The Revenge of the Repressed: Part II

The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (3rd edition)

by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis
HarperPerennial, 604 pp., $22.50 (paper)

The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse

by Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham
St. Martin's, 290 pp., $22.95

Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria

by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters
Scribner's, 340 pp., $23.00

Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives

by Mark Pendergrast
Upper Access, 603 pp., $24.95 (paper)


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.