Memory War: Creation Of A False Syndrome

In the book I am now writing – Memory War: Creation of a False Syndrome – I explore a contemporary issue which has had the effect of silencing women again. In the so-called memory wars of the 1990s another way of discrediting women as witnesses was invented. This time it was claimed they were ‘nuts’ rather than ‘sluts’, their memories of sexual abuse false, either implanted or confabulated. The False Memory Syndrome (FMS) Foundation, established in the States in 1992, claimed that thousands of women had become convinced, while in therapy, of something that never happened. Their memories of childhood abuse were false – according to FMS advocates – suggested to them and then adhered to obsessively. They then clung to their new identity as both victim and survivor. To accuse them of suffering from such extreme suggestibility, or a syndrome or disorder, was akin to the old label of female hysteria. Yet at the same time countless clinical psychologists and psychotherapists had proof of patients – men and women – who had either forgotten (or avoided thinking about) or suffered dissociative amnesia in regard to traumatic events like war, injury or sexual assault. By recalling them later they were able to process their violent experiences in a way that enabled them to recover and go on to lead fulfilling lives.

Memory War starts by investigating the battle that raged throughout the 1990s, fought between opposing sides whose positions became polarised. Both contested the effect of trauma on memory. Psychological studies had found that recall of traumatic memories was sometimes delayed, fractured or ‘forgotten’, but when remembered later was often proved to be accurate. There was clear evidence of individuals who were known to have been involved in a recorded traumatic event who later forgot it; or even remembered and then again forgot. Amnesia and gaps in memory can provide a form of self-protection from past pain. On the other hand the FMS campaign was launched to advocate a theory that memories (of sexual abuse in particular) can never be forgotten or repressed; they must always be false. They coined the pejorative terms ‘recovered memory’ and ‘false memory syndrome’ which they claimed were symptoms of a new form of mental disorder suffered mainly by women. It was an attack aimed largely at female therapists and their (mainly female) patients.

See my article ‘Surviving the false memory wars’ in Therapy Today, Feb 2023 and on my website

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