From Skeptic vol. 2, no. 3, 1994, pp. 58-61.
The following article is copyright © 1994 by the Skeptics Society,
P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission
has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this
article in its entirety, including this notice.
RECOVERED MEMORY THERAPY AND FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME
By John Hochman, M.D.
Thousands of patients (mostly women) in the United States have undergone
or are undergoing attempted treatment by psychotherapists for a non-
existent memory disorder. As a result, these same therapists have
unwittingly promoted the development of a real memory disorder: False
Memory Syndrome. To make sense of this unfortunate situation, I need to
offer a few definitions.
Some psychotherapists believe that childhood sexual abuse is the
specific cause of numerous physical and mental ills later in life. Some
term this Incest Survivor Syndrome (ISS). There is no firm evidence
that this is the case, since even where there has been documented sexual
abuse during childhood, there are numerous other factors that can
explain physical or emotional complaints that appear years later in an
These therapists believe that the children immediately repress all
memory of sexual abuse shortly after it occurs, causing it to vanish
from recollection without a trace. The price for having repressed
memories is said to be the eventual development of ISS.
Therapists attempt to "cure" ISS by engaging patients in recovered
memory therapy (RMT), a hodge-podge of techniques varying with each
therapist. The purpose of RMT is to enable the patient to recover into
consciousness not only wholly accurate recollections of ancient sexual
traumas, but also repressed body memories (such as physical pains)
that occurred at the time of the traumas.
In actuality, RMT produces disturbing fantasies which are
misperceived by the patient and misinterpreted by the therapist as
memories. Mislabeled by the therapist and patient as recovered
memories, they are actually false memories.
The vast majority of false memory cases developing from RMT are in
women, which is why this article assumes patients to be female.
Initiation of Patients into RMT
A woman consults a psychotherapist for relief of various emotional
complaints. The therapist informs her that she may have been molested as
a child and does not know it, and this could explain her symptoms. Some
patients think this idea is absurd and go to another therapist; others
accept the therapist's suggestions and stay on. More than a few women
have heard about repressed memories from talk shows or tabloids even
prior to coming to the therapists office, and may even make the
appointment believing they too could be "victims."
Though the patient has no memories of abuse, she becomes motivated
for "memory recovery" since she is told this will cure her symptoms. The
therapist will offer encouragement that "memories" will return.
Suggestive dreams or new pains are interpreted by the therapist as proof
that repressed memories are lurking.
The therapist may refer the patient to a "survivor recovery group."
There she will meet women who further encourage her to keep trying to
remember. Attendance at these support groups, as well as assigned
reading in self-help books, surrounds the patient with validation for
the therapist's theories.
The vast majority of women with FMS are white, middle class, and
above average in education. This corresponds to the profile of a typical
woman who enters long term psychotherapy, and who perceives such
activity as an important way to solve life's problems.
Generating False Memories
Unlike courts of law which obtain objective evidence where allegations
of evil-doing are made, RMT solely directs the patient to attend toward
her inner world for "proof" she was sexually abused. Such RMT techniques
- Meditation on fantasy production, such as pictures drawn in "art
therapy," dreams, or stream of consciousness journal writing.
- Hearing or reading about the "recovered memories" of other women
which can serve as inspirations.
- Amytal interviews ("truth serum") and/or hypnosis (including "age
regression" where the patient is told she is temporarily being
transformed into the way she was when she was five years old).
- Telling the patient to review family albums; if she looks sad in
some of her childhood photos, she is told this is further confirmation
that abuse occurred.
The Dark Side of "Recovery"
Patients start out RMT with the hope that things will be better once
they recover their repressed memories. But usually life becomes far more
The FMS patient will often become estranged from the "perpetrator"
(most often her father). If the patient has small children, they will be
off limits to "perpetrators" as well. Relationships with other family
members becomes contingent on their not challenging the patient's
Therapists may urge parents to come for a "family conference" in
order to allow the patient to surprise the "perpetrator" with a
rehearsed confrontation. Family members are usually too shocked and
disorganized to coherently respond to accusations. The rationale for
this scenario is that since "survivors" feel powerless, they need
FMS patients may file belated crime reports with local law
enforcement agencies and may go on to sue "perpetrators." Such lawsuits
demand compensation for bills from psychotherapists and possibly other
doctors who treated adult medical problems that therapists somehow link
to childhood traumas. Of course, there may be demands for "punitive
damages." Spouses of "perpetrators" (usually the patient's mother) may
be sued as well for being negligent, thus making householder's insurance
into a courtroom piggy bank. Since FMS patients sincerely believe they
have been victimized, more than a few juries have given verdicts
sympathetic to them.
Preoccupied with the continuing chores of "memory recovery," the FMS
patient may come to ignore more pressing problems with her marriage,
family, schooling, or career. Often the time demands and expense of the
therapy itself become a major life disruption.
Some patients during the course of RMT develop "multiple personality
disorder" (MPD). RMT therapists have claimed that they need to not only
recover repressed memories, but also to uncover repressed personality
fragments; some women come to believe they are repositories of dozens of
hidden personalities ("alters"). "Alters" have their own names and
characteristics, and may identify themselves as men or even animals. An
increasing number of psychiatrists and psychologists are coming to view
MPD as a product of environmental suggestion and reinforcement, since
the diagnosis was hardly made prior to ten years ago. One area where
there is no controversy: once MPD is diagnosed, therapy bills become
Some FMS patients become convinced that their abuse was actually
"satanic ritual abuse" (SRA), due to participation by relatives in a
secret satanic cult. Some therapists believe SRA is the work of a vast
underground cult network in these United States. No evidence beyond
"recovered memories" has ever been offered as proof that satanic cults
exist at this claimed level of frequency. Therapists who lecture on the
topic have explained away the lack of evidence that such cults exist by
claiming that no defectors speak out due to iron-clad secrecy via
brainwashing and terror.
The Care and Maintenance of False Memories
FMS involves a combination of mistaken perceptions and false beliefs.
The fledgling FMS patient is encouraged to "connect" with an environment
that will reinforce the FMS state, and is encouraged to "disconnect"
from people or information that might lead her to question the results
The FMS subculture is victim-oriented. Even though they have not
undergone anticancer chemotherapy or walked away from airplane crashes,
FMS patients are told they too are "survivors." This becomes a kind of
new identity, giving FMS patients the feeling of a strong bond with
other "survivors" of abuse. Patients will often start attending
"survivor" support groups, subscribe to "survivor" newsletters, or even
attend "survivor" conventions (sometimes with their therapists).
They will read books found in "recovery" sections of bookstores. The
best known book, The Courage to Heal, is weighty, literate, and thus
appears authoritative. Authors Laura Davis and Ellen Bass have no formal
training in psychology, psychiatry, or memory. This paperback, modestly
priced at $20, has sold over 700,000 copies.
Patients are told to shy away from dialogue with skeptical friends or
relatives, since this will hinder their "recovery." "Perpetrators" who
proclaim their innocence cannot be taken seriously since they are "in
denial" and incapable of telling the truth.
Aside from these social influences, people by nature often resist
seeing themselves as being in error. It can be terribly painful to
acknowledge having made a big mistake, particularly when harmful
consequences have resulted.
RMT exploits the tendency within each of us to blame others for our
problems, and to latch onto simple answers for life's complicated
problems. RMT therapists suggest that aside from entirely ruining
childhoods, childhood sexual abuse can explain anything and everything
that goes wrong during adulthood. RMT becomes the ultimate crybaby
How Memory Really Works
In Freud's theory of "repression" the mind automatically banishes
traumatic events from memory to prevent overwhelming anxiety. Freud
further theorized that repressed memories cause "neurosis," which could
be cured if the memories were made conscious. While all this is taught
in introductory psychology courses and has been taken by novelists and
screenwriters to be a truism, Freud's repression theory has never been
verified by rigorous scientific proof.
Freud, were he alive today, would be traumatized to see how RMT has
redefined his pet concept. While Freud talked of the repression of
single traumatic episodes, today's therapists maintain that dozens of
similar traumatic episodes occurring over years are repressed with 100%
The well known syndrome of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder shows us
that verifiable traumatic events, rather than disappearing from memory,
leave trauma victims haunted by intrusive memories in which the victim
relives the trauma. For those who were in Nazi concentration camps or
underwent torture as POWs in Vietnam, this can become a serious lifelong
People forget most of what occurs to them, including some events that
were pleasant or significant to them at the time. If an event is lost
from memory, there is no scientific way to prove whether it was
"repressed" or simply forgotten. And there is no reason that memories of
sexual abuse should be handled any differently than childhood memories
of physical abuse or of emergency surgery.
Events that have slipped away from memory cannot be recalled with the
accuracy of a videotape. Individuals forget not only insignificant
events in their entirety, but also significant events. Some events
(traumatic or not) are recalled, but with significant details altered.
A study of children whose school was attacked by a sniper showed that
some who were not on the school grounds later insisted they had personal
recollections of being in school during the attack. These false memories
apparently were inspired by exposure to the stories of those who truly
experienced the trauma.
Memories can be deliberately distorted in adults by presenting a
display of visual information, and later exposing subjects to verbal
disinformation about what they saw. This disinformation often becomes
incorporated into memory, contaminating the ultimate memories that are
To be sure, some who enter therapy were abused as children, but they
have always remembered this abuse. They do not need special help in
"memory recovery" to tell the therapist what happened to them.
Why Recovered Memory Therapy is Bad Therapy
RMT purportedly is undertaken to help patients recover from the effects
of sexual abuse from childhood; however, at the onset of RMT there is no
evidence that such abuse ever occurred. Thus, instead of a therapist
having some evidence for a diagnosis and then adopting a proper
treatment plan, RMT therapists use the "treatment" to produce their
Some RMT therapists over-attribute common psychological complaints as
signs of forgotten childhood sexual abuse. In their zeal to find
memories, these therapists overlook any and all alternative explanations
for the patient's complaints.
RMT therapists ignore basic psychological principles that all
individuals are suggestible, and that patients in distress seeking
psychotherapy are particularly likely to adopt beliefs and biases of
Many RMT therapists have studied neither basic sciences related to
memory, nor the diagnosis of actual diseases of memory. Their knowledge
is often based on a single weekend seminar, as opposed to years of
formal training in any graduate program they attended to get their
Hypnosis and sodium amytal administration ("truth serum") are
unacceptable procedures for memory recovery. Courts reject hypnosis as a
memory aid. Subjects receiving hypnosis or amytal as general memory aids
(even in instances where there is no question of sexual abuse) will
often generate false memories. Upon returning to their normal state of
consciousness, subjects assume all their refreshed "memories" are
RMT therapists generally make no attempt to verify "recovered
memories" by interviewing third parties, or obtaining pediatric or
school records. Some have explained that they do not verify the serious
allegations that arise from RMT because their job is simply to help the
patient feel "safe" and "recover."
Many patients who have known all their lives that they were
mistreated or neglected by their parents, decide as adults to be friends
with the offending parents. By contrast, RMT therapists encourage their
patients, on the basis of "recovered memories," to break off
relationships with the alleged "perpetrators" as well as other relatives
who disagree with the patient's views. This is completely at odds with
the traditional goals of therapists: to allow competent patients to make
their own important decisions, and to improve their patient's
relationships with others.
Patients undergoing RMT often undergo an increase of symptoms as
their treatment progresses, with corresponding disruption in their
personal lives. Few therapists will seek consultation in order to
clarify the problem, assuming instead that it is due to sexual abuse
having been worse than anyone might have imagined.
Other Kinds of FMS
Some individuals come to believe that they lived "past lives" as a
result of having undergone "past life therapy." This phenomenon
generally develops in participants who are grounded in the New Age
zeitgeist and already open to "discovering" their past lives. They
enroll in seminars which can run up to an entire weekend and will
involve some measure of group hypnotic induction and guided meditations.
This sort of FMS also involves continuing group reinforcement. In
contrast to horrific images of sexual abuse, recollections of "past
lives" are generally pleasant and interesting. Few participants will
recall spending prior lives in lunatic asylums or dungeons. The whole
experience is assumed to be therapeutic by helping participants better
understand the situation of their present lives.
A small number of individuals develop "recovered memories" of being
abducted by aliens from outer space. Almost always these individuals had
some curiosity about this area and were hardly skeptics before they fell
into an alien abduction FMS.
In contrast to women who are plagued with concerns that they were
sexually abused, these varieties of FMS are of a much more benign nature
and do not disrupt personal functioning or family life. While some of
these individuals suffer the ignominy of being perceived as "kooks,"
they may receive compensating group support from those who share their
A Word About the Future
Increasing numbers of women who claimed to have recovered memories of
sexual abuse have retracted their claims and now see themselves as
having had FMS. This may spontaneously occur when women relocate to
another locale and lose contact with their prior therapists and support
group. Without the "positive reinforcement" from others to encourage
false memory development and maintenance, some women begin to doubt the
veracity of what they had believed was true. While some remain suspended
in a twilight of doubt, others have fully recanted.
These retractors may have a profound influence on getting women with
an active FMS to re-evaluate their situation. While FMS patients learn
from the FMS culture to dismiss critics as either "perpetrators" or
their apologists, the voice of a woman who says she is recovering from
FMS is more easily heard.
Although most influential among family counselors and social workers,
RMT affected the practices of some licensed psychologists and
psychiatrists, some of whom were practicing in special "dissociative
disorders units" in psychiatric hospitals. These activities have gone on
with little challenge, until recently.
The number of women with FMS who have become retractors is
increasing. Some have sued their former therapists for malpractice (see
Laura Pasley's story in this issue of Skeptic), and others are
weighing the possibilities of doing so. One malpractice insurance
carrier for clinical psychologists in California recently tripled its
rates without explanation; this has led to speculation that the carrier
is anticipating increasing numbers of lawsuits alleging that
psychologists caused FMS.
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation, formed in 1991, has been
contacted by over 7,000 families in the U.S. and Canada who believe
their grown children have FMS, and these families let their views be
known to state licensing boards and professional organizations. Managed
care administrators are starting to question megabills submitted by RMT
therapists, some of whom see their patients through lengthy psychiatric
hospitalizations. Understandably, all of this has gained the attention
of the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological
Association, who are setting up task forces to try to examine the whole
Meanwhile, there is a large FMS subculture consisting of women
convinced that their "recovered memories" are accurate, therapists
keeping busy doing RMT, and of authors on the "recovery" lecture and
talk show circuits. In addition, there are some vocal fringes of the
feminist movement that cherish RMT since it is "proof" that men are
dangerous and rotten, unless proven otherwise. Skeptical challenges to
RMT are met by emotional rejoinders that critics are front groups for
perpetrators, and make the ridiculous analogy that "some people even say
the Holocaust did not happen."
RMT will eventually disappear, but not next month.