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bullet False memory syndrome: a psychological condition in which a person believes that he or she remembers events that have not actually occurred. Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary, Special 2nd Edition (1996)
bullet "False Memory Syndrome doesn't exist. It is an artificial term constructed by apologists for child abusers." Pamela Perskin, of the International Council on Cultism and Ritual Trauma, Dallas, TX. 12

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Scope of this essay:

This essay does not deal with always-present memories. That is, situations in which an event has been continually recalled from the time of the incident to the present time. It is our belief that any major and/or repeated instances of abuse which happened to persons over the age of 4 will be remembered into adulthood. If the memories are not revisited from time to time, they may eventually fade to the point where they cannot be recollected.

This essay does not deal with what may be called "dormant memories". These are recollections of real events which have simply not been recalled for a long interval of time. However, a trigger may suddenly bring back the memories: an adult may see a newspaper article about a child abuser and recall that they were abused as a child. Without the trigger, the memories would probably continue to fade until they are permanently forgotten and hopelessly unrecoverable, even with a strong trigger. With the trigger, they may flood back into consciousness almost instantly. Dormant memories are very common. Many people have talked to an old school friend or revisited their childhood neighborhood, and have suddenly recalled long-dormant memories of places, people, or events.

This essay deals with memories which were not present in adulthood, but have been gradually, laboriously  pieced together during many months (perhaps years) of extensive therapy, and/or self-hypnosis and/or group work. Some of these recovered memories are reasonably true recollections of actual events. Others are false - that is, they are based on events that never happened. Still others are a mixture of fantasy and fact - perhaps a core memory of an actual event overlaid with details that are false. An example of the latter might be a real memory of sexual molestation which has been overlaid by false memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse.

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False or Distorted Recovered Memories

Sometimes, recovered memories can be proven to be false:
bullet One typical case involved an adult recalling memories of having been sexually abused as a child in the attic. She was angry both at her father for perpetrating the abuse and at her brother for doing nothing to prevent the abuse; his bedroom was directly under the location in the attic where she remembers the sexual attacks took place. Investigation showed that the house never had an attic. 13
bullet In another case, a woman remembered being abused by her father at home at the age of 2. Records showed that her mother was in prison at the time that the abuse is alleged to have happened and was raising the daughter there with no contact from the father. 13
bullet D Magazine carried an article in its 1991-OCT issue titled "The Seduction of Gloria Grady". Gloria had undergone therapy at the Christian Minirth-Meier Clinic in Richardson, TX. Her therapist had a reputation of helping clients recover repressed memories of abuse through the use of "trance writing". He helped Gloria recover many memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse; one involved her parents murdering an infant that Gloria had given birth to while a teenager. At a subsequent trial, medical testimony was given that proved that Gloria had never been pregnant while a teenager. Other independent evidence confirmed that no abuse had happened.
bullet The "Franklin" criminal trial is probably the most famous criminal case involving repressed and recovered memories: Eileen Franklin recovered memories in 1989 and 1990 of her father murdering her 8 year old girlfriend, Susan Nason, in 1969. Eileen also remembered seeing him murder a woman in 1976 in an unrelated incident. George Franklin was convicted of the 1969 murder. There are some obvious weaknesses to Ms. Franklin's statements:
bullet At various times, she stated that the repressed memories appeared:
bullet in a dream,
bullet during hypnosis in a therapy session, or
bullet spontaneously when she looked at her 5 year old daughter (i.e. were dormant memories, triggered by an event) 1
bullet Eileen remembered that she and her girlfriend had played hooky from school on the day of the murder. In fact, Susan had gone to school that day, had returned home and talked to her mother at 3 PM.
bullet Eileen remembered that her father took a mattress from the back of the van and covered her girlfriend's body with it. A newspaper account mentioned the mattress. In reality, the murderer had covered the body with a box spring - one which was too large to fit into the father's van.
bullet Eileen remembered that her girlfriend was wearing a "silver ring with a stone in it". This was precisely as described in a newspaper account at the time. However, in reality, the girlfriend was wearing two rings: one plain silver ring and a gold ring with a topaz.
bullet A DNA test on a semen sample from the 1976 murder scene proved that the father could not have been the murderer.
bullet Evidence surfaced in mid-1996 which proved that George Franklin was at a union meeting on the day of the 1976 murder. All of his time was accounted for on that day.
bullet Eileen's sister Janice testified in a re-trial hearing on 1996-JUN-14 that they had both lied when they testified in the 1991 trial that they had not been hypnotized.

It is probable that Eileen Franklin unconsciously combined real memories of her childhood friend with newspaper accounts of the murder and produced false recovered memories of having been present at the murder. The recovered memories of the second murder are obviously false. In 1996-JUL, all charges were dropped and her father was released from prison.

bullet In other cases, recovered memories can be traced to distorted recollections of non-abusive events. For example, a woman's recovered memories of genital torture by her mother during childhood may be based upon real and painful recollections of having been catheterized by her mother because of chronic kidney and bladder infections. 2
bullet In other cases, one can conclude that certain recovered memories are clearly false recollections. These are instances where the "victim" recalls abuse which occurred prior to their second birthday. A consensus exists among memory researchers that an adult cannot recall events before their second birthday. About 26% of "victims" believe that they recall such early memories. 3,4

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Verifying Recovered Memories

Recovered memories usually feel identical to normal memories to the adult. The only certain method of verifying the accuracy of recovered memories is to find supporting evidence. Unfortunately, there is typically a period of decades between the time of the alleged abuse and the time when the memories are recovered. This delay usually makes it impossible to confirm or disprove a memory.

Herman and Schatzow studied 53 adults in an incest survivors group to determine if they had corroborating evidence of their abuse. The group was composed of two very different populations:
bullet 38 survivors (74%) had little or no amnesia to begin with; they had always been aware of their abuse, continuously from childhood to adulthood. One would expect that they would have a good chance of verifying their abuse.
bullet 15 survivors originally had no abuse memories during adulthood; they all recovered memories later during therapy or group work. 5

44 women (83%) said that they had been able to obtain some confirmation of the abuse. Unfortunately, Herman and Schatzow accepted these opinions second hand without verifying them. There is no way of knowing how valid these confirmations were. The women were believed to have been subjected to considerable peer pressure in the group to report some confirmation. Unfortunately, the percentage of women who were able to confirm their abuse was not reported separately for the two populations. The study needs to be replicated
bullet with a larger group, so that the results will hold more weight
bullet with verification of the women's stories of confirmation
bullet separately reporting the degree of confirmation by women who have never forgotten the abuse with those who had no memories until they were recovered during therapy.

Mark Pendergrast wrote the first edition of Victims of Memory in 1995. He was only unable to uncover two cases in which an adult survivor suffered from amnesia, recovered memories of incest and was able to corroborate the events by obtaining confessions from perpetrators (the father in both cases). The latter accepted the belief that they had abused their daughters because they believed their children to be truthful. Neither father had any memories of the abuse. While preparing his second edition, he found two additional cases of sexual abuse memories that were forgotten and later recovered spontaneously as a result of a trigger. Both involved limited abuse over a short period of time. He has been unable to find any "convincing cases of massive repression in which years of traumatic events were completely blocked from consciousness." 6; P. 517 

Ofra Bickel, producer of Frontline's documentary Divided Memories was able to find only one probably verifiable recovered memory after a long search among survivors.

Stan and Jared Abrams studied polygraph (lie detector) tests of alleged perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse. They pooled findings of a number of polygraph examiners. The alleged perpetrators were attempting to use the polygraph test to prove their innocence. Results were:
bullet 46 alleged abusers were accused by survivors who originally had no recollections of the abuse during childhood, but who recovered memories during therapy. 4 of the alleged abusers (9%) were found to be lying (presumably guilty of abuse). 42 (91%) were truthful (presumably innocent of abuse).
bullet 300 alleged perpetrators were accused in cases where there was no significant repression/recovery of memory. 234 (78%) were found to be lying (presumably guilty of abuse); 66 (22%) were truthful (presumably innocent). 7

Polygraphs are not absolutely reliable devices. In the hands of an experienced, trained operator they are generally accepted as being accurate 85 to 90% of the time. One might conclude that none of the persons accused as a result of recovered memories are guilty of abuse, and that perhaps 80% of those accused as a result of always-present memories are guilty.

All of these studies have grave weaknesses. Polygraph tests are inexact and are regarded by some as unreliable. Studies often are inconclusive because the wrong questions were asked, because the number of individuals is small, etc. Often, there is no differentiation among recovered memories which:
bullet were totally absent, but returned instantly as a result of a trigger (e.g. meeting a perpetrator or reading an newspaper account)
bullet were absent and were recovered as a result of "self-therapy" after reading The Courage to Heal or similar self-help books
bullet were added onto to always-remembered events of childhood abuse
bullet were originally absent, but were recovered as a result of long periods of suggestive therapy.
bullet were of events that happened in infancy, before the child's brain had matured sufficiently to be able to store long term memories

However, the studies that do exist seem consistently to suggest that most memories that are gradually recovered through the lengthy use of suggestive therapeutic techniques are highly distorted and/or are of events that never happened. Many therapists and memory researchers are recommending that such memories not be acted upon (e.g. used to justify severance of one's relationship with the family of origin) unless they can first be verified.

Unfortunately, many writers in the field do not differentiate between suddenly recovered dormant memories, and memories which are laboriously pieced together in therapy. We have been unable to locate any studies on the relative reliability of the two phenomena. We suspect that most dormant, spontaneously triggered, memories are related to real events, whereas memories gradually recovered in RMT are mostly of events that never happened. One source, the Recovered Memory Archive, lists dozens of cases of recovered memories which have been successfully corroborated with independent evidence. The cases appear to be a mixture of triggered and "pieced together" memories. 10

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  1. Harry MacLean, Once Upon a Time, Harper Collins, New York NY, (1993)
  2. Beckylane, Where the Rivers Join, Press Gang Publisher, Vancouver BC, (1995)
  3. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, The Myth of Repressed Memories, St. Martin's Griffin, New York NY, (1994)
  4. Frequently Asked Questions", a pamphlet published by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
  5. Judith Herman and Emily Schatzow, Recovery and Verification of Memories of Childhood Sexual Trauma, Psychoanalytic Psychology, 1987, V. 4, P. 1-14
  6. Mark Pendergrast, Victims of Memory, Second Edition, Upper Access, Hinesburg VT, (1996). Order at: 1-800-356-9315.
  7. Stan Abrams & Jared Abrams, False Memory Syndrome vs. Total Repression, Journal of Psychiatry and Law, Summer 95. Federal Legal Publications: (212) 619-4949. (We have only studied a draft version of this paper; more data was believed to have been collected before the article was published.)
  8. Biblical Discernment Ministries has an excellent essay on RMT from a Christian perspective. See
  9. Dr. H. Merskey, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, University of Western Ontario, London ON, Canada, "Recovered Memory". A letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON. 1998-FEB-12.
  10. The Recovered Memory Archive is directed by Professor Ross E. Cheit of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions at Brown University. See:
  11. Stop Bad Therapy! is a web site that opposes recovered memory therapy. They have the phone numbers of regulatory boards in all 50 states. See:
  12. Christena O'Brien, "Therapists found negligent in false memory lawsuit," Leader-Telegram, 2001-MAR-16, Eau Clair, WI.
  13. Lenore Terr, "Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found," Basic Books, (1995).

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Copyright 1995 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2005-FEB-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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