THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN THE FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME FOUNDATION.
Many people have requested information from the Foundation, and this FAQ document was written in response to the questions asked most often. We hope it provides you with a helpful introduction to the false memory syndrome problem and a better understanding of the Foundation.
Pamela Freyd, Ph.D., Executive Director
WHAT IS FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME (FMS)?
Many early references to false memories, pseudo-memories, and confabulations appear in the memory literature, but the use of the term false memory syndrome was introduced with the formation of the Foundation. A syndrome is simply a set of symptoms that occur together.
Dr. John F. Kihlstrom, professor of psychology at the University of California in San Francisco, has suggested the following definition:
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. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual’s entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behavior. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional. False Memory Syndrome is especially destructive because the person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with the real problems in his or her life. (Kihlstrom, 1997)
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Starting in the late 1980s, many families began to receive letters or calls from their children who were now adults. What the families were told shocked them. One mother, for example, was stunned to receive this letter:
At this time and for an indefinite period of time I do not wish to have contact of any sort between us. I find it too painful because I believe you are being false. I have also decided that my well-being is more important to my family than the gifts and letters you send the kids. Please discontinue...I give up the hope I’ve had for a relationship with you.
The mother was devastated when her daughter suddenly and arbitrarily cut off contact, especially since the letter represented such a radical change in their relationship. For example, just a few months earlier she had received a letter more typical of their correspondence:
Dear Mom, Thank you for your love and support. I love who you are, not just as mom but as you. I am so grateful to have you in my life and in the lives of my children. I don’t know if they’ll ever put your name in a history book, but in my life you are not only one of the greatest women, but one of the greatest people. You have taught me so much about just being a good person. Love, [First Name]
What had happened to cause such alienation?
Some families received letters from lawyers, which in their similarity read like form letters. An abridged example follows:
This law firm represents your daughter who has consulted me regarding the effects she is suffering from severe childhood trauma resulting from the abuse inflicted by you. The trauma described is unspeakable...Your daughter has authorized me to make the following demand letter for settlement:
If I do not hear from you in 10 days, your daughter will be requesting substantially higher sums and attorney fees. As a lawyer I have dealt with many of these cases, and the facts related to a jury will warrant the imposition of substantial punitive and compensatory damages.
Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, grandparents, others-all were suddenly told that they could no longer see the person making accusations. Most were also told that they had committed terrible abuse, usually sexual abuse. The accusers claimed to have remembered serious past mistreatment by those they were now accusing; these newly discovered memories had frequently surfaced in therapy. For their part, those accused responded that the accusations were false and that the new memories were not real memories. Families were torn apart.
The Foundation does not know the truth or falsity of the reports from families. It believes each accusation should be carefully investigated. Meanwhile, the Foundation looks for patterns in the reports; the patterns have prompted serious questions about the assumption that recollections of abuse were always true, and raised the possibility that at least some of these abuse memories might be false.
|"Psychological studies have shown that it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between a real memory and one that is a product of imagination or some other process." (Loftus, 2002)|
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE OTHER CHARACTERISTICS OF FMS?
John Kihlstrom’s definition above offers a general description of many accusers but some further aspects of these cases bear mention. In virtually every situation of which the Foundation is aware, emotional and psychological distress led the accuser to seek psychotherapy. Often the distress followed a job loss, divorce, eating disorder, relationship problem, or birth or death in the family. Usually the therapy focused exclusively on a search for memory of childhood trauma, but left contemporary concerns unaddressed. The recovered memories often became more bizarre with time and the patient increasingly dependent on the therapist.
People caught in the grip of FMS believe that current adult problems all result from childhood trauma. They assume new identities as "sexual abuse survivors," and refuse to have contact with anyone who does not agree with this newly adopted history. Once kind and loving to their families, they now estrange themselves from them.
|Major professional organizations have issued statements regarding the seriousness of the FMS problem:|
The AMA considers recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse to be of uncertain authenticity, which should be subject to external verification. The use of recovered memories is fraught with problems of potential misapplication.
Council on Scientific Affairs, American Medical Association. (1994)
Serious concern exists about uncorroborated memories recovered in the course of therapy that is narrowly focused on the enhancement of memory of what is hypothesized to be repressed sexual abuse.
Canadian Psychiatric Association. (1996)
Memories, however emotionally intense and significant to the individual, do not necessarily reflect factual events.
Royal College of Psychiatrists. (1997)
WHAT IS THE FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME FOUNDATION?
The FMS Foundation is a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization formed in March 1992 and located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Foundation’s Scientific and Professional Advisory Board, listed above, is composed of prominent researchers and clinicians from the fields of psychiatry, psychology, social work, law, and education. This group advises on issues of memory and therapy practice, and helps set the future direction for the organization. The Foundation’s Board of Directors sets policy and the Executive Director oversees the fiscal and day-to-day operations.
WHO CONTACTS THE FOUNDATION AND WHY?
The most frequent callers are parents reporting false accusations by their adult offspring; many have legal questions. In addition, professionals and students in all fields often call concerning some false memory question. Inquiries also come from people who have retracted their false accusations, as well as from others who ask questions about their own memories. Besides requesting general information, callers ask for help in finding speakers and planning programs. Foundation members say the most important benefit from contacting the Foundation is having the opportunity to talk with both families and professionals.
WHAT HAS THE FOUNDATION ACCOMPLISHED?
Above all, the Foundation has helped families. The following comments are typical:
You have saved my life!
For me, your work has performed a miracle: transforming a baffling personal nightmare into a comprehensible and challenging social problem. Building on the literature you have assembled, I am now able to reach out to enlist other family members to help my daughter.
This is the most worthwhile organization I never intended to join.
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation has also catalyzed societal change. Its efforts have increased both public and professional awareness of the FMS problem as well as promoted greater balance in evaluating recovered-memory claims. The term false memory syndrome has become a part of everyday language. It has been a topic of lawsuits, documentaries, television news reports, talk shows, soap operas, books, continuing education seminars, professional conferences, general psychology textbooks, and almanacs. The Library of Congress has entered it as a subject classification. Hundreds of scholarly articles and many professional journals have been devoted to the topic. These changes began with the very first conference on the topic of false memories, sponsored by the Foundation in 1993.
In addition to the above accomplishments, the FMS Foundation has acted as a clearinghouse for information; given families resources enabling them to become proactive; built a library used by scholars, attorneys, families and the media; submitted friend-of-the-court briefs; sponsored continuing education programs; and published the FMSF Newsletter that continues to keep thousands informed of important developments.
The concept of false memories is not new to the therapeutic community. The debate surrounding false memories of incest is at least as old as Freud. Because of publicity about the harm done to families, however, professional organizations have addressed these issues with increasing intensity. The topic has divided the therapy community as few topics have.
The tide is already being turned...Above all, steady progress in public enlightenment has been forged, over the past two-and-a-half years, by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
DOES THE FOUNDATION SPEAK OUT AGAINST CHILD ABUSE?
Yes. Child sexual abuse is a reprehensible crime. Empirical evidence substantiates that child sexual mistreatment is more common than previously recognized. Every effort should be made to help victims of sexual abuse and to create a social climate in which such mistreatment does not continue to take place. The problem of false memory syndrome is separate from that of child abuse; both must be solved.
|While our awareness of childhood sexual abuse has increased enormously in the last decade and the horrors of its consequences should never be minimized, there is another side to this situation, namely that of the consequences of false allegations where whole families are split apart and terrible pain inflicted on everyone concerned. This side of the story needs to be told, for a therapist may, with the best intentions in the world, contribute to enormous family suffering.|
(Harold Lief as quoted in Sifford, 1991).
WHAT THERAPY PRACTICES CAUSE CONCERN?
The Royal College of Psychiatrists (1997) answered this question eloquently:
Psychiatrists are advised to avoid engaging in any "memory recovery techniques" which are based upon the expectation of past sexual abuse of which the patient has no memory. Such...techniques may include drug-mediated interviews ["truth serum"], hypnosis, regression therapies, guided imagery, "body memories," literal dream interpretation, and journaling. There is no evidence that the use of consciousness-altering techniques, such as drug-mediated interviews or hypnosis, can reveal or accurately elaborate factual information about any past experiences, including sexual abuse.
The practices mentioned above cause two problems: first, they increase the risk of suggestion, and second, patients often come to believe strongly in the truth of therapy-induced false recollections. Extensive research has repeatedly shown that patients believe images arising under hypnosis are accurate because they may contain many details and may be associated with strong emotion. These features, however, do not prove historical accuracy.
Whether they occur in or out of therapy, some memories may be historically accurate, some distorted or confabulated, and some false. No known techniques exist that can guarantee the recovery of historically accurate memories. The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have stated:
There is no completely accurate way of determining the validity of reports in the absence of corroborating information.
(Harold Lief as quoted in Sifford, 1991).
Sometimes opponents of the FMSF say we believe all recovered memories of abuse to be false. In reality, however, our position is and always has been identical to that of the two professional organizations just quoted: some recollections reflect historical truth and some do not. Without external corroboration, no one can determine which recollections are historically accurate and which are not.
WHO IS AFFECTED BY FMS?
Like a pebble dropped into a pond, an accusation has a ripple effect on the entire family: the accuser, the accused, and the non-accused. Parents, brothers, sisters, grandchildren, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends may all be affected. When we studied six extended families, we found that between 42 and 90 lives were touched by the accusation of one person.
As part of an ongoing effort to understand the FMS phenomenon, we have collected demographic information from affected families. For example:
92 percent are female.
74 percent are between ages 31 and 50.
31 percent have education beyond college.
60 percent report memory of abuse prior to age 4.
62 percent accuse fathers of abuse.
30 percent accuse both mother and father of abuse.
18 percent include allegations of satanic ritual abuse.
71 percent of siblings do not believe the accusations.
On April 4th our daughter wrote to her father (70 years old) and me (67 years old). She accused her father of molesting her over and over again and abusing her from ages 3 to 8. She accused her older brother of knowing about the abuse because, she said, his room was under the attic where it was supposed to have gone on. There was no attic in that house. I asked her to go with me to that house to see if there was an attic but she refused. On April 30th, my husband of 46 years died of a ruptured aneurysm. I know he died of a broken heart.
SHOULD I BE CONCERNED ABOUT LEGAL ACTION?
Child abuse is a criminal offense. Anyone who has been accused of a crime should consult a lawyer.
In the past it was not uncommon for families to contact the Foundation to say that they were being sued. Starting in 1994, the number of such calls began to decrease. As of 2014, the Foundation is aware of only a handful of suits against parents each year.
As Courts learned about the malleable nature of memory and the unreliable nature of claims of recovered memories, they began to change the manner in which recovered memory claims were handled. For example, some courts agreed to hold special pre-trial hearings on the scientific status of repressed memories. Such hearings represented an important advance in judicial understanding and practice, because they often result in exclusion of testimony about repression and recovered recollections. Of equal importance, other courts began to insist on verifiable evidence of the alleged wrongdoing.
In June of 1994, the Ramona case in California was the first in which a third party -- the father, who was not a patient and whose daughter had sued him -- was allowed to sue his daughter’s therapists. This case, which received national attention, seemed to alert many in the mental health system to the serious nature of the recovered memory problem. Although many obstacles impede filing and winning such third-party suits, some have been initiated over the years. In 2012, for example, Charles and Karen Johnson were awarded a million dollars in a Wisconsin third-party suit.
Many retractors -- people who came to understand their recovered memories were false -- sued their former therapists. For example, in 1995, two retractors in Minneapolis won upwards of $2 million each in malpractice actions against their psychiatrist, Diane Humenansky. Two years later, psychiatrist Bennett Braun and Chicago teaching hospital Rush Presbyterian settled a suit for a record figure- $10.6 million.
The FMS Foundation neither encourages nor provides financial support for lawsuits. It does provide information about the scientific status of recovered repressed memory claims.
|The phenomenon of memory repression, and the process of therapy used in these cases to recover the memories, have not gained general acceptance in the field of psychology; [they] are not scientifically reliable.|
William J. Groff, Presiding Justice New Hampshire Superior Court, May 23, 1995
WHAT IS A FLASHBACK?
The use of the term flashback, for a vivid image or sequence of images occurring while a patient is awake, first appeared in the substance abuse literature; it referred to altered states of awareness caused by drug use, especially LSD. Although the term was introduced as a metaphor, the content of flashbacks began to be treated as historically accurate in the sexual abuse and trauma literature. There is no evidence, however, that flashbacks are historically accurate. Fred Frankel, M.D. (1994) has noted, "Contextual factors such as expectation, in addition to the suggestibility of patients and the social construct of role-playing, influence in a crucial way the creating and content of flashbacks." Simply stated, a flashback is not proof that abuse occurred.
WHAT ARE BODY MEMORIES?
Some patients have tried to explain their physical distress as coming from repressed "body memories" of incest. Therapists have told patients that "the body remembers what the mind forgets," that many physical sensations are symptoms of forgotten childhood sexual mistreatment, and that memories are recorded in cellular DNA. Because of such beliefs, some therapists have recommended massage therapy and other physical techniques to help patients "access" abuse memories.
Absolutely no scientific evidence supports these notions and practices. Rather, memories are encoded and stored in specific regions of the brain, and memory retrieval takes place in various brain structures. A physical pain or sensation is not proof that abuse occurred.
IS AN EATING DISORDER A SIGN OF SEXUAL ABUSE?
Some therapists assume that anyone with an eating disorder undoubtedly was abused. This belief is unfounded. The October 1997 Harvard Mental Health Letter notes, for example, that the connection between child sexual abuse as a cause of eating disorders has not been confirmed, and that some recent studies raise serious doubts about it.
Another belief is that aversions to foods (such as bananas, mashed potatoes, or pickles) indicate past sexual mistreatment. The presence of an aversion, however, does not tell how it came about; to infer a cause-and-effect relationship is to dabble in pure speculation. Neither food aversions nor eating disorders prove that abuse occurred.
CAN A CHECKLIST OF SYMPTOMS BE USED TO TELL IF SEXUAL ABUSE OCCURRED?
The recovered memory literature claims that many symptoms in addition to flashbacks, body memories, and eating disorders, indicate past abuse. Thus, because of this literature, some therapists tell their patients that many behaviors -- having headaches, getting tattoos, suffering from irritable bowels, showing high appreciation of small favors by others, or fearing dentists -- prove past abuse. Others assert that wearing loose clothes (or wearing tight clothes), being unable to express anger (or being constantly angry), being afraid of sex (or being sexually compulsive), or taking risks (or not taking risks) all reveal past sexual mistreatment.
In fact, psychologist Ray London (1995) compiled a list of over 900 different symptoms that had been claimed as proof of past abuse. When he reviewed the professional literature, he found that not one of the 900 symptoms reliably proved an abuse history. No checklist of signs or symptoms proves the occurrence of past sexual abuse.
There is no single set of symptoms which automatically indicates that a person was a victim of abuse."
American Psychological Association (1995).
ARE TRAUMATIC MEMORIES MORE ACCURATE?
Many scientific studies show that events accompanied by strong emotion are likely to be remembered, but no evidence demonstrates that they are any more accurate than any other recollections. Research shows that all memory is subject to the ordinary processes of misperception, distortion, decay, and change. The scientific evidence is clear: memories of events, whether traumatic or not, are reconstructed (that is, continuously reworked over time). As a result, all recollections are subject to change as time passes.
A competing belief exists in the recovered memory literature, however, that people commonly repress memories of horrible events and can accurately recover them years later. This belief often referred to as a theory of repression (or dissociation or traumatic amnesia), is based on several assumptions that lack scientific support.
Unfounded Beliefs about Repression:
IS THERE EVIDENCE SUPPORTING THE COLLECTION OF BELIEFS ABOUT REPRESSION?
Pope et al. (1998) reviewed all studies published since 1960 in which investigators had recruited victims of specific traumatic events and had prospectively assessed their psychological symptoms. A prospective study eliminates the problem of recall bias that can happen when people are asked to remember past events. Pope et al. found no evidence for repression. Indeed, for more than sixty years, researchers have been seeking scientific evidence that people repress traumatic memories. To date, they have found none. In summary, "the reality is that most people who are victims of childhood sexual abuse remember all or part of what happened to them." (American Psychological Association, 1995)
Memory research refutes the other beliefs as well. No special mental mechanism protecting a memory from natural decay has ever been found. And no scientific evidence shows that psychological healing requires unearthing memories.
Evidence does abound, however, about the malleability of human memory. That is, when therapists engage in excavating their patients’ memories, they almost certainly shape what their patients recall. Scientific experiments have shown that it is remarkably easy to influence people so that they come to believe in false memories. Garry and Loftus (1994) reported the "lost in a mall" experiment in which some people were led to describe a time when they were lost in a shopping mall -- an event that never happened. And Mazzoni and Loftus (1998) showed that suggestions in a therapy setting made by a clinical psychologist about the content of dreams led some patients to believe in past events that did not happen.
Memory appears to be stored as distributed ensembles of synaptic change. Neural networks are continuously resculpted as time passes after learning, i.e., there are both gains and losses of synaptic connectivity, and gradual changes in the substrate of memory. In general, what is understood about the biology of memory fits traditional psychological accounts of memory that emphasize its proneness to error and reconstruction, and change over time.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY MEMORIES ARE TRUE?
Sometimes people call the Foundation and ask us if their recovered memories are true (historically accurate). We must respond by saying that, unfortunately, we could never know what happened to other people many years ago. Again, without some independent external corroboration, no one can discern true from false memories. When callers ask this question, we generally urge them to consider how these memories came to them. If repeated and suggestive questioning, inappropriate group therapy practices, imagination exercises, or "memory enhancement" techniques such as hypnosis were involved, we caution callers that although they may believe that they are remembering more, no evidence supports using these techniques for uncovering historically reliable memories. Hypnosis and sodium amytal ("truth serum") are especially unreliable for these purposes.
Although other "memory work" techniques have not been studied as systematically as hypnosis, cognitive psychologists have warned about techniques like guided imagery, relaxation exercises, trance writing and stream-of-consciousness journaling. With these techniques, patients make no effort to apply critical and logical thought processes. In addition, they can induce a hypnotic state, with its well-known risk of increased suggestibility. Scientists have also noted the risks of believing in dream interpretation. Dreams are not videotapes of events; thus interpretations, even if made by experts, are completely subjective, and therefore of dubious reliability.
Memory does not work like a videotape recorder. There just is no button to push or pill to take that can guarantee historically accurate memories. Memory is constructive: that is, people take bits and fragments of recollections from the past and use them to reconstruct a narrative that makes sense to them in the here and now. Memory gaps get filled in with new information mixed with old, and it becomes impossible to separate the two. Again, the truth or falsity of a memory cannot be discerned in the absence of external corroboration.
We quite literally ’make up stories’ about our lives, the world, and reality in general. Often it is the story that creates the memory, rather than vice versa.
(Hastie and Dawes, 2010)
WHY WOULD SOMEONE REMEMBER SOMETHING SO HORRIBLE IF IT DIDN’T REALLY HAPPEN?
This is a haunting question. Several forces in our cultural climate nurture belief in the relationship between past sexual abuse and present individual pathology. This relationship has been endlessly trumpeted in pop psychology books, on television talk shows, in the movies, and in novels. These forces prepare people to accept the possibility that they were victims.
After these societal forces have nurtured the belief, it may be activated when a patient encounters a therapist who holds strongly to this belief system. When people enter therapy, they do so to get better. They want to change, they search for some explanation for their problems, and they come to trust the person they have chosen to help them. They also tend to rely on the therapist’s opinion. If the person believes that a patient’s problems result from past trauma, and that the patient will not get better without remembering, naturally the patient will work to find what he or she thinks is a trauma memory in order to improve.
Once the belief in past abuse has formed, it can be reinforced in a variety of ways. For example, therapists may do so by reinterpreting other events in patients’ lives in a negative way, or therapists may encourage the patients to read self-help books that tell them how to act and what to think. Patients may be advised to cut off contact with anyone who does not support the new beliefs, thus eliminating any opportunity for alternative explanations. Another powerful reinforcer of such beliefs occurs during hospitalizations where patients may find themselves immersed in an environment in which everyone holds the same belief system. Because support groups offer acceptance of newly formed beliefs, patients may be urged to join them. Finally, some patients may cling to these abuse memories because they provide "an answer" for their psychological pain.
WHAT ABOUT SATANIC RITUAL ABUSE AND ALIEN ABDUCTION?
About 18 percent of the families surveyed by the Foundation tell us they have been accused of being part of an intergenerational cult that dressed up in robes, sacrificed babies, and engaged in cannibalism and bestiality. No evidence supports belief in such an intergenerational cult.
We have received calls from relatives concerned about family members who have come to believe they were abducted and abused by space aliens, or abused in past lives. There is no scientific evidence for these beliefs either.
Until hard evidence is obtained and corroborated, the public should not be frightened into believing that babies are being bred and eaten, that 50,000 missing children are being murdered in human sacrifices, or that satanists are taking over America’s day care centers or institutions. No one can prove with absolute certainty that such activity has NOT occurred. The burden of proof, however, as it would be in a criminal prosecution, is on those who claim that it has occurred. The explanation that the satanists are too organized and law enforcement is too incompetent only goes so far in explaining the lack of evidence. For at least eight years American law enforcement has been aggressively investigating the allegations of victims of ritual abuse. There is little or no evidence for the portion of their allegations that deals with large-scale baby breeding, human sacrifice, and organized satanic conspiracies. Now it is up to mental health professionals, not law enforcement, to explain why victims are alleging things that don’t seem to have happened.
HAS THE FOUNDATION RECEIVED CALLS ABOUT MPD?
Some parents, after learning that their children have been diagnosed as having DID, ask for information about the condition. (The original term "multiple personality disorder" was changed to "dissociative identity disorder" in DSM-IV.) The disorder is supposedly characterized by the presence within the patient of two or more "alters" (or "identities" or "personalities") that periodically assume control of the patient’s behavior. During these times, the main personality (known as the "host") is unaware of its surroundings and actions; the patient "comes to" when the secondary personality relinquishes control.
The problem with this picture becomes clear when one examines how the disorder is diagnosed. Alter personalities are, of course, invisible. Thus, a person’s observable behavior provides the only clue to an alter’s presence. However, no one - not even the experts - agrees on just what should and should not be considered to be alter-induced behaviors. Such a situation results in pure chaos; the experts actually do consider anything - driving a car, raising children, changing clothes, becoming angry, engaging in sex, blinking the eyes, even baking chocolate-chip cookies - to be the work of "personalities."
In the recovered-memory/DID literature, enthusiasts repeatedly state (based not on scientific evidence but rather on belief) that DID results from childhood sexual mistreatment. Even if a patient denies being sexually maltreated as a child, enthusiasts have a ready explanation: the memory was "repressed." This literature also repeatedly claims that the DID patient cannot improve until she unearths and discusses every single one of her supposedly repressed childhood abuse recollections.
And so the cruel chain of illogic is forged. Based on any of literally thousands of behaviors, a therapist "diagnoses" a person as having DID. The patient must, therefore, unquestionably have been traumatized as a child. Healing requires memories. If no memories bubble to the surface, the therapist stirs the pot ever more vigorously, thus setting in motion the never-ending search for abuse memories.
Questions about the legitimacy of the diagnosis of Sybil, perhaps the most well-known "multiple," have been raised over the years. Most recently, Debbie Nathan (2011) laid bare the highly suggestive treatment and the many medications that discredited the diagnosis in the in the book.
It is imperative that all involved in this debate work hard to ensure that the standards of science, not rhetoric or pseudoscience, constitute the framework for future discussion.
WHAT DOES THE FOUNDATION KNOW ABOUT RETRACTORS AND RETRACTIONS?
Retractors are people who say that their memories of abuse were wrong. People retract because they believe their memories of abuse were false; their accusations unfounded. What led them to retract varies from person to person. Some changed therapists, or left therapy because their insurance ran out; others had supportive spouses, siblings, or friends, who helped serve as important reality checks; others read about people in similar circumstances, or saw something on television, and started to read more about memory; some, without initially retracting, returned to the family because of a significant event - wedding, illness, birth, or death - and only later in that familiar environment began to question their memories.
The majority of people resume contact with their families before retracting. In several situations, the services of someone in the role of a mediator were used to explore the accuracy of the accusations, often leading to family reconciliation.
The experience we have with retractors reinforces our belief that as painful as the loss and alienation might be, there is hope for reconciliation in many families.
A Retractor’s Story
I entered therapy in the late fall of 1985 because I was unhappy at the way I was dealing with my son, age 9. I thought he might need some counseling because he had seemed very angry for a young child. Soon the therapy began to focus only on my adult issues and we did not work with my son. Clinical depression runs in my family, but the therapist kept me involved in digging up my past. He kept looking for more, more, more! My mother died in January, 1992 before I had a chance to tell her how sorry I was for the accusations. I now make my apologies at her grave. After her death, I stopped working on trying to find memories and began dealing with my loss and my marriage, which was falling apart. Slowly, I began to wean myself from the therapist. My husband and I had started marriage counseling with another therapist whom I began to trust. In the meantime, I read about the case of Dr. Bean-Bayog and Paul Lozano and heard about FMS. It took me eight more months to finally get clear. This past year has been very painful to me as I’ve really begun to acknowledge what I lost as a result of therapy. I went from being a very productive woman who was raising three children and serving on a school committee to a dependent, depressed, regressed, and suicidal woman. It’s amazing to me that this situation could have occurred and wreaked such havoc on my life.
HOW DO I REACH MY CHILD?
Perhaps the most frequent question of all is from parents who ask us what they can do to reach their own children. When possible, families should try to maintain contact in non-confrontational ways. Cards or letters or phone calls may keep the family in touch when personal contact is cut off. Postcards with messages of love are effective because no envelope needs to be opened for the message to be seen. Sometimes, unfortunately, the best that can be done is to rely on other family members or a family doctor or pastor to stay in touch with the accuser.
Finding ways to maintain contact is a challenge. A retractor recently told us she thought her parents didn’t care about her because they didn’t make every effort to stay in touch. Then she remembered that she had threatened to sue them if they did contact her! People who once seemed logical put away their logic when caught in the FMS belief system.
Parents often ask if they should send their children information about memory or FMS. Because most accusers have closed their minds, this otherwise valuable information is likely to fall on deaf ears. Although there may be long-term benefits to sending information about memory or FMS, it is likely to be perceived as threatening and, therefore, may contribute to added stress in the short term. However, the many examples of families in which contact has been resumed provide us with reason to maintain hope.
We are now talking to each other on the phone weekly. We try when talking to have only good feelings which is not hard because we love her very much, and we are happy to keep the lines of communication open. Neither of us speaks of the conflict we have gone through. When my husband and I talk it over later we know, of course, that nothing has really been solved, but I do not expect it to change, at least in the near future...I realize that this may not work for some families but in our case it is the only thing we feel that we can do.
WHAT IS GOOD THERAPY?
Valid therapy practice should help patients assume responsibility for their lives, cope with their problems in the here-and-now, and learn skills that will be useful to them in the future. According to the September 1995 Harvard Mental Health Letter, more than 400 varieties of therapies have been identified, but only a handful has been evaluated to determine their effectiveness. In general, therapies demonstrated as effective are cognitive or behavioral. Good therapists should describe the strengths and weaknesses of their programs.
Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family counselors all bring different expertise and focus to their work; they are usually licensed and therefore can be paid through insurance and held accountable for their work. Not all people who advertise their therapeutic services are licensed. In most states, anyone can get a small business license and claim to be a therapist. Counseling programs and hypnotherapy programs abound, eager to supply certification for attending weekend workshops. Good therapists should make their credentials known.
At the present time, individual states are responsible for monitoring therapists. Because of the many different requirements for becoming a therapist, the monitoring process is a hodge-podge of confusion. Both the public and the mental health profession would be better served by stronger procedures for monitoring therapists and evaluating the effectiveness of new therapies.
Strange as it may seem for such an exacting discipline with such potential to influence people’s lives for good or ill, psychotherapy is not a licensed profession. Therapy is an "unregulated field." No regulatory body at any governmental level oversees certification and maintenance of professional standards for the practice of psychotherapy...Legally, anyone can call him or herself a "psychotherapist."
(Engler and Goleman, 1992).
IS FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME THE SAME FOR YOUNG CHILDREN?
The Foundation has received thousands of calls from people who are accused by young children. The situation with children is similar to adult FMS when examining memory accuracy, suggestibility, and interviewing techniques. However, when minor children make accusations, child welfare agencies, police, and custody issues are usually involved. Accusing adults speak for themselves, do not generally claim to be in immediate danger, and are not dependent on those they accuse. That is not the case for children, who must be protected.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM HISTORY?
The witch-craze of the 16th and 17th centuries made clear that validation means something much more than proposing ways -- even consistent ways -- to make the diagnosis even of something that does not exist. That is, the witch hunters received explicit and operational ways of identifying witches. They taught each other and wrote their procedures in a large and influential book. This book entitled Malleus Maleficarum or the Hammer of Witches spelled out in exquisite detail the kinds of behaviors that characterize the witch and identify the evidence on her body of congress with devils, incubi and succubi. The Malleus had as its epigraph: Haeresis est maxima opera maleficarum non credere (to disbelieve in witchcraft is the greatest of heresies).
What was learned from this that might illuminate practices with repressed memories? The fact that there is a manual telling how to recognize the manifestations of repressed memories does not confirm them. It is an exercise in creating a consistent approach to the diagnosis amongst therapists -- a uniformity of diagnostic practice and does not validate the presumed abusive experience...
The issue for repressed memories is validation -- and validation in every case when it appears... To treat for repressed memories without any effort at external validation is malpractice pure and simple; malpractice on the basis of standards of care that have developed out of the history of psychiatric service -- as with witches -- and malpractice because a misdirection of therapy will injure the patient and the family.
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(First published 1452.)
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