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)
"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
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.
False or Distorted Recovered Memories
Sometimes, recovered memories can be proven to be false:
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
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.
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.
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
At various times, she stated that the repressed memories appeared:
in a dream,
during hypnosis in a therapy session, or
spontaneously when she looked at her 5 year old daughter (i.e. were
dormant memories, triggered by an event)
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.
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
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.
A DNA test on a semen sample from the 1976 murder scene proved that the father could not
have been the murderer.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
with a larger group, so that the results will hold more weight
with verification of the women's stories of confirmation
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
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:
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).
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:
were totally absent, but returned instantly as a result of a trigger (e.g. meeting a
perpetrator or reading an newspaper account)
were absent and were recovered as a result of "self-therapy" after reading The
Courage to Heal or similar self-help books
were added onto to always-remembered events of childhood abuse
were originally absent, but were recovered as a result of long periods of suggestive
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
Unfortunately, many writers in the field do not differentiate between suddenly
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
Harry MacLean, Once Upon a Time, Harper Collins, New York NY, (1993)
Beckylane, Where the Rivers Join, Press Gang Publisher, Vancouver BC, (1995)
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, The Myth of Repressed Memories, St. Martin's Griffin, New
York NY, (1994)
Frequently Asked Questions", a pamphlet published by the False Memory
Judith Herman and Emily Schatzow, Recovery and Verification of Memories of Childhood
Sexual Trauma, Psychoanalytic Psychology, 1987, V. 4, P. 1-14
Mark Pendergrast, Victims of Memory, Second Edition, Upper Access, Hinesburg VT,
(1996). Order at: 1-800-356-9315.
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.)