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Going Back to Basics

FMSF News Alert - October 6, 2018

Dear Friends,

It is never a simple task to evaluate a claim of abuse from decades ago. For the alleged victim there is no smoking gun to recover, and for the accused it’s impossible to prove a solid alibi. How do we even begin?

The accusations which have been the focus of the FMS Foundation for the past 25+ years have followed a consistent pattern. The accusers had no memory of having been abused, then later came to believe they’d been abused (usually by identifying symptoms thought to be consistent with abuse survivorship), then reported having "recovered memories" of events of which they’d previously been unaware. This type of abuse accusation has been called by various names including "Repressed Memory", "Dissociative Traumatic Amnesia", or "Psychogenic Amnesia". For our purposes here, we will be referring to it as "Repressed Memory" or "RM".

Repressed Memory (RM) theory is controversial for many reasons. The suggestive and leading methodologies recommended by the proponents of the theory have been shown to cause false memories. The therapies themselves have been demonstrated to cause great harm to patients and families. Even the very existence of such a memory phenomenon has not been adequately demonstrated to exist. Repressed Memory theory differs substantially from what is known about how traumatic memories are processed:

Established: Emotional arousal encourages the storage of memories such that emotionally charged memories are more likely to be recalled than non-emotional ones.

Unestablished RM Theory: The mind cannot handle trauma so oftentimes traumatic memories are autonomically removed from consciousness.

Established: Adrenalin and hyper-focusing either on the source of fear or on something to distract from it can cause details to go unnoticed but the general substance of the event is remembered.

Unestablished RM Theory: The entirety of a traumatic event is immediately removed from consciousness but compartmentalized and preserved with details intact for later retrieval.

Established: The more often an event occurs, the more likely one will recall it having happened. Perhaps not every episode of occurrence will be remembered, but the fact that it has happened will be remembered.

Unestablished RM Theory: The more frequently a traumatic event occurs, the more likely that all instances will be entirely forgotten for years.

Established: Traumatic experiences often result in intrusive memories despite attempts at "willed forgetting", most especially during the period immediately following the experience, then sometimes triggered again by later reminders.

Unestablished RM Theory: Traumatic experiences are often completely forgotten immediately following the events, then reliably brought to conscious awareness in later years.

Established: Traumatic events will sometimes cause symptoms in a person’s life due to the trauma experienced, but there are no symptoms unique to only those who have experienced a particular trauma.

Unestablished RM Theory: Symptoms in a person’s life can accurately indicate that a traumatic event occurred, even if the person has no memory of a trauma.

Ultimately, the only way to distinguish a true memory from a false one is by external corroboration - which is not always possible to obtain. That’s a frustratingly unsatisfying answer when so much is at stake, but any other response would be disingenuous.

For more information, we recommend:

McNally, Richard J. Remembering Trauma. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

Pendergrast, Mark. The Repressed Memory Epidemic: How It Happened and What We Need to Learn from It. Springer, 2017.

JBean and Pam