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The Lie of False Memory Syndrome

The truth behind the fake diagnosis of false memory syndrome
Content Warning

This story references childhood sexual abuse, repressed and recovered memory, and does not describe any of the abuse.

If you’ve been hanging out with me for a while, you know that here at HealingHonestly.com we talk a lot about non-narrative memories of childhood sexual abuse. In 2017, I wrote “This is What It’s LIke to Remember What You Can’t Remember” about what it’s like for me to live with non-narrative, body and sensory memories of my abuse. To say it is the most popular thing I’ve ever written is an understatement, and you can see here just how many other survivors have been Googling and searching for information about having little memory of the child sexual abuse that, deep down in their core, they know that they’ve survived.

David from Schitt's Creek saying,

As much as I have found immeasurable comfort in the knowledge that I’m not alone in my past struggles with the relationship between survivorship and my memory, the one thing I always found so triggering was reading about “false memory syndrome.” Every six months I would start to write a story about why false memory syndrome isn’t a real diagnosis, but then, in trying to do so, I’d read articles about its supporters and end up too triggered to move forward.

But then something changed. In December of 2019, The False Memory Syndrome Foundation dissolved. After 27 years of pushing a fake diagnosis out into the world in order to invalidate child sexual abuse survivors, they were suddenly gone. And I screamed out loud in relief.

As I followed the news of the foundation’s dissolution on Twitter, I kept seeing one name being mentioned over and over again: psychologist and sexual violence expert Dr. Jennifer Freyd. For the last several decades, Dr. Freyd has worked tirelessly to investigate the causes and impact of sexual violence on individuals and institutions and is an expert on sexual trauma and memory. I reached out to her and she generously agreed to share her expertise with all of us, as you’ll see below.

What is the fake diagnosis of “false memory syndrome”?

False memory syndrome is a diagnosis that the False Memory Syndrome Foundation created and systematically pushed out into the world as a political tool to invalidate childhood sexual abuse survivors as they came forward about their recovered memories of trauma.

“False memory syndrome is mostly rhetorical and political, and is not a scientifically-validated syndrome. You are not going to find it in any established diagnostic guidelines,” Dr. Freyd explains.

A muppet reading from a piece of paper,

How did “false memory syndrome” become a thing?

If you’re like me, you’re wondering how could a diagnosis without any scientific evidence come to dominate conversations around childhood sexual abuse survivors and traumatic memory. How did we get to a place where people like my father know to accuse me of this fake diagnosis? For a long time, I assumed it was a contentious area of psychology and that there was just too little we knew about traumatic memory. It wasn’t until the False Memory Syndrome Foundation dissolved that it felt safe enough for me to dig around and learn more about how this all came to be; and what I learned was that I was giving way too much credit to supporters of the syndrome.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was a nonprofit established in 1992 by Pamela and Peter Freyd, a married couple, in response to their daughter recovering memories of Peter Freyd sexually abusing her as a child. It took me much longer than it should’ve to realize that the daughter Peter harmed is Dr. Jennifer Freyd, the same Dr. Freyd interviewed in this article. (I realized it before I interviewed her, don’t worry!)

As an aside, if you want to fan out hard, as I do, look no further than Dr. Jennifer Freyd, a survivor like us, who has endured unimaginable rape culture bullshit invalidating her personally and professionally to lead essential research that validates and explains our lived realities as CSA survivors. If you want to learn more about her journey, start with her twitter thread from the day the news of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation’s dissolution was announced. And just in case you’re like me, and you love some affirmations via elitism (I can’t help myself), she got her PhD at Stanford University and is the the leader of the Program on Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Sexual Violence at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. You’re going to keep hearing more from her in the upcoming weeks because I am so excited about all the work she’s leading.

Okay, so back to the story. The people who founded this nonprofit did so specifically to invalidate their daughter’s accusations and to invalidate thousands of survivors just like her. Rape culture in action, y’all. Dr. Freyd explained to me that the False Memory Syndrome Foundation wasn’t the first group attempting to discredit survivors; many of its founding members were also members of Victims of Child Abuse Laws, or VOCAL, an organization established in the mid 80’s, primarly made up of parents who had been accused of perpetrating child sex abuse.

What made False Memory Syndrome Foundation different was how remarkably successful they were at their attempts to publicly discredit childhood sexual abuse survivors. As explained in a 1997 article on the organization in the Columbia Journalism Review, reporter Mike Stanton wrote: “As controversial memory cases arose around the country, FMSF boosters contacted journalists to pitch the false-memory argument, more and more reporters picked up on the issue, and the foundation became an overnight media darling.”

Daria giving a speech saying,

These public relations efforts were extremely effective. One study published by University of Michigan sociologist Katherine Beckett found a sharp shift in how the four leading news magazines treated CSA. In 1991, more than 80% of the coverage was weighted towards support survivors and recovered memory was respected and not invalidated. By 1994, more than 80% of the coverage of CSA focused on false allegations and “false memory.”  Beckett credits the False Memory Syndrome Foundation with that shift.

Okay, no syndrome exists, but what about false memories?

False memory syndrome and false memories are two different things, Dr. Freyd explained to me. The idea of “false memories” can be found in scientific literature, although largely after the False Memory Syndrome Foundation began their work to question the veracity of the allegations of childhood sexual abuse.

“In research, ‘false memory’ is often used in different ways. For example, there can be a study where you are asked to remember a list of words and you misremember some of the words on the list. That might be called a false memory. Or you’re asked to remember an event from your childhood that has nothing to do with sexual violation and you have an error, and that may be called ‘false memory’. The term ‘false memory’ is used really inconsistently between popular discourse and scientific literature.”

Dorothy from Golden Girls saying,

As Dr. Freyd explained to me, when talking about the concept of “false memory,” we are often conflating two different things, memory error and memory being available to us. “A memory error may be that you might think when you were six-years-old you went to Italy but really didn’t. Another thing is for you to say, ‘Hey, I just remembered when I was six-years-old I took this trip to Italy, I had forgotten about that, and I just smelled this food and it reminded me.’ That you could call a ‘recovered memory’ because you forgot it for a long time and it came back to you in a flash. That’s the difference of memory being available to you all the time. One thing is about how available the memory is to you, and the other is about how accurate the memory is. Those are two different issues, and the science doesn’t suggest they’re actually particularly connected. You can make a memory error about anything, it doesn’t mean you’re more likely wrong if you forgot and remembered. Most of the time, your memory is reasonably accurate.”

I found this particularly important. There is a difference between incorrectly remembering something, like thinking my house keys are in my jacket pocket but learning they were in my bag, versus recovering a previously unavailable memory. And apparently there isn’t scientific evidence that says that recovered memory tends to be less accurate than any other kind of memory. This, for me, is where I see such a deviation between the truth and our pop culture understanding of recovered memory. I would’ve thought, based on how degraded and devalued recovered memory is in our society, that science would say that it is less accurate than other kinds of memory. But alas! That is not the case!

If you’re someone who has been impacted by the accusation of false memories

It is difficult to conceptualize the amount of harm the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has caused and we see its impact in the way that people spoke about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s memory of Brett Kavanaugh harming her, as well as the way that the memories of the women Harvey Weinstein harmed are invalidated. And, for some of us, we personally feel those ramifications around our own survivorship.

Moira from Schitt's Creek saying,

When I wrote in my weekly newsletter about the end of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a reader replied, sharing how deep the campaign against survivors and their recovered memories runs for her:

I remember when things first started to emerge for me, my first line of denial was, “Well, I know that false memory is vastly more common than true recovered memory, so it’s much more logical that…” and when my therapist very gently asked, “Where do you know that from?”, I couldn’t answer. I’m a feminist who has a PhD in psychiatric genetics, but I didn’t even twig that there was a source to scrutinise. That’s how much power there was. That’s how much some people wanted survivors’ voices to be silenced.

I asked Dr. Freyd what advice she’d give to survivors like myself who’ve been invalidated by people in our lives claiming we have false memory syndrome, and I found her message so clarifying and helpful that I want to share it with you here in its entirety:

Sometimes in life we have to live with some uncertainty. If you remember something and there’s no potential for physical evidence, and the other person there is denying it, then there is naturally going to be a certain amount of uncertainty because we are very social creatures and if our reality is being denied, then we wonder. And that’s healthy, it’s like a reality check.

But you have to also question if there is a big motivation the person might have to deny something that really did happen. Maybe they are denying it not because it didn’t happen, but because they don’t want to be held accountable or they don’t want to believe it. Learning to live with a level of uncertainty and being compassionate towards yourself about the situation is an important part of dealing with this.

Equally important is for you to pay attention to what you can know. You may not be able to know some things with full certainty, but you can know how the person is behaving right now. You can know if they are supporting you or attacking you. Are they being honest and fair with you in this moment?

You can know how you feel being around that person. You may not be able to prove it to anyone else, but you know how you feel. It’s much easier to know how you feel than the absolute accuracy of your memory because feeling is in the moment. Focus on what you can know and see what it tells you. Is this the behavior of a loving parent that they are treating you this way right now? You may not know exactly everything that happened in the past but you can know what’s happening right now.

Hearing these words from Dr. Freyd felt immensely healing and validating for me. Here I had an expert who has been studying childhood sexual abuse, memory and trauma for decades saying that it’s okay for us to live with a level of uncertainty. Accepting that doubt is a part of our lives is not an invalidation of our survivorship; it’s a natural response to what we’ve been through.

I was most moved by her encouraging us to honor what we do know. We live in a world that tells us that there is a specific kind of evidence we need in order to claim our survivorship. But what about the inner safety expert that lives within each of us, who can give us real-time information about how being around the people who harmed us makes us feel? It matters that being around my father made me have nightmares, made my skin curl, made me sick to my stomach, and led to suicidal ideation. That is real-time information I can and should trust. How it feels to be around the people who harmed us is data each of us has access to and it is worthy of being honored.

Learn more about Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s work 

In the upcoming months, I am going to be writing more about Dr. Freyd’s work because it is incredibly relevant to what we talk about here at Healing Honestly, including an upcoming article on her research that indicates that there is a relationship between amnesia and the level of betrayal a survivor experienced when harmed. Also, you all know how reluctant I am to amplify the voices of researchers because, historically, I hate the way they talk about survivors. But it feels super different when the researchers are also survivors; the work is way more trauma-informed and helpful to the everyday lives of survivors.

Among her many initiatives, Dr. Freyd is also establishing a Center for Institutional Courage, a nonprofit that will lead research and projects aimed at improving institutional accountability and transparency when it comes to the way they treat survivors of sexual misconduct. The board has some badass people on it, including Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Ashley Judd. Very very cool.