The word “hysteria” does not mean “wildly or melodramatically emotional,” although it can be used that way to describe certain people in certain situations.

Hysteria is a psychological problem largely dependent on the attention patients receive from their significant others, whether family, physician, or psychiatrist.

For example, Jean-Martin Charcot’s patients in the late nineteenth century mimicked the symptoms of epilepsy because they were housed on the same ward as epileptics who received considerable attention from Charcot. When the hysterics (after Charcot’s death) were moved to another ward, their epileptic symptoms disappeared.

Hysteria is a form of self-deception, as psychiatrist Paul R. McHugh puts it in his 2008 book Try to Remember: Psychiatry’s Clash over Meaning, Memory, and Mind, in which patients imitate physical or psychological disorders.

Competent physicians determine when hysteria is operating, not a more serious physical or psychological disorder, by observing how careful hysterics are, for example, not to experience urinary incontinence or to hit their heads when fainting.

McHugh discusses the psychology of the repressed memory craze of the 1980s and ‘90s, the place of hysteria in it, and his role in defending a number of the accused.

The repressed memory (also known as recovered memory) craze consisted usually of adult women who, under treatment by what McHugh calls “Manneristic Freudians,” recovered alleged repressed memories of sexual assault and rape, usually by their fathers or other members of their families.*

A significant impetus for the repressed memory craze was the 1973 book and subsequent television movie Sybil, about a woman with alleged multiple personality disorder. A consulting psychiatrist to the authors said Sybil was a hysteric who role-played multiple personalities at the suggestion of one of the authors.

The publisher, however, expressed a strong desire for a book on multiple personality disorder, insisting that hysteria would not sell. The authors went along.

The “Mannerist” therapists almost from the beginning suggested to vulnerable and suggestible, frequently depressed, people that they may have been sexually abused, but don’t remember it, by a member of their family and that they may be suffering from “multiple personality disorder.”

Hypnotic suggestion and leading questioning, supported by a huge literature asserting (not proving) that repression causes amnesia of trauma, were the treatments of choice. Patients often exaggerated and escalated their symptoms, supposedly recalling memories of sex abuse as an infant and as the result of Satanic rituals.

Therapists seldom, if ever, interviewed family members or others who might have had important, relevant information.

Many patients sued the family member they accused and, in some cases, brought criminal charges. Prison was not uncommon.

McHugh and others defended the accused, pointing out that trauma of any kind is not forgotten or repressed and that competent therapists have their hands full helping trauma patients cope with the omnipresent memories and emotions. Memory researchers pointed out how malleable our memories can be, especially if we are vulnerable and depressed.**

In one of the trials at which McHugh testified (pp. 76-85), he stated that the patient, Donna, who was suing her father, suffered from “induced hysterical disorder,” induced by the type of therapy she received leading Donna to imitate symptoms of mental illness.

The trial ended in a hung jury, with eleven jurors voting to acquit. After trial dismissal by the judge, the holdout juror subsequently called Donna for a date. The hospital sent Donna to foster care many miles away. She soon began having doubts about her “memories” and accusations. Donna eventually reconnected with her family and sued the hospital and doctor.

Memories of nearly all accusers in the repressed memory craze were false. Lawsuits against therapists and hospitals eventually led to a modest decline in repressed memory therapies and clinics. Repressed memory also became suspect in most courts of law.

McHugh relates the story of the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials of 1692-93 as a fascinating parallel to the hysteria of the repressed memory craze (pp. 157-60).

Eleven Salem girls complained of pains and other miseries. A doctor diagnosed them as possessed by Satan’s representatives, the witches, who were causing their afflictions.

The girls then escalated their behavior to writhing on the floor and screaming, and because they were supposedly licensed to accuse who was a witch, they proceeded to do just that. Twenty people were executed and over a hundred imprisoned.

A telling incident occurred when the girls were traveling to Gloucester to testify at a witch trial. On the way, they saw an old woman near the Ipswich bridge, assumed she was a witch, and began their performances. However, the people of Ipswich yawned and paid no attention to them. The girls stopped their contortionate display, got back on their horses, and continued on to Gloucester.

Witch trials ended when the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor, whose wife was accused of being a witch, consulted ministers in New York. The ministers declared spectral evidence (dreams, visions) invalid in a court of law, which was valid at the time in Massachusetts. The governor banned spectral evidence and the episode soon ended. Apologies by some girls and other promoters occurred a few years later.

Today’s repressed memory craze, unfortunately, is not over, according to science writer Mark Pendergrast in his 2017 book Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die. Pendergrast exhaustively presents the history and theory of the craze, and, most importantly, arguments against its theory.

Pendergrast cites Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy from the early 1970s to raise an interesting question. Janov encouraged his patients to “relive buried trauma memories” by screaming them out. “Of all of Janov’s cases related in his first book,” says Pendergrast, “only one involved incest memories.”

How is it, asks Pendergrast, that allegedly repressed sex abuse memories did not overwhelm Janov’s therapy sessions and were not discovered until, and grew exponentially in, the 1980s and ‘90s? (Pendergrast, Kindle version, location 2565-67, chapter 2)

The repressed memory craze is still alive and well today. “Many of the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, the ex-Penn State football defensive coach, were based on repressed memories” (Pendergrast, location 340, Introduction).

The craze now operates under different names and usually beneath the headlines, although gender politics and political correctness stand out front.


* “These therapists—copying the master Freud but lacking his genius—called to mind the 16th century Mannerist sculptors and painters who, imitating the earlier masters without their inspiration or skill, produced crude and grotesque works” (McHugh, p. 34).

** The concept of repression for many years has been discredited in the minds of most psychologists, and the repressed memory craze only increased distrust of it.

Repression, however, is about emotions and its aim is to mute them by blocking awareness of their underlying evaluations. Repression begins consciously, by giving a standing order “I don’t want to feel that,” which in terms of practical effectiveness means “don’t be aware of the underlying evaluation.” (Emotions are attached to the evaluation as automatic responses; emotions per se cannot be repressed. It is the blocked evaluation that diminishes or prevents our feeling of the emotion.) Eventually, a habit becomes established preventing us from experiencing an emotion, sometimes many emotions. Repression is neither amnesia, nor forgetting, and has little if anything to do with memory. See Edith Packer, Lectures on Psychology, Kindle location 2735-60, chapter 7.

In the absence of brain damage or other physiological causes, traumatic events are not forgotten, nor are they repressed.