False memory Syndrome Deutsch

False Memory Syndrome

Pamela Freyd is the co-founder of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. She foundedthe organization with her husband Peter Freyd in 1992 after their daughter Jennifer Freyd, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, accused Peter of abusing hersexually as a child, based on memories she had recovered through therapy. This interviewtook place on August 28, 2001.

TRACY: Is “False Memory Syndrome” (specifically related to memories of child sexual abuse) a relatively new phenomenon? If so, when do you think this problem first began, and what were the causal factors?

PAMELA: It’s important to begin any discussion of the topic of false memories with the fact that all the mental health professional organizations have issued statements saying that the only way that one can distinguish a true from a false memory is through external corroboration.

We all have false memories but generally they don’t make a huge difference in our lives.

When such a memory leads to the accusation of criminal behavior of another person, however, the stakes are raised. To be falsely accused of the unforgivable crime of child sexual abuse places individuals in a quandary. How does anyone prove a negative?


The Foundation has done a number of surveys of the families that have made contact. One of the questions in a survey we are just now analyzing is “In what year did you learn about the accusation?” We have one person in 1970 and another in 1971 who said they were accused in those years based solely on the claim of a “recovered repressed memory” with no other external evidence. We have a total of 12 reports from the 1970-contrasted with more than 550 reports for just the years 1991-1992. The frequency data indicate that the recovered memory phenomenon is a fad-at least based on the data from the surveys.

The numbers have been in decline since 1992.

The McMartin case in 1983 received national media attention and made child abuse and Satanic Ritual Abuse a front page topic. Sociologists have referred to the false memory/child abuse accusations phenomenon in terms of a “moral panic.” Child abuse is inherently evil and as statistics about its frequency increased, so did fear. When people are afraid, they panic. That’s why schools have fire drills so that students don’t panic should there be a fire. People often get trampled in panics caused by fires and they get accused in moral panics.

The explosive period of the fad appears to have begun in 1987-1988. Whether it is a cause or an effect is not clear, but 1988 saw the publication of the book The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. Since that book has been listed as the most recommended book by psychotherapists (at least in the early 90s) it is possible that it helped spread the beliefs.


TRACY: Could you estimate what percentage of “recovered” abuse memory claims investigated by your organization are found to be based on false memories?

PAMELA: The Foundation cannot determine the truth or falsity of an accusation in the absence of external corroboration anymore than anyone else can. Indeed, the Foundation would not be the appropriate group to conduct investigations since it could be said to be biased. The Foundation does not “certify” anyone but rather has as its purpose to disseminate information about the nature of memory.

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