America in the 1980’s and ’90’s suffered through two parallel waves of sex abuse hysteria: prosecutions for mass sexual abuse of children, such as the McMartin preschool case, with children as the key witnesses; and allegations by adults that they had been horribly abused when children—and that they had repressed the memories of their abuse for decades.
A new book tells the story of the second of these hysterias, and tries to explain it. In Try to Remember: Psychiatry’s Clash Over Meaning, Memory, and Mind, psychiatrist Paul McHugh says the ground was laid in part by Sigmund Freud, who told us that many of the most important truths about ourselves lie in the unconscious, and in part by the novel Sybil, a 1970’s best-seller that popularized Multiple Personality Disorder and connected it to childhood sex abuse.
Dr. McHugh, a former director of the psychiatry department at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is well equipped to explore this delusion. He was drawn into “the memory wars” when bewildered parents came to him after their adult children accused them. His book has been widely praised as both absorbing and instructive.
Prosecutors and judges are no longer likely to rely on “repressed memories” of suffering terrible crimes, but the pain for many accused parents goes on. Their children’s beliefs in their memories seem impervious to scientific debunking.
Much as the financial collapse of 2008 showed that even the experts—or especially the experts—could be wildly wrong, the memory wars showed that eminent psychiatrists and psychologists could propagate pseudo-scientific hogwash. No amount of modernity, education, or training, it seems, can take the place of common sense and skepticism. This is an important lesson to remember in child abuse cases, where emotion always threatens to overwhelm reason.