No Thanks For the Memories

By: Anonymous

Source: "Imagined Abuse: No Thanks For the Memories." Psychology Today. vol. 26, no. 1, January/February 1993.

About the Author: Psychology Today is a widely distributed magazine focusing on the issues of the mind and body, the health of both, and the workings behind them.


In the early 1980s, the topics of child abuse, child abductions, and child murders were the focus of newspaper articles, talk shows, and magazine pieces. High profile cases such as the 1979 disappearance of seven-year-old Etan Patz as he walked to school alone for the first time and the 1981 disappearance and murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh, lost during a shopping trip at a local Sears, fanned concerns about child safety outside of the home or school. The McMartin preschool case, which began in 1983 and involved hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse of children and the 1987 murder of Lisa Steinberg at the hands of her father, Joel Steinberg, reinforced fears about child safety in educational institutions and even in the child's own home.

As these events unfolded in American society, psychologists and psychiatrists worked with an increasing number of patients; the pursuit of therapy became more acceptable as a method for dealing with trauma and emotional problems. As more people sought therapy, more therapists dealt with stories from clients about childhood abuse. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 had created a legal and social culture in which child abuse cases were taken seriously by law enforcement, social workers, and psychologists. By the 1980s, additional laws, such as mandated reporting for therapists and school officials, added to the goal of validating child abuse experiences and helping children and adults to heal from such abuse.

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Popular self-help books, written by psychologists, social workers, and victims gained bestseller status in the United States, with titles such as "Codependent No More," "The Courage to Heal," and "Toxic Parents." Psychological theories became part of common public discourse, therapy became more acceptable, and some psychologists began to focus on a new technique called Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT), also known as Repressed Memory Therapy.

RMT is based on the theory that certain dysfunctional behaviors and mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, bulimia, sexual inhibition, and anorexia, stem from childhood traumas such as physical or, more commonly, sexual abuse. In patients who exhibit no known history of trauma, but display severe behavior dysfunction, RMT uses a variety of techniques to "recover" a repressed memory of physical or sexual abuse.

These techniques include, but are not limited to hypnotherapy, art therapy, trance writing, and the use of "truth serum" medications such as sodium amytal. In a typical RMT session, the client is placed under hypnosis, the therapist administers sodium amytal, and the therapist proceeds to work with the client on a specific memory, asking the client to recall details, feelings, or events.

RMT, used extensively in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, was controversial during its peak. Based on the theory -- later disproved -- that all life experiences are dutifully recorded in the brain, and finding memories involves using the right technique to retrieve them, therapists who used RMT believed that these recovered memories were unadulterated truth.

In 1984 and 1985, magazines such as Time and Newsweek published in-depth stories on alleged ritual Satanic abuse. Many RMT clients recalled memories of being forced into sexual acts, engaging in cannibal-ism, brutally slaughtering of animals for sacrifice, and even being coerced into allegedly murdering children or babies as part of cult rituals. These "underground cults" allegedly included preschools, and these articles, along with talk shows and newsmagazine shows devoted to these subjects -- were part of a national focus on child sexual abuse in homes and social institutions such as day care centers, schools and churches.

At the same time, tens of thousands of therapy clients, largely women, claimed to have recovered memories of abuse by fathers, uncles, grandparents, and other male adults in their lives. The typical accuser was between nineteen and fifty, female, suffered from depression and/or an eating disorder, and was high school educated; one third were college educated. RMT practitioners recommended that victims of recovered memories needed to confront their abusers with their stories, regardless of the harm that might come to family relationships, and regardless of lack of hard evidence, inconsistent memories, or lack of corroborating information from others.

Primary Source

Victims of childhood sexual abuse have long had support groups. Now there's an organization to aid the victims of imaginary memories of incest and abuse.

As the awareness of childhood sexual abuse has grown, so have false accusations of abuse -- often the result of misguided therapeutic programs. Philadelphia psychologist Pam Freyd, Ph.D., decided to combat this trend and set up the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. In its first year alone, over 1,200 families made contact all with heartbreaking claims to defend themselves over accusations from one of their own.

Many psychologists have seen families torn apart by false memory syndrome and place much of the blame on a new type of therapist, the "traumatist." Encouraged by popular notions of victimization and prime-time disclosures of all kinds of abuse, the traumatist urges patients to remember sexual abuse or violence in childhood -- whether it happened or not. False Memory Syndrome is now so prevalent that Paul McHugh, M.D., director of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, compares the situation to the Salem witch trials.

At issue are the methods used to elicit memories, namely hypnosis and "narcoanalysis," employing agents like amobarbital sodium. Instead of unearthing genuine memories these therapies may make patients so suggestible that they misinterpret fantasy as reality. A therapist searching for clues of abuse could be planting the seeds of false memories.

The American Medical Association deems hypnosis a valid therapy -- but not a reliable "means to refresh memory." In fact, the AMA declared hypnotic recall "less reliable than nonhypnotic recall," and cautioned that its use may result in "confabulations and pseudomemories."

All the traumatists are doing is spreading misery, says Freyd. Those accused face enormous emotional stresses and legal problems. Accusers risk losing their families and wasting time in misdirected and painful "therapy." And the genuine victims of abuse have a tougher time persuading others to believe their charges.


The confrontations that were part of RMT shocked parents and grandparents; one such alleged abuser, Pam Freyd, created the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, as this article notes. In 1990, during a visit with their daughter Jennifer, she accused her father, Peter, of molesting her repeatedly throughout her childhood and adolescence. The Freyds created FMSF in part as a result of their experience.

In 1993, their daughter, a tenured professor at the University of Oregon, made public remarks about her personal experience during a professional conference, describing years of molestation, exposure to her father's unwanted sexual advances, and his descriptions of having been molested himself by a gay man. Jennifer Freyd coined the term "betrayal trauma" in 1996 in her book titled Betrayal Trauma, describing the use of amnesia as a coping technique when a child experiences the betrayal of sexual abuse at the hands of a parent.

The very public conflict between the Freyds and their daughter played out in newspapers, magazine articles, and professional publications. As the head of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Pamela Freyd claimed to have received more than 1,200 contacts in the foundation's first year; within five years the Freyds stated that more than 17,000 families who experienced accusations based on recovered memories.

In the mid 1990s, some therapy clients, severely questioning their recovered memories, began to reconcile with their families and file lawsuits against therapists who used RMT. The FMSF works with families filing such lawsuits. The Canadian Psychiatric Association filed a position statement in 1996 which stated, in part:

  • "Reports of recovered memories of sexual abuse may be true, but great caution should be exercised before acceptance in the absence of solid corroboration. Psychiatrists should be aware that excessive emphasis on recovering memories may lead to misdirection of the treatment process and unduly delay appropriate therapeutic measures."

Paul McHugh, chair of the department of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, refers to RMT as "a shameful episode in the history of psychiatry." Psychologists and psychiatrists are quick to point out that there is a radical difference between recovering a memory spontaneously, though, and the techniques used in RMT, which many believe to be misleading.

In October 2005, Kyle Zirpolo, eight years old at the time of the alleged abuse against him in the McMartin preschool case, retracted his molestation accusation. In an interview he explained that

  • "I remember telling them [interviewers] nothing happened to me. I remember them almost giggling and laughing, saying, "Oh, we know these things happened to you. Why don't you just go ahead and tell us? Use these dolls if you're scared. Anytime I would give them an answer that they didn't like, they would ask again and encourage me to give them the answer they were looking for."

Proponents of RMT say that Kyle's story does not negate the thousands of stories of repressed memories that are real, while opponents of RMT claim that his story is evidence that RMT, in a clinical or law enforcement setting, is invalid and misleading.

Further Resources


Brainerd, C.J. and V.F. Reyna. The Science of False Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Freyd, Jennifer L. Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Masson, Jeffrey. The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Pocket Books, 1998.

Spanos, Nicholas P. Multiple Identities & False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001.

Web sites

False Memory Syndrome Foundation. (accessed March 30, 2006). "McMartin Pre-Schooler: 'I Lied.'",0,285518.story?(accessed March 30, 2006).
And: < >. "False Memory Syndrome: As Women Bring Lawsuits, Therapists are Having to Pay for Their Mistakes." (accessed March 30, 2006).