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The False Memory / Recovered Memory Debate

Lorraine Jaksic, Pastoral Sciences, 18 (1999), pp.127-150


L'essentiel du debat concemant les "faux souvenirs et les souvenirs retrouve's" est double: jutqu'a quel point peut-on te fier aux souvenirs qui ont ete' enfouis durant des de'cades et quelt tout let facteurt a' evaluer pour deterruiner leur fiabilite'? Le mecanitme par lequel le recouvrement des souvenirs traumatissuts se realite est une question majeure de ce debat en psychologie. Des differences dant Ia tenninologie viennent embroujiler le debat. L'auteur toutient que des progre's teront accomplis dans Ia resolution de ce debat seulement apre's qu'on se tera oceupe' du sent et de l'utilisation de Ia langue.

The recent advent of the non-clinical term, 'False Memory Syndrome', has created a hotbed of controversy with regard to our understanding of how adult memory behaves when there has been childhood sexual abuse or other intrusive traumas in a person's life 'False Memory Syndrome' is a non-clinical, non-scientific phrase, not recognized by any formal medical association, coined by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (Brown, Scheflin & Hammond, 1998). In February 1992, this foundation was officially formed as a non-profit organization to address "accusations of childhood sexual abuse by adult survivors based upon decade-delayed memories that are created by misguided or unconscionable therapy" (Vella, l992) The Foundation argues that the phenomenon of flashbacks, a common form of memory recovery by adult survivors, is virtually impossible (Doe/Freyd, 1991; Loftus, 1993; Loftus, Polonsky and Fullilove, 1994). The aforementioned researchers suggest that the resultant recovered memory, surrounding childhood sexual abuse which never happened, represents a false truth constructed by the survivors but induced by therapists.

Many psychologists and psychiatrists subscribe to the Foundation's claims of 'False Memory Syndrome' However, there is a growing body of literature which disputes many of their claims. This recent, and not so recent, literature suggests that these claims are encompassed within language that does not specifically address memory with regard to Type 1 (single-incident) and Type 2 (repetitive-complex) trauma and their respective effects on children and memory retrieval (Courtois, 1992; Terr, 1991, 1994). The differentiating criteria describing Type 1 and Type 2 trauma will be outlined further in the discussion section on trauma. This literature offers alternative understandings to the aforementioned psychological terms (Briere, 1991, 1992, 1996; Courtois, 1992; Kristiansen, 1994; Kristiansen, Gareau & DeCourville, 1994; Terr, 1991, 1994). Given that the open discussion of the adult-child sexual abuse survivor and trauma psychology pertaining to sexual matters are so new, traditional terms may need to be redefined with regard to knowledge concerning memory and its application to childhood trauma.

For the pastoral counsellor this review of traditional terms used to describe memory and memory retrieval is of great importance. In order that the pastoral counsellor may be authentically present for the work needed in trauma recovery, it is vital to understand the different aspects encompassed within the traumatic experience of the client and the context of that experience specific to the individual. The sense of brokenness in relationships, as experienced by traumatized individuals, represents itself in terms of inauthentic living patterns and images with reference to self, to others and to God. As emotional and psychological traits/disorders are a consequence of maladaptive coping strategies resulting from inauthenticity and not living out of personal truth, perhaps the clarification of these terms specific to the nature of trauma within families (incest) and/or repeated social victimization (rape) will authentically address the existential concerns, difficulties and problems of these individuals.

At the core of the 'false memory syndrome' debate is the belief that fictitious memories of childhood sexual abuse are implanted in the minds of vulnerable clients by overzealous, manipulative therapists, using coercive therapy techniques (Cronin, 1994; Quilin & Hurman, 1994; Vella, 1992, 1994). There are several elements to this complex debate, namely: (a) the distinctions between two types of trauma, (b) the terminology used to describe 'memory' and 'trauma', (c) recovered memories versus 'false memory syndrome', (d) victim blarne, (e) False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) and the political/legal implications surrounding childhood sexual abuse, and (f) the methodology used to study this relatively new field of Psychology and thereby resolve many of the issues in this debate. Each of these issues will be discussed in turn, yet many unanswered questions concerning each of these elements remain.


Psychological ‘trauma’ is understood to originate from outside the individual (Briere, 1992, 1996; Herman, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; Terr, 1991, 1994). For the purposes of this paper, however, trauma is extended to include recognition that trauma is also an introspective event. That is, “the conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the Will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma” (Herman, 1992, p. 1). On the one hand, a person known to have experienced childhood sexual abuse is most likely to exhibit social problems and physical symptoms including “posttraumatic stress, low self-esteem and guilt, anxiety, depression, somatization, dissociation, interpersonal dysfunction, eating disorders, sexual problems, substance abuse and suicidality” as a direct result of their trauma (Briere, 1992, p. 196). On the other hand, a person who has experienced a single traumatic event usually does not experience pervasive low self-esteem, guilt and the resulting interpersonal dysfunction that follows the betrayal of trust and personal boundaries. Many other researchers and practitioners in this field of psychology/psychiatry concur with Briere’s list of social problems and physical symptoms that become part of a victim’s life-pattern (Cronin, 1994; Finkelhor, 1979, 1988; Herman, 1981, 1992; vari der Kolk, 1994; Williams, 1994; Bass & Davis, 1994; Gale, Thompson, Moran & Sack, 1988). In addi-tion, recent studies indicate that childhood sexual abuse is associated with multiple short and long term psychological difficulties (Briere, 1992, 1996; Herman, 1981, 1992; Lifton, 1988; Terr, 1991, 1994; Williams, 1994; Briere & Zaidi, 1989; Schacter & Moscovitch, 1984; Tong, Oates & McDowell, 1987; Gale, Thompson, Moran & Sack, 1988).

Traumatic memory is a new field of investigation in which there are many unanswered questions. The documented findings of researchers and clinicians who work with traumatized people “show that these memories are formed in an altered state of consciousness induced by terror” (Lawrence, 1993, p.10). The victims ‘dissociate’ themselves from the traumatic experience as it is happe-ning (Courtois, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; Lifton, 1988; Terr, 1991, 1994; van der Kolk, 1994; Herman & Schatzow, 1987; Schacter & Moscovitch, 1984). Lifton (1988) calls this process “psychic numbing” and claims that it “stops the symbolizing or formative process” which the mind needs to create images (p.8). Therefore, the focus of attention is narrowed and the surrounding context of the experience falls away. Kristiansen (1994) calls this “speechless terror” where the overwhelming emotional impact of trauma interferes with the victim’s ability to encode the experience in words or symbols (p.5). Still, certain details of imagery and sensation are deeply etched into the psychobiology of the person. Many people suffer highly elevated physiological responses to neutral stimuli such as sudden noises, or unexpected images and thoughts.

Many studies have confirmed that traumatized individuals respond to such stimuli with significant conditioned autonomic reactions- for example, increases in heart rate, skin conductance, and blood pres-sure. The highly elevated physiological responses accompanying the recall of traumatic experiences that happened years, and sometimes decades, before illustrate the intensity and timelessness with which traumatic memories continue to affect current experience (van der Kolk, 1994, p.254).

These memories seem to be accurate in some aspect. For example, adults (includes men as victims) may give a detailed description of a room in which they were raped, even though they had not seen the room since a very young age (Blume, 1990; Briere, 1996; Courtois, 1992; Herman, 1981, 1992; Terr, 1994; Bass & Davis, 1994). However, some memories associated with the trauma, such as those dealing with time sequence, the context and/or frequency of the experience, may be fragmentary and imprecise (Herman, 1992; Ho-rowitz, 1986; Lifton, 1988; Reber, 1993; Terr, 1991, 1994). In short, flaws in memory recall do not necessarily imply that the remembered events did not occur. Learning is fundamental and precedes memory (Reber, 1993; Thorndike & Rock, 1934); a victim of childhood sexual abuse may implicitly learn to put traumatic memories into an inaccessible memory network which will be recovered only in a ‘hypermnesia’ state (Erdelyi, 1992). Trauma-related memories further increase arousal (in hypermnesia) and this state can result in the re-release of stress hormones that consolidate the strength of the memory trace, such as norepinephrine (van der Kolk, 1994). Consequently, the traumatic memories return as implicit ‘body memories’ through the sensorimotor systems, but are devoid of their original context and appear as kinesthetic sensations, olfactory stimuli, or visual images, in the form of flashbacks and nightmares (Kristiansen, 1994; van der Kolk, 1994)

Partial or even complete amnesia for childhood trauma is well documented (Courtois, 1992; Freyd, 1993; Herman, 1981, 1992; Kristiansen, 1994; Terr, 1991, 1994; Williams 1992, 1994; Briere & Conte, 1993; Briere & Zaidi, 1989; Herman & Schatzow, 1987). However, other researchers believe the term ‘repression’ adequately defines the coping mechanism utilized by many childhood sexual abuse victims (Loftus, 1993; Loftus, Polonsky & Fullilove, 1994). The term ‘repression’, however, does not adequately address the fact that people have multiple memory systems which include amnesic properties (Schacter & Moscovitch, 1984; Sherry & Schacter, 1987), or account for how the psychophysiological well being of victims is affected (van der Kolk, 1994). Thus, while trauma begins with events outside the child, a number of internal changes in the child occur once the events take place.

Terr (1991) cites four characteristics related to childhood trauma that appear to last for long periods of life, no matter what diagnosis the patient eventually receives. These are: “visualized or otherwise repeatedly perceived memories of the trauma event, repetitive behaviors, trauma-specific fears and changed attitudes about people, life and the future” (Terr, 1991, p.12). Also, Terr (1991) divides childhood trauma into two basic types: Type ] trauma includes full, detailed memories and misperceptions of a single specific event or tragedy; and Type 2 trauma includes denial and numbing, self-hypnosis and dissociation, and rage associated with long-standing repeated ordeals. With the onset of a single sudden traumatic event a child’s behavior will differ from a child suffering from Type 2 trauma which is caused by events originating from outside the child that are “marked by prolonged and sickening anticipation” and “[nione is generated solely within the child’s own mind” (Terr, 1991, p. 11). The issue of whether or not memories conceming childhood sexual abuse are real or fantasy is still a controversial one.

Further evidence reported by several researchers and clinicians indicates that traditionally psychiatry/psychology avoided therapy models which would expose histories of sexual abuse (Briere, 1996; Cronin, 1994; Courtois, 1992; Herman, 1981, 1992; Bass & David, 1994). Briere and Zaidi (1989) conducted a study with 100 nonpsychotic female patients coming through a hospital’s psychiatric emergency room. The first 50 charts written by clinicians who were specifically asked to query an abuse history were exarnined. A control group was formed by randomly selecting 50 charts of women who were not queried. They hypothesized that people who were sexually abused as children were most likely representative of an emergency psychiatric population. The results of the study indicated much higher rates of molestation history in clinical populations than in the general population. Only 6% of those not specifically asked about a sexual abuse history volunteered information pertaining to abuse; yet 70% of the clients who had been directly asked reported sexual abuse. “Further analysis linked molestation history to suicidality, substance abuse, sexual difficulties, multiple psychiatric diagnoses, and axis II traits or disorders – especially borderline personality” (Briere & Zaidi, 1989, p.1602). These results suggest that sexual abuse may place certain adults at a higher risk for later psychological crisis. Therefore, this type of knowledge may encou-rage clinicians to investigate abuse histories of those who come into emergency care.

In a follow-up study of 100 women who had been hospitalized and treated for childhood sexual abuse 17 years earlier, Williams (1992, 1994) suggests that 38% did not recall the experiences that had been reported and carefully documented by hospital staff, despite the child’s presence and examination at the hospital. Of the women who had no memory of the reported abuse, 53% reported other childhood victimizations, such as other incidents of molestation or physical abuse. This would suggest that the patients were not embarrassed to talk about such personal matters with the clinicians doing the study survey (Williams, 1992, 1994). This study replicated research conducted several years earlier by Herman and Schatzow (1987). The 1987 study found that 64% of patients did not have full recall of the abuse, and just over one-quarter of the women (28%) reported severe amnesia. Also, it is suggested that the earlier the onset of abuse (preschool), the longer its duration, and the degree of severity of violence involved, are significant indicators of the degree of amnesia. Furthermore, in response to hearing others in the group talk about their stories, patients reported recovery of additional memories.

Patients in this category suffered some increased anxiety in the process of recovering new memories, but were usually able to integrate them without prolonged distress, and generally reported that the new memories enabled them to form a more realistic picture of their families and a less critical estimate of themselves (Herman & Schatzow, 1987, p.7)

The groups were structured around defining and achieving a goal related to the sexual abuse. The most commonly chosen goals were: (a) disclosure of the abuse to a family member, (b) recovery of memories, and (c) perpetrator confrontation. Most clients defined a goal that included the potential for gathering corroborating evidence outside of their own memories. The majority of women (74%) were able to confirm their memories of childhood sexual abuse with concrete evidence (verbal acknowledgments, diaries, and pictures) and 34% discovered that other children, usually siblings, had been abused by the same perpetrator. Many clinicians report similar findings when working with their client populations (Cronin, 1994; Herman, 1992; Bass & Davis, 1994). “The presumption that most patient’s reports of childhood sexual abuse can be ascribed to fantasy no longer appears tenable” (Herman & Schatzow, 1987, p. 11). However, this statement is challenged.

Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and a member of the Advisory Board to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, recognizes that “actual childhood sexual abuse is tragically common”, yet does not believe it is common to repress memories of childhood sexual abuse. Despite the growing body of literature with regard to the acquirement of implicit and tacit knowledge, she questions “how common is it to repress memories of childhood sexual abuse?” (1993, p.521) without any reference to research conceming the psychobiological effects of Type 2 trauma as described and differentiated by researchers such as Briere (1991, 1996),Herman(1992) and Terr(1991, 1994). Additional evidence has been obtained which supports the concept of recovered memories.

Loftus (1993) reviewed the study conducted by Briere and Conte (1993) and disputes the findings that suggest the possibility of ‘recovered memories’. She claims that the interviewers may have unintentionally guided the subjects to disclose abuse which never happened. At the core of the Briere and Conte (1993) study, where 450 adult clinical clients who had reported sexual abuse histories were asked if they had experienced amnesia for the abuse, is an affirmative response of 59.3% for the sample. This is not surprising considering the outcome of the study (Briere and Zaidi, 1989), where 70% of the clinical population queried for sexual abuse reported abuse. However, further ques-tions need to be asked concerning ‘amnesic’ episodes for the remaining 30%. For example, Williams (1992, 1994) noted that 38% of the women in this longitudinal study were either amnesic for the abuse or had chosen not to report the abuse to the interviewers 17 years after having documented the abuse. As well, Herman and Schatzow (1987) reported that 74% of the women in their study who had recovered memories were able to validate them with corroborating evidence. These two studies validate recovered memories, and suggest that “retrospective studies which rely on self-reports of childhood experiences of sexual victimization are likely to result in an underestimation of the true prevalence of such abuse” (Williams, 1992, p.20).

Loftus, Polonsky, and Fullilove (1994), question Herman and Schatzow’s criteria for corroboration. The 1987 study documents that 74% of the women obtained corroborating evidence. This factor is broken down into two groups with 40% getting information directly from other family members, and/or from pictures, or diaries; the other 34% discovering that the perpetrator had sexually abused other children, usually a sibling. Of the remaining 26% in the study, 9% reported that family members had indicated a strong likelihood that they had been abused but would not confirm direct questions, 11% of the women made no attempt to obtain corroborating evidence, and 6% stated that they had tried to obtain such evidence but were unsuccessful. The degree of amnesia was independent of corroboration of evidence obtained. Given that 64% of the sample reported some degree of amnesia (with 28% severely amnesic) and that 74% of the study found corroborating evidence to support the recovered memories, some of the individuals in the ‘severe memory’ (amnesia) category were able to obtain corroboration.

Loftus et al. (1994) also studied women recruited from a substance abuse rehabilitation program; all had previously used drugs. The results show that, of 105 women, 54% had experienced some form of childhood sexual abuse. Of this group, 69% claimed they had always remembered the abuse, 12% had at least partial amnesia and 19% claimed total amnesia for a period of time but later regained the memories. These figures indicate a total of 31% had amnesic memories with later recall and not the 19% figure quoted in the results section of the article (see Kristiansen, 1994, as this statement concurs with her analysis). However, this research failed to examine three specific aspects which other trauma researchers investigate: (a) the possibility that some of the sample had not yet recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse at the time of the study and, therefore, the results may underestimate the ‘severely amnesic’ group (Williams, 1992, 1994); (b) the more destructive and maladaptive coping strategies such as substance abuse which people may practice when they cannot forget their abuse (Briere, 1996; Herman, 1992; and Herman and Schatzow, 1987); and (c) the distinguishing features which differentiate simple posttraumatic stress disorder (Type 1) and the complex model (Type 2) which involves denial, psychic numbing and/or dissociation which is all too common in victims of chronic child abuse (Briere, 1992, 1996; Herman, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; Terr, 1991; van der Kolk, 1994; Briere & Conte, 1993; Herman & Schatzow, 1987). The question of whether or not recovered memories are possible has been addressed:

By saying the figures range from 19 to 59%, on the basis of these data it seems that most studies suggest that 50 to 60% of survivors forget their abuse at some point, a figure that is actually consistent with the estimate of forgetting cited in popular recovery books (Kristiansen, 1994, p.12).

Loffus et al. (1994) subsequently dispute the findings of Williams (1992), questioning the validity of the self-reports due to infant amnesia. In response, Williams (1994) argues that the group of women who had no recall of their abuse did not remember or forget that abuse because of their age at the time of the abuse (the children ranged in age upwards starting from 18 months). Moreover, Terr (1991) argues that even infants and toddlers are able to “lay down, store or retrieve full verbal memories of their traumas” through their play, art and visual images (p.12). This position is further substantiated by work done at a biological level by van der Kolk (1994) and Sherry and Schacter (1987). That is, recollections may not appear in semantic form but the implicit and tacit knowledge of the traumatic experiences are in the sensorimotor memory networks. Many personal stories show the ability to re-see or occasionally to re-feel a terrible series of events when tactile, positional or smell memories are triggered (Briere, 1996; Herman, 1981, 1992; Reber, 1993; Bass & Davis, 1994)

Loftus (1993) also argues that if people assume that ‘repression’ is common, then the individuals in the Briere and Conte (1993) study will infer that repression is likely to have happened to them. However, the consensus of most trauma researchers today is that false complaints by children for child abuse are rare, approximately 2-8% of reported cases (Briere, 1996; Salter, 1989). Also, Loftus ignores research by Finkelhor (1979) which identifies four dynamics unique to sexual abuse. Other traumas of childhood, such as parental divorce, do not generate these results in dynamics. They are: (a) traumatic sexualization, (b) betrayal, (c) stigmatization, and (d) powerlessness (p.357). These four dynamics are ongoing processes which interact with the structure of the whole environment (familial and cultural) of the victim and create an aura of secrecy. Children are not likely to report abuse and undergo the necessary interrogation to document the abuse if it did not happen (Finkelhor, 1979, 1988; Herman, 1981; Tedesco & Schnell, 1987). Furthermore, it is argued that most adults are not going to claim ‘repressed’ memories for childhood sexual abuse when it is not true because of the social and cultural backlash (Cronin, 1994; Faludi, 1991; Freyd, 1993). In fact, many researchers and clinicians report that false retractions are far more common, especially when the victim is insufficiently protected after disclosure and therefore succumbs to intimidation by the perpetrator or other family members who feel that they must preserve secrecy (Cronin, 1994; Herman, 1981, 1992; Lawrence, 1993; Bass & Davis, 1994).

Loftus (1993) argues that it is possible to implant incorrect memories of childhood trauma in older people. The claim comes from speculation that people who are in therapy for some other type of problem (substance abuse, depression or anger management) come to believe that they were abused as children because of suggestions from the therapist or in ‘self-help’ books. This assumption is based on the fact that a young teenager (aged 14) could be convinced by an older brother that he had been lost in a shopping mall when he was very young and had experienced trauma.

Loftus’ (1993) research is problematic since many young people can have feelings of being lost; it is questionable that such an experience would entail posttraumatic stress disorder symptomatology or the pschophysical changes that researchers hypothesize affect traumatic memory recall (van der Kolk, 1994) or that of hypermnesia (Erdelyi, 1992). The four personal dynamics characteristic of having been sexually abused (Finkelhor, 1979) and the elements of shame, secrecy, and fear of disclosure (Herman, 1981, 1992; Terr, 1994) that typically coincide with sexual abuse, are absent from the research findings. Therefore, is Loftus (1993) testing Type 2 trauma? Secondly, it is possible that these individuals were describing actual events that happened to them, or events happening within other contexts like being lost at a fair ground or on a picnic. Those who work with Type 2 trauma victims would suggest that it is the sensation of ‘lost’ that may be remembered and retrieved without necessarily remembering the context of the event (Terr, 1991). Undoubtedly, such an event as being lost at a mall may be uncomfortable and stressful but, in the absence of other abnormal psychophysical and psychosocial problems, is hardly Type 2 trauma.

However, the research done by the ‘false memory syndrome’ side of this debate has raised some solid viewpoints that require attention and conscious awareness. The concept that memories could be implanted within memory reconstruction during therapy is a worthwhile, healthy, therapeutic stance to be mindful of. Recent research shows there is a growing consensus as to how a therapist may potentially create false memories of abuse with the client. Research conducted by Loftus and Ketcham (1994) and Spanos (1994) suggests that there is a consistent model containing particular factors by which some clients can be lead to believe memories for abuse that did not specifically occur. They are: (a) therapist-driven suggestions of abuse, (b) the therapist’s own beliefs about abuse (i.e., over identification or erroneous beliefs), (c) a confirmatory bias wherein evidence for abuse is weighted on the affirmative side and non-substantial evidence is discarded, (d) the focused, and perhaps pressured, search for abuse related memories, (e) particular memory recovery methodologies that may confuse or superimpose imagination and memory, and (f) therapy procedures that indirectly suggest to the client procedures that will fill in their memory blanks for them. It is suggested that these elements interact with the therapist’s expectations for the therapy regime and that the client is persuaded to agree that abuse may have occurred (Brown, Scheflin & Hammond, 1998). “[W]hile the above arguments offer a lot of [sic] useful hypotheses about suggestive influences in psychotherapy, there is as yet no consistent theory about how and under what conditions therapy may be sugges-tive” (Brown, Scheflin & Hammond, 1998, pg. 34).

The difficulties in obtaining a consensus among those who study ‘trauma’ and ‘memory’ may be due to the terminology used to discuss the issues in this debate. Therefore, it is appropriate to discuss the terminology used in ‘traumatic memory’ discourse. The consequences of not having a consensus are far-reaching and will be discussed in following sections of this paper.


The terminology of this discourse began in Europe, a hundred years or more ago, within various fields in psychology (Briere, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; van der Kolk, 1994). The advent of the industrial era gave rise to many opportunities in which the careful observation of the characteristics of posttraumatic neuroses could take place. Eventually, the legal problem of compensation arose because the traumatic events were seen as the potential responsibility of others and not self inflicted. This lead to an increase in the funding of laboratory experiments concerning the properties of ‘learning’ and by implication, ‘memory’, and to increased studies of hospitalized people exhibiting posttraumatic neuroses. “The implication of nonconscious, psychological motivational factors in symptom formation was a topic of considerable controversy” (Horowitz, 1986, p. 14). A body of literature developed through the clinical problem of diagnosis and the etiological formu-lation of posttraumatic neuroses. Out of this literature in the late 19th century, many psychiatrists and psychologists sought to understand ‘hysteria’ and its relation to trauma (Horowitz, 1986; van der Kolk, 1994). Since Freud’s use of the words ‘repression’ and ‘unconscious mind’, there has been much debate in psychology.

The early methods of psychoanalysis described by Freud (1954), in which hysterical symptoms were explored in terms of associated memories and fantasies, revealed that earlier psychological traumas were manifested indirectly or symbolically as symptoms of hysteria. Also, the person became obsessed with the trauma and it was understood by Freud that this ‘fixation’ was biologically based. His clients reported feeling and behaving as if the traumatic events were repeated over and over again, but that they were unable to locate the origins of those feelings. Freud (1954) suggested that memories and details of the events were ‘repressed’ into unconsciousness in order for the individual to cope with “their potential to produce extreme psychical conflict” (Briere, 1992, p. 17). For instance, if a person experienced a measure of enjoyment from the abuse, either through the sexual contact or because of some reward or benefit, then they may actively repress the abuse memories in order to avoid feelings of shame or guilt. Initially, Freud concluded that childhood sexual abuse was the cause of most of the symptomatology found in his clients (primarily adult females). However, he later retracted this conclusion and stated that the symptomatology must be due to the fantasizing of sexual appetites, otherwise, one would have to conclude that this type of abuse was extremely common. After WW1, Freud subsequently noted similarities between the fixation on trauma seen in war veterans and that seen in hysteria. ‘Dream sleep’ was the only place were the events could surface more safely cloaked in symbolism. This realization led Freud to believe that the cause of the fixation and the compulsion to relive the trauma was due to ‘repression’ of the memories in the ‘unconscious’ mind: “the trauma may be symbolically repeated over and over again” (Horowitz, 1986, p.16).

Contemporary researchers (e.g., Courtois, 1994, Reber, 1993 and Terr, 1991), prefer to use the term ‘amnesia’ to refer to the concept of memory loss, rather than repression of memories blocked from conscious awareness, as repression’ tends to conceptualize memory as residing in the mind only. The broader conceptualization of ‘amnesia’ is consistent with research evidence suggesting that many victims of childhood sexual abuse have ‘body memories’ which remember what the conscious mind has forgotten (Herman, 1992; Kristiansen, 1994; Napoli, 1992; Reber, 1993; van der Kolk, 1994; Williams, 1994; Briere & Conte, 1993; Herman & Schatzow, 1987).

Erdelyi (1992) describes body memories as procedural or implicit memories whose declarative components have been lost to accessible recall” (p.786), where procedural knowledge refers to “knowledge that guides action and decision making but typically lies outside of the scope of consciousness” (Reber, 1993, p. 16). Greenwald (1992) argues that the unconscious is organized in a ‘network’ of complex internal processes and schemata, which he calls ‘hidden units’, that can be active without gaining access to verbal outputs. Furthermore, van der Kolk (1994) argues effectively for a biological foundation of abnormal psychophysiological responses in traumatized people. In short, previously conscious knowledge can be stored in inaccessible memory (Erdelyi, 1992; Greenwald, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; van der Kolk, 1994) and recalled during states of “hypermnesia – the increase of memory over time” (Erdelyi, 1992, p.786). In this way, the ‘mind’ memory loss serves as a means of getting through the ordeal of trauma and its aftermath, but “the body keeps the score” of the abuse (van der Kolk, 1994, p.253).

The concept of amnesia, therefore, suggests a ‘dissociative defense’ against recalling and re-experiencing traumatic abuse (Briere, 1992; Herman, 1992; Williams, 1992, 1994; Bass & Davis, 1994; Kristiansen, Gareau & DeCourville, 1994). Briere and Conte (1993) suggest that the relationship they found between no recall of traumatic memories and trauma (as measured by violence or injury), on the one hand, and the lack of association between no recall and conflict (as measured by guilt, shame and enjoyment) on the other hand, fits the passive process of dissociation better than an active defensive process of repression. Therefore, by dissociating, victims may function relatively normally for the duration of the traumatic event, thereby keeping a large part of the personality unaffected by the trauma (Herman, 1981, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; van der Kolk, 1994; Briere & Conte, 1993).

Schacter and Moscovitch (1984), and Sherry and Schacter (1987, p.447) postulate that “two different and at least partially independent memory systems” have evolved, implicit and explicit. They suggest that these two memory systems evolved because of ‘functional incompatibility’ between demands made by the environment and the properties of the biological systems. They argue that functional incompatibility exists when an adaptation serves one function as a solution to a specialized problem, but at the same time renders that system incompatible with the specialized demands of other problems.

Reber (1993) notes that when learning takes place there is a distinction between the implicit unconscious aspects of cognitive functioning and the explicit conscious aspects of it. Implicit learning is defined as the “acquisition of knowledge that takes place largely independently of conscious attempts to learn and largely in the absence of explicit knowledge about what is acquired”; therefore, one may conclude that “implicit learning is a fundamental “root” process, one that lies at the very heart of the adaptive behavioral repertoire of every complex organism” (Reber, 1993, p. 5). Thus, abuse victims unconsciously learn (implicit learning) to dissociate themselves from the events taking place without realizing (explicit learning) what they are learning. In short, amnesia protects the victim against reliving the anxiety and distress accompanied by the recall of traumatic abuse.

Earlier research investigating learning and memory was motivated by questions prompted through the classical philosophical study of epistemology with regard to the acquisition and representation of complex knowledge. Reber 1993) notes that the interest in epistemological issues influenced early grammar learning studies because they “argued effectively for the importance of tacit knowledge, knowledge whose origins and essential epistemic contents were simply not part of one’s ordinary consciousness (p. 12). Indeed, Thorndike and Rock (1934) had indicated that “learning is very variable among individuals and within the same individuals” and that “there can be no doubt, however, that the tendency to make a systematic error is in general strengthened” without realizing that they have been taught or the nature of what was learned (p. 14). Findings like these were temporarily de-emphasized in the discipline of psychology over the next few decades as behaviorism and cognitive psychology developed different foci of attention through their res-pective paradigms (Sherry & Schacter, 1987; Reber, 1993).

As the research concerning explicit learning continued, under the behaviorists, ‘memory’ came to be viewed as a general information acquisition process. Reber (1993) claims that by the mid-70′s research showed these learning processes to be situation-neutral induction processes. However, more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the unconscious mind. Thus, new research suggested that the acquisition of complex information about any stimulus in the environment is learned largely independently of the person’s awareness of either the process of acquisition or of the pool of knowledge acquired. Subsequent research has since de-emphasized the behaviorist model in its strictest sense by suggesting that information about the environment, emotions, and coping mechanisms, can become a conscious experience when the encoded elements are translated into representational form (Horowitz, 1986; Lifton, 1988). This implies that when implicit and tacit information (body memories) are received and not put into representational form, the information is in the prerepresentational state in the unconscious. In order to explain this phenomenon, Greenwald (1992) distinguishes between two meanings of unconscious cognition: (a) cognition without attention, and (b) verbally unreportable cognition.

Presently, the interplay of explicit/conscious and implicit/unconscious learning and memory is being researched with a view to incorporating earlier philosophical questions (Erdelyi, 1992; Greenwald, 1992; Herman, 1981, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; Reber, 1993; Williams, 1992, 1994), the sociobiology of memory systems (Schacter & Moscovitch, 1984; Sherry & Schacter, 1987), and the psychophysiological foundations of trauma, stress response and memory (van der Kolk, 1994). The dissociative properties of unconscious cognition with regard to trauma are seen by many researchers and clinicians as providing coping mechanisms for some childhood sexual abuse victims.

Thus, it is essential that a distinction be made between ‘repressed’ infor-mation as a means of coping in day-to-day situations involving personal conflict and the dissociation processes’ that result in amnesic behavior as a life-saving skill in the face of repetitive traumatic events. The varied terminology and what these terms represent to various elements of society have major implications in terms of an understanding of trauma, both for those who suffer the different types of trauma and those who impose it on victims. Research on the psychological sequelae of childhood sexual abuse suggests that one in three women and one in six men in Western culture have experienced sexual abuse (Briere, 1991, 1996; Campbell, 1992; Finkelhor, 1979; Herman, 1981). In addition, recent reports on the victimization of very young children indicate that “one-third or more of their sexual abuse victim samples are under the age of six” (Gale, Thompson, Moran & Sack, 1988, p. 163). Also, applications of the varied terminology surrounding this debate may have serious political and legal ramifications for traumatized lives. Moreover, as society recognizes the frequency of childhood sexual abuse in our culture, and the distinction is made between trauma caused by a single catastrophic event versus trauma as the result of repetitive domestic and/or community violence, appropriate changes must be made in law to accommodate the distinction.

As indicated previously, Loftus (1993) and Loftus et al. (1994) believe that false’ memories can be impressed upon adults who are vulnerable. Without question this is possible, and in some cases probable, just as there can be bad therapy, bad legal advice, a wrong prescription given or interpreted, and misguided but well intentioned parents (Cronin, 1994). Kristiansen (1994) cites 5% of cases reporting recovered memories which may be false based on the percentage of children’s false allegations. The possibility of implanted memories is not disputed by those who research childhood trauma, those who work with survivors and the survivor community itself (Herman, 1981, 1992; Bass & Davis, 1994). However, the issue of ‘false memory’ implants has become a highly controversial one involving a political platform seeking new legislation which will affect admissible evidence and the statute of limitations in the courts with regard to recovered memories (Salter, 1989). Quirk and Deprince (1995) state, “This proposed legislation is based on the premise that the work of many psychotherapists and the techniques used in therapy are fraudulent and not scientifically based” (p.261). Many researchers, clinicians and survivors cite the newly formed False Memory Syndrome Foundation as the lobbyist force behind the new legislation and question the Foundation’s motives.

Recovered Memory Versus 'False Memory Syndrome'

In February 1992, the FMS Foundation was officially formed as a non-profit organization to address “accusations of childhood sexual abuse by adult survivors based upon decade-delayed memories that are created by misguided or unconscionable therapy” (Vella, 1992). The term “False Memory Syn-drome” (FMS) has been coined by the Foundation and is a non-clinical phrase not recognized by any formal medical association (Kristiansen, 1994; Quinlin & Hurman, 1994; Quirk & DePrince, 1995). FMS refers to a hypothesized process whereby people enter therapy because of some psychophysical or psychosocial problem, and because of their therapist’s suggestions, continue in therapy believing they were sexually abused as children, when in fact this was not the case. Furthermore, the FMS Foundation argues that the phenomenon of flashbacks, a common form of memory recovery by adult survivors, is virtually impossible (False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 1993, n.d.).

Since most child victims of chronic sexual and/or physical abuse are silenced, most disclosures of the abuse do not surface until they are adults. When individuals report what they remember having undergone earlier in life, their stories usually resemble those of child victims, sometimes even accompanied by child-like voices and body stances (Briere, 1996; Herman, 1981, 1992; Herman & Schatzow, 1987). Presently, the causes of delayed recall are little understood. Often recall occurs when the survivors are in their twenties or thirties but, it can occur later in life as well (Bass & Davis, 1994; Herman, 1992; Lawrence, l993). Apparently, recovered memories can be triggered by a variety of happenings. Most often it is a change in an intimate relationship, such as the onset of an adult sexual relationship, having a child or when the child first reaches the age of the survivor’s own abuse. Recovered memories have been known to surface when another victim of the same perpetrator discloses abuse. Sometimes the trauma is recalled only when the perpetrator is ill and expects the victim to care for them. Many experience delayed recall when the perpetrator dies and it is perceived to be safe for disclosure (Herman, 1992). However, many familial members want to keep victims silenced in order to preserve the family’s or the [deadi perpetrator’s reputation. Some turn to the FMSF in an effort to defocus attention on their actions, and place attention on the victims and those who offer them help. The motives of those who claim to be unjustly accused of childhood sexual abuse are camouflaged by cultural myths and stereotypes surrounding victimized people, and women in particular (Faludi, 1991).


When traumatic memories break into awareness, there is much distress. People may become frightened, ashamed, and/or depressed. Personal recounting by abuse victims indicate that they are often tormented by flashbacks and nightmares. Many do not understand their crazy-making thoughts or feelings of suicide. For a myriad of reasons, survivors seek therapy. Most are likely to come to therapy troubled by new memories rather than starting from a ‘memory blank’ position that is common to amnesia victims (Cronin, 1994; Herman, 1992). As already stated, some individuals seek therapy for abnormal psychophysical or psychosocial sequelae and retrieve implicit or tacit knowledge of abuse. Subsequently some individuals will seek confrontation with their abusers. These are the major ingredients of the escalating conflict between those who purport to be unjustly accused of sexually abusing children and those who want the victimization acknowledged and justice done. Moreover, it has been recognized by many researchers and clinicians that there is a socio-cultural element to this debate which must not be overlooked but must be kept in perspective; specifically, reference is made to cultural beliefs surrounding victim blame (Briere, 1996; Horowitz, 1986; Muller, Caldwell & Hunter, 1994) and the blaming and revictimization of women in particular (Caplan, 1992; Chesney-Lind, 1988; Faludi, 1991; Herman, 1981, 1992; Kristiansen, 1994; Rosenbaum, 1989; Smart, 1989; Solomon, 1992; Renner & Yurchesyn, 1994; Kristiansen, Gareau & DeCourville, 1994).

Muller, Caldwell and Hunter (1994) argue that there is a tendency in North American society to attribute the source of a problem and the solution to that problem to the suffering person. People in certain socio-economic or racial groups are “commonly seen as unmotivated, rather than being seen as restricted in terms of opportunity” to do something about their personal situation (p. 260). In a study conducted with 897 college students (female and male), Muller et al. (1994) found that the best predictors of victim blame with regard to child abuse and rape were: prior physical abuse, locus of control and empathy. For instance, recipients of spousal violence, compared to controls, were more likely to hold other recipients of marital violence responsible for their situa-tion. Results showed that people who view themselves with contempt and self depreciation will view others in the same manner. The strongest predictor of both child abuse and rape victim blame was personal similarity resulting in low empathy. It is suggested that people who consider themselves to be similar to abused children are individuals who have incorporated the concept of ‘victim’ into their own identities. The observers are psychologically motivated and self serving (perceived harm avoidance) in their inability to empathetically connect to the predicament of the victim.

Kristiansen, Gareau and DeCourville (1994) argue that cultural biases towards women are inherent in the authoritarian patriarchal structure of Wes-tern society. In their study, 187 university students (male and female) completed a Social Issues Survey. As hypothesized, people who expressed less favorable attitudes toward women were more likely to believe in a ‘just world’ (where each of us gets what we deserve out of life), and to assign more importance to the values ‘law and order’ and ‘family security’. Therefore, it is suggested that authoritarian beliefs attempt to appeal to socially shared values that justify attitudes that are really based on opposition to women’s equality (Caplan, 1992; Faludi, 1991; Herman, 1992) Consistent with the social denial hypothesis (Faludi, 1991), people who were seen to be more authoritarian believed more in ajust world ideology, endorsed FMS more strongly, required more stringent legal evidence concerning the victimization of the plaintiff and were more misinformed about incest. On the other hand, people with more positive and accepting attitudes towards women’s equality were less likely to believe in FMS, required less stringent legal evidence and had fewer misinformed beliefs about incest (Kristiansen, Gareau & DeCourville, 1994). “Given that most incest survivors are women, people’s beliefs about the validity of recovered memories might also, in a more insidious way, be tied to their attitudes toward women” (Kristiansen, 1994, p.21).

Considering the authoritarian patriarchal belief systems of some people in North American society and the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse, it is perhaps expected that there would be a cultural backlash when social consciousness-raising programs or advocacy groups begin to expose the abuse (Faludi, 1991; Herman, 1992; Solomon, 1992). The consensus among most researchers and clinicians who study trauma, the attendant issues encompassed in its field and work with childhood sexual abuse survivors, is that the intentions of the FMS Foundation must be questioned. Included in this doubting fraternity are the advocacy groups who argue for the equality and protection of women and children in society, as well as most survivors of childhood sexual abuse (Cronin, 1992; Kristiansen, 1994; Lawrence, 1993; Freyd, 1993; Vella, 1992, 1994; Bass & Davis, 1994; Kristiansen, Gareau & DeCourville, 1994).

J. Freyd, a successful professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, a self-declared incest survivor with recovered memories and the daughter of P. and P. Freyd, the Executive Directors and Co-founders of the FMSF states,

At this point we need to find a constructive way to debate legitimate issues surrounding adult survivors of child sexual abuse. We need to find a way to be gentle and tender in this pursuit, even as we look critically at the many domains in which we are scientifically and clinically uncertain (1993, p.34).

Freyd (1993) cites several potential traps that must be recognized when we critically investigate the escalating conflict. They are: (a) the logic that assu-mes that, because some recovered memories are probably not true, all recovered memories are therefore false, (b) the tendency to divide memories into true or false’ instead of seeking reconstructive processes which uncover essential truths, and (c) over-emphasis on the relationship between reported memories and external historical truth instead of investigating internal emotional truth (the pain is often overlooked). Being aware of these traps directs us to ask “the most important epistemological questions” concerning the relationship between internal and external realities (p.7).

The motto of the FMS Foundation is ‘False Memory Syndrome:
Destroying Families’. Many researchers and clinicians see this as a bitter irony. Memories true or false cannot destroy healthy families. The very fact that the Foundation purports to have a growing membership of 10,000 people who are seeking support because they claim to be unjustly accused of sexually abusing their children suggests the need for critical examination (figure taken from Brown, Scheflin & Hammond, 1998). The Foundation has evolved into a highly influential organization (with many members having influential social status and power) and is supported by a multi-million dollar financial base as members are asked to make ‘donations’ to the cause (Bass & Davis, 1994).

Campbell (1992), a psychologist who supports the themes of the FMS Foundation, claims that “the theoretical premises of incest resolution therapy alarmingly increase the probability of false positive conclusions when diagnosing a formative history of incest” (p.161). The article goes on to claim that therapists who use this type of therapy are predisposed to emphasizing the outcomes of pathogenic parenting. However, it does not discuss the fact that ‘pathogenic parenting’ could not be emphasized if it were not present and that the parenting, per se, may not involve incestuous relationships. Each paradigm has its focus of attention which directs its questions and by implication its results; this is a given. However, as previously documented, most people come into therapy with conscious memories of childhood sexual abuse and it is during the course of the reconstructive processes of therapy that the maladaptive aspects of pathogenic parenting are put into new perspectives. Given the prevalence of sexual abuse in psychiatric populations (70%, Briere and Zaidi, 1989), and that many documented victims suffer from amnesia (38%, Williams, 1992, 1994), and that maybe 2-8%, most likely topped at 5% (Kristiansen, 1994), of reported sexual abuse cases may be false (Salter, 1989), there would be many people who are helped by this type of therapy. In fact, there would be very few false positive accusations of incest.

Campbell (1992) claims that therapists uncover the ‘narrative truths’ of people’s lives rather than the ‘historical truths’. But the historical truths of sexually abused children are riddled with the symptomatology of psychophysical and psychosocial maladaption which may belie the historical truth of destructive formative years caused by pathogenic parenting (Briere, 1996; Finkeihor, 1979, 1988; Herman, 1981, 1992). Implicit in this article is the accusation that all clients are devoid of any sense of self; clients are seen as totally gullible and vulnerable to any suggestion about what might or might not have happened in their lives. Thus, exception is taken to Campbell’s statements conceming clients who find “more examples of apparent betrayal” and are further angered by it (1992, p.166). Victims of childhood sexual abuse do not need to ‘find’ examples of betrayal in order to ‘justify’ their anger. They have been betrayed and are seeking to cope with these emotions; they are angry and are seeking to be less angry.

Furthermore, Campbell (1992) makes statements concerning the motives of those who run group therapy sessions. Therapists are accused of encouraging clients to substitute the group for family support and identification (Campbell, 1992; Doe/Freyd, 1991). This is unfounded throughout any of the research investigated in this paper. In fact, in the Herman and Schatzow (1987) study, only one client out of 53 totally withdrew from her family. Also, J. Freyd (1993) documents in her own words that it was only after her parents had sought to publicly make her ‘regret’ her accusations of incest that she broke with them. The researched and documented chronology of these events (of the Freyd family) can be reviewed for further assessment and evaluation in Brown, Scheflin and Hammond, 1998. It is suggested that some people do need to break with their family of origin in order to heal, but most do not. There is no convincing evidence that disengaging from one’s family has any relation to being part of a therapy group or not, and such disengagement is not necessarily permanent (Herman, 1992; Bass & Davis, 1994).

With regard to the limitations of human memory, and specifically the “discovery of a history of incest” or “the reconstruction of some event”, Campbell (1992, p.162) cites the earlier work of E. Loftus which does not include any research concerning Type 2 trauma. Also absent is any mention of researchers who study trauma and/or implicit and tacit memory, or research into the psychobiology of memory systems. Despite these omissions, the important issue of overzealous therapists who “pursue verification of their theoretical convictions related to incest” should not be underestimated (Camp-bell, 1992, p.162).

Some counsellors/therapists do try to play detective, making unwarranted inferences about their patients’ histories without waiting for the story to unfold (Spanos, 1994). But overzealous, incompetent, or even exploitative therapists probably do not have enough power or influence over their patients to impose an elaborate form of mind control, particularly with regard to parent/child bonds. Evidence shows that parent/child bonds are very strong, even in the face of sexual and physical abuse; ofien the child will internalize the responsibility for the abuse (Briere, 1996; Chesney-Lind, 1988; Finkelhor, 1979; Herman, 1981, 1992; Bass & Davis, 1994; Tedesco & ScImell, 1987). Psychotherapy cannot be compared with coercive interrogation; the power imbalance between client and counsellor is not so overwhelming. As a rule, counsellors are trained not to push too hard because clients may become overwhelmed with traumatic re-experiences of events while they are trying to cope with present problematic symptoms. If the counsellor/therapist is insensitive to situations like this, there can be increased illness and possibly suicide; no genuine clinician wants this to happen (Cronin, 1992; Herman, 1992; Bass & Davis, 1994). How these situations get transformed into litigation cases against counsellors/therapists is a major cause for concern.


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Lorraine Jaksic is a practicing psychotherapist with Abundant Living Counselling, a group of seasoned counsellors, psychotherapists, social workers and other mental health allied professionals in Ottawa, Canada.

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