Trauma Therapists Renew Attacks on “False Memory” as False Memory Syndrome Foundation Closes

From the website of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation:

After 27 years, the FMS Foundation dissolved on December 31, 2019. During the past quarter century, a large body of scientific research and legal opinions on the topics of the accuracy and reliability of memory and recovered memories has been created. People with concerns about false memories can communicate with others electronically. The need for the FMS Foundation diminished dramatically over the years. The FMSF website and Archives will continue to be available.

The announcement has received little media attention, although it has been celebrated by those who argue that “false memory” is a pseudo-explanation contrived to undermine victims’ testimony of historic child sexual abuse. In this framing, the FMS Foundation has closed not because its “need” has “diminished dramatically”, but because the notion of false memory has been exploded. Thus a polemical article on the website of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation is headlined “The Rise and Fall of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation“. Oddly, however, although the article does refer specifically to “recovered” memories, the subject is downplayed:

FMSF Advisory Board profiles show just how personal and sometimes vicious their involvement was. One Board Member, John Hochman MD wrote, when talking about therapy for people who reported a history of child sexual abuse, “The real message being sold by these new therapy messiahs is the ultimate cry-baby solution to everyone’s pitiful human problems. It’s all someone else’s fault.” It is hard to fathom that these words come from a mental health professional.

No source is provided, despite a list of references at the bottom of the page, but a bit of Googling shows that the quote is taken from a 1993 op-ed that appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

Welcome to the strange world of memory recovery therapy. This is a pseudoscience based on the notion that tens of thousands of Americans were repeatedly molested as children and don’t know it.

People involved in memory recovery therapy have been convinced by misguided self-help books or therapists that they are “survivors” of totally forgotten sexual crimes. They are told that their eating or sexual or marital problems will clear up once the “lost memories” are found. The real message being sold by these new therapy messiahs is the ultimate crybaby solution to everyone’s pitiful human problems: It’s all someone else’s fault.

In other words, Hochman is referring specifically to “people who reported a history of child sexual abuse” as a result of therapy in which they were encouraged to “remember” such abuse for the first time. It is difficult to believe that the quote used by the ISSTD has seen extracted in good faith. Hochman goes on to highlight various problems with the idea of memory repression, but the ISSTD is less concerned with these points than with pulling a quote out of context to falsely imply that Hochman is dismissive of all allegations (incidentally, it’s not clear why the IISTD quote adds a hyphen to”crybaby”, but it makes the original slightly harder to find).

Another “gotcha” quote refers to another member of the FMS Foundation board:

Another member, Dr Rosalind Cartwright PhD, describes her desire to become involved as follows: “A friend and colleague had an adult daughter in therapy accuse him of childhood sexual abuse.” She says, “It was my best judgment that this was unbelievable of the person I knew and could only been induced by the therapist.” One can only wonder if she had had any psychological training or knowledge of how common it is for perpetrators to present and operate quite differently within the family home, as opposed to the professional sphere. And how on earth she reaches a conclusion of ‘therapist induced memory’, with presumably no contact with the daughter or therapist, is difficult to fathom.

This complaint has more merit, but picked out from a collection of more than 40 board member bio-blurbs it hardly amounts to a significant or systematic critique.

Inevitably, the article also focuses on the fact that the FMS Foundation’s founders, Pamela and Peter Freyd, were themselves accused of abuse by their adult daughter Jennifer Freyd, who is herself psychology professor. Presumably we should therefore suspect their motives, but it is not a great surprise that someone who says they have been falsely accused would develop an interest in the mechanics of how false allegations come to be made and believed. Equally, of course, a guilty person might be motivated to associate with a concept that might undermine the strength of the evidence against them, but that is simply a truism. The science of memory does not rest on the personal authority or integrity of the senior Freyds.

One undoubted problem with the FMF Foundation, though, was that the name was misleading. Memory science today acknowledges that the normal functioning of memory includes incorrect recall – as such, there is no need to postulate a “syndrome” or to psychopathologise the process, even though therapists may have been involved. The legacy of the word, however, means that “false memory” is portrayed by critics as simply a device by which victims are stigmatised as mentally ill. This was seen recently when Harvey Weinstein’s defence team announced that it would be calling memory experts to give testimony on memory. According to an article by two “trauma psychologists”, Anne P. DePrince and Joan M. Cook, published by The Conversation,

…Weinstein’s defense team has prepared to call witnesses to argue that women who came forward to accuse him suffer from “the formation of fully false memories for events that never happened.” This is not a suggestion of normal problems with memory or recall, but the unlikely proposition that his accusers somehow developed entire memories of sexual assault that never actually occurred.

The article refers here to Deborah Davis, although we now know that Elizabeth Loftus will also be called. Loftus gave her testimony on Friday; the Los Angeles Times reported:

She has routinely testified that memories can be transformed and contaminated — and, in some cases, altogether false.

Loftus stuck to a similar narrative during her testimony Friday, though she was not permitted to speak on issues of memory tied to sexual interactions. She explained that many factors can lead to weakened or entirely fabricated memories, including some therapy techniques, media coverage and questioning by law enforcement.

In other words, her testimony was concerned with general principles of memory. This is in line with a profile of Loftus from the Los Angeles Times that appeared just a few days ago:

When asked if she must believe in the innocence of a defendant to testify on their behalf, Loftus answered the question indirectly.

“I believe that science belongs to all of us. So my decisions on whether to work on a case are sometimes based on scheduling, or whether it seems interesting, or whether it’s a death penalty case where the outcome could be very severe,” she said. “Most of the time, I don’t know if they did it or not.”

In her 1992 book, “Witness for the Defense,” Loftus writes that she is not defending the clients whose cases she takes on. She is “detached and disassociated” on the stand, she says, “simply presenting the research on memory.”

This supports what I noted in a previous post, in which I drew on statements by Julia Shaw: a memory expert may talk in general terms about the conditions in which false memories may arise, but it is not their job not diagnose a particular piece of testimony as being the result of a false memory – they do not “diagnose” accusers. As such, it appears that DePrince and Cook have distorted what the “witnesses” intend to say, conflating general expert testimony with the defence case itself for polemical effect.

One concern I do have with the idea of “false memory” is that it may sometimes be an over-explanation. There are legitimate reasons why a genuine victim may make a late disclosure, or have previously interacted with someone in a way that seems inconsistent with having been their victim, but for a false accuser “repressed memory” is also a convenient explanation for making a late allegation. I also wonder about the distinction between remembering something and persuading yourself you have remembered something – recovered memory therapy includes imaginative exercises (as I discussed here), and if an expert tells you that your ability to vividly imagine something is in fact because it is a memory, who are you to argue?