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Pastoral Sciences , 18 (1999), pp.127-150

'False Memory/Recovered Memory' Debate by Lorraine Jaksic


When traumatic memories break into awareness, there is much distress. People may become frightened, ashamed, and/or depressed. Personal recounting by abuse victims indicate that they are often tormented by flashbacks and nightmares. Many do not understand their crazy-making thoughts or feelings of suicide. For a myriad of reasons, survivors seek therapy. Most are likely to come to therapy troubled by new memories rather than starting from a 'memory blank' position that is common to amnesia victims (Cronin, 1994; Herman, 1992). As already stated, some individuals seek therapy for abnormal psychophysical or psychosocial sequelae and retrieve implicit or tacit knowledge of abuse. Subsequently some individuals will seek confrontation with their abusers. These are the major ingredients of the escalating conflict between those who purport to be unjustly accused of sexually abusing children and those who want the victimization acknowledged and justice done. Moreover, it has been recognized by many researchers and clinicians that there is a socio-cultural element to this debate which must not be overlooked but must be kept in perspective; specifically, reference is made to cultural beliefs surrounding victim blame (Briere, 1996; Horowitz, 1986; Muller, Caldwell & Hunter, 1994) and the blaming and revictimization of women in particular (Caplan, 1992; Chesney-Lind, 1988; Faludi, 1991; Herman, 1981, 1992; Kristiansen, 1994; Rosenbaum, 1989; Smart, 1989; Solomon, 1992; Renner & Yurchesyn, 1994; Kristiansen, Gareau & DeCourville, 1994).

Muller, Caldwell and Hunter (1994) argue that there is a tendency in North American society to attribute the source of a problem and the solution to that problem to the suffering person. People in certain socio-economic or racial groups are "commonly seen as unmotivated, rather than being seen as restricted in terms of opportunity" to do something about their personal situation (p. 260). In a study conducted with 897 college students (female and male), Muller et al. (1994) found that the best predictors of victim blame with regard to child abuse and rape were: prior physical abuse, locus of control and empathy. For instance, recipients of spousal violence, compared to controls, were more likely to hold other recipients of marital violence responsible for their situa-tion. Results showed that people who view themselves with contempt and self depreciation will view others in the same manner. The strongest predictor of both child abuse and rape victim blame was personal similarity resulting in low empathy. It is suggested that people who consider themselves to be similar to abused children are individuals who have incorporated the concept of 'victim' into their own identities. The observers are psychologically motivated and self serving (perceived harm avoidance) in their inability to empathetically connect to the predicament of the victim.

Kristiansen, Gareau and DeCourville (1994) argue that cultural biases towards women are inherent in the authoritarian patriarchal structure of Wes-tern society. In their study, 187 university students (male and female) completed a Social Issues Survey. As hypothesized, people who expressed less favorable attitudes toward women were more likely to believe in a 'just world' (where each of us gets what we deserve out of life), and to assign more importance to the values 'law and order' and 'family security'. Therefore, it is suggested that authoritarian beliefs attempt to appeal to socially shared values that justify attitudes that are really based on opposition to women's equality (Caplan, 1992; Faludi, 1991; Herman, 1992) Consistent with the social denial hypothesis (Faludi, 1991), people who were seen to be more authoritarian believed more in ajust world ideology, endorsed FMS more strongly, required more stringent legal evidence concerning the victimization of the plaintiff and were more misinformed about incest. On the other hand, people with more positive and accepting attitudes towards women's equality were less likely to believe in FMS, required less stringent legal evidence and had fewer misinformed beliefs about incest (Kristiansen, Gareau & DeCourville, 1994). "Given that most incest survivors are women, people's beliefs about the validity of recovered memories might also, in a more insidious way, be tied to their attitudes toward women" (Kristiansen, 1994, p.21).

Considering the authoritarian patriarchal belief systems of some people in North American society and the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse, it is perhaps expected that there would be a cultural backlash when social consciousness-raising programs or advocacy groups begin to expose the abuse (Faludi, 1991; Herman, 1992; Solomon, 1992). The consensus among most researchers and clinicians who study trauma, the attendant issues encompassed in its field and work with childhood sexual abuse survivors, is that the intentions of the FMS Foundation must be questioned. Included in this doubting fraternity are the advocacy groups who argue for the equality and protection of women and children in society, as well as most survivors of childhood sexual abuse (Cronin, 1992; Kristiansen, 1994; Lawrence, 1993; Freyd, 1993; Vella, 1992, 1994; Bass & Davis, 1994; Kristiansen, Gareau & DeCourville, 1994).

J. Freyd, a successful professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, a self-declared incest survivor with recovered memories and the daughter of P. and P. Freyd, the Executive Directors and Co-founders of the FMSF states,

At this point we need to find a constructive way to debate legitimate issues surrounding adult survivors of child sexual abuse. We need to find a way to be gentle and tender in this pursuit, even as we look critically at the many domains in which we are scientifically and clinically uncertain (1993, p.34).

Freyd (1993) cites several potential traps that must be recognized when we critically investigate the escalating conflict. They are: (a) the logic that assu-mes that, because some recovered memories are probably not true, all recovered memories are therefore false, (b) the tendency to divide memories into true or false' instead of seeking reconstructive processes which uncover essential truths, and (c) over-emphasis on the relationship between reported memories and external historical truth instead of investigating internal emotional truth (the pain is often overlooked). Being aware of these traps directs us to ask "the most important epistemological questions" concerning the relationship between internal and external realities (p.7).

The motto of the FMS Foundation is 'False Memory Syndrome:
Destroying Families'. Many researchers and clinicians see this as a bitter irony. Memories true or false cannot destroy healthy families. The very fact that the Foundation purports to have a growing membership of 10,000 people who are seeking support because they claim to be unjustly accused of sexually abusing their children suggests the need for critical examination (figure taken from Brown, Scheflin & Hammond, 1998). The Foundation has evolved into a highly influential organization (with many members having influential social status and power) and is supported by a multi-million dollar financial base as members are asked to make 'donations' to the cause (Bass & Davis, 1994).

Campbell (1992), a psychologist who supports the themes of the FMS Foundation, claims that "the theoretical premises of incest resolution therapy alarmingly increase the probability of false positive conclusions when diagnosing a formative history of incest" (p.161). The article goes on to claim that therapists who use this type of therapy are predisposed to emphasizing the outcomes of pathogenic parenting. However, it does not discuss the fact that 'pathogenic parenting' could not be emphasized if it were not present and that the parenting, per se, may not involve incestuous relationships. Each paradigm has its focus of attention which directs its questions and by implication its results; this is a given. However, as previously documented, most people come into therapy with conscious memories of childhood sexual abuse and it is during the course of the reconstructive processes of therapy that the maladaptive aspects of pathogenic parenting are put into new perspectives. Given the prevalence of sexual abuse in psychiatric populations (70%, Briere and Zaidi, 1989), and that many documented victims suffer from amnesia (38%, Williams, 1992, 1994), and that maybe 2-8%, most likely topped at 5% (Kristiansen, 1994), of reported sexual abuse cases may be false (Salter, 1989), there would be many people who are helped by this type of therapy. In fact, there would be very few false positive accusations of incest.

Campbell (1992) claims that therapists uncover the 'narrative truths' of people's lives rather than the 'historical truths'. But the historical truths of sexually abused children are riddled with the symptomatology of psychophysical and psychosocial maladaption which may belie the historical truth of destructive formative years caused by pathogenic parenting (Briere, 1996; Finkeihor, 1979, 1988; Herman, 1981, 1992). Implicit in this article is the accusation that all clients are devoid of any sense of self; clients are seen as totally gullible and vulnerable to any suggestion about what might or might not have happened in their lives. Thus, exception is taken to Campbell's statements conceming clients who find "more examples of apparent betrayal" and are further angered by it (1992, p.166). Victims of childhood sexual abuse do not need to 'find' examples of betrayal in order to 'justify' their anger. They have been betrayed and are seeking to cope with these emotions; they are angry and are seeking to be less angry.

Furthermore, Campbell (1992) makes statements concerning the motives of those who run group therapy sessions. Therapists are accused of encouraging clients to substitute the group for family support and identification (Campbell, 1992; Doe/Freyd, 1991). This is unfounded throughout any of the research investigated in this paper. In fact, in the Herman and Schatzow (1987) study, only one client out of 53 totally withdrew from her family. Also, J. Freyd (1993) documents in her own words that it was only after her parents had sought to publicly make her 'regret' her accusations of incest that she broke with them. The researched and documented chronology of these events (of the Freyd family) can be reviewed for further assessment and evaluation in Brown, Scheflin and Hammond, 1998. It is suggested that some people do need to break with their family of origin in order to heal, but most do not. There is no convincing evidence that disengaging from one's family has any relation to being part of a therapy group or not, and such disengagement is not necessarily permanent (Herman, 1992; Bass & Davis, 1994).

With regard to the limitations of human memory, and specifically the "discovery of a history of incest" or "the reconstruction of some event", Campbell (1992, p.162) cites the earlier work of E. Loftus which does not include any research concerning Type 2 trauma. Also absent is any mention of researchers who study trauma and/or implicit and tacit memory, or research into the psychobiology of memory systems. Despite these omissions, the important issue of overzealous therapists who "pursue verification of their theoretical convictions related to incest" should not be underestimated (Camp-bell, 1992, p.162).

Some counsellors/therapists do try to play detective, making unwarranted inferences about their patients' histories without waiting for the story to unfold (Spanos, 1994). But overzealous, incompetent, or even exploitative therapists probably do not have enough power or influence over their patients to impose an elaborate form of mind control, particularly with regard to parent/child bonds. Evidence shows that parent/child bonds are very strong, even in the face of sexual and physical abuse; ofien the child will internalize the responsibility for the abuse (Briere, 1996; Chesney-Lind, 1988; Finkelhor, 1979; Herman, 1981, 1992; Bass & Davis, 1994; Tedesco & ScImell, 1987). Psychotherapy cannot be compared with coercive interrogation; the power imbalance between client and counsellor is not so overwhelming. As a rule, counsellors are trained not to push too hard because clients may become overwhelmed with traumatic re-experiences of events while they are trying to cope with present problematic symptoms. If the counsellor/therapist is insensitive to situations like this, there can be increased illness and possibly suicide; no genuine clinician wants this to happen (Cronin, 1992; Herman, 1992; Bass & Davis, 1994). How these situations get transformed into litigation cases against counsellors/therapists is a major cause for concern.


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