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False memory syndrome (FMS) is a term coined in 1992 by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) to describe their theory that some adults who belatedly remember instances of sexual abuse from their childhood may be mistaken about the accuracy of their memory; from this, the Foundation hypothesizes that the alleged false memories may have been the result of recovered memory therapy, another term coined by the FMSF in the early 1990s.[1] The FMSF is an organization that advocates on behalf of individuals who claim they have been falsely accused of perpetrating child sexual abuse.[2] Some of the influential figures in the genesis of this theory are forensic psychologist Ralph Underwager, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and sociologist Richard Ofshe.

Charles Whitfield, MD, in his 1995 book Memory and Abuse, states that all critics he had found of the studies validating delayed memories are members of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation advisory board and states that FMS is rare.[1] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines FMS as "The belief that one remembers events, especially traumatic ones, that have not actually occurred", also stating it is not used scientifically.[3]


Stephanie Dallam has claimed that "...[FMS] is a controversial theoretical construct based entirely on the reports of parents who claim to be falsely accused of incestuous abuse... The current empirical evidence suggests that the existence of such a syndrome must be rejected. False memory advocates have failed to adequately define or document the existence of a specific syndrome, and a review of the relevant literature demonstrates that the construct is based on a series of faulty assumptions, many of which have been disproven. Likewise, there no credible data showing that the vague symptoms they ascribe to this purported syndrome are widespread or constitute a crisis or epidemic."[2]

FMS advocates claim to be concerned that an individual's purportedly repressed memories may not be historically accurate. FMS advocates strongly believe these memories are often confabulations that, if taken as fact, may result in wrongful accusation and bring unjust emotional and financial distress unto the accused. Other researchers believe that

Research has shown that traumatized individuals respond by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. One of the most common means of dealing with the pain is to try and push it out of awareness. Some label the phenomenon of the process whereby the mind avoids conscious acknowledgment of traumatic experiences as dissociative amnesia. Others use terms such as repression , dissociative state , traumatic amnesia, psychogenic shock, or motivated forgetting . Semantics aside, there is near-universal scientific acceptance of the fact that the mind is capable of avoiding conscious recall of traumatic experiences. [4]

Brown, Scheflin and Hammond reviewed 43 studies relevant to the subject of traumatic memory and found that every study that examined the question of dissociative amnesia in traumatized populations demonstrated that a substantial minority partially or completely forget the traumatic event experienced, and later recover memories of the event. [5]

… there are over 100 years of reports and descriptions of recovered memory in the literature, including instances from times of war, torture, bereavement, natural disasters, and concentration camp imprisonment. (HOROWITZ) Many corroborated cases have been documented in instances of recovered memory of sexual abuse,… [6]

Recovered memory therapy

Main article: Recovered memory therapy

"Recovered memory therapy" (RMT) is a term coined by affiliates of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in the early 1990s,[1][7][8] to refer what they described as a range of psychotherapy methods based on recalling memories of abuse that had previously been forgotten by the patient.[9] The term is not listed in DSM-IV or used by any mainstream formal psychotherapy modality.[1]

FMS advocates harbor strong skepticism towards any therapist who they believe encourages a client to identify repressed memories. They argue that self-help books, such as The Courage to Heal and recovered memory therapists can influence adults to develop false memories. According to this theory, psychologists and psychiatrists may accidentally implant these false memories.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Others believe that there is insufficient evidence that false memories can be created in therapy.[10] In some cases, patients who have recovered previously forgotten memories later decide that those memories are in fact false, and retract their claims. This does not provide conclusive information about whether or not the memories were actually true or actually false; and, the patients may still suffer a kind of post traumatic stress.[11] The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation has, in a letter to the editor, stated the authors of the article "Brain Stains" provided a "onesided, misleading and unscientific account" of the dissociative disorders.[12]

Alien abduction and past life therapy

Psychologist Stephen Jay Lynn conducted a simulated hypnosis experiment in 1994, asking patients to imagine they had seen bright lights and experienced lost time. 91% of subjects who had been primed with questions about UFOs stated that they had interacted with aliens. [13]

Harvard University professor Richard McNally has found that many Americans who believe they have been abducted by aliens share personality traits such as New Age beliefs and episodes of sleep paralysis accompanied by hypnopompic hallucinations. In laboratory tests, these individuals exhibited measurable stress symptoms such as elevated heart-rate and sweating responses, similar to those of Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.[14] The experiment led McNally to conclude, "Emotion does not prove the veracity of the interpretation."[13] Psychiatrist, John Edward Mack, M.D., founder of the department of psychiatry at The Cambridge Hospital in 1969, and member of the faculty Harvard Medical School, disagrees with McNally's conclusions, stating that, according to Psychology Today, diagnosis of sleep paralysis along with "Sci-Fi Channel" beliefs is not sufficient explanation for phenomena such as "alien sightings by school children in Zimbabwe who are wide-awake." [13]

Court cases

Sexual abuse cases

The question of the accuracy and dependability of a repressed memory that was later recalled has contributed to some investigations and court cases, including cases of alleged sexual abuse or child sexual abuse. [15][16] Some such recollections have been supported by enough corroborating evidence to enable successful prosecution, [17] while others have been deemed confabulations or "false memories" that were not legally admissible.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The defense in sexual abuse cases may offer their own “expert” “testimony to counter the plaintiff's scientific evidence that the mind can avoid or repress traumatic information and then recall it years later.” Murphy believes that there is "overwhelming evidence that the mind is capable of repressing traumatic memories of child sexual abuse."[18] Whitfield states that the “false memory” defense is “seemingly sophisticated, but mostly contrived and often erroneous.” He states that this defense has been created by “accused, convicted and self-confessed child molesters and their advocates” to try to “negate their abusive, criminal behavior.”[19] Brown states that when pro-false memory expert witnesses and attorneys state there is no causal connection between CSA and adult psychopathology, that CSA doesn't cause specific trauma-related problems like borderline and dissociative identity disorder, that other variables than CSA can explain the variance of adult psychopathology and that the long-term effects of CSA are non-specific and general, that this testimony is inaccurate and has the potential of misleading juries. [20]

Malpractice cases

During the late 1990s, there were multiple lawsuits in the United States in which psychiatrists and psychologists were successfully sued, or settled out of court, on the charge of propagating iatrogenic memories of childhood sexual abuse, incest and satanic ritual abuse.[21]

Some of these suits were brought by individuals who later deemed their recovered memories of incest and/or satanic ritual abuse to be false. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation uses the term "retractors" to describe these individuals and have shared their stories publicly.[22] There is debate regarding the total number of retractions as compared to the total number of allegations,[23] and the reasons for retractions.[24]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Whitfield, Charles L.; Joyanna L. Silberg, Paul Jay Fink (2001). Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors, 56, Haworth Press.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Dallam, S. (2002). Crisis or Creation: A systematic examination of false memory claims. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 9 (3/4): 9–36.
  3. executive editor, Joseph P. Pickett (2000). American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  4. Research on the Effect of Trauma on Memory
  5. Summary of Research Examining the Prevalence of Full or Partial Dissociative Amnesia for Traumatic Events
  6. False Memory Syndrome: A False Construct by Juliette Cutler Page
  7. includeonly>Salter, Stephanie. "Feminist Treason and Intellectual Fascism" (reprint), San Francisco Examiner, 1993-04-07. Retrieved on 2007-12-15.
  8. Underwager, Ralph; Hollida Wakefield (October 1994). Return of the Furies: An Investigation into Recovered Memory Therapy, 360, Open Court Pub Co.
  9. Lief, Harold I (November 1999). Patients Versus Therapists: Legal Actions Over Recovered Memory Therapy. Psychiatric Times XVI (11).
  10. Hammond, D. Corydon; Brown, Daniel P.; Scheflin, Alan W. (1998). Memory, trauma treatment, and the law, New York: W.W. Norton.
  11. Template:Cite article
  12. Template:Cite article
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Alien Abductions: The Real Deal?
  14. Alien 'abductees' show real symptoms at the BBC
  16. Elizabeth Loftus
  17. The Recovered Memory Project
  18. Template:Cite article
  19. Whitfield, C. (March 2002). The "False Memory" Defense Using Disinformation and Junk Science In and Out of Court. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 9 (3/4): 53–78.
  20. Brown, D. (2001). (Mis)representation of the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse in the Courts. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 9 (3/4): 79–107.
  21. Recovered Memory Lawsuit Sparks Litigation
  22. Macdonald, G (1999). Making of an Illness : My Experience with Multiple Personality Disorder, 111, Laurentian University Press.
  23. Whitfield M.D., Charles L. (1995). Memory and Abuse - Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma, 83, Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
  24. Summit, R. (1983). The child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome. Child Abuse & Neglect 7: 177–193.

Further reading

  • Ceci, S.J., Huffman, M.L.C., Smith, E., & Loftus, E.F. (1994) Repeatedly thinking about non-events. Consciousness and Cognition, 3, 388-407.
  • Freyd, Jennifer J. (1996). Betrayal Trauma - The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Hyman, I.E., Husband, T.H., & Billings, F.J. (1995) False memories of childhood experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology 9, 181-197.
  • Knopp, Fay Honey (1996). A Primer on the Complexities of Traumatic Memory of Childhood Sexual Abuse - A Psychobiological Approach, Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press.
  • Loftus, E. & Ketcham, K. The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, St. Martin's Griffin, 1996. ISBN 978-0312141233.
  • Ofshe, Richard and Watters, Ethan Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994
  • Pendergrast, Mark. Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Upper Access,Inc, 1995. ISBN 0-942679-16-4.
  • includeonly>Perina, Kaja. "Alien Abductions: The Real Deal?", Psychology Today, March/April 2003. Retrieved on 2005-12-26.
  • Whitfield M.D., Charles L. (1995). Memory and Abuse - Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma, Health Communications, Inc.

External links

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