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of the antirape movement contend that professionals and researchers have used
false definitions to create rape out of normal sexual behavior. In contrast, critics
of therapy for adult sexual abuse survivors charge that therapists create false
memories of abuse. Critics who focus on the "epidemic" of false memory
often use sensational language that resembles the rape hype literature. Ofshe
and Watters stated the following: "Recently, a new miracle cure has
been promoted by some mental health professionals--recovered memory therapy. In
less than 10 years' time this therapy, in its various forms, has devastated thousands
of lives. Parents have to witness their adult children turn into monsters trying
to destroy their reputations and their lives." (p. 4)
The FMSF has communicated with thousands of families who state that they have been falsely accused of incest and has lobbied public opinion and the press on behalf of its cause (Jaroff). A testament to this organization's success is the publication of numerous articles in the popular press about this "syndrome." The FMSF has also gained the acceptance and assistance of a wide variety of professionals, and its advisory board includes many prominent memory researchers and mental health professionals (Wylie).
According to those who have defined false-memory syndrome, the typical client is a woman in her 20s, 30s, or 40s who initially seeks therapy for a variety of issues including mild depression, inability to lose weight, or headaches. She is described as an overachiever who has difficulty establishing an independent identity apart from her parents and who is looking for approval from authority figures, including the approval of the therapist. She is most frequently a well-educated, financially comfortable woman who projects her unacceptable sexual desires on her father and develops fantasies of abuse under the tutelage of an all-believing therapist and mother substitute. Therapists are charged not only with pressuring their clients to develop memories of abuse but also for inappropriately using hypnosis, sodium amytal, or other nontraditional methods to help the client "remember" forgotten trauma (M. Gardner; R. Gardner; Jaroff; Safran, ; Wylie). The description of false-memory syndrome resembles Freud's beliefs about women's incomplete resolution of the Oedipal complex, a description that has been used to deny the existence of abuse and that feminists have worked to abolish during the past two decades (Lerman; Westerlund). Ofshe and Watters have also proposed that Freud correctly abandoned his original hypothesis that his patients' memories of sexual abuse were based on actual experience. They stated: "Freud's initial mistake of classifying pseudo-memories as factual accounts is chillingly similar to what is happening today in recovered memory therapy" (p. 8).
The FMSF was founded by Pamela and Peter Freyd and other concerned individuals after the Freyd's daughter, Jennifer, began to recall experiences of childhood sexual abuse by her father. Although Jennifer did not threaten any form of public disclosure or legal action, her parents used the FMSF to publish skewed accounts and superficially disguised descriptions of their family experience (e.g., Doe). Jennifer remained silent for a significant period of time, but she eventually disclosed her reactions after the publication of inaccurate accounts about her experience and as academic psychologists and various mental health professionals began to question the legitimacy of "repressed memories" (Freyd). It should be noted that Jennifer Freyd is a tenured psychologist at the University of Oregon who specializes in memory and perception research. Consistent with her scientific knowledge of the ambiguities of memory, Jennifer did not propose that all of her memories are exact replicas of historical fact. She stated: "I am sure that my parents mistreated me and the form of the mistreat-ment included hurting my sexual self. . . . At the same time, I have a certain amount of uncertainty, because I have no way to corroborate the memories. I don't know anyone who has recovered memories who doesn't express doubt about them. What I can say is I stand by the memories as carrying an essential truth, and I believe they are true." (quoted in Fried, p. 156)
Jennifer Freyd is currently contributing to the interface between general memory research and trauma theory by proposing mechanisms that may facilitate loss of memory for child sexual abuse (Freyd).
Loftus, a prominent memory researcher and FMSF advisory board member, has suggested that poorly trained therapists may be implanting false memories of child sexual abuse as well and drawing uninformed conclusions as expert witnesses. As an expert on eye-witness testimony and the fallibility of memory (Loftus & Ketcham), Loftus and other memory researchers have expressed appropriate alarm about therapists who claim that clients have gained verbal access to memories of child abuse that date back to early infancy or prenatal development (Denton). Research on childhood memory and infantile amnesia reveals that the earliest reliable verbal recollections of children do not normally date back before age 2 (Usher & Neisser), indicating that there is no scientific basis for claims that clients can gain access to memories of abuse that occurs very early in life. However, a study of young children noted that, in the absence of verbal memory, some childhood victims exhibit bodily memories and behaviors that involve reenactment of trauma (Terr, 1988). Furthermore, memory is "relatively sophisticated even in infancy" (Howe & Courage, p. 306), and infantile amnesia may be related less to memory capacity and more to difficulties retrieving early memory. The development of a sense of self as an independent entity, which is a necessary prerequisite for autobiographical memory, emerges as infantile amnesia ends. Thus, it is possible for clients to retain implicit memories of abuse that are not open to conscious inspection (Howe & Courage) but may have long-term impacts on survivors.
The evidence that poorly trained or unethical counselors and therapists are creating memories of child abuse is based primarily on anecdotal data and social psychological research regarding the suggestibility of research participants in laboratory settings. For example, extensive research on eyewitness testimony reveals that bystanders will often remember false details about events, suggesting that retrospective memories are often modified during reconstruction (Wells & Loftus). However, studies of eyewitness testimony do not demonstrate that individuals falsely remember the salient aspects of events. Loftus also successfully implanted false memories in a handful of participants, including memories of being lost in a mall in a 14-year-old boy's mind. When asked, "Remember when you were lost at the mall when you were 5 years old?" and provided with false pieces of information, the boy remembered details and events regarding being lost. On the basis of her research, Loftus suggested that false memories about childhood abuse might also be implanted rather easily. Many individuals have both vague memories of many hours spent in shopping malls and vague fears and memories of being lost as young children. When these two commonplace experiences are combined, a false memory may be rather easily created. However, it is difficult to imagine that a person will falsely remember being repeatedly abused after a counselor raises tentative, exploratory questions about these issues. Laboratory research regarding suggestibility of research participants provides necessary but only partial answers to issues regarding memories of child sexual abuse.
must be aware that memory does not operate as a video camera, does not represent
an exact replica of the past, and is organized to fit a person's current needs
(Dawes). However, although autobiographical memory involves a "constant
process of selection, revision, and reinterpretation" (Brewin, Andrews, &
Gotlib, p. 85), most autobiographical memories for major life events are
relatively accurate, especially those that are "unique, consequential, and
unexpected" (p. 87). Details and temporal aspects of events are more susceptible
to error. It is likely that this principle is also relevant to recovery of adult
memories of abuse when the counselor behaves in an ethical and competent manner.
UPDATE: Recovered Memory and Adult Disclosure of Child Sexual Assault
- Waters, B. (2007). Recovered Memory and Adult Disclosure of Child Sexual Assault. Public Defenders Annual Criminal Law Conference.
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