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MindNet Journal - Vol. 1, No. 56a * [Part 1 of 2 parts]
V E R I C O M M / MindNet "Quid veritas est?"
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Editor: Mike Coyle
Assistant Editor: Rick Lawler
Research: Darrell Bross
A REPLY TO THE FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME FOUNDATION
By John Backus and Barbara Stannard
(c) Copyright 1993 by John Backus, Sc.D., and Barbara Stannard,
Ph.D. This article may be reproduced in its entirety or in part
for no-profit distribution provided this copyright notice is
reproduced with it. Written permission is required for all other
uses of this article; please contact the authors at (415)
Recently newspapers, magazine articles and TV have been
publicizing the work of an organization called the "False Memory
Syndrome Foundation" (FMSF), which makes the following claims:
that many memories of incest recovered by adults are "false
memories" implanted or suggested by therapists, that getting
these memories is just a current fad, and that the "false
memory syndrome," to quote the FMSF, destroys "the psychological
well-being not only of the primary victim but--through false
accusations of incest and sexual abuse--other members of the
primary victim's family."
Here are some answers to the FMSF's claims:
I. A few basic observations.
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
1. Much of the energy and money supporting the False Memory
Syndrome Foundation comes from people who maintain they have been
falsely accused of molesting children. The FMSF founders are
Peter Freyd and his wife Pamela, whose daughter has accused Peter
of molesting her as a child. A member of the FMSF Advisory
Board who appears to have been an active partner in forming the
FMSF is the psychologist Dr. Ralph Underwager. Dr. Underwager
is on record as a defender of pedophelia: he was interviewed
in _Paidika_, "The Journal of Paedophilia" (Winter 1993) as
follows. Question: Is choosing paedophilia for you a responsible
choice for the individual? Answer by Underwager: "Certainly it is
responsible." (p3). When asked how pedophiles might seek
decriminalization, Underwager replies: "...Paedophiles need to...
make the claim that paedophilia is an acceptable expression of
God's will for love and unity among human beings" (p12).
Underwager's wife, Hollida Wakefield, another FMSF board member
who took part in this interview, favors "...a longitudinal study
of, let's say, a hundred twelve-year-old boys in relationships
with loving paedophiles." (p12).
Much of the rest of FMSF support comes from old-line
psychiatrists who still agree with a now discredited theory of
Freud, the "drive theory," according to which children
instinctively want sex with their parents and therefore make up
fantasies about it actually happening. Because of that false
theory, for over half a century therapists believed their
patients were making up fantasies of abuse and were therefore
unable to help them. The FMSF is basically attempting to revive
the belief that memories of sexual abuse are "fantasies."
Science and the FMSF.
2. The FMSF wants us to believe that their claims about false
memories of incest are based on scientific research into the
mechanisms of memory. The evidence they use to build their case
actually represents just a few common sense facts about memory:
for example, that our memories are often mistaken about details
(we get sequences of events wrong, dates, colors, what age we
were, etc.). Persons remembering an accident often do get the
color of the car, or the number of people involved, wrong but
they are never wrong about the important facts: that there was an
accident or that someone was hurt.
The FMSF also wants us to believe that memories can be
implanted, and experiments have shown that suggestible people can
be tricked into falsely believing, let us say, that they got lost
in a shopping mall when they were children. But these implanted
memories deal with non-traumatic events that might normally have
From these simple experiments the FMSF falsely concludes: (a)
that a person's memories are likely to be wrong about crucial
events that had a serious impact on their lives and (b) that
someone can falsely suggest that a major traumatic event happened
to a person, who will then docilely produce detailed memories
There is no solid evidence that incest survivors are
mistaken about the major events they remember or that they have
generated their memories of abuse at the mere suggestion of a
therapist. While there may be a few cases to support the FMSF's
view, cases that involve unscrupulous therapists or unprincipled
or simple-minded clients, the preponderance of evidence (some of
which is given below) supports the fact that childhood sexual
abuse is common, that people often suppress the memory of it and
then recover its essential details as adults.
3. The very name "False Memory Syndrome" is a
pseudo-scientific sham, for "syndrome," defined by Webster's New
World Dictionary as "a number of symptoms occurring together and
characterizing a specific disease" suggests that "false memories"
are symptoms of a newly discovered "disease." But how can such a
disease have a scientific basis when the truth or falsity of
memories can rarely be proved?
The literature of the FMSF pretends to be unbiased and
based on science, but the low-level scientific work they cite
cannot support the theory that many memories about sexual abuse
are false. For how can the situation faced by incest victims be
reproduced in the laboratory? How does one scientifically
determine whether accuser or accused is telling the truth? A real
scientist is someone who searches for the truth, not someone who
decides in advance what is true and then tries to convince others
by whatever means he can find. If Science had been in the hands
of groups like the FMSF, it would have got nowhere.
Catching the "false memory syndrome."
4. The FMSF implies that you can catch the "false memory
syndrome" by the merest suggestion of a therapist or by reading a
book, and that once you've caught this "disease" you're likely to
make up false memories about childhood sexual abuse. The FMSF
offers no explanation of why people would make up memories so
painful that they themselves do not want to believe them. The
FMSF also does not ask why, if the memories are false, people get
better by remembering them. People are cured only by remembering
Furthermore, the FMSF does not consider that a fair number of
people always remembered their incest. (What they may not have
dealt with are the feelings--the rage, the grief--associated with
it.) The memories of those who have always remembered and those
who recovered their memories are in every way comparable.
Moreover, if you ask: "Who has the stronger motive for making
things up, the person who remembers being abused or the person
who is accused of the abuse?" the answer is clear.
Incest memories are not a fad, not implanted, not a witch
5. History shows that memories of incest are not just a
current fad, as some claim. The fact is that sexual and other
kinds of abuse have been going on throughout history. "The
history of childhood," said Lloyd de Mause in _The History Of
Childhood_ (1974), "is a nightmare from which we have only
recently begun to awaken." De Mause's carefully researched book
shows that sexual abuse, while tragically widespread today, was
even more common in the past.
6. Most incest survivors get at least some memories before
they see a therapist or even read about incest, therefore their
memories could not have been "implanted." Furthermore, brains
may be capable of lies and fantasies, but can bodies lie? Almost
everyone who has endured serious abuse has "body memories" in
which a recurring physical pain or sensation insists on reminding
them of some early abuse, a pain that continues until they
re-experience the abuse, whereupon it disappears. A false
memory could not have this effect.
7. Incest survivors' accusations of their abusers are compared
by the FMSF to the Salem Witch Trials. There are two crucial
differences which they ignore. First, a girl who accused someone
of being a witch got instant power and praise, whereas a person
who accuses a relative of past sexual abuse gets disbelief,
anger, anguish, and often separation from the family. Second,
sexual abuse is a proven fact, but it is clearly impossible to
prove that someone is a witch.
Evidence for the validity of incest memories.
8. There are probably a few thousand incest survivor self-help
groups around the world. Anyone who attended their meetings would
be struck by the intense pain, grief and anger that people suffer
when they remember what happened to them as children. These
feelings and memories become even more authentic when one sees
the beneficial changes that come about from remembering. When the
pain and grief are first felt people become dejected and often
dysfunctional, but gradually the pain subsides and one sees the
same people having more energy, self-confidence and
self-responsibility than they ever had and become capable of
better relationships. People also finally understand the origin
of their addictions (like drinking) and begin to cope with their
other psychological difficulties, difficulties they did not
understand before or thought were innate. It becomes utterly
clear that their intense emotions, their new self-knowledge and
the remarkable changes in their lives could not possibly be the
result of made-up fictions or implanted memories.
II. About denial and the motives of abusers.
The origins of denial.
9. Most people have repressed a lot of emotional pain they
suffered when they were children. If they were to believe that
incest survivors' memories are true, they would be at risk of
remembering their own lesser pain (for example, the pain of
having been rejected). The greater the repressed pain, the more
numb people become to the pain of others so as to avoid feeling
their own hidden wounds. Denial of childhood pain is so common
that even many therapists have not sufficiently dealt with their
own pain, which means that they are not open to the truth of
their clients' memories and therefore cannot help them. Such a
therapist, of course, cannot be a reliable judge of "false
memories". Denial of childhood pain is the chief force
behind the strong backlash against the incest survivor movement.
10. Society in general has a tendency to deny the existence
of horrendous acts of evil. The followers of FMSF, in denying
the reality of incest survivors' memories, are not unlike the
growing number of people who deny or minimize the reality of the
Holocaust, people like neo-Nazi David Duke, the president of
Croatia, and the Republican columnist Pat Buchanan, who assert,
for example, that only a few hundred thousand died in Nazi
Sexual abuse: the consequences of denial, the agony of recovery.
11. Consequences of denial: Dr. Richard Berendzen, the former
president of American University, had always known that his
mother had sexually abused him as a child. He thought he had
"handled" it. But in his fifties, not knowing why he was
compelled to do it, he began making obscene phone calls to women
he knew were mothers. Dr. Berendzen had always overworked, but
when his obsession hit him, he began working 120 hours a
Denial of the emotional pain of sexual abuse results in many
other kinds of life-defeating behaviors. For example, many
sexually abused children grow up to be as sexually obsessed as
their abusers. Some become prostitutes or in other ways are
easily sexually exploited. A minority become abusers themselves.
Because their self-esteem is so damaged, many adults who were
sexually abused in childhood cannot properly assert themselves
and use their talents. In order to run from the intense hidden
pain that lurks just below the surface, a great number of sexual
abuse victims become alcoholics, drug addicts, or workaholics.
The pain is so unbearable for many that they kill themselves.
Some suffer from dangerous bouts of rage, some from chronic
depression. Although a few have successful careers, they remain
numb and emotionally dead in large areas of their lives.
The agony of recovery: For those who face the pain of their
childhood sexual abuse, recovery often means years of working
through intense fear, grief and anger as they uncover their
memories and relive what happened to them. The process is so
difficult that some can barely function for a long time. One of
the worst pains suffered by survivors who remember their abuse is
exclusion by their family, who deny the truth of their memories.
The psychology of abusers: why they do it and why they cannot
12. At present, few people in our society understand that the
very abuse of children is a form of denial. Child abusers (who
are themselves victims of child abuse) usually do not remember
what happened to them. They repress the original abuse by means
of a psychological escape called fusion. When a child is
molested, the trauma is often so unbearable that instead of
remaining the helpless, hurt victim, the child merges with the
abuser and experiences his/her sexual thrills and delight in
power. Child abusers continue to handle the pain of the original
abuse in the same way. Whenever the pain begins to surface (and
it always does), abusers pass on the pain to another child,
turning the child into the victim they once were and themselves
into the powerful abuser. (It is important to note that only a
small percentage of people who were molested become child
abusers; most victims handle their pain in other ways.)
Instead of understanding the psychology of abusers, society
prefers to believe that abusers are examples of "original sin" or
"bad seeds." Society is therefore unable to deal with the causes
of abuse and is unable to prevent its continuation. (Child
molesters are let out of prison after short sentences because it
is not understood that they are unable to stop molesting children
unless they remember their own abuse and experience the pain of
13. The FMSF does not understand why most abusers are
compelled to deny what they did (beyond wanting to escape prison
and not wanting to face the shame of what they did). If an abuser
were simply to confess what he did, ant bald, plain facts would
remind him of the pain of his original abuse, whereas when he is
molesting a child, he is identified with his abuser and feels
only sexual arousal and power.
III. Rebuttal of the FMSF's claims.
The case of the family of Peter and Pamela Freyd, the founders
of the FMSF.
14. The FMSF presents itself as objective but it was founded
by Peter Freyd and his wife Pamela when Peter was accused by
their daughter of sexually molesting her. The daughter
Jennifer is a distinguished psychology professor who did not
recover memories of outright incest until 1990 when her mother
and father planned a visit. Jennifer became anxious. She did not
know why and consulted a therapist. On the second visit the
therapist asked her if she had been sexually abused as a child.
She said no, but them memories began to come up. She had always
remembered that her alcoholic father constantly talked about sex
when she was a child, sat in his robe with his genitals exposed,
and when she was nine or ten suggested she read Lolita. Even
when she was married her father continued his sexual behavior
toward her; he once threw a condom at her, and when she gave
him a modeling toy, he made a replica of his genitals which he
displayed in his living room. In 1990 she remembered he sexually
fondled her when she was three or four and raped her when she
was sixteen. When Jennifer tried to validate her memories with
her sister, her sister asked "Is that why you had all those
locks on your bedroom door?"
Jennifer Freyd recalls that her father used to discuss his
own sexual abuse, which occurred when he was eleven years old.
He did not call it abuse however; instead he believed he was
sexually precocious. He referred to himself as a "kept boy" and
said he later became a "male prostitute." (He later decided
to become heterosexual.)
Jennifer Freyd also provides convincing evidence that her
parents were untruthful in their efforts to damage her reputation
with her colleagues: Her mother wrote an anonymous article by
"Jane Doe" giving her version of the family story. She sent it to
Jennifer's colleagues and made it clear it was about Jennifer by
identifying herself as Jane Doe. It states that Jennifer was
denied tenure at a previous university because she had not
published enough. The fact is that Jennifer moved to the
University of Oregon as a tenured Associate Professor when her
previous university declined to match the tenure offer from
Oregon. Her mother sent the Jane Doe article to Jennifer's Oregon
colleagues during the year she was up for promotion to Professor.
Her father later admitted to her that "...fictional elements were
deliberately inserted...". Jennifer cites several other instances
of her parents' untruthfulness in using the FMSF to harass her.
The Freyds' claim that Jennifer's memories were "implanted"
seems ludicrous in light of Jennifer's story. How could the mere
question "were you sexually abused as a child?" have implanted
Jennifer's memories of what happened? She is very clear that even
when she wanted her therapist to help her have more memories, the
therapist was unable to do so.
In spite of the dysfunctional family history, in spite of
their untruthful efforts to damage their daughter's career and
reputation, and in spite of the fact that both their daughters
and Peter's older brother do not want to have anything to do with
them, Pamela and Peter Freyd nevertheless insist that theirs is a
loving family torn apart by inaccurate memories and false
Pamela Freyd must have seen the many locks on Jennifer's
bedroom door, she must have known about her husband's sexual
abuse as a child, his claim of sexual precocity and his
predilection for sexual talk with Jennifer and acting out in her
presence. If she were truly a loving mother how could she then
dismiss her daughter's memories so totally? Pamela Freyd's
attitude about her family is _denial_, which is why the FMSF
insists that families of accused abusers are "loving families"
who have lost a "loved" daughter through "inaccurate memories
and false accusations."
Pamela and Peter Freyd are clearly struggling, by every means
they can find, to impugn their daughter's very convincing
evidence that her father molested her as a child. And it appears
that they have created the FMSF as a means of doing so.
Very early memories are possible.
15. The FMSF claims there is general agreement that "most
people cannot remember anything that happened" before about two
years of age. However, there is a great amount of evidence
that most people remember a lot, even events before their birth,
when they are in various altered states of consciousness, such as
those induced by hypnosis, mediation, drugs such as LSD, or
certain breathing exercises. Memories occurring in this way show
that most of us have early memories and that we can retrieve
them. For example, the psychologist David Chamberlain studies 10
mother-child pairs in which the adult child consciously knew
nothing about the details of its birth; yet under hypnosis _all_
the children recalled many of those details. In the least
accurate case the child remembered seventeen details, such as:
instruments used, head or feet first, people present, etc.;
thirteen of these were confirmed independently by the mother,
four were incorrect. Another adult child remembered 24 birth
details with no contradiction with the mother's account. Two
daughters gave accurate descriptions of their mothers' hairstyles
when they were born.
The psychiatrist Stanislov Grof provides an example of an
independently verified pre-birth memory elicited under LSD when
it was legal. A respected Buddhist meditation teacher, Jack
Kornfield, reports that students who practice serious meditation
often have experiences like this: "...suddenly I was one year
old. I was back there with my spoon, banging on the table."
The FMSF's assertion that very early memories are virtually
non-existent is another example of its ignorance and its bias:
the FMSF seeks only to verify its beliefs; it ignores the volumes
of evidence that contradict its position.
Repressed memories are real.
16. The FMSF also implies that there is no such thing as
repressed memories. They cite Freud (without references)
claiming that he felt "impulse and desire are repressed--not
memories." But they ignore all the data about Vietnam vets, who
often repressed memories of traumatic battles, memories they had
to remember in order to get well. Many Holocaust survivors also
repressed memories of atrocities, which only surfaced later.
[Continued to part 2]
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