Human memory is a strange and powerful thing, but it's also damned unreliable. It's been shown that memories of events that never happened can be implanted in people. FMS is most commonly caused by an unscrupulous or inept therapist (often of dubious scientific training). Memories of childhood abuse are what they usually implant. This can result in great suffering and grief for everyone involved (except the therapist).

I'm not completely convinced that False Memory Syndrome has never occured, but I'm not inclined to take it all that seriously. Whether or not it exists, the publicity it has gotten has deeply impaired the credibility of people who really did experience child sexual abuse (and also physical abuse, but that's slightly more believable to many people).

Reader's Digest once printed a story about one woman's experience with implanted false memories, and quoted her as saying "If you didn't remember being abused, you probably weren't." This is complete bullshit, and I wrote a letter to Reader's Digest telling them so; a lot of sexual abuse victims block out what's happening, refuse to think about it, because as kids they don't see anything else they can do to deal with it.

I did this, locking the room door if I had to be alone in the house with my grandfather without actually admitting to myself why I was doing it. I was 17, three years after the abuse stopped, before I could remember the details of what happened. (I never saw a therapist until shortly before my 19th birthday.)

So anyway, the fact that FMS might exist does not mean that abuse doesn't. Big groups performing ritual Satanic abuse probably don't exist, but a scarily large number of individuals who think they can use children however they please do exist. Don't let your reluctance to believe these things could happen make you think FMS is the explanation for every abuse accusation.

Memory is fickle. Sometimes, people have great confidence in the accuracy of a particular memory...even if it can be proven that the event they claim to remember never actually happened. For example, a psychologist named Ulric Neisser likes to tell a story about one of his false memories:

Pearl Harbor was bombed on the day before Neisser's 13th birthday. On that day, he was sitting in his living room listening to a baseball game on the radio. Suddenly, in the middle of the game--right in the middle of a play--the broadcast broke off and a reporter came on the air with an announcement: Pearl Harbor has been bombed. The United States is at war with Japan. Then Neisser sprinted upstairs to tell his mother the news.

Neisser vividly remembers the fear and the excitement that he felt then. He remembers the room clearly, he says, even though he only lived in the house for a year. He remembers what the radio looked like. He even remembered which teams were playing that day. The details were so clear and the emotions so strong that he had absolute confidence in this memory for over 40 years.

Then one day he realized the problem. Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7. There's no baseball in December. The event could not have happened as he remembered it. Nonetheless, he still remembers it that way, even though he knows intellectually that it's wrong.

Of course, anecdotes, even multiple anecdotes, aren't enough. A lot of people have done systematic research on this phenomenon, though. For example, Beth Loftus, a psychologist who does a lot of work in this field, showed a bunch of people a videotape of a car accident. She asked them one of two questions:

  1. Where was the old lady standing when the cars collided?
  2. Where was the old lady standing when the cars smashed?

Then she asked them if there had been any broken glass in the picture. (There hadn't been.) Subjects who received question 1 generally got this question right. Subjects who received question 2 almost always got it wrong--and they had great confidence that there had in fact been broken glass.

All humans can have false memories, but kids are particularly vulnerable. In the McMartin Preschool Trial, for example, kids were induced by an overly aggressive and incompetent psychologist to have false memories of molestation. People then started wondering just how accurately kids could report such experiences. Obviously, it's hard to conduct a systematic study of abused kids, because different kids had different experiences, and it's often difficult to figure out what really went on. So a psychologist named Peter Ornstein came up with a brilliant experiment. He decided to interview three-year-olds, five-year-olds, and seven-year-olds about the Well Child Checkup--the annual physical exam that most kids get. This checkup involves a genital exam, a blood test (which requires a fingerstick), and a urinalysis (which requires the kids to urinate into a cup). Molesters do similar things to their victims, so this is as close as you can ethically get to the situation in which you're really interested.

Ornstein's research asked two questions: first, what would kids tell you about these invasive events; and second, to what extent could they be induced to tell you about something that didn't happen? He found that three-year-olds would volunteer information about the urinalysis and the blood test if you simply asked them to tell you what happened. Seven-year-olds, on the other hand, wouldn't tell you about it unless you asked directly. He also found, though, that you could get three-year-olds to tell you just about anything, especially if you asked a leading question ("He tapped your foot with a hammer, didn't he?"). Five-year-olds were in between. Seven-year-olds usually couldn't be persuaded tell you anything that didn't happen. So he concluded that therapists and police investigators need to ask direct questions, but not leading questions.

It's a tricky subject because the stakes are so high--you don't want to let some scumbag get away with abuse, but you also don't want to ruin an innocent man's life by accusing him falsely. All the research I've seen suggests that we shouldn't convict people on recovered memories alone...unfortunately, sometimes no other evidence is available.

See also Holocaust denial.

False Memory Syndrome is not a true syndrome, nor is it a recognized condition in the DSM. It is a descriptive label for a situation in which someone supposedly remembers abuse which did not happen.

The Basic Problems

The biggest problem with False Memory Syndrome is that it does not exist.

Yes: there have been many studies which people claim proved its existence. They claim to have convinced their subjects that they were lost in a mall at age four, or that they saw someone in an accident scene who was not there, or whatever. The current favorite is a study in which a large number of people who watched news coverage of September 11th reported having seen a plane crash into the second tower on September 11th, when that footage was not shown until the next day.

Here's the thing.

All they have proven with any of these studies is that the details of everyday memories can be messed up, especially when someone asks you leading questions or (in Elizabeth Loftus' case) mixes in "false memories" with very similar stories that they know happened.

We already know that our memories can be confused, whether it is about what we had for breakfast yesterday or whether we were raped at age four or age five. This is not the big deal, the whipped cream on the sundae, the tops or the coliseum.

The question was not, "Hey! Can I get confused about things that actually happened to me, and embroider them, expand them, get the dates wrong, when you tell me direct lies about my experiences?" The question was, "Can I make up a memory about something totally alien to my experience which normally I would never accidentally think happened to me, and believe in it for the rest of my life?"

And consistently, repeatedly, every single time, the answer has been NO.

And, in fact, consistently and repeatedly and every single time, the major researcher on the subject (Elizabeth Loftus) has lied about her findings, and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has misrepresented them both in the media and in courts.

The Drama, The Madness

One of the reasons that people have been able to get away with making up and spreading the idea of a "false memory syndrome" is that it sounds pleasantly scientific and accepted.

Another, of course, is that many people seize upon it as they would a life preserver in the icy vicinity of the Titanic. It's not that my child or my friend or these people in the paper or I myself are suddenly faced with the existence of horrible abuse! It's a therapist's fault! It's victimology! (another strange, false word) It's just some kind of mass delusion, a hysteria of sorts!

It's a terrible world in which to live, because it denies reality and it blocks us (as a society) from examining and understanding what the effects of abuse really look like. But it's so pleasant and comfortable. The houses in Denial aren't cheap, but they're sure popular.

From the perspective of a therapist, or an abuse survivor, or anyone who's familiar with what abuse looks like, the concept of False Memory Syndrome doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It relies on the concept that once abuse has occurred and ended, it becomes invisible.

There are a number of problems with this concept. First and foremost, there is the "he said, she said" aspect of trying to prove that abuse did or did not happen. There are situations where abuse leaves scars, or transmits diseases, or where someone reports it at the time and it is investigated and discovered. However, in many (perhaps the majority of) cases, the child is too frightened, threatened, or dissociative to say anything, or there is no evidence to investigate, or the child is simply not believed. Decades later, if such a question is brought to court, it becomes one person's memories versus another's, one person's word against another.

To exacerbate this, there are many instances of abusers who try to:

  • convince children that the abuse didn't happen so they won't tell (this goes one step beyond "It'll be our little secret," to "We had a nice afternoon watching cartoons, DIDN'T we?" and suchlike). There's "implanting false memories" for you, if you like!;
  • add surrealistic elements to the abuse (as if abuse isn't surreal enough) so that they themselves will think it must have been a false memory and nobody will believe it could have happened (many ritualistic elements themselves fulfill this criteria, especially use of masks or other costumes, as well as extreme torture or other abuse);
  • change the memory after the fact, like telling the child that some other form of abuse took place or that someone else abused them. A real-life example: ac_hyper says, "I was sexually abused by my grandfather, but he tried to convince me that my dad actually did it! His little trick didn't work though, but he was attempting to get away with stuff and then have someone else get blamed for it." and many thanks to ac_hyper for letting me quote you on that!

But abuse leaves permanent damage. The specific damage depends on the individual, what kind of support they had, what the rest of their life was like - but there is damage. People arguing for the existence of False Memory Syndrome sometimes point to the constellations of signs and symptoms that a therapist might offer, and argue that no single one of them inherently has anything to do with abuse so as a group they must be useless. This is a logical fallacy.

As Patience Mellon writes,

When I was in grade school, I learned about the big lie technique used by the Nazis. If you tell a big enough lie often enough and loudly enough, people will believe it. This is happening today in with the supporters of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. In order to back their claims that parents accused of sexual abuse by adult children who didn't always remember the abuse are innocent, they attack the existence of “repressed memories” or traumatic amnesia. This is annoying to a person who has talked to a lot of combat veterans who don't remember parts of their tours. (http://www.patiencepress.com/samples/4thIssue.html)

In DSM-IV, ideath talks about the political motivations for some of the diagnoses in the DSM, which have included homosexuality, hysteria, gender identity disorder and borderline personality disorder, among others. It sometimes seems to the lay person that almost anything can get into the DSM - including non-psychological things like caffeine withdrawal and Tourette's Syndrome. Given this, it may be somewhat telling that False Memory Syndrome has not made it in.

The Corporate Face of FMS

The awareness of the concept of False Memory Syndrome has largely been spread by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation -- who invented the term. This poses another problem. Their board is riddled with people whose credentials are extremely corrupt:

  • According to Child Rights Watch, FMSF founder Ralph Underwager told a group of British reporters in 1994 that "scientific evidence" proved that 60% of all women molested as children believed the experience was "good for them," and "in 1988, a trial court decision in New York State held that Dr Underwager was 'not qualified to render opinion as to (whether) or not (the victim) was sexually molested;'"
  • Executive directors Peter and Pamela Freyd (both psychiatrists, as are the other members mentioned here) were publicly exposed by their daughter Jennifer Freyd (professor of psychology) as perpetrators of child abuse and rape;
  • Lynn Sacco, a student at UMBC, has written that "The literature of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, as well as that of its board members such as Richard Ofshe and Frederick Crews, is saturated with overtly anti-feminist statements that include the argument that accusers and their therapists should be discredited because they have been influenced by feminism. They repeatedly equate feminism with female irrationality." (http://research.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/heal.html)
  • False Memory Syndrome Facts (fmsf.com) says, "How ethical is FMSF board member Elizabeth Loftus? Her misrepresentation of the facts in articles in Skeptical Inquirer and Psychology Today caused APA ethics complaints to be filed by Lynn Crook and Jennifer Hoult (plaintiffs who prevailed in civil cases in which Loftus testified). However, in a slick maneuver, Loftus resigned her APA membership before the complaints could be investigated."

FMS and Ritual Abuse

In the everyday world, of course, many people have never heard of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, only of the supposed syndrome itself, and believe in it because of the FMS/SRA dichotomy: that is, the argument that presents False Memory Syndrome as the only possible alternative to ritual abuse, and which presents ritual abuse as always being "A network of Satanic cults united in abusing children across the globe." Many people think, "Well, that can't possibly be happening, so anyone who says they experienced some kind of ritual abuse or satanic ritual abuse must be making it up or have False Memory Syndrome."

The is partly the fault of the mainstream media, who took the FBI's investigation into satanic ritual abuse and assumed it was disproving all ritual abuse. In fact, ritual abuse is abuse that takes place in a religious context; it includes abuse within the Catholic church, abuse where parents use their religion to justify it to the child, as well as any situation where religion that has been perverted to include sexual abuse in its practices.

There are many, many survivors of ritual abuse today, from all kinds of religious backgrounds. Personally, I know people whose abusers perverted Mormon and Catholic religion, in generational cults (which simply means that it's family abuse perpetrated by more than one generation) as well as individual situations; I also know people whose abusers did not use a formal religion, but who perpetrated ritual abuse using their own personal religious beliefs and practices. At least two of the people I know have enough evidence to prosecute, if they wanted to put themselves through that.

But you don't have to take my word for it; the Satanism and Ritual Abuse Archive at http://www.newsmakingnews.com/karencuriojonesarchive.htm has an extremely long list of court cases around the world where people pleaded guilty to or were found guilty of different kinds of ritual abuse. They themselves note that

Any religion or organization can be used as a front to hide ritual abuse activity, including Christianity, Buddhism, Shamanism, Hinduism, Masonry, Mormonism, Pagan and Satanic religions; however, not all satanists commit crimes and not all occultism is satanism. It is imperative that investigators and professionals familiarize themselves with cross-cultural belief systems so as not to target any particular group.
There have been situations where therapists or other people implanted false memories; this is in itself abusive. However, there have also been studies that showed that implanted memories did not last and often did not hold up under extensive questioning. There is also an archive of corroborated cases of recovered memories at http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Taubman_Center/Recovmem/Archive.html. Hopefully as awareness of child abuse grows, and as the practices of therapy and psychology mature, people will learn more about how memories work and about what emotional and physical symptoms can be evidence of past abuse.

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