Oh, good — someone else didn’t like The Keepers

I started watching this show on Netflix a while back — and it began in a way that sounds so familiar to anyone familiar with the abuses of the Catholic church. A young nun vanishes, and is later found dead, murdered. Who did it? It must have been one of the priests! And there were multiple killings! And all kinds of sordid sexual goings-on, with the accused priest being further accused of calling young Catholic school girls into his office and doing unseemly things.

But it started going all wrong a couple of episodes in. The accusations were becoming increasingly strident, the crimes ever more depraved. And then we discover that there is no actual evidence for this story (other than that yes, there were murders), and that the details are all coming from the repressed memories of Jane Doe, who was recalling all these terrible incidents decades after the fact. Or after the confabulation. Or something. None of it was unbelievable, and I gave up on the show.

Mark Pendergrast watched the whole thing, and also dug up additional aspects of the story that were conveniently left out of the show. Jane Doe (real name: Jean Wehner) has a whole elaborate mythology of incredible events that occurred in the 1970s.

Shortly afterwards, she began to retrieve her first memories of priest abuse, starting with Father Neil Magnus, whom she envisioned masturbating while he took her confession. When she discovered that Magnus was dead, Wehner switched to retrieving memories of abuse by another priest, Joseph Maskell, who had been her high school counselor. She eventually recalled vaginal and anal rape (sometimes with a vibrator), oral sex, enemas, him putting a gun in her mouth, and forced prostitution.

But Wehner’s sex abuse memories expanded dramatically beyond Maskell to include two policemen, three high school teachers, a local politician who practiced a political speech while she performed oral sex on him, three more priests (Father Schmidt, Father John, and Father Daniels), four religious brothers (Brother Tim, Brother Bob, Brother Frank, and Brother Ed), two religious sisters (Nancy and Russell), and another religious brother known only as Mr. Teeth, who read from the Book of Psalms as he had sex with her. Wehner also remembered that she herself killed an unidentified nun at her school.

Yet the millions of people who have viewed The Keepers did not learn many of these background facts. (Netflix is notorious for keeping viewer numbers secret, but Newsweek revealed that it had the top two streaming shows in 2016, both with over 20 million viewers.) What viewers see is that Jean Hargadon Wehner seems to be an attractive, sensitive, self-assured woman with a supportive, wholesome family, and that she claims to have recovered memories of abuse by Father Maskell and a few others.

None of this is how memories actually work, but it does tell us one thing: people are weird. Whether it’s lurid stories of rampaging priests or bizarre tales of pedophile rings in pizza parlor basements, people are capable of believing unbelievable things. Movie makers ought to feel some responsibility for addressing credible issues and dismissing the incredible ones, or they’re no better than Alex Jones.


  1. microraptor says

    I saw it while browsing Netflix once and put it on my “not interested” list as soon as I saw that it was about someone’s repressed memories.

  2. kaleberg says

    This reminds me of Mark Evanier’s story of how, near the very start of his writing career, he wrote a pornographic novel based on his high school days. He loosely based the characters, such as they were, on people from his own high school. Luckily, this was cut away from the actual sex pornography, which was just as well since Evanier had not actually had sex with anyone back then. Evanier payed off his parent’s mortgage with that job in hopes of convincing them he could make a living as a writer.
    Archie Comics was also based on someone’s high school experiences in Andover, and I’m sure other writers have embellished and embroidered their own high school experiences for artistic purposes. Jean Wehner seems to have topped them all. She added lots of sex, sexual abuse and probably a lot of other stuff. Evanier never claimed that his pornographic novel was based on fact, nor did the creator of Archie. Wehner seems to have taken a different tack, and much more sordid one.

  3. says

    I once had a boss who told me about his own run-in with repressed memory recovery. This was in the early 90s. One of his sisters had depression, and unfortunately her psychiatrist was an advocate of recovery of repressed memories. This was back when the McMartin daycare scandal was in the news.

    Before long, this guy’s sister had accused her father of repeated childhood rape, physical abuse, things of that nature. Now, it is very possible that this could have happened without siblings knowing about it. But those claims were put in further doubt by recovered memories of things which were verifiably not true, eg, claiming that her father had broken her arm, when in fact other people were there when she fell off the horse and broke her arm.

    Not only was it a huge stress on the family, it was sad that this woman actually believed these events that her psychiatrist had planted. It also offered no relief of her depression.

  4. DLC says

    That’s the problem with so-called “Repressed Memory Syndrome.” Not that there are never repressed memories, but that it’s too easy to create false ones by incautious use of otherwise sound therapeutic methods. The subject has to be guided through the recovery process by someone with no axe to grind, who won’t inject their personal biases into the project. As has been seen too many times in the past, recovered memories are medico-legal nitroglycerin. I remember seeing something like this in the late 70s, where “UFO Abduction Researchers” talked subjects into believing the same story as every other “abductee”. But a handful of people walking around believing they were abducted is relatively harmless, while one person believing that they were forced to do various sex acts or other crimes is most definitely not harmless. People have been jailed based on this “evidence”.

  5. chrislawson says

    There was a case in Bunbury, Western Australia, where a father was brought to trial on what was clearly manufactured memories (the daughter claimed he had raped her multiple times on their front lawn in broad daylight in a moderate-density suburban area — but apparently none of the neighbours ever noticed). I have over time come to accept that repressed memories can exist, but there is also a wealth of evidence that false memories are easily implantable, so mental health therapists need to be very careful about how they handle these consultations.

    As things stand, repressed memory therapy does no good at all. If the memory is invented, then it creates horrific accusations against innocent people that destroy families. If the memory is real, then it makes it almost impossible to achieve a successful prosecution by inflating the story with so much absurdity that no judge or jury would ever convict.

  6. pacal says

    This line:

    “None of it was unbelievable, and I gave up on the show.”
    I think in context you meant “believable”.