I was Wrong about False Memories

Satanic Panic, Pedophiles, Ted Bundy, and the Lost in the Mall Studies

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I’ve always thought part of the fun of being a skeptic is changing your mind when you get evidence that indicates a belief you previously held isn’t grounded in reality. Now, I’m not perfect, and I’m sure I still have plenty of unsubstantiated beliefs, but I do think I’m a bit weird in that instead of getting angry when I’m forced to overturn a conviction, I get this funny little thrill out of it. Like, I used to 100% believe that sugar makes kids hyper. But then I looked into it and it turns out that’s not true at all! There’s not a single major study that has been able to find a link between sugar and hyperactivity. But when we see kids at a birthday party running around like monsters after cake and ice cream, we decide it must be the sugar (as opposed to the bouncy castle, or the clown, or the sheer jubilation of hanging out with their friends). When I learned that, I thought “Wow, awesome!”

It can be tougher to find that thrill when it’s a subject that’s more tied to who I feel I am as a person, but I definitely still got it when I realized the religion I grew up in was based on nothing but hot 7th century BCE gossip, or when I learned that needle exchange programs actually ARE beneficial to society or when I figured out that psychics are a bunch of scammers.

Anyway, I had one of those weird little thrills this week — something I’ve believed for more than a decade turns out to not be as true as I thought it was.

In my early days as a skeptic, I was introduced to the concept of false memories: the idea that a person might claim to “remember” something that never actually happened, due to a variety of causes from a simple mistake to the “memory” being purposely implanted in them by a nefarious actor. In 2011, I met Elizabeth Loftus at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, where she gave a talk about her work on memory. Loftus is a psychologist who is perhaps best known for a series of experiments known as the “Lost in a Mall” study, in which she interviewed subjects and described four different stories from the subjects’ childhood, as related to Loftus by their parents. But one of the stories was false: the subject was said to have been lost in a mall frantically looking for their parent. They were then asked how clearly they could picture each of the four memories. Loftus found that a significant number of people assumed the mall memory was a real one, despite it being made up.

This study and others led to Loftus becoming an expert witness in cases like the McMartin preschool trial, a case from 1981 in which parents accused the administrators of a preschool of sexually abusing children, often said to be part of satanic rituals. More on that in a minute.

I thought of Loftus as an accomplished researcher who was doing something great for society, considering how often people in the United States were being convicted of crimes due to flawed eyewitness testimony. For instance, Rafael Ruiz was imprisoned for 25 years for raping a woman who had identified him as her assailant. The victim later said that the police had pressured her into picking him out of the lineup. Ruiz was eventually cleared of the crime thanks to DNA evidence. This happens incredibly often — witnesses can be manipulated, pressured, and misled by well-meaning police officers who think they have the right person. The cops can even manipulate a person into believing they’ve committed a crime they haven’t, as in the West Memphis 3 case. If you’ve never seen Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, go watch it right now. But spoiler alert (for a 25-year old documentary about true events), one of the accused murderers was Jesse Miskelly, a very low-IQ teen who confessed to the murders after he was grilled by cops for hours. He got nearly all the details of the murder scene wrong but was still convicted.

So, it’s important to conduct research on the fallibility of human memory, especially when it can have such far-reaching consequences. I was aware of Loftus, and of groups like the False Memory Syndrome Foundation which included Loftus as well as other famous skeptics like Martin Gardner and James Randi on their board and which was affiliated with the Center for Skeptical Inquiry. Their goal, as I understood it, was to stop the conviction of people accused of crimes that they did not commit based on faulty eyewitness testimony. And that was the totality of my opinion of Elizabeth Loftus and the other skeptical researchers who investigate false memories, until this week when I read a new article in New York Magazine called “The Memory War.” And let me tell you, I got that weird little thrill out of realizing that oops, Elizabeth Loftus isn’t so great and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation is downright FUCKED UP.

My first surprise was that Elizabeth Loftus testified in favor of Ted Bundy, at the trial he had before he escaped and then murdered several more people. Now, that doesn’t mean she’s wrong about everything, just about this one thing. But that one thing is Ted Bundy. So. Eek. 

Katie Heaney, the writer of the NY Magazine piece, casually mentions the Bundy connection but I’ve since read up on it and realized that this was, in fact, kind of shitty and unfair. According to a very good overview of the case and Loftus’s role in it, the witness who identified Bundy changed loads of details in her story after she was shown a photo of Bundy. The cops showed her two photos of him, corrected her on the color of his car and shoes, and fixed up other details before they showed her a lineup with a bunch of men and Bundy. Bundy was the only one who’s picture she had seen several times, including in the newspapers. It absolutely sounds like she mostly picked him because she was primed to. The fact that the cops were correct about him being the perpetrator is incidental.

However, Heaney goes on to describe the founding of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a history I was previously unaware of. It was created by Pam Freyd after her daughter Jennifer privately informed her that Pam’s husband and Jennifer’s father, Peter Freyd, had molested her for about a decade, until she was a teen.

There’s a lot of shit to unpack so I suggest you read the entire article, but essentially Pam decided that Jennifer’s claim was baseless and that it was a memory that had been recovered under hypnosis (a claim that Jennifer denies). Pam wrote an “anonymous” account of Jennifer’s accusation in which she claimed the “victim” was actually super screwed up psychologically, published it, and sent the final product to Jennifer’s colleagues with a note explaining that the anonymous accuser was in fact Jennifer. She then coined the term “false memory syndrome,” despite having no input from other psychologists who might be able to determine whether this is an actual disorder, and created her nonprofit. She and her husband were aided in this endeavour by psychologists Ralph Underwager and his wife, Hollida Wakefield. A few years later, Underwager and Wakefield would give an interview to a Dutch pro-pedophila outlet in which Underwager says that pedophila is a “responsible” choice, an “acceptable expression of God’s will for love and unity among human beings.”

Not a great way to start your anti-incest-victim organization.

Other board members weren’t much better, which you can still see on the Foundation’s website despite the fact that they packed it in at the end of 2019. Dr. Rosalind Cartwright writes that she got involved with the foundation because “A friend and colleague had an adult daughter in therapy accuse him of childhood sexual abuse. It was my best judgment that this was unbelievable of the person I knew and could only been induced by the therapist.” YIKES! That’s like when Lawrence Krauss said that Jeffrey Epstein couldn’t be running a child sex trafficking ring because he always seemed like a stand-up guy to him. Awkward.

Heaney found some more disturbing things in the foundation’s archives at the Center for Skeptical Inquiry, like how Pam seemed to assume every accused pedophile who joined the club was innocent. In one newsletter, she wrote an article titled “How Do We Know That We Are Not Representing Pedophiles,” in which she explains “We are a good-looking bunch of people, graying hair, well dressed, healthy, smiling; just about every person who has attended is someone you would surely find interesting and want to count as a friend.” Well that’s that then. No pedophiles here!

There’s so much more in the New York article and again, I highly recommend you read it. But at the same time, I do think it’s important to note that it veers into extremely unfair territory at times. I already mentioned the Ted Bundy thing, but also it’s a little baffling that Heaney didn’t spend just a little more time on the good that memory researchers (including Loftus) have done. Heaney mentions the “Satanic ritual child abuse” panic only twice, once to say the foundation was created on the heels of it and a sentence later to point out that Underwager and Wakefield had been involved in it. But it deserves it’s own write-up — it was a big fucking deal.

Back in the early ‘80s, women were heading to work in bigger and bigger numbers, leading to an explosion in day care centers as well as concern trolling over these awful, selfish, ambitious bitches who were abdicated their motherly duty, abandoning their children to strangers while they go off and make money.  These anxieties boiled over into honest-to-god mass hysteria. One of the most prominent cases happened in Manhattan Beach, California, when a woman claimed that her son had been sodomized by a teacher at McMartin Preschool. The mother also claimed that the teacher had flown through the air demonically and that the proprietor of the preschool had drilled holes under another child’s arms.

Despite this all being an obvious fantasy of a diseased mind, the police in the case sent all the parents at the school a letter telling them that that specific teacher was accused of sexual assault and asking them to ask their children if any of them had been anally raped or otherwise assaulted.

There’s heaps and heaps of scientific evidence that shows that children are incredibly easy to manipulate, even accidentally. For instance, if you ask them “Is red heavier than yellow” they will give you a yes or  no answer because that’s what they think you want. Light doesn’t have mass you idiot kids! Jesus, kids are stupid.

And if you ask kids the same question over and over again, there’s a chance they will change their answer because they assume you keep asking because they didn’t get it right the first time.

So if you have a bunch of parents going to their 5-year old kids and saying “Did your teacher do these very specific terrible things to you,” there’s a very good chance that some kids will say yes, either the first time or the second time or the hundredth time.

And that’s what happened! Kids said they were sexually abused, and also that they had flown in a hot air balloon, that they saw witches get involved, and that, I shit you not, Chuck Norris was one of the abusers. Like, he’s a Nazi-sympathizer but even I don’t think he was raping preschoolers in 1983.

Some kids even said they were molested in tunnels beneath the school, and so authorities excavated the fucking property. There were no tunnels. Chuck Norris was not hiding out down there.

This all sounds absurd, and it is, but the teachers and administrators were arrested on these charges in 1984, and weren’t exonerated until 1990. That’s six years of hellish torture.

By the way, the original mom who made the accusations? Shortly after making the claims she was hospitalized with acute paranoid schizophrenia. She died of chronic alcoholism in 1986, before they’d even finished the preliminary hearing.

Elizabeth Loftus and other researchers are the reason those innocent people were exonerated. And they’re the reason why today we have new restrictions on how the police interrogate both witnesses and suspects, and why we record those interrogations. 

I’m very glad that Heaney wrote this piece, showing me that a movement I previously fully supported was way, way more complicated and at times nefarious than I originally realized. In retrospect it makes sense that people who advocate against false convictions would be targets for actual guilty rapists to use to their advantage. What’s important is that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: while there is no consensus amongst psychologists about the nature of so-called “recovered” memories and “false” memories, it’s undeniable that memory can be manipulated, and that that has led to the imprisonment of innocent people. It’s equally undeniable that many victims of child abuse don’t speak out until they’re adults, and the details they report may be mistaken or may change as they explore those memories. We need more research to figure out how to find and stop perpetrators of child abuse without sweeping up innocent people along the way.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Rats! I don’t have it in hand, but a book I read, by one of the first members of the False Memory Foundation, was very specific about the threat of any such organization attracting guilty pedophiles into its membership. No blither indifference, but a grim recognition of an inevitable problem.

    Loftus did NOT testify for John Demjanjuk when the concentration camp guard’s attorneys wanted to cast doubt on the memories of Shoah survivors.

    This is old stuff, and I’m relying on my memory (oops) but there was a point about police photo lineups encouraging false IDs. The problem was largely erased by showing witnesses separate pictures, one at a time. Showing pages of 6 images lead witnesses to latch onto the closest match on the first page, and become less reliable on subsequent pages. The author in that case was outraged that no police department had changed their techniques on the basis of that demonstration.

  2. The article in The Cut is extremely unfair to the issue. In addition to hardly even mentioning the Satanic Panic (or cases of innocent people being thrown in prison in general due to false memories), Heaney conflates the FMSF with the entire concept of false memory. The FMSF are pedophiles and pedophile apologists, her narrative goes, therefore the concept of false memory is just a cover for bad actors. This is a mistake; it’s also, perhaps not coincidentally, the primary claim used against other organizations in this area that are not the FMSF (for example, if I may, The Satanic Temple’s Grey Faction campaign, of which I am Director).

    Whatever happened between the Freyds (not the Floyds) is only known by them. Everyone can agree that it’s an extremely tragic situation. The FMSF has no doubt made mistakes, and the nature of their approach left them exposed to potentially defending the guilty, but let’s be fair about their work. They have also helped countless people, including those subjected to recovered memory therapy who lodged and later retracted allegations of abuse. FMSF has helped pull people out of therapy and has helped repair families. Heaney made no mention of them. And Loftus testifies as an expert on memory in general; as far as I’m aware, she’s not in the business of deciding what memories are real and what memories are false.

    Heaney also makes numerous smaller errors and questionable decisions. She spoke with Lucien Greaves, spokesperson of The Satanic Temple, about false memories, the work of Grey Faction, and more, at length in January 2020. She did not include a single quote from him and published (for no discernible reason) what she believes is his legal name. She also misrepresented the work of Grey Faction, describing us as a “false memory subgroup” of The Satanic Temple and that we are the “cult-obsessed sons” of the FMSF. The reality: we are a campaign dedicated to ending the Satanic Panic in the mental health field (yes, it is still going on — happy to chat about it anytime). And “cult-obsessed” makes no sense — we target therapists that practice recovered memory therapy and promote conspiracy theories of Satanic ritual abuse and Illuminati mind control; calling us “cult-obsessed” is a bit like referring to a group fighting against gay conversion therapy “gay-obsessed.” Again, she spoke with Lucien at length, so this should have been clear.

    Whatever is true of the FMSF, recovered memory therapy can and does create false memories, including objectively false ones like Satanic ritual abuse, alien abduction, and past lives. There is no evidence that traumatic memories can be “repressed,” but even if they can, it remains the case that recovered memory therapy produces false memories and therefore should not be practiced. I have spoken with countless people subjected to recovered memory therapy who came to believe they were abused, including by Satanic cults, only to later realize these memories were false. Heaney did not so much as mention this aspect because it would have interfered with her narrative that the false memory movement is used by pedophiles and pedophile apologists to dismiss abuse victims. But what about the victims of bad therapy?

    So I wonder: have you changed your mind about false memories, or just the FMSF?

    1. “have you changed your mind about false memories, or just the FMSF”

      Definitely both. As I mentioned in the video, the FMSF was obviously an outright terrible organization and if they genuinely helped anyone than it was accidental and certainly not worth the damage they did to the actual victims of child sex abuse. I also didn’t realize how controversial “false memory syndrome” (which does not exist) is among actual working psychologists, and how heavily criticized Loftus’s studies and her testimony (particularly in cases like Harvey Weinstein) is amongst her colleagues.

      Obviously I haven’t changed my mind on the pseudoscience of hypnosis, or other alternative medicine psychological bullshit and the harm that they can cause.

      1. I can understand that reasoning with regard to the FMSF. The FMSF absolutely helped countless people, but it is difficult to do that calculus of whether they did more harm than good. Based on my discussions with retractors (not the accused), I have come to the conclusion that FMSF was a net positive. Again, I understand why people would come to a different conclusion. “False memory syndrome” is not a diagnosis, but I don’t understand how one could believe that it’s outright not a real thing and also recognize the role of false memories in the Satanic Panic. In other words: if you believe that false memories elicited during recovered memory therapy caused the Satanic Panic (correct me if you don’t believe this), how can you also believe that “false memory syndrome” doesn’t exist?

        Also, in the Weinstein case, Loftus did not testify about particular memories and whether they’re true or false, or the credibility of any witnesses. She was there as an expert on how memory works. I am not sure if that changes anything for you, but we should be clear about that.

  3. I tend to be more accustomed to lit reviews or papers on a topic like this but I read that article as a hit piece than any firm critique of “False Memory Syndrome”.

    There is rather good evidence of “false memory syndrome” though as far as I am aware it is not in the ICD-11 as an official diagnosis. I was not aware of Jonathan Schooler’s work and will have to have a look.

    Interesting quotes like this “Memory researchers like Loftus — who has no clinical experience working with patients” appear to be a gratuitous attack on Loftus. Why would she have “clinical experience…”. She is a memory researcher, she is not a clinical—they are different skill sets and mind sets or perhaps the author does not understand the discipline well enough to appreciate this.

    Re the criticism of the “Lost in the Mall” study; I have never seen or heard of a study in psychology that cannot and is not critiqued often with good reason. I note that the author did not mention the “Meeting Buggs Bunny at Disney World” study. Old cartoon fans will understand the significance of that memory.

    “People can forget things, and they can later come back to mind,” he says. It’s a rare point of agreement between psychologists and those in the false-memory camp. ” False dichotomy. Perhaps the author should have spoken to a psychologist or two who actively research false memories. Perhaps Dr. Julia Shaw, currently at London South Bank University, I believe.

    And of course people can forget, IIRC, Edwin Fleichman when doing ergonomics research in the 1950 reported people forgetting the loss of a finger until it was brought to their attention.

    If one is interested in a UK version of the McMartin Preschool case have a look at the Lillie-v-Newcastle case [2002] EWHC 1600 (QB)

    I don’t have any popular references available but if one in willing to slog through ~300 pages of legal judgement it reads like a rather lurid mystery book and Mr. Justice Eady is a brilliant writer.

    1. I don’t know a lot about clinical psych or the ICD diagnostic criteria, but would it be correct to describe a common and possibly universal feature of human minds as a “syndrome”?

      Maybe that’s why it isn’t there, not because it doesn’t exist but because it is not a disorder or a specific symptom of any disorder?

      It might well be that false memories are more common in people with problems like psychosis or in people with normal conditions like an extremely active imagination, so their prevalence might count in some cases as a symptom, but if they are universal (as they appear to be), then they should be considered as a cognitive bias or possibly an informal logical fallacy (believing something is true because you remember it without accounting for the fact that your memory could be incorrect), not as a psychological disease.

      1. This is a great point, and a wonderful articulation of something I haven’t quite found the right words for. It would make little sense for False Memory Syndrome to be added as a diagnosis, and I don’t know that that is what the FMSF even wanted. None of us is immune to false memories (see: Mandela Effect) so it falls more in the camp of bias, logical fallacy, or perhaps perceptual illusion. That “False Memory Syndrome isn’t a real diagnosis” is a red herring that provides poor cover for the indisputable reality of false memories.

      2. Very good point.

        I use the term occasionally, colloquially and probably should not. I certainly do not think of existence/implantation of false memories as a syndrome.

        I am afraid that the term is in common usage and we may be stuck with it for a while .

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