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FMSF and SFN

By Lisa Goodlin
Posted on: 10/22/2005

All correspondence received by Skeptic Friends Network or its staff becomes the property of Skeptic Friends Network, and may be printed without the consent of the author.

Michelle and David get some blogged feedback on their FMS articles, and so begin the discussion anew.


Re: SFN Articles “Questioning the Validity of False Memory Syndrome” and “A Cherry Picker’s Guide To Choosing Evidence For Traumatic Repression Or False Memory Syndrome

To:   David Glück (Kil) and Michelle Shires
From: Lisa Goodlin
Date: September 25, 2005

You may be interested in reading my short essay on Ellen Bass and
recovered memory on my blog. Toward the end of the essay I address the
two articles on the SFN regarding the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.


To:   Lisa Goodlin
From: Michelle Shires and David Glück (Kil)
Date: October 22, 2005
Thanks for the heads up on your essay “Ellen Bass, co-author of The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, should apologize to those she has harmed” at your culture caf blog for Sunday, September 25, 2005. Also, thanks for noticing our criticisms of some of the underlying assumptions of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and our questioning of False Memory Syndrome specifically. When we wrote those essays we were quite aware that we might raise the hackles on more than a few skeptics with regard to the subject of false memories and traumatic repression. Interestingly, the actual reaction to our essays (with one exception) has been mild to nonexistent. Like you, we were hoping to raise the level of dialog and debate on the subject, especially among skeptics. It may be that the participants in this debate are so entrenched in their thinking that calling into question certain assumptions made by them are simply waved away as being irrelevant or even silly. There does seem to be a “party line” on the question of traumatic repression and false memories by the skeptical community that we find a bit disconcerting when taking all things into consideration.

With regard to your essay, I would like to point out some factual errors you have made in your criticisms of Ellen Bass and her book, The Courage to Heal. This should in no way be construed as our endorsement of the book. The concern we have is one of sourcing. When doing research for our essays we noticed a problem that some writers on the subject were seemingly content with sourcing each other (and often without naming that source), rather than sourcing the original material cited. We noticed that certain phrases were mistakenly repeated over and over again to make a case which differed from the text of the target source or that simply didnít exist in any of the literature we could find. For example, the oft-used quote “Tell me what that bastard did to you,” referring to what a therapist allegedly said to her client, appears to be completely lacking a source.

Another problem we noticed was that there was, in some cases, a willingness to mine a quote from a source that has long since been revised. The Courage to Heal (TCTH) has been revised. In 1994 the third edition was published with revisions that addressed some of critiques of the first edition. On the cover of the book it says, “Third Edition-Revised and Updated.”

On your blog you said:
In September 2002 Ellen Bass, co-author of The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, came to town to hold a workshop for professionals who work with survivors of sexual trauma. I published an editorial in the local newspaper, The Post-Standard, expressing concern about the choice of Ms. Bass to lead this workshop. Both Ms. Bass and the organizers of the workshop responded to my concerns in the editorial pages of the newspaper. Three years later, The Courage to Heal is still in print and Ms. Bass still has not apologized to those her book has harmed nor made revisions to her book to remove misleading and incorrect information.
Bolding mine.

You also said:
…TCTH encourages women to conclude that they were sexually abused as children although they lack memories of abuse or corroborating evidence as is made clear in these two quotes from the book: “Many women who were abused don’t have memories, and some never get any. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t abused,” and “If you think you were abused, and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.”
Bolding mine.

On page 14 of the preface to the book, when discussing what Bass and Davis would have done differently in the first edition, they state “If we could have foreseen that therapists might someday assume abuse where there wasn’t any, we would have included a caution about that in our guidelines for choosing a counselor.” The change they made, “If you feel your therapist is pressuring you to say that you were abused, you’re seeing the wrong therapist. No one can tell you whether or not you were abused” (pg. 325).

Also in the preface, on page 15, Bass and Davis write, “There are other changes we have made in language and emphasis. We have modified some of the statements we originally made, in part because of legitimate criticisms.” The quote so often used in the literature and criticisms against TCTH, “If you think you were abused, and your life shows the symptoms, then you were,” was revised in 1994 to read, “If you genuinely think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, there’s a strong likelihood that you were. If you’re not sure, keep an open mind. Be patient with yourself. Over time you’ll become more clear’ (pg. 26).

Also on page 15 of the preface, Davis and Bass address the issue of the list of effects of sexual abuse often discussed by critics, “We have rewritten our introduction to ‘Effects’ in which we discuss long-term effects of sexual abuse. This chapter was never designed to be a checklist of symptoms by which readers could determine whether or not they’d been sexually abused.”

Bass and Davis (pg. 11), thank the critics and those who have helped them in the preface, including in their long list Elizabeth Loftus. While, again, we are not endorsing this book, it is evident that there have been revisions and it is clear that they took criticisms of the book into consideration when the revisions were made.

You are correct in saying that Bass and Davis don’t push “recovered memory therapy.” They don’t push any specific therapy. They are not therapists and say so at the beginning of the first and the third editions. They state that they are working from their personal accounts with survivors and professionals. They do not claim to be professionals.

With regard to The Courage to Heal, or any source material for that matter, a debate is not well served when we repeat other people’s mistakes or choose quotes that support our arguments without checking the sources ourselves for revisions — or worse, ignoring revisions that have been made to the source materials. There may be legitimate criticisms leveled at the revised version of TCTH. And those arguments could have been made. As skeptics, it seems to us that we should be held to the same standards that we demand from others when we discuss from sourced materials.

As an aside, in the first draft of Michelle’s “Questioning the Validity of False Memory Syndrome,” she brought the sourcing issue up. For the sake of being concise, that and other ethical concerns wound up on the cutting-room floor because they detracted from the main point of the essay.

Anyhow, Lisa, we are gratified that you felt that our criticisms of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation were worth mentioning and responding to in your essay. We are aware of the many criticisms of the FMSF in the literature and on the web. Our thinking, after doing much reading on the subject, was that some of the criticisms we read contain legitimate concerns that are largely ignored by the skeptical community. Why? Perhaps it is because the skeptical community has embraced the FMSF as the go-to organization for the dissemination of information on false memory issues. We felt it was time to rattle that cage a bit. Our hope was that our essays, coming from a skeptical origin, would not be summarily dismissed, and we would not have to endure being called “true believers,” which seems to be the FMSF ad hominem of choice leveled at anyone who questions their view on such things as traumatic repression. Actually, your criticisms of our essays give us reason for hope. Not that we agree with you, but for the very fact that you have noticed what you have called “a surprising source.” So, thanks!

You wrote:
One of their concerns, whether there is such a thing as a False Memory Syndrome, has been leveled by many critics and to me seems rather irrelevant. As I see FMSF, the goal of the organization is not to get the “syndrome” into the DSM or to even have it recognized as a true mental illness but to support individuals and families affected by recovered memories and to support real, evidence-based science. When the organization was formed a name had to be chosen. “False memory syndrome” is a shorthand for describing the effects of “recovering” memories.

If the primary goal of the FMSF were getting recognition for a mental illness, a syndrome of which the main symptom were false memories, then the criticism would be justified. However, it does not appear that the FMSF is endeavoring to do so.
Since the word “syndrome” is a scientific term with a very definite meaning in a psychological context, and the fact that, as you say, the FMSF is interested in supporting “real, evidence-based science,” then it seems to us that it is not irrelevant at all to call attention to the possibility that there may be no such thing as “False Memory Syndrome.” If the FMSF had not defined the term False Memory Syndrome as, in fact, a psychological syndrome with recognizable symptoms, and left off at being a support group for certain accused people, we would have had nothing to say on the matter.

Let me further respond to your first objection by quoting from an interview with Pamela Freyd, co-founder of the FMSF, by David L. Calof, originally published in Treating Abuse Today, 3(4), pp. 26-33:
Freyd: Let me read a few passages from a letter that I ran in the [FMS Foundation] newsletter to Paul Ekman, who was one of the people who signed a letter published in the American Psychological Society Observer that expressed concern about our use of the term “syndrome.”

TAT: Okay.

Freyd: “We understand all too well the problems that can be tied to the name of the Foundation, but we think that the word ‘syndrome’ is appropriate for several reasons. Syndrome means a collection of reproducible features that derive from some common cause. In false memory syndrome, we recognize a constellation of emotions, behaviors, and responses to the environment that are remarkably similar from one patient to another and derived from an imagined event, i.e., false memory of abuse, alien abduction, past lives. It tends to run a particular course both in its development and its dissolution. We wish to emphasize the existence of a condition that needs to be confirmed or rejected when further information emerges. For that aim, the ‘false memory syndrome’ is satisfactory. Many psychological syndromes are not pathological but psychologically generated from normal, even though distressing, life circumstances — as with anxiety syndrome or depressive syndrome. Regarding your term, ‘disputed memory problem,’ the ‘dispute’ is a problem of an involved group, not just the patients. The false memory syndrome on the other hand, describes the patient’s condition, the constellation of symptoms and their course…
Bolding mine.

And then there is this, from “WHAT IS A SYNDROME?” by H. Merskey, D.M. FMS Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 6, June 1, 1995:
…To sum up, the phenomena of false memory syndrome, frequently include a person with a problem, a set of ideas for which there is no independent evidence, complaints based upon so-called recovered memories, and the propagation of hate and hostility. By the criteria that I have given of the syndrome, i.e. a set of items running together, there is no question that the FMS Foundation has identified a peculiarly nasty syndrome.
These kinds of statements are typical of the FMSF position. I would be hard pressed to see my way around this obvious appeal for scientific credibility as an important part of their mission.

Since they continue to criticize certain “evidence-based science” that they do not happen to agree with, while continuing to support “evidence-based science” that they like, they have, by statement and conviction, placed themselves on one side of the memory controversy and have therefore opened themselves for criticism as well. Sorry, but you just don’t get to wave away the science that they support as ultimately not important or irrelevant even as they actively cite it to support their stated goals. It is they who have made science the cornerstone of their cause. Not us.

You wrote:
The second criticism, that the FMSF position is that no recovered memories are ever true, is unnecessarily reductive. The FMSF says:

“Some of our memories are true, some are a mixture of fact and fantasy, and some are false — whether those memories seem to be continuous or seem to be recalled after a time of being forgotten or not thought about.”
The FMSF has only recently added the above disclaimer to their site (those statements were not on the FMSF homepage when we wrote our essays). The fact that they put it right on their homepage may be in response to the criticisms they have been receiving for the overwhelming display of bias they have shown on the unsettled issue of the delayed recall of a traumatic memory. And while I am happy that they have acknowledged the possibility of delayed recall, they stop short of acknowledging the possibility of repression (call it what you will) by using the terminology that Richard McNally suggests in his book Remembering Trauma. We discuss that terminology in both of our essays.

The fact remains that they continue to source only those materials that are hostile to the idea that repression happens.

You said:
There is a difference between this statement and saying that recovered memories are never true. It is a complex issue, but there has not yet been a study to show that recovered memories are reliable. In fact, as more research is done on memory we find that memories are malleable, prone to suggestion and to change over time. Neither has the case been made for traumatic amnesia.
We think a case can be made for traumatic amnesia. We sourced studies that seem to demonstrate that traumatic amnesia happens. We have also read the opposing literature, the same books and studies that the FMSF recommends and find them, at least in part, unconvincing. Some of our problems with those sources were briefly discussed in Michelle’s “Questioning the Validity of False Memory Syndrome.”

You said:
In the context of a court case in which recovered memories are being used to convict the innocent-until-proven-guilty, the corroboration of memories is imperative.
We agree that corroborative evidence should be necessary for obtaining a conviction for any crime. An allegation of a crime is just that, an allegation. “The corroboration of memories” seems to imply that either a guilty person must confess or that someone else saw what happened and can testify as an eyewitness. Since the sort of crime being discussed happens mostly in private, and those charged with abuse rarely confess their crime, corroboration, as we read your meaning of the term, is an unreasonable standard of evidence. In fact, I can think of no other crime that would require that kind of evidence. Corroborative evidence, like forensic evidence, emergency room visits that show the kind of injury that might happen during a sexual abuse and other kinds of evidence of that nature should be allowed. We can see no reason to change the usual standard of evidence for the prosecution of this kind of crime.

Note that it is quite possible that we are unclear on what you mean by “the corroboration of memories,” and seek clarification.

You said:
The FMSF continues to help people affected by recovered memories and is an important source of information for those who are interested in the issue.
The FMSF is one source for one side of the issue. We believe that a middle ground on the issue of traumatic repression (call it what you will) is the most reasonable position for us to take at this time.

We do not support and continue to be concerned about any therapy that uses regressive techniques for the recovery of memories. We continue to be concerned about the practice of assuming that repressed traumatic memories are necessarily present in a patient and in need of recovery. In short, we can and do agree that bad therapy is at best of little value and at worst damaging to the patient.

You said:
While I may disagree with the substance of the two SFN articles, I think it is valuable that the writers are bringing attention again to this subject and engaging in thoughtful debate.
Back at you, and thanks again…


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