Ralph Underwager was a psychologist who was best known for his position as a defence witness in many cases involving sexual abuse, along with his support for parents accused of child abuse.

Underwager had a very anti-recovered memory stance – believing that any memories that had supposedly been ‘recovered’ could not be trusted.

Underwager was born in 1929. As a spiritual man, Underwager was a devout Christian, and a highly esteemed academic. He would spend much of his career fighting for and defending parents that had been accused of child abuse due to recovered memories.

Ralph Underwager played a huge role in the field of memory

Underwager and VOCAL

Underwager first came to public interest in 1984, when he helped set up VOCAL – Victims of Child Abuse Laws – which was a group supporting parents who’d had their children taken away due to abuse allegations.

This organisation was set up following his participation in a 1984 trial involving alleged child sexual abuse. He acted as a witness to the defence – stating that the children’s memory had been manipulated by therapists. The parents of the child were acquitted.

VOCAL went on to gain thousands of followers – coinciding with a plethora of cases involving alleged abuse allegations based on recovered memories.

Members of VOCAL fought against the use of any therapeutic technique that was conducted with the aim of uncovering memories e.g. hypnosis.

VOCAL’s members also campaigned for legislative changes based around burden of proof – with members finding that the alleged victim’s position was treated as truth over a parent’s defence.

Underwager’s role in court

Over the next decade, Underwager would become famous for his appearance in many trials, where as before, he acted as a defence witness to child abuse cases.

He mainly testified against the lack of validity of recovered memories. Recovered memories are supposed instances where a person has recalled something which supposedly happened to them in the past.

There is an enormous controversy over whether or not recovered memories can be trusted. Moreover, it is often considered to be one of the most polarising debates in psychology.

Generally, these memories come at a later stage of a person’s life, often in their 20’s or 30’s. Underwager’s stance was clear, as represented by his status as a defence witness.

Underwager and his fellow psychologist Elizabeth Loftus became the main defence witnesses for hundreds of cases in court.

By 1990, Underwager had acted as a defence witness for defendants in child sexual abuse cases on hundreds of occasions, even travelling around the world to do so.

His reputation continued to increase. Moreover, he believed that complex interviews with children would increase their chances of confabulation, as he blasted their use.

Moreover, Underwager argued that children’s fantasies typically revolved around blood and gore – making accusations easier to make.

Underwager and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation

An infamous case revolving around recovered memory, and one of the first to reach mainstream news, concerns the Freyd family.

Jennifer Freyd was in her 30’s when she allegedly recovered past memories of being abused over several years by her father Peter. There is significant controversy over this case.

The father Peter, and his wife Pamela, vehemently denied the accusations. Following this case, Underwager got in touch with the parents and encouraged them to start up an organisation to help those in similar positions.

This led to the creation of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). The group gave the state of mind involving incorrect recovered memories the name of False Memory Syndrome.

However, the foundation has proven unpopular with some – with suggestions that the organisation encourages victim blaming. Moreover, False Memory Syndrome has never been approved as an official psychiatric condition.

Underwager supported the aforementioned parents – the Freyd’s, and the FMSF grew in stature quickly. They tried to raise awareness of the potential dangers of recovered memories, and helped sponsor research into the topic.

The FMSF eventually became known nationwide, with commentators suggesting the stance to abuse cases swung from supporting the victims to doubting the victims, due to the foundation’s work and influence. Underwager was a key force in this.

Over the course of a few decades, the FMSF supported thousands of parents that had been accused of abusing their children. It eventually closed in 2019.

Underwager was heavily involved with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation

Controversial comments

Controversy arose regarding various comments that Underwager made. He stated that 75% of mothers who had accused someone of sexually abusing them suffered from a personality disorder [1]. Even if this was true, trying to suggest a causal relationship between the two was controversial.

Some also criticised Underwager for how he lambasted any investigation into child protection as an “assault on the family as an institution” [2].

But his most controversial comments came in 1991, and came into public knowledge in 1993. In the interview, some of Underwager’s were perceived as being supportive of paedophilia. His comments prompted fury.

In response, Underwager said that his comments had been taken out of context, and that by manipulating his words, others were attempting to besmirch the reputation of the FMSF, making the organisation seemingly guilty by association.

This controversy led to Underwager stepping down from the board of the FMSF. He found his reputation as an expert diminished, and he quietly ended his career.

He clarified his stance on sexual contact between an adult and child in his 1994 book ‘Return of the Furies’ – stating that such contact was “never acceptable nor can it ever be positive”. [3].

Legacy

Given the contentious nature of recovered memories, anyone in this field attracts a polarising response. One of the main issues is that it can never be ascertained if recovered memories are truthful.

But for those that were truly victims of false allegations, Underwager helped to save them from criminal punishment. Others may point to how many guilty people he saved from punishment.

Underwager will always be revered as one of the most anti-recovered memory scholars, and his legacy will undoubtedly continue. Underwager eventually passed away in 2003, aged 74.

Summary

While some of Underwager’s comments are seen as inappropriate, he will be remembered for his efforts to help those who had been accused of heinous crimes.

Currently, recovered memories are not generally accepted as evidence in courts of law. Underwager’s VOCAL and FMSF groups have both folded in recent years, while Underwager himself passed away in 2003.

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References

[1]      Wakefield, H. & Underwager, R. (1992). Recovered memories of alleged sexual abuse: Lawsuits against parents. Behavioral Sciences & Law. 10 (4), p483-507.

[2]      Wakefield, H. & Underwager, R. (1991). Sexual abuse allegations in divorce and custody disputes. Behavioral Sciences & Law. 9 (4), p451-468.   

[3]      Underwager, R. & Wakefield, H (1994). Return of the furies: an investigation into recovered memory therapy. La Salle: Open Court Publishing Co.