It was a psychological crime story Law & Order: SVU viewers would have salivated over. In 1989, a woman named Eileen Franklin alleged that, brought out by a look from her young daughter, she had recovered a haunting memory from her childhood—indicating that she witnessed her father, George Franklin, raping and murdering her childhood best friend, Susan Nason. Nason’s death, nearly 20 years earlier, had remained unsolved until that point.
Eileen’s controversial claim incited a murder trial, during which Eileen took the witness stand to testify against her father, who was sitting directly across from her. (Because the statute of limitations on sexual assault in California was three years at the time, George was not charged with rape.) Eileen—a poised young woman who resembled Julianne Moore in both appearance and emotional conviction—said that the rape and murder had been so traumatic that she buried the memory in her subconscious. The memory only surfaced, Eileen claimed, when looking at her daughter when she was around the age Nason had been when she was killed.
During the trial, Eileen alleged that her repressed memories included being in George’s van in 1969 when George picked up Susan, seeing George sexually assault her friend, seeing George lift a rock to crush Susan’s skull, and noticing Susan’s crushed silver ring. George’s defense argued that Eileen could have created the memories using details about the murder reported by press.
“It was basically the first criminal case that was based on a repressed memory,” explains Ari Pines (Shadow of Truth), the director of Showtime’s four-part docuseries Buried, which revisits the landmark trial. “The story had so many [effects] on the justice system, the mental health profession, and how society at large thinks about memory.” The four-part series, which premieres Sunday, pivots from prosecution to defenses’ perspectives, largely relying on incredible footage from the 1990 trial and expert interviews. Adds Pines, “It’s like a psychological thriller, legal drama, and Greek tragedy, all rolled into one.”
Sigmund Freud proposed the concept of repressed memory a century ago, after determining that his patients had suppressed memories of being sexually abused as children—the unconscious memories of which still seemingly influenced the patients. But even Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, wasn’t entirely sure those memories recalled actual events. A few years later, Freud discredited some women’s allegations—“arguing that his patients were afflicted by fears and fantasies surrounding sex abuse, not by memories of the actual thing,” per The New Yorker.
“Freud coined the term repressed memory, then kind of took it back,” explains Pines. “For almost a hundred years, no one really paid attention to it. And then in the ’80s, suddenly people became aware of how prevalent the phenomenon of child abuse is in the family. And when the awareness of that rose, suddenly you had people claiming to have repressed memories.”
The Franklin case escalated the concept—giving it legitimacy when Eileen’s legal team used it in the courtroom as evidence. The high-profile case, with its photogenic witness, and trial twists and turns—Eileen and her sister Janice accused George of sexually abusing them as children—captivated the country. The concept was further bolstered in 1990, when a jury found George guilty of Nason’s murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
After the verdict, the Chicago Tribune declared, “Eileen Franklin Lipsker has become a heroine of the repressed memories movement.” Eileen did a victory lap on the talk-show circuit, appearing on Oprah, Donahue, and 60 Minutes, and co-authored a book about her experiences titled Sins of the Father. In 1992, Shelley Long played Eileen in the made-for-TV movie Fatal Memories.
The case inspired a flood of molestation allegations from countless people claiming they too had recovered traumatic memories. Celebrities were also talking about abuse—one year after George’s sentencing, La Toya Jackson alleged that her father, Joseph Jackson, had molested her and her older sister Rebbie. (The Jackson family vehemently denied the allegations.) Roseanne Barr, the same year, alleged she was a victim of incest.
“A lot of the [alleged survivors] took to the legal system in the ’90s with criminal cases and civil lawsuits,” says Pines’s codirector Yotam Guendelman. “Eileen opened those floodgates.”
The Franklin case was flipped on its head in 1996, after Janice made public claims that discredited her sister’s testimony—a complicated saga of familial infighting chronicled in Buried. (Though details of the trial are publicly available, we won’t spoil them for potential Buried viewers.) The case’s plot twist coincided with a mid-’90s backlash against the idea of repressed memories.
“Culture had embraced the concept completely, and then several years later, the exact opposite thing happened,” says Pines. “People started to be maybe overly critical about this phenomenon, and kind of rejected it. A lot of parents who were accused by children of sexual abuse started suing therapists and started winning these cases.” In 1994, one of the most notable of these repressed-memory-retaliation suits, a Napa Valley Superior Court jury ruled that two therapists implanted false memories of child abuse in a patient and wrongly harmed her father. The plaintiff, Gary Ramona, claimed that he lost his job and family after his daughter falsely claimed, during therapy, that she recovered memories of Gary molesting her. Gary was awarded $500,000 in damages.