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Retractors Speak

FMSF News Alert - September 22, 2015

Dear Friends,

A recent discussion in a Facebook group calling themselves "The False Memory Syndrome Action Network"* caught our attention. The discussion involved a number of false memory retractors explaining the ways in which their false memories differed from their true memories. We emailed several retractors, asking for their insights on this subject to share with our readers.

What follows are the thoughts and comments by several retractors, some who left recovered memory therapy over 20 years ago and some who retracted as recently as within the past 2 years.

We asked: "In what way(s) were your "recovered" memories different from your other memories?"

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When I remember my repressed/recovered memories it’s like I’m reading about them in a newspaper, not like I just remember them happening, like I’m reading about them happening to someone else. The recovered memories caused emotional pain in the same way real bad memories cause pain. Pain is pain I guess, but after retracting my recovered memories, they began fading away while my true bad memories still hurt.

- Roma Hart

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My false memories started as actual memories that didn’t have an ending, then [my therapists] would encourage me to write an ending to them.

- A retractor

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My recovered memories never really felt like they had happened to me. It was more like I was remembering what happened to somebody else. That’s why I believed it when they said that I had multiple personalities.

- E.J.

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The short answer, as pointed out by my psychiatrist, is when I recalled a real memory I had affect. I felt and showed emotions. Although I didn’t question the veracity of my memories, when I would tell my psychiatrist some truly gruesome, atrocious memory, my affect was nonexistent.

The following is the longer version of the differences in my true memories and the false memories:

I never questioned my memories as I was growing up. My memories were clear. I could remember who, what, where, why, and my emotions. It didn’t matter one iota whether I was remembering a happy or sad occasion. I can still picture my first memory. I am about 3 years old, sitting on the front steps of my house. I can vaguely recall the new houses being built on either side of mine. While sitting on the front stairs, my new neighbor’s son came over. He became my first friend.

Given that my memories pre-treatment were so clear, I must tell you about what happened when I tried to forget one memory and one memory only. Attempting to forget drove me nuts. I was molested at the age of around 6 or 7 years old. I remembered all aspects of that event - how it started, where it took place, the person involved, and the guilt I felt for "allowing" it to happen. I didn’t want to remember it. For years I tried to convince myself that it hadn’t occurred. While seeing a psychologist for treatment of clinical depression, I told him about my memory and that I didn’t know whether or not it was true. I was told there was a way to find out - hypnosis. Before the hypnosis, my psychologist told me exactly what questions he would ask. During the hypnosis, he asked those questions and I answered non-verbally. What I’d tried for years to obliterate from my mind was true. I was devastated. But I was able to acknowledge and accept my feelings. The truth is that I never really forgot this molestation, I had been trying to forget but couldn’t.

My depression continued for so long that my psychologist referred me to a psychiatrist for medication. Within 6 months of treatment with psychiatrist Dr. Bennett Braun, I went from not only clinically depressed but being diagnosed with multiple personality disorder-polyfragmented.

My false memories were obtained through hypnosis, artwork, my journals, cross-contamination on the unit, etc. The memories were always horrific. I always had difficulty believing that beloved family members, relatives, family friends, my dad’s coworkers, and others had ever abused me, nor could I believe that I had committed horrific atrocities. But if I said "This couldn’t have happened", I would be asked to hold out my hands. If my "yes" finger rose when asked about the memory, they told me it must be true. Supposedly my subconscious was conveying the veracity of these memories through my fingers. Therapists and staff always believed finger signals over verbal responses.

Details and emotions were practically non-existent. The details were flushed out through long therapy sessions entailing finger signals, journal entries, hypnosis and sodium brevital/amytal sessions. Reliving the event and experiencing the emotions occurred through abreactive sessions usually involving 4-point restraints. Fortunately for me, unlike other patients, I shut down when placed in 4-point restraints. In order to be emotionally healthy and integrate, I had to remember all the gory details and relive every minute of the false memories.

It is important for families to understand that it takes time for the mind to heal. It takes time to know what memories are real and what memories are false. For a very long time, I would have memories but it was like remembering through a haze - did this happen or not? I would ask family and friends if my memory occurred. I know - too bad I hadn’t thought of that during my years of treatment. In conclusion, the memories I now have are authentic. I have practically no recall of my false memories, with the possible exception of those involving family members. I probably remember those because of the guilt I feel for making false accusations.

- Carolyn Mayer (f/k/a Elizabeth Gale)

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I have no question as to the truth of my real memories. They are solid recollections with a few details forgotten.

My false memories did not have the same ring of truth as the real memories I’ve always had; the false memories were hazy and amorphous. It was like trying to make a dream into reality. No amount of trying ever made my "recovered" memories feel like my real ones.

- J. Bartha

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Although my real memories might be recalled with slightly accurate details, these details were only in terms of size, colours or timing. My recovered memories contained details that were illogical, physically impossible, or with an impossible time-frame.

My recovered memories always began with an overwhelming feeling or emotion. These emotions would be "explored and examined" in therapy, which resulted in generating a type of home movie or picture in my mind. For example, I may have a feeling that "I don’t trust men" and then I would be guided by my therapist to bring to mind any picture which might explain this feeling. I would picture something, then that picture would develop into a short movie that included horrific details that could not be verified by anyone - unless you count the therapist or other "survivors" in the same type of therapy. Details would be such things as being taken out of bed at night by a family member or family friend, and kept up for sadistic purposes. These "memories" would often be highly unrealistic - sometimes with cousins who would have been two years old at the time being the perpetrators or involving acts that would have left noticeable wounds and scars. In contrast, the gist of my real memories could usually be substantiated by family members or other evidence.

- Karen

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Some part of me found the strength to question my recovered memories the whole time and come to the conclusion (before driving further wedges in my family relationships) that these memories were extremely unlikely to be true.

The thing about [the scenarios in my false memories] is that there was already a part of me that would have happily accommodated them. This is the part of me that wondered why I was the way I was, why I was in so much pain and torment; the part that needed validation of the terrible pain I went through; the part of me that didn’t trust my parents; the part of me that felt like I had to compete and prove that there was enough devastation in my past to be considered a real victim and therefore worthy of the pain I was in and the problems I had; the part of me that had to understand; the part of me that asked "why" and never got an answer. I thought that knowing this "root issue" would set me free in all those ways, because now I would have an answer to those questions and my needs would be met. Then I could be healed and not be affected by mental illness anymore.

I think I understand on some level why a false memory, as screwed up as it is, is attractive to some. It was attractive to me when it was dressed up as "the root cause" of my complex problems and sold to me as an instant fix. It was attractive because some part of me knew something wasn’t right and my mind would not rest without an answer to unanswerable questions.

I think for a young woman who is struggling with issues like eating disorders, addiction, or depression - especially if they feel they are ignored at home or certain things get played down - this is what can make the false memory attractive to her. It’s not that she is seeking it out, but if she comes into contact with a counselor who operates like this, or is ready to tell her they can reveal the singular cause of all her problems, she will seek validation on that.

My problems aren’t all gone, but I have made a lot of progress over a long time. I’ve had some serious setbacks at times including a major breakdown, but I’m still here. I still wish there was a quick fix, but acceptance that there rarely is has made me more resilient which has helped me cope better with the "waves" when they come as I am less likely to seek an unrealistic escape.

I hope this helps someone today, whether you are recovering from false memories, or it has impacted you as a family member.

- Sarah

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All things changed for me in 1991. I was an 18 year old high school senior feeling stressed about graduating and entering the Air Force. When I heard Roseanne Barr saying she had recovered memories in psychotherapy of being an incest victim, I told my peer counselor that I felt something may have happened to me. My peer counselor recommended I go to Charter Hospital for help. I entered the hospital, thinking that they were going to help me with the turmoil of transition from high school to the military. Instead, over the coming days the hospital staff gave me "The Courage to Heal", by Ellen Bass and the "Courage to Heal Workbook" by Laura Davis. The book states, "If you are unable to remember any specific instances [of abuse] but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did." I read this statement repeatedly as I allowed the book to fill my soul. The book became my bible - I would take notes about the stories in it, and then repeat those stories to my counselors as if they had happened to me. No one ever questioned me; instead they wanted to know more about my "memories" and invited me to attend group therapy.

In group therapy we would sit in a circle, supporting one another as we told about the abuse we had undergone. The group members would compete with each other for the best story. At first, my memories weren’t nearly as dramatic as the other members, but after being told off by the therapists in front of the group I began to create more sensational "memories".

This went one for years, as my happy childhood memories were slowly ripped to shreds, replaced by false memories that my father had ritually abused me, committed murders, and even that he was the Grand Wizard of the KKK.

My husband tells me now that he never believed these "memories" because I would repeat them as if reading lines off a script, in a monotone voice, and without making eye contact. For me, the memories never evoked many feelings. I would say them aloud, and that was that.

In 1994, I was watching a Frontline documentary where a woman was being interviewed who had a very similar story to my own. I sat glued to the TV as this story played out about a woman who had false memories; it turned out this was Patty Burgus. In a way, Patricia’s story saved my life; I wanted to challenge my doctor so my husband and I went to see him. I questioned him about my diagnosis. The doctor replied to both my husband and me that I was diagnosed this way in order to get the insurance to pay, as the insurance would not question a more severe diagnosis. I remember walking out and saying to Brian, "I am never going back to him!"

Over the years, numerous people have asked me "How do you know those memories are real?" Trying to separate false memories from real memories is tricky especially if you are taking psychotropic medication. However, after stopping the medication and getting away from the doctors the dramatic memories I had been experiencing stopped. As I started to piece my life back together I realized that these memories could never have happened. I had not even been around my father at the time the events in the "memories" supposedly took place. It had not been real. They were false memories induced by medication and psychotherapy. With the help and support of my family, I have become a strong and outspoken member of the false memory community.

In answer to the question of how I knew my recovered memories were different, it is not easy to answer. I would have to say that there was always a part of me that never believed they were real. I guess, when you have someone in a position of authority telling you they are real and you are ridiculed for saying you do not believe them, group pressure may change your outward behavior; however, the therapists were never able to change my core belief that none of it ever really happened.

- Maxine Berry

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When I was in therapy, my so-called "memories" were snippets and flashes popping into my head while lying on a couch with my eyes closed, often after having worked all night in my job at the jailhouse. I would see these flashes of everything under the sun and whenever any family member was in one, the therapist would say, "Go deeper - dig deeper," or "When are you going to admit your family was abusing you?" Those "memories" felt real, but they were not reality.

After coming out of four years of the constant suggestion, intimidation, hospitalization, and pills, I struggled with what to believe and what not to believe. When I began litigation (and for my own sanity), I had to put every single "memory" on a back burner then start with what I knew to be true in the beginning. For example, I had been molested by a stranger at a swimming pool at about age 9. I didn’t think of it much over the years, but one night I was with my boyfriend and the feelings of it came flooding back like a wave over me. There were no flashes, no snippets, just a wave of emotion. The endless "recovered memories" did not feel the same and never have since.

I cherish my mind and memories now. I’ve made peace with myself and my past. I thank God for all experiences in my life. He has certainly used my time in recovered memory therapy to help others. And isn’t that what makes the bad stuff worth going through?

- Laura Pasley, Retractor 1991

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Pamela and J. Bean

Footnote:

*The social media group "The False Memory Syndrome Action Network" or "FMS-AN" is not a part of the FMS Foundation. It is a self-monitored peer support and discussion group. Those interested in joining may request membership at Facebook Group. A valid Facebook account is required.