The Psychological Trauma of Dissociated Memories in ‘The Keepers’

Netflix’s newest true crime documentary series The Keepers investigates the mysterious 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik. The seven-episode series breaks down the little we know of the crime, following a group of people who are still trying to crack the case today — relying heavily on memories.

One of these individuals is Jean Hargadon Wehner, a former student of Cesnik’s at the Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland. Wehner was shown the nun’s lifeless body next to a dumpster by Father Joseph Maskell. Wehner remembers Father Joseph Maskell telling a panicked Wehner a particularly odd line: “You see what happens when you say bad things about people.”

The thing is, Wehner didn’t always have this memory. She explains in episode three entitled “The Revelation,” that this particular memory — along with a slew of other horrific memories — was buried for two decades until she eventually began “vomiting up” her recollections of abuse. While the Baltimore Archdiocese brought in a “false memory” expert to undervalue Wehner’s memories when she reported her abuse in 1992, she remains confident that what happened occurred.
How could someone seemingly forget such an awful, arguably indelible event?

According to the American Psychological Association, dissociation such as what Wehner may have experienced occurs when a memory is not lost forever, but is unavailable for retrieval for some time. Scientists believe that stressful experiences, like abuse, are traumatic enough that the brain protects the individual from the pain of the memory. If these memories stay repressed later, these memories can cause issues like anxiety, PTSD, and — in Wehner’s case — dissociative disorders.

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