This article is abridged from a paper prepared for the “Day of Contrition-Revisited Convocation,” convened by The Justice Committee, Salem, Massachusetts, January 13-14, 1997.

THIS TRICENTENNIAL OBSERVANCE of the Massachusetts Day of Contrition cannot fail to provoke sombre and resolute thoughts in everyone who sees a parallel between the judicial horrors of the 1690s and those of the 1980s and 90s. Although Salem has a positive resonance for those who love American literature, the town inevitably calls to mind the aura of demented legalism that made the execution of so-called witches appear to be the only available course of action in 1692. Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne, for one, could not escape that theme, and it helped colour his imagination and make him a lifelong brooder about irreparable wrongs.

In his years as a struggling young author, Hawthorne frequently dwelt upon his Puritan ancestors, the authorised persecutors of heretics, and speculated about their less than noble motives. Was it simply religious fanaticism, he asked himself, or was it also prurience and sadism that impelled his great-great-great-grandfather, Major William Hathorne (1607-1681), to sentence a possibly psychotic Quaker woman to be stripped to the waist, bound to a cart, and whipped through the streets? “Feeling [the] symptoms [of sin] within the breast,” Hawthorne wrote with scorn for manifest pretensions, “men concealed it with fear and shame, and were only the more cruel to those unfortunates whose pestiferous sores were flagrant to the common eye” (Hawthorne, 1882-83, 2:287).

Any number of Hawthorne’s sentences sound as if they had been plucked from the less technical, more Dostoevskian pronouncements of Freud. And the Viennese witch doctor, as Vladimir Nabokov maliciously but (as we will see) presciently called him, could only have applauded the idea that the judicial severity of John and William Hathorne must have taken its impetus from unconscious guilt, reaction formation, and projection. That was just what Hawthorne and Freud had most in common: a penchant for discounting altruistic motives and regarding consequential deeds as stemming from discomfort with the sordid contents of one’s own mind. And, of course, we cannot deny that they both may have been right.

The issue before us is a practical one: how to right a public wrong that keeps recurring in new forms. And it is precisely the problem of recurrence that will occupy me here. If we are to take an effective stand not only against the current madness but against future versions of it as well, analytic understanding — but not necessarily psychoanalytic understanding — of episodes like the 1692 witch hunt is imperative. Indeed, I want to suggest that Freud’s and Hawthorne’s emphasis on twisted personalities is exactly what we least need, because it obscures factors that we can satisfactorily grasp and control. All we need is the right set of precautions, so that when a certain style of volatile illogic makes a renewed appearance, we can say, “No; here is the mistake you’re making, and we won’t allow you to break up families and send people to prison on such a faulty basis.”

In the wonderful new film The Crucible, none other than John Hathorne himself makes an appearance at one of those riveting, anguished moments when the whole hoax of demonic possession seems ready to unravel. Young Mary Warren has decided to confess that the bewitched girls have been faking it. Very well, then, says Hathorne, let’s see you fall into a fit here and now. Mary tries and tries, but can’t manage to swoon–and so Hathorne and the other examiners are reinforced in their belief that demons have taken charge of Salem, and the awful farce continues.

Trance States

Any private fantasies that Hathorne may be entertaining about Mary Warren are making no difference to the outcome. What matters is that Hathorne lacks familiarity with the psychology of trance states, which can be easily induced in suggestible people by social contagion but which are recalcitrant to the kind of tense effort Mary is making here. Let us be fair to the Puritan judges: surely they wouldn’t have gone forward with their persecution if they had been able to realise that nothing in the events engulfing them was mysterious enough to call for a transcendent explanation.

The question, however, is whether even today we have a sufficient understanding of popular delusions to reach agreement about the cognitive mistakes that allow them to flourish. Precisely because our culture is now predominantly secular and scientific, our latest witch hunts are couched in professional idioms that tend to lull our skepticism–the idioms, namely, of therapeutic concern, of deterministic depth-psychological forces, of social-scientific objectivity, and even of data-laden laboratory research.

In order to become sufficiently alert, it is not enough that we recognise the outlandishness of certain kinds of claims, such as Mom and Dad’s ritual barbecuing of babies on the grill. When patently ridiculous charges are made against parents or caregivers accused of sexual crimes, those charges are typically peeled away by shrewd prosecutors so that they can’t devalue the “evidence” for other and more plausible-looking crimes by the same defendant. If we can’t demonstrate the fallacies riddling all testimony that has been contaminated by the illegitimate way in which reputed memories were formed, we will go on allowing innocent people to be railroaded into prison.

Two Kinds of Rashness

Clarity on this point may be impeded by the fact that we are here to consider two kinds of rashness whose kinship is not immediately obvious. Most closely allied to the events of 1692 are the Little Rascals- or Wenatchee-style “sex ring” frenzies, with their uncontrolled propagation of rumour and their ever-widening net of accused parties. Rather different in appearance are the accusations made by one adult against another based on “recall” of childhood memories that were supposedly repressed or dissociated until they emerged in therapy.

I will be giving most of my attention to this second category of dubious charges, not because they are more destructive — far from it! — but because it is harder to reach consensus about the reforms they call for. We can all agree that coercive and unvideotaped interrogation of children must stop. But when it comes to memory therapy, does the problem lie with ill-trained and impetuous practitioners, or, as I suspect, is the most “scientific” training in this art — such as we find, for example, in Kenneth S. Pope’s and Laura S. Brown’s high-toned Recovered Memories of Abuse (1996) — scarcely better than the worst?

We could say that both kinds of cases batten on the fallibility of memory, but in fact, there is only a distant resemblance between so-called recovered memory twenty years after the fact and a child’s coerced consent to insinuations about what happened in the daycare centre or church basement weeks before. We must look to theoretical understanding of the real common denominator here — namely, suggestion, or the unremarked flow of ideas, feelings, or “recollections” from a dominant to a subordinate party, so the latter has the impression of having arrived at those ideas, feelings, or recollections independently.

Right away I want to head off a likely misapprehension. It is wrong to think of suggestion as a phenomenon that operates completely apart from the consent of the influenced person. There is always a proffered benefit for going along with the suggester’s notion. We cannot always establish a clear border between an effect of suggestion and an outright dissimulation. Even a faked panic attack can become a real one in the acting, and a falsehood can acquire the strength of a conviction once the consequences of being found out have escalated.

Agents of Suggestion

As in The Crucible, the whole community, or that part of it that fixes rewards and penalties, can become an agent of suggestion, transmitting the message that persistence in an already consequential pretence is de rigueur; and those who get the message can be self-aware to a degree yet increasingly “sincere” as their options narrow and their expected role is delineated more urgently.

That pattern is as common today as it was in 1692. Thus a child, learning from an interrogator that freedom from more grilling will be forthcoming only when certain alleged incidents are agreed to, may be conscious of fibbing when he or she first assents to the interrogator’s demand; but soon thereafter the stakes will be raised, and the child’s reality-testing criteria for recalling what did or didn’t happen will be an early casualty (Ceci & Bruck, 1995).

The same confusion doomed Paul Ingram in Olympia, Washington, when he was assured by fellow sheriffs that the relevant memories of his crimes against his daughter would come flooding back as soon as he signed a confession (Wright, 1994). And of course there is the far more usual case of the young adult whose therapist has convinced her that surcease from her worsening depression, disorientation, nightmares, and hallucinations will come only after she has recalled the identity of the “perpetrator” ultimately responsible for them. That promise of relief is rarely fulfilled, but meanwhile, the patient gets sucked into a vortex of paranoid survivorhood, and further “memories” are sure to follow.

Whether it was Freud or Janet who bequeathed us our psychodynamic version of haunted consciousness is debatable. The distance separating psychoanalysis from recovered memory therapy has recently begun to narrow. Although some Freudians deny it, it’s no longer a secret that American psychoanalysis harbors a thriving branch of recovered memory practice, differing in no essential respect from Freud’s quest for “seductions” in the mid-1890s.

Nor is this the first such reversion in psychoanalytic history. It happened before when Sandor Ferenczi decided around 1930 that Freud had been right the first time about his patients’ childhood abuse (Masson, 1992; Harris & Aron, 1993). As both Ferenczi and the new recovered-memory Freudians could attest, to move from “psychoanalysis proper” back to the seduction theory requires only a minor adjustment of perspective–the same adjustment Freud made in the opposite direction when he decided his patients were repressing their sexual fantasies rather than their memories of violation.

Repression Revisited

Thus contemporary recovered memory therapy draws upon tenets Freud promulgated both before and after 1897, using the name “psychoanalysis” for both states of his discipline. Those tenets are that repression is the normal human response to trauma; that experiences in infancy produce long-term memories that can be accurately retrieved decades later; that adult psychological difficulties can be reliably ascribed to certain forgotten events…; that sexual traumas are incomparably more susceptible to repression and the formation of neurosis than any other kind; that symptoms are themselves “memories” that can yield up the story of their origin; that dream interpretation, too, can disclose the repressed past; that memory retrieval is necessary for symptom removal; and that psychotherapists can confidently trace their clinical findings to the patient’s unconscious without allowing for the contaminating influence of their own diagnostic system, imparted directly or through suggestion.

Missed Opportunities

Historians now understand that the Freudian idea of the repressed unconscious arose from a series of missed opportunities to take proper note of suggestion. First there was Jean-Martin Charcot’s mistaken inference that his hypnotized patients, when they suffered temporary paralyses of their limbs, were showing their underlying medical conditions rather than the effects of coaching and hypnosis itself. Freud’s witnessing of those specious demonstrations in 1885-86, and his acceptance of the dubious idea that Charcot’s resident “hysterics” (more aptly, his inadvertently trained actresses) retained no posthypnotic awareness of the “traumas” that had allegedly triggered their paralyses (Borch-Jacobsen, 1997), became the unshakeable core of his faith in the mind’s capacity to will itself into ignorance of its own traumatic past.

Second, Freud extended the applicability of Charcot’s faulty insight by adopting Hippolyte Bernheim’s use of posthypnotic suggestion in psychotherapy while overriding Bernheim’s salutary insistence on the inutility of hypnosis as a biographical investigative aid.

Thirdly, Freud regarded Breuer’s Anna O. (Bertha Pappenheim) as someone whose hysterical symptoms had been banished through memory retrieval. On the contrary, we now understand Pappenheim’s “cure” as yet another case of hypnotic suggestion and autosuggestion–a case in which the disease itself was largely an artifact of the proffered treatment and the patient’s own hypochondriacal fertility of imagination.

Before long Freud dispensed with hypnosis as an overt clinicial tool. But the outlines of his theory of mind were largely settled by this time, and suggestion-based “clinical validations” of his patients’ reconstructed childhood vicissitudes continued. Furthermore, his subsequently developed doctrine of transference–perhaps the one aspect of his system still endorsed in name by all schools of psychoanalysis–functioned effectively to smooth the path for suggestion. When patients showed ingratiating or hostile responses to Freud’s overbearing manner and wild constructions, transference allowed him to maintain that he was just acting as a neutral screen for the projection of early oedipal conflicts.

His assertion that he was not the real object of the patient’s feelings served at once to “prove” the hardihood of early neurotic patterns and the need for more therapy; to make the patient doubt her very capacity to say what she meant; and to delegitimize any efforts to criticize Freud himself or to redress the drastic inequality between the two parties.

Witch Hunter as Analyst

It is precisely a theoretical kinship, a shared conception of mental self-division, that links our contemporary hunt for “perpetrators” both to Freud’s nineteenth-century effort and to the campaign against bewitchment in 1692. On this point I can summon an impressive witness, Freud himself. It is a little-known but significant fact that Freud was an avid student of witchcraft and its detection. In 1897 he bought a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches], the fifteenth-century persecution manual and was an admirer of Johann Weyer, the sixteenth-century Dutch author of De Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Veneficiis [On the Deceptions of Demons and the Incantations of Poisoners], a book credited with having slowly taught civil and religious authorities to disbelieve in witchcraft.

Freud’s regard for Weyer appears to comport well with his famous secular rationalism, but nothing is simple when dealing with the founder of psychoanalysis. Like Weyer, Freud was intrigued that a number of accused witches came to admit they were witches.

In Weyer’s sensible judgment, torture was causing some to hallucinate and others to agree to charges they knew to be false. The crafty Freud begged to differ. During his “seduction theory” period he hypothesized the “witches” were victims of sexual abuse whose repressed unconscious retained a sense of devilish goings-on. Once he had decided his patients hadn’t been raped in childhood, he changed his mind about the witches as well. Now their references to demons stood not for molesters but for “bad and reprehensible wishes, derivatives of instinctual impulses that have been repudiated and repressed” (Freud, 1953-1974, 19: 72).

These seemingly opposite views on Freud’s part are alike in one chilling and critically important respect: they take no account of the circumstances in which confessions were exacted. As Freud told the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1909, speaking about visions of flying through the air and consorting sexually with the Devil, “We find unmistakably infantile elements in those fantasies that were not created under torture but merely squeezed out by it” (Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, 1967, II: 123).

Which is to say, “witches” were guilty, not of sorcery but of lewd and twisted thoughts rattling about in their heads. Confessions of witchcraft, properly interpreted, were just a matter of getting in touch with the repressed. And Freud didn’t shrink from the further implication that the torturing inquisitors were psychoanalysts before their time, employing stern measures to tease the unconscious into surrendering its shameful contents. As he wrote to Wilhelm Fliess in 1897, he now understand “the harsh therapy of the witches’ judges” (Freud, 1985, p. 227; emphasis added). That statement, discounting the influence of the rack and the thumbscrew on the ravings and lies they elicited, marked a gruesome ne plus ultra of Freud’s lifelong indifference to the problem of suggestion.

The reason that Freud couldn’t withhold a measure of professional recognition from the witchcraft inquisitors is that he himself, in the mid-1890s, was prodding his patients into concocting trance “scenes,” not of witchcraft but of forced sexual initiations purporting to have set in motion the workings of neurosis. Consider the following passage from a letter; the patient is Emma Eckstein, whose nose Fliess surgically disfigured with Freud’s connivance two years earlier.

“Imagine,” writes Freud, “I obtained a scene about the circumcision of a girl. The cutting off of a piece of the labium minor (which is even shorter today), sucking up the blood, after which the child was given a piece of the skin to eat” (Freud, 1985, p. 227).

Lunatic Fringe

Do we not find ourselves at the lunatic fringe of “Satanic ritual abuse” here? Thanks to his Lamarckian assumptions about the hereditary transmission of memory traces, Freud suspected the fantasies he was extracting from Eckstein pointed to the existence of dark cults and sordid practices near the dawn of civilization. “I am beginning to grasp an idea,” he wrote in the same letter: “it is as though in the perversions, of which hysteria is the negative, we have before us a remnant of a primeval sexual cult, which once was–perhaps still is–a religion in the Semitic East (Moloch, Astarte). . . . I dream, therefore, of a primeval devil religion with rites that are carried on secretly . . .” (Freud, 1985, p. 227). It is at this moment Freud expresses solidarity with the witch interrogators. They may have been wrong about their victims’ connection to diabolical cults just then, he seems to say, but they were only off by a few thousand years. Here is Freud approximating the role of Hawthorne’s zaniest monomaniac, Ethan Brand.

Of course, no social harm can come from attempts to peer into pre-antiquity on the basis of one’s patients’ imagery; it is just gnostic folly pure and simple. But plenty of harm attached to Freud’s taking the “scenes” as proof of childhood sexual abuse. A representative passage from the letters to Fliess shows how callously he went about the business of bullying a patient and setting her against her astonished father:

When I thrust the explanation at her, she was at first won over; then she committed the folly of questioning the old man himself, who at the very first intimation exclaimed indignantly, “Are you implying that I was the one?” and swore a holy oath to his innocence.

She is now in the throes of the most vehement resistance, claims to believe him, but attests to her identification with him by having become dishonest and swearing false oaths. I have threatened to send her away and in the process convinced myself that she has already gained a good deal of certainty which she is reluctant to acknowledge.

She has never felt as well as on the day when I made the disclosure to her. In order to facilitate the work, I am hoping she will feel miserable again.
(Freud, 1985, pp. 220-221)

If Freud had enjoyed a wider and more sympathetic audience in the 1890s, it seems that he could have ended the decade by writing not The Interpretation of Dreams but a macho version of The Courage to Heal.

Molesters’ Alibi

The founding gesture of “psychoanalysis proper” was a step back from wild forensic efforts toward inconsequentiality; no one could be held criminally accountable for the fact that neurotics were suffering from their own fantasies. In its social effects, however, Freud’s eventual psychology was far from inconsequential. As the feminists who founded our recovered memory movement correctly alleged, classical psychoanalysis gave child molesters an alibi by ascribing seductive designs to small children themselves and by dismissing accounts of always remembered rape as mere “screen memories” defending against those oedipal wishes (Simon, 1992). We are paying dearly, today, for the understandable anger generated by such quackery.

Should we at least be grateful that psychoanalytic theory as it is usually understood produces more introspection than litigation? Obviously not, since that theory lends itself so readily to new therapeutic fads purporting to find evidence of past crimes in “the repressed.” Three times thus far, from Freud’s “seduction” phase through Ferenczi’s own to our present crisis, we have seen outbreaks of inquisitorial mania based on the same premises about the hidden unconscious mind and its preeminently sexual concerns; and the last of these eruptions has become what the others might well have been, a mass delusion.

If we persist in regarding classical psychoanalysis and its tamer offshoots as “science,” while condemning seduction theories as perversions of an otherwise well-founded doctrine, then we can count on the emergence of new recovered memory movements ad infinitum.

Freud’s Final Word

Let us give the final word on this topic to Freud himself. In his 1893 obituary of Charcot, Freud expressed gratitude to his early master for having put him onto the “splitting of consciousness,” whereby a subject’s body acts out what he can’t consciously remember. Freud reminds us this principle–the very heart of his own hermeneutic for the remainder of his career–took its precedent from an earlier time: “by pronouncing possession by a demon to be the cause of hysterical phenomena, the Middle Ages in fact chose this solution; it would only have been a matter of exchanging the religious terminology of that dark and superstitious age for the scientific language of today” (Freud, 1953-74: 3: 20). Or, as he put it thirty years later, “The demonological theory of those dark times has won in the end against all the somatic views of the period of exact’ science” (Freud, 1953-1974, 19:72). Freud was quite right for once. He had taken us all back to a time of unchecked irrationalism; and the demons he unleashed are up to their old mischief once again.


Ceci, S., & Bruck, M. (1995). Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Hawthorne, N. (1882-83). The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. 13 volumes, edited by George Parsons Lathrop. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin.

Pope, K., & Brown, L. (1996). Recovered Memories of Abuse: Assessment, Therapy, Forensics. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Wright, L. (1994). Remembering Satan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Borch-Jacobsen, M. (1997). How to predict the past: Trauma, etiology, and amnesia. Manuscript essay.

Harris, A., & Aron, L. (eds.). (1993). The Legacy of Sandor Ferenczi. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Masson, J. (1992). The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. (First published 1984.). New York: HarperPerennial.

Simon, B. (1992). “Incest–see under Oedipus complex”: The history of an error in psychoanalysis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 40: 955-988.

Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (1967). Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society: Volume II, 1908-1910. Edited by Herman Nunberg and Ernest Federn. New York: International Universities Press.

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