How Do Repressed Memories Work? Netflix's 'The Keepers' Dives Into This Controversial Subject

Like Making A Murderer before it, Netflix's latest true crime docuseries The Keepers takes on a subject that is both compelling and necessary to explore, but also deeply disturbing at the same time. While the series mostly focuses on the 1969 unsolved murder of a 26-year-old Catholic school teacher and nun named Sister Cathy Cesnik, it also explores allegations of sexual abuse brought forth by former students against the school's chaplain as a possible motive for her murder. Since many of these abuse allegations arose from uncovered repressed memories, it's pretty important for everyone who watches to understand how repressed memories work before getting too far into the series.

The topic of repressed memories, which are also referred to as dissociative amnesia according to a Washington University study published in American Psychologist, is an incredibly controversial one. Psychiatrists and psychologists alike can't agree upon whether the phenomenon is real or if it is something else, disguised as an actual memory of a real event. The idea is that sometimes when a person (usually a child) has gone through a truly significant trauma, the human brain, as a defense mechanism, will lock the experience away, only to release it at a later time. This recovery can occur either when the subject has been triggered or seemingly just out of the blue.

In this particular case, former students at the Catholic high school where Sister Cesnik taught came forward with formerly repressed memories of alleged sexual abuse by the school chaplain Father Joseph Maskell. In a statement given to Bustle, the Archdiocese of Baltimore had this to say about these allegations:


Relying on repressed memories, especially in legal matters, can be tricky, as they can allegedly be therapeutically coerced out of someone with the proper techniques and Psychology Today reports that this can result in false memories being created. According to The Daily Beast, the first alleged victim in The Keepers came forward in the 1990s after recovering the repressed memories of being sexually abused in her youth. Because of the lack of scientific knowledge surrounding repressed memories, The Huffington Post reports that there are some that call the credibility of these kind of claims into question, due to their origins. Unfortunately, psychologists has failed to produce a valid method for bringing about a repressed memory or for determining whether a memory is repressed or false.