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False Memory Syndrome - controversies over recovered memories

The Problem Now: Ableism

To this day false memories is a common accusation, even by non-abusers against anyone with dissociative amnesia or DID & OSDD. They have no skin in the game, but the accusations fly about making things up, or accusing the therapist of planting memories. It's harder to believe victims than it is to blame either therapists or faking.

"If you made a list [of memories] from your days in the eighth grade, it would probably be [...] brief. This leads to an interesting question: How can we study memories that cannot be recalled? If a person cannot recall an experience, can we assume that the memory trace representing that experience has vanished?" — Experimental Psychology, 7th Ed, Kantowitz, Roediger III, Elmes.

How often have able singular folk ever said "OH! I forgot all about that!" — looking through a photo album, talking to relatives, going through a box of mementos, suddenly memories re-appear that were previously forgotten.

The idea of memory recovery is not so shocking — in fact it's an everyday occurrence. So ubiquitous that folk forget it even happens all the time. Getting to the store and forgetting something you need to buy through to that 1st grade trip to a monument…these are all experiences of "normal forgetting" that happen to almost everyone.

But when it comes to dissociative amnesias, suddenly forgetting is unacceptable, and remembering after a period of forgetting is "impossible."

When it comes to trauma, able folk think they could never forget something *that* impactful. However the motivation on a subconscious level to forget that which you cannot explain to yourself let alone someone else is enormous.

A child does not want to be deceitful — they want to be loved and trusted and safe. How can you live with this duality: sometimes even threatened into silence, of having to hide the inexplicable from others, and hold that truth within yourself?

For some that pressure and conflict is so great that shoving the memory into a mental compartment is easier than actively remembering it in silence. This isn't a conscious decision, but when the torment is repeated, it's best to utilize that compartment again. And by "utilizing that compartment" we mean becoming the person attached to that memory. Like switching which application is making a recording. Put this experience into the other bucket. The more adverse experiences, the more buckets required.

The whole idea of spontaneous memory recall being a farce is wrong. Everyone has spontaneous memory recall, all the time. Our brains cannot and do not handle all of the combined knowledge and memories being at the forefront all at the same time.

We all swap what memories are at the forefront by nature. The only difference being the ableist notion that "something that big would not be forgotten" in the case of DID, where actually the memory was so big and scary it couldn't help but being forgotten.


False Memory Syndrome is the idea that any "recovered memories" are actually implanted memories pushed onto the patient by either incompetent or malicious therapists.

The whole concept revolves around absolving the accused/perpetrator and shifting the blame to the therapist. This created a media backlash and a trail of court proceedings against therapists in the 1990s now called the "Satanic Panic".

This entire idea is a way of covering up rampant child abuse, ignoring the needs of abuse victims, and litigating against those who attempt to help victims and survivors recover from abuse. And in part this ruse succeeded: it severely set back individual DID specialists, many being personally targeted, threatened, charged in court, etc. In a few circumstances, therapists actually did engage with clients in a suggestive manner and may have affected memories of their clients — and in others it's completely fabricated and the perpetrators are very real.

The impact on specialists has been profound. There's basically a generation of DID specialists who have their own trauma from this issue, and as more and more evidence of DID piles up, more and more evidence that "false memories" do not keep, that they're harder to implant than was previously suggested, and with the growing pile of evidence of organized and institutionalized child abuse, the FMS Foundation shut its doors.

The damage was done, both to the industry, and to survivors. We are, as a survivor community, recovering from the damage done by this entire chain of thought and backlash from the abuser community (gobsmacking that we can even say "abuser community").

The remainder of this article was written before the FMS Foundation closed.

Legacy Article

For a while some clumsier therapists asked leading questions of their hypnotized patients, and somehow managed to create memories. Modern hypnosis is also found to be able to do this.

In the meantime, often mutliples are amnesiac for memories and have to dig around to find them. Often the memories are of things that there's no way to prove happened. It's easy to make the claim that it's made up, whether by a therapist who is clumsy and overeager to uncover tales of abuse, or by a patient seeking attention, or even by sheer mistake.

While it is certainly possible to implant false memories, it's also possible to lose memories and later recover them.

I was 13 years old. I was walking in a park with some friends. Suddenly I got several flashes of memory -- for no apparently good reason that I can tell even to this day. They were of one of my babysitters sexually molesting me, and some other related but brief and dreamlike flashes of memory. I'd never had a therapist until I was 16. I haven't recovered any abuse memories since then including when I was in therapy, and I was able to confirm that the abuse happened. But the fun part was that I not only confirmed that it happened -- I didn't remember that other person ever being there when it took place. Or the additional locations that the abuse took place in. The essential consensus was one of true Holy Shit! and to this day, I don't remember there being anyone else present when it happened. But there's a witness. — The Crisses

There is a group called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) whose claim is that recovered child abuse memories are false, and in addition that DID is also false.

An article by Colin Ross (offsite) on the subject can be reviewed, which directly challenges the FMSF's claims.

What the Studies Say

Professor Alan Schefflin, Santa Clara University Law School and Dr. Daniel Brown reviewed 25 recent studies (spring 1996) on Amnesia for childhood sexual abuse. They state:

  • No study failed to find it….Amnesia for childhood sexual abuse is a robust finding across studies using very different samples and methods of assessment. Studies addressing the accuracy of recovered memories show that recovered memories are no more or no less accurate than continuous memories for abuse
Herman & Schatzow (1987)
53 women – 36% always remembered, 64% some amnesia; 36% mild to moderate amnesia; 28% “severe memory deficits”. 74% found corroboration, with 40% getting confirmation for perpetrators, other family members, physical evidence and 34% from siblings or other victims.
Albach (in press)
97 women with a history of CSA and a matched control of 65 non-abused women. 35% in the sexually abused group reported amnesia at some time, compared to 1% in the control group who reported amnesia for nontraumatic unpleasant childhood experiences. Psychotherapy was not typically reported to be the cause of recovering the abuse memory.
Roe & Schwartz (1996)
52 women, hospitalized for sexual trauma. 88% reported history of csa. 77% not remembered for significant time (3 to 45 years)
Bernet et al (1993)
624 undergraduates reported at least one experience of sexual abuse prior to age 15. 36% reported no memory for a time. Only 30% had been in therapy so “unlikely that they remembered their abuse as a consequence of psychotherapy”
Belicki et al (1994)
55.4% of abused students in study reported disrupted memory. “Subjects reporting no abuse responded significantly differently than the other three groups with respect to definitons of sexual abuse, psychiatric symptoms and sleep and dream behaviour. There were no significant differences in response the the questions between those who reported and those who did not report corroboration of abuse. There were also no significant differences in response to the questions bewteen those who had disrupted memory and those who had continuous memory for childhood sexual abuse. Those who had recovered memories were just as likely as those who had a continuous memory to have corroborative evidence for the abuse.
Van Der Kolk & Fisler (1995)
46 adults in in depth interview. Of the 36 subjects with childhood trauma 42% had suffered significant or total amnesia at some time. Corroborative evidence available for 75%. Williams (1994) : 129 women who had been sexually abused as children. 38 % failed to report or were amnestic for childhood sexual abuse though it was clearly documented in medical records 17 years earlier. 32% said they were never abused. “Amnesia for sexual abuse in a community sample is not an uncommon event. There was a tendency for women with the clearest evidence of abuse to be more amnestic”
Widom & Morris (in press)
Court substantiated abuse and child-neglect cases. 39% of the sexually abused failed to report the documented child abuse. “We have also found substantial under-reporting of sexual abuse among known victims of sexual abuse. This is particularly impressive since these are court substantiated cases of childhood sexual abuse”
“Memories in dissociate amnesia are not so much distorted as they are segregated from one another.”
In general, women with recovered memories had no more inconsistencies in their reports than women who had always remembered….their retrospective reports were remarkably consistent with what had been reported in the 1970′s….the stories were in large part true to the basic elements”.
Dalenberg (1996)
“Memories of abuse recovered in psychotherapy were no more or no less accurate than memories of abuse that had always beem remembered. The overall accuracy rate of both continued and recovered memories of abuse was quite high (70%) Just over half the patient sample significantly improved their accuracy for their abuse memories in the course of psychotherapy”.

About those who coined False Memory Syndrome

Ralph Underwager, one of the founders of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, is credited with having coined the term. In 1993, he gave an interview with the Dutch paedophile magazine, Paedika, in which he was reported as saying that paedophilia could be a responsible choice and that having sex with children could be seen as ‘part of God’s will’. The other co-founders of the FMSF were Pamela and Peter Freyd, whose adult daughter made accusations of childhood sexual abuse. The American media gave them almost unquestioning support until their daughter, psychology Professor Jennifer Freyd, felt obliged to speak out publicly, to stop the damage that she felt her parents and their organisation were doing to abuse survivors.

Other early promoters of false memory syndrome in the US were Paul and Shirley Erberle. In the 1970s, when child pornography laws were less rigid, they edited a magazine called Finger in which there were explicit illustrations of children involved in sexual acts with adults, with features entitled ‘Sexpot at Five’, ‘My First Rape, She Was Only Thirteen’ and ‘Toilet Training’. Another key figure is Felicity Goodyear-Smith, author of First Do No Harm (1993). Felicity Goodyear-Smith admits to a personal as well as professional involvement in the issue. Her husband and parents-in-law were imprisoned for sexual abuse offences, having been members of the New Zealand community, CentrePoint, that encouraged sexual intimacy amongst its members, including the children. Although the adults involved were prosecuted for these acts, including public sex with children, Goodyear-Smith claims that this was simply ‘childhood sexual experimentation’ and quotes studies that claim to show that adult-child sex can be harmless. The false memory syndrome foundation was formed by Pamela and Peter Freyd, who were theirselves accused of abuse by their daughter (insidently their daughter – Jennifer Freyd – wrote an amzing bok called “Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse“).

Is it just me, or do all of these people appear to have alternative motives?

Repressed memories in non-sexual trauma cases

Repressed memory in war vets or holocaust survivors has been a long acknowledged phenomena. It was only when it began to be about sexual abuse that people start yelling about FMS.

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as being self-evident” (Arthur Schopenhauer)

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