Last week, we delved into a strange and counterintuitive fact: your memories of 9/11 are likely incorrect (for roughly 40 percent of you, at least).
To briefly recap, the study found that people's memory of where they were and what happened in their own lives tended to change over the first year. Once that story had changed, the new version tended to be the one that stuck in their minds over the next 10 years. What's more, the participants remained confident that their memories were correct, even though they were objectively different to those first memories they reported just a few days after 9/11.
When we posted it to our Facebook page, the responses were exactly how you'd expect: a long list of anecdotes from people saying "no, my memory of 9/11 is 100 percent accurate and correct". We get it, nobody likes to think their memory is so easily manipulated. But it really is, mostly in mundane and harmless ways. In extreme cases, however, people have gone to prison for crimes that they may not have committed.
One of the most famous early examples of this came in the arrest and prosecution of Paul Ingram, aka the Thurston County ritual abuse case. Ingram's children had accused him of sexual abuse, following "recovered memory therapy", for which he was investigated. During the interrogation, which used sleep deprivation, he began to confess to the alleged abuse, which had – according to his daughter Ericka – taken place from when she was five.
The crimes he confessed to caused a stir at the time, due to their extraordinary nature and, well, the media loves anything that happens to involve satanism. Ericka, 21 at the time of the accusations, claimed her father had conducted over 850 satanic rituals, which involved everything from ritual bestiality to the sacrifice of human babies, the forced abortion of Ericka's pregnancy, and the consumption of the fetus.
Encouraged by his interrogators and the pastor allowed to see him, Paul began to "remember" the events, filling in more and more details as he was requested by the sheriff before they reassured him that they were real memories.
At times the accounts from Erika and Paul did not fit with reality. Paul remembered accomplices Jim Rabie and Ray Risch taking part in rituals on a specific day, which turned out to be when Rabie was out of the country. Erika and her sister claimed to be covered in scars, which were not found in a medical exam. Buried corpses were not found. Nevertheless, the case went forward.
After visiting Ingram and asking him to recall mundane memories as well as the abuse, one skeptic – sociologist Richard Ofshe – believed that Ingram was inadvertently being given false memories via suggestions from his interrogators, and intended to prove it. He believed that Ingram – who had been told of instances of abuse, before going off to "pray" for God to reveal the memories to him – had been mistaking daydreams for memories. He decided to test this, by creating a new scenario, presenting it to Ingram, then seeing if he would become convinced that it had happened.
“I was talking to one of your sons and one of your daughters, and they told me about something that happened," he told Ingram, in front of police officers. He had not yet met the daughters.
“It was about a time when you made them have sex with each other while you watched,” Ofshe continued. “Do you remember that?”
At first, as with the other allegations, Ingram denied the allegations. But at the insistence of Ofshe, and after being fed a few details about location and time, the entirely invented scenario came flooding back. The next day, he had produced a detailed written three-page confession of the abuse, complete with invented dialogue. When he was informed that what he had confessed to was invented by Ofshe, Ingram insisted “it’s just as real to me as anything else."
When Ofshe saw Ingram's wife and daughters, he was able to extract accounts of satanic rituals from the younger daughter, who had not described anything of the sort until this point. Ingram's wife, Sandy, with the help of a pastor who would "prompt" her by talking her through instances of abuse, began to "remember" the events too, though she described them to Ofshe as not like "normal" memories.
“There are the things I remember, like birthday parties and how old the kids were in this particular year,” Sandy said. “Then, there are the things that I’ve remembered since then. It is different from what my other memories are.”
She's not kidding. Her new "memories" included instances of a satanic ritual outside in which she was tied to a tree, a book begins to bleed and the blood begins to flow upwards, against gravity, enveloping one of the abusers.
Despite Ofshe's insistence, and the further allegations from Ericka against the entire sheriff's office which were again uncorroborated by other evidence, Ingram did not change his guilty plea until it was too late. He was sentenced to 20 years for six counts of rape.
On the day he entered his plea, Paul's attorney Gary Preble told the family "I think in five years the Ingram family will wake up and realize none of this ever happened."