearly every controversy over therapeutically assisted recall. The Franklin jury members, like many people who must weigh the credibility of “survivors,” felt that they had to accept Eileen’s story because she stood to gain nothing and lose everything by accusing her own father of murder. Of course, that was an oversimplification; Eileen felt that the pedophile George was a threat to her own child, and besides, as many observers perceived, she had a distinct taste for fame.15 In a deeper sense, however, the jury was right: Eileen had opened a Pandora’s box of bitterness and recrimination that will probably trouble her for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, the cardinal point about all this self-destructiveness went completely unnoticed. Eileen Lipsker did not decide to send her mind into a tailspin after making rational calculations about the opposing claims of justice and filial loyalty; she was progressively encouraged to do so by therapists who believed that full psychic health must wait upon a vomiting up of the repressed past.

Disastrously missed at the trial, this cardinal fact slipped away once again on a subsequent Faith Daniels talk show where, for the first time, Eileen Lipsker and Elizabeth Loftus sat down together. “Why would you want to suffer if you didn’t have to?” asked one member of the audience who, like nearly all the others, believed Eileen’s story and considered Loftus a heartless crank. “Why would you want to put yourself through it? There’s no logic behind it.” As Loftus now tells us in her book, she smiled stoically as the audience continued to berate her and rally to Lipsker’s cause. And then the program was over.

Reading about this episode, one experiences an extreme frustration. Couldn’t Loftus have pointed out that other parties besides Eileen had “put her through it”? That, however, was four years ago, when no one yet had an explanatory handle on the burgeoning plague that still besieges us. Now at last, thanks to the inquiries of Loftus and others, it is starting to make an eerie kind of sense.


The Franklin/Lipsker case, so attractive to Lenore Terr as Exhibit A of validated repression, actually shows how a “memory” originating in conscious hunches and resentments can be crystallized by protracted therapeutic suggestion, or the subliminal contagion of ideas between a dominant and a subordinate party. That is what we regularly find when missing elements of recovered memory stories are filled in; where repression was, there shall suggestion be. Indeed, someone who reviews many such cases will eventually realize that the salient question isn’t whether or not a bona fide instance of repression can be found, but rather whether there are any limits at all to the malleability of the human mind. Therapists, it seems, are helpful but not strictly necessary to the production of wildly fantastic memories. Given a facilitating belief structure, the compliant subject can use the merest hints as triggers to delusion.

To illustrate this fact, there is nothing quite like the sequence of events recounted in Lawrence Wright’s Remembering Satan, a short but gripping and brilliantly constructed book that will already be familiar to some readers from its serialization in The New Yorker in May 1993. Wright tells of Paul Ingram, an Olympia, Washington, sheriff’s deputy, a born-again Christian, and the chair of his county Republican committee, who was eventually thought to have raped both of his daughters as well as one of his sons innumerable times, to have passed the daughters around sexually as poker nights at home turned into gang rapes, to have hideously tortured the girls and forced them and his wife to have sex with goats and dogs, and to have murdered and cannibalized many babies at huge gatherings of his Satanic cult—where, be it noted, long gowns, pitchforks, and “Viking hats” were de rigueur. The still greater novelty, however, is that Ingram, though he initially remembered none of those atrocities, succeeded in visualizing most of them through the exercise of prayerful introspection. Indeed, he labored so hard to admit to new crimes that his tale-spinning daughters sometimes fell behind his pace.

All this would be hilarious Thurberesque Americana if it were not also inexpressibly sad. Whereas the Franklin household, when Eileen Lipsker went public with her vision, no longer contained a married couple or any children, in the Ingram case a devout family of seven was shattered for good. Moreover, Ingram, who is now serving a twenty-year term in prison after having confessed to six counts of child molestation, came close to being joined there by others who were caught in a widening net of lunacy—and at least two of them, who were in fact jailed briefly and then kept under house arrest for five months each, will never recover their reputations. Even those men had to think long and hard about whether they might have unknowingly lived double lives; and Ingram’s wife, Sandy, did conclude that she must have been a secret Satanist. She has moved away now and lives under a different name, as does the only one of her five children who hasn’t fled Olympia.

What is most arresting about the Ingram calamity is how little suggestion—indeed, how little autosuggestion—was required to set it in motion and then to keep it hurtling toward its climax. Ericka Ingram had a history of making unsubstantiated sexual charges prior to her “realization” at age twenty-two that her father had been raping her. That insight did not occur during therapy but at a Christian retreat in August 1988 at which a visiting charismatic healer told Ericka the news, relayed to her by the Holy Spirit, that she had been molested as a child. Ericka immediately accepted the diagnosis—and, six years later, she apparently still does.16

Similarly, during the second day of his questioning Paul Ingram easily allowed himself to be led into a trance, resulting in his confession to all of the crimes with which he was eventually charged after prosecutors had deleted the witches’ sabbath material, which could have raised awkward questions in jurors’ minds if the case had come to trial. Ingram’s prolific later admissions were facilitated not only by prayer but by “relaxation techniques,” one of which he had picked up from a magazine. And two of his sons also developed a knack of instantly becoming “dissociated” in order to provide inquisitors with the required lurid reminiscences.

This is not to say that the Ingram family generated hallucinations entirely under its own steam. To begin with, Paul Ingram’s police colleagues exerted unscrupulous (though hardly unusual) pressure on him, extending the second interrogation over a mind-buckling eight-hour period and using his piety as a wedge to confession. They lied to him about what others had revealed and assured him that if he would only begin by admitting his guilt, the relevant memories would come flooding back.17 By that second day, furthermore, Paul was being advised by a Tacoma psychologist whose recent practice had included Satanic abuse cases, and who later helped Paul’s son Chad to conclude that his remembered childhood dreams were proof of molestation. An assistant pastor in the Church of Living Water also helped both Paul and his wife to sustain the cleansing flow of visions. During five months of interrogation, no fewer than five psychologists and counselors kept the heat on Paul, preventing him from ever stepping back to test whether the grimmer yet more tentative of his two memory systems—his “horror movie,” as he called it—was anchored to actual events.

When all this pressure has been duly weighed, however, the fact remains that the Ingram case displays a breathtaking readiness on the part of its major players to form lasting “memories” on very slight provocation. And this is important for grasping the explosive potentiality of recovered memory allegations. There was nothing exceptional about the Ingram family’s prelapsarian makeup or the Olympia scene in general. Apparently, a community steeped in Biblical literalism on the one hand and Geraldo on the other needs only a triggering mechanism to set off a long chain reaction of paranoia.18 Yet such a community epitomizes a good portion of North America. The potential for mass havoc from “memory”-based accusations is thus no smaller today than it was in the seventeenth century. In fact, it is incomparably greater, thanks to the power of our sensation-seeking media to spread the illness instantaneously from one town or region to another.

As Lawrence Wright properly stresses, one further ingredient acts as a multiplier of trouble. Not surprisingly, it is a shared belief in the theory of repression. Only a few hours into his first grilling, Paul Ingram was ready to state, “I did violate them and abuse them and probably for a long period of time. I’ve repressed it.” His questioners of course held the same view, which took on firmer contours as more psychologists were called in; before long, the official version was that Paul had repressed each of his myriad offenses just as soon as he had finished committing it. A county under-sheriff (himself falsely accused of Satanism, but still an enthusiastic believer in its reality) became so enamored of this notion that he started moonlighting as a counselor to survivor groups and writing theoretical papers about the effects of repression.19 One can only second Lawrence Wright’s conclusion: “[w]hatever the value of repression as a scientific concept or a therapeutic tool, unquestioning belief in it has become as dangerous as the belief in witches.”

Some secular-minded readers may feel that the Ingram case, in view of its fundamentalist soil and its resultant exotic blossom of Satanism, is too outlandish to tell us much about the prudent and responsible search for incest memories. Yet the more one learns about the scare over “Satanic ritual abuse,” the more porous its boundary with the larger recovered memory movement appears to be. According to surveys taken by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, at least 15 percent of all memory retrievers come to recall Satanic torture in childhood—this despite a lack of evidence to support the existence of any sadistic devil-worshiping cults in North America or anywhere else.20 The fact is that “memories” of baby barbecues and the like are usually evoked through the same techniques of psychic exploration commended by prestigious academics such as Judith Herman and Lenore Terr. Indeed, as she testified at the Franklin trial, Terr herself has treated “victims” who thought they recalled having been forced to watch ritual human sacrifices.

Until the recovered memory movement got properly launched in the later 1980s, most Satanism charges were brought against child-care workers who were thought to have molested their little clients for the devil’s sake. In such prosecutions, which continue today, a vengeful or mentally unhinged adult typically launches the accusations, which are immediately believed by police and social workers. These authorities then disconcert the toddlers with rectal and vaginal prodding, with invitations to act out naughtiness on “anatomically correct” dolls with bloated genitals, and, of course, with leading questions that persist until the child reverses an initial denial that anything happened and begins weaving the kind of tale that appears to be demanded. As many studies have shown, small children can be readily induced to believe that they have experienced just about any fictitious occurrence. In this respect, however, they do not stand fundamentally apart from their elders. The only real difference is that the grown-ups, in order to become as gullible as three-year-olds, must first subscribe to a theory such as that of demonic possession or its scientific counterpart, Freudian repression. They then become putty in the hands of their would-be helpers.

As it happens, the most impressive controlled illustration of this fact to date came directly from the Paul Ingram case, after the prosecutors—not the defense!—had invited the social psychologist Richard Ofshe to Olympia as an expert on cults and mind control. Perhaps, they thought, Ofshe could cast some light into the murky Satanic corner of the affair. But Ofshe, immediately struck by the conditional quality of Ingram’s confessions and their suggestion that a scene was taking place in the mind’s eye (“I would’ve,” “I must have,” “I see it,” etc.), decided to test Ingram’s suggestibility by proposing a false memory for him to accept or reject.

I was talking to one of your sons and one of your daughters…,” Ofshe told Ingram. “It was about a time when you made them have sex with each other while you watched.” This was one charge that had not been levied and would never be, but one day later, Paul proudly submitted a new written confession:

…I ask or tell Paul Jr. & Ericka to come upstairs…. I tell Ericka to knell [sic] and to caress Paul’s genitals. When erect I tell her to put the penis into her mouth and to orally stimulate him…. I may have told the children that they needed to learn the sex acts and how to do them right…. I may have anal sex with Paul, not real clear…. Someone may have told me to do this with the kids. This is a feeling I have.

When Ofshe then informed Ingram that this memory was specious, Ingram refused to believe him. “It’s just as real to me as anything else,” he protested.

When, months later, Ofshe phoned Ingram in jail and begged him not to plead guilty, Ingram wavered but declined. Apart from consideration for the daughters who had so egregiously betrayed him, he cited the likelihood that he was still repressing material that would make the whole case clear. Protected at last from the ministrations of his “counselors,” he did change his mind shortly thereafter, but his guilty plea had already been accepted by the court, and two subsequent appeals have failed.

The criminal cases we have examined suffice to show that the “return of the repressed,” however bland its uses within the amorphous aims of Freudian therapy, can turn noxious when it is considered by police, prosecutors, jurors, and even accused malefactors to be a source of unimpeachable truth. In the light of the actual recovery movement, however, the Franklin and Ingram examples can be seen to lack a baleful but typical ingredient. So far as we know, neither Eileen Lipsker nor Ericka Ingram (not to mention Paul Ingram himself) was systematically recruited by self-help “recovery” books to believe that certain despicable deeds must have been committed and then wholly repressed.

Just such solicitation—we can think of it as suggestion-at-a-distance—has by now been brought to bear on myriad vulnerable people, mostly women, by advocates in search of ideological and/or financial gain. The result has been a widespread tragedy that is still unfolding before our incredulous eyes. To lay bare not just its nature but also its causes, both proximate and remote, is a socially urgent task. With the help of several excellent new critical works, we will explore that ground in the concluding portion of this essay.

(This is the first of two articles.)


Victims of Memory’: An Exchange January 12, 1995

Down with Memory Lane December 22, 1994

  1. 12

    Intriguingly, one of the tiny errors that survived in Eileen’s testimony, having to do with a confusion between two rings on Susan Nason’s hands, corresponded exactly to a mistake made in a newspaper story in 1969. That could only mean that Eileen’s “memories” were tainted by misinformation that she had either heard or, more probably, read in old clippings or on microfilm. Quixotically, however, the judge ruled all journalism from the murder period inadmissible—as if the only possible question to settle were whether Eileen was revealing the sheer truth or telling lies, instead perhaps of unknowingly recycling second-hand lore. Such bits of truth and error were available to her at all times, thanks to the fact that within her family George Franklin had always been considered a suspect in the Nason murder.

  2. 13

    As for anomalies, why did George Franklin take his daughter along to watch the rape and murder of her dearest friend? How could he not have expected to be found out? Why would he then make Eileen witness another killing? Why did no one in a crowded living room notice George inserting his finger in Eileen’s vagina? Etc.

  3. 14

    As Loftus and Ketcham say, “With that diagnosis all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Eileen Franklin’s personality could be explained away. Yes, she lied about being hypnotized…but that’s understandable because she is a trauma victim. Yes, she used drugs and was arrested for prostitution…but her behavior makes sense given that she is a trauma victim. Yes, she repressed the memory for twenty years…but that’s a defensive reaction common to trauma victims. Anything the defense might say in an attempt to undermine Eileen’s credibility as a witness could be turned around and presented as an ongoing symptom….”

  4. 15

    Lipsker quickly become a heroine in psychotherapeutic circles, appeared on Sixty Minutes, collaborated on an as-told-to book, and found herself flatteringly portrayed by Shelley Long in a made-for-TV movie about the case. Her book and movie contracts, negotiated by a Hollywood entertainment lawyer, were signed before the case had gone to trial.

  5. 16

    At the sentencing, Ericka was instrumental in seeing that her father receive the stiffest allowable punishment, and afterward, like Eileen Lipsker, she advanced her cause on the tabloid talk shows. Today, I gather, she is still concerned with denouncing a coven of Satanists within the Olympia police department.

  6. 17

    The Olympia police authorities never conducted an investigation in the usual meaning of that term. “Believe the children” was their tacit motto from the word go. To this day they haven’t realized the unfairness of collecting a mountain of absurd and contradictory stories from patently unstable witnesses, lopping off the charges that would be most likely to arouse a jury’s suspicions about the reliability of those sources, and using the remaining, equally unsubstantiated, charges to hustle a respected colleague off to prison. Nor, in Wright’s words, did the detectives “ever consider the possibility that the source of the memories was the investigation itself.”

  7. 18

    One month before Paul Ingram was summoned to police headquarters for his first grilling, the Ingram family sat down to watch Geraldo Rivera’s prime-time special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. The previous day’s program, which they may or may not have seen, was called Satanic Breeders: Babies for Sacrifice.

  8. 19

    Ingram himself learned, pathetically, how to talk the self-pitying lingo of the recovered memory movement. “I have also been a victim since I was five years old,” he told an interrogator, “and I learned very early that the easiest way to handle this was to hide it in unconscious memory….”

  9. 20

    For a reliable account of the way that the mania over “Satanic ritual abuse” has blended with the recovered memory movement, see Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Open Court, 1993). For the FBI’s inability to locate any such abuse, see Kenneth V. Lanning, “Satanic, Occult, Ritualistic Crime: A Law Enforcement Perspective,” The Police Chief, October 1989, pp. 62–83. Among the books under review, the question of Satanism is most fully covered in Mark Pendergrast’s Victims of Memory.

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