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Wall Street Journal


Destructive Delusions

November 20, 2008

By Theodore Dalrymple

How therapists and ’victims’ seized on the idea of repressed memory, leveling false charges and ruining lives.

Our lives are more deeply affected by science and technology than ever before, but that does not mean that we are more rational than our forefathers in our everyday conduct. Superstition springs eternal in the human mind, or gut, and the fact that Charles Mackay’s great book, “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” published in 1843, should be so pertinent to our current economic situation proves it.

One of the most extraordinary outbreaks of popular delusion in recent years was that which attached to the possibility of “recovered memory” of sexual and satanic childhood abuse, and to an illness it supposedly caused, Multiple Personality Disorder. No medieval peasant praying to a household god for the recovery of his pig could have been more credulous than scores of psychiatrists, hosts of therapists and thousands of willing victims. The whole episode would have been funny had it not been so tragic.

In “Try to Remember,” Paul McHugh, the former director of the psychiatry department at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, recounts the history of the movement to recover “repressed” memories of abuse. He also analyzes the movement’s origins in a false view of the workings of the human mind, a view traceable to the theories and influence of Sigmund Freud as well as to the primitive system of classification that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association represents.

In 300 years’ time, our descendants -- who will, of course, pride themselves on their superior rationality -- will read of the recovered-memory-driven prosecutions of parents (usually fathers) as we now read of the Salem witch trials. And some future Arthur Miller will set his “Crucible” in a late-20th-century psychiatric hospital in which the disorder was supposedly treated but was actually manufactured.

Dr. McHugh describes how he was gradually drawn into the “memory wars” starting in 1990, when an acquaintance, perplexed and unsettled, asked him for help after a niece from Washington state showed up unannounced at the man’s door in Baltimore and accused him of having sexually abused her as a child. Soon enough, Dr. McHugh found himself fielding other requests from bewildered parents -- and discovered time after time that depressed or anxious young women were being persuaded by therapists, often with the use of hypnosis, that their unhappiness was caused by repressed memories of childhood abuse. “You must remember in order to heal” was the therapists’ mantra. Even the young women’s denials of having been abused, Dr. McHugh reports, were taken as further evidence of repressed memory.

Perhaps the most alarming (or depressing) thing about this story -- clearly, economically and sometimes amusingly told by Dr. McHugh -- is that the worst excesses did not take place among the poorly educated class of society, whom one might expect to be easiest prey to ludicrous notions, but among the well educated.

For example, Dr. John Mack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, came to believe in the 1990s that some of his patients had been abducted and sexually abused by extraterrestrial aliens. When his patients told him about their experience with extraterrestrials, he could think of no explanation for their story, he said, other than that it was true. “Patients with false memory syndrome” can be “remarkably plausible,” Dr. McHugh observes, a trait that “draws many intelligent people to their side.” That Dr. Mack could have gone through so many years of education and training and have had clinical contact with thousands of human beings, and yet be able to think of no explanation for these bizarre claims other than the truth of them, suggests a rather deadening effect upon the imagination of so much learning.

Dr. McHugh is surely right in seeing the buried-treasure school of psychology, introduced as a system by Freud, as one of the roots of the recovered-memory disaster. The supposition that underlying every undesirable behavior there is a hidden psychological secret awaiting therapeutic exposure has taken a deep hold on society at all levels. I remember a burglar asking me, in the prison in which I worked as a doctor, why he continued to burgle, expecting me to say that it was because of his terrible childhood. When I told him it was because he was lazy and stupid, and because prison sentences were not nearly long enough, he burst into laughter.

In “Try to Remember,” Dr. McHugh hints at the cultural context in which preposterous and vicious accusations against parents and others could be so easily believed by seemingly intelligent people, including courtroom judges. He rightly notes that the hysteria was presaged in the 1970s by the popularity of the best-selling novel “Sybil,” which incorporated theories about childhood sexual abuse and Multiple Personality Disorder advanced by “a strange off-beat psychiatrist, Cornelia Wilbur.” But I wish that he had probed more deeply into that cultural context. Freudianism alone could not have produced the necessary atmosphere; there must have been other forces at work as well. The sanctification of victims and victimhood comes to mind.

In any case, Dr. McHugh has rendered a valuable service by describing the lamentable failure of self- criticism of doctors and therapists, some of them motivated by ideological zeal and others by hope of gain -- and some, of course, by both. He has also given us a timely warning that we may expect further such episodes of popular delusion and the madness of crowds unless we straighten out our thoughts about the way our minds work -- or, if that is not possible, at least about how they don’t work.

Original Source:



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