When 21-year-old nurse Carol Felstead went to her doctor complaining of repeated headaches, she wasn’t just prescribed painkillers. Instead, she was referred for psychotherapy that would ultimately involve hypnosis to “recover” so-called repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Carol subsequently came to believe that her parents were the leaders of a Satanic cult and that her mother murdered another of her children, sat Carol on top of the body and then set fire to the family home.
But these allegations were untrue and the memories they were based upon were incorrect. Today, almost 30 years on, “recovered memory therapy” has been discredited by the scientific and academic community and is known to implant false memories, apparent memories for events that never actually happened.
Experimental psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated the ease with which false memories can be implanted in a sizeable proportion of the population under well-controlled laboratory conditions. But it is also undoubtedly the case that such false memories can arise spontaneously as well as in the context of psychotherapy.
Although we are typically not consciously aware of it, we often have to judge whether an apparent memory is real. Is it based upon mental events that were purely internally generated (for example, by imagination or a dream) or based upon events which really took place in the external world?
Implanting false memories
One of the techniques that has been shown to result in false memories is asking people to imagine events that never actually took place. It appears that, eventually and especially in people with good imaginations, the memory of the imagined event is misinterpreted as a memory for a real event. The use of hypnotic regression is a particularly powerful means to implant false memories.
The correct chronology in Carol Felstead’s case is as follows: there was another daughter who was ill from birth and she died in hospital in 1962 from problems associated with a defective heart. The house fire was a tragic accident that occurred in 1963 and made the front page news of the local newspaper. But Carol was born in 1964. These events happened before she was alive. Carol later falsely claimed to have given birth to six babies who were meant to have been conceived and ritually sacrificed by the Satanic cult. Her medical records show that Carol was never pregnant.
Carol Felstead (later Myers). Author provided.
Carol cut off contact with her family, changed her name to Carole Myers, and died in 2005, aged 41, in circumstances that are still unexplained. Prior to receiving psychotherapy, she was a bright and intelligent young woman with her life ahead of her. Her story highlights the inherent dangers associated with unproven psycho-therapeutic techniques which seek to recover putative repressed memories of childhood trauma, in particular childhood sexual abuse.
The latter is an abhorrent crime that can have devastating consequences for victims. Yet, while we must not lose sight of this, it is also important to remember that no one benefits from false allegations. Victims of childhood sexual abuse have difficulty forgetting –- not remembering -– what happened. False memory also has serious consequences and can lead to family breakdown and miscarriages of justice.
Christopher French – Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London.
To read more of this groundbreaking article please visit: https://theconversation.com/the-legacy-of-implanted-satanic-abuse-memories-is-still-causing-damage-today-43755