False Memory Syndrome

copied with permission

The term False Memory Syndrome was created in 1992 by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF)[1]. It has been called “a pseudoscientific syndrome that was developed to defend against claims of child abuse.”[1] The FMSF was created by parents who claimed to be falsely accused of child sexual abuse.[1] The False Memory Syndrome was described as “a widespread social phenomenon where misguided therapists cause patients to invent memories of sexual abuse.”[1] Research has shown that most delayed memories of childhood abuse are true[2]. In general, it has been shown that false allegations of childhood sexual abuse are rare, with some studies showing rates as low as one percent[3][4] and some studies showing slightly higher rates[3]. It has been found that children tend to understate rather than overstate the extent of any abuse experienced[3]. It has been stated that misinformation on the topic of child sexual abuse is widespread and that the media have contributed to this problem by reporting favorably on unproven and controversial claims like the False Memory Syndrome[5].


* 1 Research on False Memory

* 2 Critiques of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and its theories

* 3 References

* 4 Bibliography

* 5 External Links

Research on False Memory

There is a great deal of evidence showing the existence of the phenomenon of recovered memory and the fairly high corroboration rates of these memories[6]. The base rates for memory commission errors have been shown to be quite low, at least in professional trauma treatment. The base rates in adult misinformation studies run between zero and 5 percent for adults and between 3 – 5 percent for children[7]. It has been shown that people who recover memories are a lot less suggestible than clinicians have been led to believe by false memory advocates[8]. It has been stated that false memories are rare[9] One research study showed the unlikelihood of being able to plant a false memory of a traumatic event[10]. Some have stated that the False Memory Syndrome is not a scientific syndrome[11]. Brown, Sheflin and Hammond stated “The hypothesis that false memories can easily be implanted in psychotherapy (Lindsay & Read, 1994; Loftus 1993; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; Ofshe and Watters, 1993, 1994; Yapko, 1994a) seriously overstates the available data. Since no studies have been conducted on suggested effects in psychotherapy per se, the idea of iatrogenic suggestion of false memories remains an untested hypothesis.[12] Elizabeth Loftus, a proponent of the theory of false memory, has been critiqued in several studies and papers[13][14][15][16].

Critiques of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and its theories

Members of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation have been critiqued for misrepresenting data and for their possible reasons for having created the idea of the syndrome. In reply to a TV documentary about FMS, William Freyd, (Pamela Freyd’s (one of the founders of the FMSF) step brother and sister-in-law) wrote “The False Memory Syndrome Foundation is a fraud designed to deny a reality that Peter and Pam have spent most of their lives trying to escape. There is no such things as a False Memory Syndrome.”[2] “In addition, Peter Freyd’s own mother (who is also Pamela’s step-mother) and his only sibling, a brother, were also estranged from Pamela and Peter. It should be noted that these family members support Jennifer’s side of the story.”[1]

A co-founder of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Ralph Underwager, has also had several critiques written about him[17]. In an interview in Amsterdam in June 1991 by “Paidika,” Editor-in-Chief, Joseph Geraci, Underwager replied to the question “Is choosing paedophilia for you a responsible choice for the individuals?” with “Certainly it is responsible. What I have been struck by as I have come to know more about and understand people who choose paedophilia is that they let themselves be too much defined by other people. That is usually an essentially negative definition. Paedophiles spend a lot of time and energy defending their choice. I don’t think that a paedophile needs to do that. Paedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they choose. They can say that what they want is to find the best way to love. I am also a theologian and as a theologian, I believe it is God’s will that there be closeness and intimacy, unity of the flesh, between people. A paedophile can say: “This closeness is possible for me within the choices that I’ve made.”[18]

In a transcription of the TV show Witness for Mr. Bubbles from “Australia 60 Minutes,” Channel Nine Network (Aired on August 5, 1990 in Australia), researcher Anna Salter stated that Underwager “isn’t accurate. That what he says in court does not necessarily fairly represent the literature.” That he frequently distorts facts and he sometimes he quotes specific studies, and he’s frequently wrong about what the studies say.”[19] It was stated in a court document that the two books that he and his wife Hollida Wakefield, wrote “Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse” (1988), and The Real World of Child Interrogations (1990) were not “well received in the medical and scientific press.” It was also stated that “when they cannot use a quotation out of context from an article, they make unsupported statements, some of which are palpably untrue and others simply unprovable.” David L. Chadwick, Book Review, in 261 JAMA 3035 (May 26, 1989).” In the same document it was stated that “Both Salter and Toth came to believe that Underwager is a hired gun who makes a living by deceiving judges about the state of medical knowledge and thus assisting child molesters to evade punishment.”[20]

Those that have examined or written about the False Memory Syndrome theories or foundation or its members have been subjected to harassment. This includes Anna Salter’s analysis of her harassment by Ralph Underwager[21], David Calof, the former editor of Treating Abuse Today [22] and Jennifer Hoult [23]. Accusations have also been made about the accuracy of the False Memory Syndromes’ proponents data and research. Salter has critiqued some of those that defend those accused of child sexual abuse. “The people who support and defend those accused of child sexual abuse indiscriminately, those who join organizations dedicated to defending people who are accused of child sexual abuse with no screening whatsoever to keep out those who are guilty as charged, are…not necessarily people engaged in an objective search for the truth. Some of them can and do use deceit, trickery, misstated research, harassment, intimidation, and charges of laundering federal money to silence their opponents.”[21].

Whitfield stated “Since at least 95 percent of child molesters initially deny their abusive behaviors, how can untrained lay people like Pamela Freyd and her staff “document” a real or “unreal” case of “FMS,” as appears to be the case with most of their communications, which usually occur over the telephone or by letter (p. 76).”[2]. Jennifer Freyd stated “Despite this documentation for both traumatic amnesia and essentially accurate delayed recall, memory science is often presented as if it supports the view that traumatic amnesia is very unlikely or perhaps impossible and that a great many, perhaps a majority, maybe even all, recovered memories of abuse are false…Yet no research supports such an implication…and a great deal of research supports the premise that forgetting sexual abuse is fairly common and that recovered memories are sometimes essentially true.” (p. 107) [24] Proponents of false memory theories have also been accused of manipulating the media[25][26]. The theory of false memory has been used as a defense in court to try and negate “abusive, criminal behavior” and this defense is fraught with disinformation, smoke screens, and other untruths that are a distortion of what the available science of the psychology of trauma and memory shows.[27].


1. Dallam, S. (2002). “Crisis or Creation: A systematic examination of false memory claims”. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 9 (3/4): 9–36. doi:10.1300/J070v09n03_02. PMID 17521989. “A review of the relevant literature demonstrates that the existence of such a syndrome lacks general acceptance in the mental health field, and that the construct is based on a series of faulty assumptions, many of which have been scientifically disproven. There is a similar lack of empirical validation for claims of a “false memory” epidemic. It is concluded that in the absence of any substantive scientific support, “False Memory Syndrome” is best characterized as a pseudoscientific syndrome that was developed to defend against claims of child abuse.” http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/res/dallam/6.html 2. Whitfield M.D., Charles L. (1995). Memory and Abuse – Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc. ISBN 1-55874-320-0. http://books.google.com/books?id=z1LW3u1e04YC

3. Leadership Council – How often do children’s reports of abuse turn out to be false? “Jones and McGraw examined 576 consecutive referrals of child sexual abuse to the Denver Department of Social Services, and categorized the reports as either reliable or fictitious. In only 1% of the total cases were children judged to have advanced a fictitious allegation. Jones, D. P. H., and J. M. McGraw: Reliable and Fictitious Accounts of Sexual Abuse to Children.Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2, 27-45, 1987. http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/res/csa-acc.html

4. False allegations of child sexual abuse by children are rare http://ritualabuse.us/research/false-allegations-of-child-sexual-abuse-by-children-are-rare/

5. Whitfield, Charles L.; Joyanna L. Silberg, Paul Jay Fink (2001). Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors. Haworth Press. ISBN 0789019019.

6. Recovered Memories – Child Abuse Wiki http://childabusewiki.org/index.php?title=Recovered_Memories

7. Brown, Scheflin and Hammond (1998).”Memory, Trauma Treatment, And the Law” (W. W. Norton) ISBN 0-393-70254-5

8. Leavitt, F. (March 1997) False attribution of suggestibility to explain recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse following extended amnesia Child Abuse & Neglect – 21, 3, P. 265-272 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6V7N-3SWV6NV-7&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=bae98194eeabcbfb8a5dcaa602d5cc0b

9. Hall, J., Kondora, L. (2005) “True” and “False” Child Sexual Abuse Memories and Casey’s Phenomenological View of Remembering American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 10 p. 1339-1359 DOI: 10.1177/0002764205277012 “The notion of false accusation is often raised in cases where physical evidence is not available and a period of time has passed or when there has been a delay in recall of the events by a survivor of child sexual abuse. This is not to imply that false memories are not possible. This article outlines how rare they must be, however, based on historical factors and a phenomenological analysis of memory itself….Most scientists investigating traumatic memory doubt that memories of abuse could be planted.” http://abs.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/48/10/1339?ijkey=ciZjJlFifgYIY&keytype=ref&siteid=spabs

10. Pezdek, Hodge, D. (1999) July-August Planting false childhood memories: The role of event plausibility Child Development 70(4) p.887-895 “One false event described the child lost in a mall while shopping (the plausible false event); the other false event described the child receiving a rectal enema (the implausible false event). The majority of the 39 children (54%) did not remember either false event. However, whereas 14 children recalled the plausible but not the implausible false event, only one child recalled the implausible but not the plausible false event; this difference was statistically significant.” http://www.jstor.org/pss/1132249

11. Friesen, J. (1995) “The Truth About False Memory Syndrome, Huntington House Publisher ISBN: 1-56384-111-8 “The number of studies which have subjected false memory syndrome to scientific inquiry is zero. There is nothing scientific about it. There is nothing which defines it. There is no list of symptoms which describes it, nor is there anything which helps us distinguish it from other syndromes.”

12. Brown, Scheflin and Hammond (1998).”Memory, Trauma Treatment, And the Law” (W. W. Norton) ISBN 0-393-70254-5

13. Crook, L. (1999) “Lost in a Shopping Mall”—a Breach of Professional Ethics Ethics & Behavior, (9, 1) P. 39-50 “An analysis of the mall study shows that beyond the external misrepresentations, internal scientific methodological errors cast doubt on the validity of the claims that have been attributed to the mall study within scholarly and legal arenas. The minimal involvement or, in some cases, negative impact of collegial consultation, academic supervision, and peer review throughout the evolution of the mall study are reviewed.” http://users.owt.com/crook/memory/

14. Hopper, J. Elizabeth Loftus “Loftus is aware that those who study traumatic memory have for several years, based on a great deal of research and clinical experience, used the construct of dissociation to account for the majority of recovered memories. However, she continues to focus on and attack “repression” and “repressed memories,” which has the effect of confusing and misleading many people.” http://www.jimhopper.com/memory/#el

15. Pope, K. (1996) Memory, Abuse, and Science: Questioning Claims About the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic American Psychologist 51: 957. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.51.9.957 “Does the trauma specified in the lost-in-the-mall experiment seem comparable to the trauma forming the basis of false memory syndrome? Loftus (1993) described the implanted traumatic event in the shopping-mall experiment as follows: “Chris was convinced by his older brother Jim, that he had been lost in a shopping mall when he was five years old” (p. 532). Does this seem, for example, a reasonable analogy for a five-year-old girl being repeatedly raped by her father?….Is it possible that the findings are an artifact of this particular design, for example, that the older family member claims to have been present when the event occurred and to have witnessed it, a claim the therapist can never make? To date, replications and extensions of this study have tended to use a similar methodology; that is, either the older family member makes the suggestions in his or her role as the experimenter’s confederate, or the experimenter presents the suggestion as being the report of an older family member, thus creating a surrogate confederate.” http://www.kspope.com/memory/memory.php

16. Hoult, J. (2005)”Remembering Dangerously” & Hoult v. Hoult: The Myth of Repressed Memory that Elizabeth Loftus http://www.rememberingdangerously.com/

17. Information on Ralph Underwager http://ritualabuse.us/research/memory-fms/ralph-underwager/

18. PAIDIKA INTERVIEW:HOLLIDA WAKEFIELD AND RALPH UNDERWAGER Part I http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/NudistHallofShame/Underwager2.html

19. Witness for Mr. Bubbles Transcribed from “Australia 60 Minutes,” Channel Nine Network (Aired on August 5, 1990 in Australia) Produced by Anthony Mcclellan; Reported by Mike Munro http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/NudistHallofShame/MrBubbles.html

20. Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Anna Salter, Et Al., Defendants-Appellees. 22 F.3d 730 (7th Cir. 1994) Federal Circuits, 7th Cir. (April 25, 1994) Docket number: 93-2422 http://vlex.com/vid/36092881

21. Salter, A. (June 1998) Confessions of a Whistle-Blower: Lessons Learned Ethics & Behavior 8(2) p.115 – 124 DOI: 10.1207/s15327019eb0802_2 Abstract – In 1988 I began a report on the accuracy of expert testimony in child sexual abuse cases utilizing Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield as a case study (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988). In response, Underwager and Wakefield began a campaign of harassment and intimidation, which included multiple lawsuits; an ethics charge; phony (and secretly taped) phone calls; and ad hominem attacks, including one that I was laundering federal grant monies. The harassment and intimidation failed as the author refused demands to retract. In addition, the lawsuits and ethics charges were dismissed. Lessons learned from the experience are discussed. http://ritualabuse.us/research/memory-fms/confessions-of-a-whistle-blower-lessons-learned/

22. Calof, D.L. (1998). Notes from a practice under siege: Harassment, defamation, and intimidation in the name of science Ethics and Behavior, 8(2) p. 161-187. “For over three years, however, a group of proponents of the false memory syndrome (FMS) hypothesis, including members, officials, and supporters of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Inc., have waged a multi-modal campaign of harassment and defamation directed against me, my clinical clients, my staff, my family, and others connected to me. I have neither treated these harassers or their families, nor had any professional or personal dealings with any of them; I am not related in any way to the disclosures of memories of sexual abuse in these families. Nonetheless, this group disrupts my professional and personal life and threatens to drive me out of business. In this article, I describe practicing psychotherapy under a state of siege and places the campaign against me in the context of a much broader effort in the FMS movement to denigrate, defame, and harass clinicians, lecturers, writers, and researchers identified with the abuse and trauma treatment communities. http://ritualabuse.us/research/memory-fms/notes-from-a-practice-under-siege/

23. Hoult, J. (June 1998) The Politics of Discrediting Child Abuse Survivors Ethics & Behavior, 8(2), p. 125 – 140 “As a victim of child abuse who proved my claims in a landmark civil suit, there have been many attempts to silence and discredit me. This article provides an overview of my court case and its effects….I believe that published documents demonstrate how some members and supporters of false memory groups publish false statements that defame and intimidate victims of proven violence and their supporters. Such altered accounts are used to discredit others in court and in the press.” http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a784402312~db

24. Freyd, J. (June 1998) Science in the Memory Debate Ethics & Behavior, 8(2), p. 101 – 113 http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a784402310~db

25. Stanton, M. (July/August 1997) U-Turn on Memory Lane Columbia Journalism Review “Rarely has such a strange and little-understood organization had such a profound effect on media coverage of such a controversial matter. The foundation is an aggressive, well-financed p.r. machine adept at manipulating the press, harassing its critics, and mobilizing a diverse army of psychiatrists, outspoken academics, expert defense witnesses, litigious lawyers, Freud bashers, critics of psychotherapy, and devastated parents. With a budget of $750,000 a year from members and outside supporters, the foundation’s reach far exceeds its actual membership of about 3,000.” “As controversial memory cases arose around the country, FMSF boosters contacted journalists to pitch the false-memory argument, more and more reporters picked up on the issue, and the foundation became an overnight media darling. The story line that had dominated the press since the 1980s — an underreported toll of sexual abuse, including sympathetic stories of adult survivors resurrecting long-lost memories of it — was quickly turned around. The focus shifted to new tearful victims — respectable, elderly parents who could no longer see their children and grandchildren because of bad therapists who implanted memories.” http://web.archive.org/web/20071216011151/http://backissues.cjrarchives.org/year/97/4/memory.asp

26. Packard, N. (April, 2004) Battle Tactics of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation New School for Social Research, N.Y. History Matters Conference “Kondora’s and Beckett’s studies indicate that the Foundation has been successful in many of its efforts to manage public perception of child abuse victims, therapists and the people accused of child abuse. Kondora and Beckett show that not only has public perception of victimized children become skeptical, but in fact, the press often goes beyond the Victorian custom of neutrality on all fronts of the issue, to out-right sympathy for accused molesters.” http://www.newschool.edu/nssr/historymatters/papers/NoelPackard.pdf

27. Whitfield, C. L. (2001). The “false memory” defense: Using disinformation and junk science in and out of court. In Whitfield, C. L., Silberg, J. Fink, P. J. Eds. (2001). Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors New York: Hawthorn Press, Inc. (pp. 53 – 78) also in Haworth Press, Special Issue on Disinformation, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 9(3 & 4) “Attorneys for accused, convicted or found-responsible child molesters tend to use a superficially sophisticated argument, which can be described as the “false memory defense.” This defense is fraught with disinformation, smoke screens, and other untruths that are a distortion of what the available science of the psychology of trauma and memory shows. In this article, this seemingly sophisticated, but actually mostly contrived and often erroneous defense, is described and it is compared in a brief review to what the science says about the effect of trauma on memory.” “Abstract: This article describes a seemingly sophisticated, but mostly contrived and often erroneous “false memory” defense, and compares it in a brief review to what the science says about the effect of trauma on memory. Child sexual abuse is widespread and dissociative/traumatic amnesia for it is common. Accused, convicted and self-confessed child molesters and their advocates have crafted a strategy that tries to negate their abusive, criminal behavior, which we can call a “false memory” defense. Each of 22 of the more commonly used components of this defense is described and discussed with respect to what the science says about them. Armed with this knowledge, survivors, their clinicians, and their attorneys will be better able to refute this defense of disinformation.” http://childabuse.georgiacenter.uga.edu/both/whitfield/whitfield1.phtml


* Brown, Scheflin and Hammond (1998).”Memory, Trauma Treatment, And the Law” (W. W. Norton) ISBN 0-393-70254-5

* Freyd, Jennifer J. (1996). Betrayal Trauma – The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-06805-x.

* Knopp, Fay Honey (1996). A Primer on the Complexities of Traumatic Memory of Childhood Sexual Abuse – A Psychobiological Approach. Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press. ISBN 1-884444-20-2.

* Whitfield M.D., Charles L. (1995). Memory and Abuse – Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc. ISBN 1-55874-320-0.

* Whitfield, Charles L.; Joyanna L. Silberg, Paul Jay Fink (2001). Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors. Haworth Press. ISBN 0789019019.

External Links

* Memory, Abuse, and Science: Questioning Claims about the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic http://www.kspope.com/memory/memory.php

* False Memory Syndrome A False Construct Feminista! v2, n10 http://web.archive.org/web/20030608221633/http://www.feminista.com/v1n9/false-memory.html

* False memory syndrome proponents tactics “False memory syndrome proponents have done the following to try and ensure that only their point of view is in the public view.” http://ritualabuse.us/research/memory-fms/false-memory-syndrome-proponents-tactics/

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