A group of families and professionals affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution in Baltimore created the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in 1992 because they saw a need for an organization that could document and study the problem of families that were being shattered when adult children suddenly claimed to have recovered repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Across the country, parents had been reporting that they had received phone calls and letters accusing them of committing horrifying acts that allegedly had happened decades earlier. The following letter is typical of many:
Dear First Name and Last Name,
Why am I writing this letter: To state the truth - Dad I remember just about everything you did to me. Whether you remember it or not is immaterial - what’s important is I remember. I had this experience the other day of regressing until I was a child just barely verbal. I was screaming and crying and absolutely hysterical. I was afraid that you were going to come and get me and torture me. That is what sexual abuse is to a child - the worst torture...I needed your protection, guidance and understanding. Instead I got hatred, violation, humiliation and abuse. I don’t have to forgive you...I no longer give you the honor of being my father.
The same father had previously received letters such as the following:
Mom and Dad,
Hi! Just thought I would drop you a line to say hi! I have been so busy lately I have forgotten to tell you guys how much I love you. You two have done so much for me...You have continually supported me, loved me, and helped me work through my various problems and adventures...I just wanted you guys to know that you are appreciated. I seldom tell you how much you guys mean to me...I love you more than words can say.
What had happened in these families and in the lives of the now-adult children that resulted in such terrible alienation?
Why did the families get together?
The parents, many in their 70s and 80s, came together out of a need for mutual support - to help each other cope with the awful pain of the loss of their children and the trauma of being falsely accused of incest, and to try to find out what was happening to their children - just as parents of Downs syndrome children or parents of children with sickle cell anemia or parents of children who had joined cults have come together for mutual support. They shared information and articles trying to figure out what had happened.
An accusation of sexual abuse creates a stigma that probably lasts forever. In November of 1995, Dateline asked 502 adults, "If someone has been charged and acquitted in a child abuse case, would you still be suspicious of them?" Poll results showed that 12% were not sure, 11% said no, an acquittal would remove all suspicions, and an overwhelming majority, 77 percent said yes, they would still be suspicious, even if the suspect was cleared. When a therapist makes a diagnosis of incest based on a "recovered memory," he or she gives a lifetime sentence to the accused. In the book, Spectral Evidence, Moira Johnston describes Gary Ramona’s realization of what had happened to his life:
"One day it all came home to him. Even if his lawsuit were to clear his name, his life had been stripped of its boundless potential. ‘There’s no way I could ever run for public office, even if I had the desire. There was no way I could get a major corporation, who in the past were hungry to have me take a look. Do you think any of them are going to make me president or put me in a high position?’ He could never do community work if it involved children, ever. His reputation was destroyed."
The accusations are devastating to the families. Cardinal Bernadin, who in 1993 was accused of abusing a young man many years ago, spoke movingly of the fact that the accusation was worse for him than the cancer that eventually brought about his death. He expressed that sentiment even after the accusation had been retracted. Most families express similar reactions, but for the families there is something that is far worse than the accusation: losing a child.
The effects are difficult to quantify. One mother pulled down all the shades in the house and did not leave it for three months as she grieved after her husband received the accusation from their daughter. It was only after hearing something about FMSF on television and learning that she was not the only person to whom this had happened that she opened the shades. In those families in which legal actions have been brought, some have lost their homes and life savings trying to defend themselves. Just the fear of legal action has seemingly paralyzed many others who describe their lives as "walking on eggshells," trying not to do anything that will bring the accuser to take the feared action. Accused families sometimes attribute deaths and poor health to the stress stemming from the accusations. Given the fact that either the loss of a child or an accusation of abuse can be a significant stressor, this belief makes sense and may have some truth to it. Following are examples of comments from families.
One daughter of two has resumed contact but it is not the same. The destruction of our family surely has taken twenty years off our lives.
A Mom and Dad
My husband died last January after having suffered a massive stroke. He and I began to have high blood pressure at about the time of our daughter’s accusations. This stress had been going on for several years and we’d both been put on medication for that condition. He was depressed. He sighed and said, "Well I guess there’s nothing more I can do." Our daughter had returned his last letter to her unopened, writing on the envelope, "Unacceptable mail; return to sender."
From the same person (a widow):
There is no doubt in my mind that the stress he had suffered from her false accusations was at least partially responsible for his untimely death. He was a vigorous, healthy, sixty-six year old man. Now I am trying to cope with the loss of my dear, loving husband of almost 46 years while, at the same time, struggling to overcome the bitterness I feel toward my daughter and her therapists. The tragedy of this almost overwhelms me. In my opinion, the therapists who are promoting these false memories are guilty of murder.
How did the families get together?
Although the FMS Foundation was incorporated in Philadelphia, families in other locations had also started joining together. The Philadelphia parents had learned about each other largely because of an article by Darrell Sifford in the late Fall of 1991 that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. This article related the story of parents who were in the nuclear founding group of FMSF who believed that their accusing daughter had been misled into her abuse beliefs. Many people responded to Harold Lief, MD and to Mr. Sifford, who died in 1992. Sifford concluded that the topic of recovered repressed memories was the "big bang" of therapy in the 90s. He intended to write a series of articles around the topic of accusations of abuse arising from recovered repressed memories, and he suggested to the families who had contacted him that they establish a place where other families could get information. The response to his column demonstrated a need for an organization to help families.
While our awareness of childhood sexual abuse has increased enormously in the last decade and the horrors of its consequences should never be minimized, there is another side to this situation, namely that of the consequences of false allegations where whole families are split apart and terrible pain inflicted on everyone concerned. This side of the story needs to be told, for a therapist may, with the best intentions in the world, contribute to enormous family suffering.
--Harold Lief, M.D., (1991, November). Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry University of Pennsylvania.
The Sifford column was sent around the country by people in Philadelphia who knew of friends or family that had experienced the same thing. Those families contacted Sifford who in turn put them in touch with Philadelphia families.
As the families were getting together in Philadelphia, a group of families and former patients in Dallas was also getting together. The Dallas families and former patients found each other through an article by Glenna Whitley (1992). This story about a patient who had come to believe she was part of an intergenerational satanic cult generated responses from former patients from the same hospital and from parents with the same problem.
The Philadelphia group learned about the Dallas group from Hollida Wakefield, M.A. and Ralph Underwager, Ph.D. at the Institute for Psychological Therapies in Northfield, Minnesota, authors of "Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse" (1988). A number of families contacted them because of the book and, at their request, were put in touch with each other. A member of the Philadelphia group went to Dallas to meet the families and to attend a seminar that they had organized.
At the same time, a group of nine families in the Midwest had also found each other though the now defunct Cult Awareness Network. Underwager and Wakefield also put them in touch with the Philadelphia group. Roger and Liz LaPlant, from Illinois, had been organizing a meeting to be held in Benton Harbor, Michigan. By the time of that meeting on April 25, 1992, the Foundation had been formed. The first national FMSF meeting attracted families from coast to coast.
In other countries, families also came together. In Canada, an accused parent contacted Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D. in the fall of 1991. Dr. Loftus put her in touch with the Philadelphia group. In May 1992, the "Toronto Star" published a series of three articles written by Bill Taylor. Shortly afterwards, more than 100 people attended the first meeting of Canadian families. Eventually, thousands of Canadian families contacted the Foundation.
In late 1992, Roger Scotford who was in England contacted professor John Money, M.D. at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions to find out if he had ever heard of adult children cutting off all contact with parents after claiming to have recovered repressed memories of childhood abuse. Dr. Money, who had heard about the FMSF, put Mr. Scotford in touch with the Philadelphia group, who in turn put Mr. Scotford in contact with several other affected families in the UK. Scotford came to Philadelphia for the first FMSF professional conference in April 1993 and then began to organize families in the UK. He established the British False Memory Society in September 1994.
In New Zealand, Felicity Goodyear-Smith, M.D. was unaware of the FMSF when she published "First Do No Harm." In September 1993, when her book was still in press, she learned about the FMSF from professor Dennis Dutton, head of the NZ Skeptics. Dr. Goodyear-Smith contacted the FMSF and began to receive newsletters. In her book she had included a section about memories recalled under counseling and hypnosis. Once the book appeared, she was immediately inundated with calls and letters from affected families. She formed the group Casualties of Sexual Allegations or COSA in 1994.
Some families in Australia read a New Zealand newspaper article by Camille Guy published in October 1993. The article included interviews with some of the families who had contacted Dr. Goodyear-Smith. The Australian families quickly made contact with the FMSF and came to visit before starting their own organization. And so it has been with families in Netherlands, Sweden, Israel and other places to which the recovered-memory beliefs had spread. Families in shock from the loss of their children, in fear and shame because of the accusations, and in confusion about what had happened, came together to try to help each other and to find ways to reach their children.
How did the name get chosen?
Because many of the accusers claimed that they were suffering from "repressed memory syndrome," and since the parents were convinced that what their children thought were memories were really incorrect beliefs, the term "false memory" seemed appropriate. The parents described their children as being totally consumed by their new beliefs.
"When the memory is distorted, or confabulated, the result can be what has been called the False Memory Syndrome; 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. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual’s entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behaviors. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional. False memory syndrome is especially destructive because the person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated, and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on the memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with the real problems in his or her life."
In fact, the term "false memories" was not new and had been in the literature since the turn of the century. It was mentioned by Karl Jaspers (1963, p.76), for example. Although the term "syndrome" is most commonly used in association with the medical model of psychopathology, there are many other uses of the term (Kihlstrom, 1994). A syndrome is a set of symptoms that occur together. The patterns of symptoms in the radically changed behavior of the accusers seemed to indicate that the phenomenon was a syndrome, probably of social origin such as folie à deux (Merskey, 1995; Perry & Gold, 1995). Thus, the term came about and the name of the Foundation followed.
The concept of false memories is not new to the therapeutic community, and the issues surrounding false memories of incest are at least as old as Freud. Unfortunately, the issue of false memories has also divided the therapy community as few topics have. Professional organizations, however, are now addressing these issues. Statements about false memories have been published by the major mental health organizations in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. Some dictionaries began to include false memory syndrome as an entry:
FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME:
A psychological condition in which a person remembers events that have not actually occurred. (Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary, Special Second Edition, 1996, Addenda)
FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME:
A situation in which examination, therapy or hypnosis has elicited apparent memories, especially of childhood abuse, that is disputed by family members, and are often traumatic to the patient. (Encarta Dictionary, 1999, published by St. Martins, owned by Microsoft)
What has the Foundation accomplished?
When the Foundation was formed in March 1992, there was a solid wall of disbelief and hostility that families faced when they said they had been falsely accused. It took years of solid memory research and years of putting the research into context so that families, the media, and the general public could begin to understand how the contagion of searching for repressed childhood memories came about and so quickly spread throughout so many countries. The FMS Foundation played a critical role by acting as a clearinghouse of scientific information and as a catalyst for discussion of specific claims regarding memory. The FMSF Scientific Advisors actively contributed ideas and further research in controversial areas of social influence and therapeutic practice as well as sparking debates in various crucial areas of memory research.
Through good scientists and serious clinicians working together to advance understanding of the vulnerability of patients being encouraged to delve repeatedly into childhood memory reports, the false memory syndrome became better understood and some families were even able to achieve reconciliation.
Unfortunately for many other families their adult children re-experiencing in therapy childhood memories through a veil of adult misfortunes, disappointments, and depression crystallized feelings into unwavering beliefs in past events that never happened. It is a goal of the Foundation to continue to archive the families’ stories, as well as the research articles, in such a way as to hopefully prevent such an insidious contagion from afflicting other families in the future.
Early History References
Guy, Camille (1993, October). Mind bending. New Zealand Herald.
Jaspers, K. (1963). General Psychopathology. Trans J. Hoenig and M. W. Hamilton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Johnston, M. (1997). Spectral Evidence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kihlstrom, J.F., Glisky, M.L, Angiulo, M.J. (1994) Dissociative tendencies and dissociative disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 101 No 1 (7-24).
Kihlstrom, J.F. (1997). Suffering from reminiscences: Exhumed memory, implicit memory, and the return of the repressed. In M.A. Conway (Ed.), Recovered memories and false memories (pp. 100-117). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Merskey, H. (1995, June). What is a syndrome? FMSF Newsletter, Vol 4, No. 6.
Perry, C. & Gold, A.D. (1995). Hypnosis and the elicitation of true and false memories of childhood sexual abuse. Psychiatry, Psychology & Law, 2, 127-138.
Sifford, D. (1991, November 21). Tales of sex abuse aren’t true, Philadelphia Inquirer.
Taylor, B (1992, May 16). What if sexual abuse memories are wrong? Toronto Star.
Whitley, G. (1992, January). Abuse of Trust. "D" Magazine, 36-39.
Wakefield, M.A. and Underwager, R. (1988). Accusations of child sexual abuse. Springfield, IL: CC Thomas.
Last Updated: December 13, 2013
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