FMS - False Memory Syndrome Foundation

About the False Memory Syndrome Foundation


Profiles of Scientific Advisory Board

Survey Information (PDF only, 840K!)

Retractor Stories / Studies

Legal Interests (expanded and reorganized)

Current FMSF Newsletter (Text) (PDF)

FMSF Newsletter Archive

Foundation Amicus Briefs

Where is the FMS Foundation?
The FMS Foundation is located at 1955 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103-5766. Telephone: 215-940-1040, Fax: 215-940-1042. Office hours are Monday through Thursday from 9:00 am to 4:00 PM.

Who runs the FMS Foundation?
The Executive Director, Pamela Freyd, oversees the Foundation's programs and the fiscal and day-to-day operations of the Foundation. The Foundation's seven Directors set policy during quarterly meetings. The Scientific and Professional Advisory Board is composed of prominent researchers and clinicians from the fields of psychiatry, psychology, social work, law, and education. This Board advises on issues of memory, therapy and research. It also helps set future direction for the organization.

How is the Foundation financed?
The Foundation is funded by membership dues and contributions from families and friends. Dues constitute less than half the income. Because the FMS Foundation is a 501 (c) (3) institution, contributions are tax deductible. Several small foundation grants have been used to support professional advisory board seminars and three major conferences. The Foundation's staff is small, and the organization could not exist without volunteers who devote significant time and effort. A financial report is available in the FMSF office.

What are the goals of the FMS Foundation?

  • to seek the reasons for the spread of FMS that is so devastating families,

  • to work for ways to prevent it,

  • to aid those who were affected by it and to bring their families into reconciliation.

History of the FMS Foundation

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.
"C"

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.
Love "C"

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% 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, 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." Johnston, 1997 (page 181)

The accusations are devastating to the families. Cardinal Bernadin, who 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 that she opened the shades. In those families in which legal actions have been brought, some have lost their homes and life savings. 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 accusations. Given the fact that either the loss of a child or an accusation of abuse can be a significant stressor, this belief may not be surprising 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."

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.
A Widow

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.

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 Glenna Whitley's article "Abuse of Trust" in "D" Magazine (January 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 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. This writer 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 family meeting attracted families from coast to coast.

In other countries, families also came together. In Canada, P. T., Ph.D. contacted Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D. in the fall of 1991. Dr. Loftus put her in touch with this writer. In May, 1992, the "Toronto Star" published a series of three articles written by Bill Taylor. The first meeting of Canadian families attended by more than a hundred people followed shortly afterwards. Eventually, close to 2,000 Canadian families contacted the Foundation.

From England, Roger Scotford in late 1992 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 this writer, 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 set up a group called Adult Children Accusing Parents, which became a registered charity in September 1994, called the British False Memory Society. (See the website of the BFMS: www.bfms.org.uk)

In New Zealand, Felicity Goodyear-Smith, M.D. was unaware of the FMSF when she published "First Do No Harm" in 1993. 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 innundated with calls and letters from affected families and formed a support group for them in February 1994. (Casualties of Sexual Allegations or COSA) COSA developed into a national organization publishing monthly newsletters. (The website is www.menz.org.nz/cosa.htm.)

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? Selecting a name for the organization was difficult. 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."
John Kihlstrom

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, June 1995, FMSF Newsletter, "What is a Syndrome?"). Thus the name of the organization was chosen.

The name has been a point of much contention. In addition to Dr. Merskey's "Is FMS a Syndrome?," Campbell Perry, Ph.D. has also addressed this issue:

Is FMS a syndrome? Some critics of FMS maintain that FMS is not a syndrome for such reasons as that nobody would lie about being sexually molested during childhood (although the issue is confabulation, not lying), or that it has not been cited in DSM-IV, although MPD/DID was being diagnosed for 170 years prior to being included in DSM-III in 1980. (Some would argue, of course, that this acceptance by DSM-III in 1980 was the ultimate disaster for this particular diagnosis, since it led to an enormous increase in the incidence of this diagnosis). These critics argue that a syndrome is "a pattern of symptoms that characterize a particular disorder or disease" (English & English, 1966, p. 540). English and English emphasize that any single symptom may be found in other disorders or diseases, and that it is the pattern, or combination, that differentiates.

This, indeed, is how a syndrome is ordinarily defined; English and English, however, discuss an alternative definition of syndrome as "a set of behaviors believed to have a common cause or bias" (p. 540). They maintain that this is a loose meaning of the term, especially if the syndrome is viewed in terms of the process that led to the memory report, rather than the symptoms that a person develops. The report of how false memories are created in a therapy that is distinct in its assumptions (all human psychic dysfunctions are the product of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse), and procedures (staging an angry confrontation with the putative abuser; the advocacy of hatred as a healing method) led Perry and Gold (1995) to conclude that FMS is a syndrome in this latter sense, defined by English and English.

Merskey (1995), however, argues for FMS being a syndrome in the first, more traditional sense. He sums up his position by stating that the phenomena of FMS "frequently include a person with a problem, a set of ideas for which there is no independent evidence, complaints based upon so-called recovered memories, and the propagation of hate and hostility" (p. 6). Regardless of which position one takes on this syndrome issue, it is certainly true, as Merskey concludes, that the "FMS Foundation has identified a peculiarly nasty syndrome" (p. 6).

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 now include false memory syndrome as an entry; for example

What did the Foundation do? So much has changed since the False Memory Syndrome Foundation was formed in March of 1992 that it is sometimes difficult to remember the solid wall of disbelief and hostility that families faced when they said they had been falsely accused. Not only has the term "false memories" become embedded in our language, but the topic of false memories has also been the focus of many scholarly articles and books as well as of intense interest in the popular media. The FMS Foundation has played a role as a clearinghouse of information and as a catalyst for discussion and research about the specific claims that have formed the basis of the debate in the areas of memory, social influence and therapeutic practice.

TO BE CONTINUED