science of us

Remembering Childhood Trauma That Never Happened

Photo: Annie Otzen/Getty Images

In March 1988, residents of the small town of Stuart, Florida, were gripped by what can only be described as mass hysteria. Law enforcement officers had discovered a secret satanic cult being run out of the local Montessori preschool. There were tales of dark hooded figures, bizarre blood ceremonies, and the ritualistic rape of children.

Evidence for this secret cult of child molesters came from none other than the children themselves—a decade later. Many of these remembered acts were so hideous, so barbaric, that the victims had buried the memories deep within their psyche, uncovering them only under intensive hypnosis. After hours of these sessions, psychologists and law enforcement officers were able to retrieve long-buried memories of bizarre ceremonies, torture, and the worst sexual violations imaginable. Psychologists flooded into town to uncover more debauchery and interview and save these innocent children.

“It got to be the kind of thing where every other storefront in the town had a new child psychologist,” said resident Carol MacMillan. “I mean, it was a cottage industry for recovered memories.”

The more psychologists and law enforcement dug down, the more instances of ritual abuse they turned up. Pretty soon, they had collected more than 60 testimonies of horrendous torture and sexual deviance. The community went ballistic. Some residents attended town meetings armed with handguns, hunting for satanists, while others planted listening devices in classrooms and searched for mass graves on the school grounds. “It was like Salem all over again,” one parent recalled.

As a result of the children’s testimony, police arrested James Toward, the owner of the preschool, and his office manager. Then they investigated Toward’s wife, who also worked at the school. The case against her was weaker than the case against her husband, so the lawyers and psychologists reached out to a new round of kids to find new details that might implicate her. Among them was Carol MacMillan’s daughter, an anxious little blond girl named Kristin Grace Erickson. Erickson was 12 years old at the time she was hypnotized. She understood from the doctors and other adults in town that her preschool teacher and his colleagues had done some terrible things—and could do more if people didn’t do something to help. She trusted the doctors who brought her into an interview room, put her under hypnosis, and began asking questions.

You can’t make people do something against their will under hypnosis, but a subject can become highly suggestible. Erickson recalls that a psychologist started asking probing questions about her experience at the preschool when she was a toddler. Initially, she had pleasant memories of the place, with its caring staff and occasional campfire sleepover. But after a few sessions, she began remembering bizarre rituals and being placed on a table where she was probed by cult members.

“I said that I saw a snake get killed and sliced down the side and that we had to drink its blood. And that there were people in hoods around a fire,” she says.

The psychologist seemed pleased and pushed for more details, especially about Toward’s wife. After the session was over, Erickson felt odd. She knew that by telling these people what had happened she was protecting other children who might be in danger. But she wasn’t sure that what she had said was completely true. The memory felt funny, like a lie. So she timidly suggested to the psychologist that she might have made the whole thing up. “No,” she remembers him saying, “that’s just what it feels like. It really happened.”

For the next 15 years or so, Erickson lived with the knowledge that she had been molested by a satanic cult masquerading as a Montessori preschool. Then, while living in San Francisco in her 20s, she decided to experiment with a sensory-deprivation tank—a chamber half filled with tepid water and impervious to sound or light. Crawl into one and you feel as if you are floating silently in the blackest space. For decades, people have used this extreme sort of quiet blackness as a sort of forced meditation.

At first she felt nothing but silence and boredom. But in the last few minutes, Erickson had an epiphany. She realized that something from her childhood hypnosis therapy was haunting her, and that she needed to come to terms with it. Soon afterward, she looked up Alan Tesson, one of the psychologists involved in the case, and was shocked to learn that 10 years after the investigations, he had been sued for implanting false memories in one of his patients.

What the hell is a false memory, she wondered? A memory that’s not true is called a lie.

What Erickson didn’t know was that her case had occurred in the middle of the so-called Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ’90s. A 1992 FBI report noted during this period, “hundreds of victims alleging that thousands of offenders are abusing and even murdering tens of thousands of people as part of organized satanic cults—and there is little or no corroborative evidence.”

Today, scientists understand that what caused a nationwide panic and the imprisonment of dozens of people wasn’t a conspiracy of pedophiles but an interesting glitch in the human mind: specifically, how we create memories.

* * *

You might assume that when you take in the world around you, your eyes and ears act like video cameras and tape recorders. That what you are seeing and hearing is what is: a park bench looking out over a wooded hillside, the furniture in your living room, the words on this page.

But in reality, your eyes and ears are taking light and sound and turning them into electrical signals to the brain, which then has to construct a version of what is being seen that makes sense. To do that, your brain has to make assumptions and take shortcuts, and it sometimes makes mistakes. Optical illusions, blind spots, and hallucinations all demonstrate how your brain can misinterpret what it’s seeing—to potentially very confusing and dangerous ends. Brain injuries like visual agnosia, an impairment popularized by Oliver Sacks in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, can cause a person with perfect eyesight to be unable to recognize the objects he sees. And even if your brain works perfectly, a talented magician can fool you simply by toying with your attention and expectation.

Just as vision is not a simple camera, memories aren’t like the flash drives collecting dust in the corner of a drawer somewhere. Like sight, memory is an integrated constructive process that is constantly refining itself—rebuilding, restructuring, and finding shortcuts. And, just as optical illusions do, your memory can play tricks on you.

It helps to know a little about how memory works. Broadly speaking, your memories are created in three stages: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. Encoding happens just as an event is occurring—that moment when you find yourself paying attention to something. All day, every day, your brain is taking all the sights, smells, and sounds around you, making sense of them, and storing them in your short-term memory: I am putting my keys in the green dish by the door; that bird on the tree looks like a black-capped chickadee; I think I smell something burning—these are all observations that your brain turns into memories. Any one of them could become part of a memory that you will carry for the rest of your life, depending on the next stage.

Consolidation is the transfer from short-term to long-term memory over the course of hours, weeks, or even years. It’s a complicated and somewhat mysterious process whereby certain synapses (the gaps between brain cells) become sensitive, and several neurons begin firing in concert. Repetition of information certainly helps, as do stress hormones (which is why we remember stressful situations so vividly) and deep sleep (many scientists think dreaming is connected to consolidation). Think of it as a mental filing system. At the end of the day, your mind sifts through all the memories it’s made that day (where my keys were before I left the house; whether that was a chickadee or a nuthatch), and moves only the important ones (my moronic roommate accidentally lit the kitchen on fire) into longterm memory.

The last step in creating memories is retrieval—that moment when you actually remember something. But wait, you might say, retrieving a memory is completely different from creating one. After all, you are just going through your metaphorical filing cabinet and pulling out a photo, right? No. Memory isn’t static like photos. It’s more like reassembling a picture from jigsaw pieces or making a photocopy of a picture and then looking at it. The point is that memory retrieval is its own sort of creation. And each time you make a copy, it looks a little different—a little more blurry and faded. So eventually you have to take a permanent marker and fill in some of the edges to make it appear sharper.

Simply put, a false memory is an error in one of these steps. And once that error occurs, it’s almost impossible to correct. Take, for instance, a classic study by the legendary psychologist and memory expert Ulric Neisser. The morning after the explosion of NASA’s space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Neisser took a poll of where his students were when they first heard about it. Almost three years later he ran the poll again; almost all the answers had changed in some way. Several people had even placed themselves in totally different circumstances and refused to believe that the accounts they had written two years before were correct.

This in itself is startling and a little disconcerting. But most of the memory changes seemed to follow a pattern that made them (a) more dramatic and (b) more in line with a coherent narrative. This is at least in part the result of the so-called flashbulb memory effect, in which red-letter events such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Challenger explosion, and the attacks of 9/11 tend to be retold many times—and with each telling, become slightly different.

To navigate the world the brain needs memories to know what it should and shouldn’t do. Daniel Schacter, a psychologist and the author of the seminal The Seven Sins of Memory and many other acclaimed books on the subject, says the brain uses the past to imagine what will happen in the future. From his Harvard office overlooking Boston, he explains that in many ways, the brain treats the future and the past the same way. For instance, imagining the future and remembering the past use many of the same networks and occupy similar real estate in the brain. As we age and our recollection of the past fades, so, too, does our ability to imagine the future with any degree of detail.

“Memory really is the version we told most recently,” Schacter says. “That function—flexible use of the past to think about the future—is something that may make memory error prone.”

In The Seven Sins of Memory, Schacter points out that our brains’ memory weaknesses actually derive from their strengths. Strong emotion helps create memories that are easy to access later, but those same memories can develop into phobias or even debilitating PTSD. That same ability to use the past to predict the future can cause occasional errors in memories of the past.

This is not the same as forgetting, Schacter says. When you forget something, you know you’ve forgotten it. But with a false memory, you may not even realize what’s happened unless you come across evidence that your memory is wrong. It’s not really our fault, I suppose; it’s just that we are accustomed to accepting what our memory tells us. Schacter is careful to clarify that memory and imagination are not the same thing. But he says they definitely hang together. Thus it’s not hard to see how a person in a state of deep, suggestible relaxation might let his imagination go, and then interpret what he sees as a true memory. And indeed, one of Schacter’s seven sins is suggestibility.

* * *

Daniel Schacter was one of the first scientists to look seriously at the nature of false memories, but the person who brought them into the global spotlight was University of California, Irvine, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Her research over the past three and a half decades has upended everything we thought we knew about this phenomenon.

After graduating from Stanford in 1974, Loftus began working for the U.S. Department of Transportation, examining eyewitness accounts of accidents. She noticed that when estimating the speed of cars involved in crashes, witnesses answered differently depending on how the question was phrased. The highest estimates went to those trying to guess the speeds of two cars that “smashed” into each other. Second highest were for cars that “hit” each other, and the lowest were for the ones that “made contact” with each other. Loftus began to wonder how deep this “memory contamination,” as she calls it, goes.

In the mid-1970s, this led to one of her most famous sets of experiments. People viewed slides of a red Datsun passing a stop sign and then smacking a pedestrian. The experimenters asked the subjects a number of questions, some of which are a little misleading, like, “Did another car pass the red Datsun while it was stopped at the yield sign?” The subject thinks for a moment and then says to herself, No, I definitely didn’t see any other cars next to that yield sign. And voilà, the sign has changed in their minds.

You see, as the subjects are trying to make sense of what is happening in front of them, they are falling back on the frameworks in their brains, built over the course of their whole lives. And it turns out that sometimes the observed reality is more fluid than the preconceived story. Was that a yield sign? Yeah, yeah—I think it was. Many people think of memory as some kind of video, one that you can simply rewind to see what happened. It’s a nice idea, but such hidden memories, if they exist, are extremely rare. More often, when you try to go back in time, your mind simply fills in the blanks with something that seems right, given the story it’s trying to construct. We all have memories like this—things we’re sure about and that we can see with our eyes closed—that just aren’t true.

After her traffic accident research, Loftus began focusing all her attention on this kind of corrupted memory. Over the years, she has managed to implant dozens of scenarios from people’s childhoods that never actually happened. In one, she convinced a healthy segment of her subjects that they had once gotten lost in a mall as a child and their parents had been panicked until a kindly man in a jean jacket found them and returned them. To get the memory to stick, she used all her suggestive prowess (as with the yield sign), and added a new element by bringing in trusted family members to testify to the accuracy of the lost-kid narrative. Within weeks, about a quarter of her subjects remembered the event as real.

Once the memory was created, of course, people began filling in details of their own (“Oh yeah, he had boots and a shiny belt buckle!”). When critics suggested that perhaps Loftus had uncovered an actual memory of getting lost in a mall (apparently guys wearing jean jackets have saved hundreds of kids in malls over the years), she took up the challenge. She implanted memories in people that they had gone to Disneyland to meet Bugs Bunny. They posed for photos, shook his hand, some even got a lollipop.

Except that Bugs doesn’t live in Disneyland. He’s the property of Disney’s archrival, Warner Bros. It’s kind of like remembering having seen the pope perform morning prayers at the Great Mosque of Algiers.

No matter how bizarre or alien the scenario seems, it’s never so strange that you cannot convince someone it actually happened. “We are almost at the point of having a recipe for how to do this,” Loftus says. “A first step involves trying to make people feel something is plausible. In questionable therapy, people are told that many, many people have repressed memories and that you need to uncover them to feel better. That is a plausibility-enhancing message.”

The second step, she says, is to create a sense of recollection. “Once people believe something could have happened to them or that it did happen, they may not have any kind of feeling of recollection. Then you engage them in imagination exercises where you put sensory details into this belief. And it starts to be experienced as a recollection.” That’s where the jean jacket and the image of Bugs Bunny come in.

At the same time that Loftus was conducting these tests, she began actively working as an expert witness and consultant in criminal court cases. Her testimony cast doubt on eyewitness reports, especially those that came about through hypnosis. She convinced dozens of juries that what one person thought had happened might not have been real.

Loftus found that false memories were littered across law enforcement, and that there are numerous ways a memory can be pushed on a witness. For instance, if you show a witness a string of black-and-white mug shots, plus one high school graduation picture in color, it’s possible to create a memory around the color picture, just because it’s different. Or if you show someone a lineup of mug shots and then take just one of those photos and put it into a different grouping, the witness can “recognize” that person and implant them into the crime scene.

In the cases Loftus consulted on, some of the clients were guilty— for example, Ted Bundy and Martha Stewart—and some were not. But over time, the notion that some memories might not be real (especially fantastical ones unearthed by hypnosis) took hold in academia and the courtroom. The debates that ensued between those who thought memories could be repressed by trauma and those who thought that most “repressed” memories were false or induced are known today as the “memory wars.”

Eventually a certain pattern started forming in many inexplicable stories of abuse. An adult sees a therapist for anxiety or depression or maybe an eating disorder. Looking for a silver bullet to explain the problem, the therapist suggests hypnosis. (Sadly, good hypnosis instruction is hard to find, and plenty of places will teach you just enough to be dangerous. Responsible hypnotists like David Patterson take years to perfect their craft, learning to avoid specific words that might bias the subject or accidentally implant ideas.) Although repressed memories certainly could exist in theory (and indeed “dissociative amnesia,” its technical name, is still listed in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), they are difficult to study in the laboratory, and some experts assert that they don’t exist at all.

There are very few documented examples of repressed memories. Loftus says there is simply no evidence that people can create amnesia through sheer terror, and that all the examples compiled in the 1990s could be explained in other ways. Often, she says, they are just false memories. Richard McNally, who has co-written books with Schacter, is equally skeptical that a person can somehow eradicate traumatic memories and then discover them again years later. He has a simpler explanation, though: Maybe they just forgot. Very small kids might not even understand what’s happening to them at the time. Only if they somehow remember the experience as an adult would they realize—and be traumatized by—what has been done to them.

For Kristin Grace Erickson, the realization that her childhood abuse had been a combination of overreaching psychologists and her overactive imagination was a bittersweet revelation. And the more she thought about it, the more she realized the similarities with events she had seen on television. “I had seen enough satanic movies—Children of the Corn, whatever—that I knew the kind of imagery they were looking for,” she says.

Erickson remembers that she was trying to be helpful and that she believed her parents and the doctors unconditionally. Plus, she says, she enjoyed the attention. It’s a similar story given by numerous child witnesses who have since recanted. Some have discovered their memories to be false; others knew they were lying from the beginning but just wanted to make the adults happy.

In one case from 1992, a detective asked a child witness if a defendant, the child’s grandfather, had poured anything on her while abusing her. The child answered no. He asked again, this time asking if it had been a liquid. Again, no. Then the interviewer asked whether the defendant had poured oil or ketchup on her, and the child responded, “Ketchup.” Despite a lack of physical evidence, the defendant, Bruce Perkins, was convicted and is still in prison today, steadfastly maintaining his innocence.

In another example almost too spectacular to believe, a woman who was hypnotized for depression and weight issues became convinced she had participated in the murder of her sister as part of her parents’ satanic practices. Her sister, however, had died several years before the woman was even born. The memories had risen from her childhood curiosity with a dead sister she’d never met.

It’s not clear how many innocent people are currently in prison because of false-memory testimony, but every year counties and states occasionally quietly release supposed child molesters who have spent decades in prison based on the testimony of hypnotized children.

Erickson says that she was a troubled and anxious child, and the story that she had been molested in preschool gave her parents something to pin it on. As an adult, she’s had difficult relationships with men, and when her brother had a baby, she didn’t trust herself around her nephew for fear that somehow she would snap and suddenly become a child molester herself. Although she no longer believes she was abused in ritualistic fashion, she still has trouble trusting people and taking things at face value. After all, when you are told at 12 that you were abused by satanists and then realize at 25 that you weren’t, it’s hard to know what’s real.

To make matters worse, many false memories possess a kernel of truth, hidden under layers of invention. For instance, Erickson says that she vaguely remembers a campout at the preschool with tents and sleeping bags and a huge campfire, built by James Toward, the school’s owner. (Though one might argue having small kids camp out in a preschool playground is a little odd and maybe created an opportunity for parents to mistrust the school.) When she woke the next morning, she remembers that someone said a snake had ventured too close to the kids and that Toward had killed it. She never saw the snake but it was all very exciting at the time. These memories, she now thinks, were the seeds of an invented satanic ceremony around a fire with children drinking snake blood.

Trying to ease her guilt over her role in Toward’s conviction, Erickson led an effort to get him released from prison. In the process she learned that he had been found guilty of statutory rape. He may not have probed children as a part of satanic rituals, but investigators did find he’d paid two underage boys in a poor, largely minority neighborhood for sex. (And although tens of millions of dollars went to the victims of supposed ritual abuse, not a penny went to the two kids Toward had actually abused.) Erickson stopped her campaign. Eventually, Toward—who was born in Europe—was quietly released from prison under the condition that he leave the United States forever.

Excerpted from Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal by Erik Vance, published on November 8th, 2016 by National Geographic Partners, LLC.

Remembering Childhood Trauma That Never Happened