Stan’s Repressed Memory

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

6 thoughts on “Stan’s Repressed Memory

  1. linnis

    After reading this blog post, I am amazed at not only how well an american comedy touched on an important cognitive psychology topic, but also your detailed research throughout your post. You did an incredible job at including our class discussion about 9/11 and flash bulb memories, as well as incorporating the various terms we’ve learned throughout the last few weeks. Though, I do wish you had included consolidation as one of those terms. However, despite the controversy you mentioned I personally believe we should always trust someone with a recently uncovered repressed memory because often these memories can have serious implications. Yes, they could be influenced by therapy, but I still believe we should trust them because at they time they feel so important to the individual and are likely so emotionally charged. Thank you for the insightful post.

    1. swong Post author

      Thank you! There is definitely a lot more to say about consolidation and deciding what sorts of reactions for flashbulb memories are acceptable, but I was almost at the word limit! I think that it would be very difficult for me to not take someone seriously when they mention a flashbulb memory, especially if it involved some kind of abuse. However, I cannot help but think about the case when multiple people accused a family day care of rituals and claimed that children were missing, when there was no evidence of this. A solution may be to assume accuracy until it is proven wrong. Of course, there would need to be a societal change in beliefs since people and places are often stigmatized after accusations, even if they turned out not to be true. This is an interesting topic!

  2. jzaccagn

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing about this episode!!! This is one of my favorite American Dad episodes!!! I enjoyed the satire of theater, and I thought this episode was brilliant and hilarious. With this fact established, I think you did an excellent job presenting the cognitive concepts applied in this episode! My thoughts on repressed memories are this: self-realized repressed memories should be more trusted than repressed memories “discovered” in therapy and hypnosis. I could write a book how false memories can be generated in cases of therapy and hypnoses, but out of my own experiences, I am a believer that we can suddenly remember “repressed” memories. For instance, Stan remembered after the balloon was popped at a birthday party, which would be an activation of the association links to the “node” of this particular memory. A few years ago, “urban exploring” was my hobby. I loved finding abandoned places and taking pictures. Since this is actually an illegal activity, I do not do it anymore. I cannot/will not let myself do anything illegal anymore! Anyhow, one day, I was driving on a particular road, “hunting” for spots, and I had a memory hit me in the face like a ton of bricks. Ten years earlier, I was sexually assaulted a few times by the same person, and one of the places took place at an abandoned house. It sounds absurd (and creepy). I know we have learned quite a bit that our memories are not necessarily accurate, and confidence does not really correlate with reality; but I remain confident that this truly happened anyway  Does this make me ignorant? Probably
    Anyhow, thank you for a fantastic post!
    Julie Z;)
    PS: I went over the word limit. Word limits kill me!

    1. swong Post author

      Thank you! It took me forever to find this specific episode on Hulu, but I am glad that I did! It usually takes me a long time to find a topic, but I generally end up enjoying them! If I ever experience a sudden memory from the past outside of therapy, I have no doubt that I would believe it; especially if it is something of a serious nature, like what you described. This is definitely a tricky subject, and there does not seem to be a “correct” response to these memories. If only we had a way to prove our memories.

  3. jzaccagn

    Also, I forgot to tell you. I enjoyed your post about the guy who memorized Pi!

    Great work!

  4. cdrury

    I remember seeing this episode of American Dad! I know you said you are skeptical of repressed memories but once you have one surface at some random point in time YEARS later, you have to give the idea some credit. However, if you have not had this happen I can see why you would be skeptical. For me, this has happened a couple of times and they were very negative memories. I was more surprised that the events happened than the fact that they were forgotten because I think what happened was a defense response to the negative stimuli. My personal thoughts on it are that when memories are repressed, it is the same as when a wound is scabbing over to protect the wound and heal it. When those repressed memories resurfaced they were extremely disturbing but I was much older and far more mature to be able to handle them. It was as if something triggered the ripping of the scab and underneath was simply a scar instead of an open wound. Weird metaphor and I could be completely wrong, but from my personal experience that is what it seemed to me.
    I think a lot of people think that when memories are repressed it is because they are only forgotten but I think there is more to it. I dug up an article that explained some theories of repression. It is possible that during the traumatic experience, there is limited time for conscious processing of the sensory perceptions and this inhibits the integration into autobiographical memory. This could be because of the narrowed attention on the negative effect (weapon focusing effect) and/or dissociative stress (people detach themselves from the situation). So the argument that the events are still well remembered should focus on the idea that due to dissociation, it may be that they were never fully processed in the first place. I think more research needs to be done and it is ok to be skeptical because that leads for further testing of the idea itself. Your post was very interesting and amusing!


Comments are closed.