Throughout the American 1980s and beyond, the interrogation of small children for their memories of recent sexual abuse played a role in many a criminal case against accused molesters who had not, in fact, done anything wrong. The social and financial costs have been enormous. To take only the most famous example, staff members of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, who were accused of every imaginable horror associated with devil worship, had to endure the longest (almost seven years) and most expensive ($15 million) trial in American history before the case collapsed from the weight of its accumulated absurdities. In other instances, draconian sentences are being served and plea bargains are still being coerced in the face of transparently clear signs that the charges are bogus. Even today, our criminal justice system is just beginning to erect safeguards against the error that makes such outrages possible: the assumption that children are still reliable witnesses after exposure to their parents’ and inquisitors’ not-so-subtle hints that certain kinds of revelations are expected of them.

Not even that much progress, however, is being made with respect to curbing parallel travesties involving the therapeutically manufactured memories of adults who decide that they must have been molested in their own childhood. On the contrary: by extending their statutes of limitations to allow for thirty years and more of non-recollection, our states have been codifying a pseudoscientific notion of repressed-yet-vividly-retrieved memory that can cause not merely injustice but enormous grief and havoc. Obviously, the impetus for such legislative backwardness is not coming from reputable psychological research—which, as we have seen, offers no support to the concept of repression even in its mildest form. The momentum comes rather from a combination of broad popular belief and a relatively narrow but intense crusading fervor.

Since 1988, the most successful communicators of both the belief and the fervor have been Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, coauthors of the “recovery manual” The Courage to Heal. A teacher of creative writing and her student, Bass and Davis were radical feminists who lacked any background in psychology. Their knowledge base consisted of stories they had heard from women who clearly remembered that they had been sexually abused in childhood but who had been rebuffed by uncaring therapists and family members. Noting the high numbers of such cases reported within women’s collectives, and further noting that other women in such groups eventually produced incest “memories” of their own, Bass and Davis soon decided that repressed abuse must be even more pervasive than remembered abuse. The more likely explanation of the late-blooming cases—namely, that the dynamics of the group encouraged false memory formation by making victimhood into a test of authentic belonging—has yet to dawn on these collaborators.

Precisely because their minds were unclouded by research findings, Bass and Davis uncannily reflected the ideological spirit of their moment and milieu. As Mark Pendergrast relates in Victims of Memory, the mounting (and very legitimate) concern about the underreported incidence of real child molestation formed only one corner of the picture. Bass and Davis also spoke to a public mood of impatient moral absolutism; an obsession with the themes, popularized by John Bradshaw and others, of codependency, the “dysfunctional family,” and the “inner child”; a widespread susceptibility to occult beliefs; the rise of “lookism” and other manifestations of hypersensitivity to the violation of personal space; and the angry conviction in some quarters that all men are rapists at heart. While Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller were hypothesizing that American fathers regularly rape their daughters in order to teach them what it means to be inferior, Bass and Davis set about to succor the tens of millions of victims who must have repressed that ordeal.

No single book, of course, can make a social movement. Although The Courage to Heal had already sold over three quarters of a million copies before its recent third edition appeared, and although its spinoff volumes constitute a small industry in their own right, Bass and Davis have been joined by a considerable number of other writers who share their slant.1 Moreover, the recovered memory business quickly outgrew the motives of its founders. By now, as the critical new books by Pendergrast and by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters show, it has evolved into a highly lucrative enterprise not just of therapy and publishing but also of counseling, workshop hosting, custody litigation, criminal prosecution, forced hospitalization, and insurance and “victim compensation” claims.

The recovery movement, it must be plainly understood, is not primarily addressed to people who always knew about their sexual victimization. Its main intended audience is women who aren’t at all sure that they were molested, and its purpose is to convince them of that fact and embolden them to act upon it. As for genuine victims, the comfort they are proffered may look attractive at first, but it is of debatable long-term value. The Courage to Heal and its fellow manuals are not about surmounting one’s tragic girlhood but about keeping the psychic wounds open, refusing forgiveness or reconciliation, and joining the permanently embittered corps of “survivors.”


In the eyes of the recovery movement’s leaders, as many as half of all American women are veterans of sexual abuse. If so, the logic seems to run, you can hardly fail to unearth a victim wherever you look and by however desultory a means of detection. But a revealing game with definitions is being played here. For writers like Bass and Davis, Renee Fredrickson, and E. Sue Blume, sexual molestation occurs whenever the victims thinks—or later comes to believe that she must have thought—that an inappropriate kind of contact is occurring. Blume, indeed, denies that physical touching need be involved at all. “Incest,” she explains, “can occur through words, sounds, or even exposure of the child to sights or acts that are sexual but do not involve her” (Blume, p. 5). And still another movement writer denounces what she calls “emotional incest,” which can be committed by parents who “appear loving and devoted,” “spend a great deal of time with their children and lavish them with praise and material gifts,” but do so merely “as an unconscious ploy to satisfy their own unmet needs” (Love, p. 1).

From the standpoint of public health, what’s most disturbing here is a likely growth in the number of “false positives”—women who were never molested but who are enticed into believing that they were. The mavens of recovered memory concern themselves almost entirely with means of reinforcing incest suspicions, not with means of checking them against solid evidence pro or con. Their advice to friends and counselors of a woman who has been led to suspect early molestation is generally the same: never cast doubt on those suspicions. So, too, she herself is urged to stifle all doubts. In Renee Fredrickson’s words, “You may be convinced that your disbelief is a rational questioning of the reality versus unreality of your memories, but it is partially a misguided attempt to repress the memories again” (Fredrickson, p. 161).

It is little wonder, then, that Bass and Davis, through the first two editions of The Courage to Heal, had yet to encounter a single woman who “suspected she might have been abused, explored it, and determined that she wasn’t.”2 Now, in a third edition that is beginning to sound nervous about “the backlash” in general and pending damage suits in particular, it is admitted that some therapists “have pushed clients to acknowledge abuse…that did not occur.” But even those few bad apples, in Bass and Davis’s still erroneous judgment, cannot “create new memories in their clients”; and the women who change their minds after leaving therapy “represent only a tiny fraction of the millions of actual survivors….”

The “false positives” problem has been exacerbated by the checklists of telltale symptoms that adorn the movement’s self-help manuals and advice columns. Smarting from criticism of their earlier checklists, Bass and Davis adopt a warier posture now; nevertheless, they still leave the implication that if you “feel different from other people,” incest is a likely cause. E. Sue Blume tells you that you were probably molested if you speak too softly, or wear too many clothes, or have “no awareness at all” of having been violated (Blume, pp. xviii–xxi). If you have checked the questionnaire items “I neglect my teeth” or “There are certain things I seem to have a strange affection or attraction for,” Renee Fredrickson knows why (Fredrickson, p. 49). And according to the ubiquitous John Bradshaw, a victim can be spotted either by her sexual promiscuity or, as the case may be, by her lack of interest in sex.3 These are all sterling examples of what experimentally minded psychologists dryly call a “confirmatory bias.”4

Once she is drawn into memory therapy, a client will find her suspicions of abuse verified by one or more techniques of investigation that are, in Fredrickson’s words, “as unlimited as human creativity” (Fredrickson, p. 141). With or without the therapist’s direct assurance that the patient’s symptoms are “consistent with abuse,” repression can supposedly be dislodged through “feelings work,” “body work,” “dream work,” “imagistic work,” “trance work,” and “group work”; through the production of journals and pictures that are sure to yield symbols of violation; through the cultivation of flashbacks, which are always deemed to reveal the truth of a past situation rather than compliance with current expectations; through administration of the tongue-loosening “truth serum” sodium amytal; and, of course, through hypnosis, including its deep-end forms of “age regression” and even “past life regression.” The considerable body of technical literature showing that none of these methods reliably leads to uncontaminated memories is simply ignored.


The recovery movement’s feminist affinity should not lead anyone to suppose that its incitement to militant victimhood serves the best interests of women. It is precisely women who make up most of the movement’s casualties. Once a patient is invited to believe that her inner child was suffocated at an early age, she may well put the major blame on her mother; that is just what we see in a significant minority of cases. Estrangement between sisters—one converted to hellishly revised memories of their years together, the other refusing to go along—is also a regular aftermath of therapy. But above all, the chief sufferer usually turns out to be the female patient herself.

Recovery manuals preach the doctrine of “abreaction,” whereby a patient must painfully relive each repressed memory if she is to stand a chance of freeing herself from it. The experience is guaranteed to be rough. In Lenore Terr’s version of this truth, “Clinicians find that once repression lifts, individuals become far more symptomatic. They become anxious, depressed, sometimes suicidal, and far more fearful of items suggestive of their traumas.”5 Bass and Davis agree. “Don’t hurt or try to kill yourself…,” they feel compelled to advise. “Sit tight and ride out the storm.” For many women, however, the storm doesn’t end, or else it ends all too abruptly with suicide. And even in the best of cases, a “survivor” is coached to reject the happiest actual memories of her childhood as being inconsistent with the stark truth of molestation. The result is a lasting sacrifice of resilience, security of identity, humor, capacity to show affection, and connection to the people who have cared most steadily about this woman’s happiness.


Although much of this woe is irreparable, there is no need for fatalism about its indefinite extension to new cases. On the contrary: the tide is already being turned. The critical books before us follow upon influential exposés by such courageous journalists as Michael Morris, Stephanie Salter, the late Darrell Sifford, and Bill Taylor, along with trenchant warnings by academics like Carol Tavris, Paul McHugh, and Robyn Dawes. And a number of other book-length critiques are just now arriving on the scene.6 Above all, steady progress in public enlightenment has been forged, over the past two-and-a-half years, by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, most of whose members are themselves slandered relatives of “survivors.”

All three of the most convincing new books on false memory—those by Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham, Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters, and Mark Pendergrast—address the full tragedy and folly of the recovered memory movement. All are astute, scientifically informed, and compassionate toward the movement’s casualties; all contain wrenching accounts of sudden accusation and insult, alienation, family grief, false imprisonment, and death without reconciliation. Any of these overlapping works would serve a reader well as a survey, analysis, and call to corrective action. But the most unflinching and broadest-ranging studies appear to be Ofshe and Watters’s Making Monsters and Pendergrast’s Victims of Memory.

As befits a coauthor (Ofshe) whose research specialty has been the tactics of exerting undue influence, Making Monsters is finely attuned to the thralldom that would-be healers impose upon their clients, whose mundane initial complaints are typically supplanted by anxiety, suggestibility, and a desperate dependency. What distinguishes this book is its focus on the resultant psychological transformation of patients. For Ofshe and Watters, the speciousness of the so-called memories is incidental to the real tragedy, a “brutalization and psychological torture” of people who get stripped of their actual early memories, infused with fanatical hatred of their parents, and disabled for normal coping in the world beyond the drifting lifeboat of survivorship. The patients themselves become grotesque in the very act of “making monsters” out of the people who nurtured them.

Ofshe and Watters offer us the clearest account of how the very inefficacy of memory treatment—its indefinite postponing of an expected self-restoration—can lock the patient and therapist in an ever more macabre embrace. Thus:

Therapists often find themselves forced to explain why, after the first series of recovered memories, the client’s symptoms do not disappear as promised. The easiest answer is to presume that the abuse must have been more serious than originally thought, and that more repressed memories are hidden in the patient’s unconscious. As the therapist pushes to find more hidden memories, the client, who is already trained in the process, often comes up with still more accounts of having been abused…. [Eventually,] the client’s worst fears are forged into memories. What could be more psychologically damaging than being raped by one’s father? Having to have his baby. What could be worse than having to give birth to your father’s child? Having to kill the child. What could be worse than having to kill a baby? Having to eat the baby after you’ve killed it. What could be worse than all this? Having to do these things during ritualized worship of the Devil.

At such a juncture, readers may suppose, both parties to the “therapy” must surely awaken and realize that they have been taking a magic carpet ride. But for reasons that Ofshe and Watters supply, it doesn’t happen. The therapist feels honor bound to avoid “revictimizing” the patient by expressing doubts, and the patient, precisely by virtue of having renounced the actual memories that used to moor her identity, has lost contact with reality and is desperate to retain the therapist’s approval. The outcome is a potentially lethal folie à deux.7

Making Monsters is a book about iatrogenesis, or the molding of a patient’s illness by the incompetent doctor’s own ministrations. The authors carry this theme quite far, not just in explaining individual cases but also in challenging an entire disease entity linked to false memory cases, so-called multiple personality disorder (MPD). They are hardly the first parties to express misgivings about this staple of Hollywood, sensational TV, and the criminal courts, where “one of my other personalities did it” has become the murderer’s last alibi. But Ofshe and Watters regard MPD as a pure product of suggestion. They see it as a behavioral pattern learned chiefly from hypnotherapists who tend themselves to be believers in Satanic possession and other forms of conspiratorial mind control, and who characteristically prod their patients not only to remember hideous ordeals but also to manifest the dissociated selves that must have been brought into being by flight from those ordeals. With MPD, Ofshe and Watters argue, we stand at the outer edge of medical derangement, yet well within the methodological boundaries of the recovery movement.8

In their assault on MPD, Ofshe and Watters are joined, independently, by the investigative journalist Mark Pendergrast, whose forthcoming Victims of Memory constitutes the most ambitious and comprehensive, as well as the most emotionally committed, of all the studies before us.9 Pendergrast’s book stands out from the others in several respects. For one thing, it transcribes his numerous interviews with therapists, “survivors,” “retractors,” and accused “perpetrators,” allowing the cruel unreason of the recovery movement to be voiced with a minimum of editorial mediation. Second, he is the author who delves most deeply into the movement’s antecedents in witchcraft lore, mesmerism, early hypnotherapy, and the treatment of so-called hysteria—itself a faddish malady whose distribution was suspiciously well correlated with possession of the means to pay for treatment. Third, Pendergrast offers illuminating material about physiological states (sleep paralysis, panic attacks) that have traditionally been mistaken for “body memories” of one lurid kind or another. And it is Pendergrast who devotes the most effort to analyzing the contemporary Zeitgeist in which the recovery movement thrives.

Like Loftus and Ofshe and Watters, Pendergrast offers case histories that will wring the classic emotions of pity and terror from any unbiased reader. But here, too, there is a difference: the most affecting (though by no means the most drastic) of Pendergrast’s stories is his own. He himself has lost his grown daughters to the recovery movement. Within therapy that featured the overcoming of repression, both of them came to believe that he did something awful—they won’t say what—to one of them, and both have met his pleas for communication with the icy formalism inculcated by The Courage to Heal—a book, ironically, that Pendergrast bought and gave to one daughter when she first mentioned that uncrystallized sexual scenes were beginning to haunt her mind. Now both daughters have taken different last names, and in concluding his book with a poignant letter to them, Pendergrast further protects their identities by assigning them fictitious first names as well. Let us hope that they read not just that letter but the whole of Victims of Memory, which, though it is hardly addressed to them alone, rests partly on the desperate premise that a 603-page dose of history, logic, and exhortation may be able to turn well-coached zealots back into the amiable young women Pendergrast once knew.

Finally, and understandably, Victims of Memory is distinguished by the urgency and specificity of its call to action. Among other recommendations, Pendergrast wants professional associations and licensing boards to stop waffling about repression and to insist that therapists acquaint themselves with what is actually known about memory. He wants reconsideration of laws that have created standing “abuse bureaucracies” and that have rashly extended statutes of limitations. He favors third-party suits for damages against therapists whose implanting of false accusations has destroyed families and livelihoods.10 He wants the adoption of higher standards for expert testimony and for the evaluation of therapists’ claims that they were mere bystanders to their patients’ mnemonic feats. And most pressingly, he asks for a special judicial review of criminal convictions that have been based solely on the alleged retrieval of long-dormant memories or on the manipulated fantasies of small children.

Some people who have always remembered their own sexual victimization will regard the legal and legislative parts of this agenda as regressive, a signal to real molesters that they can exploit children with impunity. Such fears are understandable; pedophiles will undoubtedly try to portray any accuser as deluded by a trick of memory. But that only makes it more imperative that the air be cleared. Until our courts can learn to apply the same evidential criteria to abuse charges that they require for all others, they will remain enmired in phony cases that persecute the innocent and squander resources that are needed to address the real problem of child abuse. Meanwhile, simple justice demands that prison sentences resting on a combination of delusion and misinformation be overturned.


Once the bizarre and sinister features of the recovery movement are widely known, sophisticated readers will not hesitate to distance themselves from it. But that very likelihood holds out another danger, that bobbing for repressed memories will be perceived simply as a ludicrous, dismissible aberration from a fundamentally sound psychotherapeutic tradition. If that view prevails, we will have learned little of lasting value from the recovered memory fiasco. It is essential to grasp that memory retrieval emerged from mainstream ideas about the psyche and that it bears a strong kinship with every other style of treatment that ties curative power to restoration of the patient’s early past.

Despite their feminist affiliation, the champions of survivorship cheerfully acknowledge Sigmund Freud, the male chauvinist par excellence, as their chief intellectual and clinical forebear. They are quite justified in that opinion. Indeed, the ties between Freud’s methods and theirs are more intricate and enveloping—and immeasurably more compromising to both parties—than they imagine. Precisely that kinship explains why other therapeutic descendants of Freudianism ought to be doing some soul-searching just now.

Needless to say, it is not classic psychoanalysis to which writers like Bass and Davis feel indebted. They have in mind the pre-psychoanalytic Freud, the one who supposedly took pity on his hysterical patients, found that they were all harboring memories of early abuse, “listened and understood and gave them permission to remember and speak of these terrible events,”11 and cured them by unknotting their repression. Unfortunately (the story continues), he then suffered a failure of nerve; too many fathers were being identified as perpetrators, and patriarchy itself threatened to teeter on its throne. As a result, Freud withdrew into psychoanalysis, a doctrine that ascribes incestuous designs not to adult molesters but, grotesquely, to children themselves.

As I explained in these pages a year ago, this fable contains at least one nugget of truth: Freud had no empirical warrant for shifting to an oedipal perspective.12 The founding of his signature doctrine was indeed a retreat—one designed, however, not to shield guilty fathers but to keep in play his favorite concept of repression—“the cornerstone,” as he would later say, “on which the whole structure of psycho-analysis rests”13—after its already announced therapeutic victories had failed to materialize. Freud finally had to cope with the disagreeable thought that his hysterics’ “stories” of very early abuse had been peremptory inventions of his own. He did so, however, through a dumbfoundingly illogical, historically momentous expedient, ascribing to his patients’ unconscious minds a repressed desire for the precocious couplings that he had hitherto urged them to remember having helplessly undergone. That is how psychoanalysis as we know it came into being.

Even people who accept this well-founded correction of the Freud legend may be slow to realize how high and dry it leaves the dogma of repression. Freud and Josef Breuer had first invoked repression in 1893 to cover miscellaneous symptom-producing “things which the patient wished to forget” (SE, 2:10); but Freud quickly became uncomfortable both with the random character of the offending thoughts and with his source of information about the repressed, namely, hypnosis. Then, with the seduction theory, he adapted the idea of repression to cover the failure of patients to remember molestations that he soon conceded to have been imaginary. Still later, it covered fantasies (and some events) whose existence could be known only by positing the action of repression itself. In none of these phases do we encounter raw behavioral data that an outsider would feel obliged to label “the repressed.” Thus we really ought to redefine the repressed as follows: “inaccessible and possibly nonexistent psychic material to which the theorist or therapist is nevertheless determined to assign explanatory power.” Exactly the same point applies to the repressed as it operates in the discourse of the recovery movement.

Among the many respects in which the memory retrievers’ glorification of Freud’s “seduction theory” misfires, the least noticed has to do with his alleged sympathy for incest sufferers. It is certainly true that he showed precious little pity for child sexual victims after he became properly “Freudian” and cast children as the would-be seducers.14 Like Bass and Davis, however, the early Freud was less interested in comforting certified veterans of molestation than in rounding up converts to his all-purpose diagnosis. And the spirit of his interventions, as revealed in his papers and letters of the period, was not compassionate but monomaniacal. It is little wonder that Ofshe and Watters regard him as having “cut the very figure of a recovered memory therapist.”15 Listen to Freud’s own words:

The work keeps on coming to a stop and they keep on maintaining that this time nothing has occurred to them. We must not believe what they say, we must always assume, and tell them, too, that they have kept something back…. We must insist on this, we must repeat the pressure and represent ourselves as infallible, till at last we are really told something…. There are cases, too, in which the patient tries to disown [the memory] even after its return. “Something has occurred to me now, but you obviously put it into my head.” …In all such cases, I remain unshakably firm. I…explain to the patient that [these distinctions] are only forms of his resistance and pretexts raised by it against reproducing this particular memory, which we must recognize in spite of all this (SE, 2:279–280).16

The patient’s typical response to such hectoring was an agitation that Freud, like his counterparts a century later, paraded as validation of his guesswork: “The behaviour of patients while they are reproducing these infantile experiences is in every respect incompatible with the assumption that the scenes are anything else than a reality which is being felt with distress and reproduced with the greatest reluctance” (SE, 3:204). Note as well how the psychoanalytic concept of resistance (the memory retrievers prefer to call it “denial”) was already pulling its weight in the mid-1890s. When Renee Fredrickson now avers that the “existence of profound disbelief is an indication that memories are real” (Fredrickson, p. 171), she is manifesting loyalty to the sturdiest, as well as the most capricious, of Freudian traditions.

Critics of recovered memory have remarked on the movement’s puritanical alarmism, whereby a mere touch or look gets invested with traumatic consequences that supposedly remain virulent for thirty years and more. In this respect, too, Freud anticipated the contemporary trend. So long as he cared at all about molestation as an etiological factor, he completely overlooked its real psychological effects, such as fear, moral confusion, and a diminished sense of selfhood. Instead, he dwelt on mechanical cause-and-effect relations between symptomatology and the premature stimulation of one body zone or another. And he regarded masturbation not only as a cause of indigestion, headaches, and lassitude but also as a sign of prior “seduction.” The early Freud’s truest contemporary heirs are those adults who see toddlers playing doctor and immediately phone the police.17

It was Freud, too, who pioneered the modern memory sleuths’ technique of thematically matching a patient’s symptom with a sexually symmetrical “memory.” Before he decided that it made no difference whether a trauma was real or imaginary, Freud was tireless in his pursuit of such causal linkages. Lesions in the mouth were signs that a penis had been there first; dyspepsia or “worm irritation” must have stemmed from the insertion of a tongue or a finger in the former baby’s anus; a paralysis of the lower limbs meant that the sufferer had been “required to stimulate the genitals of a grown-up woman with his foot”; and so forth.18 Freud apparently arrived at such quack conclusions in the same way that his incest-happy legatees do, by taking the symptom as a puzzle to be jointly addressed with the patient and then solving it through direct probing, dream analysis, and the study of tactically selected verbal associations.19

The early Freud must also be awarded precedence for the cluster of ideas about memory that has landed so many of our fellow citizens in litigation and/or prison. I refer not just to repression but to the mind’s ability to take snapshots of extremely early scenes and reproduce them in detail several decades later. When Lenore Terr, for example, uncritically accepts a man’s “memory” from babyhood of his sadistic mother having totally submerged him in the bathtub as he was noticing “light gray walls all around me, a foul smell in the air,” she may be defying what is known about brain development, but she is perfectly in key with Freud. Let one example, a letter from 1897, suffice:

The early period before the age of one and one half years is becoming ever more significant. I am inclined to distinguish several periods even within it. Thus I was able to trace back, with certainty, a hysteria that developed in the context of a periodic mild depression to a seduction, which occurred for the first time at 11 months[,] and [I could] hear again the words that were exchanged between two adults at that time! It is as though it comes from a phonograph. (Freud-Fliess Letter, p. 226)

Given that Freud here accepts a “phonographic” memory of an adult conversation recorded when the patient was presumably still struggling to say “mama,” this passage must rank among his most credulous ever. Yet the claim being made is scarcely more inane than any number of others from the same epoch.

Even the most adventuresome of modern memory enthusiasts, those who believe in Satan cults and who induce “past life regression” in their clients, had a predecessor of sorts in Freud. Though he didn’t go in for reincarnation, Freud subscribed to the Lamarckian idea that memory traces from prehistory are passed along genetically ad infinitum, predisposing us to traumas analogous to those once endured by our hominid forebears and their progeny. Thus, in the same letter (cited in my 1993 article) where he reported having “obtained a scene” from a patient who saw herself being forced to eat a morsel of her circumcised labium minor, he mused: “it is as though in the perversions, of which hysteria is the negative, we have before us a remnant of a primeval sexual cult, which once was—perhaps still is—a religion in the Semitic East…” (Freud-Fliess Letters, p. 227).

In theory, Freud could have come upon such prehistoric psychic material while exploring any given hysteric’s repressed unconscious. That is presumably why he added, “I dream, therefore, of a primeval devil religion with rites that are carried on secretly, and understand the harsh therapy of the witches’ judges” (Freud-Fliess Letters, p. 227). As I have previously shown, Freud, amazingly indifferent to the effects of suggestion, believed that the torture of accused witches elicited from them uncontaminated fantasies deriving from their own sexual molestation in childhood. Only the absence of a theological commitment, it seems, prevented him from stumbling over the final step and unearthing “Satanic ritual abuse.”20

A Freudian’s predictable way of handling all such embarrassments will be to say that they predated the birth of psychoanalysis. Yes, but most of them also persisted far beyond it. Long after 1897, Freud continued to badger his patients with ready-made hypotheses and to dismiss their objections as mere resistance; he still took their distress at his morbid insinuations as a further signal of his correctness; he still regarded symptoms as allegories of repressed mental contents; his Flintstones Lamarckism became more rather than less extravagant; and he never flagged in his quest to forge precise causal links between vividly reconstructed sexual events from infancy (either witnessed or personally endured) and adult mental disturbance.21 Without the éclat of psychoanalysis, moreover, our memory gurus would never have been drawn to the molestation-minded Freud whom they now prefer. Nor, lacking his imprimatur, could they have bandied about notions of repression, abreaction, and unconscious symbolism without feeling a need to argue for their cogency.

A chasm does yawn, however, between the principles of the recovered memory movement and psychoanalysis in Freud’s most familiar articulation of it. In contrast to Freud’s own habit, the ideal Freudian therapist is supposed to be cool, nonjudgmental, and slow to reach closure about diagnoses and thematic connections. He is also asked to honor a number of methodological niceties that deter simplistic translations between any given sign and the event or wish that supposedly brought it into being. There is, for instance, the concept of “screen memories” that are not to be taken at face value, and there are numerous posited defense mechanisms that supposedly warp dreams, symptoms, and errors into relatively obscure compromise formations. Although these refinements brought about an ominous problem of their own—in the full labyrinth of hermeneutic possibilities, how can we ever know which is the true path back to the supposedly originating scene?—they do militate against Bass and Davis’s model of extracting repressed truths from the unconscious like so many bills from an automatic teller. Thus a classically trained psychoanalyst would hesitate to claim, as the memory therapists do, that a dream—supposedly a mosaic of infantile and diurnal residues, of wish and defense, of confession and concealment—could be regarded as a direct source of information about the dreamer’s early history or the identity of her suspected molester.

Then, too, there is the saving fact that psychoanalysis, in continual retreat from its founding (but unfounded) therapeutic claims, has long since ceased advertising itself as curative in any straightforward sense of the term. That development minimizes the risk that Freudian patients will be devastated in the ways that once beset Freud’s personal practice22 and that now beset the recovered memory profession. “Hysteria,” of course, has vanished along with the doctors who battened on it; the psychic mysteries into which Freudian patients now get initiated are reassuringly universal, banal, and devoid of clear implications for changing behavior; and fastidious criteria of selection tend to weed out nearly all applicants who are suffering from anything more wrenching than a wish to know themselves better. Though many recovered memory clients, too, enter therapy with only vague and mild complaints, the incest stories that are forced upon them guarantee a more brutal jarring of their equanimity and identity than any Freudian patient can now undergo.

When all this is said, however, there remains an important core of shared assumptions between psychoanalysis and its hyperactive young successor. These are:

  1. To become mentally healthy, we must vent our negative feelings and relive our most painful psychic experiences. The deeper we delve, and the harsher and more bitter the truths that we drag to the surface, the better off we will be.
  2. Through the aid of an objective therapist in whom we invest authority, trust, and love, we can not only arrive at an accurate diagnosis of our mental problems but also retrieve the key elements of our mental history in substantially accurate form, uncontaminated by the therapist’s theoretical bias.
  3. Our minds don’t simply keep functioning when consciousness is absent; they feature an unconscious, a unique agency possessing its own special memories, interests, and rules of operation.
  4. Everything that we experience is preserved in either conscious or unconscious (repressed) memory; “even things that seem completely forgotten are present somehow and somewhere…” (SE, 23:260).
  5. The content of our repressions is preponderantly sexual in nature. Therefore, sexual experiences can be regarded as bearing a unique susceptibility to repression and can accordingly be considered the key determinants of psychic life.
  6. The difficulty we meet in trying to recall our earliest years is attributable not, as neurologists believe, to the incomplete infantile development of our hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, but rather to extensive repression (see, e.g., SE, 7:174–176), which in some instances can be successfully lifted. Inability to recall any other part of our past may therefore be assigned to that same cause.

  7. The repressed unconscious continually tyrannizes over us by intruding its recorded-but-not-recalled fantasies and traumas upon our efforts to live in the present. “A humiliation that was experienced thirty years ago acts exactly like a fresh one throughout the thirty years…” (SE, 5:578).

  8. Symptoms are “residues and mnemic symbols of particular (traumatic) experiences” (SE, 11:16), and “dreaming is another kind of remembering” (SE, 17:51). Consequently, a therapist’s methodologically informed study of symptoms and dreams can lead (through however many detours) to faithful knowledge of an originating trauma.

  9. Challenging though it may be, this work of reconstruction is made easier by the existence of a universally distributed store of unconscious equations between certain symbols and their fixed sexual meanings.

  10. As a result of all these considerations, the most prudent and efficient way to treat psychological problems is not to address the patient’s current situation, beliefs, and incapacities but to identify and remove the repressions that date from much earlier years.

All ten of these principles are, I believe, erroneous or extremely open to doubt. Yet they are so widely believed as to constitute what Richard Wollheim and Thomas Nagel, among others, regard as the psychological common sense of our era.23 For Nagel, indeed, this popularity serves as actual proof that Freud must have been on the right track; if the Freudian revelation has convinced people as savvy as ourselves, Nagel thinks, there must be something to it.24 He might entertain second thoughts after realizing how the common sense of the 1990s, not unlike that of the 1690s, has run amok when taken literally by demonologists.

As Freud well appreciated when he chose as his epigraph for The Interpretation of Dreams Virgil’s line about stirring up hell, psychoanalysis is already demonology.25 That is, it allegorizes the psychologically unknown as a dark power that must be coaxed forth, scrutinized, and kept in check by professionals who, incorruptible themselves by virtue of their faith and training, sniff out the hidden corruption of others. This sanctioned prurience is the thread that Mark Pendergrast traces from witch persecutions through mesmerism to hypnotherapy to psychoanalysis itself and, full circle, to the detection of Satanic abuse. Exactly that same compatibility between preindustrial and modern forms of superstition, we may recall, proved the undoing of the Freudian Christian Paul Ingram, who wrote in his diary after conferring with his fundamentalist pastor, “John thinks several spirits are in me yet, still in control of my unconscious…. [It] may take someone like John to guide me around my defenses.”


p class=”initial”>According to his confidant Sándor Ferenczi, the early Freud used to hurl himself body and soul against the forces that had invaded his patients’ minds. He “worked passionately, devotedly, on the curing of neurotics,” wrote Ferenczi in his diary, “(if necessary spending hours lying on the floor next to a person in a hysterical crisis).” Those were the work habits not of a fifty-minute psychoanalyst but of an exorcist. It was only after many therapeutic setbacks, Ferenczi reminded himself, that Freud came to call patients “a rabble,” good for nothing but “to provide us with a livelihood and material to learn from.”26 Eventually, his private pessimism about ever being able to cast out our psychic demons crept over his whole affluent institution, which now, in the 1990s, stands suddenly naked before the only skeptics it can’t ignore, the insurers who decide what is and isn’t a reimbursable form of treatment. The exorcist’s fervor has passed into coarser and more passionate hands such as those of Bass and Davis.

But this is not to say that psychoanalysis is doomed to stand by helplessly while young fanatics strut upon the stage that Freud built. Since every Freudian concept and commitment is revisable in a pinch, we may yet see the emergence of a hybrid psychoanalysis that has borrowed new vitality from the recovered memory movement. Portents of such an eventuality can already be found. The psychoanalyst Lawrence Hedges, for example, has recently proposed that therapeutically retrieved molestation scenes are not exactly false; they may be screen memories for inferrable bad experiences suffered “[i]n utero and in the earliest months of life.”27 In a new book from the Analytic Press, Lynda Share similarly proposes that the interpretation of adult dreams can give us detailed knowledge of real traumas from early infancy.28 And in Feminist Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Charlotte Krause Prozan, who sensed which way the wind was blowing long ago, reports that whereas analysts used to be watchful for penis envy in women patients, today “we are looking for sexual abuse.”29

In a follow-up book, Prozan offers a case history that dramatically embodies the blending of elements from standard psychoanalysis and therapy for repressed abuse. Prozan’s treatment of “Penelope” was classically Freudian in its ground rules, in its heavy reliance on dream interpretation, and in its length—fourteen years. Although Penelope never did recall any molestation, Prozan wasn’t fazed; as she reminds us, “[t]he phenomenon of not remembering…is in itself a symptom indicative of a severe traumatic experience.”30 As an appointed termination date loomed, the frantic Penelope surrendered at last to Prozan’s thirteen-year insistence that her dreams—of setting fires, of a van crashing into a house, of being shot by a man, of sex with Prozan herself—admitted of no other explanation than the enduring of anal rape by a family friend when she was nine years old.

Exiting psychoanalysis at age forty-nine, Penelope was still smoking, drinking, and binge eating—the behaviors she had entered treatment to bring under control. Now, as well, she was estranged from her unbelieving mother and sister. But she was glad, at least, to have puzzled out the identity of her abuser, “[t]hat SON OF A BITCH! It’s totally his fault!” And she was eagerly looking forward to full-throttle survivorship in what she called “the days of being powerfully angry” (Prozan, Technique, pp. 303, 308).


p class=”initial”>The disapproval that most psychoanalysts would feel upon reviewing this case is less significant than their substantial sharing of Prozan’s axioms about the repressed unconscious, its modus operandi, and its amenability to symbolic decoding. Their confidence about such matters stems from the same source that encourages writers like Bass and Davis to trust their own findings—once again, “clinical experience” and its replication by other members of their sect. As Thomas Nagel innocently puts it, each doubtful hypothesis “has to find its empirical support in countless other applications to other patients in other settings.” That is exactly the home-team approach to validation that produces abundant support for “facilitated communication,” Satanic mind control, UFO abductions, previous incarnations, and telepathy—this last a favorite pastime of Freud’s.

In a refreshingly sane essay, Paul R. McHugh, director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, recently depicted a long-term struggle, within the mental health disciplines, between what he called empiricists and romanticists—between, that is, those who bind themselves to methodical study of facts and those who “rely upon feelings for evidence, on metaphors for reality, on inspiration and myth for guidance.”31 The essay is especially pertinent because it relegates both psychoanalysis and recovered memory therapy to the romanticist camp, where they surely belong. But it also relegates them to history’s ashcan. In McHugh’s opinion, the empiricists are winning hands down, because their insistence on real-world testing allows them to deliver what they promise, proven remedies for specific complaints.

In the long run this victory does look inevitable. For now, however, I remain mindful of an earlier observation of McHugh’s—that every ten years or so, “psychiatric practice has condoned some bizarre misdirection, proving all too often the discipline has been captive of the culture.”32 Out in the rough-and-tumble psychotherapeutic marketplace, to which our mental health associations discreetly turn their backs, Freudian clichés are breeding promiscuously with those of religious zealots, self-help evangelists, sociopolitical ideologues, and outright charlatans who trade in the ever seductive currency of guilt and blame. So long as “Freud’s permanent revolution,” as Nagel calls it, retains any sway, the voodoo of “the repressed” can be counted upon to return in newly energetic and pernicious forms.

(This is the second of two articles.)

This Issue

December 1, 1994