In early December of 1990, the young academic was feeling confused. Though she had recently been granted tenure and was a happily married mother of two, she was weighed down by a surprising surge in anxiety. To get some relief from her distress, she decided to enter psychotherapy.
When she mentioned in an early session how much she was dreading the prospect of seeing her parents during the upcoming Christmas vacation, her therapist asked if she had ever been abused. “I said, ‘No,’ but later that day, I began experiencing disturbing flashbacks. Over the next few weeks, I remembered that my father had molested me when I was a young child,” said Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, in a phone interview. “When my parents arrived for their visit, I couldn’t handle being with them, and my husband blurted out the reason. They ended up leaving earlier than planned.”
Over the next couple of years, Jennifer and her parents—Peter Freyd, a professor of mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Pamela Freyd, then a research associate at the university’s Institute of Research in Cognitive Science—corresponded about this conflict. But as it became apparent that there was no way to resolve the family’s differences, these communications stopped. Jennifer has not been in touch with either parent since then.
While Peter Freyd has denied that any sexual abuse ever occurred, he has confessed to some inappropriate behavior around his daughter during her childhood. “I’m quite prepared to say,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1994, “the attitude I thought was appropriate of being open about things of a sexual nature – in retrospect may have been wrong.” He has also publicly acknowledged that he himself was sexually abused by a much older man when he was a teenager and that he has struggled with alcoholism—a condition for which he received in-patient treatment at a substance abuse rehab facility in the early 1980s.
Soon after Jennifer made the allegation of abuse, Peter and Pamela Freyd coined a term, the false memory syndrome, to describe what they believe alienated their daughter from them. This concept was later defined by Paul McHugh, the head of the psychiatry department at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School from 1975 to 2001, as “a condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes.”
According to McHugh, the false memory in question is typically a delayed memory that emerges during the course of psychotherapy. Thus originated recovered memory therapy, a second neologism that is often paired with the false memory syndrome. Recovered memories of abuse, stresses McHugh, are rarely—if ever—credible.
Over the past 30 years, Peter and Pamela Freyd’s view of the nature of memory has been widely accepted. Numerous mainstream media outlets have reported on how an epidemic of “repressed memories” has wreaked havoc on parents like the Freyds, who are regularly portrayed as upstanding members of their communities. Likewise, psychologists and psychiatrists in training are routinely taught to be skeptical of all delayed memories of childhood trauma.
Yet, upon closer examination, questions abound. Do laboratory studies on false memory back up the claim by Peter and Pamela Freyd that their daughter—with the assistance of her therapist—conjured up a memory of sexual abuse out of whole cloth? How did the false memory syndrome—an idea formulated by the Freyds in the heat of a deep-seated family conflict—become accepted as established science?
The false memory syndrome stands in direct scientific opposition to the wealth of evidence supporting dissociative amnesia—a psychological defense mechanism which, according to trauma therapists, enables people to split off painful events from conscious awareness for years. Are these empirical studies, which date back to the late 19th century, in fact flimsy, as the proponents of the false memory syndrome maintain?
The stakes of this controversy are profound, particularly for people who turn to the health care system for help in treating their emotional distress. The vast majority of contemporary mental health professionals—and most psychiatrists —have taken their cue from McHugh and believe that so-called recovered memory therapy harms patients by turning their attention away from genuine psychiatric illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, which require years of treatment with powerful psychoactive drugs. In contrast, therapists who specialize in treating trauma survivors argue that dissociated memories of early sexual or physical abuse can cause acute symptoms—say, self-cutting—and that integrating these painful experiences can often be critical to a patient’s long-term recovery.
Moreover, the broad acceptance of the false memory syndrome in the cultural ecosystem can end up silencing, or even shaming, people like Jennifer Freyd, who believe that they have stumbled upon painful experiences in their childhood and seek to understand the truth about their own past and its connection to their current feelings. In addition, in the courtroom, the Freyds’ view of memory can serve as a protective shield for those who have, in fact, sexually abused children.
This investigation into the scientific evidence behind the false memory syndrome comes at a time when our society is finally grappling with the reality that various trusted institutions, most notably the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts, long covered up the widespread abuse of the children entrusted to their care. We have seen the same pattern with some athletic coaches.
Given that we now know that American society long ignored this reality, it seems timely to re-evaluate the widespread belief that individuals rarely—if ever—dissociate traumatic events in their own lives.
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation
In March of 1992, with the help of about 20 prominent mental health professionals such as McHugh and Elizabeth Loftus, then a psychology professor at the University of Washington, Peter and Pamela co-founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). While the Freyds were never sued by Jennifer, many of the early FMSF members did face lawsuits from their adult children. That’s because, by the early 1990s, anti-violence advocates had managed to extend the rights of victims of sexual abuse.
In 1989, Washington became the first state to pass a law that enabled people to sue for damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse within three years of the time that they remembered the incidents. By the end of 1992, 18 other states had passed similar laws. And media coverage was initially sympathetic to those who remembered being abused as children. The accused were looking for a defense, and Loftus’s work provided them with that.
As Pamela Freyd admitted in a 1999 FMSF newsletter, these legal changes were the raison d’etre for her nonprofit advocacy group: “The Foundation came into existence because of the many lawsuits that were being brought against families based on no other evidence than a claim of recovered repressed memories.”
In the fall of 1990, Loftus, who by that time had written a series of influential academic publications on memory including the book Eyewitness Testimony (1979), received national media attention when she testified as an expert witness for the defense in a closely watched trial. The case concerned George Franklin, a California man who had been accused of murdering an eight-year-old girl in 1969. The prosecution’s main witness was Franklin’s own daughter, Eileen, who testified that she had recovered her memory of the crime after about 20 years. Franklin was convicted and sent to prison, but he was released in 1995 upon appeal.
While it has often been reported that the guilty verdict was overturned because Eileen Franklin had recovered the memory under hypnosis, that claim was never proven. The actual reason revolved around two legal technicalities: that Franklin had been deprived of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
“I was happy when the FMSF started because right after the Franklin case, I was a one-person switchboard who was trying to help desperate family members all by myself,” said Elizabeth Loftus, now a professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine, in a phone interview. “I had a list of good therapists and lawyers in my office, but I didn’t have the resources to do this.”
At the time, most mental health professionals, for diverse reasons, did not yet give much thought or credence to the idea that childhood trauma played a role in the formation of adult psychiatric symptoms. Given the turn toward biology after the 1980 publication of the American Psychiatric Association’s revised diagnostic manual, DSM III, psychiatrists typically viewed depression and bipolar disorder as brain illnesses with a genetic component, for which the first-line treatment was psychiatric drugs. Meanwhile, the reigning paradigm in psychoanalysis still assumed that Freud had been correct to abandon his “seduction theory” in 1897, when he concluded that the reports of childhood sexual abuse by patients were actually wished-for fantasies. Similarly, practitioners of cognitive therapy claimed that faulty thinking patterns caused most common psychiatric disorders. In fact, psychiatrist Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, was an early member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the FMSF.
Given the state of the mental health field in the early 1990s, the FMSF strategy consisted of a three-pronged approach: convincing the public that recovered memories of abuse were invariably false, recruiting prominent academics to serve as its public relations representatives, and punishing the relatively small cadre of therapists and academics who treated or studied trauma survivors. To intimidate so-called recovered memory therapists, the FMSF helped initiate a series of lawsuits against well-known figures for malpractice. For example, psychiatrist Bennet Braun, who practiced at the Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago, was targeted with a bunch of lawsuits. In one notable case settled in 1997, a former patient of Braun’s, Patricia Burgus, received a $10.5 million settlement.
“These lawsuits by the FMSF had a chilling effect” said psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of The New York Times bestseller The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, Body in the Healing of Trauma (2015), in a phone interview. “While not all trauma therapists were sued, many of us suddenly felt under attack. In fact, the Trauma Center, the treatment facility, which I had established at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital [MGH] in 1984, was forced to close. After I testified as an expert witness for the prosecution in several cases involving delayed memories of abuse by priests, the late psychiatrist Edwin Kassem, a Jesuit priest who then served as the chief of MGH’s psychiatry department, wanted me out. After all, he was an advisor to Cardinal Bernard Law, then the archbishop of Boston, who was forced to resign a decade later when The Boston Globe published a series of stories showing that Law had protected abusive priests.”
A Marketing Success
According to the FMSF’s tax returns, this 501(c)(3) nonprofit received a total of nearly $8 million in donations before it was dissolved in late 2019. These contributions from thousands of members, many of whom were adults accused of child abuse, were plowed into an aggressive PR campaign that resulted in favorable press coverage in several leading newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times, by the middle of 1992. Between 1992 and 1997, the FMSF spent nearly $300,000 just in postage to send out its 35-page packet of news articles to thousands of movers and shakers in the media and in departments of psychology and psychiatry.
One example of the influence of the FMSF on the mainstream press can be seen in the writings of Frederick Crews, who weighed in on this controversy in The New York Review of Books. An eloquent literary critic, Crews, now 89, started his career by writing psychoanalytic studies of canonical authors, including The Pooh Perplex (1962), a tongue-in-cheek bestseller on A. A. Milne’s beloved children’s book.
“In the early 1960s, like Robert Silvers [the founder and longtime editor of The New York Review of Books, who died in 2017] and many New York intellectuals of that era, I believed that Freud was a key influencer,” Crews said in a phone interview.
But in the late 1970s, he turned against Freudian scholarship. A decade or so later, Crews convinced Silvers, for whom he had been writing since 1964, to reverse course as well. Crews then began publishing a series of harsh critiques of psychoanalysis in The New York Review.
In the fall of 1994, as part of his anti-Freud campaign, Crews wrote “The Revenge of the Repressed,” a two-part review of several new books on memory and psychotherapy, including The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Loftus (co-authored by science writer Katherine Ketcham). Lauding Loftus as an exemplary experimental scientist, he embraced her main conclusion. “All in all,” Crews wrote, “Loftus finds no basis for thinking that repression, as opposed to a gradual avoidance and atrophy of painful recollections, has figured in a single molestation case to date.”
In his review, Crews also praised the public relations efforts of Peter and Pamela Freyd, adding, “Above all, steady progress in public enlightenment has been forged, over the past two-and-a-half years, by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, most of whose members are themselves slandered relatives of ‘survivors.’”
The Freyds were pleased. “After that piece came out,” Crews said to me, “I got a call from Pamela Freyd who asked me to join the Scientific Advisory Board of the FMSF. I told her, ‘Never mind. I’m not a scientist.’ But she persisted, saying, ‘You could be useful to us. You could help us reach a liberal educated audience.’ So I agreed to sign up.”
Pamela Freyd’s words proved prophetic. A year later, The New York Review published a volume, The Memory Wars, consisting of several of the recent anti-Freud essays by Crews, including “The Revenge of the Repressed,” plus numerous letters to the editor. This book received mostly glowing reviews in the mainstream press. However, a notable dissent came from Kirkus Reviews, which observed that Crews “apparently is so obsessed with refuting his adversaries’ views that he sometimes barely listens to, much less engages, them.”
Throughout the 1990s, major media outlets typically dismissed or ignored the academic research suggesting that survivors of trauma do sometimes forget about their painful experiences for many years. In 1995, the PBS investigative series Frontline ran a documentary directed by Ofra Bikel titled “Divided Memories.”
“Though this film purported to present a balanced view of ‘the memory wars,’ it largely sided with the FMSF,” said Ross Cheit, a professor of political science at Brown in a phone interview. “I wrote Bikel to complain that she didn’t cover accurately the phenomenon of dissociative amnesia. And I was shocked when she responded that there are no documented cases.”
Numerous prominent academics did in fact jump on the FMSF bandwagon. In 2005, Richard McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard, published a blistering critique of so-called recovered memory therapy, Remembering Trauma. This Harvard University Press book received a glowing review in Science, which stated that his “synthesis of research from clinical psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and developmental psychology provides the most comprehensive and even-handed work on this topic.” Likewise, Scientific American wrote that “the overwhelming evidence leads [McNally] to conclude that people do not forget experiences that were truly traumatic.”
In a recent phone interview, McNally stood by the key arguments in his book. “Dissociative amnesia is an empty bucket,” he said. “I don’t think there is any good evidence for it. Traumatized children actually find it hard not to think about the terrifying events; they typically have lots of nightmares and flashbacks. In contrast, recovered memories of trauma can often be traced back to suggestive therapy techniques—such as journaling, dream interpretation, and hypnosis.”
A few years later, the FMSF paid psychiatrist Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins roughly $110,000 to write Try to Remember: Psychiatry’s Clash over Meaning, Memory, and Mind (2008). This FMSF-commissioned treatise was also widely praised in the national media and by prominent scholars. For example, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, now a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara, declared that with this book, “America’s premier pioneering biological psychiatrist… blows the whistle on sloppy and trendy thinking in psychiatry.”
Meanwhile, the mainstream press kept publishing sympathetic profiles of the academics who sided with the FMSF. For example, in an eight-part feature published by Slate in 2010, titled “The Memory Doctor,” William Saletan praised Loftus as the world’s foremost authority on the reliability of memories of sexual abuse, echoing her belief that adults accused of molesting children have long been treated unfairly. Saletan, who described the fact that “repressed memories were surfacing everywhere” in the 1990s as a “nightmare,” received a national journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for the series.
With academics such as Loftus, McNally, and McHugh endorsing the false memory syndrome, it has emerged as established science. Today, psychology students are typically taught that recovered memories are almost always false. As Bethany Brand, a professor of psychology at Towson University who has written a few academic papers on the contents of psychology textbooks, said in a phone interview, “There is definitely a huge bias toward the false memory position. After all, the late Henry Gleitman, who taught psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote the most influential undergraduate psychology textbook in the last half century, served as a scientific advisor to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. And while all abnormal psychology textbooks cover the major laboratory studies conducted by false memory researchers, none cite the studies showing that patients who report delayed memories of sexual abuse actually tend to score lower on suggestibility scales than other patients.”
The influence of the FMSF now also extends to academic and media circles outside of America. It is familiar to many people across the globe, as various affiliated false memory societies have popped up in numerous countries, including Britain, Germany, France, Australia, and New Zealand.
The FMSF’s Scientific Pillar: The Lost in the Mall Study
After the prosecution lost the Franklin case, Loftus began searching for scientific evidence to back up her position that the dissociative amnesia often reported by psychotherapists occurred rarely—if at all. As she noted in her widely praised popular book, The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (1994), “Through careful experimental design and controlled studies, perhaps I could provide a theoretical framework for the creation of false memories, show that it possible to create an entire memory for a traumatic event that never happened.”
Loftus’s quest resulted in the now-famous “lost in the mall experiment,” which her undergraduate student, James Coan, submitted as his senior thesis in 1993. Two years later, Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell, then also an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, would publish an expanded version of this study called “The Formation of False Memories,” which has emerged as perhaps the central piece of empirical evidence for the false memory syndrome and one of the most influential papers in contemporary psychology. It’s the basis of Loftus’s 2013 TED Talk on false memories, which has seen by about six million viewers around the world; its transcript has been translated into 34 languages.
The 1995 study published in Psychiatric Annals involved 24 subjects aged 18 to 53, each of whom were paired with one relative—either a parent or an older sibling. The experiment was designed to prove that an older relative could induce an adult to believe that a distressing childhood event that had never happened—being lost in a shopping mall—actually did happen. Loftus reported that six of the subjects did believe that they had once been lost in a mall, and even recalled specific details about that experience. “We are providing,” she concluded, “an existence proof for the formation of false memories.”
According to Loftus, her study proved how therapists—say, the one whom Jennifer Freyd saw in the winter of 1990—could implant traumatic memories of sexual abuse in their patients. But as critics of the study have noted, this conclusion isn’t supported by the experiment.
The study indicates that older family members, who could be expected to have an actual memory of an event, can convince a relative to create a false childhood memory, or at least a vague sense of that memory. In Loftus’s experiment, the “younger relative” had reason to trust the reliability of the memories of family members, as it is natural for family members to want to “share” in memories. But a person has quite a different relationship with a therapist, as there is no shared experience to be remembered. As a result, the study can hardly be said to prove that a therapist can convince a person to create a false childhood memory.
Another problematic flaw with the mall study is its laboratory setting. “Loftus is not a clinician and never studied how people process traumatic experiences,” said psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. “Trauma often overwhelms the central nervous system, so the brain may not be able to register it fully when it happens. That’s why delayed memories of abuse are not uncommon.”
Finally, critics have pointed out that the study is riddled with methodological flaws and lapses in its reporting of results. For example, in “Lost in the Mall: False Memory or False Defense,” published in 2019 in The Journal of Child Custody, psychologists Ruth Blizzard and Morgan Shaw reported that Loftus tossed out six subjects who were in her original 1993 study—a move which constitutes a major ethical lapse for an experimental researcher. “The mall study,” they concluded, “has received a minimal amount of critical analysis, regardless of the vague and contradictory reporting of results, failure to report negative results, lack of definition of false memory, and conflation of informal observations with formal research.”
Indeed, 20 years after her lost in the mall study was published, Loftus acknowledged that the study results applied only to the 24 subjects and couldn’t be applied to other populations.
Yet, in her interview for this piece, Loftus expressed fierce pride in the mall study, which she considers a paradigm-busting achievement. Asked to respond to the various criticisms of her work, she pointed to a “mega-analysis” of false memory research published by Alan Scoboria, a psychology professor at the University of Windsor in Canada in the journal Memory in 2017. “In his summary of the false memory literature,” Loftus said, “Scoboria reported that suggestive interviewers can cause 30% of people to develop full false memories of events that never happened.”
The Mega-Analysis: More of the Same
In the research world, a review of the research on an issue is regularly touted as providing evidence of the truth of a matter that a single study never can. Loftus was citing Scoboria’s paper as evidence that subsequent research on false memories supported her findings and claims.
However, as can be easily seen, the eight false memory studies reviewed by Scoboria were all flawed for the same reason as the lost in the mall study. None of these laboratory experiments directly assess whether a recovered memory of sexual abuse can be implanted by a therapist.
Here is how Scoboria and colleagues described the methodology of the “false memory implantation studies” they reviewed:
“These studies typically merge suggestive techniques with social pressure to lead participants to report believing and remembering that a suggested pseudoevent had actually occurred . . . the participants are presented with descriptions of a set of childhood events that were ostensibly provided by trustworthy family members (such as parents or siblings). Amongst these events is one false event created by the researchers (familial informants usually verify that to their knowledge the participant never experienced this event in childhood.) Over two or three sessions—typically over the course of a week—participants are encouraged to recall the childhood events using various memory recovery techniques employed in trauma-memory-oriented therapy (e.g. guided visualization).”
In the eight studies, the false events were as follow: “trouble with a teacher,” hot air balloon ride, and “spilled punch bowl on the parents of a bride.”
All of these studies rely on the implanting of a false memory that has supposedly been recalled by a member of the family. To prime that implantation, three true events remembered by the family member are also told to the participant. The person has reason to believe that all four events are true, and once details of the false event are described, he or she has been primed to fill in the details. Moreover, none of these false events are traumatic.
That laboratory setting doesn’t replicate, in any substantial way, the environment in which adults tell of recovering memories of child abuse to a therapist. The therapist isn’t a family member with a “shared” history; the therapist doesn’t provide details of a memory, (such as the false event described in these experiments); and the memory of childhood abuse is, of course, a traumatic memory.
The False Memory Syndrome in the Courtroom
In spite of the flaws in the major false memory studies conducted over the last 25 years, Loftus has cited this research while appearing as a defense witness in more than 300 trials of people accused of sexual abuse. In fact, Loftus, who has never testified on behalf of a plaintiff in these cases, has even helped defend men who few doubt are serial predators.
For instance, Loftus was the sole defense witness called in the February 2005 trial of the late Paul Shanley, the so-called “Boston street priest,” who had admitted on several occasions since the late 1970s—to both journalists and to church authorities—that he had abused numerous boys. The 2005 case concerned a Boston area firefighter who claimed that Shanley had raped him on numerous occasions when he was between six and nine years old. The accuser, who was 27 at the time of the trial, testified that he had forgotten about the years of abuse for about 15 years. Loftus testified that there was little reason to believe this was so. ”I don’t believe there is any credible scientific evidence that years of brutalization can be massively repressed,” she told the court.
The jury was not convinced, and Shanley, who died late last year, was convicted and sent to prison. As Martha Coakley, then the Middlesex County District Attorney, told The Orange County Weekly, her team pored over Loftus’s studies and experiments on the inconsistencies of memory before dismissing them all as “fairly trivial kinds of manipulation with memories.” Her studies, added Coakley, “just weren’t applicable to [the] facts [in the case].”
Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman, author of books such as Father-Daughter Incest (1981) and Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (1992), argues that Loftus’s standard attack on dissociative amnesia may well have fallen flat in the priest abuse cases because the victims were mostly men. “There has long been a stereotype of women that are easily swayed, suggestible, and overly emotional,” she said in a phone interview. “The false memory syndrome is a fresh appeal to prejudice—that women and children are prone to lie.”
When asked recently about her decision to testify in controversial cases such as the one involving Shanley, Loftus said that “every person deserves a fair defense.” She also cited her concern about what she termed “piling on” and about the way the pendulum has shifted too far in the wrong direction in the #MeToo era. “Just because someone committed crimes A, B, and C,” she said, “that does not mean that he also committed D. We don’t want a situation where everyone is automatically believed.”
Like Loftus, Frederick Crews also believes that courts often victimize men accused of sexual abuse—even those widely assumed to be notorious pedophiles. In the last couple of years, he took up the cause of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach, who was convicted in 2012 of 45 counts involving the sexual abuse of children. Crews recently wrote a favorable review of The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment (2017) by Mark Pendergrast, which argues that Sandusky was unfairly imprisoned due in large part to testimony based on recovered memories. Loftus also provided a favorable blurb for this book.
When writing to me about Sandusky in a recent email, Crews put the term, “child molester,” in scare quotes. He is frustrated that he has yet to find a home for his piece on the widely scorned former Penn State coach in a mainstream news outlet. “If Bob Silvers were still alive, he would have published it without blinking,” he said.
The Scientific Evidence for Dissociative Amnesia
The flip side to the false memory studies is a large body of research, conducted over the last century, that provides evidence that dissociative amnesia is, in fact, a common reaction to trauma. However, this research has often been ignored in news articles and textbooks that discuss the false memory syndrome.
“There are now hundreds of studies in lots of different populations showing that people forget trauma,” said psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. “We see it in victims of sexual abuse, natural disaster, torture, rape, war, and kidnapping. And research also shows that delayed memories of abuse are as reliable as continuous memories.”
One of the psychologists who has synthesized much of this research on dissociative amnesia has been Jennifer Freyd herself. “I am a memory psychologist, so I needed to make sense of what had happened to me,” she said. In 1996, she published Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse (1996)—a book published by Harvard University Press, which describes what she has called betrayal trauma theory. “Memory of trauma can be dangerous to children,” she stated, summing up the central argument of her book. “They may need to forget in order to function in important relationships.”
Jennifer Freyd has also published a number of academic articles on betrayal trauma theory. Over the past decade, she has expanded her work to include the plight of victims abused not only by their families, but also by institutions on which they often depend for support and emotional sustenance, such as the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts. She recently founded her own non-profit, The Center for Institutional Courage. But to this day, betrayal trauma theory remains confined to academic circles; it’s typically discussed only in scholarly publications—say, The Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, which Freyd now edits.
In her book, she argued that false memory syndrome proponents such as Loftus and Crews typically confuse the terms repression and dissociation, which constitute two completely different defense mechanisms. Repression, as understood by Freud after he officially developed psychoanalysis in 1897, involves the banishing from consciousness of certain feelings—say, the desire to have sex with someone or to murder someone. In contrast, dissociation involves the splitting off from conscious awareness of a painful event—say, a sexual or physical assault.
In his pre-psychoanalytic work, Freud highlighted the phenomenon of dissociative amnesia. For example, in his 1896 paper, “Heredity and the Aetiology of Neuroses,” Freud connected adult psychiatric symptoms—say, depression and anxiety—to incidents of sexual abuse in childhood. In his first book, Studies on Hysteria (1895), co-written with Josef Breuer, Freud provided a few case studies of women suffering from disabling symptoms who had forgotten about the abuse that they had endured in childhood.
“There is a deep conceptual problem here,” Jennifer Freyd wrote about Crews’s influential 1994 New York Review article. “Freudian assumptions about repression…constitute a theory of a particular mental mechanism rather than an observable phenomenon.” In other words, Freud’s idea of repression is just a theory that can’t really be proved; in contrast, dissociative amnesia is a phenomenon that can be shown to be true by means of empirical studies.
In 1994, sociologist Linda Mayer Williams, then a professor at the University of New Hampshire, supplied a key piece of such evidence in her paper, “Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women’s Memories of Child Sexual Abuse,” published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. The study focused on 129 girls—aged 10 months to 12 years—who were examined in a hospital ER between 1973 and 1975 after reports of sexual abuse. When Williams interviewed the subjects again in 1990 and 1991—they were then between 18 and 31—38% did not tell her about the abuse that had led to the ER visit. “This study,” wrote Freyd, “suggests that for victims of childhood sexual abuse, forgetting the abuse is not unusual (italics in original).”
When asked about these findings, Loftus and other false-memory syndrome proponents typically come up with a series of reasons that they believe can whittle the figure for dissociative amnesia from 38% down to 0%.
“Some of the women in the Williams study were just two or three when the abuse happened, so childhood amnesia was probably at work for them,” Loftus said.” Others may not have felt like telling the interviewer about the abuse. And for others, the incident may have been minor—say, fondling.”
Evidence for dissociative amnesia has also been gathered by Brown University political scientist Ross Cheit, who reports that he forgot his own sexual abuse at the age of 12 by a camp counselor for decades. In the mid-1990s, he launched the Recovered Memory Project, and he has now gathered 110 corroborated cases of recovered memory. He also has compiled a long list of citations to scholarly articles on dissociative amnesia in various populations such as child abuse victims and Holocaust survivors.
Cheit spent a decade writing a book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology and the Sexual Abuse of Children (2014), in which he reviewed the major child abuse cases over the previous 30 years—from the McMartin Preschool case of the 1980s through the priest abuse cases and the Jerry Sandusky case. In it, he documents how there has been a bias in the media against recognizing dissociative amnesia, even though in the clinical world it is well known that “sexual abuse disclosures are often delayed and then disclosed in bits and pieces.”
Therapy for Trauma Survivors
Judith Herman, who formulated today’s most widely used paradigm for trauma therapy in Trauma and Recovery (1992), dismisses the term recovered memory therapy as “a caricature.”
“The false memory movement has blamed therapists as exploiters of patients who are eager to implant false memories of abuse,” she said. “But I don’t think therapists have that much power. In contrast, some parents do try both to take away memories of abuse and to convince their children that they had happy childhoods.”
As a feminist, Herman sees therapy as a collaborative process. She realizes that the therapist can’t possibly know for sure exactly what happened in some interaction between an adult patient and her father decades ago.
For Herman, the therapist should serve as an enlightened witness who listens carefully to whatever the patient has to say but is not an ultimate arbiter of truth. Her model of psychodynamic psychotherapy, which has its roots in some core Freudian principles such as transference (the notion that patients unconsciously transfer feelings about their parents to other people in their lives, including the therapist), involves helping patients explore how childhood experiences may play a role in their presenting symptoms—say, depression, anxiety, or relationship problems. Some patients come into therapy with clear memories of abuse. While other patients may eventually disclose long-forgotten scenes of sexual or physical abuse during the course of treatment, that is not something that the therapist should ever insist on. Such an assertion is considered unethical, as it would constitute a clear violation of the patient’s boundaries.
The Harvard psychiatrist does acknowledge that some psychotherapists may not be skilled in helping patients process trauma. “They may, for example, rush patients into talking about trauma before they have established a safe relationship. But the FMSF never had any interest in defining what good therapy is,” she stated.
Herman notes that the epidemiological data gathered over the past few decades have consistently chipped away at the FMSF tenet that delayed memories of abuse are almost always false. “We know that about a quarter of women are abused as children, and perhaps as many as 40% of women who seek therapy have an abuse history.”
Like Judith Herman, David Calof, a psychodynamic psychotherapist based in Seattle, who has treated trauma survivors for about 40 years, notes that therapists can harm patients by asking leading—rather than open-ended—questions about possible childhood trauma. But he believes that for very distressed patients, deeply buried traumas often play a key role in the presenting symptoms. In these cases, it’s the job of the therapist, he insists, to let patients dictate when they are ready to try to piece together the various fragments of a particular trauma or set of traumas.
He recalled the case of a 30-year-old man who came into treatment after attempting suicide. “I asked him about his family, and he told me his father had been convicted of incest. The patient initially denied that he himself had been abused. After a few years of therapy, he started to talk about various scenes of abuse, but his memory was sketchy. Around that time, his father, who had received some good counseling in prison, was released after serving an 18-year sentence. And then his father began attending some of our sessions, and he managed to help his son integrate his memories, saying things like, ‘Do you remember the incident near the fireplace?’ It was very moving.”
In the mid-1990s, Calof edited Treating Abuse Today, a magazine that was widely read by trauma therapists and abuse survivors. As he reported in a 1998 paper published in Ethics and Behavior, “Notes from a practice under siege: Harassment, defamation, and intimidation in the name of science,” for about three years, supporters of the FMSF made a concerted effort to drive him out of business. “My house was broken into, and a staff member of mine was assaulted,” Calof said in a phone interview. Calof reports that the PR campaign against him died down about 20 years ago, and he has not experienced any problems since then.
Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, who now instructs about 60,000 people—mostly psychologists, social workers, schoolteachers, and occupational therapists—per year in his Zoom lectures, also notes that trauma therapists no longer experience any harassment. And he is optimistic about the future of mental health treatment for trauma survivors because as a group, contemporary mental health clinicians are much better informed about the nature of traumatic memory than they were a generation ago. “But even today, few psychiatrists are interested in learning about childhood trauma, as that field has sold its soul to the pharmaceutical industry. And that is unfortunate, as psychiatrists often misdiagnose adult survivors with conditions like bipolar disorder and then overmedicate them.”
The Science of Recovered Memories
For too long, society turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children. It was a taboo subject, kept quiet within families and covered up by institutions. Soon after states finally began providing adults who remembered such childhood abuse with the legal standing to sue, the FMSF began waging a vigorous public relations campaign that discredited their memories—in both courtrooms and, to a large degree, in the public mind.
Indeed, the false memory syndrome, which was said to be grounded in cutting-edge science, regularly produced a legal—and, one might say, an epistemological—stalemate: It was the delayed memory of the accuser against the denial of the accused, and without any corroborating evidence of the abuse, it was impossible for a jury or a judge to know what had really happened.
In addition, the false memory syndrome turned those accused of abuse into “victims.” These cases were no longer simply “he said/she said,” cases, but rather “he said/she was tricked into creating false memories” cases.
However, public understanding of this dynamic has perhaps entered a new phase. There is now increasing public awareness that the sexual abuse of children is all too common. And as society assesses the claims of adults who recall memories of child abuse, it should know this about the relevant science: The false memory research provides little evidence that memories of sexual abuse are often implanted by therapists. But there is a large body of research providing evidence that dissociative amnesia is a common response to childhood trauma.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported that Dr. Jennifer Freyd was pregnant with her third child in December 1990; she was not. It also referred to “the late” Dr. Aaron Beck; Beck is still alive. We regret the errors, which have been corrected.
Update, March 11: Pamela Freyd wrote Mad in America to dispute several statements that were attributed to her and her husband Peter, and to state that a number of “statements of fact” about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation were in error. After reviewing her letter and criticisms, Mad in America notes the following:
1) The article states that Peter Freyd was sexually abused as a teenager. “This is wrong,” Pamela Freyd writes. “Peter was abused by a pedophile at age 7 and ending at age 11.”
2) The definition of the false memory syndrome, as cited in the article, was authored by John Kihlstrom, not Paul McHugh.
3) The article states that Peter and Pamela Freyd “coined a term, the false memory syndrome, to describe what they believe alienated their daughter from them.”
Pamela Freyd writes: “This is not true. The Foundation’s name emerged from many professionals and families that had come together. Families had in common the fact that they had been told their children suffered from ‘repressed memory syndrome’ i.e., they had symptoms that some therapists said showed that abuse had occurred even if patients had no memory . . . . False memory syndrome was a response to ‘repressed memory syndrome,’ not as a term the Freyds ‘coined’ to describe what happened to their own family.”
4) The article states that “Freyd’s view of memory can serve as a protective shield for those who have, in fact, sexually abused children.” Pamela Freyd notes that their personal view of memory was not set forth in the article, and thus this can’t be attributed to them.
MIA’s clarification: The article should have stated that it was the FMSF’s position on memory that could serve as a protective shield, not Freyd’s view.
5) The article states that “to intimidate so-called recovered memory therapists, the FMSF helped initiate a series of lawsuits against well-known figures for malpractice.” Pamela Freyd writes that the Foundation did not help “initiate” lawsuits, but rather “reported” on them.
6) The article states that the FMSF spent nearly $300,000 in postage to “send out a 35-page packet of news articles to thousands of movers and shakers in the media.” Pamela Freyd writes that this money paid for mailings to people who requested information about the Foundation, and not just for mailings to the media.
7) The article states that the FMSF paid Paul McHugh roughly $110,000 to write: “Try to Remember: Psychiatry’s Clash over Meaning, Memory, and Mind. “ Pamela Freyd writes that the FMSF “made no payments to Paul McHugh. Some donations helped to fund fact-checking and other assistance for information directly related to the FMSF history in McHugh’s book.”
Kendall replies: The funding, according to a source, “apparently went to McHugh’s son-in-law, then an editor at The Wall Street Journal, for his ghost-writing services.”
“But even today, few psychiatrists are interested in learning about childhood trauma, as that field has sold its soul to the pharmaceutical industry. And that is unfortunate, as psychiatrists often misdiagnose adult survivors with conditions like bipolar disorder and then overmedicate them.”
This is a very important point. And this tendency to acknowledge trauma but then label the client with “mental illnesses” unrelated to that has been harmful to me and great many other survivors of childhood trauma and the psychiatric system.
The going line, for far too long, has been that childhood trauma “triggered” these biologically-based “mental disorders” in vulnerable individuals as if those with no genetic vulnerabilities would or even somehow should be impervious to the effects of childhood abuse. In fact, it is my belief that the search for genetic causes of “mental illness” is very much a search for a way to remove those deemed vulnerable from the gene pool via prenatal testing much like you might expect for other genetic defects.
Paul McHugh was the advisor for my psychiatrist when she was in her Psychiatry residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Though she warned me to never go to Johns Hopkins for psychiatric treatment or hospitalization, her methods very much followed this route, paying lip service to my dissociative disorder and childhood trauma while also medicating me for “ADHD” and “bipolar disorder”. The cocktail of medications she prescribed made it impossible for me to function, much less to process the traumatic events of my past. After years off of these drugs, I am still paying for their effects. I refer to that time in my life as living like a junkie, despite taking all of the drugs as prescribed. I was given the tools and encouraged to medicate away feelings that could have given me important insights into my own condition and how to make a meaningful recovery from the harm I’d experienced. Instead, I never had to feel much what with stimulants, painkillers, muscle relaxers, antidepressants, antipsychotics, benzos, sleeping pills, and more. The labels and drugs gave me license to do harm that I am still sorting through with the people I love. Psychoactive drugs effected my thought processes, made me indifferent to others, created an affirmative defense for bad behavior and generally wrecked my life until I made the commitment to get clean and confront the traumas I experienced and the emotions they elicit. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be ready to forgive the medical providers that sidetracked my healing in favor of labeling me “mentally ill” and drugging me into a state of complete helplessness. Maybe that step will be there somewhere in the 12 Steps of Recovery From Psychiatric Assault but I’m certainly not there yet. To borrow from a country music song, I’m Not Ready To Make Nice.
The 12 Step Movement is about forgiving – but not forgetting Evil behaviour.
I got away from Psychiatry, and suffered for years from the consequences of its treatments.
I see it as my responsibility to warn others about the dangers.
Thank you for sharing this history, Joshua.
I’ve been attacked by two ELCA Lutheran psychologists. The first time, according to her medical records, was because the psychologist wanted to cover up the abuse of my child, for her pastor and his pedophile friend, prior to my mentally coming to grips with the fact that my child had been sexually assaulted. Once my family’s medical records were finally handed over, by decent and disgusted nurses in my PCP’s office, and I had to come to grips with the reality that my 3 year old child had been sexually assaulted.
I did tell my psychiatrist about the medical evidence of the abuse, and he wanted to drug my child, four years after the abuse. I said no, then he tried to convince my husband that I needed to be re-neurotoxic poisoned. I had to leave that sick psychiatrist. I was able to scare a private school, that had that pedophile on it’s school board, into closing forever (once the gossip about the medical evidence being handed over, got to them). But I was never able to find a cop who would do anything.
Very literally, one cop actually told me to “go talk to a psychiatrist,” when I told him I had medical evidence of the abuse of my child handed over. CPS would do nothing. The States Attorney’s office would do nothing, the FBI, no one would do anything. And the bishops of my former religion are now systemic child abuse deniers, and profiteers, since they own many of the hospitals that are profiting from the psychiatric industry’s iatrogenesis.
The second time I was attacked by a Lutheran psychologist was because I’d handed Whitaker’s book “Anatomy of an Epidemic” over to a Lutheran pastor, and wanted to see all that iatrogenic harm of a million children end. Oh, and my work was “too truthful.” Since it “too truthfully” documents psychiatry’s iatrogenic bipolar epidemic, and my escape from that BS.
That ELCA psychologist handed over a conservatorship contract, under the guise of an “art manager” contract. A policeman told me he would file a police report, when I reported that psychologist’s attempted thievery. But I don’t think he did anything, other than perhaps to call the guy, and tell him to leave me alone.
The psychological and psychiatric industries function as the child abuse covering up arm of many religions, according to an ethical pastor of a different religion. He called this medical/religious systemic “conspiracy,” “the dirty little secret of the two original educated professions.”
“By the way, the prevalence of childhood trauma exposure within borderline personality disorder patients has been evidenced to be as high as 92% (Yen et al., 2002). Within individuals diagnosed with psychotic or affective disorders, it reaches 82% (Larsson et al., 2012).”
Thus, the vast majority of those labeled with the “serious mental illnesses” are child abuse survivors, not “dangerous criminals,” as the psychiatric and psychological industries propagate. And many thanks (sarcasm) to the “mental health” system et al, and their multibillion dollar pedophile empowerment industries, now that we all live in a “pedophile empire,” where child sex trafficking and pedophilia are running amok.
And all this child abuse covering up is by DSM design.
Oh, and by the way, my child still does not remember the abuse. But abused children can largely heal, if they are kept away from the child abuse covering up “mental health” and school social workers. Who wanted to get their grubby little hands on my child, because the child has largely healed from the abuse, and surprises his public school by going from remedial reading in first grade, to getting 100% on his state standardized tests in eighth grade.
Here’s an interesting group of discussions, that are relevant to this subject matter.
This is a sad chronology.
But, to be complete, it should start earlier.
In 1950 Hubbard wrote that all significant mental problems are caused by indents that really happened but are not available to normal waking memory. He wrote about discovering many attempted abortions by uncovering dissociated prenatal incidents and then confirming them with the mothers.
For this work he was soundly roasted by the psychiatric “profession.”
In fact, he was definitely onto something!
There has never been any attempt, as far as I know, to duplicate Hubbard’s work in an academic setting. But as the article points out, many studies have been done that demonstrate the validity of the basic mechanism.
It should be noted, however, that Hubbard found that these dissociated incidents included not just abuse, but incidents all the way down to and including times when the subject had been totally unconscious (such as a severe injury or a surgery). Such incidents can be discovered, and then recovered into conscious memory. This takes very skilled work, however.
The “puzzle” of memory is one key area that psychology must get right before the subject will be of any great value to the general public. We know damn well that things occur to people that they absolutely cannot remember (because they were unconscious at the time)! Are we really ready to believe that such incidents will have no subsequent effect on a person? What do you think “triggers” is really all about?
Such incidents can be discovered, and then recovered into conscious memory. This takes very skilled work, however.
Quite possibly, but it’s a long stretch from recognizing it as a possibility to actually being capable of such, and I’m unaware of any credible evidence that Hubbard was capable of facilitating this. My suspicion is that he had a powerful personality and projected a lot onto his subjects, who were vulnerable and open to anything that might promise to give their lives meaning. (Not that millions of others don’t do the same in their own way.)
Oldhead, you may remain “unaware” if you so desire!
Of course, Hubbard’s techniques were never reputably studied in academia, because if they had been they would have found to be workable, and then what???
Many many people have used these techniques. I have personally met people who have benefited from them or had their lives changed.
A certain number will sit back in their arm chairs and wait until they see “proof.” When the society falls around them in ruins, they will wish they had acted sooner, “proof” or not!
Bad therapy ruins lives. Count me among those who prefer to wait for the science.
… so does bad science. What have we been getting from psychology and psychiatry up to now?
I really don’t know how one goes from “Hubbard’s techniques were never reputably studied in academia, because if they had been they would have found to be workable” to making the argument that all psychological and psychiatric science is bad. Seems to be a contradiction.
That’s fine. I think most will understand.
John Lennon once sang, “There ain’t no guru who can see through your eyes.”
What works for one person may not work for another. There are many paths to enlightenment, none more correct than the other.
Hubbard was no “guru” and his techniques have worked for many! But that’s not even the point! No one in academia will study his work, even though there is obviously something to it.
But people in academia have studied and verified past lives. So all in not lost! Yet.
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I’m not convinced. The most I can say is that there may be some, maybe just a few, adults who do recover memories of childhood abuse, but it’s also possible that many such “recovered memories” are really false. No study cited in this article proves anything one way or another. For one thing, I question the contention that a trusted therapist would not have the same influence as a family member. Therapists can have a tremendous impact. Maybe delayed memory is as reliable as continuous memories, but that’s not saying much because continuous memories are often not that dependable. I truly doubt there are convincing studies of “recovered” memories. In general, most social and psychological research that I’ve seen has not been of the highest quality. The McMartin preschool case should not even be mentioned in a discussion of memory. It was one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice ever perpetrated. And that is one of the major problems of this article. It combines too many disparate cases, McMartin, abusive priests, Sandusky, incestuous parents. The bottom line for me is that nothing in this article proves that the weight of evidence is on the side of a genuine recovered memory vs a false memory when someone makes such a claim. Maybe. Maybe not.
Agreed. This article doesn’t even tell half the story. Any attempt to debunk the concept of false memory without even a mention of the Satanic Panic and the patently false memories recovered during therapy (Satanic ritual abuse, alien abductions, past lives, etc) is woefully incomplete at best. A description of, for example, the “memories” Patty Burgus “recovered” during therapy with Dr. Bennett Braun (leading to the enormous settlement) would leave readers with a much more complete understanding of what happened there.
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Above all, the greatest concern is that people fuck around with people’s minds. Everyone
becomes an expert over someone else.
This is a sound and thoughtful response — especially the essential distinction between “false memories” and the “satanic ritual abuse” allegations that fostered wrongful prosecutions such as McMartin Preschool and Little Rascals Day Care. Ross Cheit’s minority view of these cases should not stand unchallenged.
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I’m not convinced either. This article completely ignores the horrendous consequences for people accused of abuse in the 1980s and 90s. False memories and accusations literally ruined scores of lives. This strikes me as more conjecture than science. And smacks of another American created panic around sexuality.
No mention of the Satanic Panic, the hundreds or perhaps thousands of patients (some of whom were victims of abuse they never “repressed”) who came to realize their “memories” recovered during therapy were false, or the plainly impossible memories recovered during therapy (alien abductions, past lives, appearances of angels/Jesus/Satan, massive Satanic cults wreaking havoc on tiny towns)?
This article has some interesting information, but it’s not even close to a complete picture of false memory.
I think what we can surmise is that there are people who are mind readers.
And once one’s mind is read or interpreted, well then, we have to be told
what we are, what our issues are and what the treatments are.
Why does it matter so much to adults whether a 6-year-old child can “archive” what her father did to her the night before? If she can learn to do that, then what he did won’t interrupt her school day or her activities with friends. Her father won’t have to worry she might tell someone about the “fondling.” She won’t report it.
Susan, what you have suggested is precisely the repression theory that is in dispute and for which there is no credible scientific evidence. A six year old child whose father abuses her may very well not tell anyone, out of confusion, fear, or embarrassment. This does not mean that she forgets it the next day so that it doesn’t interrupt her school day or activities with friends. In fact, it is quite likely to manifest itself at school one way or the other. And she most certainly wouldn’t forget it if the fondling went on all through elementary school.
This is an incorrect assumption. A forgotten incident is NOT the same as an incident that never happened! In fact “forgotten” (dissociated) incidents are the ONLY ones that can really screw up a person mentally and emotionally They are extremely important to mental health and all of us should be VERY concerned about understanding them and dealing with them properly.
Correction. I did not say the incident was “forgotten.” I did not say it never happened. I said a child can “archive” what her father did to her the night before so that she can function as a good student who interacts with her friends.
So you are saying the incident is recorded but “unconscious?” That’s what I always considered to be the case with “repressed memories.” They only appear to be “forgotten.” It’s more they are inaccessible, for the protection of the person who was traumatized. That really does make sense to me.
The question here is whether a child can be abused and have no conscious memory of it immediately thereafter, and then recall it years later. It is semantics whether you call it having “forgotten” or “repressed” it or put it in the subconscious or “archived” it. It is impossible to prove a negative, so no one can disprove this theory. So it’s a matter of belief, without external evidence. The theory is that the event is so traumatic that the child has no conscious memory of it, to protect themselves.
But most traumatic events tend to be remembered more clearly than other events precisely so that the person can avoid such horrors in the future. That is, in fact, one of the problems with PTSD — memories that recur too frequently and invasively. At any rate, what I am most concerned about is the idea that prolonged trauma, lasting for years, can be completely banished from consciousness and then recalled later. To paraphrase Steve, “it doesn’t make sense to me,” but it also goes against what most experimental psychologists have found. So, it’s a matter of passionately held beliefs. Unfortunately, such beliefs have a huge impact, for good or ill, on real people’s lives, obviously.
Memory is a complex and fascinating issue. We do not record everything that happens to us like a computer or tape recorder, ready to pop out with the proper stimulus. Memory is “recreated” from different parts of the brain every time we recall something, and fMRI studies have shown that imagined memories light up the same areas as real memories. And memories can morph over time and are subject to influence and rehearsal.
If the theory of massive repression/dissociation is true, then it is awful that perpetrators can rely on it to get away with abuse and those who help uncover the memories are heroes. If it is untrue, however, it can result in harm to those who come to believe in it and can result in much needless suffering, lawsuits, broken families, and the like.
“Archive” is not a psychology term as far as I know. And as such it is not a behavior that anyone has ever observed.
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You have skin in this game! Well, so do the rest of us!
That real incidents can sink totally below conscious awareness should be obvious! I hope we are not questioning this obvious fact here.
The only question, then, is how to recover them faithfully. Such recovery WILL be therapeutic, or at least of a neutral result. Why aren’t more clamoring for the best way to do this instead of gaslighting those who have such memories? The mentioned “false” incidents are often quite real! To deny this is to deny the reality of living on Earth!
As I said, it is obvious that people forget things and later remember them, in one form or another. It is, however, not at all obvious that people repress the memory of prolonged traumatic events, or even single events such as rape. Fondling, yes, sometimes does happen, but rape, unlikely, or certainly not obvious to me, or that you can recover them faithfully, or that recovering such “memories” is always therapeutic. Indeed, the process of recovering such memories and coming to believe that you were severely abused by a formerly trusted caregiver often has devastating impacts on people, as books such as THE COURAGE TO HEAL make abundantly clear.
How is “forgetting things and later remembering them” any different from “recovering memories?” My experience as a counselor who does not EVER try to tell any client what to think or believe about their own experience is that many clients have the vague notion that “something” happened to them but can not recall at all what that “something is.” Yet when a safe enough space is created, they feel OK about remembering the details, without any prompting from me. Did they “forget something and later remember it?” Did they choose not to be aware of the information that they knew had happened so they didn’t have to deal with the consequences? Should I automatically discount these recollections because they did not have them before?
I used to have a vague recollection of my second grade teacher tossing a book across the room after yelling at us and shaking that book for some reason. I seemed to recall standing up in my seat, and then being out in the hall with another kid. That was it. I wasn’t really sure it had actually happened. It had a dreamlike quality about it. At my 30th high school reunion, I told this recollection to a classmate of mine. She remembered it really happening! She remembered me standing up in my seat and saying, “Miss Vaughn!” in an incredulous voice. She recalled her marching down the aisle, hitting me on the side of the head, and tossing me and Freddy Baughman out in the hallway. She even knew the name of the kid who was out there with me, which totally validated my recollection.
After hearing this, I recalled more information about it – what Freddy said to me, going to the office, seeing the nurse who checked out my left ear (which would have been the one exposed to her right hand as she hit me). I still don’t recall being hit, but it all made sense and checked out with what she remembered, and she was completely certain about it happening. She had “forgotten” the incident as well until I mentioned it, but instantly recalled it in detail.
So was my original haziness an indication that the incident was made up? Or that I had altered recalls? Do the additional tidbits I later recalled qualify as “recovered memories?” Or did I just “forget” and then “remember?” How on earth can anyone make that distinction? Who can possibly judge the accuracy and validity of these recalls besides ME, the person who was there? Of course, I will never know for certain exactly what happened, and it is possible that the details I recalled may be somewhat of an alteration of the actual events. But I have absolutely NO DOUBT that such an incident did occur, and that I had invalidated the reality of this recollection before getting validation and additional details from my friend Susan’s perspective.
I find the act of inducing “recovered memories” based on some therapist’s idea of what “signs” they see in the client to be utterly reprehensible. If that happened to you or your family, you have all my sympathy. However, to extrapolate from “memories can be induced by unethical therapists” to “clients are not able to remember things they may in the past have chosen to forget,” is unforgivably unscientific.
You are correct that “proving a negative” is particularly challenging for science. But just because science can’t “prove a negative” doesn’t mean the phenomenon does not exist. It just means we don’t know the answer. Practically speaking, I’ve found without exception that respecting the client’s recollections and perception of reality as their own, and respecting their right to create and modify their own narrative, is essential to any kind of effective therapy. Many people are suffering specifically because they have had their narrative invalidated or manipulated by others, including by unethical therapists. Each of us has to evaluate the quality of our recollections based on our own standards of judgment.
Let’s not make the leap to invalidating someone’s recollections for our own comfort. Each of us is entitled to define our story, and it’s not you job or mine or any other person’s to tell people what is and is not true for them.
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If costly malpractice suits did indeed have a “chilling effect” on recovered-memory therapists such as Bennet Braun, we ought all be grateful….
Well, the pro-false memory crowd really came out for this one! I very firmly know that this is a misguided position. Sure we need more reliable methods of recovering dissociated incidents. But we DO need to do this. It would be a massively important step forward for this planet!
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I’m wondering about all the new arrivals to this discussion today.
(1) Is there anyone here who can go beyond commenting that “child sexual abuse is a terrible thing” to conceding that thousands of adults, at the least, were molested as children?
(2) Has anyone here ever maintained that sexual contact with an adult caretaker does not harm a child?
These are strange questions, and I simply don’t see the relevance. I don’t see anyone denying that child sexual abuse occurs or arguing that it’s not harmful. On the contrary, I think it is safe to assume that everyone here has an interest in reducing child sexual abuse as much as we possibly can. If you get a different impression, I think it is likely you are interpreting some of the comments unfairly.
COMMENTING AS MODERATOR:
To be clear, this is NOT a response to andersone’s comment, I just put it here because I have to put it somewhere I think it will be read.
I want to note here for everyone that this is a VERY sensitive subject, and folks need to be EXTREMELY careful what they say, in terms of how it might affect another person who is reading. There are many people posting on this site who have been abused physically, sexually, or otherwise, and it is absolutely their right to tell their own stories and have their own reactions and opinions to this essay. The main way “false memories” are implanted or altered is by a person in a power position telling the person they are working with what is/is not true and invalidating the clients’ own recollections and sense of “rightness.” Please, let us NOT do this to each other here!
My read of the data is that 1) false memories CAN be implanted by poor technique by questioners, and 2) the question of whether “recovered memories” can happen is one that remains undetermined. As such, it is NOT going to be accepted by me as moderator for anyone to tell anyone else that their own memories are false or that recovered memories don’t exist. We need to respect that each person has the right to make their own evaluation on this question, which I believe is a question that actually goes well beyond what science can tell us today, and maybe will ever be able to tell us. Additionally, there are an unknown number of posters on this site who have already been TOLD by clinicians and family members, and in some cases even the courts, that their known, certain, clear recollections are “false memories!”
So please, tell your own stories, share what research you have, but be very careful not to suggest or imply that others’ recollections and experiences are not valid!
I agree, this is a sensitive subject, and we should be careful with how we word our comments. I would point out that no one is infringing on anyone’s right to share their own story.
Yes, false memories can be implanted by therapists practicing bad therapy. I have spoken to dozens who have been victims of it. It destroys lives, it ruins families, it upends communities. Proponents of recovered memory therapy must demonstrate that 1) memories can be repressed, and 2) memories can be accurately recovered via therapy. The science has not shown #1 to be true, and therefore #2 cannot be asserted. In fact, recovered memory therapy is dangerous precisely because we know that it can create false memories (e.g., alien abductions, past lives), which casts significant doubt on #2 even if #1 were demonstrated.
While I don’t personally take the approach of directly telling people I believe their “recovered memories” are false, I hope that you are not advocating that we disallow people from expressing skepticism about recovered memory therapy. The Satanic Panic was an absolute travesty fueled by a “believe survivors at all costs” mantra, and it gave way to severe costs indeed. I do hope that we take care not to curate echo chambers that allow such a thing to happen again.
One more note. Often times people who claim to have repressed memories of abuse actually never repressed the memories at all. This article conflates several distinct concepts — for example, repressing a memory versus forgetting it for a period of time. This confusion is so common that I’ve found the vast majority of people who believe they had repressed memories are actually misunderstanding the concept. Often, they simply forgot what happened to them for a period of time or didn’t understand what happened until later on. To make matters more confusing, people sometimes forget that they previously remembered a traumatic event in their past, leading them to believe they had forgotten about it. None of these is repression, however.
POSTING AS MODERATOR:
I am not going to get into the semantics of what a “repressed” vs. “unconscious” vs. “forgotten” memory means. It seems like splitting of hairs to me. But I can state unequivocally that someone whose comment invalidated someone’s individual recollections/narrative would not be allowed to be published, so you would of course not read it. I trust you can read between the lines on this point.
NOT posting as moderator, I believe there is a pretty massive distinction between saying “repressed memory therapy” is nonsense and probably quite dangerous, and saying that no one can bring an unconscious memory (whatever you’d like to call it) to greater consciousness and awareness. The two factually have nothing to do with each other. One is a method of ostensibly “helping” someone recover assumed “memories” at the insistence of the “therapist,” the other is an observation of a process of how we recall (or don’t recall) things that are in our past. I think it is fair to say that scientific research has thoroughly invalidated the first, but that the second remains as much a mystery as the nature of the mind itself.
Is it unreasonable to simply say that there are some memories which are accurate, and others which may be distorted, and that the existence of one does not negate the existence of the other?
Not in my view.
The memory itself is not easy to distort. It might be possible. But the huge problem is in the recall (remembering) process.
I believe that the article states that they no longer teach about repressed memories and false memories in college psychology classes now. However, from my experience, these therapists, in particular still either put “false memories” in to their client’s brains or perhaps even worse, is when they take a normal memory from childhood or any time in the client’s life and then disorient the individual so as to make that memory be construed as a symptom of the diagnosis. This may or may not include alleged “sexual memories.” The purpose of this is to make the client believe that he or she has been “mentally ill”—“a serious and pervasive mental illness”— since even as far back as birth or very early childhood. And, of course, that not only justifies the alleged diagnosis, but the drugs, therapies and other lame treatments. This goes even further, in that, to consider oneself as “severe and pervasive mentally ill” since nearly birth is basically “serious and pervasive abuse” by the therapists, psychiatrists, etc. Thank you.
Here is a particularly good take on the morally bankrupt positions of the FMSF and it’s adherents:
“FMS is a political/legal term contrived to systematically discredit any and every person alleging to have been sexually molested and to have discovered this by having recovered memories of the abuse later in life.
One of the contributing authors of this book, Elizabeth F. Loftus, (“The Myth of Repressed Memory”) has consistently taken the indefensible position that no memory that emerges later in life can be trusted. This means that if I remember a pleasant summer day 40 years ago, it is a ‘false memory’. What is suspect about her and others of like view is that *sexual* memories, in particular sexual *abuse* memories, are targetted for vehement discreditation. This says something. It says that someone is very very nervous about the resurfacing of abuse memories buried deep in the mind because of their traumatizing nature. Who would be nervous but those who perpetrated or were accessories to the abuse?”
More from this site:
William Freyd’s letter. He is the brother of Peter Freyd who cofounded with his wife Pamlea the FSM Foundation. It is Willaim’s answer to a PBS programm:
“Peter Freyd is my brother. Pamela Freyd is both my stepsister and my sister-in-law. Jennifer and Gwendolyn are my nieces….
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation is a fraud designed to deny a reality that Peter and Pam have spent most of their lives trying to escape. There is no such thing as a False Memory Syndrome. It is not, by any normal standard, a Foundation. Neither Pam nor Peter have any significant mental health expertise.
That the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has been able to excite so much media attention has been a great surprise to those of us who would like to admire and respect the objectivity and motives of people in the media…. We do not understand why you would “buy” such an obviously flawed story. But buy it you did, based on the severely biased presentation you made of the memory issue that Peter and Pam created to deny their own difficult reality.
For the most part, you presented very credible parents and frequently quite incredible bizarre and exotic, alleged victims and therapists. Balance and objectivity would call for the presentation of more credible alleged victims and more bizarre parents. While you did present some highly regarded therapists as commentators (Dr. Herman, for example), most of the therapists you presented as providers of therapy were clearly not in the
main stream. While this selection of examples may make for much more interesting T.V., it most certainly does not make for objectivity and fairness.
I would advance the idea that “Divided Memories” hurt victims, helped abusers, and confused the public. I wonder why you thought these results would be in the public interest that Public Broadcasting is funded to support.
One of the first scientific advisors for the FMSF was a man named Ralph Underwager. Mr Underwager had this to say about pedophelia, resulting in his resignation from his scientific advisory position.
“Paedophiles need to become more positive and make the claim that paedophilia is an acceptable expression of God’s will for love and unity among human beings. This is the only way the question is going to be answered, of whether or not it is possible. Does it happen? Can it be good? That’s what we don’t know yet, the ways in which paedophiles can conduct themselves in loving ways. That’s what you need to talk about. You need to get involved in discourse, and to do so while acting. Matthew 11 talks about the wisdom of God, and the way in which God’s wisdom, like ours, can only follow after. Paedophiles need to become more positive and make the claim that paedophiles is an acceptable expression of God’s will for love and unity among human beings.” 
He also suggested that research dollars be allocated for studying “loving” pedophilia on a large scale:
“It would be nice if someone could get some kind of big research grant to do a longitudinal study of, let’s say, a hundred twelve year old boys in relationships with loving paedophiles. Whoever was doing the study would have to follow that at five year intervals for twenty years.“
There are some relevant early connections that haven’t been mentioned here: memory and accusations, money and PR. Back in 1991, the media featured celebrity survivors. Adults were disclosing publicly. And perhaps key, a third of the states allowed adults molested as children to sue for damages. Accused parents needed some help. “Implanted by therapists” was born on August 14 as a headline in the Washington Post. Loftus told the reporter, “An overly zealous psychologist could unwittingly use his or her influence over a vulnerable patient to plant the seeds of a ‘memory’ that is actually fantasy.” The WaPo dropped “fantasy.” The headline read, ““Delayed Lawsuits of Sexual Abuse on the Rise; Alleged Victims Base Legal Actions on Memories Critics Say May Be Implanted in Therapy.”
Accused parents now had their defense. They opened a non-profit in March 1992, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Their tax returns show they spent $5M on a brilliant PR campaign during the first decade. Within 18 months, 85% of the media reported adults’ accusations as false memories. As support for the theory, for three years psychologist Elizabeth Loftus told reporters the story of her student who convinced his younger brother he became lost when the family visited a mall in Spokane. No one challenged the implication that therapists could therefore implant memories of childhood sexual assault in their clients Over the decades, the implanted memory theory became–memories are unreliable, false, etc. Adults molested as children (yes there are some) found that when they disclosed, friends and family members often responded, “Oh, one of those false memories.” Many stopped disclosing. One of the key accomplishments of the accused parents and their experts was to get their false memory story into psychology textbooks. This article is one of the first in decades to challenge false memory claims.
You left out the part about the FMSF helping repair thousands of families and assisting many many many victims of bad therapy with figuring out what happened to them. And all of the other research done on false memory that has built on Loftus’ work — you make it sound like it’s all based on some anecdote. Loftus is among the most well-respected research psychologists of all time, and for good reason.
I only know about MY memory so I cannot and neither can scientists ever know what a factual memory is and the bigger part of the picture is, how and what did that thing that happened to you, affect you, over time. And how did that one or many things make you more vulnerable to keep having it repeated? And this is where therapists love to use the word “boundaries”, but that word is overused and often used in a kind of useless way. To TALK about boundaries without practice is stupid.
Many things that happen to kids are not processed as if something “bad” is happening, but is rather experienced as that “They themselves are bad”.
And I think many therapists hone in on the actual content of certain incidents, which might not at all be the ONE thing that was the problem. And it’s completely useless for therapist to dive into one’s past IF they have no clue how to help move forward. So if someone has no fix in mind, or perhaps use the “fix” because it helped one other person, then there is no reason to keep rehashing.
Talk therapy can indeed have many drawbacks because really, we have adults that kind of need to experience complete safety and that is rare in any “mental health” setting.
Kids put shit away because they don’t reason like an adult. If an adult got treated the way kids are treated, they react more appropriately. Like when the industry repeats what happened to you as a child, that alone can help identify for you, who your true allies are and who to stay away from.
Bottom line is that each person is unique but I think to “look” for abuse, or interpret it has many pitfalls. I mean it’s so prevalent that every man and his dog suggest that “you must have been abused”. Yeah okay, so then wise person, people need a little more than parent blaming. And that is the work that stumps many “therapists”.
It’s drastic when adult kids cut off communication with parents. But not at all unusual. Probably for more reasons than the single memory retrieved. After all, there would have been more “wrong” than the actual acts.
Sometimes too, if we feel we did not live to our potential or had unhappy experiences then and now, we need to make sense of it and I think there is always some merit to conclusions.
“The false memory syndrome stands in direct scientific opposition to the wealth of evidence supporting dissociative amnesia—a psychological defense mechanism which, according to trauma therapists, enables people to split off painful events from conscious awareness for years. Are these empirical studies, which date back to the late 19th century, in fact flimsy, as the proponents of the false memory syndrome maintain?”
I think it would be good to make clear that whatever the studies dating back to the 19th century might say, plenty of studies since the 1940s have demonstrated that narrative memory isn’t some kind of static storage mechanism like books in a library. It’s something that’s recalled, recontextualised, edited and replaced. You do not have memories of yourself as a young child. You have memories of you ‘remembering’ yourself as a young child, which actually refer to earlier memories of you ‘remembering’ yourself, etc. Memories are constructed and reconstructed. The potential for Chinese whisper effects is obvious.
We also know it’s more than possible to plant false memories with therapy. It’s quite easy in fact, as Pickrell and Loftus famously demonstrated with their ‘Bugs Bunny in Disneyland’ study. It’s so easy it could probably be done by accident. Unlike many famous and widely accepted psychological studies, the work of Pickrell and Loftus has been well replicated, so the implicit suggestion in this article that Loftus is some kind of crackpot outlier when it comes to memory studies doesn’t stand up.
And we know that the Satanic ritual abuse hysteria and daycare abuse hysteria of the 80s and 90s saw many ‘recovered memories’ in both children and adults of impossible things, such as demonic manifestations and events in ‘hidden cellars’ that could never have existed.
Whether or not dissociative amnesia is real has no bearing on whether false memories are real. Just because people forget things due to trauma doesn’t make the ‘recovered’ memories of the trauma real. The missing piece of narrative memory might provide an ideal blank slate onto which a false memory can be projected.
That’s not to say I think all recovered memory is false. But I think it takes a huge leap of faith, unsupported by any evidence cited in the article, to assume that all or most of it is true either. And we can be confident that with a bit of suggestion people can easily form false memories that they experience as real. We all probably do it.
Most of what is discussed here happened in the late 80’s, early 90’s. This was just as the “prozac nation” was beginning in psychiatry, etc. One thing we do know now about these psycho-drugs is that they do affect memory, amongst other brain functions. It has been in the last twenty to twenty-five years that these drugs have been given to not only children, teenagers (whose brains are still developing) but also pregnant women. We actually do not know what these drugs will do the memories of these, the most innocent and vulnerable. We do know that these drugs do mess up the memories of adults over the age of twenty-five. Twenty-five has been the traditional year of “brain maturity.” I am very concerned how these drugs will affect the memories of these young people. I am concerned that since these drugs do affect the memory in adverse ways, these young people could very well be extremely vulnerable to all kinds of false memories put into their brains that could be knowingly or unknowingly be used for damaging, dangerous or even nefarious purposes. Thank you.
Only problem is, memory is not a brain function. I believe what most drugs do is distract or aggravate the being in various different ways, producing emotional reactions and affecting his ability to control his own attention (recall process). To the extent that a drug could “switch on” some sort of neurological or physiological “alarm,” the condition could become permanent.
But yes, we do know that all sorts of drugs affect ability to remember and many other cognitive functions.
Memory is delicate. It can be damaged by trauma, drugs, alcohol, disease, stress, malnutrition, injury, bias, propaganda …
There are various mechanisms whereby damaged memory is ‘repaired’. Some are individual, others are social (e.g. the accounts your family members give about events you’ve forgotten or what your friends tell you about your behaviour at the party) and that can become interwoven with narrative memory and indistinguishable from it. That’s why it’s so easy to mess with memory formation and why sworn eyewitness testimony of shocking events is so often unreliable and contradictory, especially if you subject witnesses to leading questions or police ‘help’ them to ‘clarify’ their statements.
The abuse hysterias and DNA exonerations of the wrongfully convicted since the 80s have forced legal systems to confront that (a bit) and so the courts have become battlegrounds between conflicting notions of what memory is. Loftus has been caught up in that and so has become the target of vilification, death threats and defamatory imputations in articles such as this. I find that regrettable.
The problem is that we’re encouraged to see narrative memories as at least partial records of events rather than constructions we use to tell our stories to ourselves and others. And we’re encouraged to identify with those stories to demonstrate that we’re ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’. So to question the accuracy of someone’s memory is to attack their social and individual identity. It’s likely to generate more heat than light.
cabrogal, how do you define “memory?” I define it as “a record of experience.”
My data is that this data is recorded quite reliably and very automatically.
But there are millions of ways to mess up the recollection or remembering or “replay” mechanisms.
Can you explain how you understand memory?
“Can you explain how you understand memory?”
Probably not short of writing a book.
It’s been a preoccupation of mine for a while and I don’t think there’s a simple answer. There’s narrative memory and body memory and emotional memory and Pavlovian reflexes and … There’s short term memory and long term memory and the memories of accidents you hold in your bones. And I don’t think using the sorts of metaphors that see brain cells as computer chips used to store data is very helpful. In fact I don’t think ‘memory’ – the noun – is anywhere near as useful as ‘remembering’ – the verb – and I don’t think trying to divide human memory up into ‘record’ and ‘playback’ functions works either. Data is no more memory than it is knowledge or wisdom.
For the sake of this discussion I’m talking about narrative memory and while I’m confident there’s aspects of it that rely on neurological functions I think it also exists in our environment and our societies. We may need ‘data’ which may or may not be encoded in neural ‘engrams’ but to create the story of part of our life we construct it from many other inputs and cues as well. Then we contextualise it according to our current beliefs and values. So the memory of the monster under your bed when you were four becomes a memory of being frightened by noises and shadows and may come to include the memory of your mother coming to comfort you when that never happened, though perhaps she did on a different night for a different reason.
And maybe the shot wasn’t fired within sight of the bank customer, but the peculiar vividness of the memory of his “mind’s eye” when he was shocked by the sound is what caused him to confidently misidentify the shooter.
Speaking personally, as someone who often has cause to revisit something I read or wrote long ago, I frequently discover that what seemed solid memories to me were completely wrong. Often my ‘clear memories’ of papers I wrote include things I didn’t learn about until after I wrote them.
We’re constantly dredging up fragments of old narrative memories and rewriting them. This seems to be part of the function of dreaming and may be necessary to preserve them in the face of inevitable decay. You’re only going to remember so much, so your mind rehashes the ‘important’ bits.
So narrative memory isn’t like a computer drive or videotape or novel. Your story of you is a constantly revised work in progress that uses loads of heuristic tricks to compensate for its gaps and errors. It’s ‘stored’ in your brain and your body and your community and your environment, whether or not you consciously use memory cues such as diaries or photo albums. And it only really exists in the act of remembering. Everything leaves traces, from the decay of a carbon atom to a footprint on a beach to the genes copied (imperfectly) from your ancestors. Only remembering can turn those traces into memories.
OK, needless to say, you see it as a fairly complex system with recordings scattered all over across numerous physical parts of the body. With that understanding, my concepts won’t make very much sense to you.
All I can say about my concept of memory is that it is workable from a therapeutic viewpoint. It also explains some of the vagaries of “inherited behaviors” and things like “child geniuses” and similar phenomena.
I see it as an energetic structure into which experience is recorded more or less automatically. Sort of like an energetic CD. (DVD?). This is maintained by a being, not by a body. When the being leaves the body, so do its memories. The whole process of therapy, and life in this physical world, revolves around how the being uses this energy structure.
To complicate things a little, there seems to be entities that follow bodies around and maintain their own memories at a physiological level. And a “higher” being that flirts around a bit more who deals with the more conceptual aspects of experience.
So our difficulties stem largely, I suspect, from how different our models are. Remembering, hypnosis, forgetting, confusions about what really happened, those are all part of a process in my model, not part of memory.
Yeah, I can see the ontological conflict here too. Thanks for opening my eyes to it l_e_cox.
Not having an eternal, incorruptible self interwoven with my narrative memory leaves me free to see it as inherently fallible and subject to corruption and decay. If my memory was part of my soul that would be a grim and terrifying prospect.
So that’s another reason someone might react quite badly to suggestions her memory is faulty and send death threats to academics who say so (I’m not suggesting anyone here would do that).
So, to clarify my understanding. Would you see something like Alzheimer’s symptoms as part of a transient process that might be temporarily impairing your memory, but once you were free from your body all the lost memory would be restored? Or would it be more a matter of the decay of the brain and body preventing the pure incorruptible energy structure from communicating properly with our plane of existence?
And what about the fidelity of the recording? If I’m experiencing hallucinations I perceive as real are they recorded onto the energy structure as reality?
Exiting a decayed body after death normally restores
any lost ability to remember.
If you are having an hallucination, that records into memory as an experience. It probably came from a real screw up of the normal mental mechanisms. But whatever earlier incidents might have been involved are still intact, and the hallucination experience is intact, too. Probably just hard to reach.
Honestly, I can’t discount repressed memories because of my own experiences. I’m sure there’s a way to influence people to concoct inaccurate memories, but there are a lot of things in my life that I didn’t form traumatic memories from solely because I never *thought* of them as traumatic or uncommon (parent physical/mental abuse, mainly. I just thought it was absolutely and utterly normal to be a few words away from getting your ass handed to you at all times, literally or metaphorically).
But boy oh boy can I recount every little detail about vomiting for the first time as a child. It was Friday, December 21, 2001 at around 8:30 PM at night. There was an animated TV special based on the song “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and IIRC, they were at a scene taking place in a courtroom. The entire day is *filled* with memories that vivid.
But the time my dad and I got into an all-out fistfight when I was like 8 or 9, around the same time period as the vomiting memory? I vaguely remember it, but could not tell you what it was about. My brain just did not place that memory in the “super special trauma” category because it was so *normal* to me. It’d be like me remembering what I ate for lunch on October 5, 2001. It was remarkably unremarkable.
My memory is faulty. I’ve known this since I was a kid (it’s why I started taking photographs) and when I am pushed over my threshold for stress (that goes beyond the fight/flight response) I will sometimes blackout. I may very vaguely remember something happening, but I could not give you details at all. Normally, I “come to” in the aftermath completely bewildered.
Like the first time I was Baker Acted. I could not tell you for the life of me what happened in between a nurse asking me “Have you *ever* been suicidal in your life?” and then a psychiatrist telling me that because I had answered in the affirmative, even with stipulations (“Yes, but that was a long time ago.”), I’d have to be taken in and held. Even though I was in the ER for a horrible skin infection on both my legs.
I’ve been dissociating, depersonalizing, and derealizing for as long as I can remember. Like, some of my earliest memories are of me trying to explain to the adults in my house that I felt like I was “in a dream.” It wasn’t until around 20 years later that I learned that there were actual words to describe it.
No obvious brain damage or neurological origin for it, either. I’ve been checked. Several times. MRIs, CT scans, memory tests… I don’t show anything out of the ordinary.
So, I’m not entirely content with the thought that “if something bad happened to you, you would *always* remember it very vividly.”
I am 30-watt-lightbulb, and thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
30-watt, you make some very good points, but they do not have anything to do with massive repression or massive dissociation. As I have observed in my books, people who were abused routinely by their parents (or others) for much of their childhood would be unlikely to recall each instance in detail, since the abuse incidents were too numerous and became the norm. My point is that it is extremely unlikely for someone to be completely unaware that the prolonged abuse took place. Thus, you remember quite well that you were verbally and physically abused, as you wrote: “I just thought it was absolutely and utterly normal to be a few words away from getting your ass handed to you at all times, literally or metaphorically).” So, memory is a complex matter. We tend to remember unusual emotional traumatic events (your vomiting in this instance) pretty well, though all memory is subject to distortion and rewriting from current perspectives. And we remember that prolonged abuse took place, and that it was horrible, but it would be very unusual to remember every incident in detail in the torrent of abuse.
So just to clarify, there is a difference between being “completely unaware” of something and “recovering” a memory of it, vs. knowing that SOMETHING happened and recovering more details and specifics at a later time. The latter is something I have observed many times.
As have I (in myself). But they haven’t always turned out to be accurate.
I’m sure the subjects of the Pickrell and Loftus study knew they’d been to Disneyland. But they didn’t meet Bugs Bunny there.
“So, I’m not entirely content with the thought that “if something bad happened to you, you would *always* remember it very vividly.”
I don’t think anyone is trying to deny that amnesia is real or that it can be induced by traumatic experience. The question is how reliable the memories ‘recovered’ after extended amnesia are.
False memories are definitely real and can be induced in a reliable and replicable way. When ‘recovered’ memories have been put to the test they’ve often failed to match independently verifiable facts. But so too have ‘regular’ memories.
By the way, David Calof, who is mentioned in the article, is notorious for his belief in ritual abuse recovered memories and the idea that there was a sinister “code” written into harmless messages from family members. Here is one of his classic 1993 quotes:
“In ritual abuse especially you will see ‘triggering programs’
that are literally installed by the perpetrators to potentiate
self-harm…You will find the possibility of disguised contact — or
clandestine contact — with perpetrators that will then potentiate
“Let me just give a sterling example of this because, indeed, it’s
so insidious that it can look benign. A ritual-abuse survivor — in
a case I was consulting to — received a postcard from her sister
who had also been abused and — we believe — was still active in
the perpetrating group. And it’s a very benign postcard on the
surface. It said:
Mom and I have been thinking about you. Can’t wait to see you
again…In the meantime take care of yourself.
“Client got this postcard and began to engage in horrible
self-harming behavior for a period of about six weeks until we
appreciated that this had been a trigger. Let’s just simply look at
it and see how insidious it can be. ‘Mom and I have been thinking
about you’ caters to the client’s magical thinking. The client
believes that people can read her mind.
“By the way, when an abusive parent of a survivor dies it doesn’t
necessarily mean more safety. My experience is it means less safety,
because what happens then is when the person is alive you can locate
them but when they die they become omniscient and omnipresent. And
again catering to the magical thinking. Oftentimes injunctions are
spoken during the abuse that reinforce that. For example, ‘No matter
where you are, or what you are doing I will know if you tell.’ This
gets internalized…So ‘Mom and I have been thinking about you’
caters to that. Now of course, it’s coincidental for being in
therapy. So that’s enough almost right there.
“Then: ‘We can’t wait to see you again.’Now you have to take this
in context. This is a woman, the client is a woman who’s on the lam
from her family. She’s running from her family and the perpetrating
group. She _knows_ — whether it’s true or not I don’t know — she
_knows_ that if she goes back something terrible is going to happen
to her. So they’re speaking of the inevitability that she will, in
fact, go back: “can’t wait to see you again.” We call that a
“The most insidious part, however, is the last sentence: ‘In the
meantime take care of yourself. Love, Sis.’ Now let’s take a look at
that. Anybody have a hit off of that? That’s it, you’ve got it,
that’s it. ‘Take care of yourself.’ Exactly. It was an injunction to
Removed for moderation.
I wonder if anyone has ever spoken about whether a child molester can empathize with the feelings of the child. For example, the child molester is walking down the hall at night towards the child’s bedroom, excited, thinking of what he’s about to experience. Does the molester think the child is similarly excited. Is he aware the child hears the footsteps and may be frozen in fear? Or say, the father describes what he does as fondling, or maybe tickling. Does the child use the father’s term, but actually think of it as gross and confusing and messy?
I’ve worked a fair bit with convicted pedophiles in the NSW prison system and post-release. I’ve also lectured on child sex offending at the Sydney Institute of Criminology.
As far as I can tell you can’t generalise about child sex offenders. Some are extremely predatory and objectify their victims, particularly the ones who target prepubescent boys who were previously unknown to them. Others are convinced they’re in love with their victims and offer them support in many ways. This is more typical of those who target family members, the children of people in their social circle or those under their care. Some I’ve spoken to have even rationalised the abuse empathetically, telling themselves they would have wanted an adult to do the same for them at that age (an experience many child sex offenders have had). They’re the ones most likely to believe the child enjoys the experience.
The biggest single group of convicted child sex offenders in Australian prisons are those who’ve committed only one detected offence, usually against a family member while under the influence of alcohol. They’re likely to express horror at what they’ve done and regret for the impact on the victim.
Yes, they do express horror after they’re arrested. “The Child Molester Empathy Measure: Description and Examination of Its Reliability and Validity” (1999)
found child molesters displayed significantly less empathy toward their own victims than toward the general sexual abuse victim.
Yes, but note that study looked specifically at non-familiar child molesters, which incorporates the groups least likely to show empathy for their victims. About half of detected child sexual abuse occurs within families and is associated with greater long term harm for the victim.
“Yes, they do express horror after they’re arrested.”
People who are sexually attracted to children also express horror when they haven’t offended at all (see the Virtuous Pedophiles website for examples). So it follows many would feel even greater horror if they offended, whether they’re arrested or not.
However imprisoned child sex offenders know that failure to express remorse will impact their chances of parole. So taking expressions of horror at face value would be naive in specific cases even if it’s often true overall.
According to the abstract, “Additionally, the child molesters displayed significantly less empathy toward their own victims than toward the general sexual abuse victim. The results are discussed in terms of their theoretical and practical implications.”
Even though I strongly disagree with the FMSF and its disinformation campaign, I think it was disingenuous and unhelpful for the author to completely ignore some of the catastrophes like the satanic ritual abuse and daycare scandals. How can we learn from the past, if we choose to ignore the missteps that caused those scandals?
However, as someone who has helped my wife heal and integrate her dissociated trauma memories, I never found them to be part of some ‘super category’ of memories. They were fragments and snapshots associated with extreme emotions of fear and terror. I’m glad her abuser was long gone, a neighbor from the distant past of whom we had no name to associate with the vague description of him that she could recall, so we never even thought to attempt some kind of reckoning, legal or otherwise. For us, the point was never about the abuser, it was about her coming to terms with those memories and extreme emotions in light of her secure relationship with me today so she could integrate them into her personal narrative and finally be released from their ability to chain her to the past and how they affected her today.
To clarify, “The Child Molester Empathy Measure: Description and Examination of Its Reliability and Validity” (1999) found child molesters displayed significantly less empathy toward their own victims than toward the general sexual abuse victim. Notably, the subjects displaying less empathy were Canadians. Perhaps child molesters in other countries, like Australia, display different levels of empathy for their victims.
I doubt there would be a lot of difference between Australian and Canadian child molesters but there is a big difference between intrafamilial and extrafamilial child molesters in that extrafamilial ones include the groups that are most predatory, most likely to objectify their victims and most likely to reoffend. That suggests they would also be less empathetic.
The study you cite only examines extrafamilial molesters, so the data is likely heavily skewed towards non-empathetic ones.
My research into the subject supports Cabrogal’s assertions. The recidivism rate, at the least, for intrafamilial sexual abuse is dramatically lower than for extrafamilial abuse. This doesn’t of course mean for a moment that serial sexual abusers don’t abuse their own children, but I think if we’re talking statistics, this pretty dramatic differentiation should be noted.
I admire and appreciate Joshua Kendall’s efforts to wrestle to the ground this endlessly challenging subject. But if you want clarity, Mark Pendergrast is your guy….
The consensus (at least no one disagrees) seems to be that a family member who molests a child may experience more empathy for their victim than, say, a church official who molests. If that’s the case, then a family member is likely to be aware of the child’s shame, fear, confusion and sense of betrayal. How does the intrafamilial family member cope with the child’s feelings?
Mostly with rationalisation and denial. It’s not hard. You also see loads of non-sexual abuse in families that’s self-justified that way. “You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind”, “A good whacking never did me any harm”, “Tough love made me the woman I am today”, “I wish someone had given me a good shake-up when I was your age”, “I’m saving you from a life of sin” …
Empathy is a very limited way to look at how your actions affect others. It depends on imagination and tends to fail if there are large cultural or emotional differences between the people involved (e.g. a child and an adult). Personally I prefer compassion.
Okay, let’s go with compassion. A family member who molests a child may experience more compassion for their victim than, say, a church official who molests. If that’s the case, then a family member is likely to be aware of the child’s shame, fear, confusion and sense of betrayal. How does the family member then deal with his or her compassion for the child when they have caused the child’s shame, fear, confusion and sense of betrayal?
That is, in fact, an excellent question. It is also worth asking how the other members of the family incorporate this destructive behavior with their image of the parent as a compassionate person?
In the cases I’ve dealt with the families generally respond with denial, even after convictions on strong evidence or a confession. There’s sometimes at least one member who turns viciously on the offender after the facts come out. They can find themselves disowned by the rest of the family.
Shunning is always a risk when challenging the “group think!”
Similar to psychiatry in it’s response to being called out.
I’d imagine they’d express their compassion by doing their best to support and help the victim. Of course that’s gonna be warped by the abuse but the abuse doesn’t necessarily stop them from caring about the child’s welfare.
Extrafamilial child abuse includes the phenomenon of older (usually single) men adopting an underage boy (usually past puberty) who they sexually abuse but also care for and seemingly love. There was a senior South Australian judge who adopted and abused an impoverished boy whom he also educated and connected with the upper strata of Adelaide society. That boy grew up to become a very prominent journalist. The judge was never charged with an offence (because he was influential, not because it was legal). If you ask me there’s a similar subtext in the Batman and Robin stories, especially as it was played in the 1960s TV series.
Don’t think I’m trying to offer apologia for any of this. I’m certainly not. Just answering your question as to how a child molester can express compassion for his victim.
Perhaps a child molester, aware of the child’s shame, fear, confusion and sense of betrayal might might reframe it in some way? As–she just doesn’t understand, she’s just shy, I’m teaching her, etc. Or perhaps he might reward the child in some way and thereby alleviate his sense of guilt?
I’d guess so. But don’t forget that sexual assault survivors of all ages often have responses that are a long way from the social stereotypes of how rape victims should behave. It would be easy to interpret acting out trauma as something else entirely, especially if you don’t want to think of yourself as an abuser who is doing lasting damage. Again it’s down to the limits of imagination upon empathy.
Here are some of the individuals I’ve found who dismiss adult/child sexual contact as causing harm to a child. Their claims all seem to be opinion-based rather than research-based. I have the refs for these, but I wanted to keep this short.
Martin Seligman, PhD (research suggesting sexual abuse results in harm is “lacking methodological niceties”), Elizabeth Loftus, PhD (“variables are reduced to nothing” once family dysfunction is factored out), Mark Pendergrast (fondled by an otherwise nurturing family member, do not always experience the incident as abusive, and some children are not traumatized by an adult’s sexual attentions), Atty Alan Gold “How much of the aftermath is that they are being told they are destroyed?), James Hudson, MD, (Bad genetics will turn out to be the culprit), Susan Clancy, PhD (not typically traumatic), Ralph Slovenkko, PhD (railed against laws holding offenders accountable), Richard Gardner, MD (Children are naturally sexual and may initiate sexual encounters by ‘seducing’ the adult).
I’ve certainly encountered adults who’ve dismissed their own non-consensual sexual encounters as non-harmful, including women who’ve gone on to have a consensual sexual/romantic relationship with their rapist and others who’ve dismissed their unwanted childhood sexual contacts as harmless. I wouldn’t presume to disagree with them but I sure wouldn’t presume to dismiss such encounters in that way if the subject of them didn’t.
I’ve also worked with (adult) rape/sexual assault victims who’ve been deeply traumatised, even when no physical force or violence was involved, particularly in regards to trust and feelings of security. I find it hard to believe some children wouldn’t feel similar, even if they’re unable to articulate it.
I guess a lot of it depends on what you think of yourself and how you think you got there. If you’re proud of who you are and consider such an experience to be formative you probably won’t see it as harmful, even if others think you’ve been badly damaged by it. I suspect that’s a rationale some child sex offenders who were themselves victims of childhood sex abuse use to justify their own actions.
BTW, if your summaries are accurate I find a lot of those viewpoints pretty hard to credit, but I think Gold makes an important point. Gardner’s reminds me of Father Benedict Groeschel’s condemnation of all the predatory children who took advantage of vulnerable clerics.
I’ve just noticed a stack of old comments ‘removed for moderation’ (none of mine as far as I can tell, though I reckon I’ve tacked close to the wind more than once).
Does this reflect a change in MIA comment policy?
(I’ve read the guidelines and haven’t seen a recent update.)
If so I’d appreciate a heads up on what those changes are. I tend to get moderated out of a lot of forums and I’d like to have a clear idea of the boundaries in this one, otherwise I’ll probably just follow the lead of other commenters.
POSTING AS MODERATOR:
I generally don’t remove moderated comments until the end of the month. At that time, it often occurs that a long string of “removed for moderation” comments appear at the same time. It is not the result of a change of policy, it’s just an administrative issue, based on the most efficient approach to saving copies of moderated posts before deleting them.
Hope that explains things!
Removed for moderation.
I came up with a situation that nearly everyone might agree is evidence of memory repression. A young child appears in a porn film. As an adult, she has no memory of it. One evening she is watching a film, say “Forrest Gump,” and she suddenly is back there as a child, remembering what they made her do.
Sounds pretty damned legit to me. No one asking “leading questions” or encouraging “disclosures” of things that didn’t happen. Just a pure, spontaneous recollection. I see absolutely no reason to doubt such a recollection is valid. In fact, I’d think it rather evil to try and invalidate it.
I agree with Steve, especially if a copy of the porn film exists that confirms her memory.
Do you have a reference for this example or is it hypothetical?
Very good question. Please link to this “proof” of repression with the child recalling being in a porn film. This is the sort of thing often stated as proof but doesn’t usually stand up to close examination. So we are discussing a hypothetical.
POSTING AS MODERATOR:
I am allowing this post to stand, ONLY because there is already a reply posted that indicates that the case in question is not about a person who is posting here. I have already asked that people be VERY careful not to intentionally or accidentally invalidate the recollections of any person who is sharing their personal narrative. This kind of post is extremely dismissive and invalidating, and if it were in response to someone’s own story, could be extremely hurtful. PLEASE do not post anything that could call another person’s recollections into question! This is NOT a place where people should have to “prove” their personal stories are correct, and those who demand such “proof” will be moderated without exception, and may ultimately be blocked from posting if this kind of thoughtless behavior continues.
Let me make clear that I was NOT implying in any way that this incident had anything to do with anyone posting here, Steve. I am, like everyone else, appalled at this story of Kenneth John Freeman. I looked it up on Google and found this:
It is not clear that she ever completely forgot what happened to her. It says she had “fuzzy memories” but not that she completely forgot it. She said she had “no idea what was gong on.” If she really was raped every weekend and totally forgot it, it would be astonishing. At any rate, thank you for calling it to our attention.
Spontaneous recollection and repression are not the same thing.
I think you are splitting hairs here. The big question is not whether someone can introduce false memories with poor questioning techniques or intentional manipulation – we all know this happens, and there are systematic trainings on how to question kids to avoid such events happening.
The big question is whether memories can exist of which a person is not consciously aware, but which can come to awareness at a later time. If you call this “spontaneous recollection,” that’s your right, I suppose, but I fail to see any distinction between a memory a person files away to the “unconscious” file that can later be retrieved and the basic assumptions behind “repression.” Repressed memories, to me, would be memories that a person on some level becomes unaware of as a self-protection mechanism against being overwhelmed by pain or fear, or perhaps simply because they are unpleasant to recall. If those memories later become retrievable under less stressful circumstances, I think we have the full mechanism of “repression” in view, no matter what term you choose to refer to it. As long as someone isn’t “pulling” the memory out, I think “recovered memories” are a very valid phenomenon. Whether these memories contain all the information recorded with 100% accuracy remains debatable, but in the instance noted, a person is “triggered” to recall a memory of something that in all likelihood really happened. A lot of folks in the “false memory” school of thinking would question or deny that this memory could be a memory of a real thing that happened, and that I find to be a very destructive and unscientific viewpoint.
“The big question is whether memories can exist of which a person is not consciously aware, but which can come to awareness at a later time. If you call this “spontaneous recollection,” that’s your right, I suppose, but I fail to see any distinction between a memory a person files away to the “unconscious” file that can later be retrieved and the basic assumptions behind “repression.””
Just last week I was sent a class photo taken when I was five years old and was very surprised at being able to remember the names of nearly all my 1A classmates from an image over half a century old. So I have no problems with spontaneous (or triggered) recollection of apparently lost memories.
Repression is trickier, though I have no reason to doubt its existence.
On the one hand it seems likely to involve unconscious prevention of a partially recalled memory reaching conscious awareness as a protection against retraumatisation, so we might expect it to be preserved for long periods by frequent re-accessing. On the other that process might promote contamination of the memory itself.
So, for example, viewing pornography might cause incomplete, unconsious recall of memories of sexual abuse but also ‘contaminate’ those memories with elements from the pornography.
All of this is purely speculative and should in no way be used to try to invalidate the traumatic accounts of those seeking help, sympathy or understanding. But in a courtroom where serious legal penalties are at stake I think strict rules of evidence need to be applied to testimony based on such memories and without corroboration they should be viewed with caution.
Whatever we might think of repression and later retrieval of traumatic memories I think we should acknowledge there is little known about their mechanisms of action and little we can say about their reliability or otherwise. I wonder if examining the fidelity of post trauma ‘flashbacks’ would offer any insights.
I think you summed it up very well. I have absolutely no problem with folks being careful about the details of such memories being potentially altered by mixing up with later experiences. We all know this can happen. But I take absolute exception to the idea that a vague, hazy recollection can be clarified and retrieved more completely by writing or talking to someone about what is recalled, nor that a memory can be brought to consciousness by external events that has not been held in conscious memory for very long periods of time. The phenomenon of PTSD suggests that memories being triggered by external factors similar to the unrecalled events can and does occur and has been very well documented. I have no problem saying that we don’t fully understand how memories work and how accurate such spontaneous recollections of previously unconscious memories might be. I have a BIG problem with one person telling another person such memories are false simply because they were forgotten (for whatever reason) and then later recalled. AND I have a big problem with someone telling someone they DO have a memory that they have NOT recalled as well!!! It is for the person having the recollection to judge how accurate or believable it is, absent any external proof regarding such recollections. The problem with the FMS concept is that it can very easily be used to invalidate the recollections of others that are NOT induced by bad therapists or malfeasant professionals. If a therapist is seen to have intentionally implanted or insisted on the presence of “memories” the client has never recalled, then I think “FMS” has some validity. But to say it is somehow “proven” that memory repression can’t happen is going WAY beyond where the science of memory can possibly take us today.
One good reason to doubt the existence of repression is the fact that the majority of experts who study memory do not believe in it.
The majority of experts also believe that psychiatric drugs address biological anomalies in human brains, despite the complete lack of evidence that “mental illness” of any sort is associated with biological anomalies, nor that psychiatric “diagnoses” are meaningful entities that identify homogeneous groups, nor that people so “treated” do better in the long run (and significant evidence that on the average, they do NOT do better). The majority of experts are comfortable with a 30+% Caesarian section rate. The majority of experts believe that “treating” youth with “antidepressants” is good treatment, despite overwhelming evidence that there is no benefit to such “treatment” for children and that the recipients of such “treatment” are MORE likely to kill themselves or feel like doing so. The majority of experts once believed that Thalidomide was safe, that Benzodiazepines were not addictive, that Benzedrine was not addictive, that Tardive Dyskinesia was NOT caused by antipsychotic drugs, that there were no withdrawal effects from antidepressants, and that Viiox was a safe and effective pain reliever. They believed that sexual abuse was explained by “Oedipus complexes” or frustrated sexual drives in three year olds. Experts believe a lot of things that are not true. The “resort to authority” argument doesn’t hold a lot of water in the area of “mental health.”
Reply to Steve McCrea:
“But to say it is somehow “proven” that memory repression can’t happen is going WAY beyond where the science of memory can possibly take us today.”
That’s not how science works. It is the responsibility of those making the claim to provide evidence for their claim. It is simply not possible to prove that repression can’t happen. Those who believe in repression are tasked with presenting evidence for their position. They haven’t done so, and it’s not for lack of trying.
I don’t agree. It is scientifically improper to assume repression can’t exist, just as it is scientifically improper to assume that it does. I agree that it is easier to prove that repression does occur than proving it doesn’t, but there is plenty of suggestive evidence that it does occur, even if it is not conclusive. The evidence that people do, in fact, recall memories that they previously did not and that these memories reflect actual events that happened is pretty powerful in the community of people who treat “PTSD” and other trauma phenomenon. It is not scientifically valid in any sense to invalidate such evidence simply because occasions occur where such memories are implanted by poor or unethical therapists or professionals. Stories of repressed memories have been recorded for over 100 years and cannot be simply discounted because someone says “prove it.” The proper scientific position on repressed memories should be, “We really don’t know for sure.” To invalidate memories of a person who recalls them can be just as damaging as trying to induce memories that don’t exist. In the end, the only real judge of the reality of a memory, absent confirmatory evidence, is the person doing the remembering.
“I don’t agree. It is scientifically improper to assume repression can’t exist, just as it is scientifically improper to assume that it does.”
I am sorry, but this is just plain incorrect, and this is evident by replacing the word “repression” with any fantastical thing you’d like.
“I agree that it is easier to prove that repression does occur than proving it doesn’t, but there is plenty of suggestive evidence that it does occur, even if it is not conclusive. The evidence that people do, in fact, recall memories that they previously did not and that these memories reflect actual events that happened is pretty powerful in the community of people who treat “PTSD” and other trauma phenomenon.”
Of course people recall memories that they previously did not. To assert otherwise would be absurd, and I see no one making such claims. The issue is whether memories can be REPRESSED as a psychological defense mechanism. There is no evidence for it.
“The proper scientific position on repressed memories should be, “We really don’t know for sure.” To invalidate memories of a person who recalls them can be just as damaging as trying to induce memories that don’t exist. In the end, the only real judge of the reality of a memory, absent confirmatory evidence, is the person doing the remembering.”
The scientific position is that there is no evidence for a repression mechanism, something I have stated over and over. This is different from saying with certainty that repression doesn’t exist.
As far as the only real judge of the reality of a memory being the person doing the remembering, there is a ton of research on false memories in relation to eyewitness testimony, for example. Memory is not as reliable as we’d like it to be. To fall back on “whatever the accuser says” is ill-advised, particularly when we are dealing with such serious accusations that have sent innocent people to prison for decades.
You can say the same thing over and over, but it doesn’t make it true. First off, there is nothing “fantastical” about the idea that people would choose on some level not to consciously recall something that was troubling them. If they can “spontaneously recall” something they didn’t before, why could that thing they “spontaneously recall” be a traumatic event??? Your argument makes no sense at all!
My point regarding memories is that YOU are not in a position to tell ME what I recall is true or false. OF COURSE, people have inaccurate recollection that are contaminated by later experience or poor questioning or whatever. My point is that NO ONE can say if the recollection is true or false absent confirmation from objective data. As this is almost never possible, we are left with the subjective problem with memory in general.
For instance, the person who recalls what they believe was abuse may be confused or recall incorrectly. Absolutely. But why does this same reasoning not apply to the person who denies that it happens? Could the alleged abuser or other family members not have their recalls contaminated by later experience, or by their on conflict of interest in wanting to minimize the damage they have done or to avoid legal consequences? Do we require a “mechanism” to explain how people who are guilty of abuse claim to be innocent, and often BELIEVE themselves to be innocent in contradiction to actual facts?
It is very interesting how the recollections of those claiming abuse are so closely scrutinized, and frankly thoughtlessly invalidated on occasion, while the recollections of those denying the abuse are so readily accepted as true? Why do THOSE “false memories” not concern the “false memory” crowd?
Steve, the reason I am saying the same thing over and over again is because your replies tend to engage with points that I’m not making, so I feel a need to re-state my position in hopes that you will engage with it. For instance, I did not say that there is anything fantastical about the idea of repression, I was encouraging you to insert a nonsensical claim into your reasoning around the nature of scientific inquiry so that you could see the faults therein.
“If they can “spontaneously recall” something they didn’t before, why could that thing they “spontaneously recall” be a traumatic event??? Your argument makes no sense at all!”
I really don’t know how you have come to the conclusion that I am saying spontaneous recollection of traumatic events doesn’t happen. I’ll try one more time to make myself clear: people can and do forget traumatic events. When they remember them, it’s because something triggered the memory — say, a specific smell. This different from repression, where the memory is buried in the mind so as to prevent it from entering conscious awareness. You can’t spontaneously recall a memory that is repressed – that would contradict the very purpose of repression. It is the difference between stumbling upon a treasure chest next to a tree in the woods versus digging for buried treasure.
I don’t think we are talking about the same thing if you are saying that “repressed” memories can’t be spontaneously recalled. If “repression” per se exists, it would involve an immediate action of putting this memory out of consciousness for purposes of self-protection. There is nothing in the concept of “repression” that would say such a memory could not later be spontaneously recalled or triggered, in fact, this is exactly what PTSD researchers find happens when a person gets triggered. They may have had some vague awareness that “something bad happened during the war” or “my uncle used to creep me out when he came in my room,” but then something reminds the person of what actually occurred, and the memory comes back up in more detail.
I am certain that there are people who have chosen to distort this admittedly theoretical mechanism to explain how such events happen in order to justify “pulling out” memories that the client is “repressing,” then I say they are behaving reprehensibly. As I think I’ve made clear, there is no excuse for such a shabby form of “therapy.” It sounds like we agree on most points, and are perhaps having different meanings for the term “repression” that are causing us to think we’re disagreeing.
Thanks for working through this with me.
I really appreciate your unique view, Steve, even if our discussion has left me frustrated at times. It does seem like we agree on just about everything. Your notion of a context-dependent repression/de-repression seems more plausible than the typical proposed mechanism of repression, but I am still not convinced that repression occurs at all. Hopefully there is more research in progress that will help us draw more certain conclusions in the future. Thank you also for the discussion.
There is a huge difference between spontaneous recollection and repression. The idea that memories are banished from conscious awareness as a protection mechanism is simply incompatible with spontaneous recall. I don’t know how else to put it. If we dilute the concept of repression so much that it envelops obviously true concepts like spontaneous recall, we are providing cover for an extremely dangerous form of therapy. For what purpose? As Richard McNally said: “The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry. It has provided the theoretical basis for ‘recovered memory therapy’ — the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.” And if anyone in the false memory crowd is indeed arguing that it’s impossible to forget a traumatic experience and spontaneously remember it, they are obviously mistaken.
Richard McNally can say whatever he wants to say. “Recovered Memory Therapy” is a sham, and we all know that. But it does not follow AT ALL that “repression” does not exist. And there are certainly many in the “false memory crowd” who suggest that ANY memory that was not recalled all along is almost certainly false. One such post was approved (with provisos) just a moment ago and is in this thread for you to read.
I still see absolutely nothing in your post to even distinguish the difference between a “spontaneous recall” of a previously unrecalled memory and a memory temporarily “repressed” under stressful circumstances that is later “spontaneously recalled,” let alone evidence that the former exists and the latter does not. It is not logical or scientific to deny that something happens in order to address unethical practitioners who choose to take advantage of their clients’ vulnerability by suggesting that they have “memories” which the clients have never originated having recalled. The latter should be handled by the criminal courts and by stripping such practitioners of their licenses. Their unethical behavior has NOTHING TO DO with whether or not a person can “repress” a memory in a moment of stress and then “spontaneously recall” such a memory at a later time.
I will also counter your statement of “providing cover” by saying that the overreach of the concept of “false memory syndrome,” which properly applies ONLY to “memories” evoked or created by poor questioning or unethical acts by a therapist to implant memories the client has never said they recalled, has provided cover for people who have committed acts of abuse against children and yet can claim that their child’s recollection is a “false memory” in order to avoid the consequences of their criminal behavior. Surely, this should be as great a concern as therapists implanting “false memories” with poor technique or unethical attitudes toward profiting from creating upset in their own clients.
Replying to Steve McCrea:
If we’re being scientific, we should employ Occam’s razor, and avoid evoking new psychological mechanisms to explain phenomena that are already explained by known psychological mechanisms. You can hypothesize all you want about some mechanism of stress-induced repression, but that’s no substitute for established psychological science.
So what is the “known psychological mechanism” by which people spontaneously recall things which they have not had a conscious recollection of previously?
Your last comment is a great summation of some of the important themes in this discussion, and also where we must stand in order to support the millions of victims of sexual trauma.
I worked as a therapist for 25 years and used the trauma therapy method called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which has not been discussed so far in this particular thread. I believe use of this type of therapy has been subject to unfair criticism to discredit recovered memories of past trauma. I witnessed several therapy sessions where “clients” were able to access details of memories of past trauma experiences, and this helped them to “reprocess” these events in a way that reduced related anxiety, shame, and guilt.
My experience using this client *centered* (you go where the client wants to go) type therapy method, only validates the fact that memory can be “repressed” or “blocked” because it is too painful or uncomfortable for a person to remember at the present time.
EMDR can help provide a safe environment for someone to begin to recover “repressed” or “blocked” memories. Some people theorize that former victims will sometimes only begin to access past details when they feel more “safe,” and/or strong enough to endure (and “reprocess”) some of the deeply painful memories.
Here is a link to learn more about EMDR:
I’ve gotta say abuse memories recovered during EMDR therapy would raise a huge red flag to me.
I don’t pretend to be up to date on EMDR research these days, but when I was, about two decades ago, the only studies that found any superiority to standard desensitisation therapy were the ones carried out by Francine Shapiro and her colleagues. Independent researchers found about the same efficacy as systemic exposure and desensitisation therapy, which EMDR largely incorporates.
OTOH, the ‘EM’ of EMDR is remarkably similar to the techniques used by stage hypnotists, no? So even if the therapist is scrupulous about avoiding suggestion – no mean feat in the context of exposure – she may well be putting the patients into a hypersuggestive state in which even the most innocuous things could mess with their self-narrative.
Why was I studying EMDR 20 years ago?
Because the NGO I work with received a sudden stream of complaints from Mulawa women’s prison where an EMDR trial was underway (women prisoners are a captive population with very high levels of historic trauma and abuse). Consent for the trial was a long way short of informed and women were encouraged to dredge up memories of abuse during the day then locked back in their cells at night where they sometimes acted out their newly refreshed memories and received the usual prison system response to problematic behaviour. One woman complained she was encouraged to ‘recall’ abuse by her ex-partner she insisted had never happened and deny the abuse by police officers she insisted had happened (she’d presented at her committal hearing covered in bruises).
A year or so later I attended a conference at which the trial director presented his findings. No mention whatsoever was made of the adverse outcomes suffered by subjects nor of the dubious practices of those running the trial. It was known I was with the organisation that had lodged complaints on behalf of the trial subjects and I was studiously ignored during the Q&A that followed.
I’m not suggesting anyone posting here is as unethical as those who carried out that EMDR trial, but you’re gonna have a hard time convincing me EMDR is a reliable way of recovering repressed memories. And it’s not just because ‘reprogramming’ is such a sinister term to use in the context.
Again, I’m not up to date on how EMDR is currently promoted and practiced, but 20 years ago I saw something akin to a therapeutic fad in the process of becoming a cult.
Steve, the mechanism is spontaneous recall in the context of memory cues. You remember more things about your childhood when you’re in your childhood bedroom than when you’re in your own apartment, and so on. If you spontaneously recall a memory, it has not been repressed.
So we are playing semantic games now? You know no more than I do about why someone doesn’t recall something that happens, or what mechanism is involved in them being “spontaneously recalled.” I hear no science about this, just a redefinition on your part.
So we can agree that a traumatic memory could be “forgotten” and then “spontaneously recalled” based on some environmental stimulus? In that case, there isn’t much we are arguing about. We’re both saying that something could be forgotten and then recalled later, and the fact that it wasn’t recalled doesn’t mean that the spontaneous recollection is false. Seems like splitting some pretty fine hairs to me.
Richard, I look forward to your published research validating your assertions regarding EMDR and recovered memories.
I knew a girl who watched Forrest Gump and it led her to recall certain experiences from her previous life! She mentioned it several times. Interesting you should pick that movie as an example.
Personal story: When I was in early recovery from a long term addiction and in my 20s, I went to a therapist for the very first time in my life. I was trying to rebuild a life, was young and impressionable, and was confused and needed a little help and direction. Most everyone I loved suggested getting a little therapy could help me as I navigated this new terrain. So I went to a person who was recommended, a woman, since I was also a woman, I thought this was probably a better choice for my needs. I went only once and never returned (I am thankful that my spidey senses were still intact, though I was in a very vulnerable position). We had a first session, the therapist asked all of the screening type questions they ask, you know, tell me about your family situation, are you suicidal, why are you here etc type of questions. They were broad questions and were in no way deep yet. At the end of this session, the therapist suggested that she thought I was probably highly sexualized as a child and we would be looking at this possibility in future sessions. I was confused by this comment, but left the office and got into my car and began to cry. I began to think about the “highly sexualized” comment this professional made at the end of our time together and wonder to myself if in fact I was. It was a terrifying thing to consider and not in keeping with my ideas of myself or my life up until this point. After crying in my car for a while, I then became angry. How in the world did this stranger get to “highly sexualized” from an initial interview with a first time client? How easy was it for her to suggest this potential cause of my distress that we would be investigating in future sessions? I wanted some help, thought a therapist could assist and now this professional was suggesting a cause of my distress for which she had NO evidence.
I felt and still do feel that she exploited me and my distress and I could have very easily become a victim of recovered memories through professional priming of distress to meet the conditions of her training. I very well could have become a long term source of her income, while my life could have become something utterly foreign to my lived experience to meet the conditions of her therapeutic approach. I assume this person “meant well”, but her training failed her and she thereby failed her patients following this approach.
This was a time, where a host of my women friends were also attending therapy (many, again in early recovery from an addiction), my experience was not unusual. Though I escaped from this situation, many others did not and have become “disabled” and under the control of mental health services promoting medications, and narratives that are not consonant with the realities of these women’s lives up until the point of “treatment” initiation. They are perpetual victims of the MH industry that changes their diagnoses and medications with regularity as their lives fail to improve. According to the providers, it is not the industry that has failed them, it is the “wrong meds” or “diagnosis” and with each new definition of their personhood as authored by the constantly changing treatment methods and trends, they remain its captives.
Thank you for sharing. This experience is, unfortunately, extremely common. Too often the conversation from the pro-repressed memories side fails to even consider the experiences of people who have been told they had repressed memories only to later learn they were false. It’s a very dangerous concept that has given rise to an extremely irresponsible form of therapy that is practiced far too much today. If you are interested in joining a campaign to fight against pseudoscience and conspiracy theories in mental health, check out Grey Faction (disclosure: I am the director). Our website is GreyFaction.org.
Again, these two things have nothing in common. One is a spontaneous process that occurs within a person, the other is an effort to induce or implant memories in people who have none. The latter is NOT caused by the concept of repression, it is caused by unethical therapists who are either greedy or unable to deal with their own issues and act them out on their clients. If they did not have “repression” to use as a blunt instrument, they’d come up with another one. And many do. How many professionals believe they can “detect bipolar disorder” (or whatever other “disorder du jour”) and tell people they “have it” without any objective way to say it is true, and without the slightest consideration of the viewpoint of their “client?” This is not caused by the concept of “bipolar disorder.” It is caused by unethical practitioners, and is far, far more common than the “false memory” phenomenon.
It is important not to blame a concept or idea for how people choose to use it. No one should be telling anyone what they should believe about their own experience. THAT is the problem!
“The latter is NOT caused by the concept of repression, it is caused by unethical therapists who are either greedy or unable to deal with their own issues and act them out on their clients.”
I think that’s a little harsh Steve.
I’d definitely allow the possibility that many such therapists sincerely believe in the integrity of their methods and that they are helping their patients. Unfortunately psychiatric and psychological training doesn’t encourage critical thinking and groupthink is rife in the industry, especially during therapeutic fads.
I think not knowing how easily memories can be manipulated is likely a bigger problem among therapists than knowing about it. I also think the need of some patients to receive validation of identifiable, external reasons for their distress plays a part.
And while I’m on the topic of fads in psychology it might be worth recalling that not all the scandals of the childcare centre abuse moral panic arose from ‘recovered’ false memories.
In at least one instance the problem was a couple of therapists who were very enthusiastic about a method of diagnosing child sex abuse that involved rubbing or inserting something into the child’s anus and measuring its dilation. Not only did they get many positive responses to their tests, those children also showed other signs consistent with having been sexually abused. I can’t imagine why.
Therapist? The rapist? Hmm.
I agree with you – not knowing is quite dangerous!
When I say “unethical,” I’m referring to acting on the therapist’s idea of what they “should do” rather than on the observable effects on the client. It would follow that there are a lot of unethical therapists practicing. A truly ethical therapist is humble, knowing first off that it’s better to do nothing than to do harm, and knowing secondly that anything they DO attempt needs to be filtered through the knowledge that inadvertent harm is easily done and not always readily observable. A competent therapist is one who is constantly getting feedback from the client, verbally and nonverbally, and altering one’s approach to meet the needs of the client rather than the therapist’s need to be perceived as “competent” or “insightful” or “skilled” or to prove that the therapist’s school of thought is “correct.”
In my experience, there is nothing that harms a client more than telling the client what to think about his/her own narrative. Telling them that their memories are “false” or telling them that they “have memories that they don’t recall” are equally destructive, and it should be obvious to anyone looking at the client’s reaction that such actions create confusion and uncertainty, and those are two things we should NOT be creating as therapists!
My biggest objection to the DSM is not the drugs, it is the action of the doctor/therapist telling the client what to think or believe about their “condition” or needs. Even if such an evaluation were based on facts, it is still not going to be helpful to tell the client “here’s what’s wrong with you.” When such an evaluation is based on raw speculation or invention, as the DSM “diagnoses” almost entirely are, it probably crosses over from unethical treatment to criminal fraud in my view.
It seems though our experiences in these matters are quite different our conclusions are remarkably similar Steve. I don’t know whether to be reassured or disturbed by that.
If you’ve worked with victims and perpetrators of trauma and seen how therapists deal with them this stuff seems like a no-brainer to me. Yet the huge amount of collective experience our societies have accumulated doesn’t seem to be doing much to change how we respond to the problems.
Part of it’s gotta be institutional. Our legal systems, media outlets, commercial entities and professional guilds may be made of human beings but they ain’t human and have very different survival imperatives. So to expect them to develop in a way that optimises their responses to human needs would be naive.
But can that really be the whole explanation?
Or is there something about the way we think that’s stopping us from using what we learn to change how we behave?
Or am I just too burned out to see positive developments even when they’re staring me in the face?
I see it as a constant struggle. There are people who believe they “know best” and should be the authorities, and others who resist are “wrong” and need to change their viewpoints or attitudes to comply with what “we know is true.” This kind of arrogance in a “helper” is incredibly dangerous, because the “helper” has no naturally occurring reason to stop or question his/her activities, since s/he is automatically doing good by virtue of being the authority!
The other group, which I think is a lot smaller, is those whose intent is to increase the self-determination of the people they help. People in this group would be horrified by the idea of telling someone what to believe or think about their own situation, and instead are focused on helping this person gain sufficient perspective to evaluate their own lives and tell their own stories, unencumbered by any “expected” way of thinking or acting.
Of course, there are many who don’t really belong to either group and can be swayed one way or the other. Unfortunately, at this time in history at least, Group One has control of the mass media and the main messages we receive are authoritarian ones, and those working for empowerment are considered foolish or dangerous.
That’s my take, anyway!
I’ll put it this way: everyone that believes in recovered memory therapy subscribes to repression theory, and the vast majority that believe in repression also think recovered memory therapy is an appropriate endeavor. Very often, discussions around repressed memories have the logic that if repressed memories are real, recovered memory therapy is vindicated. As you’ve pointed out, this is incorrect.
I am glad that you at least believe recovered memory therapy is unethical. Many of your colleagues do not feel that way. We can of course discuss repression in the abstract without reference to the malicious ways in which it is used by unscrupulous therapists, but I suppose this article — insofar as it effectively dismisses the concept of false memory as a mere ploy by pedophiles and pedophile apologists to victimize with impunity — forecloses on that opportunity.
Wow, that’s a pretty bent assumption there! I know many people who believe that people could recall prior abuse that they have not recalled previously who would find the idea of “recovered memory therapy” horrific and abusive. Perhaps we travel in different circles. There is absolutely no connection between the ability to recall memories previously not available to the conscious mind and the vindication of therapy that implants “memories” that never occurred, or assumes the presence of “memories” from a vague and subjective list of “signs and symptoms” that has no scientific validation.
And I would add that the possibility of this discussion is certainly NOT foreclosed upon just because of the observations that some abusers have used the concept to discredit their accusers. Both can be valid at the same time. There is no contradiction that I can see.
“I know many people who believe that people could recall prior abuse that they have not recalled previously who would find the idea of “recovered memory therapy” horrific and abusive.”
As do I. Thankfully, I’m talking about repression, not simply forgetting abuse and later recalling it. You continue to confuse these two things after several explanations. Perhaps someone could do a better job than I’ve done, but it’s getting a little exhausting repeating myself over and over.
Kenneth John Freeman posted videos of himself raping his young daughter. The videos were reportedly some of the most popular. As a child, his daughter was able to “archive” the horror of the incidents. As an adult she was able to remember while watching “Forrest Gump” with her mother and step-father. She reported the crime to authorities. Freeman, a security guard at Hanford, left the US for China where he was arrested. He pled guilty in 2008 and will serve the rest of his life in prison. Apparently, the videos are still being downloaded.
Well, I guess she recovered those memories, didn’t she? Sounds like they were pretty accurate!
Removed for moderation.
I am not sure if posting URLs is permitted here, but I searched this guy’s name and it appears that what you are saying about her recalling the abuse while watching Forrest Gump is incorrect. According to news coverage, the daughter kept quiet about the abuse for years out of fear (meaning she didn’t repress it). Eventually, she discovered photos and videos of the abuse on a computer her father gave her and contacted the police. She never repressed the memories.
In this case as with other high profile cases such as Eileen Franklin, Marilyn van Derbur, Patti Barton, Jennifer Hoult and Nicole Kluemper — evidence of the abuse or of traumatic amnesia, or both, disappears over time. In turn, false memory advocates claim these are false memory cases. The original evidence can be found in the court documents which are sometimes online. Or in the earliest media coverage. You’ll find the Forrest Gump trigger in Shannon Dininny’s “A Father’s Breach of Trust” in the Seattle Times in 2007.
Are you sure it’s in the court documents?
Without the need to use that sort of evidence I don’t see why it would have been introduced. It wouldn’t have aided the prosecution (due to the confession) and its controversial nature could have offered grounds for appeal against the sentence on the grounds of prejudicial untested evidence unless she was cross-examined about it. Dropping that aspect of the case seemed a wise tactic to me.
I assumed it was dropped after the early media reports in order to keep the focus away from her and on him.
Yeah, from what I’m reading the case is as close as you get to a ‘good news story’ about a sexual assault investigation and trial.
The young lady wasn’t disbelieved even before copies of the films were found. With the video evidence the investigators and prosecutors had plenty to run with without subjecting her to bruising interrogation and cross examination. The offender discovered that neither his status as a former cop nor seeking refuge in an overseas jurisdiction could protect him. Faced with the evidence he made a comprehensive confession that spared a jury from having to listen to disturbing details day after day. And he got a sentence only a torture or death penalty enthusiast could decry as inadequate. His daughter need never fear he will be released to seek reprisals nor that she’ll be expected to make submissions to a parole board while the case is dragged through the media spotlight again.
It’s not often I see a sex offence case that fails to revictimise the survivor.
Good point. It’s not often we see a case in which the investigation fails to revictimize the victim. This young woman had the evidence that no one wants, but that everyone believes.
Susan, while I would dearly love for this story to be true as you’ve described it – as physical proof of the veracity of repressed and recovered memories – the victim in this case wasn’t yet an adult when the perp was arrested. She didn’t recover the memories, she simply did not disclose the abuse at the time it occurred. The videos were made when Kylie Freeman was 10, she disclosed the abuse to her mother when she was 15 (in 2005). An investigator working the child pornography case knew Kylie and recognized her and hence a warrant was issued against Kenneth Freeman in 2006. He was arrested in 2007 when Kylie was 17.
Beyond the specifics of this case, it’s unfortunate when survivors of abuse and their defenders are backed into this kind of corner demanding hard physical evidence in order to be believed. We don’t demand this level of proof in a court of law despite the known shortcomings of eyewitness testimony. A large portion of civil and criminal cases are decided on the basis of witness testimony rather than hard forensic evidence. It is better to stand up against those who have their own skins to protect, like some of the accused perpetrators in this comment section (Google is your friend, folks) than it is to fall for the demand that we produce forensic evidence in order to believe that abused people can employ all kinds of self-protective mechanisms at the time of abuse.
It should be very telling that people in positions of power who stand to lose it are the most vocal contingent against believing and supporting survivors. These are parents, teachers, clergy, etc as well as their lawyers. These accused serve the most vulnerable populations and we have every reason to believe they would employ resources to protect themselves when accused of crimes.
We know what the long term effects of childhood trauma are. We understand how stress interferes with the formation of memories and we have long and well documented proof of how traumatic memories are prone to sudden recall from cues in the environment, even though as a culture we only tend to extend that grace to war veterans instead of all traumatized groups. There is no good reason for those of us who understand the cultural influences regarding childhood sexual trauma as well as the biological factors that contribute to traumatic memory and recall to continue to engage with people who are desperate for their own redemption when we can focus our energy instead on helping heal ourselves and others who have been harmed.
The demise of the FMSF should be celebrated as this concept continues to find its way into the dustbin of history. Let’s not revive it by serious debate with accused persons.
People can recall trauma at 15, 25 or 50. We may doubt whether she repressed her memory of the incidents to avoid the shame and horror of what he did. I don’t know what kind of evidence it would take to show the public that the immature brains of children can repress these memories. What makes sense, though, is that a child molester would try to silence his victim to avoid being reported.
It may be helpful to hear the diagnostic criteria for false memory syndrome from the director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Pam Freyd provided these in an interview for Treating Abuse Today, 1993, Volume 3.
Freyd: One would look for false memory syndrome
(1) If a patient reports having been molested by someone in very early childhood, but then claims that she or he had complete amnesia about it for a decade or more;
(2) If there are firm, confident denials by the alleged perpetrators;
(3) If there is denial by the entire family;
(4) If there is no evidence that the perpetrator had alcohol dependency or bipolar disorder or tendencies to pedophilia;
(5) If some of the accusations are preposterous or impossible: being made pregnant prior to menarche, being forced to engage in sex with animals (although bestiality appears in prehistoric art) or participating in the ritual killing of animals;
(6) Absence of evidence of distress surrounding the putative abuse, the child displayed normal social and academic functioning (may be an indicator the child has repressed the incidents).
TAT: I take issue with several. But at least it gives us more of a sense of what you all mean when you say “false memory syndrome” (p. 27).
Of course, these are not criteria that are generally accepted in the “mental health” system, which we know has pretty low standards to start with. I would say the important missing information is that the allegations were made after influence by a professional or other adult who has encouraged the person to believe they have memories which they don’t recall. I think denials by perpetrators are completely meaningless and should not even be a consideration, and denial by family members would also extremely questionable and need to be viewed in context. Not sure why the perpetrator would have to have any kind of dependency on substances, or “bipolar disorder” (which is, of course, totally unverifiable), or a history of molestation or abuse. Many, many perpetrators do so when stone cold sober, and many, many perpetrators have no record whatsoever, especially in family situations. As to “bipolar disorder,” it is a ridiculous criterion. Are they really suggesting that being diagnosed with “bipolar disorder” is a requirement for molestation? That “bipolar disorder” predisposes people to molesting children? I find such a suggestion utterly ludicrous in my experience (and I worked for 20 years with foster youth, seen plenty of abuse victims and perpetrators). And what’s that weird point about “bestiality appears in prehistoric art?” Are they trying to normalize bestiality? Or what?
These seem like extremely questionable criteria for any “diagnosis,” and the stakes involved here are enormous. Surely, the authors could do better than this!
The parentheses appear to be Susan’s additions. I agree with you that these are not great criteria, particularly with regards to bipolar disorder. These were from nearly 30 years ago and I am sure they have evolved drastically since then. In any case, we can discuss false memories without subscribing to these diagnostic criteria.
These criteria should have evolved, but there’s no evidence they did. What makes them interesting is that the director of the FMS Foundation apparently believes they are evidence that can be used to suggest that her husband and other foundation members are falsely accused.
I’m not saying that these criteria are valid, only that they were reported by the director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation whose PhD is not in psychology. The texts in parens are additions to what Pamela Freyd said. Molested children who do not act out may be archiving the incidents. And the mention of an animal in an incident does not mean the report is improbable, although that has occasionally been suggested by foundation members.
“OTOH, the ‘EM’ of EMDR is remarkably similar to the techniques used by stage hypnotists, no? So even if the therapist is scrupulous about avoiding suggestion – no mean feat in the context of exposure – she may well be putting the patients into a hypersuggestive state in which even the most innocuous things could mess with their self-narrative.”
There is a problem with therapies and the therapists that “do” them. I think memories often just get acted out, in whatever manner that happens to be. They don’t really “go” anywhere. Stuff that happens to people or animals just registers as negative, positive, stressful, fear etc etc. Drugging or “pulling up memories” is someone’s therapy, not the direction of the person in the “therapy” chair.
Life is there for connecting the dots. Life often exposes the reasons (memories) of experiences and actions and things make sense. And before those processes happen, one can fall into some pretty bad trainees of disciplines, that actually prevent any growth. And this would be impossible to predict.
I mean how many people would we trust to “raise” our children? Even if I think I did a bad job of raising kids, I doubt I would like my kids to be raised by the next therapist or psychiatrist. If someone is going to mess up a life, it might as well be family lol.
I remember going to see a psychologist in her home practice and watching an interaction between her and her son and I remember thinking what a strange teenager he seemed to be. And I’m sure she followed all her training.
So perhaps “dredging” up memories or drugging them is completely useless. Eventually people dredge up their own memories through life experience or bumps in the road of life. Empowerment and safety is a lifestyle environment that does not come in the form of one hour therapy. Maybe we have to tell people that shit happens, and that shit was really important in their narrative, a narrative which is not garbage.
The scariest thing about these concepts is that there are 1000 therapists lined up to dabble with “abuse and trauma” and 1000 psychiatrists that want to shock “it” into becoming an actual repression and resulting disability that one then REALLY needs therapy for.
I think there are openings for post therapy therapists.
“1000 psychiatrists that want to shock “it” into becoming an actual repression and resulting disability that one then REALLY needs therapy for.”
I agree. There’s been strong evidence for about 30 years now that critical incident trauma debriefing increases the likelihood of the sort of long term harm that will get you a PTSD diagnosis. Yet the practice continues to grow in leaps and bounds. I can’t help thinking it might be to do with the fact that the same people who do the debriefing generally have a financial stake in treating the PTSD. That plus the sentiment “these people are suffering so we can’t stand by and do nothing”, so we’ll do something that doesn’t help and may make things worse.
“I think there are openings for post therapy therapists.”
Yeah, but I shudder to think what form that might take if such a thing became a professional discipline.
Here are my comments for today—so far—1) “resorting to authority” does not work in any field or discipline. In fact, if I remember my Logic Class from College- “resorting to authority” is nothing but a “logical fallacy”– Sorry, folks, if you think you are relying on “experts” or you consider yourself an “expert.” 2) I believe someone mentioned something about seeing a therapist who told her that she might have a “sexualized” incident in her past. When I was at an intake for a seriously stupid hospitalization, the young intern suggested that I might have some “sexual” incident in my past. This was not quite the first time this type of suggestion had been directed towards me. Several times in my “therapized” history, the therapist had accused me of being a victim of some type of sexual abuse, that, according to them occurred as a very young child, possibly under the age of three or four. They tried to associate this to some sort of “phobia” I allegedly had, like “snakes.” etc. 3.) Finally, an interesting observation about the alleged diagnosis of “bipolar disorder.” I question if this diagnosis is made to insinuate a a previous sexual abuse occurred, which probably did not while those who have been sexually abused have, well been “somehow swept under the rug.” The tragedy is that those so abused may never be helped, but completely lost and forgotten. And the rest of us . . . I can not help but consider the word, “therapist” as “the-rapist.” The real question might be, “who is really abusing the person sitting in that client’s chair?” Thank you.
That’s more what I think of in terms of “False Memory Syndrome” – the therapist TELLS you that you had a traumatic experience, even if you have no reason to believe this is true. THAT is pretty scummy of a therapist to do that kind of thing.
Many times, I do not think the therapist knows that he or she is actually causing the patient/client to dredge uo what may be considered as “false memories.” They are patently unaware of what they are doing. The other tragic part about these therapists is when they take a real memory then warp it to make the patient/client’s memory is actually indicative of the diagnosis. Thus, “justifying” in the therapists and the attendant psychiatrist’s eyes, all the drugs, therapies, and other treatments heaped onto the patient/client ad infinitum. The mental health/illness industry is filled with those who consider themselves people persons and do-gooders. There are those in the industry who would rally be shocked at the lack of good they actually do. And, there are those who just don’t care. It just does not bother them that they are picking up a paycheck for their malicious actions. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the answer to correct this situation. The best thing I know to do is to avoid it altogether or if you are embroiled in it, please find a way to leave as soon as it is safe for you to do so. Thank you.
So is this the point at which we speculate about what those bad therapists are REALLY doing these days? Insisting their clients were molested as children, based on the presenting symptoms? And we know therapists can do this because the mall study subjects were told “this is what your relative told us” and some of the subjects said they got lost? So if an adult discloses childhood sex abuse we need only ask “Did you see a therapist.” If the answer is “Yes,” that’s all we need to know. We can dismiss the adult’s claim as “repressed memory therapy.”
Whether you choose to believe anyone’s uncorroborated claims of what they remember, repressed or not, is up to you.
But I think going back to the days in which uncorroborated memories ‘recovered’ during a therapy session was accepted as probative in criminal trials would be a very bad idea.
Would you accept it as alibi evidence in defence of an accused sex offender? (“Thanks to my therapist I now recall I was in a different city that night.”)
An accused sex offender would claim that thanks to his therapist he now recalls he was in a different city that night?
Let’s say we’re talking a historic sex offence (as ‘recovered memory’ cases generally are) in which the accused initially made a statement that he couldn’t remember where he was on the night or gave an alibi which failed to establish his innocence. He may very well want to present a different alibi defence that would strengthen his case, but simply coming up with a new alibi after the old one has fallen through would typically be frowned upon by a court. However if the prosecution is relying on therapy-recovered memories that have been accepted as probative he would be in a good position to argue that his own therapy-recovered memories should be given equal weight, no?
Would you give them weight equal to those of the alleged victim, or would you privilege a victim’s therapy-recovered memory evidence over that of the defendant?
Would you go so far as to say that the victim’s t-r memories should be allowed as evidence while the defendant’s should be rejected?
So we have a witness who recovers a memory of a single incident of historic sexual assault. The suspect says he doesn’t remember where he was that night, or gives an alibi that falls though. Then he says he recovered a memory in therapy of where he was at the time of the alleged assault. Presumably, the DA would then call in the therapist to confirm the suspect’s convenient alibi recall.
I doubt it would carry much weight without either a stat dec or witness evidence from the therapist but neither, I hope, would claims of t-r memories from the alleged victim.
Thanks, Steve, for keeping the tone of our discussion relatively civilized!
Just doin’ mah job, ma’am!
“If … certain events or circumstances are fully repressed from the intellect because the will cannot bear the sight of them, and if the gap that then arises is patched up with some invention due to the need for coherence – then there is madness.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
The truth generally is somewhere in the middle and not, as this article suggests, at one pole. I am surprised that no mention is made of the evident tampering by psychiatrists and psychologists in well known cases that ended with litigation.
Dr Alex Yellowlees and his team persuaded Katrina Fairlie that her father “must have sexually abused” her while she was in hospital under psychotropic medications. It ended with the hospital being sued and Katrina walking away with 20,000 pounds.