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‘False Memory Syndrome’: a short history

‘False Memory Syndrome’: a short history - Part 1 of 3

What did the defenses of Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Phil Spectre, Bill Crosby, Harvey Weinstein and Ghislaine Maxwell have in common? Each of these sickening cases used the misnomer, ‘False Memory Syndrome’ (FMS) as a strategy to discredit their accusers. The other common factor in these cases is calling Professor Elizabeth Loftus as an expert witness on memory (Klasfeld, A. 2021).

The false memory debate has an insidious history. It has caused serious harm to survivors of abuse as their memories were dissected and dismissed in courts of law and the reputations of ethical therapists trashed, being falsely accused of creating or implanting false memories of sexual abuse. Members of the public following high profile cases of sexual abuse, rape and other forms of abuse may understandably be unaware of the history of the false memory debate. Here follows a summary of that history.

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False Memory Syndrome Foundation

In 1992, at the age of thirty-three, world renowned psychology professor Jennifer Freyd privately confronted her parents about sexual abuse as a child by her father.  Professor Freyd’s parents, Pamela and Peter Freyd denied the abuse. They went public and claimed their daughters’ memories of abuse were false and caused by or created in therapy. Pamela and Peter joined with other accused parents who denied their children’s accounts of sexual abuse and established the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), (McMaugh, K. & Middleton, W., 2020). The premise of the FMSF was that families were being torn apart by false accusations of sexual abuse by adult children due to the practice of ‘repressed memory therapy’ by unscrupulous therapists. Hundreds of lawsuits against therapists followed and the memories and credibility of survivors were summarily dismissed.

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Ralf Underwager

The ‘Scientific and Professional Advisory Board’ of the FMSF was an eclectic group of professionals, including Ralf Underwager, a psychologist and Lutheran minister, and his wife Hollida Wakefield. Underwager was also a founding member of Victims of Child Abuse Laws, a support group for parents who claimed to be falsely accused by their adult children. He frequently appeared in courts around the world as an expert witness for the defense in cases of child sexual abuse. He is documented as stating in court and the media that “60% of women sexually abused in childhood reported that the experience was “good for them” (McMaugh, K. & Middleton, W., 2020).

Underwager was forced to resign from the Board of the FMSF Board when in 1993 he and his wife, Hollida Wakefield gave an interview to the Dutch pro-paedophilia magazine, Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia. In this interview Underwager said, “Paedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they choose. They can say that what they want is to find the best way to love. I am also a theologian and as a theologian, I believe it is God’s will that there be closeness and intimacy, unity of the flesh, between people. A paedophile can say: ‘This closeness is possible for me within the choices that I’ve made.His wife remained a member of the Board (McMaugh, K. & Middleton, W., 2020) .

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Professor Elizabeth Loftus

Professor Elizabeth Loftus was also a prominent member of the FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board. Professor Loftus has testified as a memory expert over 300 times, including the above mentioned cases. Professor Loftus’s career is built on her laboratory experiments demonstrating the malleability of memory. There is no doubt that human beings and their memories are ‘malleable’, but Loftus has massively over-generalized the findings from her experiments on college students, which have very questionable relevance for psychotherapy and sexual abuse survivors. For example, in a typical experiment, college students who had watched a video were convinced, based on suggestions by Loftus’ research team, that the video included a stop sign rather than a yield sign.

Assistant District Attorney, Joan Illuzzi, in the case against Weinstein, challenged the applicability of laboratory studies or as she described them, “pretend situations,” to real life situations (Klasfeld, A. 2021). It is an established fact in memory research that routine day-to-day memory is encoded, stored and retrieved through a different process than is often the case for traumatic memories. It is worth noting that in thirty-five years specialising in developmental and complex trauma, I have never met a therapist who disputes the fallibility of memory or who does not acknowledge that some therapists have not met accepted treatment guidelines. For example, my co-author Dr. Colin Ross, a Past President of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, has testified for the plaintiff in cases involving false memories and sexual misconduct by therapists. To allege that the fact of common errors in memory or recall proves that many sexual abuse survivor’s memories are entirely false is a gross misrepresentation of what we know about how memory works, akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

It was noted in the Maxwell trial that of the hundreds of trials where Loftus has appeared as an expert witness, only once was she a witness for the prosecution. Referring to Dr. Loftus’ book, Witness for the Defense, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Elizabeth Pomerantz asked, You haven’t written a book called ‘Impartial Witness,’ right?”, to which Loftus replied, “I don’t have a book by that title, no.” (Klasfeld, A. 2021).

In an interview with Rachel Aviv, New Yorker Magazine, extracts from Loftus’s teenage journal were shown to reflect an incongruence between her entries and reports from family members about the family environment. At the age of 14 years, Loftus’s mother spent several months in a psychiatric hospital where she was treated for depression. Shortly after discharge, her mother drowned in a swimming pool in a property owned by Loftus’s uncle. The coroner ruled it an accident. Loftus’s father said it was suicide. Whichever may be the truth, within a week of her mother’s death in December 1959, Loftus wrote, “I’m a happy teenager! It’s sort of sad to leave this year behind—it was such a wonderful year for me.” (Aviv, R., 2021).

The article goes on to reveal that in some parts of her journal Loftus used a paper clip to attach scraps of paper. On these scraps she wrote thoughts that she described as ‘removable truths’, so that in the event anyone demanded to read her journals, she could remove them. Removable truths may well be the forerunner of ‘alternative facts,’ the term coined by US Counsellor to President Trump, Kellyanne Conway, to defend White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers at Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States.

Loftus recounts her own experience of sexual abuse as a child by a babysitter at the age of six in her book Witness for the Defense and in her journal, she describes her subsequent confusion as to whether the reason she had not begun to menstruate at the age of thirteen was due to the babysitter “doing something to make me pregnant”:

“One night after my younger brothers had gone to bed and after Howard had rubbed my arm for a while, he took my hand and led me into my parents’ bedroom. He took his pants off, pulled my dress off over my head, and removed my underpants. He lay down on the bed and pulled me on top of him, positioning me so that our pelvises touched. His arms circled around me. I felt him pushing against me, and I knew something was wrong. Embarrassed and confused, I squirmed off him and ran out of the room. After that there is only blackness in my memory, full and total darkness with not a pinhole of light. Howard is simply gone, vanished, sucked away. My memory took him and destroyed him” (Loftus, 1991, p. 149).

Scholars have raised questions as to whether Loftus’s childhood experiences, remembered or otherwise, have a bearing on her work with memory. In her book, “Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century ” (2004), psychologist Lauren Slater writes, “There is something split off in Loftus. She is the survivor who questions the validity of survivorship. That’s one way out of a bind.”

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What happened to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation?

Variations of the FMSF emerged across the globe, including in Australia. The Australian False Memory Association, had a brief moment in the sun before, like Icarus, it flew too close, crashed and burned. At the helm of the Australian association was Melbourne psychiatrist, Dr Gerome Gelb. Gelb was censured by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists for plagiarism and in 2007 was arrested for taking a loaded handgun into a Melbourne magistrate’s court. He was suspended from practice as a psychiatrist on two occasions, the first time for having sex with a patient and then for the firearms offences (McMaugh, K. & Middleton, W., 2020).

After almost three decades, on 31 December 2019 the FMSF without the fanfare of its entrance, quietly exited stage left. However, it leaves a legacy of hundreds of lawsuits and damaged reputations of ethical therapists for purportedly implanting false memories of sexual abuse and practicing ‘repressed memory therapy’, a therapy that in fact does not exist. It has caused untold harm to survivors of child sexual abuse who were not believed or who were too afraid to speak out for fear of not being believed and their credibility being shredded in the court room.

The notion of a ‘false memory syndrome,’ has never entered any recognised diagnostic system, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and the International Classification of Diseases (McMaugh, K. & Middleton, W. 2020). The catchy pseudo-diagnostic label has nonetheless embedded itself in the media, the mind of the public and courts of law

On 16 January 2022, Oliver Milman writing for The Guardian, reported that lawyers for Prince Andrew also intend to regurgitate the tired FMS red herring in relation to Virginia Roberts-Giuffre’s accusations of sexual assault in her civil lawsuit against him (Milman, O., 2022). While we await this trial it would be prudent to keep in mind the roots of the false memory argument and the real science and research on trauma and memory.

 

Aviv, R., How Elizabeth Loftus Changed the Meaning of Memory, The New Yorker Magazine, April 25 2021 issue https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/05/how-elizabeth-loftus-changed-the-meaning-of-memory

Klasfeld, A. ‘False Memory’ Expert Involved in Robert Durst, O.J. Simpson, and Harvey Weinstein Cases Testifies for Ghislaine Maxwell, Law and Crime, 16 December 2021 https://lawandcrime.com/live-trials/ghislaine-maxwell/false-memory-expert-involved-in-robert-durst-o-j-simpson-and-harvey-weinstein-cases-testifies-for-ghislaine-maxwell/ 

Loftus, E. (1991). Witness for the defense. The accused, the eyewitness and the expert who put memory on trial. New York: St. Martin’s.

McMaugh, K. & Middleton, W., The Rise and Fall of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, ISSTD News, Internal Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation Inc., 20 January 2020 https://news.isst-d.org/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-false-memory-syndrome-foundation/

Milman, O., Prince Andrew’s lawyers want to quiz accuser’s psychologist and husband, The Guardian, 16 January 2022: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jan/15/prince-andrews-lawyers-want-to-quiz-accusers-psychologist-and-husband

Newbury, L., This ‘false memory’ expert has testified in hundreds of trials. Now she’s been hired by Harvey Weinstein, LA Times, 6 February 2020  https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-02-06/false-memory-expert-testify-harvey-weinstein-trial

Slater, L., (2004) Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century, W.W. Norton

#trauma #memory #FMSF #complextrauma #dissociation

 

Guest Editor: Colin A. Ross, MD

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