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In Therapy Today, February 2023, Volume 34, Issue 1
The invention of so-called ‘false memory syndrome’ undermined the credibility of both therapists and survivors of abuse, says Lynda Mia Thompson
I was working as a psychotherapist for the NHS in the 1990s when I was referred a patient who had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was caused, she believed, by the initial shock and long-term stress of being accused of suffering from ‘false memory syndrome’ (FMS). Wanting to know the truth, she’d asked her father privately about disturbing childhood memories she’d never forgotten. Unknown to her, he then joined the British False Memory Society (BFMS), and with its support gave interviews to the press in which he claimed his daughter had been ‘brainwashed’ by a therapist into believing false memories about incest. Reading his public statements had shamed and intimidated her; she was retraumatised and ‘froze inside’. A letter had been sent to her workplace by the BFMS leaving her feeling exposed and fearing for her career.
It was my first encounter with the FMS campaign and its aggressive tactics. I learned that the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), established in the US in 1992, claimed that thousands of women had become convinced, while in therapy, of something that never happened. FMSF claimed that these women’s memories of childhood abuse were false, suggested to them in therapy, and they then clung to them obsessively, and to their new identity as both victim and survivor.
At the core of the campaign by the FMSF and its offshoot, the BFMS, was the assertion that memories, particularly of sexual abuse, can never be forgotten or repressed; if they are ‘recovered’, then they must always be false or implanted. The pejorative terms ‘recovered memory’ and ‘false memory syndrome’ were coined to describe what were claimed to be symptoms of a new form of mental disorder suffered mainly by women.
I realised that my therapy work with a victim of the BFMS put me at risk too. We psychotherapists were walking a tightrope, needing to respect our clients’ experiences without being arbiters of truth. Evidence had emerged that, if pressure is put on patients or interviewees to remember more than they are able, or if they themselves are desperate to recall clearly, they may misinterpret inconclusive memory traces.1 Careful therapy is required, and it wasn’t always provided. Some overzealous or poorly trained therapists bungled the job. But the FMSF skewed the debate by focusing on memory as ‘false’ rather than on the growing evidence of the prevalence of child sex abuse. It set back the discourse by at least a decade, adding fear of not being believed to the number of obstacles preventing survivors from reporting their abuse.
My colleagues and I, who trained and worked in psychotherapy in the early 1990s and were constantly working with our patients’ memories, had to be on our guard for fear of being accused of dredging up ‘false memories’. But, while most of us agree that memory is fallible and that we can all, at times, believe memories that turn out to be mistaken, the FMSF added a political and legal dimension by constructing the theory of a ‘syndrome’. Indeed, it was created in direct response to changes in the law adopted by 18 US states, starting with Washington in 1989, which enabled people to sue for damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse if they did so within three years of the time when they remembered the incidents.2
In the US, law suits followed and the accused were desperate to find a robust defence. The FMSF came up with one, basing it on the laboratory experiments of psychologist and memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus. In the famous ‘lost in the mall’ experiment, she used a trusted family member of each participant to tell them three true and one false childhood events. A small proportion of the participants imagined and then came to believe the false event. Although the experiment did not prove that a therapist would have the same influence over a client, the result was trumpeted as vindication of the FMS hypothesis. For a decade it was promoted in the media, creating a field day for those keen to attack all forms of psychological therapy, with headlines such as ‘The feminist police tearing fathers and daughters apart’ and ‘Is psychotherapy the medical con-trick of the century?’.
Not surprisingly, psychotherapists – particularly in the US – were hampered in their work, intimidated by the FMSF’s attacks, and afraid of being sued and dragged through the courts. Among them was US child psychologist Anna Salter, who was sued for defamation when she challenged Ralph Underwager, a founding member of the FMSF. His suit was thrown out by the US Appeal Court judges. Salter concluded that the FMSF ‘is a political organisation composed primarily of individuals who have been accused of child sexual abuse and those who support and defend them, sometimes for considerable sums. Such people are not going to be swayed by the research. They start from a fixed point-of-view – the need to deflect threat.’3 Although Underwager’s case failed, the psychology community in the UK feared that similar litigation would spread across the Atlantic. It did, but fortunately never on the same scale.
Both the FMSF and BFMS invested in PR campaigns, obtained charitable status and invited eminent scientists and psychiatrists to join their advisory boards. One remains a high-profile practitioner involved with a respected training institution, and I asked him recently why he had resigned from the BFMS board in the late 90s. He told me he ‘had been slow to see’ that the society was not neutral, did not want to hear his advice when he disagreed with its message, used the board as ‘a fig leaf of credibility’ and persecuted and discredited sufferers of trauma.
My patient had wanted to know the truth about her childhood and how it affected her as an adult. It was meant to be a private conversation between father and daughter, but the strategy of the BFMS was to expose and shame. The same happened to Jennifer Freyd (now a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon), whose parents established the FMSF after she confronted her father privately about her memories of sexual abuse. Later, Jennifer described her shocked reaction when her mother, in a frenzied defence of her husband, sent an article to her university colleagues that cast aspersions on her daughter’s character in order to jeopardise her career.3
Discrediting the accuser was another tactic of the FMS campaign. My patient’s father exaggerated what she’d said, doing everything he could to make her fit the construction of a fragile woman brainwashed by therapists into making outlandish false accusations. Later I learned that such bullying was a common reaction among sex offenders, and that it was known as DARVO (‘deny, attack and reverse victim and offender’) – turning the tables by claiming to be the victim of a false accusation and by attacking the accuser’s credibility.
The theory of FMS has never been recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In the years since the term was coined, it has been challenged in numerous academic studies. Research showing that, while memory is malleable, FMS does not exist, began to mount up.5 But the misinformation generated about abuse victims continues to exert an influence today, aided by social media. As science writer Elitsa Dermendzhiyska says: ‘The transmission of falsehoods now spans a viral cycle in which artificial intelligence, professional trolls and our own content-sharing activities help to proliferate and amplify misleading claims.’6 Alarmingly, recent research is casting doubt on our ability, and even our willingness, to resist misinformation in the face of corrective evidence, she says: ‘What’s remarkable is that people appear to cling to the falsehood while knowing it to be false.’ This suggests that, even if successfully debunked, myths can still creep into our judgments and colour our decisions – an outcome referred to as ‘the continued influence effect’. Once a falsehood has been slipped in, it can prove remarkably sticky and resistant to correction. This has arguably been the case with FMS. The perception of psychotherapists implanting false memories still lingers in the public’s mind and has done some lasting damage to the profession.
Evidence that the theory of false memory still exerts an influence was seen in the recent Harvey Weinstein trial, when Elizabeth Loftus was asked to be a witness for his defence. Loftus was involved in the FMSF campaign from the start, and has consulted or testified for the defence in more than 300 cases, including those of US comedian Bill Cosby, football coach Jerry Sandusky and, most recently, Ghislaine Maxwell, found guilty of sex-trafficking young girls for her former partner Jeffrey Epstein.
Loftus has been credited by some for her radical overturning of our understanding of memory. Memories are reconstructed not replayed, she argues, ‘not fixed and immutable’ but malleable and amoeba-like, easily manipulated by others. ‘She obliterated the idea that there is a permanent, stable memory capacity in humans,’ says James Doyle, former police officer. ‘Her work changed the whole story of what an eye-witness case was about, and destabilised a solid and routine part of the criminal caseload.’7 But others have questioned the fact that she has drawn conclusions about memory from laboratory experiments in which a small number of participants are deliberately misled. For ethical reasons, her experiments cannot replicate real-life trauma, so her findings do not explain what effect actual traumatic events can have on memory. For instance, temporary amnesia may occur, or ‘flashbacks’, or what is sometimes referred to as ‘motivated forgetting’. If an event is painful, we may have good reason to want – however unconsciously – to forget it. But none of this nuanced understanding has stopped the adherents of FMS from claiming that memories can never be repressed and later remembered.
Although ‘false memory’ was employed unsuccessfully in the Harvey Weinstein and Ghislaine Maxwell trials, it did not deter Prince Andrew’s legal team from threatening to employ the same tactic. According to Sophie McBain, in her article ‘Prince Andrew and the false memory wars’, before settling out of court with his accuser Virginia Giuffre, his lawyers asked to question Giuffre’s psychologist, claiming Giuffre ‘may be suffering from “false memories”’.8 Giuffre’s lawyer described the prince’s strategy as attacking Giuffre’s character and her moral credibility. McBain concludes that ‘the false memory wars might be as much about politics as science’.
In this country, fewer than one in 60 rape cases leads to a charge. ‘There’s a lot of misogyny in this field,’ says Heather Flowe, Professor of Psychology. ‘Nobody says, well, the man, being self-serving, might have reimagined this whole non-consensual rape as consensual because it would certainly behove him to do so.’7 Even now the claim of ‘false memory’ is most likely to be used against the prosecutor, not against the defender, who may ‘remember’ rape as consensual sex, as Weinstein claimed.
When women accuse men of forms of sexual aggression, the state of their mental health often becomes a target for the legal defence team. Yet constructing a diagnosis of a mental health disorder is a subjective and questionable practice. The diagnosis of FMS was never developed by psychiatrists as a result of clinical observation; it was cobbled together by an advocacy group who had a vested interest in the theory. Two were accused parents. The others were psychologist Hollida Wakefield and her husband Ralph Underwager, a Lutheran minister whose main business was as witness for the defence in trials of people accused of child abuse. In 1994 Underwager was forced to resign, his credibility questioned after he described paedophilia as a ‘responsible choice’.9 Founder of the BFMS, accused parent Roger Scotford also had to step down in 1998 when he supported the cult religion ‘The Family’, known for its abuse of children. Despite this, and although the theory of a ‘syndrome’ was never recognised in the DSM, it was taken as true and authentic by some judges, juries and lawyers in courts of law, in numbers of articles in the press, and on some TV and radio programmes.
Whether memories can be forgotten but stored and then later retrieved is still a matter for debate. Jonathan Schooler, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, suggests that memories of childhood sexual abuse aren’t so much repressed as mischaracterised: ‘Victims often remember what happened to them as children; they just don’t have the tools to understand it, let alone explain it to others. Once they gain information that casts the experience in a new light, as Jennifer Freyd did with her father, what was previously considered weird or uncomfortable is recognized as abuse.’10,11
There are others, however, who successfully block out memories of sexual assault for years, as film director Shane Meadows describes in an interview. After he was abused by older boys when he was nine years old, he told himself, ‘If you don’t say anything, it never happened… if you just don’t tell anyone, it didn’t happen.’12 He protected himself from an unbearable and shameful experience through ‘magical thinking’. But for years afterwards he experienced inexplicable bouts of depression before he eventually faced what had happened to him in the past. As a psychotherapist, I have worked with a patient who had ‘forgotten’ and later remembered severe childhood abuse, which – when other men came forward to report assaults in the same institution – eventually led to charges and the conviction of the perpetrators.
It is interesting to note that the FMS label has not been applied to the increasing numbers of men who have come forward to report historical abuse in recent times. Their accounts of recalling abuses they had ‘forgotten’ or put out of mind (as in the case of Meadows) seem to carry more weight, be more believed and taken more seriously. The accusation of FMS seems to have had a special intensity and relevance when aimed at women, implying that it was a gendered construction, linking with old beliefs that women are more likely to be suggestible and to make hysterical accusations.
Since the toxic ‘memory war’ of the 1990s, more is known about how our whole system – different areas of the brain, the body and our emotions – responds to traumatic events. Thanks to the pioneering work of Bessel van der Kolk, we now understand that the frontal cortex of the brain shuts down during trauma when the imperative is to stay safe and survive, not to stop and think. It is the body and the senses, sometimes called the ’emotional brain’, that store the memory, so traumatised people may have symptoms instead of memories, as proposed by Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery,13 van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score,14 and Babette Rothschild in The Body Remembers.15 Their groundbreaking work shows that narrative or ‘autobiographical’ memory is no longer the only road into the past; symptoms are also signposts that can lead us there in order to repair the damage.
To return to my patient – she was not as powerless as she felt at first. Her letters in response to her father’s interviews giving her side of the story were published by the newspapers involved, and she was supported by the Accuracy About Abuse network, started by Marjorie Orr in 1994, which began the process of standing up to the FMS campaign. She survived cancer, as well as her father’s attacks, and now thrives in her career. However, the rifts within families were often never resolved after the publicity and shaming tactics of the FMS campaigns.
The FMSF was active until 2019, when it was dissolved, although its original website is still updated with ‘evidence’ to support its claims. The BFMS is still active as a registered charity.
1. Levine P. Trauma and memory: brain and body in a search for the living past. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2015.
2. Kendall J. The false memory syndrome at 30: how flawed science turned into conventional wisdom. Mad in America. [Online.] Accessed 6 December 2022. bit.ly/3VypDZi
3. Salter A. Confessions of a whistle-blower: lessons learned. Ethics & Behavior, 1998; 8(2).
4. McMaugh K and Middleton W. The rise and fall of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. ISSTD News; 2020, 21 January.
5. Shaw J. The memory illusion: remembering, forgetting and the science of false memory. London: Random House; 2016.
6. Dermendzhiyska E. The misinformation virus: why humans find it so hard to let go of false beliefs. Aeon; 2021, 16 April.
7. Aviv, R. How Elizabeth Loftus changed the meaning of memory. The New Yorker; 2021, 5 April.
8. McBain S. Prince Andrew and the false memory wars. The New Statesman; 2022, 4 February.
9. Orr M. False memory syndrome movements: the origins and the promoters. In Sinason V and Conway C (eds). Trauma and Memory: the science and the silenced. Abingdon: Routledge; 2021.
10. Heaney K. The memory war: the controversy behind the false memory syndrome foundation. New York Magazine; 2021, 6 January.
11. Freyd J. Betrayal trauma: the logic of forgetting childhood abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1996.
12. Sawyer M. ‘For many years I didn’t remember it… but it caused me a lifetime of anguish.’ The Observer; 2019, 5 May.
13. Herman J. Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books; 1992.
14. Van der Kolk B. The body keeps the score: mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. London: Allen Lane; 2014.
15. Rothschild B. The body remembers: the psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. New York: WW Norton & Co; 2000.
About the author
Lynda Mia Thompson MBACP (Accred) is an integrative psychotherapist in private practice, and a supervisor and trainer of mindfulness-based CBT and trauma-informed therapy courses. She has a PhD in creative and critical writing from the University of East Anglia and is the author of The Scandalous Memoirists (MUP, 2000). She is currently writing a book about memory and trauma. lyndamiathompsonwriting.com
Therapy Today, February 2023 Volume 34, Issue 1
The voice of the counselling and psychotherapy profession
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Reactions, Therapy Today March 2023
Protected by law
Lynda Mia Thompson has written an excellent and timely piece (‘Surviving the false memory wars’, Therapy Today, February 2023). She points to the way in which advocacy groups, such as the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) in the US, and its UK equivalent, the British False Memory Society (BFMS), sought to make aggressive use of the law against therapists, in order to protect those subject to what these groups claimed were false accusations.
In the US, it was argued within the FMSF that only the American Trial Lawyers Association could turn the tide against mounting numbers of ostensibly ‘false’ accusations. In the watershed Ramona case of 1994, a father successfully sued a therapist, psychiatrist and their agency for negligence in implanting false memories of sexual abuse in their adult client, Holly Ramona.2 The case led to a wave of litigation against therapists, particularly where they had used sodium amytal (a ‘truth serum’), hypnosis or regression to help access potential memories of childhood abuse. In some cases, clients who had made accusations against family members then retracted their claims and sued the therapist, as so-called retractor action.
However, it is important to emphasise that these types of legal action against therapists never took off in the legal system in the UK, despite the evident hopes of the BFMS in this respect. The legal system here has proven very resistant to accepting what are termed third-party actions for negligence against professionals, in other words, brought by a parent or other third party not directly involved in the therapy. Even cases brought by clients against therapists for professional negligence are vanishingly rare and extremely hard to prove in court. To this extent, it is worth noting that the legal system has been much more protective of therapists’ work with abuse survivors in the UK than in the US.
Peter Jenkins MBACP
Jenkins, P. (2002) “False memories or recovered memories? Legal and ethical implications for therapists”, pp. 144-164, in Legal issues in counselling and psychotherapy. London: Sage.
Jenkins, P. (2007) Counselling, psychotherapy and the law. Second edition. London: Sage.
REACTIONS: Your feedback on Therapy Today articles, April 2023
‘Surviving the false memory wars’ by Lynda Mia Thompson (Therapy Today, Feb.2023) offered interesting and stimulating insights into how denial, manipulation, power and intimidation can be used to silence survivors of abuse who speak out. If survivors need resolution of some kind in order to heal, then first and foremost they need to be believed and listened to.
Often survivors are faced with tactics to shame, silence and make them feel even more abused and powerless. Thompson argues very clearly that the attempts of the alleged abuser to ‘prove innocence’ are simply tactics to prevent survivors from reporting at all, or making the abuse public and/or known within the family and wider systems. As Heather Flowe, Professor of Psychology, commented in the article, ‘Nobody says, well, the man, being self-serving, might have imagined this whole non-consensual rape as consensual because it would certainly behove him to do so.’
We now accept that past trauma can affect our current lives, emotions, bodies and stability, but there is still great resistance in facing how much pain it costs the individual and society at large.
Therapists need to have the courage to support clients even when they are not sure, confused, feel pressured or shamed. Only then will society really face the extent of this issue.
Karen Hamblett MBACP, psychotherapist and family constellations practitioner