The Freyd family will go down in history as playing a part in one of the most controversial psychiatric cases, which involve allegations of abuse. However, others argue it is a case of false memory.

The subject of recovered memory is a very contentious topic in psychiatry. One of the best known cases involve the Freyd family.

This case also resulted in the creation of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation – which is an organisation set up to oppose the notion of false memory.

The topic recovered memory is very controversial in psychiatry

Background

Recovered Memory is a controversial topic in psychiatry. It is a term used to describe the situation where a person recalls a memory that they had previously forgotten, normally in a talking therapy session.

Those that are against the idea of recovered memory suggest the existence of False Memory Syndrome (FMS). This describes an 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.

There are two distinct viewpoints on recovered memory. For many, recovered memories are a real possibility. Moreover, FMS isn’t a psychiatric condition. Many argue those who rally against uncovered memories are victim-blaming.

But others argue that recovering past memories is not possible, and that it results in lives being ruined, and crime against innocent people.

The Case of the Freyd Family: Recovered memory

Jennifer Freyd was in her 30’s, when she was receiving talking therapy for Anxiety. Jennifer was said to be feeling extreme anxiety due to an upcoming holiday visit from her parents.

During these sessions, Jennifer allegedly recovered memories of past sexual abuse from her father – Peter Freyd – over a period of 13 years. This would rock the family to the core.

In December 1990, Peter and his husband Pamela – the mother of Jennifer – visited Jennifer for the Christmas season. On the night of their arrival, Pamela and Peter slept as normal.

During the night, Pamela awoke to see Jennifer helping her father, who appeared to be feeling unwell. Jennifer said she was taking Peter to see a doctor, resulting in Pamela falling back asleep.

However, this was not the case. A few hours later, Pamela received a phone call from Jennifer’s husband John Quincy Johnson III, who said Peter had been left, and Jennifer and himself had gone to a friend’s house.

In the phone call, Jennifer’s husband said that they wanted both Pamela and Peter to leave the home. They had booked them a taxi and subsequent plane ticket. On the call, Jennifer’s husband said that she had remembered being abused by Peter when she was growing up.

Reactions to the allegations

Peter strongly refuted the allegations. Pamela found out some details about the therapy session, and found that Jennifer had allegedly been the recipient of Hypnotherapy – although Jennifer has always denied this.

Pamela believed that Pamela had suffered a mental breakdown, and had been hypnotised into creating a false memory. The therapist was young and inexperienced.

Pamela’s research into recovered memories led to her suggesting that Jennifer’s feelings may have been down to other issues in her life. She mentioned Jennifer’s past use of drugs and issues with her husband. She published a journal article in 1991 where she laid out her account of what happened [1].

Jennifer’s sister had mixed feelings. She said that having lived in the room next to Jennifer, she had not seen nor heard any episode of abuse. However, she did say that she found it unusual for Jennifer to make something like this up.

Despite her family questioning her account, Jennifer maintained that her recovered memory was accurate. Her uncle also backed up her allegations.

Jennifer did not seek legal action against her father. She also called Peter an “alcoholic”. Peter maintained his innocence throughout, and passed a lie detector test.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation

Following the event, Peter and Pamela Freyd started the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. This was an organisation dedicated to discrediting the idea of recovered memory – instead suggesting they were false memories.

The foundation was set up by the Freyd’s, alongside two therapists with extensive research into recovered memories. These were Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield. Later, esteemed psychiatrist Elizabeth Loftus, acted as an advisor.

Over a few decades, thousands of people joined the organisation, including many others that had been at the centre of alleged accusations.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation has proven to be a controversial organisation. For some, they are responsible for victim blaming. For others, they see it as helping innocent people in the wake of incorrect and harmful allegations.

The logo of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation

What happened next?

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation continued to operate for many years. As mentioned, the foundation proved controversial throughout its existence. It closed in 2019.

Peter and Pamela Freyd had originally worked in academia. They continued to work in this sector, with Peter always denying the allegations. Pamela conducted plenty of research into the topic of recovered memory.

Jennifer Freyd has become an academic in her own right. Her research focus has included trauma and memory. She has been praised in some circles for her contributions to psychiatry.

Jennifer also developed the theory of the DARVO strategy, which suggests that an abuser will often Deny any abuse ever happened, Attack the victim, and attempt to say they are the true victim, thereby Reversing the Victim and Offender.

Summary

The case of the Freyd family is difficult to analyse. The whole truth is not known, and will surely never be known. Both parties are steadfast in their belief of what truly happened.

This forms the core issue of the recovered memory debate. In the absence of any real proof, there is simply no telling who is being truthful.

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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).