The Birth of a Syndrome?
Jennifer Freyd is the author of Betrayal Abuse. She graduated from high school in three years, graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, got her doctorate at Stanford and was a research psychologist and tenured professor at University of Oregon when she was interviewed by The Oregonian regarding her accusations of childhood sexual abuse by her father. She said she always remembered things her father had done, “continual sexual talk, sitting in a robe so his genitals showed.” After a therapy session she remembered abuse. Jennifer Freyd does not believe her therapist planted her memories. “I’d try to retrieve more memories and asked her to help me. And we never got anywhere. I asked her to hypnotize me — and I couldn’t get hypnotized.” (Mitchell, 1993)
Jennifer Freyd confronted her parents. She did not attempt to sue or press charges. Fourteen months later, Peter and Pamela Freyd formed the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
False Memory Syndrome
Below is the description of False Memory Syndrome that the False Memory Syndrome Foundation seems to have finally settled on (False Memory Syndrome Foundation, n/d). It is important to note that this syndrome is not listed in the DSM and has not been recognized by the APA or AMA as an official syndrome, as of yet.
[A] condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual’s entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behavior. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional. False Memory Syndrome is especially destructive because the person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with the real problems in his or her life.So, what is a syndrome?
Here is the dictionary.com definition:
1. A group of symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease, psychological disorder, or other abnormal condition.Obviously, the FMSF has gone to great pains to make their definition fit the criteria of a syndrome. The questions we must ask are, does the syndrome they have described fit the cases they have presented, and is there a discernible pattern of symptoms among those who allegedly suffer from False Memory Syndrome that would allow us to use their definition in any meaningful way?
2. a. A complex of symptoms indicating the existence of an undesirable condition or quality.
b. A distinctive or characteristic pattern of behavior.
According to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, false memories have ripped families apart:
“Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, grandparents, others-all were suddenly told that they could no longer see the person making accusations. Most were also told that they had committed terrible abuse, usually sexual abuse. The accusers claimed to have remembered serious past mistreatment by those they were now accusing; these newly discovered memories had frequently surfaced in therapy. For their part, those accused responded that the accusations were false and that the new memories were not real memories. Families were torn apart.”What allegedly has happened is that women, in therapy, have had false memories of childhood abuse planted in their minds. These women then falsely accused their parents of childhood sexual abuse and these accusations sometimes result in lawsuits but often result in the estrangement of the women from their families. From the stories that I’ve read in Elizabeth Loftus’ book, The Myth of Repressed Memory, and from many of the stories recounted in a lot of the false memory literature, what follows the accusations are many attempts by the parents to communicate with the accuser and their therapist. Parents have hired private investigators, written ten page letters to the therapists, hired lawyers, and created organizations. (By far, the most prominent of these organizations is The False Memory Syndrome Foundation.) In her book, memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus, tells us of one father. (She uses false names to protect anonymity.)
“Mike Patterson has organized task forces and dinner presentations and offered his home as a gathering place for the more than two hundred Iowa families who claim that they too have been falsely accused. He has written letters to the National Board for Certified Counselors, The American Family Foundation, the American Association for Retired Persons, and numerous other organizations… He has contacted producers at local and national television and radio programs… He has consulted with literally hundreds of attorneys, judges, legislators, sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists.”These are some drastic actions. These parents, whether involved in legal incriminations or not, have wrapped their lives around the allegation of abuse. “[I]t orients the individual’s entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behavior.” I have quoted, again, from the definition of false memory syndrome because it seems to fit the parents. Could the happy memories of perfect childhood for their daughter be the false memory that “takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction?” Could these parents be “so focused on memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with the real problems in his or her life?”
Who Are These Accusers?
Elizabeth Loftus tells horrible stories in The Myth of Repressed Memory, of women accusing their parents of terrible things. There’s the story of a woman saying that she recovered a memory of her stepfather killing her best friend when she was eight. The story is full of gory details such as the father smashing the child’s head with a rock. There’s the Paul Ingram story full of detail and disgusting things that he was accused of and that his interrogators and he seemed to create on the spot (more on Ingram later). There are stories that Loftus tells and that have been told by others in which therapists assume abuse and say things like, “You tell me what that bastard did to you,” upon first or second meetings.
The problem with these stories is they don’t seem typical. In fact, the “bastard” anecdote is so overused that it begins to feel like the kind rhetoric one might hear at a pro-life rally. ”The doctors put the babies in garbage disposals.” Loftus says, “Gloria Grady’s story of repressed memories is typical” and then goes on to tell an anecdote about a woman who was in the hospital for five weeks for weight issues. Grady combines various pharmaceuticals, overdoses, goes to a psychiatric ward, claims abuse and Satanic rituals that included cutting up her three year old baby and forcing her to eat fetuses.
A lot of these stories include eating fetuses. I would argue that anecdotes like these are not typical of memories that are recovered in or out of therapy. But they sound scary and they do get one’s attention.
In Loftus’ article “Remembering Dangerously,” she points out the differences and similarities between the witch hunts of the past with the “modern cases of ‘derepressed’ memory of sexual trauma.” During the witch hunts the accused were predominantly poor women over the age of forty.
“Today, the accused are often men of power and success… The witch accusations… were most often leveled by men, but today the accusations are predominantly leveled by women. Today’s phenomenon is more than anything a movement of the weak against the strong.”Loftus goes on to discuss the Jennifer H. case. She says that Jennifer H. “a 23 year old musician” recovered memories in therapy of her father, a mechanical engineering specialist.” The truth is that, although Jennifer H. is a concert harpist, she was an artificial intelligence software engineer at the time of the allegations. (There are a few other discrepancies about this case.) Is this an example of the “weak against the strong?” In Pamela and Peter Freyd’s case, their daughter has received many awards for her work as a research psychologist and a professor at University of Oregon. Peter Freyd had a drinking problem during Jennifer’s childhood. Admirably, he sought treatment. Jennifer states in The Oregonian, “I’m sometimes flabbergasted that my memory is considered ‘false’ and my alcoholic father’s memory is considered rational and sane.” Jennifer doesn’t seem to be “weak” and this doesn’t seem to be a case of “the weak against the strong.”
Harvard researcher and Professor of Psychology Richard McNally, in his 2003 book, Remembering Trauma, cites a study that he and colleagues conducted. They administered the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire and found that those who believed they had been abused but had repressed the memories scored highly on the absorption measure. Some of these items question the extent that a person might become engrossed in nature, art, music, their own thoughts or a sunset. Other items question the way a person experiences life. “Sometimes I feel and experience things as I did when I was a child.” Other items refer to the optical illusion experienced when one looks at an object or art and then sees a “photographic” image afterward, as occurs when one views Jasper Johns’ green and yellow American flag, and sees an “afterburn” image of the red, white and blue American flag. Do high scores on the absorption scale really indicate a person prone toward fantasy? Could they just as easily suggest artistic tendencies? How do artists who have never been sexually abused score on the MPQ absorption scale?
McNally and colleagues also found, after administering tests that measured depressive symptoms, dissociative symptoms and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that those who may have repressed memories scored highly in dissociation, depression and PTSD. He suggested that scoring highly on the absorption measure indicated one who would likely confuse fantasy with reality. He felt that those who are suffering and depressed might just want to hang their hat on repressed memory to make themselves feel better and because they are so fantasy prone, might also believe it. But isn’t it possible that those who are so fantasy prone might also be able to dissociate better? And his study showed this, “The repressed memory subjects, whose abuse memories had yet to surface, had the highest scores on the dissociation measure, followed by the recovered memory subjects… followed by the continuous memory subjects, where low scores on the dissociation measure might signal difficulty repressing disturbing material.” (P.264-265).
One of the stories that is often told by people that are attempting to show that false memories are dangerous (which no doubt they would be) is the story of Paul Ingram. Ingram is a very religious man who was accused by his daughters of sexually abusing them. To be honest, no one really knows what happened in that household. The accusations however went on and on and became more and more implausible. But the important point in bringing up Paul Ingram is not that he may or may not have been falsely accused. The big deal about Paul Ingram is the interrogation that he went through. The big deal about Paul Ingram is the false memories that were implanted before and after he was sentenced. Ingram’s interrogation was crazy. It took several days of interrogation to flesh out a virtual Sodom and Gomorrah that seemed to be the Ingram Household. And under intense pressure, Ingram confessed to it all. Paul Ingram was sentenced to prison.
And in prison he sat when Richard Ofshe, expert on cults and sociology professor at UC Berkeley, met him. Ofshe interviewed him and soon realized that he was most probably a “Grade 5.” According to Loftus’ The Myth of Repressed Memory, a Grade 5 personality can shift from normal consciousness to a hypnotic state easily and without detection from most observers. “They display a firm and steady confidence in the goodwill of their therapists, readily absorbing all suggestions, compulsively filling in the blanks in their memories, and accepting incongruent, unlikely, or even impossible information as real and valid.” Dr. Herbert Spiegel coined the phrase to describe a small percentage of the population who are so very hypnotizable and suggestible.
Are Loftus and Ofshe and others who use the Ingram story saying that False Memory Syndrome has something to do with the small percentage of the population that Dr. Spiegel is referring to? Are we to assume that those who have falsely accused their parents are all Grade 5 personalities? If so, then why isn’t that mentioned in the definition of the syndrome? If not, then what does Ofshe’s experience with Ingram prove? The definition of False Memory Syndrome doesn’t mention suggestibility. And if Ingram is a Grade 5 personality, so what? By definition then, we know Ingram to be highly suggestible. Ingram’s story illustrates an account of a highly suggestible, extremely religious man in a small, extremely religious town, who was subjected to terrible interrogation practices. There have been other studies that show that under extreme stress and exhaustion people can begin to believe their interrogators’ version of an event and question their own perception of the event (American Psychological Association, 1997). POWs throughout history were tortured and prodded into changing their beliefs. Patty Hearst began to identify with her captors. So, what does Paul Ingram’s case prove and how does it enlighten us in regards to False Memory Syndrome?
Loftus says, in The Myth of Repressed Memory (P. 141) “We are questioning the memories commonly referred to as ‘repressed’…” On the same page she makes clear which kind of memories “repressed” ones are. “Because the controversy over repression has become so heated and contentious, clinicians and child protection advocates often use synonyms such as ‘lost,’ ‘buried,’ or ‘dissociated’ to describe repressed memories.” OK, well let’s just take “repressed,” for now. In a study on “Remembering and Repressing” conducted at Lincoln Medical Health Center Substance Abuse Division, Loftus and colleagues, surveyed 105 women for sexual abuse. (It’s interesting that Loftus, an expert in memory, would purposefully chose a sample that might have memory problems due to substance abuse. But that aside…) Loftus and her colleagues found that 57 indicated some form of childhood sexual abuse. When surveying these women for “persistence of memory” 52 women participated in the survey. Of the 52 women that they surveyed they found that 12% claimed to remember parts of the childhood sexual abuse, but not all. And 19% claimed that they forgot the abuse for a time and then later recalled it. Loftus’ study seems to show 31% of the women that she surveyed had partially or totally forgotten their abuse and recalled memories (although, somewhat deteriorated) later (Loftus, Polonsky, Fullilove, 1994).
This seems to correlate well with another study conducted by Linda Meyer Williams, published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, also in 1994 (Williams, 1994). In Williams’ study, 129 women, having previously been treated for childhood sexual abuse in the emergency room of a hospital, were interviewed about their memories of the abuse. Of the 129 women interviewed, 38% did not remember the trauma that had brought them to the hospital 17 years earlier. (Williams, concerned that some of the women may have come into the hospital with false allegations, restricted the analysis at one point, to girls who had recorded medical evidence of genital trauma and who had a high rating of credibility scored by an interviewer. 23 cases met with this standard and of those cases 52% of the women did not recall their abuse.)
Richard McNally questions Williams’ study. He suggests that women may have felt uncomfortable disclosing to the interviewer. But Williams addressed this possible problem in her study:
“…a measure of willingness to divulge personal information was developed… The women who reported a previous history of undergoing an abortion, prostitution, or having a sexually transmitted disease (n=51,40%) were no more likely to recall the index… [abuse]… (61%) than were those who denied (or did not have) any such a sexual history (63%)”McNally then questions why women who’d been abused discussed other abuses but missed mentioning the index abuse. Williams suggests that maybe women who’ve experienced multiple battery are less likely to report an abuse that occurred many years ago. McNally actually gives a good analogy of this at the beginning of his book, Remembering Trauma (p.35.) He discusses flying on an airplane. He says that someone who flies on a plane regularly might “blend together” the flights. So maybe you don’t remember your first flight to New York because you fly there so often. That doesn’t mean there never was a first flight (McNally, 2003).
McNally, in Remembering Trauma, rightly points out that one cannot prove a null hypothesis. So he cannot prove that repression doesn’t happen. He also says (p.220) “…it takes only one confirmed case of a black swan to disconfirm the generalization ‘all swans are white.’” But then McNally plays semantic games with every black swan that swims past, calling them darkish gray. It is not repression or dissociation that is at work, according to McNally. He now wants to call it, “not thinking about” it. He cites many studies and posits, no matter how unlikely, that the people involved were simply “not thinking about” their trauma. He describes a case study (p.226) in which a woman recovers a memory of having been raped thirteen years earlier and testifying in court. She was 22 when it took place and she lost the memory two years later, only to recover it again thirteen years later. It seems to me that a lot more is going on here than “not thinking about” it. McNally cites many studies that show that one reaction to trauma is intrusive memories of the trauma. He shows many instances when the survivor of a trauma cannot get the picture out of their mind. So then why could this woman forget so completely her rape and trial?
When I went online one evening, I found a site on which people were posting regarding “False Memory Syndrome.” I found some common misconceptions. One of them being that people who have suffered trauma don’t forget, and, in fact, find that their problem is they can’t forget. People brought up the war vet who can’t get the battle out of his head or the rape victim who can’t forget the face of her rapist. But again, studies have shown that these people do forget. A study by Elliot showed out of 364 randomly surveyed people, 32% (which is consistent with other studies) experienced some sort of delayed recall. The delayed recall was most common with sexual abuse survivors and combat veterans (Elliot, 1997). Richard McNally questions the validity of this study because Elliot could not corroborate the accounts of self-reported abuse. (p. 205) But I think it’s a little cynical to assume that 32% of 364 people would be lying. People online also mentioned the book Fragments, as an example of the debunking of survivors of the holocaust having delayed memories. This book was one account of one man, who later was forced to recant. He was lying. But there are studies that show that some Holocaust survivors did have memories which they forgot. One study showed that out of 100 Holocaust survivors, 46% had forgotten memories on a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder scale. (Yehuda, Schneidler, Siever, Binder-Brynes, Elkin 1997) There are many more studies regarding Holocaust survivors that suggest that some survivors cannot remember portions or all of traumatic events that occurred (Recovered Memory Project, n/d).
Gail Goodman conducted a memory study in 1994. (p. 59 in McNally’s book.) Goodman’s research group measured memory for a painful procedure called a VCUG that was performed on children. It involves inserting a tube through the urethra, into the bladder and filling the bladder with liquid. The procedure has a few of the aspects that childhood sexual abuse has. It’s scary, embarrassing and painful. Goodman found that some children remembered the procedure better than others. Some things that tended to enhance memory, “Understanding the procedure, not being embarrassed, having an emotionally supportive mother…” This corresponds to a lot of the literature about trauma. It is believed that one of the aspects that can help a child’s mental health, even if the abuse continues, is an adult who listens and empathizes with the child. “…Children need the respect and protection of adults who take them seriously… and… help them to become oriented in the world… When these… needs are frustrated… without the intervention of any witness, then their integrity will be lastingly impaired.” (p. 130, Miller) Since these children felt safe it was easier for them to remember.
One aspect of childhood sexual abuse that was not present in the study, and in all studies on children and memory due to it’s nature, is secrecy and threat to life and its effect on memory. The VCUGs were done in examining rooms with staff that were reassuring. Childhood sexual abuse is done in secret, often in the dark, under covers, with little or no reassurance and threats to self or loved ones that are believable because the person making the threat is in power and is causing harm at the moment the threats are being made. With this in mind, studies that attempt to recreate stressors in the laboratory (p. 48-53, McNally) while studying their effect on memory are laughable. There’s a big difference in watching movies of violent crime and being anally penetrated by your father.
Does one size fit all?
False Memory Syndrome is defined by the obsessional focus on a (false) memory that affects every aspect of the person’s life. W.E. Hovdestad and C. M. Kristiansen tried to figure out the symptom clusters in False Memory Syndrome. “They then examined women with recovered memory for congruence with these clusters and discovered that only 3.9%-13% of these women… met the criteria used by FMSF itself to define false memory syndrome” (Page, n/d).
Attempts have been made to show personality types that might lend themselves to false memory syndrome. Loftus thinks these women are “weak.” McNally found that people who repressed memories scored high on absorption scales on the MPQ indicating to him a tendency toward mistaking fantasy with reality. McNally also suggests that some might just “not be thinking about” the trauma. And then there’s the Grade 5 personality peeking in and out of the literature. But Jennifer Freyd and Jennifer H. don’t fit any of these descriptions.
It might also be worthwhile to point out that if the word “repression” was suddenly stuck from the dictionary — if researchers were able to prove without a doubt that no such mechanism occurs — it would have an effect on the legal system. In well over half of the United States the statute of limitations of childhood sexual abuse extends in cases of recovered memories. In these states a person has a period of time following the recovery of a memory of abuse to press charges or file suit. If there was no repression there would be no recovered memory. And in that case, if charges were not brought soon after adulthood, they could not be brought at all. So, in most cases, after the victim turns 21 she would be out of time.
I do not see evidence for creating a new syndrome. From what I have read, there doesn’t seem to be a personality type that is more prone to False Memory Syndrome. The syndrome does not define most of the people that it was created to define; although a case could be made that it defines some of their parents. I do not see evidence that repression (call it what you will) isn’t occurring in a significant minority of trauma survivors. And I don’t see enough evidence to suggest that just “not thinking about” a trauma is equivalent to the kind of mechanism or mechanisms that seem to be occurring. I do see a possible agenda for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation that strays from a purely scientific interest in memory. And while I do not question the idea that false memories do happen, I seriously question the agenda of an organization formed for a syndrome that doesn’t exist, seemingly in response to accusations made toward the founders.
American Psychological Association 1997, “The Suspect Confessed. Case Closed? Not Necessarily, Researcher Says,” APA Website, Feb 26, 1997, archived at <
http://web.archive.org/web/20040202034436/http://www.apa.org/releases/confess.html>, last accessed on January 16, 2005.
Elliot, D.M. 1997. “Traumatic Events: Prevalence and delayed recall in the general population,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65, 811-820.
False Memory Syndrome Foundation n/d, “Frequently Asked Questions,” <http://www.fmsfonline.org/fmsffaq.html#WhatIsFMS>, last accessed on January 16, 2005.
Loftus, E. 1995. “Remembering Dangerously.” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1995.
Loftus, E. and Ketchum, K. 1994. The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Loftus, E. F., Polonsky, S., and Fullilove, M. T., 1994. “Memories of childhood sexual abuse: Remembering and repressing,” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18, 67-84.
McNally, R. 2003. Remembering Trauma. Cambridge, Massachusettes: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Mitchell, Jann. 1993 “Memories of a Disputed Past.” The Oregonian. 8 Aug.
Page, J.C. n/d, “False Memory Syndrome: A False Construct,” Feminista! vol 2, #10, <http://www.feminista.com/archives/v1n9/false-memory.html>, accessed on January 16, 2005.
Recovered Memory Project n/d, “24 Publications concerning traumatic amnesia in Holocaust survivors,” not dated, <http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Taubman_Center/Recovmem/other_pub.html>, last accessed on January 16, 2005.
Williams, L. M. 1994. “Recall of childhood trauma: A prospective study of women’s memories of child sexual abuse,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 1167-76.
Yehuda, R., Schmeidler, J., Siever, L.J., Binder-Brynes, K. and Elkin, A. 1997. “Individual differences in post traumatic stress disorder symptom profiles in Holocaust survivors in concentration camps or in hiding,” Journal of Tramatic Stress, 10, 453-463.
With special thanks to David Glück for all his help, patience, encouragement, editing and argument. Without you, I would never have gotten riled. And thanks for all the trips to UCLA!
My sincere apologies to Dave W. for having to go over this report so many times. Sure, it is his job but there must be limits to the amount of grief you can inflict on one person. I guess we’re even now. Dave, you did a great job…
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