Unchained Memories

True Stories Of Traumatic Memories Lost And Found


By Lenore Terr

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Can a long-forgotten memory of a horrible event suddenly resurface years later? How can we know whether a memory is true or false? Seven spellbinding cases shed light on why it is rare for a reclaimed memory to be wholly false. Here are unforgettable true stories of what happens when people remember what they’ve tried to forget — plus one case of genuine false memory. In the best detective-story fashion, using her insights as a psychiatrist and the latest research on the mind and the brain, Lenore Terr helps us separate truth from fiction.





Lenore Terr, M.D.

To the Family of My Childhood

Esther Cagen Raiken (1908– ), Samuel Cagen (1909–1982),
Barbara Cagen (1941–1972), and Robert Cagen (1945– )

“No man and no force can abolish memory.”

                      —Franklin Delano Roosevelt


Sometimes patients lead their doctors to new interests. Two patients have led me that way, both of them women. Number one was the very first psychiatric patient I ever treated—a young woman whose first words to me, following our exchange of names, were “If you don’t stop me, I’m going to kill my child.” She had been admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit at the University of Michigan Medical Center. It was September 1962, and I had just begun my residency, having taken a two-month break to have a child of my own. To an inexperienced psychiatrist and a new mother, her words were especially threatening; this was a challenge that I might or might not be able to meet. It was clear to me that the woman meant what she said. But what jarred me almost as much as her words themselves was the fact that up until then nobody had taken her seriously. She had alerted a number of well-trained professionals. Once, she started to drown her little girl—then a toddler—in the bathtub. Thinking better of it, she brought the youngster, who was still coughing and choking, to the emergency room of a local hospital. “Oh, that’s O.K.,” the doctor told her, after she had tried to confess. “Kids fall all the time in tubs.” A year later, she attacked her daughter with a hot teakettle. When she brought the child to the hospital—a different one—the emergency-room personnel had responded, “Accidents happen.”

I asked my patient if I could meet her daughter, now three years old, and the mother agreed. As has turned out to be the case throughout my career, I needed to see this story from the child’s point of view. I found the little girl to be extraordinarily angry. Her behavior at home had verged on vandalism. I know now that the problem was psychological trauma, but at the time it was hard for me to tell whether this behavior had originally prompted the mother toward murder or whether the mother’s actions had forced the child to strike back. After I got to know the mother in treatment, I realized that the original problem lay with the woman herself. But something else had turned up to help me. A University of Colorado research team led by the pediatrician C. Henry Kempe had published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association on a newly discovered condition they called the battered-child syndrome. The syndrome almost exactly matched the case I now had before me. While the Journal of the American Medical Association article stated that battering parents rarely provided histories matching the physical injuries their children suffered, my own patient was more than willing to provide a history. Child abuse was new to doctors, virtually anything she told me and anything I did with her would be new, it seemed. And if I also followed her young daughter—which I did for a couple of years—almost anything the child showed me would be new.

I spread the word at the medical center. If anybody had a case of child abuse, I was willing to consult. In four years I saw ten cases—not many, when one considers the numbers of abused children showing up at hospitals today. I have been studying childhood trauma ever since. The woman improved—at least, during the years I followed her—and her child survived a particularly vulnerable phase of development. It would take several more years, however, before I could feel I really understood what it means to be traumatized as a child.

The second woman who led me to a new interest in psychiatry came to my San Francisco office in the summer of 1990. That woman got me to think about the memories that adults retain or recapture from early traumas. Her name was Eileen Franklin Lipsker, and she had lost the memories of a murder committed by her father, George Franklin—a murder she had witnessed when she was a child of eight. She had retrieved these memories twenty years after the fact, and she came to see me as a forensic, or legal, case. I was a potential witness for the prosecution of her father, and Eileen Franklin Lipsker posed many more questions than answers for me. What happens to the memories of trauma once a child grows up? Why do some of these memories go underground? And if these memories are hidden, what influences do they then exert over a life? I would revisit my own research data on the traumatic memories of children, and I would begin a new study on memory itself. Long-term childhood memory would be a particularly fascinating subject to follow, especially if these memories were traumatic. A history of trauma would make the search easier, setting up an iridescent thread that could be glimpsed in the fabric of memory.

A coincidence helped me tremendously in this regard. A deluge of letters hit my desk in the summer of 1990, in response to my first book, Too Scared to Cry, which dealt with the effects of trauma on children. These letters were life stories from total strangers—striking tales of personal childhood histories lost and found. The letter writers had many things to teach me. They showed me what a wide array of defenses exists to keep adults from recalling the horrors they experienced as children. And they showed me what a wide variety of ways there are for these memories to return. The letter writers also showed me that a whole life can be shaped by an old trauma, remembered or not. A woman wrote that she had spent eight years as a cloistered nun—her means of unconsciously repressing memories of sexual abuse she had suffered as a child. A man wrote of being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic; his lost memories had made his behavior entirely incomprehensible to his therapists, who knew nothing of the childhood incidents that led to it. Another man wrote of running a marathon, reviewing his life in the process, and finding a number of old memories that explained not only certain lifelong fears but also his choice of profession. Some of these letters described how old childhood memories had reappeared—through dream watching, poetry writing, painting, keeping journals. Some of the writers had become amateur detectives, asking questions of old friends or family members, checking out back issues of newspapers and area maps. And a few had gone back to their original family homes, in order to see again the places where their memories took root.

I began to realize that I knew something about memories of childhood trauma from three research studies on traumatized children which I had already completed. These studies had revealed certain ways of dealing with childhood trauma that could also be seen in the letters from my adult correspondents. I knew, too, that in the scientific literature on psychology and brain research there was a great deal of information about memory that could be integrated with what we observe in adults who were traumatized as children. Indeed, there was more information than I had thought.

And so this book took form, propelled by a murder case, a number of friendly nudges from letter writers, and some readings through the literature on mind and brain. In February 1992, the American College of Psychiatrists put on its annual four-day meeting. I was the program chair for 1991–92, and it was up to me and my committee to decide on the topic. We chose “Memory” and invited leading biologists, psychologists, developmentalists, and clinicians to speak. We also invited a number of writers to talk about how their childhood memories were reflected in their work; the poet Robert Hass and the biographer Diane Middlebrook came, as did the novelists Linda Sexton, Frank Conroy, and Tobias Wolfe. Elaine Tipton, the prosecutor of People v. Franklin, and Eileen Franklin Lipsker, the key witness, spoke at the meeting. Paul Appelbaum, a prominent forensic psychiatrist, discussed the dilemma that returning memories of crime pose to our courts. This book was already taking shape by the time of the College meeting. But at that meeting, it found considerable muscle.

I decided to write this book in short-story style because that format is enjoyable and relatively uncomplicated. I have always loved reading true “short stones” about psychology and medicine—Robert M. Lindner’s The Fifty Minute Hour and Berton Roueché’s Eleven Blue Men were longtime favorites of mine. So I have written Unchained Memories in that vein—as a collection of stories about people who recalled traumatic episodes from their childhood. It is a book of remembrances—the snippets that people retain from their early years and the crucial events—many times, the lost ones—that these snippets sometimes represent.

These stories illustrate how we forget childhood trauma, and they tell us how and why these memories return. They also illustrate exactly what goes wrong with memory and what parts of a memory sometimes turn false. One story in this book is about an entirely false remembrance. Another—the last tale, “Searching for Corky”—demonstrates that deliberate and conscientious searches for old memories can meet with success. This story is about one of the many strangers who wrote to me in the wake of my first book.

The stories can be read in any order; each one is complete in itself. But I would suggest reading them in sequence, because the scientific information on memory builds throughout the book. I have included a large section of notes at the end—both to give added information to the interested reader and to offer primary sources to the interested professional.

None of the people whose stories appear as chapters in this book were in treatment with me. The “child star,” Lua Greene (whose name and other identifying circumstances I disguise), was never interviewed by me; instead, I watched and listened to her being interviewed by others on videotape and audio recordings. I wrote about another subject of a story, Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, based on her TV appearances, her speeches, her sister’s observations, and considerable newspaper and magazine coverage. I was fortunate enough to meet personally and to interview six of the people whose memory stories I tell. They saw me because of their involvement in court proceedings in which I appeared as a witness, or because they were willing to grant me an interview. Here I combined what a reporter does with what a psychiatrist does. I write of three of these people—Eileen Franklin Lipsker, Gwen Mitchell, and James Ellroy—without disguising their names, their characteristics, or the names of the people around them. Three others—Patricia Bartlett, Gary Baker, and Ross Harriman—are disguised, including, of course, their names but also including certain identifying details such as their physical appearance, occupation, and place of residence. In their stories, other individuals—for example, the attorneys who worked on their cases—are also disguised. All researchers and mental-health professionals appearing or referred to in these stories, however—with the exception of Eliana Jacob of “The Silver at the Surface of the Water” and Sarah Alliston and Edward Riley, who are disguised in “The Child Star’s Tale” for obvious reasons—are presented with their true names and descriptions.

I wish to thank a number of behavioral scientists who advised and aided me as I worked on this project. My team at the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology Part II examinations—a group of thirty or so distinguished psychiatrists who come four times a year to various centers in the United States to give oral exams to psychiatrists—pointed me to a good deal of the scientific literature and to several of the people who have enriched this book. My Program Committee for the 1992 American College of Psychiatrists meeting—Robert Hales, Stuart Keill, Linda Logsdon, Elizabeth Small, David Spiegel, Stefan Stein, John Talbott, and Raymond Waggoner, Jr.—did the same. A number of memory psychologists read sections of the book and offered their help: Robert Bjork, Stephen Ceci, Gail Goodman, and Larry Squire, all of whom deserve my thanks. The neuroscientists Tim Tully, Eric Kandel, and Mortimer Mishkin also read sections, something I deeply appreciate. Two lawyers checked my legal information in chapters 1, 2, and 6: Elaine Tipton, an assistant D.A. in San Mateo County, and an Oklahoma lawyer I call “Tom Blackburn.” Three psychiatric readers—Robert Michels, Charles Nemeroff, and George Vaillant—read through the entire manuscript and offered their suggestions. My very special kudos to them. Two friends—Rosemary Patton, who teaches and writes on the art of writing, and Evelyn Keitel, who teaches American literature in Kemnitz, Germany—read the first draft.

When the book was ready for the publisher, my editor at Basic Books, Jo Ann Miller, who was a friend long before we ever took on this project together, did a fabulous job of initial editing. Sara Lip-pincott, for years an editor at The New Yorker, did remarkable work on the final edit. My agent, Joy Harris, has been extremely helpful, too. I send each of them my heartfelt thanks.

The Chowchilla schoolbus kidnapping study was funded by the Rosenberg Foundation, and the study of the children’s response to the Challenger explosion was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. Time and space to write up those studies were provided to me by the Rockefeller Foundation. My assistant Marsha Bessey typed every word of this book and helped edit it as well. She did this while trying to do all the other things that a busy medical office requires. My special appreciation to her. My husband, Abba, an allergist and immunologist, read the entire manuscript before it was fully developed. My particular thanks to him; he will always be my most trusted adviser and friend.


Ringside Seats at an Old Murder

California girls don’t always play outside, contrary to what the travel posters might have you believe. Young girls in the southern suburbs sport light year-round tans carelessly acquired on walks to and from school, from an occasional afternoon at the neighborhood pool, from a weekend outing at Disneyland or the beach. Most days after school, West Coast girls like young Jessica Lipsker prefer to stay inside, where they can shelter their heads from the cloudless sky, grab a cookie, watch TV, pretend with friends, and draw houses with tiedback curtains and big red doors.

One unusually smog-free January afternoon, Jessica and two other little girls, freshly home from kindergarten, burst into the family room of the Lipskers’ house in Canoga Park. One child was blond, one brunette, and the third, Jessica, was in between, with reddish hair. Freckles marched across the little redhead’s cheekbones and onto the bridge of her nose. Eileen Franklin Lipsker, Jessica’s mother, sat on the couch. The three little girls curled up on the floor near her. Should she read to them? No, she was busy with both hands bottle-feeding Aaron, her one-year-old son. Folksy children’s songs sounded from the tape player—“Oats, Peas, Beans, and Barley Grow,” and a French song, and one from Italy, and a kids’ version of “Yellow Submarine.” “You know,” Eileen told me many months afterward, when I first met her, “I was bent on being the perfect mother. Perfect mothers play children’s music for their children in the afternoon.”

Eileen Franklin Lipsker was an exceptionally attentive mother. At the top of her twenty-eight-year-old “wish list” was to be good at mothering. Her own mother, Eileen thought, had not tended to her well. Jessica, who at age five-and-a-half looked and acted like a seven-year-old, gave Eileen great pleasure. Despite her difficult marriage to an older man, Eileen could pride herself on how nicely her children were doing.

Should the girls draw? “Why, yes, of course. Draw.” As long as Aaron stayed quiet, Eileen might just let her mind go and enjoy the late January light streaming in through the steeply slanting blinds.

Little Jessica—everyone called her Sica—seemed determined to be a pleasant hostess. She and her friends shared a prized set of markers without a single whine, protest, or grab. The children sat at Eileen’s feet, drawing little girls in ravishing dresses—princesses, perhaps. Eileen let her thoughts wander. Sica occasionally glanced up toward the couch, her clear blue eyes shimmering in the afternoon light. Eileen’s mind began to drift.

“I was—I mean, for all practical purposes, I was spaced out,” she told me later. “I was thinking of nothing. It’s—you know—the afternoon, and the kids are home, and it’s almost time to start dinner. Just boring, mundane, nonexistent things. And the light is coming in through the slats of the Levolors, and it’s warm. Who knows? The temperature? The light? Sometimes something just happens.”

For less than a millisecond Eileen may have thought, “Sica looks older, more grown-up today.” But she doesn’t remember that now. Perhaps her mind was unconsciously prompted by the little splash of freckles, the red hair not quite as fiery as her own. An odd sense of something—What was it?—may have darted in and out of Eileen’s mind.

Reddish blond strands of fine, little-girl hair brightened in the sun. Jessica twisted her head to look at her mother. To ask something? Her chin pointed up in inquiry. She looked up and over her shoulder. Her eyes brightened. How odd! The young girl’s body remained stationary, while her head pivoted around and up. Now. Now. Mother’s and child’s eyes met. The girl’s eyes so clear, so blue.

And at exactly that moment Eileen Lipsker remembered something. She remembered it as a picture. She could see her redheaded friend Susan Nason looking up, twisting her head, and trying to catch her eye.

Eileen, eight years old, stood outdoors, on a spot a little above the place where her best friend was sitting. It was 1969, twenty years earlier. The sun was beaming directly into Susan’s eyes. And Eileen could see that Susan was afraid. Terrified.

The blue of Susan Nason’s eyes was the bluest, clearest blue Eileen had ever seen. Suddenly Eileen felt something move to one side. She looked away from those arresting eyes and saw the silhouette of her father. Both of George Franklin’s hands were raised high above his head. He was gripping a rock. He steadied himself to bring it down. His target was Susan.

“No!” Eileen felt a scream welling up in her throat. But not a sound disturbed her family room that January day in 1989. The shout stayed trapped in her mind. “A chill ran up me,” she told me, months later. “It was so, so intense. And I said to myself a very clear, very loud ‘No,’ as if I had the power to stop the memory from coming.”

But Eileen Franklin Lipsker’s buried memory, once it started rising to the surface, could not be stopped. She remembered the feeling of a scream invading her throat. She remembered Susan, just four days short of her ninth birthday, sensing George Franklin’s attack and putting up her right hand to stave him off. Thwack! Eileen could hear the sound, a sound like a baseball bat swatting an egg—the worst sound of her life. “No!” she yelled inside her head. “I have to make this memory stop.” Another thwack. And then quiet. Blood. Blood everywhere on Susan’s head. “Something whitish” along with the blood. And “some hair that was no longer attached to her body.” Blood covered Susan’s face. Her hand was smashed.

On a quiet winter afternoon in 1989, a suburban housewife’s mind almost shorted out with overload. Her heart pounded mercilessly against her chest. The conclusion Eileen Lipsker drew that moment was that she must be insane.

She did not question her memory, though—just its long absence. She could not understand why a real memory had waited in hiding all those years. Later she told me, “I thought to myself, If I let this [memory] show, if anyone finds out, if someone sees, if I tell anyone—then, you know, that’s it. Goodbye kids.’ You know, I lose the kids.”

Eileen sat quietly for many minutes that winter afternoon in 1989, watching as the angle of the sunlight shifted through her Levolor blinds. She knew nothing at all about the psychological defense of repression. She could not understand what had just happened. Jessica’s young guests eventually went home, and Eileen rose from the couch, put Aaron in his playpen, and started dinner.

Eileen did not realize that certain very important feelings—even entire experiences—can be banished from consciousness only to influence attitudes and behavior, and even, perhaps, to be reclaimed as full memories at some other time. She simply knew that a twenty-year-old memory had invaded her conscious thoughts as she glanced down at her daughter’s uplifted chin, tilted head, and blue eyes. She knew that long ago she had witnessed her best friend’s murder. And she felt almost destroyed by the power of the revelation.

For months afterward, Eileen told no one about her newfound memories. She tried to force the memories “back into their own little drawer and seal it”; they caused her too much anxiety. They hurt her stomach and gave her palpitations of the heart. But try as she might, Eileen’s “drawer” had stuck open. She could no longer forget what she had so successfully forgotten for twenty years.

Eileen and Susan had been friends and schoolmates in Foster City, a suburb of San Francisco about twenty miles south of the city. Eileen knew that Susan had been murdered—she had always known that. But she had not known that she had been there when it happened. She had simply assumed—as had everyone else after Susan’s body was discovered off a highway several miles out of town—that it was one of those crimes that most likely would never be solved.

One recollection, however, led to another. Over the next several months, many small bits of Eileen’s memory returned. Some were sights, a few were sounds, and some were simply thoughts. Eileen Lipsker found herself inundated with a slow but inevitable memory cascade.

Sometimes when Eileen Lipsker concentrated hard, a new piece of the Nason murder emerged—the image of a tossed child’s shoe, for instance. More often, however, the memories floated in as she paced on her treadmill or jogged past her neighbors’ yards. She remembered the makeshift grave in which her father had placed Susan. She came to recall a crushed, stoneless, silver child’s ring.

Susan Nason and Eileen Franklin had both been teased as children for their red hair and freckles. Eileen remembered how much they loved looking alike. They had become the best of friends. One September afternoon when she was eight years old, Eileen went off with her father to “play hookey” from the usual after-school routine. Eileen didn’t even know what “hookey” meant until Dad suggested it that day. Once the memories came back, she could almost hear him say the word in her mind. She and her father spotted Susan playing in an open field near their house. Eileen begged Susan to come along. She is uncertain about whether or not Janice Franklin, her older sister, was with them at that moment. But she came to remember being a threesome in the van—just Susan, Eileen, and Dad.


On Sale
Aug 6, 2008
Page Count
352 pages
Basic Books

Lenore Terr

About the Author

Lenore Terr, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the winner of the Blanche Ittleson Award for her research on childhood trauma.

Learn more about this author