The subject of recovered memory is one of the most debated and controversial areas in psychiatry.

The controversy revolves around whether or not a person is capable of truly “recovering” past traumatic memories that had supposedly been forgotten in the past.

Then, when a person does allegedly uncover these memories, are they to be believed, or should they be doubted? Clearly, there are huge implications on both sides.

Memory is a controversial topic


Those that do allegedly recover memories often do so in therapy. In many cases, these have resulted in accusations of serious crimes like sexual assault, murder, or satanic ritual abuse.

Legal action commonly follows, and there have been several high-profile cases involving instances of recovered memory. Some people have been imprisoned purely off of a recovered memory – without any evidence.

The notion of recovered memories can result in miscarriages of justice – sometimes an innocent person will be falsely accused of abuse, or a victim of abuse may not be believed.

There are arguments to both sides of this argument, as we present in this article.

Arguments suggesting recovered memories CANNOT be trusted

Humans do appear to be vulnerable to false memories being created. As a human’s memory is very suggestible, certain techniques seem to be capable of manipulating it.

Hypnosis is an example of a well-known technique associated with false memories, while so-called “truth serums” have been used in warfare in the past as a way of finding out the truth from an opposition soldier.

When a human develops a memory, they understandably have no reason to doubt its existence. A lot of research has gone into techniques that could feasibly lead to mind control.

One widescale study that was carried out by esteemed psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus, her student Jim Coan and Jacqueline E. Pickrell, found that around 25% of 24 people undertaking an experiment developed a “memory” for an event that was fictional [1].

Known as the “Lost in the mall” study, techniques used by the authors left some subjects with a false memory – showing the supposed ease of which one can achieve this.

It should be noted that the methodology employed in this study has been criticised by many. A 2019 critique suggested the methodology was flawed in many ways, and that crucial information like the experience of those conducting the test, the specific recalled events of candidates and a lack of detail on how people were recruited were all omitted from the published results [2].

Because of the nature of traumatic events from the past – typically abusive in their nature, false memories can cause problems for people who were innocent.

There have been many cases where people were imprisoned due to recovered memories that turned out to be false or fabricated. The authors of a 1996 article into uncovered memories suggested that proponents of repressed memories like Sigmund Freud had “seriously underestimated the impact of suggestion on memory and belief” [3].

Several high-profile cases exist, including the case of Peter Freyd, which is mentioned in further detail later. While the Freyd case is open to speculation, a case involving someone called Patricia Burgus seems to not have any doubt around it.

Burgus was a woman who became convinced that she had been sexually abused, and abused others while partaking in a satanic cult – all due to memories supposedly uncovered in therapy. She was eventually awarded $10.6million in a landmark pay-out. Several other multimillion settlements have been reached.

In the United Kingdom, a woman named Katrina Fairlie won a substantial pay-out after having accused her father of sexual assault falsely, which was attributed to techniques used within therapy.

Other cases exist where medications like barbiturates have allegedly caused false memories – leading to further litigation. In a large article that reviewed different forms of therapies, researchers concluded that any therapy involving recovered memories probably “produce harm” in those that received it [4].

In the modern era, any therapy that involves recovering memories is generally frowned upon. Memories that have been recovered in therapy are generally inadmissible in court in the modern era.

Arguments suggesting recovered memories CAN be trusted

Yet on the other side, there is also positive evidence towards recovered memories. It is generally believed that 10% of victims of abuse forget the abuse [5].

It is feasible that traumatic memories can be recovered in time. Further research had put the figure as high as 25%, of which just 2% recovered these memories through therapy [6].

Michael Salter, a respected academic who has been a fierce defender of the authenticity of false memories, has contributed a lot to the argument. Salter has suggested that around one third of sexual abuse victims will experience either partial or full amnesia after their abuse [7].

Moreover, Salter has conducted numerous studies into the subject which led to his assertion. He stated that as many alleged abusers are camouflaged through legitimate roles (e.g. parents, teachers, relatives), they can get away with abuse easier.

Those that suggest false memories can be induced by a therapist point to the high retraction rate, where a person later retracts their allegations. Proponents of the factual nature of recovered memories suggest that these “victims” may be pressured to do so, rather than doing so out of their personal beliefs.

Another point that is worth mentioning is that many suggest memory is something that can come in snippets – not always at once. Over time, these snippets may be pieced together by someone, in the way that a jigsaw is. It is possible that this final piece of the jigsaw is found during therapy, and that timings are merely coincidental, or exactly due to therapy being able to provide a missing link.

Due to the nature of the controversy surrounding memory, it may feasibly have led to acquittals of individuals who had committed abuse that was correctly recovered from the victim’s memory. Therefore, the controversy isn’t limited to just the innocent being labelled as guilty, the guilty may sometimes escape punishment. This can be seen as an enormous miscarriage of justice. 

Some professionals have gone as far as to state that in a court setting, that repressed or recovered memories should be held in the same esteem as regular memories [8].


There will always be questions posed regarding the authenticity of any recovered memories. Those who are proponents of recovered memories being truthful suggest rejecting such memories contribute to a culture of victim-blaming.

On the other hand, it has been suggested that recovered memories put an innocent individual at risk. It is a topic that has caused significant debate throughout psychiatry, and will continue to do so.



This website should be used purely for informational purposes, and does not intend to, nor should it ever, be used as a replacement for professional medical advice.

We strive to keep all of our pages updated, and ensure that our website is full of factual and in-depth information. However, we encourage you to browse this website with care.

As a reminder, this website and all content within it cannot and should not replace the advice of a trained medical professional. You can read our full disclaimer at this link.


If you are struggling with your mental health, help is available. With the right support and treatment, you can make a recovery. For information on helplines, or if you are in a state of crisis, please visit our crisis page by clicking on the relevant link for your geographical location (United Kingdom), (United States), (International). You can also see how to get mental health treatment and the process involved by clicking this link.


[1]          Loftus, E., Coan, J. & Pickrell, J. (1996). Manufacturing False Memories Using Bits of Reality. In: Reders, L Implicit Memory and Metacognition. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p195-221.

[2]        Blizard, R. & Shaw, M. (2019). Lost-in-the-Mall: False Memory or False Defense?. Journal of Child Custidy. 16 (1), p20-41.

[3]          Bowers, K. & Farvolden, P. (1996). Revisiting a century-old Freudian slip–From suggestion disavowed to the truth repressed. Psychological Bulletin. 119 (3), p355-380.

[4]          Lilienfeld, S. (2007). Psychological Treatments That Cause Harm. Perspectives on Psychological Sciences. 2 (1), p53-70.     

[5]      Widom, C. & Shepard, R. (1996). Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood victimization: Part 1. Childhood physical abuse. Psychological Assessment. 8 (4), p412-421.

[6]          Wilsnack, S., Wonderlich, S., Kristjanson, A., Vogeltanz-Holm, N. & Wilsnack, R. (2002). Self-reports of forgetting and remembering childhood sexual abuse in a nationally representative sample of US women. Child Abuse & Neglect. 26 (2), p139-147.

[7]        Salter, M. (2017). Organized Abuse in Adulthood: Survivor and Professional Perspectivs. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. 18 (3), p441-453.

[8]        Scheflin, A. (1999). Ground Lost: The False Memory/Recovered Memory Therapy Debate. Psychiatric Times. 16 (11).