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“Recovered memory claims are due to mass hysteria. They only occur in a specific time and place.”

“Child abuse allegations are the "third-greatest wave of hysteria" the nation has seen, following the Salem witch trials and the McCarthyite persecution of leftists.” - Richard Gardner. [1]

“For the past two years or so we have become activists in the fight against the recovered memory hysteria” - Katie Spanuello, FMS Foundation Staff, in the FMSF Newsletter. [2]


Arguments along these lines claim that cases of recovered memory only occurred in the United States during a particular decade of mass hysteria (Usually stated to be around 1980-1995), and as such are due to a socially constructed phenomena. This is simply untrue - cases of recovered memory occurred before the 1980’s, occurred after the year 2000, and occurred outside the US.

Here are a few notable examples from before the 1980’s and from outside the US:

1920: The Cause of Sudden Fits of Sleepiness
This newspaper article quotes a psychiatrist discussing the “revival of repressed memories.” [3]
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1930: Your Health and Your Brain: Repressed Memories
This newspaper article gives an example of a soldier who repressed his memories of war. With the help of a therapist, he was able to successfully recover his memory of touching a dying fellow soldier. [4]
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1935: Is Your Memory a Friend or Enemy?
This newspaper article covers the general concept of memory repression and recovery. It specifically mentions childhood sexual abuse as a source of emotional trauma that can be repressed and recovered. [5]
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Australia: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia
Luke Benson is an example of an Australian case of corroborated recovered memory. Philippe Vincent Trutmann, who was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison in 2005, “admitted to sexually abusing [Luke Benson] 30 to 40 times over a two-year period.” [6] But Mr. Benson, who remembers Trutmann as a “father figure,” has no recollection of the abuse.

Repression Challenge
The argument that recovered memories are due to mass hysteria is argued by Harrison Pope, who launched a "repression challenge.” He challenged anyone to find an example of repressed and recovered memory before 1800, in hopes of proving that the phenomenon was socially constructed since then. Despite “the contest's methodological flaws,” [7] an opera from 1786 won the challenge. You can read more about the Repression Challenge on Harrison Pope’s page. [link]

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Claimed Cause: Financial Incentive
“There are a lot of people making a lot of money here, and much of it stems from the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act” - Richard Gardner [8]

Gardner consistently argues that the moral hysteria behind accusations of childhood abuse based on recovered memories is driven financially by a “sex abuse industry.” [8] His primary target is the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which authorized demonstration grants and provided funding for child protective service systems and foster care.

Gardner claims that “there are thousands of people whose livelihoods depend upon the continuing churning out of sexually abused people,” [8] people who are financially incentivized to ‘find’ cases of childhood abuse. However, CAPTA funds are allocated on a formula based on the amount of kids in each respective state. Thus, CAPTA funds have nothing to do with the number of reported cases of childhood abuse, and there is no incentive to ‘find’ abuse. [9]

Government assigned social workers, therapists, and family workers who handle cases of sexual abuse are not well paid. [10] However, this statement does not apply to expert witnesses for the defense – including Gardner and his colleagues. His colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, “according to her own boasts… must have earned between $3 million and $5 million as an expert witness.” [11] Dr. Harrison Pope, another colleague, admitted to earning $600 an hour, $6,000 a day, and over $100,000 a year testifying part-time for the defense in court. [12]

Ignoring Social Pressures to Dismiss Abuse
Claims that accusations of childhood abuse are caused by social hysteria often identify the hysteria through an explosion of cases reported in the 1980’s and 1990’s, where cases of childhood abuse cases of child abuse were rarely if ever reported beforehand. However, Ross Cheit writes that “The social forces that explain why child sexual abuse existed for so long without publicity or social recognition are never addressed, except in a condescending fashion.” [9] Even during the time of alleged hysteria, proponents rarely addressed the societal pressures that still existed to silence those who spoke up about abuse.

In his book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative, Ross Cheit describes four cases during the purported years of ‘sex-abuse hysteria’ where a man’s prolific molestation of children was well-known to the community, yet no action was taken against the perpetrator for decades. Later, in a 1996 study, it was found that “When teachers are accused of sexual misconduct, some school officials and school boards quietly side step legal and ethical issues to protect their schools from scandal,” dismissing student’s accusations even when “a teacher’s files indicated previous sex-related complaints.” [13] This was four years after Richard Gardner, who coined the term ‘sex-abuse hysteria,’ asserted that it is “no longer the case” that sexual abuse accusations were dismissed or disbelieved. [14]

For those who raise accusations of sexual abuse and are dismissed, the narrative that accusations are caused by mass hysteria is “a cruel misrepresentation of social pressures that, in their experience, are the complete opposite of “overly sensitive” to sexual abuse.” [9]

Anxiety or Hysteria?
Claims about mass hysteria around sexual abuse often blamed anxious mothers for suggestively questioning their children about sexual abuse or blowing a child’s question-ably related comment out of proportion into an accusation. [9]

It is important to find a careful middle ground: There was certainly anxiety in mothers, especially as women entered the workforce and began sending their children to daycare. However, that does not mean all cases of childhood abuse from the 1980’s and 1990’s are unfounded, nor does it mean all children’s accusations of abuse are false accusations. [9]

Take this case for example: At the time of Kelly Michaels’s highly-publicized trial for childhood sexual abuse, there was an unrelated childcare center with the exact same name – Wee Care Child Care Center – as the one Michaels worked at, only 15 miles away. After news of the trial hit, the unrelated daycare was “besieged” with calls from worried parents who thought Michaels worked at their daycare center. [9]

New Jersey, the cite of the trial, was often claimed to be a hotspot of ‘sex abuse hysteria.’ Ross Cheit writes that “If there really were mass hysteria around Maplewood in the summer of 1985, then allegations of some sort would have been generated against at least one staff member at the day-care center. But that did not happen. Some, perhaps all, of the anxious parents in Clifton undoubtedly asked their children if anything bad had happened to them at school. Some undoubtedly used leading questions and were unwilling to accept an initial denial. But not a single one of those inquiries resulted in a reported accusation, even though this is the most common explanation in the witch-hunt narrative for how these cases begin.” [9]

For an in-depth analysis of the ‘hysteria’ narrative, please refer to Ross Cheit’s book, the Witch-Hunt Narrative.


[1] Gardner, Richard. (1993, February 22). Modern witch hunt--child abuse charges. The Wall Street Journal, p. A10.

[2] Spanuello, Katie. (1995, June). Make a Difference. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 4(5), 15.

[3] The Cause of Sudden Fits of Sleepiness. (1920, August 26). The Windsor Star. Pg. 14

[4] Alford, Leland. (1930, April 1). Your Health and Your Brain. Mind and Brain. Repressed Memories. The Morning News. Pg. 6

[5] Peake, D.E.. (1935, February 23). Is your memory a friend or enemy? Even the “moderns” live in the past. Liverpool Echo. Pg. 4

[6] Jacks, Timna. (2015, September 2). Sex abuse royal commission: Geelong Grammar student has “no memory” of repeated abuse at school. The Sydney Morning Herald.

[7] Goldsmith, R. E., Cheit, R. E., & Wood, M. E. (2009). Ignoring Nina: Avoidance and Denial in Pope, Poliakoff, Parker, Boynes, and Hudson (2009). Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 10(3), 258–260.

[8] Gardner, Richard. (1997, January 14). The Spin-Off of Daycare Hysteria: Epidemic Accusations of Sexual Abuse in Custody Disputes. [Conference Presentation]. Day of Contrition Revisited, Salem, MA, USA.

[9] Cheit, R. E. (2014). The witch-hunt narrative: Politics, psychology, and the sexual abuse of children (pp. xx, 508). Oxford University Press.

[10] Raymond, Adam. (2021, December 1) Underpaid, overworked Kentucky social workers push for change. Spectrum News 1.

[11] Landsberg, Michele. (1996, February 11). Beware of false prophets peddling false-memory hype. Toronto Star. A2.

[12] Clark v. Edison. Jury Trial Day 5/Testimony of Harrison G. Pope, Ph.D. Civil Action No.09-40040-FDS (District Court of Massachusetts, 2012, July 13).

[13] Hargrove, Mary & Roth, Susan. (1996, September 8). Preying on Pupils. Arkansas

[14] [The Gardner contribution] Amicus Curiae Brief for the New Jersey Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry [in State v. J.Q.], n.d. [circa summer 1992], 12.
Dr. Gardner sent me this document; the words “The Gardner contribution” are handwritten on the first page.

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