This month, New York Magazine and its website, The Cut, published a story by writer Katie Heaney about the controversy surrounding “recovered memory,” and using the False Memory Syndrome Foundation as a central talking point. You can read the article here. A companion podcast episode is here.
False memory and recovered memory happen to be obsessions of mine, and so I was excited to see new coverage on the subject. But, for reasons that will appear below, I was — to put it mildly — disappointed in that coverage. I subsequently sent a letter to the editor, intended for publication, which they appear to have chosen not to print. Of course, any publication has the right to choose which letters they print and why. But I was not the only person who responded with dismay to Heaney’s reporting, and it appears they do not plan to run any of these responses, including at least three from people or organizations who are named in the story.
Let me be clear: I have no pony in this race.
Recovered memory and false memory have no personal relevance to me. I have not received recovered memory therapy for personal trauma. I have not experienced any life-altering false memories (we all experience some false memories, though). I have not been accused of any wrongdoing based on someone’s “recovered memory.” None of my work is referenced or challenged in the story. I am just a person who cares about this stuff, and has taken the time to understand it.
And I am a journalist. I care about journalistic integrity, nuanced reporting, and taking the time to see the full picture. When an outlet doesn’t do that, I get nervous. Having just been through the last four years, I am even more certain of the media’s responsibility to report the truth, even when it is not convenient or simple.
I happened to copy Elizabeth Loftus and Lucien Greaves on my letter to the editor. Loftus and Greaves are both mentioned in Heaney’s story, and I know them both. Greaves cofounded Grey Faction, an activist group that combats recovered memory abuses, and Loftus is a psychologist and memory expert. Loftus and Greaves each shared with me rebuttal letters they had written to New York Magazine / The Cut. Greaves also pointed out in his own piece that Jimmy Coan, a source quoted in the story, had posted a Facebook comment lamenting the misuse of his story. There were now at least four founded complaints issued to New York Magazine about their reporting.
Soon thereafter, I received another letter to the editor The Cut had chosen not to print, from the Center for Inquiry. Five complaints had been issued about the story, and none had received a reply, except for Elizabeth Loftus, who shared with me the editor’s milquetoast reply.
As these collected letters are currently living nowhere in particular except the archived inbox of Vox Media’s editors (Greaves is the only one who posted his publicly), I wrote to each of the writers and said I wanted to post their letters in one place. Everyone happily agreed, except one: Edward “Ted” Hart, of…
New York Magazine.
What on Earth is going on here?
As informed readers will know, I don’t need Hart’s permission to post his own defense of New York Magazine’s reporting methods (this context is clearly fair use). But having asked politely, it is a bummer to have to go aggro on the guy and post his unpersuasive defense (again, the only one on offer) knowing he’d rather I not. Oh well, here we are.
[Edit, Feb 5, 2021: Since first posting this article (at which point there were four letters), I have received additional letters. Together, they read as one very very long post. So, as of today, I will be posting all the letters separately, other than my own. However, an exhaustive list of all the letters I have received and published will live below, with pull quotes and links. This will remain the central guidemap for reading all such letters.]
After my own letter, I am including the others in the order in which they were written.
If you have written a letter to New York Magazine on this issue, and would like me to include it in the collection below, please contact me on Twitter.
“If repression were real, it would be the greatest ally of sexual abusers, not victims.”
A letter from Carrie Poppy
January 26, 2021
Letter intended for publication: “The Memory War.”
I was initially excited to see that New York Magazine was covering one of my favorite topics: the so-called “recovered memory” movement (“The Memory War,” January 2021). Then I actually read the piece. I am dismayed and disappointed. I have been reporting on pseudoscience, alternative medicine, and psychological manipulation for a decade, and I have never seen a lazier analysis of this situation printed in a major publication. Writer Katie Heaney paints the debate as a war between the Good Guys (recovered memory therapists) and the Baddies (actual memory experts). She has this backward, if indeed she believes it at all.
Everyone knows what it is like to remember things we wish we could forget. Our worst experiences are typically branded into our brains, sometimes intrusively popping up uninvited (that’s how PTSD works). But believers in “repression” posit a totally contrary phenomenon: That some people bury entire fragments of their lives — say, repeated sexual abuse from age two to eighteen — in their subconscious, in order to “protect” themselves. There is no compelling evidence of repression existing, but since Freud invented the idea almost a century ago, some have taken his theory as gospel. Apparently, Heaney is one of them, joining the ranks of those who mistakenly believe that they must defend the groundless theory, or else support abusers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
By definition, a person with a repressed memory is surprised by it; the memory doesn’t fit in with the rest of her life. The story often goes like this: the patient can’t make sense of some symptoms she is experiencing, so she has sought out a repression expert, who suggests that perhaps she has “intentionally forgotten” events too shocking and painful to live with, but her body “remembers” them on its own. “Your brain was protecting you,” explains the therapist, “but now it’s time to unlock those memories and be free of them.” Now the patient sits back, relaxes, and “tries to remember,” sometimes with the help of hypnosis, visualization techniques, or drugs. Suddenly, graphic images flash before her eyes. Her father is raping her, or her parents are sacrificing the family cat in front of her as part of a Satanic ritual. None of this makes sense. Yet, there it is, vivid and real, suddenly bursting forth from her memory, bringing her wrenching pain. “That’s what really happened,” her therapist tells her. He has a diploma on his wall. She believes him.
Not only is this the exactly the opposite of how memory usually works; its internal reasoning makes no sense. How would it “protect” a victim to erase her memory of her father raping her, so that he could enter her bedroom again and again, surprising her every time? If repression were real, it would be the greatest ally of sexual abusers, not victims. But nevertheless, this theory has penetrated our society so deeply that laypeople often assume it’s a documented part of psychology. It isn’t. Recovered memory theory is rejected by most experts. Who still promotes it? Alien abduction hypnotists, past life psychics, and conspiracy theorists who promote Qanon and the Deep State. They use the same methods to get their patients to “recall” lost memories. I have seen it myself at UFO seminars, Deep State conferences, and even at a drug resort in Costa Rica where the hallucinogenic ayahuasca is used for spiritual awakening.
Repeatedly it has been demonstrated that a therapist (or an experimenter, or anyone really) can quite easily implant a false memory in others. The cognitive systems which control imagination, and those which recall memories, work in lockstep. Thus, “trying to remember” is just about equal to creative storytelling, but with one key difference: the storyteller thinks she is telling the truth, and she relies on the expert in the room to differentiate for her. There is a pseudoscience in this conversation, and it’s not false memory; it is recovered memory. But Heaney brushes all this aside because false memory studies are done in labs and involve relatively harmless implanted memories. (Of course they do; would she have researchers implant false visions of a participant’s father raping her? What ethics board would approve this?)
True, a person can forget horrible events. But this is typically because the event didn’t make a deep impression at the time. Dr. Susan Clancy’s research shows us that victims of childhood sexual abuse often forget because the encounter was initially confusing, not horrifying. As children, they have no concept of sexuality, and so the event rolls off the edges of their mental landscape. When, years later, they learn about sexuality, and how tender and reciprocal the exchange of consent is, the previously unremarkable memory is recalled, rather than dramatically unearthed. They now see the abuse for what it was: a theft of their right to choose their first sexual experiences. (Regrettably, NAMBLA glommed onto Clancy’s research, trying to spin it in their favor, forcing her to vociferously state that child abuse is a horrific crime. This is, no doubt, exactly what people fear will happen if they question repression theory.)
But Heaney discredits, even seems to scoff at, the researchers, journalists, and activists who have devoted their lives to carefully investigating memory. She clearly disdains Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, widely considered the greatest living memory researcher. To prove what a villain Loftus is, Heaney points out that Loftus gave expert testimony during Harvey Weinstein’s trial. Never mind that one of Weinstein’s accusers “recovered” the memories of her alleged abuse. Nevermind that these claims, unchecked, could create a mistrial that could get Weinstein acquitted, despite over eighty women accusing him without need of recovered memory pseudoscience. Had Loftus declined the invitation, Weinstein could just as well have gone free, able to harm more women. Instead, Loftus did what she does: spoke to the truth of the memory research, in a court of law. Would we seriously have her do otherwise?
Heaney also waves her hand at Grey Faction, an activist group that exposes psychological pseudoscience, because they (in her mind) are obsessive teens who are still enthralled by the Satanic Panic caused by repressed memory theory in the ’80s and ’90s. Never mind that that history is intrinsically tied to Qanon, “deep state” conspiracy theories, and the other madness the U.S. is still grappling with today. (Lucien Greaves, one of Grey Faction’s founders, says he expressed all of this to Heaney, but none of it is in the article. He also offered to interview Heaney unedited on his popular podcast, which she seems to have ignored.) Never mind that people were convicted of abusing children in Satanic rituals based on no evidence but “recovered memory.” Never mind that many of these people have been exonerated — after years in prison — on the grounds that the “memories” were invented by the therapist. Never mind that none of this requires you to call an accuser a liar. Instead, we can give patients the latitude to grapple with the ambiguity of human memory, and come to their own conclusions. Good journalists can help them corroborate their claims, rather than simply saying “I believe you,” putting the onus of validation back on the survivor.
Never mind all of that, because we are in the business of “believing victims,” here.
Are we, though? How shall I identify victims so that I might believe them? How will I identify victims of misinformation, psychological manipulation, or false accusation, and how will I tell them from victims of sexual abuse?
Well then, we are back at the beginning, aren’t we.
But all of this aside, something should matter to us even more: recovered memory theory isn’t true. Repression does not appear to be real, and I pray we remain a society that cares about what is true.
“This issue has been studied exhaustively for thirty years.”
Read Dr. Elizabeth Loftus’ January 13, 2021 letter to the editor, here.
“…which is entirely consistent with what we published.”
Read the January 13, 2021 response from New York Magazine to Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, here.
“That isn’t a psychologically plausible occurrence.”
Read the January 18, 2021 letter from Professor Frederick Crews, here.
“Recovered Memory Therapies destroy lives.”
Read the January 18, 2021 letter from Lucien Greaves, here.
“You erased the victims of recovered memory therapy.”
Read the January 19, 2021 letter from Evan Anderson of Grey Faction, here.
“Recovered memory and repressed memory have been scientifically discredited.”
Read the January 26, 2021 letter from the Center for Inquiry to New York Magazine, here.
“To the journalist’s credit, she did inquire what salad greens Peter and I prefer.”
Read the January 31, 2021 letter from Pam Freyd, here.