The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was an organisation set up in 1992 to raise awareness of the dangers of recovered memories, provide advocacy for those accused of abuse through recovered memories, and sponsor research into the state of mind.

The subject of recovered memory is one of the most controversial topics in psychiatry, and has caused fervent debate for years.

Given its position at the forefront of the anti-recovered memory movement, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has also proven controversial.

However, to many, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has been a crucial organisation that has supported those placed in traumatic situations through recovered false memories. There are certainly distinct stances.

The mind is complex, as is the topic of false memory

About False Memory Syndrome

The term False Memory Syndrome (FMS) describes the alleged state of mind where a person has been affected by false memories; these are past recollections that the person strongly believes happened, yet they are incorrect.

When this happens, a person may encounter conflict with their alleged abuser. This can cause problems if the accused is an innocent party.

Yet in cases where recovered memories are factual, the victim may not be believed, causing widescale problems for them.

The name of this state of mind – focused on an anti-memory recovery stance – is attributed to the organisation’s name.

FMS isn’t considered to be a psychiatric condition in its own right. It can be considered to be a symptom of some form of Dissociative Disorder, or Delusional Disorder.

Several therapies can be used to try and uncover past memories. A therapist may employ certain techniques or methods to try and get a patient to recall certain memories.

The reliability of uncovered memories however is subject to considerable debate. Studies have mixed results over the validity of recovered memories, and both sides of the argument provide compelling arguments supporting their notion.

How did the False Memory Syndrome Foundation begin?

The foundation itself was set up by Peter and Pamela Freyd – two people whose daughter accused her father (Peter) of sexually abusing her throughout her teenage years.

Peter vehemently denied the accusation. His daughter – Jennifer – had been in therapy for anxiety, when she allegedly recovered memories which included past sexual abuse.

Jennifer was receiving therapy due to extreme anxiety over an upcoming visit from her parents. It was during this therapy that she allegedly uncovered past memories that suggested she was sexually abused by her father.

Pamela published a journal article in 1991 that laid out her account of the accusations. She originally published it anonymously [1].

The Freyd’s set up the foundation with encouragement from two therapists who had interest and some insight into recovered memories.

They were Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager. There was a mutual feeling of potential danger between various parties over recovered memories, and concern regarding rogue techniques being used to elicit such supposed memories.

Over the years, thousands of people joined, including psychiatric professionals and others who had denied accusations levelled at them emanating from recovered memories.

Pamela Freyd’s Account

Pamela stated that at the age of 33, Jennifer allegedly discovered that she had been sexually abused over a period of 13 years by her father.

On December 21st 1990, Pamela and her husband Peter visited Jennifer’s family for the holiday season, as they had done on six previous occasions. In the weeks before their visit, Jennifer had been happily communicating with her parents.

On the night of their arrival however, their lives all changed forever. After a normal evening spent with Jennifer and her partner, Pamela and Peter slept.

During the night, Pamela awoke to see Jennifer helping her father out, who appeared to be feeling unwell. Pamela fell back asleep after Jennifer said that she was taking Peter to see a Doctor.

Yet a few hours later, Pamela received a phone call from Jennifer’s husband, which revealed that Jennifer had lied, and that she wasn’t at the Doctors. Instead, they had gone to friends, while leaving Peter.

In the phone call, Jennifer’s husband stated that they wanted them to leave their house and fly home. They had made reservations for a certain plane, and a taxi to take them to the airport. The husband indicated that Jennifer had remembered that she was abused by Peter when she was younger.

Pamela stated that she and Peter felt anxiety, shame and confusion. Peter denied Jennifer’s accusations. Pamela kept in contact through e-mail with Jennifer, but was unable to contact her grandsons.

Pamela said that the most ‘haunting’ question was ‘how could this have happened?’ Peter later started correspondence with Jennifer.

Pamela questioned the methods of the therapist, who was young and therefore inexperienced – and had originally urged Jennifer to not allow her family to visit her over the holiday period.

The therapist had introduced the idea of incest before Jennifer had mentioned it, and had hypnotised Jennifer.

Pamela criticised the use of hypnotherapy, and also suggested the sudden change in Jennifer’s behaviour could be attributed to a mental breakdown. Moreover, it was also suggested that Jennifer’s drug use in her younger years may have played a role. Jennifer denied ever undergoing hypnosis.

She also noted that the accused are assumed to be guilty in cases like this, with there seemingly being little reason for Jennifer to lie.

Pamela and Peter went to therapy over the event, where their therapist found that similar cases like this were becoming commonplace, and that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that a 16-year old would repress the memories alleged by Jennifer. A lie detector test backed up Peter’s innocence.

Peter’s defence was further backed by Jennifer’s sister, who had lived in the room next to Jennifer – stating she did not recall any episode of abuse. But the sister did state that ‘in her experience, people don’t make up stories like that’. Pamela recalled how her feelings of despair caused suicidal ideation.

Pamela researched recovered memories, therapy techniques and other relevant areas heavily. She suggested that Jennifer’s feelings may have been caused by her alleged difficulty of stopping to nurse her child, or guilt associated with moving her family to a new area, despite her husband’s wishes.

The Freyd family in happier times

Jennifer’s Rebuttal

Jennifer refused to ever back down on her memories. Her allegations were backed up by her uncle – who supported her throughout.

In response to Pamela’s account of the event, Jennifer suggested that the account was riddled with inaccuracies, and was not a worthy representation of what actually happened.

She didn’t ever seek legal action against her father, but it is believed they didn’t communicate extensively following the allegations.

Jennifer later stated that she was ‘flabbergasted’ that her memory was considered false, and that her father, whom she described as an ‘alcoholic’, had his argument considered ‘rational and sane.’

Ralph Underwager

One of the original founders of the foundation was American psychologist Ralph Underwager, who had a long history of supporting parents who had been accused of abuse, including founding a group which represented parents who’d had their children taken away due to abuse allegations.

But Underwager’s involvement caused significant controversy when in 1993, an interview Underwager had given in 1991 came to light. In the interview, some of the comments from Underwager were inferred as being supportive of paedophilia.

However, upon review, it can be suggested that Underwager’s comments were isolated from a longer explanation which was focused on prevention programs for possible abusers.

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.

Nevertheless, Underwager resigned from the advisory board following this incident, and he saw his reputation as an expert in defending those accused of abuse was heavily damaged.

In his 1994 book ‘Return of the Furies’, Underwager clearly asserted that sexual contact between an adult and a child was indeed harmful [2]. He later passed away in 2003.

Controversy

The FMSF grew quickly, and despite being a rather small organisation, became very well-known internationally, and attracted significant media coverage. They have attracted controversy, in what is without doubt a contentious area of psychiatry.

The FMSF have faced accusations of adopting a victim-blaming stance towards allegations of sexual abuse. There have been cases where a person has accurately recalled past traumas.

But by putting so much emphasis on the inaccuracy of recovered memories, it has been suggested the FMSF have made it more difficult for victims to have their memories acknowledged medically.

Essentially, there are suggestions that the narrative is now to not trust survivors of alleged abuse, rather than trust them. Accusations of the FMSF supposedly ‘manipulating’ the press has helped to achieve this, critics suggest.

Others suggest the foundation engage in harassment of journalists who have written unflattering articles about the foundation. 

As well as the controversy involving Underwager, Elizabeth Loftus – an esteemed psychiatrist and an advisor to the FMSF – also attracted controversy.

Loftus has acted as a defence expert in many cases involving recovered memories, with her research finding that recovered memories were not reliable, and that false memories can easily be induced using certain techniques [3].

She has appeared in many high-profile cases, testifying on behalf of people including OJ Simpson, Ted Bundy and Michael Jackson. Her robust stance against recovered memories have led to criticism for supposed victim-blaming.

Many people have gone on record, especially in the age of social media – to talk about how the FMSF ‘ruined their life’. Some suggest that the truth had been undermined due to the FMSF, and perpetrators protected. Other quotes seen include suggesting the organisation did ‘untold damage to survivors of sexual abuse’.

Moreover, the FMSF have been accused of failing to deal with an ongoing conflict of interests. They label themselves as a scientific organisation, but deal with only one side of the story, and sponsor efforts to prove their arguments, without considering the alternative argument.

Impact

The FMSF have certainly had an impact in psychology, and have influenced many cases of uncovered memories.

A study carried out found that prior to the group being setup, media coverage seemingly took recovered memory cases as being true, regardless of the methods employed.

But a few years later, there was considerable coverage allotted to false accusations – many of which involved recovered memories. The FMSF are largely seen as causing this change.

What happened to the Freyd’s?

Peter and Pamela Freyd had at the time of the incident already had prolific academic careers. The duo would go on to continue their studies, and both are held in high esteem in academic circles.

Jennifer Freyd has devoted much of her life since to working and researching sexual abuse and memory. She has become a distinguished academic in her own right, and has championed the rights of those being accused by abusers of fabricating their story.

Summary

There is simply no knowing the truth in this case. In the majority of cases, it is a case of choosing who to believe. Recovered memories are a highly-charged subject, and continue to be debated about.

As this case has showed, the debate can never definitively be answered one way or the other. The False Memory Syndrome closed in 2019.

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References

[1]          Freyd, P. (1991). How Could This Happen? Coping with A False Accusation of Incest and Rape. Institute for Psychological Therapies. 3 (3).

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

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