In Mysterious Skin two 8-year-old boys in a small Kansas town in the early 1980s are sexually molested by their little league coach. Neil, the best player on the team, is coach's pet for the whole season and loves the attention from the man he idolizes. Brian, the worst player on the team, and a runty disappointment to his father, is brought in on coach's "games" with Neil only once but feels so violated he immediately blocks out all recollection of what happened. From that day on, however, Brian suffers from "hysterical" symptoms, such as nosebleeds, and knows that exactly five hours of his life are missing from memory; by his teens he suspects he must have been abducted by aliens. By his teens Neil has become a hustler whose identity is entirely bound up with the effect he has on the older men he picks up, as if trying (hopelessly) to recreate the way coach made him feel that "golden" summer.
Most of the movie follows the grown-up boys for several years around the age of 20 when Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begins to tire of the hustling life and when Brian (Brady Corbet) breaks through his amnesia and investigates what really happened to him. The Neil half of the movie is considerably more interesting; the Brian half is the latest in a line of naïvely earnest yet overwrought movies, including Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and Marnie (1964), and the female star-turn vehicles The Snake Pit (1948), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), and Sybil (1976), that fashion the discredited theory of recovered memory into psychosexual detective stories.
The theory of recovered memory hypothesizes that some childhood events, such as sexual abuse, are so shattering the mind defensively blocks "explicit" memory of them from conscious retrieval. The memory of the event nevertheless lives on in coded "implicit" forms, in dreams and idiosyncratic, uncontrollable responses to objects and situations (e.g., parallel lines in Spellbound, the date May 12th in The Snake Pit, the color red in Marnie). The implicit memory is taken as evidence that the trauma occurred, and by decoding the implicit memory the explicit memory of the traumatic event can be restored to conscious recall. The restoration of the explicit memory also functions as therapy - by identifying the true source of the coded memories, the sufferer is supposedly released from the effects of the trauma.
In the past 20 years or so, this theory has been used in notorious prosecutions based on hallucinatorily unbelievable accusations of repeated, communal torture-rape, sometimes relying on "memories" "recovered" during hypnosis. The documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003) examines such a case, in which the counts are so numerous and preposterous you'd think the judge would dismiss the case; instead she says that she never doubted the accused were guilty. The far more judicious comments of the investigative journalist Debbie Nathan about the quality of the evidence against the Friedmans, and the handling of the matter by the police and the judicial system, serve as a model of sanity. (Click here for Nathan's 12 January 1990 Village Voice article "The Ritual Sex Abuse Hoax." Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology and law at the University of Washington, has also written extensively on the suggestibility of memory, in and out of a legal context.)