IPT Book Reviews

Title: Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found  Negative Review Negative Review
Author: Lenore Terr
Publisher: Harper/Collins 1994

Basic Books
10 East 53rd Street
New York, NY 10022-5299

(Included in this review are notes by Harry MacLean on the two chapters Lenore Terr devotes to the Eileen Franklin case.  Mr. MacLean has written a definitive analysis of this case in his excellent book, Once Upon a Time (Out of Print)(Out of Print) (New York: Harper/Collins, 1993).


This 282-page book consists of seven detailed cases designed to illustrate how memories can be repressed, dissociated or otherwise forgotten and later retrieved.  The book is written in a readable and colorful style so that the chapters stand on their own and Terr's interpretations of the relevant scientific principles are woven throughout.  The infamous Eileen Franklin case is discussed in detail in the first two chapters.  Eileen Franklin's father was convicted of murder following the alleged recovery of Ms. Franklin's repressed memory of seeing her father murder her best friend.  Another case deals with a woman suffering from a fugue state.  One chapter describes a man who claimed to have gradually uncovered memories of abuse by his mother, beginning when he was a baby.  One describes a man's attempts to remember ordinary things about a brother who died when the man was four years old.  Another is of a child who made false accusations of satanic abuse against two therapists.  This chapter includes a description of the research on suggestive interviews and how they can result in false allegations.  In one chapter, Terr describes in detail the case of Marilyn van Derbur Atler, former Miss America, who claims to have been sexually abused by her father from age five until she left for college.  Terr believes that writers and artists reenact their trauma in their writings and art, and one chapter is about an author, James Ellroy, and how his childhood experiences, including a seductive mother who was murdered, influenced his writings.


Lenore Terr is a strong advocate for the theories of repression and dissociation of trauma and she is often cited by the recovered memory advocates.  She believes that repressed memories, once retrieved, are highly detailed and accurate, although there may be some minor mistakes in what is recalled.  She sees repressed memories as different from those that are dissociated.  According to Terr, in repression, the individual unconsciously and energetically defends against remembering, whereas in dissociation the traumatic memories are set aside from normal consciousness during the event itself.  Therefore, compared to the sharp and accurate details of retrieved repressed memories, those that are dissociated are likely to remain fuzzy, unclear, and filled with holes.  Dissociated memories, according to Terr, rarely come back clear and complete.

Terr believes that traumatic memories operate differently than do ordinary memories.  She claims there are two types of trauma.  Type I traumas, which occur when the child is subjected to a single, unanticipated traumatic event, and which include full, clear, detailed verbal memories, although there may be some mistakes.  The children kidnapped and buried in Chowchilla illustrate Type I traumas.

Type II traumas, which occur when there is longstanding or repeated exposure to trauma, result in dissociation or repression.  The theory is that dissociation is a powerful and common defense against repeated childhood trauma and because the child dissociates during the trauma, the trauma is lost from conscious awareness.  Terr has written previously on her many cases of children suffering documented trauma, and since in these cases, there are no instances of children over the age of three who are completely amnesic for the event, the repeated trauma theory is used to explain why children with documented trauma remember the trauma.

Most of Terr's children experienced a single trauma.  According to Terr's theory, if the children had been repeatedly traumatized, this would be Type II trauma and they would have learned to dissociate and therefore might not remember the trauma.  It is important to note, however, that some of Terr's cases involve repeated trauma and, although these children's memories may have been sparse and fragmented, there are none who had complete amnesia.

Terr maintains that, even when the memory is completely repressed, there will be signs that reflect the traumatic event.  She believes that corroboration for the recovered memories comes from the person's symptoms and she illustrates this through writers, artists, and filmmakers, such as Stephen King, whom she says reenact their trauma in their writings and art.  Therefore, even when there is no external corroboration, the proof of the traumatic event comes from the person's feelings, behaviors, and actions.

Once repressed, Terr believes that even memories from early childhood and infancy can be retrieved through appropriate cues.  In one of the cases in her book, a retrieved memory is of the man's mother trying to drown him in his bathinet when he was an infant.  Terr herself reports having a memory of her grandmother putting hot tea in her mouth when she was 11 months old.

Although Terr's work is used to support the claim that recovered memories of repressed or dissociated trauma have been corroborated, neither this book nor her other writings accomplish this.  The corroboration of the repressed memories in this book is simply not convincing.  There are significant problems with her account of the Eileen Franklin case, as is seen in the note that follows by Harry MacLean.  MacLean observes that Terr makes several egregious factual mistakes and concludes that her account of this case resembles "a fable more than fact."

There is little or no corroboration of the abuse in her other examples of recovered repressed memories.  Also, it is reasonable to assume that Terr's other accounts are no more factually accurate than is her description of the Franklin case.

In addition, most of her other cases do not address repression of childhood traumatic events.  One case essentially deals with a fugue state and another with a man's attempts to remember ordinary things about a brother who died when the man was four years old.  The man had always remembered his brother's death.  Another is of a false memory.  The literary chapter is about an author, James Ellroy, and how his childhood experiences influenced his writings.  Although there is a lengthy discussion of the nature of his memories, there are no accounts of traumatic events that were repressed or dissociated but later retrieved.

In one chapter Terr describes in detail the case of Marilyn van Derbur Atler, former Miss America.  Van Derbur Atler supposedly defended against this trauma of repeated sexual abuse by her father from age five until she went to college by splitting into a "day child" and a "night child."  The day child knew nothing of the sexual abuse all of the abuse memories resided in the mind of the night child until Van Derbur Atler was 24 years old and her memories returned.  Terr maintains that this type of splitting into a day child and night child is a defense sometimes used by young children enduring repeated traumas.

Terr offers an extensive analysis of the former Miss America all from Van Derbur Atler's many television appearances and interviews given to reporters, plus one interview with one of her three sisters.  Terr did not evaluate nor even interview Marilyn Van Derbur Atler.  Despite the fact that Van Derbur Atler exhibited a number of extremely pathological and highly disturbed behaviors, Terr does not question the accuracy of her recovered memories, but instead develops a complicated scenario involving dissociation) splitting, and body memories.

In point of fact, people who undergo severe trauma remember it.  There is a large scientific literature on the reactions of people to documented severe trauma, such as fires, airplane crashes, terrorist attacks, automobile accidents, hurricanes, and being held hostage.  Such trauma victims show many symptoms, including feelings of unreality, detachment, numbing, disorientation, depersonalization, and flashbacks, but total amnesia for the entire event is not a common response.  Amnesia resulting from head injuries can happen, but psychogenic or traumatic amnesia in which all memories for the event are gone Is quite rare.  Instead, the memories may be fragmented and impaired, but they are not gone.

The scientific literature includes studies of children who have suffered documented trauma.  Terr's findings that the children she studied did not forget the trauma unless they were under the age of infant amnesia is consistent with these.  There are reports on the effects on children of witnessing acts of personal violence such as homicide, rape, or suicide, and seeing a parent murdered as well as undergoing disasters such as bushfires, terrorist attacks, and plane crashes.  There is research on the types of trauma children undergo in war, including witnessing the violent death of a parent or other close family member, terroristic attacks, kidnapping and life threat, and bombardment and shelling.  This literature does not include descriptions of children developing amnesia.

Terr's theories that traumatic memories are processed differently than ordinary memories, that there are different mechanisms for repeated trauma compared to single instances of trauma, and that repressed memories, when retrieved, will be detailed and accurate, are not supported by scientific evidence.  Terr's theory of two types of trauma appears to have been developed to counter the fact that her assertions about repression, amnesia, and trauma are not supported by her actual research with children who have undergone verified trauma.  We were unable to discover a single case described by Terr in which a child over the age of three had total amnesia for a documented traumatic event.

The research also fails to support the theory of Type II trauma for repeated traumatic events, such as sexual abuse.  Children traumatized in wartime include many who have undergone repeated trauma.  This research falsifies the claim that children will learn to dissociate repeated trauma so that all memories for the trauma are gone.  We did not discover any accounts in the literature where the children were described as developing amnesia for the entire traumatic event.

Terr's book fails to provide any support for the assumption that traumatic events can be repressed or dissociated and later uncovered.  As some mental health professionals are wont to do, Terr simply builds a complex, convoluted network of unsupported and unfounded assertions about internal psychological events which either can never be checked or, in fact, have been shown to be impossible.  Terr builds castles in the air, collects a hefty rent for them, and tells us about all the wonderful rooms; however a single question punctures the balloon.  Where is the supporting empirical data?

Reviewed by Hollida Wakefield, Institute for Psychological Therapies~ Northfield, Minnesota.

Comments by Harry MacLean

Lenore Terr's version of the facts of the precedent setting Franklin case in her book Unchained Memories would be laughable were it not such a serious matter.  Terr has certain conclusions to reach and certain hypotheses to support, so she twists some facts, omits others, and creates her own to this end.  There is not the slightest hint of objectivity in the presentation of the facts.  Time and again she accepts as true facts, accounts which were hotly disputed.  It is horrible journalism, as well as bad science, to tell only one side of a many-sided story as if there were no others; it is even more unforgivable to not tell the reader that you are doing this.

For example: The opening pages of the book are a lyrical presentation of how Eileen supposedly recovered the memory of her father killing Susan Nason.  On and on Terr goes, supplying telling little details to give it the ring of truth.  Nowhere does Terr mention that this is only one of five versions that Eileen told people about how she recovered the memory.  Nowhere does she indicate that Eileen told one sister she recovered the memory in a dream, while she told her brother that the memories were discovered in the course of therapy.

It is important to Terr's thesis, and in her belief in Eileen's story, that the murder memory be Eileen's first recovered memory.  On page 3, Terr writes: "She knew nothing at all about the psychological defense of repression."  The undisputed fact is that Eileen testified that she was in therapy the previous winter with a woman and supposedly recovered a repressed memory of her father digitally penetrating her.  The psychologist explained to Eileen how repression worked.  Terr repeats this mistake later in the book.
 Terr adds facts when the known ones aren't sufficient.  On page 5, she states with certainty that during her father's rape of Susan, Eileen could "see white socks and white child-size underwear."  Eileen never testified that she saw Susan's underwear, only that she saw something "white."  Terr repeats this mistake on page 28.

On page 12 Terr explains one of her key criteria for the return of a memory the person has become safe or comfortable.  Eileen, she says, had become comfortable in the third decade of her life.  In fact, even Eileen does not claim this was a good period of her life.  Months earlier she filed for divorce from her husband, alleging severe emotional abuse.  She had no education and no money and was terrified of losing her daughter.  She emptied her bank account and grabbed her children and fled twice with the children only to be blackmailed into returning.  Barry, her ex-husband said he would file criminal charges against her for theft.  Terr says that Eileen had achieved a "state of well-being," a "ground of comfort."  Nothing could be further from the truth.  According to court documents and her own statements, Eileen was a severely abused woman who was scared to leave an abusive husband.  Terr was aware of the divorce; she was cross-examined on it during the trial.  But these facts don't fit her theory, so they were ignored.

In Terr's version, Eileen was not in therapy when the memory returned.  In fact, Eileen was seeing therapist Kirk Barrett at the time.  Terr writes that "Barrett stayed neutral; he told Eileen he couldn't be certain that her memory was real."  In fact, Barrett testified that he told Eileen that he believed her.

On page 14, Terr tells the story of Janice Franklin, one of Eileen's older sisters, going to the police in 1984, with the charge that her father had murdered Susan Nason.  Terr neglects to mention that the police in 1984 had dismissed Janice's story because the time she gave for her father's return in effect provided an alibi for him.  It was only after she was in therapy with Kirk Barrett that she straightened the time out to match the known facts.

Terr's version contains many other factual errors, some of which are not particularly important, such as having the wrong name of the prosecutor who filed the case, the wrong name of Franklin's home town, an incorrect description of the type of law enforcement officers who arrested Franklin, the wrong town Franklin lived in when he was arrested, the wrong order of events in the trial, incorrect defense strategies, etc.

Terr also has Eileen originally saying that the killing occurred in the "early afternoon."  Eileen said that the killing happened in the morning.  Terr also confuses the order of Eileen's recovered memories.  On pages 34-35 she writes that a few months after the murder memory Eileen recovered a memory of digital penetration.  Eileen herself testified that this was the first recovered memory.

The most egregious example of accepting something as true which is highly disputed (and failing to note that it is a disputed fact) is Eileen's supposed habit of pulling her hair out, resulting in "a big, bleeding bald spot near the crown" (p.35).  Terr relies on this several times in the article as proof of the accuracy of Eileen's memory ("This behavioral reenactment provided internal confirmation for me of the truth of Eileen's memory," p. 36).  She even says that Eileen had this bleeding bald spot well into high school.  Eileen's mother denies that Eileen had any habit of pulling her hair out; her older sister Kate, who practically raised the children, denies the habit or the existence of any "big, bleeding bald spot."  Diana, Eileen's youngest sister and the sibling to whom she was closest, denies any habit or bleeding bald spot.  None of Eileen's schoolmates or teachers that I talked to ever mentioned a bleeding bald spot.  Knowing children and their tendency to focus on unusual physical characteristics, if she had had a bald spot, it would have been noticed.  On page 38 Terr has expanded this habit to "bloody hair-pulling all through her midchildhood."

In any event, even if Eileen did pull her hair out, how does that substantiate the notion that she "saw" the murder?  Her best friend was murdered and she certainly learned as a child the nature of the injury.  She simply could have been repeating what she had been told or read.

Terr's unrelenting bias, and obvious lack of objectivism, is evident again when on page 42 she explains Eileen's confusion of her rapist (changed from black to white, from stranger to stepfather), as a "natural mistake."  Such sloppy reporting could simply be attributed to poor journalism.  What cannot be countenanced is her contrivance of a fact in the story.  Terr recounts Eileen's phone conversation with the officer in which she told the murder story.  In response to a question, Eileen says that her feeling is that, "No," her father did not rape Susan Nason.  Terr volunteers that the reason Eileen feels that way is because of her "conflicted love for her father."  Eileen repeats that she can't say that penetration occurred between Nason and Eileen's father, yet, on page 22 Terr inexplicably writes, that "There was sperm in Susan's vagina."  Susan's body had decomposed for two months on the side of a mountain, a fact which Terr knows quite well because she recites it earlier in the book.  The only flesh on the body was mummified.  There was never the slightest suggestion by anybody at anytime in this case that sperm had been found in Susan's vagina.  Terr seemed to have some sort of need to convict Franklin in her book of rape, as well as murder.

The mistakes and false assertions go on and on.  I will close with one that is particularly egregious.  On the last page, Terr attacks Eileen's siblings who didn't believe her.  She writes: "They do not believe her.  And they think she has willfully ruined their reputations, their privacy and their father's remaining years."  Where did Terr get this?  How does she know what Eileen's siblings think?  Has she talked to them?  I'm sure not.  Can a scientist really recount as fact what is in someone else's mind when they haven't talked to that person?  The implication that the siblings are upset that she has ruined their father's remaining years is absurd.  None of the children care about George Franklin.

Terr's recitation of events resembles a fable more than fact.  It is more than a little ironic, given these gross mistakes, and apparent contrivances that Terr writes that in evaluating returned memories one must "rely on good detective work" (p.30); a statement in seeming contradiction to Terr having accepted everything Eileen told her at face value.

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