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‘The Keepers': What Are Repressed and Recovered Memories?

Netflix documentary series ”The Keepers“ deals with repressed and recovered memories about Sister Cathy Cesnik’s murder — but how credible are they?

(Spoiler alert: Please do not read on if you haven’t watched the Netflix’s series “The Keepers)

An essential part of the story of Netflix’s documentary series “The Keepers” is repressed and recovered memory — the idea that traumatic memories can be blocked by a person’s psyche, and only come back to the surface years later.

In the documentary, that’s what Jean Hargadon Wehner says happened to her. She accuses Father A. Joseph Maskell, a former administrator at Archbishop Keough High School where Jean went to school in the late 1960s, of sexually abusing her as a student. Jean believes Sister Catherine Cesnik, whose murder is the focus of “The Keepers,” discovered Maskell’s abuse of students at the school, and that might be what led to her death. Jean even said Maskell showed her Sister Cathy’s body.

But Jean didn’t come forward with her accusations until 1992 — almost 25 years after she said the abuse occurred. That was because, up until that time, Jean says she had repressed the memories.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore has since acknowledged Jean’s claims of abuse with an out-of-court settlement of $50,000. The archdiocese has acknowledged and apologized to 15 other victims as of May as well, a spokesperson told the Baltimore Sun.

But in 1994, the archdiocese fought the credibility of Jean’s memories. And in fact, the idea of repressed memory has gone through a lot of changes when used in court cases, specifically in those of childhood abuse. So what exactly is repressed memory — and do experts consider it credible?

The idea of repressed memory first started circulating in the 1970s and 1980s. The idea is that, in a response to trauma like sexual abuse, the mind will block out painful memories. Many therapists and psychologists thought they could recover these memories, sometimes with shocking results.

For a while in the ’80s and ’90s, cases of repressed memories exploded, with adults claiming to discover memories of abuse as children. The Recovered Memory Project, run by Brown University Professor Ross Cheit, documents 53 such cases from between 1982 and 2007 in which recovered memory was used as evidence. The 53 cases on that list all resulted in guilty verdicts or in findings against defendants.

By 1994, when Jean and fellow victim Teresa Lancaster filed a $40 million lawsuit against Maskell and the Baltimore Archdiocese, however, views on recovered memory had changed. Several cases had occurred in which recovered memories weren’t backed up by evidence at all, resulting in major harm caused to those accused.

Researchers discovered that searching for repressed memories can cause patients to create false memories, or “pseudomemories.” Those are manufactured memories that some patients believed had really happened to them, but which are actually the result of things like suggestions from analysts and therapists that patients then convince themselves are real. As The Guardian notes, those false memories can lead to false convictions.

In fact, there’s little real science to back up the idea of repressed and recovered memory. For one thing, there’s a lack of study. According to the American Psychological Association website, medical and scientific ethics rightly stop researchers from traumatizing people in order to find out how those traumatic situations are encoded as memories in the brain. But that also means researchers can’t say for sure that memories are always created the same way, or that trauma might cause memories to be encoded differently in the brain, especially in children. Without being able to look at brains as they create memories of trauma, there’s no way to say for sure.

Cases of repressed or recovered memories that can be verified are rare, the APA says in its frequently asked questions sections on memories of childhood abuse. But it also says that there are cases in which it has happened. As the Recovered Memory Project finds, there have been many cases in which abuse victims said they’d recovered memories, and evidence presented to courts then verified the claim, resulting in confessions and convictions.

By the same token, cases of the creation of pseudomemories, which patients fully believe are true and have happened to them, are also credible, according to the APA.

In “The Keepers,” Jean Wehner discusses how she has gone out of her way to avoid talking with other victims specifically to keep herself free of suggestions or ideas that might come from them. And elements of her memories seem to be confirmed by the other victims — of which there are as many as 40 or more, according to “The Keepers director Ryan White — who have come forward to accuse Maskell over the years.

One of the big bombshells in “The Keepers” is the idea of maggots on the body of Sister Catherine Ceznik, whose body Jean claims Maskell took her to see. According to police at the time, it was too cold for Jean to have seen maggots on the body, discrediting her account. But the medical examiner’s records when the body was discovered in January 1970 show that there were maggots inside the mouth — so Jean’s account was, in fact, possible despite the cold.

So at least right now, it’s impossible to say whether Jean’s recovered memories are all accurate, especially as relates to whether Maskell showed her Sister Cathy’s body. But evidence backs up many of Jean’s claims. Still, a judge ruled her repressed memories weren’t enough to circumvent the statute of limitations in 1994. Even though the archdiocese eventually acknowledged accusations against Maskell, he died in 2001 without ever being charged or tried.

Scroll down for our gallery on all the major players you need to keep straight in Netflix’s documentary series “The Keepers.”