- When trauma occurs some believe it is possible to repress the memory of what happened, but that it can be remembered later. Others think this doesn’t happen
- A new Showtime docuseries called Buried examines repressed memory through the first criminal case that involved it – the murder trial of George Franklin
- His daughter, Eileen, said she remembered 20 years later that he molested and then murdered her best friend, eight-year-old Susan Nason in 1969
- Eileen also said her father sexually abused her. His eldest son said he was an ‘abusive alcoholic father,’ according to recording played in the docuseries
- In 1990, George Franklin was convicted of first degree murder. After appealing, that conviction was reversed in 1995 and prosecutors decided not to retry him
- The trial sparked a debate about repressed memory and spurred a national conversation about incest and child sexual abuse and the statute of limitations for those crimes
Published: 17:38 EDT, 14 October 2021 | Updated: 08:27 EDT, 15 October 2021
Eileen Franklin said she saw her father sexually assault her best friend. And then, she saw him lift a rock high up over his head and bash her friend’s head in.
For 20 years the unsolved killing of eight-year-old Susan Nason in 1969 haunted the idyllic town of Foster City, located on a peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose. Eileen never told anyone about the killing – she didn’t remember it. Not until, she said, a moment while playing with her young daughter caused the suppressed memory to resurface.
When Eileen’s story came to light and her father was arrested, her testimony at George Franklin’s trial led to his conviction in 1990 and launched a debate about repressed memory. It also spurred a national conversation about incest and child sexual abuse and an examination of the statute of limitations for those crimes.
As a coping mechanism for trauma, the brain represses a memory but can recover it later. This concept sparked the so-called Memory Wars in the 1990s. The ‘long-standing question about the existence of repressed memories has been at the heart of one of the most heated debates in modern psychology,’ according to an article in journal Perspectives on the Psychological Sciences.
George Franklin, who maintained his innocence, appealed his conviction, which was overturned. He was freed and not retried.
Eileen, who also said her father sexually abused her, testified that the memory of the murder can back to her after she became a mother.
She testified: ‘I was sitting on the sofa in my family room and my daughter was playing on the floor with some of her little playmates. And my daughter said something to me, which caused me to look down at her and I matched her gaze and at that moment she really closely resembled Susan and I remembered seeing Susan sitting there and seeing my father with the rock above his head.’
A new Showtime docuseries, Buried, looks at the twists and turns of the Franklin case, which was the first murder trial and conviction to involve repressed memory, and has experts weigh in from both sides about the nature of memory.
‘We still don’t have the answers how memory works and can it work this way,’ Ari Pines, one of the series’ directors, told DailyMail.com.
Family-oriented Foster City in the 1960s was just starting to be built up.
‘It was a very safe area,’ Daniel Munier, who grew up in Foster City, said in the docuseries.
Aimee Alotta, one of Eileen’s childhood friends, said that her family moved in the same day the Franklins did. George and Leah Franklin had five children and Eileen was their middle child. ‘Eileen was probably the quietest of the bunch. She was definitely George’s favorite.’
In a TV interview, Eileen said that growing up she was not a very attractive child. ‘My dad used to tell me how beautiful I was when everyone else in the neighborhood told me how ugly I was,’ she recalled.
She called her father, George, ‘irresistible’ and said women always flirted with him. ‘And I just thought my daddy is so handsome and so smart and so attractive. I just thought he was it.’
To the neighborhood, George Franklin was ‘a married father of five firefighter,’ Elaine Tipton, who prosecuted Franklin, said in the series.
But behind closed doors, the Franklin children were physically abused and George drank. His son, George Franklin Jr is heard on a cassette tape calling George an ‘abusive alcoholic father.
‘He beat me because I was his son.’
Eileen was not the only one to accuse him of sexual abuse. Her older sister, Janis, said he also molested her.
Harry Maclean, author of Once Upon A Time, which is about the Franklin case, said he did not doubt the stories about the abuse. ‘Every form of dysfunction I’ve ever encountered I saw in that family,’ Maclean said in Buried.
‘It was a house of hell.’
Doug Horngrad, George’s attorney during his trial, said the abuse was what motivated Eileen, saying on the series that she ‘was on a revenge trip.’ He said the prosecution’s entire case centered on Eileen and her testimony. ‘There was no corroborating evidence. Zero. Zilch.’
The district attorney’s office and the detectives who looked into Eileen’s statement disagreed.
‘The information that she was providing was matching up identically with the facts of the crime,’ Elaine Tipton, the prosecutor, said.
Eileen knew that Susie was wearing white socks and brown shoes and that the dress she was wearing was A-line. ‘But the most significant thing was that her friend’s hand, Susan’s right hand was wounded (and) injured,’ Tipton explained, ‘and she recalls noticing a silver ring and that the ring was damaged.’
Eileen said that Susie had her hand to her head when her father bashed her with a rock and saw her friend’s ring crushed. This convinced one detective that she was being straightforward and truthful. ‘Because Eileen knew information about the killing that no one should have known.’
Maclean pointed out that George Franklin, a firefighter, had no alibi and was not on duty the day Susan Nason disappeared.
Her mother, Margaret Nason, testified that Susan came home after school and asked if she could go and return a pair of shoes to her friend. Margaret said yes, and the friend, Celia Oakley, recalled in the docuseries that Susie was kind enough to bring the shoes to her house.
‘The police were able to deduce that I was the last person to see Susie,’ she said.
Their interaction was quick.
‘After about an hour, I started looking for her. I rode all the streets in the neighborhood. No one had seen her,’ Margaret Nason testified.
Police organized a search and archival news footage shows officers with dogs looking for the eight-year-old girl. Residents pitched in and also canvassed the neighborhood.
Susan remained missing for ten weeks. Her body was found 11 miles away from Foster City at the Crystal Springs Reservoir, which provides drinking water for San Francisco and several other places.
Her skull had been smashed.
The day Susan disappeared, Eileen testified that she was with her father in his Volkswagen van when she saw Susan. She asked her dad if her friend could come with them. Susan got into the van and they drove to the reservoirs and pulled off into an unpaved area. Eileen said she was in the passenger seat when she turned around and saw her father on top of Susie.
Then they were at the reservoir and Eileen said in a statement to detectives that Susie was sitting on a rock or something slightly elevated.
‘And when I looked up my father had a rock in his two hands, and was approaching her. And Susan screamed and brought her hand to her head. And he crashed the rock down against her head where her hands were. And he did a second blow… ‘
‘And he told me that if I ever told anyone about this he would kill me.’
Tipton, the prosecutor, said Eileen’s account was she had no memory of this for 20 years and then it came back to her in pieces.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, a psychiatrist, author and trauma expert, explained that repression and disassociation has always been a part of psychiatry. People, he said, couldn’t remember things after horrible experiences.
‘The trauma itself messes up your mind. The mind brain body creates a capacity to just push things away and put it out of consciousness, which is a normal reaction,’ he said in Buried.
‘The brain stops processing information and defends itself against what’s happening and it shuts things down.’
Elizabeth Loftus, a memory scientist, said that people think of memory as a recording but those in the field think of it as a reconstructive process. ‘When you’re remembering something you’re actually taking bits and pieces of experience. You’re bringing it together and constructing something that feels like a real memory,’ she explained, adding that memory was more akin to a Wikipedia page – you can go in and edit it but so can others.
Loftus, who testified for the defense in the George Franklin trial, said she looked into the evidence about repressed memories. ‘I was pretty shocked because there wasn’t any credible scientific support for this.’
Closing arguments at George Franklin’s trial came down to Eileen’s credibility. Tipton, the prosecutor, recalled in Buried that there were moments when Eileen would say something and there would be almost a stillness in the courtroom. ‘A lot of specific detail in her recall was not anywhere in the records,’ she said. ‘It was just registering as authentic.’
The jury deliberated for less than a day and found George Franklin guilty of first degree murder in 1990.
‘At the end of the trial when they read the verdict, I took it hard because I believe in his innocence and I believe in the system and something very wrong had happened,’ Horngrad, George’s attorney, said.
George Franklin appealed. Dennis Riordan, his appeal attorney, noted that the judge during sentencing called Franklin wicked and depraved. Franklin was sentenced to life in prison.
‘When I reviewed the entire record, I was firmly convinced that there was… not an iota of credible evidence that he had murdered Susan Nason in 1969,’ Riordan said in the docuseries.
In 1995, his conviction was reversed, which meant Franklin could be retried if prosecutors chose to do so. Among other things, the trial judge should have allowed the defense to introduce evidence of newspaper accounts of Susan Nason’s murder, according to the ruling, which the Los Angeles Times reported.
‘Our defense was that everything Eileen testified to was in the public domain,’ Horngrad said.
After the trial, two books were written about the case, Eileen made the rounds of talk shows, including Oprah, and a TV movie called Fatal Memories, which starred Shelley Long as Eileen, was released in 1992.
Detectives and Eileen both hinted that George Franklin was possibly responsible for other murders. Those hints never panned out or pointed to anything solid. He was never charged or tried again.
Franklin was released after serving six and a half years in prison. In interviews after his release, he denied that he murdered Susan and that he sexually abused her and Eileen, saying ‘absolutely not,’ when asked. He died in 2016, according to the series.
MacLean, who was in law for 15 years before he became an author, pointed out that Franklin was not acquitted of the murder, the appeals judge had ruled he hadn’t gotten a fair trial.
‘Even if Eileen’s memory is false that does not establish in my mind that George Franklin did not kill Susan Nason,’ he said in Buried. ‘There’s a lot of facts that point to him as the most likely culprit.’
George Franklin lived around the corner from Susie, who he knew because she was his daughter’s best friend, MacLean said, adding that when Susan had been over the Franklin house she had little tickling matches with George.
‘And the idea that he would molest her and then kill her to cover it up isn’t that far-fetched given his character for violence.’
After the trial, ‘Eileen Franklin changed her name and relocated to a new state. She has since been widowed twice. She wishes to remain anonymous,’ according to Buried.
‘It’s completely destroyed my life,’ she said in a TV interview after the trial. ‘I’ve lost my family through this. I have lost several years of my life. I don’t really know who I am when new memories emerge especially memories of murder and violence and me being his accomplice. It’s been devastating.’