In early December of 1990, the young academic was feeling confused. Though she had recently been granted tenure and was a happily married mother of two, with another child on the way, she was weighed down by a surprising surge in anxiety. To get some relief from her distress, she decided to enter psychotherapy.
When she mentioned in an early session how much she was dreading the prospect of seeing her parents during the upcoming Christmas vacation, her therapist asked if she had ever been abused. “I said, ‘No,’ but later that day, I began experiencing disturbing flashbacks. Over the next few weeks, I remembered that my father had molested me when I was a young child,” said Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, in a phone interview. “When my parents arrived for their visit, I couldn’t handle being with them, and my husband blurted out the reason. They ended up leaving earlier than planned.”
Over the next couple of years, Jennifer and her parents—Peter Freyd, a professor of mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Pamela Freyd, then a research associate at the university’s Institute of Research in Cognitive Science—corresponded about this conflict. But as it became apparent that there was no way to resolve the family’s differences, these communications stopped. Jennifer has not been in touch with either parent since then.
While Peter Freyd has denied that any sexual abuse ever occurred, he has confessed to some inappropriate behavior around his daughter during her childhood. “I’m quite prepared to say,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1994, “the attitude I thought was appropriate of being open about things of a sexual nature – in retrospect may have been wrong.” He has also publicly acknowledged that he himself was sexually abused by a much older man when he was a teenager and that he has struggled with alcoholism—a condition for which he received in-patient treatment at a substance abuse rehab facility in the early 1980s.
Soon after Jennifer made the allegation of abuse, Peter and Pamela Freyd coined a term, the false memory syndrome, to describe what they believe alienated their daughter from them. This concept was later defined by Paul McHugh, the head of the psychiatry department at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School from 1975 to 2001, as “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.”
According to McHugh, the false memory in question is typically a delayed memory that emerges during the course of psychotherapy. Thus originated recovered memory therapy, a second neologism that is often paired with the false memory syndrome. Recovered memories of abuse, stresses McHugh, are rarely—if ever—credible.
Over the past 30 years, Peter and Pamela Freyd’s view of the nature of memory has been widely accepted. Numerous mainstream media outlets have reported on how an epidemic of “repressed memories” has wreaked havoc on parents like the Freyds, who are regularly portrayed as upstanding members of their communities. Likewise, psychologists and psychiatrists in training are routinely taught to be skeptical of all delayed memories of childhood trauma.
Yet, upon closer examination, questions abound. Do laboratory studies on false memory back up the claim by Peter and Pamela Freyd that their daughter—with the assistance of her therapist—conjured up a memory of sexual abuse out of whole cloth? How did the false memory syndrome—an idea formulated by the Freyds in the heat of a deep-seated family conflict—become accepted as established science?
The false memory syndrome stands in direct scientific opposition to the wealth of evidence supporting dissociative amnesia—a psychological defense mechanism which, according to trauma therapists, enables people to split off painful events from conscious awareness for years. Are these empirical studies, which date back to the late 19th century, in fact flimsy, as the proponents of the false memory syndrome maintain?
The stakes of this controversy are profound, particularly for people who turn to the health care system for help in treating their emotional distress. The vast majority of contemporary mental health professionals—and most psychiatrists —have taken their cue from McHugh and believe that so-called recovered memory therapy harms patients by turning their attention away from genuine psychiatric illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, which require years of treatment with powerful psychoactive drugs. In contrast, therapists who specialize in treating trauma survivors argue that dissociated memories of early sexual or physical abuse can cause acute symptoms—say, self-cutting—and that integrating these painful experiences can often be critical to a patient’s long-term recovery.
Moreover, the broad acceptance of the false memory syndrome in the cultural ecosystem can end up silencing, or even shaming, people like Jennifer Freyd, who believe that they have stumbled upon painful experiences in their childhood and seek to understand the truth about their own past and its connection to their current feelings. In addition, in the courtroom, the Freyds’ view of memory can serve as a protective shield for those who have, in fact, sexually abused children.
This investigation into the scientific evidence behind the false memory syndrome comes at a time when our society is finally grappling with the reality that various trusted institutions, most notably the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts, long covered up the widespread abuse of the children entrusted to their care. We have seen the same pattern with some athletic coaches.
Given that we now know that American society long ignored this reality, it seems timely to re-evaluate the widespread belief that individuals rarely—if ever—dissociate traumatic events in their own lives.
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation
In March of 1992, with the help of about 20 prominent mental health professionals such as McHugh and Elizabeth Loftus, then a psychology professor at the University of Washington, Peter and Pamela co-founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). While the Freyds were never sued by Jennifer, many of the early FMSF members did face lawsuits from their adult children. That’s because, by the early 1990s, anti-violence advocates had managed to extend the rights of victims of sexual abuse.
In 1989, Washington became the first state to pass a law that enabled people to sue for damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse within three years of the time that they remembered the incidents. By the end of 1992, 18 other states had passed similar laws. And media coverage was initially sympathetic to those who remembered being abused as children. The accused were looking for a defense, and Loftus’s work provided them with that.
As Pamela Freyd admitted in a 1999 FMSF newsletter, these legal changes were the raison d’etre for her nonprofit advocacy group: “The Foundation came into existence because of the many lawsuits that were being brought against families based on no other evidence than a claim of recovered repressed memories.”
In the fall of 1990, Loftus, who by that time had written a series of influential academic publications on memory including the book Eyewitness Testimony (1979), received national media attention when she testified as an expert witness for the defense in a closely watched trial. The case concerned George Franklin, a California man who had been accused of murdering an eight-year-old girl in 1969. The prosecution’s main witness was Franklin’s own daughter, Eileen, who testified that she had recovered her memory of the crime after about 20 years. Franklin was convicted and sent to prison, but he was released in 1995 upon appeal.
While it has often been reported that the guilty verdict was overturned because Eileen Franklin had recovered the memory under hypnosis, that claim was never proven. The actual reason revolved around two legal technicalities: that Franklin had been deprived of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
“I was happy when the FMSF started because right after the Franklin case, I was a one-person switchboard who was trying to help desperate family members all by myself,” said Elizabeth Loftus, now a professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine, in a phone interview. “I had a list of good therapists and lawyers in my office, but I didn’t have the resources to do this.”
At the time, most mental health professionals, for diverse reasons, did not yet give much thought or credence to the idea that childhood trauma played a role in the formation of adult psychiatric symptoms. Given the turn toward biology after the 1980 publication of the American Psychiatric Association’s revised diagnostic manual, DSM III, psychiatrists typically viewed depression and bipolar disorder as brain illnesses with a genetic component, for which the first-line treatment was psychiatric drugs. Meanwhile, the reigning paradigm in psychoanalysis still assumed that Freud had been correct to abandon his “seduction theory” in 1897, when he concluded that the reports of childhood sexual abuse by patients were actually wished-for fantasies. Similarly, practitioners of cognitive therapy claimed that faulty thinking patterns caused most common psychiatric disorders. In fact, the late psychiatrist Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, was an early member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the FMSF.
Given the state of the mental health field in the early 1990s, the FMSF strategy consisted of a three-pronged approach: convincing the public that recovered memories of abuse were invariably false, recruiting prominent academics to serve as its public relations representatives, and punishing the relatively small cadre of therapists and academics who treated or studied trauma survivors. To intimidate so-called recovered memory therapists, the FMSF helped initiate a series of lawsuits against well-known figures for malpractice. For example, psychiatrist Bennet Braun, who practiced at the Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago, was targeted with a bunch of lawsuits. In one notable case settled in 1997, a former patient of Braun’s, Patricia Burgus, received a $10.5 million settlement.
“These lawsuits by the FMSF had a chilling effect” said psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of The New York Times bestseller The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, Body in the Healing of Trauma (2015), in a phone interview. “While not all trauma therapists were sued, many of us suddenly felt under attack. In fact, the Trauma Center, the treatment facility, which I had established at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital [MGH] in 1984, was forced to close. After I testified as an expert witness for the prosecution in several cases involving delayed memories of abuse by priests, the late psychiatrist Edwin Kassem, a Jesuit priest who then served as the chief of MGH’s psychiatry department, wanted me out. After all, he was an advisor to Cardinal Bernard Law, then the archbishop of Boston, who was forced to resign a decade later when The Boston Globe published a series of stories showing that Law had protected abusive priests.”
A Marketing Success
According to the FMSF’s tax returns, this 501(c)(3) nonprofit received a total of nearly $8 million in donations before it was dissolved in late 2019. These contributions from thousands of members, many of whom were adults accused of child abuse, were plowed into an aggressive PR campaign that resulted in favorable press coverage in several leading newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times, by the middle of 1992. Between 1992 and 1997, the FMSF spent nearly $300,000 just in postage to send out its 35-page packet of news articles to thousands of movers and shakers in the media and in departments of psychology and psychiatry.
One example of the influence of the FMSF on the mainstream press can be seen in the writings of Frederick Crews, who weighed in on this controversy in The New York Review of Books. An eloquent literary critic, Crews, now 89, started his career by writing psychoanalytic studies of canonical authors, including The Pooh Perplex (1962), a tongue-in-cheek bestseller on A. A. Milne’s beloved children’s book.
“In the early 1960s, like Robert Silvers [the founder and longtime editor of The New York Review of Books, who died in 2017] and many New York intellectuals of that era, I believed that Freud was a key influencer,” Crews said in a phone interview.
But in the late 1970s, he turned against Freudian scholarship. A decade or so later, Crews convinced Silvers, for whom he had been writing since 1964, to reverse course as well. Crews then began publishing a series of harsh critiques of psychoanalysis in The New York Review.
In the fall of 1994, as part of his anti-Freud campaign, Crews wrote “The Revenge of the Repressed,” a two-part review of several new books on memory and psychotherapy, including The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Loftus (co-authored by science writer Katherine Ketcham). Lauding Loftus as an exemplary experimental scientist, he embraced her main conclusion. “All in all,” Crews wrote, “Loftus finds no basis for thinking that repression, as opposed to a gradual avoidance and atrophy of painful recollections, has figured in a single molestation case to date.”
In his review, Crews also praised the public relations efforts of Peter and Pamela Freyd, adding, “Above all, steady progress in public enlightenment has been forged, over the past two-and-a-half years, by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, most of whose members are themselves slandered relatives of ‘survivors.’”
The Freyds were pleased. “After that piece came out,” Crews said to me, “I got a call from Pamela Freyd who asked me to join the Scientific Advisory Board of the FMSF. I told her, ‘Never mind. I’m not a scientist.’ But she persisted, saying, ‘You could be useful to us. You could help us reach a liberal educated audience.’ So I agreed to sign up.”
Pamela Freyd’s words proved prophetic. A year later, The New York Review published a volume, The Memory Wars, consisting of several of the recent anti-Freud essays by Crews, including “The Revenge of the Repressed,” plus numerous letters to the editor. This book received mostly glowing reviews in the mainstream press. However, a notable dissent came from Kirkus Reviews, which observed that Crews “apparently is so obsessed with refuting his adversaries’ views that he sometimes barely listens to, much less engages, them.”
Throughout the 1990s, major media outlets typically dismissed or ignored the academic research suggesting that survivors of trauma do sometimes forget about their painful experiences for many years. In 1995, the PBS investigative series Frontline ran a documentary directed by Ofra Bikel titled “Divided Memories.”
“Though this film purported to present a balanced view of ‘the memory wars,’ it largely sided with the FMSF,” said Ross Cheit, a professor of political science at Brown in a phone interview. “I wrote Bikel to complain that she didn’t cover accurately the phenomenon of dissociative amnesia. And I was shocked when she responded that there are no documented cases.”
Numerous prominent academics did in fact jump on the FMSF bandwagon. In 2005, Richard McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard, published a blistering critique of so-called recovered memory therapy, Remembering Trauma. This Harvard University Press book received a glowing review in Science, which stated that his “synthesis of research from clinical psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and developmental psychology provides the most comprehensive and even-handed work on this topic.” Likewise, Scientific American wrote that “the overwhelming evidence leads [McNally] to conclude that people do not forget experiences that were truly traumatic.”
In a recent phone interview, McNally stood by the key arguments in his book. “Dissociative amnesia is an empty bucket,” he said. “I don’t think there is any good evidence for it. Traumatized children actually find it hard not to think about the terrifying events; they typically have lots of nightmares and flashbacks. In contrast, recovered memories of trauma can often be traced back to suggestive therapy techniques—such as journaling, dream interpretation, and hypnosis.”
A few years later, the FMSF paid psychiatrist Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins roughly $110,000 to write Try to Remember: Psychiatry’s Clash over Meaning, Memory, and Mind (2008). This FMSF-commissioned treatise was also widely praised in the national media and by prominent scholars. For example, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, now a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara, declared that with this book, “America’s premier pioneering biological psychiatrist… blows the whistle on sloppy and trendy thinking in psychiatry.”
Meanwhile, the mainstream press kept publishing sympathetic profiles of the academics who sided with the FMSF. For example, in an eight-part feature published by Slate in 2010, titled “The Memory Doctor,” William Saletan praised Loftus as the world’s foremost authority on the reliability of memories of sexual abuse, echoing her belief that adults accused of molesting children have long been treated unfairly. Saletan, who described the fact that “repressed memories were surfacing everywhere” in the 1990s as a “nightmare,” received a national journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for the series.
With academics such as Loftus, McNally, and McHugh endorsing the false memory syndrome, it has emerged as established science. Today, psychology students are typically taught that recovered memories are almost always false. As Bethany Brand, a professor of psychology at Towson University who has written a few academic papers on the contents of psychology textbooks, said in a phone interview, “There is definitely a huge bias toward the false memory position. After all, the late Henry Gleitman, who taught psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote the most influential undergraduate psychology textbook in the last half century, served as a scientific advisor to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. And while all abnormal psychology textbooks cover the major laboratory studies conducted by false memory researchers, none cite the studies showing that patients who report delayed memories of sexual abuse actually tend to score lower on suggestibility scales than other patients.”
The influence of the FMSF now also extends to academic and media circles outside of America. It is familiar to many people across the globe, as various affiliated false memory societies have popped up in numerous countries, including Britain, Germany, France, Australia, and New Zealand.
The FMSF’s Scientific Pillar: The Lost in the Mall Study
After the prosecution lost the Franklin case, Loftus began searching for scientific evidence to back up her position that the dissociative amnesia often reported by psychotherapists occurred rarely—if at all. As she noted in her widely praised popular book, The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (1994), “Through careful experimental design and controlled studies, perhaps I could provide a theoretical framework for the creation of false memories, show that it possible to create an entire memory for a traumatic event that never happened.”
Loftus’s quest resulted in the now-famous “lost in the mall experiment,” which her undergraduate student, James Coan, submitted as his senior thesis in 1993. Two years later, Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell, then also an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, would publish an expanded version of this study called “The Formation of False Memories,” which has emerged as perhaps the central piece of empirical evidence for the false memory syndrome and one of the most influential papers in contemporary psychology. It’s the basis of Loftus’s 2013 TED Talk on false memories, which has seen by about six million viewers around the world; its transcript has been translated into 34 languages.
The 1995 study published in Psychiatric Annals involved 24 subjects aged 18 to 53, each of whom were paired with one relative—either a parent or an older sibling. The experiment was designed to prove that an older relative could induce an adult to believe that a distressing childhood event that had never happened—being lost in a shopping mall—actually did happen. Loftus reported that six of the subjects did believe that they had once been lost in a mall, and even recalled specific details about that experience. “We are providing,” she concluded, “an existence proof for the formation of false memories.”
According to Loftus, her study proved how therapists—say, the one whom Jennifer Freyd saw in the winter of 1990—could implant traumatic memories of sexual abuse in their patients. But as critics of the study have noted, this conclusion isn’t supported by the experiment.
The study indicates that older family members, who could be expected to have an actual memory of an event, can convince a relative to create a false childhood memory, or at least a vague sense of that memory. In Loftus’s experiment, the “younger relative” had reason to trust the reliability of the memories of family members, as it is natural for family members to want to “share” in memories. But a person has quite a different relationship with a therapist, as there is no shared experience to be remembered. As a result, the study can hardly be said to prove that a therapist can convince a person to create a false childhood memory.
Another problematic flaw with the mall study is its laboratory setting. “Loftus is not a clinician and never studied how people process traumatic experiences,” said psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. “Trauma often overwhelms the central nervous system, so the brain may not be able to register it fully when it happens. That’s why delayed memories of abuse are not uncommon.”
Finally, critics have pointed out that the study is riddled with methodological flaws and lapses in its reporting of results. For example, in “Lost in the Mall: False Memory or False Defense,” published in 2019 in The Journal of Child Custody, psychologists Ruth Blizzard and Morgan Shaw reported that Loftus tossed out six subjects who were in her original 1993 study—a move which constitutes a major ethical lapse for an experimental researcher. “The mall study,” they concluded, “has received a minimal amount of critical analysis, regardless of the vague and contradictory reporting of results, failure to report negative results, lack of definition of false memory, and conflation of informal observations with formal research.”
Indeed, 20 years after her lost in the mall study was published, Loftus acknowledged that the study results applied only to the 24 subjects and couldn’t be applied to other populations.
Yet, in her interview for this piece, Loftus expressed fierce pride in the mall study, which she considers a paradigm-busting achievement. Asked to respond to the various criticisms of her work, she pointed to a “mega-analysis” of false memory research published by Alan Scoboria, a psychology professor at the University of Windsor in Canada in the journal Memory in 2017. “In his summary of the false memory literature,” Loftus said, “Scoboria reported that suggestive interviewers can cause 30% of people to develop full false memories of events that never happened.”
The Mega-Analysis: More of the Same
In the research world, a review of the research on an issue is regularly touted as providing evidence of the truth of a matter that a single study never can. Loftus was citing Scoboria’s paper as evidence that subsequent research on false memories supported her findings and claims.
However, as can be easily seen, the eight false memory studies reviewed by Scoboria were all flawed for the same reason as the lost in the mall study. None of these laboratory experiments directly assess whether a recovered memory of sexual abuse can be implanted by a therapist.
Here is how Scoboria and colleagues described the methodology of the “false memory implantation studies” they reviewed:
These studies typically merge suggestive techniques with social pressure to lead participants to report believing and remembering that a suggested pseudoevent had actually occurred . . . the participants are presented with descriptions of a set of childhood events that were ostensibly provided by trustworthy family members (such as parents or siblings). Amongst these events is one false event created by the researchers (familial informants usually verify that to their knowledge the participant never experienced this event in childhood.) Over two or three sessions—typically over the course of a week—participants are encouraged to recall the childhood events using various memory recovery techniques employed in trauma-memory-oriented therapy (e.g. guided visualization).
In the eight studies, the false events were as follow: “trouble with a teacher,” hot air balloon ride, and “spilled punch bowl on the parents of a bride.”
All of these studies rely on the implanting of a false memory that has supposedly been recalled by a member of the family. To prime that implantation, three true events remembered by the family member are also told to the participant. The person has reason to believe that all four events are true, and once details of the false event are described, he or she has been primed to fill in the details. Moreover, none of these false events are traumatic.
That laboratory setting doesn’t replicate, in any substantial way, the environment in which adults tell of recovering memories of child abuse to a therapist. The therapist isn’t a family member with a “shared” history; the therapist doesn’t provide details of a memory, (such as the false event described in these experiments); and the memory of childhood abuse is, of course, a traumatic memory.
The False Memory Syndrome in the Courtroom
In spite of the flaws in the major false memory studies conducted over the last 25 years, Loftus has cited this research while appearing as a defense witness in more than 300 trials of people accused of sexual abuse. In fact, Loftus, who has never testified on behalf of a plaintiff in these cases, has even helped defend men who few doubt are serial predators.
For instance, Loftus was the sole defense witness called in the February 2005 trial of the late Paul Shanley, the so-called “Boston street priest,” who had admitted on several occasions since the late 1970s—to both journalists and to church authorities—that he had abused numerous boys. The 2005 case concerned a Boston area firefighter who claimed that Shanley had raped him on numerous occasions when he was between six and nine years old. The accuser, who was 27 at the time of the trial, testified that he had forgotten about the years of abuse for about 15 years. Loftus testified that there was little reason to believe this was so. ”I don’t believe there is any credible scientific evidence that years of brutalization can be massively repressed,” she told the court.
The jury was not convinced, and Shanley, who died late last year, was convicted and sent to prison. As Martha Coakley, then the Middlesex County District Attorney, told The Orange County Weekly, her team pored over Loftus’s studies and experiments on the inconsistencies of memory before dismissing them all as “fairly trivial kinds of manipulation with memories.” Her studies, added Coakley, “just weren’t applicable to [the] facts [in the case].”
Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman, author of books such as Father-Daughter Incest (1981) and Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (1992), argues that Loftus’s standard attack on dissociative amnesia may well have fallen flat in the priest abuse cases because the victims were mostly men. “There has long been a stereotype of women that are easily swayed, suggestible, and overly emotional,” she said in a phone interview. “The false memory syndrome is a fresh appeal to prejudice—that women and children are prone to lie.”
When asked recently about her decision to testify in controversial cases such as the one involving Shanley, Loftus said that “every person deserves a fair defense.” She also cited her concern about what she termed “piling on” and about the way the pendulum has shifted too far in the wrong direction in the #MeToo era. “Just because someone committed crimes A, B, and C,” she said, “that does not mean that he also committed D. We don’t want a situation where everyone is automatically believed.”
Like Loftus, Frederick Crews also believes that courts often victimize men accused of sexual abuse—even those widely assumed to be notorious pedophiles. In the last couple of years, he took up the cause of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach, who was convicted in 2012 of 45 counts involving the sexual abuse of children. Crews recently wrote a favorable review of The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment (2017) by Mark Pendergrast, which argues that Sandusky was unfairly imprisoned due in large part to testimony based on recovered memories. Loftus also provided a favorable blurb for this book.
When writing to me about Sandusky in a recent email, Crews put the term, “child molester,” in scare quotes. He is frustrated that he has yet to find a home for his piece on the widely scorned former Penn State coach in a mainstream news outlet. “If Bob Silvers were still alive, he would have published it without blinking,” he said.
The Scientific Evidence for Dissociative Amnesia
The flip side to the false memory studies is a large body of research, conducted over the last century, that provides evidence that dissociative amnesia is, in fact, a common reaction to trauma. However, this research has often been ignored in news articles and textbooks that discuss the false memory syndrome.
“There are now hundreds of studies in lots of different populations showing that people forget trauma,” said psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. “We see it in victims of sexual abuse, natural disaster, torture, rape, war, and kidnapping. And research also shows that delayed memories of abuse are as reliable as continuous memories.”
One of the psychologists who has synthesized much of this research on dissociative amnesia has been Jennifer Freyd herself. “I am a memory psychologist, so I needed to make sense of what had happened to me,” she said. In 1996, she published Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse (1996)—a book published by Harvard University Press, which describes what she has called betrayal trauma theory. “Memory of trauma can be dangerous to children,” she stated, summing up the central argument of her book. “They may need to forget in order to function in important relationships.”
Jennifer Freyd has also published a number of academic articles on betrayal trauma theory. Over the past decade, she has expanded her work to include the plight of victims abused not only by their families, but also by institutions on which they often depend for support and emotional sustenance, such as the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts. She recently founded her own non-profit, The Center for Institutional Courage. But to this day, betrayal trauma theory remains confined to academic circles; it’s typically discussed only in scholarly publications—say, The Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, which Freyd now edits.
In her book, she argued that false memory syndrome proponents such as Loftus and Crews typically confuse the terms repression and dissociation, which constitute two completely different defense mechanisms. Repression, as understood by Freud after he officially developed psychoanalysis in 1897, involves the banishing from consciousness of certain feelings—say, the desire to have sex with someone or to murder someone. In contrast, dissociation involves the splitting off from conscious awareness of a painful event—say, a sexual or physical assault.
In his pre-psychoanalytic work, Freud highlighted the phenomenon of dissociative amnesia. For example, in his 1896 paper, “Heredity and the Aetiology of Neuroses,” Freud connected adult psychiatric symptoms—say, depression and anxiety—to incidents of sexual abuse in childhood. In his first book, Studies on Hysteria (1895), co-written with Josef Breuer, Freud provided a few case studies of women suffering from disabling symptoms who had forgotten about the abuse that they had endured in childhood.
“There is a deep conceptual problem here,” Jennifer Freyd wrote about Crews’s influential 1994 New York Review article. “Freudian assumptions about repression…constitute a theory of a particular mental mechanism rather than an observable phenomenon.” In other words, Freud’s idea of repression is just a theory that can’t really be proved; in contrast, dissociative amnesia is a phenomenon that can be shown to be true by means of empirical studies.
In 1994, sociologist Linda Mayer Williams, then a professor at the University of New Hampshire, supplied a key piece of such evidence in her paper, “Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women’s Memories of Child Sexual Abuse,” published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. The study focused on 129 girls—aged 10 months to 12 years—who were examined in a hospital ER between 1973 and 1975 after reports of sexual abuse. When Williams interviewed the subjects again in 1990 and 1991—they were then between 18 and 31—38% did not tell her about the abuse that had led to the ER visit. “This study,” wrote Freyd, “suggests that for victims of childhood sexual abuse, forgetting the abuse is not unusual (italics in original).”
When asked about these findings, Loftus and other false-memory syndrome proponents typically come up with a series of reasons that they believe can whittle the figure for dissociative amnesia from 38% down to 0%.
“Some of the women in the Williams study were just two or three when the abuse happened, so childhood amnesia was probably at work for them,” Loftus said.” Others may not have felt like telling the interviewer about the abuse. And for others, the incident may have been minor—say, fondling.”
Evidence for dissociative amnesia has also been gathered by Brown University political scientist Ross Cheit, who reports that he forgot his own sexual abuse at the age of 12 by a camp counselor for decades. In the mid-1990s, he launched the Recovered Memory Project, and he has now gathered 110 corroborated cases of recovered memory. He also has compiled a long list of citations to scholarly articles on dissociative amnesia in various populations such as child abuse victims and Holocaust survivors.
Cheit spent a decade writing a book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology and the Sexual Abuse of Children (2014), in which he reviewed the major child abuse cases over the previous 30 years—from the McMartin Preschool case of the 1980s through the priest abuse cases and the Jerry Sandusky case. In it, he documents how there has been a bias in the media against recognizing dissociative amnesia, even though in the clinical world it is well known that “sexual abuse disclosures are often delayed and then disclosed in bits and pieces.”
Therapy for Trauma Survivors
Judith Herman, who formulated today’s most widely used paradigm for trauma therapy in Trauma and Recovery (1992), dismisses the term recovered memory therapy as “a caricature.”
“The false memory movement has blamed therapists as exploiters of patients who are eager to implant false memories of abuse,” she said. “But I don’t think therapists have that much power. In contrast, some parents do try both to take away memories of abuse and to convince their children that they had happy childhoods.”
As a feminist, Herman sees therapy as a collaborative process. She realizes that the therapist can’t possibly know for sure exactly what happened in some interaction between an adult patient and her father decades ago.
For Herman, the therapist should serve as an enlightened witness who listens carefully to whatever the patient has to say but is not an ultimate arbiter of truth. Her model of psychodynamic psychotherapy, which has its roots in some core Freudian principles such as transference (the notion that patients unconsciously transfer feelings about their parents to other people in their lives, including the therapist), involves helping patients explore how childhood experiences may play a role in their presenting symptoms—say, depression, anxiety, or relationship problems. Some patients come into therapy with clear memories of abuse. While other patients may eventually disclose long-forgotten scenes of sexual or physical abuse during the course of treatment, that is not something that the therapist should ever insist on. Such an assertion is considered unethical, as it would constitute a clear violation of the patient’s boundaries.
The Harvard psychiatrist does acknowledge that some psychotherapists may not be skilled in helping patients process trauma. “They may, for example, rush patients into talking about trauma before they have established a safe relationship. But the FMSF never had any interest in defining what good therapy is,” she stated.
Herman notes that the epidemiological data gathered over the past few decades have consistently chipped away at the FMSF tenet that delayed memories of abuse are almost always false. “We know that about a quarter of women are abused as children, and perhaps as many as 40% of women who seek therapy have an abuse history.”
Like Judith Herman, David Calof, a psychodynamic psychotherapist based in Seattle, who has treated trauma survivors for about 40 years, notes that therapists can harm patients by asking leading—rather than open-ended—questions about possible childhood trauma. But he believes that for very distressed patients, deeply buried traumas often play a key role in the presenting symptoms. In these cases, it’s the job of the therapist, he insists, to let patients dictate when they are ready to try to piece together the various fragments of a particular trauma or set of traumas.
He recalled the case of a 30-year-old man who came into treatment after attempting suicide. “I asked him about his family, and he told me his father had been convicted of incest. The patient initially denied that he himself had been abused. After a few years of therapy, he started to talk about various scenes of abuse, but his memory was sketchy. Around that time, his father, who had received some good counseling in prison, was released after serving an 18-year sentence. And then his father began attending some of our sessions, and he managed to help his son integrate his memories, saying things like, ‘Do you remember the incident near the fireplace?’ It was very moving.”
In the mid-1990s, Calof edited Treating Abuse Today, a magazine that was widely read by trauma therapists and abuse survivors. As he reported in a 1998 paper published in Ethics and Behavior, “Notes from a practice under siege: Harassment, defamation, and intimidation in the name of science,” for about three years, supporters of the FMSF made a concerted effort to drive him out of business. “My house was broken into, and a staff member of mine was assaulted,” Calof said in a phone interview. Calof reports that the PR campaign against him died down about 20 years ago, and he has not experienced any problems since then.
Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, who now instructs about 60,000 people—mostly psychologists, social workers, schoolteachers, and occupational therapists—per year in his Zoom lectures, also notes that trauma therapists no longer experience any harassment. And he is optimistic about the future of mental health treatment for trauma survivors because as a group, contemporary mental health clinicians are much better informed about the nature of traumatic memory than they were a generation ago. “But even today, few psychiatrists are interested in learning about childhood trauma, as that field has sold its soul to the pharmaceutical industry. And that is unfortunate, as psychiatrists often misdiagnose adult survivors with conditions like bipolar disorder and then overmedicate them.”
The Science of Recovered Memories
For too long, society turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children. It was a taboo subject, kept quiet within families and covered up by institutions. Soon after states finally began providing adults who remembered such childhood abuse with the legal standing to sue, the FMSF began waging a vigorous public relations campaign that discredited their memories—in both courtrooms and, to a large degree, in the public mind.
Indeed, the false memory syndrome, which was said to be grounded in cutting-edge science, regularly produced a legal—and, one might say, an epistemological—stalemate: It was the delayed memory of the accuser against the denial of the accused, and without any corroborating evidence of the abuse, it was impossible for a jury or a judge to know what had really happened.
In addition, the false memory syndrome turned those accused of abuse into “victims.” These cases were no longer simply “he said/she said,” cases, but rather “he said/she was tricked into creating false memories” cases.
However, public understanding of this dynamic has perhaps entered a new phase. There is now increasing public awareness that the sexual abuse of children is all too common. And as society assesses the claims of adults who recall memories of child abuse, it should know this about the relevant science: The false memory research provides little evidence that memories of sexual abuse are often implanted by therapists. But there is a large body of research providing evidence that dissociative amnesia is a common response to childhood trauma.