First published 1998 by Karnac Books Ltd.
In the past few years in the United Kingdom and America, the concepts of “false memory” and “false memory syndrome” have taken hold of the media and the professional and lay public in a way that requires clinical understanding. There has been an enormous amount of social hurt and heat generated that needs special consideration, as the basic facts are few and are shared.
At the most basic level, everybody’s memory is open to question and nearly all of us will have both historically accurate memories and memories that are mixed with fantasy components. So where and what is the problem?
Firstly, these new, untried terms are popularly used only in relation to adults who allegedly recover memories of previously consciously unknown childhood sexual abuse against them. They are not applied in the case of offenders who have committed abuse but have genuinely lost the memory of their corroborated abusing behaviour [Bentovim]. The specific application of the terms makes for complex social and political problems [Orr, Orbach].
Additionally, these adults claiming abuse are mainly women in their 20s, and it is largely their fathers who say that they have a “false memory”. There are cases where women who have left difficult homes with no intention of suing or seeking publicity have been pursued by fathers who have not accepted their right to leave. The problem is compounded when such parents, approaching relevant local services using the term “false memory syndrome” as an entry code, have been met with an unprofessional response. Instead of being listened to with courtesy and sympathy (in that any family break-up, for whatever reason, contains hurt) supposedly professional organisations have lost their own memory as to who their primary client was.
The social hurt, heat, need to blame, and consequent lack of professionalism that has been evoked by his topic therefore needs to be taken as a lesson. Given the relatively small number of cases that are involved, the interest generally would suggest [Moore, Orbach] enormous conscious and unconscious societal terror, such as comes with a paradigm shift. The gender bias adds to the problems, Freud’s early struggle to assess the traumatic aetiology of his female patients’ hysteria returns a hundred years later.
These women are also said to be primarily but not exclusively in some form of therapy that uses hypnosis, guided imagery, or other such techniques. This bias can also lead to problems in that some mainstream workers can sacrifice their “fringe” colleagues to the media as creators of a new syndrome, rather than sharing the difficulties. Working together is essential, as cases labelled “false memory syndrome”, whether proven or not, provide tragic accounts of individual, professional and familial pain [Ironside]. Workers and parents are undoubtedly wrongly accused [Ironside], and to be wrongly accused is to be abused. Why, then, is there uncertainty and ambivalence about the concept?
To understand the conflict in this debate, we need to see how the terms were first created. “False memory syndrome” is a term coined in America by Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield [Orr] and another American couple, Pamela and Peter Freyd. Together, they had formed the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). The Freyds had (publicly) alleged that their adult daughter had wrongly (privately) accused her father of abuse, The daughter, Professor Jennifer Freyd, a cognitive psychology expert, then felt obliged to speak on the matter publicly, although she did not divulge her alleged core memories. Her uncle, William Freyd, wrote an open letter to a television station in 1995, saying that he, his mother (Jennifer Freyd’s grandmother), and his daughters had known there was severe abuse in the home.
This, of course, does not meant that his words are necessarily correct. However, it does point to the level of familial conflict and dysfunction in the Freyd family and highlights concerns about the social meaning of and response to this topic.
What is the situation like int he United Kingdom? Following a personal invitation, I went to visit Roger Scotford, Chair of the British False Memory Society (BFMS).
I found that we had important areas of agreement. We agreed that memories could become distorted, and that the further back the memory the bigger the problem. We agreed that the problem of child abuse is numerically larger than the problem of being wrongly accused; that to be wrongly accused of abuse is an abusive experience, which can be traumatic and an abuse of justice. We agreed that there is a difference between memory that is recovered and memory that has always been there, that the status of “recovered” memories is very complex, and that the use of hypnosis to recover memories is quite open to question as it can make a false as well as a true memory appear more confidently.
However, my meeting with Scotford brought to light some difficult ethical issues. Where an allegation involves no witnesses other than the participants, proof is very difficult to obtain. Outside the courts and the consulting-room, there is a further painful no-man’s land where the predicament of the alleged victim and alleged abuser is stored. Scotford, like Freyd, reports that he has been accused of abuse by two of his adult daughters. The American FMSF material was the only ray of light he could find to help him understand how these, for him, false allegations could have originated, He founded the British society to help other such parents, and he offers access to BFMS files to bona fide researchers (this is with the permission of the respective parents). In my meeting with him, he offered his own case as an example. This is part of the problem. If Scotford is right and his daughters have made a tragic error, he should be rewarded for his courage in facing up to the issues as well as for his wish to try and maintain or resurrect the relationships (his relationship with his third daughter has not been problematic). However, if his first two daughters are right and he has abused, his hospitality in providing information could also be seen as exposing their hurt without consent.
However, although Roger Scotford agrees that the main concern is over young women who recover memory of abuse for the first time in therapy, of the 97 British FMS records with adequate information, as seen by the British Psychological Society (BPS) research, only under half revealed memory recovery from total amnesia. It is of great concern that elements in the media have therefore generalised the unproven term “false memory syndrome” [Adshead], referring to alleged memories that were previously unavailable, to extend to all memories of abuse. This takes us from an area where there is at least some consensus (most memories of abuse do remain conscious) to a generalisation that ends up being clinically dangerous.
Of course, recovery of verifiable authenticated memory from total amnesia does happen [Adshead, Kahr, Mollon, Moore]. Anne Kelly, for example (The Big Issue, 1 April 1996), only remembered that she had borne her father’s child at 16 after the birth of her loved daughter in her mid-20s. On searching through medical records, she found proof that she had given birth to a baby boy who had been adopted. On Tuesday, 26 March 1996, the Toronto Star reported that despite the evidence of an expert witness, Dr Harold Merskey, that the complainant suffered from “false memory syndrome”, her doctor/abuser was found guilty.