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Remember “False Memories”?

Comments on my last post about therapy revealed some really lousy therapy experiences. Shocking even. And sad. For all my blind faith in therapy, I’m not blind to the fact that there are crappy therapists out there—some merely ineffectual, some downright dangerous.

Thinking about this brought me back to the the 1990s, when bad therapy was a big topic of discussion surrounding recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse.

Recovered memories are previously repressed memories of trauma that come to light, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes under the guidance of a therapist. This was an enormous controversy for several years.  First it was a witch hunt for people accused of sexual abuse due to recovered memories, then a witch hunt for therapists accused of planting memories in their clients’ minds.

An organization, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation was formed, coining the phrase “false memory.” It was founded by Pamela and Peter Freyd, parents of Jennifer Freyd, a psychologist with the University of Oregon, where she researches trauma and memory. Dr. Freyd has never recanted her accusation and no longer publicly discusses her parents.

The FMSF staged a concerted campaign—one journalist recently called the group “a highly organized public relations machine”—to debunk the entire concept of recovered memories, and to discredit people who claimed to have recovered memories, as well as their therapists.(Full disclosure: I have had dealings with the FMSF, for reasons I prefer not to detail here.)

All kinds of news organizations—60 Minutes to The New York Times checked in on the controversy. But after a few years, the furor died down and the general public settled into the certainty that recovered memories are a sham, the result of mass hysteria and charlatan therapists. And just last year, a memoir titled My Lie: A True Story of False Memory was released, seemingly closing the door on the discussion.

Yeah, well, not so fast.

Far less publicized is work being done at Brown University, where the Recovered Memory Project sorts through the conflicting claims, looking at cases involving various types of trauma, not just sexual abuse. Most salient to me is the archive on the website that lists case after case in which recovered memories have later been confirmed by confession or other corroboration, often in court. Until Dr. Freyd pointed me towards this website a couple of years ago, I knew nothing about it.

I believe it is possible to plant memories into people’s minds. And some recovered memories probably are false, though scientists don’t use the term “false memory”. Some therapists may have gotten carried away with the whole business in the 1990s.

But I also believe—and the Recovered Memory Project confirms–that recovered memories are sometimes true.

The topic is not simple, it is not cut and dried. People on both sides have been hurt.  The FMSF has controlled the discussion by being loudest, but it’s not over. Researchers continue sorting through the hyperbole and ultimately, the truth will prevail. Whatever it is–and it won’t be the same for everyone.

Remember “False Memories”?

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). Remember “False Memories”?. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 May 2011
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