Flashbulb and repressed memories took the lead in season eight, episode ten of American Dad: Blood Crieth Unto Heaven. Francine, Stan’s wife, decides to host a surprise party for Stan’s birthday. Very early in the episode, he declares that he hates birthdays without much explanation. It is later that he begins talking about his eighth birthday party in such detail and emotion, that is appears to be a flashbulb memory, which is an autobiographical memory that is filled with vividness and emotion. This conclusion can be made based on the images of the show, such as Stan clearly seeing clothes being packed up, and a hand taking away the suitcase. The red lighting in this image accurately reflects the vivid emotion Stan is feeling as he tells this story.
Stan claims that he “remembers everything so clearly” about that party. This was the day that Stan’s father left his family, and Stan declares that the biggest memory he had was his “dad packing up and walking out” on them. Stan seems completely confident in his original story, but it has been found that confidence and accuracy are not related. Additionally, studies after 9/11 found that 37% of people who had flashbulb memories of the event gave a substantially different account a year later, but were still confident in their story.
American Dad succeeds in supporting both of these findings. At a later time in the episode, Stan repeats the story, this time talking to his father. Many of the details, such as it being his eighth birthday party, having a cake, clown, and guest of honor, all remain the same. However, this time, Stan witnesses his father suddenly walking into a taxi during the party, stating that he wants to get as far away from his family as possible.
The story changed from Stan’s father packing up and leaving, to his father surprisingly leaving. Young Stan (who is holding a green dog balloon) is clearly shocked in this scene. He was focused on his birthday party, and did not see his father pack up, as he did in the original story. However, Stan is still completely confident in this new version of the story. He likely never actually saw his father packing, as he claimed to in the first story, but rather added that into his story, and the way he remembers that day. Memory is reconstructive, and schemas allow us to assume things because they happen most of the time. In order for Stan’s father to leave with a small suitcase, he must have packed some of his items. Stan’s memory of his birthday is also negative, so he is much more likely to believe that most of that day was filled with negative emotion. Both of these can lead to the conclusion that Stan witnessed his father packing his bags and leaving as Stan screamed at him not to go.
Another explanation in addition to schemas leading to the reconstruction of his memory is that similar memories were combined into one experience. Stan had many childhood problems with his father, and it is possible that he saw his father pack at some previous time, and attributed that event to the day his father left permanently. Another explanation for flashbulb memories being inaccurate is through rehearsal, in which the original memory is combined with the memory of telling the story again and again, with the story changing slightly each time. However, Stan did not tell this story until during this party, so this was not the situation for this episode.
This episode finally ends with a repressed memory being recovered. Stan, whether he witnessed his father packing or not, did not know why his father left until he popped a balloon at his current-day party. He claims that he remembers a pop like that one the day his father left. He then has a flood of memories, in which he popped the green balloon the clown made, went to search for his mother, and heard a honking from her bedroom. When he opened the door, she was having intercourse with a clown. His father then reveals that it was him dressed as a clown.
Repressed memories, or an event that is encoded, actively forgotten, and then later recalled, are not generally remembered outside of things such as hypnosis and repression therapy. In 1997, Loftus found that 87% of first recovered repressed memories happen in therapy, making Stan one of the minorities.
Although there is question over whether repressed memories are real or if therapists are helping patients create memories, which is seen in the high percentage of people who “remember” during therapy, and in the fact that most of these people are also easily influenced and good candidates for hypnosis, it is interesting that this specific balloon pop led Stan to remember. I am sure his two children have had birthday parties, in which a balloon likely popped at some point. And even if none did, most people would experience hearing a balloon pop sometime between the age of eight and their middle ages.
This makes me wonder if he remembered this time because he was already talking about the event throughout the day or because it was Stan’s first birthday party since that day. The exact way that repressed memories are suddenly recalled is still unclear and controversial, so more research would have to be completed. A 2012 study found that even though childhood trauma is not correlated with recovered memories, trauma is correlated with fantasy proneness, which is itself related to recovered memories. This relationship is not very direct, but it is a step in explaining who is likely to experience recovered memories, even if they are not remembered in therapy.
I am overall skeptical of both repressed memories’ existence because of the correlation that Loftus found, and flashbulb memories’ accuracy because of the 9/11 study findings. However, this episode did an amazing job of capturing the controversy of these two topics by telling Stan’s story.
American Dad Season 8, Episode 10