Throughout the 1980s and 90s there propagated bizarre and implausible tales of Satanic Ritual Abuse told by self-proclaimed “survivors” who had “recovered” the “memories” of their alleged victimization in the course of therapy. These narratives — often supernatural, often entirely debunked by evidence — were qualitatively no different than “recovered memories” of past lives and alien abduction. Since then, a substantial body of research has explored and confirmed the reality of “false memories,” memories that under the right circumstances are cultivated retrospectively, either grossly distorting actual events, or confabulating events that never occurred. In the case of Satanic Ritual Abuse, many of those who claimed first-hand experience with the phenomenon recalled their hidden histories aided by hypnosis, sodium amytal, guided imagery, and other techniques. As evidence mounted against recovered memory veracity, and more retractors came forward accusing their therapists of instilling in them convictions of false recollections, conspiracy theorists within the mental health care profession failed to adjust their beliefs to the scientific evidence, opting instead to conclude that memory science was being infiltrated by a conspiracy to cover up actual crimes.
Therapists who were invested in techniques of memory recovery for unearthing past traumas, which were presumed to be unconsciously damaging their clients’ psyches’, decried the entire notion of “false memories” as nothing more than an effort to exonerate guilty perpetrators of abuse. As it became increasingly clear that the moral panic surrounding imaginary cults had resulted in miscarriages of justice, “recovered memory” testimony came under scrutiny for its lack of reliability. But even as scientific research evidence clearly indicated that not only false memories could be created during treatments meant to recover repressed traumas, but that these false memories could be deeply traumatic in nature, a pseudoscientific fringe in the mental health care world failed to abandon either their discredited “therapeutic” techniques or their conspiracy theories related to “Satanic Ritual Abuse” and a nefarious, secretive program of “trauma-based mind-control.” Instead, they began to conflate their quackery with victims advocacy, attempting to co-opt real victims of real abuse as human shields against critical scrutiny into their harmful practices and bizarre beliefs.
Recently, it came to light that a witness against notorious Hollywood predator Harvey Weinstein may have been subjected to “memory recovery therapy,” calling into doubt those claims that may have been “revealed” to her during the course of therapy. According to Variety, “Weinstein attorney Damon Cheronis alleged that new disclosures have been made to the defense team, which suggest that one of the witnesses ‘engaged in memory recovery therapy.’ Cheronis argued that such therapy makes the witness’ testimony unreliable, and that she should be precluded from testifying.” The outrage here should not be directed against the defense counsel, but against whatever therapist was incompetent enough to engage in a discredited, potentially harmful, “therapeutic” technique that could easily cast doubt upon an alleged victim’s testimony.
Naturally, Satanic Panic enthusiasts jumped at the opportunity to paint the very idea of false memories as a full denial that sexual abuse takes place, capitalizing on the outrage that Weinstein inspires. In an article published in The Conversation, Anne P. DePrince and Joan M. Cook dishonestly conflate “recovered memories” of abuse with any and all claims of abuse stating, “As the Weinstein trial continues, it is important to remember that claims of false memory are a demeaning and dangerous distraction that have long been used to deny the realities of violence against women. Science can guide society in general, and a jury in particular, to thoughtfully evaluate survivors’ – and offenders’ – descriptions of their memories for sexual assault.” Curiously, the article fails to even make mention of debate regarding “recovered memories,” instead contextualizing the argument as one over the veracity of sexual abuse memories themselves.
The article leaves one with the impression that the defense is arguing that all claims of abuse that are directed against Weinstein are false memories, rather than only the accusations that were allegedly manifested in the course of “therapeutic” probing for “repressed” recollections. Indeed, in DePrince and Cook’s dishonest summary, it predictably appears that the very idea of false memories is only meant to aid in exonerating crimes of sexual abuse.
The article mentions nothing of the Satanic Panic or any of the documented cases in which “recovered memories” were clearly false, and it’s quite possible that neither DePrince nor Cook would acknowledge that even the most bizarre recovered memories are unrooted from reality. A deeper look at DePrince and Cook reveals both of the co-authors to be on the editorial board for a journal produced by the pseudoscientific conspiracy theory-peddling International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD). The ISSTD was founded by one Bennett Braun who, in the 1990’s, was made to pay a $10.6 million settlement to a former client whom he had convinced was involved in a cannibalistic Satanic conspiracy. To this day, the ISSTD harbors a “Ritual Abuse Mind Control Organized Abuse Special Interest Group” (RAMCOA SIG) that, during the ISSTD annual conferences, gives seminars related to the problem of Illuminati world domination plots and Satanic cult crimes. A former chair of the RAMCOA SIG, “Christian Counsellor” Eileen Aveni gives lectures discussing “elaborate and sophisticated mind-control programming by groups including multigenerational familial cults for such purposes as creating secret assassins.” Before Aveni, RAMCOA SIG chair Ellen Lacter, who once explained away the lack of physical evidence for all her alleged Satanic infant sacrifices by saying that these elusive Satanists “[…] force the delivery [of infants] early [within] seven or eight months gestation and that baby will be sacrificed and then that person will be programmed [by way of mind-control] to believe that she just had a miscarriage,” was a consultant for a woman who ultimately murdered her own 8-year old child under the delusion that she was preserving her child from assaults by unseen Satanists. Current RAMCOA SIG, Michael Salter, firmly endorses DePrince and Cook’s article, which is more notable for its omissions than its “facts.”
As conspiracy theorists and pseudoscientists try to harness a justified outrage against opportunistic abusers like Weinstein to give their discredited and dangerous techniques an air of moral authority, we should recognize that they are hardly champions for survivor’s rights. In fact, it is their incompetence — the incompetence of therapists who would employ recovered memory therapies in treating a victim of abuse — that handed Weinstein his best defense against one of his accusers.