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Dr. Phil and False Memories

FMSF News Alert - February 24, 2014

Dear Friends,

How many letters have FMSF families written to Dr. Phil over the years asking him to explain that a person can truly believe that he or she has recovered-memories of abuse, but that those memories could be totally false? Countless letters.

You will be pleased, then, that Dr. Phil finally aired two programs featuring a woman who was questioning her recovered memories.

February 17, 2014 -- Sex Abuse and Murder: A Daughter’s Repressed Memories or Lies?
February 18, 2014 -- Is This Daughter Having False Memories? -- The Polygraph Results.

In brief: a woman named Tracy claims that she recovered memories that she and others were sexually abused by her father and grandfather and that her mother murdered Tracy’s childhood friend and buried her in the yard. Dr. Phil and his staff hired investigators to examine Tracy’s claims of recovered-memories. None could be corroborated.

Tracy’s mother took a lie detector test and passed with flying colors.

Dr. Phil declares that Tracy’s recovered-memories are, in fact, false memories.

DR PHIL: I asked Dr Charles Sophy to join us today. He’s the Medical Director for the County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, he’s a psychiatrist, he is a very well-known author, he’s also a member of the Dr Phil Advisory Board.

Dr Sophy, let’s talk about the difference between repressed memories and false memories. Let’s put up a definition first of false memory syndrome:

"[A]n apparent memory of an imagined event, usually traumatic and remote in time; generally used pejoratively to imply that the memory was engendered by the therapist facilitating its recovery; obviously a controversial concept."

Dr Sophy, what happens here?

DR SOPHY: It becomes a suggested thought that the person then believes. And they start to add to it as they go through it and they grow and they grow and they grow.

DR PHIL: So much like a lawyer would be accused of leading a witness, the therapist-- and in this case in 1991 the therapist observed that you seemed to be behaving as though you had been molested and you said ‘no, no, no’. The therapist said ‘well don’t believe that’, so went straight to hypnosis and hypnosis is based on suggestion, correct?

DR SOPHY: Correct, and then it becomes a reality in her mind.

DR PHIL: Now let’s talk about repressed memory: "an event that occurred in a subject’s past, the memory of which was actively repressed often because of the psychologically devastating impact of that memory." Now what this saying is that a repressed memory can be something that’s just too terrible to think about so your consciousness pushes it out of your attention even though you continue to behave in a way that’s impacted by it and you have to understand even then-- people who come back twenty years later and say, ‘Oh, I’ve had this repressed memory’ and it’s almost -- not always but frequently involves sexual molestation. It’s a very controversial concept. I have to tell you I was in private practice for over a decade, never saw a legitimate circumstance that I considered to be repressed memory. Doesn’t mean that haven’t occurred, but I haven’t seen it.

In 2012 and 2013, Dr. Phil was the most watched syndicated daytime talk show. [1] Perhaps these programs will help others to examine their own memories. He certainly showed that a good-faith effort at finding corroboration is possible.

[1]. Rice, L. (2013, Sept 24). Daytime ratings: The Talk tied with The View. Entertainment. Retrieved on February 23, 2014 from Inside TV.

Pamela Freyd and J. Bean