Psychiatrist and patient
A Dane County Circuit Court case concluded in January 2011 could be precedent-setting because the patient of the accused therapists is not a party to the suit and maintains that her memories of abuse are true.

In December I wrote a story about a case in Dane County Circuit Court in which the parents of a woman sued their daughter's therapists for psychotherapy treatment they said prompted false memories of sexual abuse by the father.

The case was being closely watched by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a group founded in 1992 to advocate for parents who were wrongly accused.

The case was not only being watched by the group, it was being publicized. A Wisconsin member of the foundation gave me a call to tip me off to the case, then put me in contact with executive director Pamela Freyd, who offered compelling quotes and easy research for a reporter trying to cobble together a quick and interesting story. It never occurred to me that I was dealing with a highly organized public relations machine until a victim and a sexual assault advocate emailed me with their concerns.

I can't blame them for being a little disappointed.

"I believe that your story of Dec. 21 was very misguided and one-sided, and gave the impression that parents who claim that their children have been victimized by therapists who implant ‘false memories' are to be believed," wrote "Beth" (not her real name) in an email. "It appeared that because some women recanted their story, we should believe that recovering memories of childhood sexual abuse as adults is not something that happens."

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation -- the term "false memory syndrome" was coined by the group's founders and has no medical standing -- rejects the idea of trauma-induced amnesia, often called repressed memories, the notion that long-forgotten incidents of abuse can be later recollected by adults.

"The phenomenon that people think of as repressed memories can be explained by ordinary memory processes," says Freyd, a psychiatrist. "It doesn't take some kind of special mechanism to explain them. It doesn't mean that the memory was repressed."

The Philadelphia-based False Memory Syndrome Foundation started as an advocacy group, but during the course of its existence it plunged itself into the heated scientific debate over whether or not repressed memories are real. The foundation says they are bogus and points to cases in which therapists have employed questionable practices to elicit repressed memories along the lines of cannibalistic Satanic rituals or abductions by space aliens.

The group scored a big win in 1995 when PBS' "Frontline" aired the documentary "Divided Memories," a stinging indictment of the recovered-memory camp that mirrored the views of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. It included an interview with Freyd and her husband, foundation co-founder Peter Freyd, and took aim at memory recovery therapists who pushed the boundaries of ethical practice.

The group has enlisted nearly 50 like-minded professionals for its board of advisers, and they have over the years relentlessly chipped away at the repressed memory theory, which nevertheless has plenty of adherents.

Beth is one of those. She's an incest survivor who didn't remember her abuse at the hands of her father and brother until the age of 37.

"It just came to me," she says.

But the memories were fragmented and didn't make a lot of sense. So she talked to her brother about it.

"He said, ‘Yes, I did it,' and he also sexually abused my sisters," she says.

Beth considers herself one of the lucky ones.

"Most incest survivors don't have a perpetrator that will ever admit that they did something," she says.

Beth, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in women's studies with a focus on incest survivors, hasn't had contact with her family since her conversation with her brother 20 years ago. Her parents denied the accusation, and she's never sought to have her father or her brother criminally prosecuted.

"I'm sure my parents have gone (to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation people) to say, ‘Oh, woe is us. Our daughter is crazy and she's always been crazy.' "

While most incest survivors who recover memories of abuse have no way to prove it, some have. Although the false memory people don't like to admit it, there have been numerous cases of repressed memory that have been verified by witness accounts, DNA, perpetrator confessions or other means.

Beth and many others maintain that perpetrators will go to any lengths to deny the allegations against them. And they believe the False Memory Syndrome Foundation provides offenders with the means to refute the allegations against them.

"It really is a lot of perpetrators and a way for them to squelch the issue," she says.

Freyd says she has no way of knowing if any of the tens of thousands of parents who have contacted the foundation are perpetrators.

"We don't know the truth or falsity of what happened in people's families," she says. "The only thing that we can do is provide people with information. We can put them in touch with other families, if that's what they want. We can help them find therapists, if that's what they want. We can help them find attorneys, if that's what they want."

The foundation does more than that, sometimes providing expert witnesses in court cases to discredit accusers. In one such case, documented by Toronto Star columnist Michele Landsberg, False Memory Syndrome Foundation adviser Harold Merskey testified that a woman who accused her doctor of sexual abuse might actually be harboring false memories, even though the doctor had confessed to abusing her and others.

In an even more embarrassing incident, Ralph Underwager, a psychologist and minister who helped found the group and who became a prominent expert witness in cases involving accused parents, gave an interview to a Dutch pro-pedophilia magazine that sank his career.

"Pedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they choose," he told the publication. "They can say that what they want is to find the best way to love. I am also a theologian, and as a theologian, I believe it is God's will that there be closeness and intimacy, unity of the flesh, between people."

Freyd maintains that the statements were taken out of context, but Underwager had also made earlier statements along the same lines.

Freyd and her husband, Peter Freyd, also a psychologist, founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation after their daughter, Jennifer Freyd, accused Peter of sexually abusing her during her teen years. Memories of the abuse surfaced in the course of psychotherapy treatment.

Jennifer Freyd has never recanted her accusations, and has become a well-respected memory researcher in her own right at the University of Oregon. She has offered her own theory for the cause of repressed memories in childhood victims of incest. In her book "Betrayal Trauma," she posits that children, as a matter of survival, need to believe their parents will keep them safe. So some victims bury incidents of abuse deep in their minds as a way to cope.

She goes on to theorize that the buried memories come back in the form of chronic doubts about what did and didn't happen, causing the victims to distrust their own perceptions of reality.

Beth says Jennifer Freyd's work speaks to her own experiences.

"It makes you feel really crazy," says Beth. "And I felt really crazy."

She might never understand how her mind managed to bury the memories. But she knows one thing: Her memories are real.

"I don't know how you forget it," she says. "My dad sexually abused me at night, and I walked down the stairs and had breakfast with my family. Basically you have to dissociate in order to do that. You have to just compartmentalize yourself."

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation came into being at a time when the uncomfortable concept of recovered memories of incest was entering the public discourse. It was common media fare for victims to air their horrific, long-forgotten abuse on television talk shows.

"In the 80s and early 90s, women started talking about, ‘This is what happened to me,'" says Beth. "It was right at that time, when this was really growing to a peak, that the False Memory Syndrome Foundation came along and now has just squelched that again. Women are not talking about it like they were, so it's really kind of gone back underground."

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mike Stanton, in a 1997 article in the Columbia Journalism Review, weighed the impact the False Memory Syndrome Foundation had on the discussion as society began to grapple with the concept of recovered memories. At a time when the media were sensationalizing cases of repressed memory, the foundation stepped in and swung the pendulum the other way.

"Rarely has such a strange and little-understood organization had such a profound effect on media coverage of such a controversial matter," Stanton wrote. "The foundation is an aggressive, well-financed PR machine adept at manipulating the press, harassing its critics, and mobilizing a diverse army of psychiatrists, outspoken academics, expert defense witnesses, litigious lawyers, Freud bashers, critics of psychotherapy, and devastated parents."

Pamela Freyd says it may be time to declare the mission accomplished. A long string of court cases has practically stamped out controversial therapies for memory retrieval. And court cases concerning repressed memories that have been teased out through therapy are now rare.

In that regard, the case I wrote about in December, because of the length of time it took to resolve it, was a remnant of an earlier era.

The issue had nothing to do with whether Charles and Karen Johnson had done what their daughter, Charlotte Johnson, alleged. Rather, the Johnsons sued their daughter's therapists over the standard of treatment she received. In part, because the case involved the involuntary public airing of Charlotte Johnson's treatment records, the case dragged on for 14 years, going to the state Supreme Court twice.

In the end, the $1 million award for the Johnsons was a relatively paltry sum considering the time and expense invested in pursuing the case. The Johnson's attorney, Bill Smoler, has attained multi-million-dollar awards in similar cases in the past.

But the case broke new ground. It was the first time in the United States that a case involved the release of patient records against the patient's wishes.

"What is the impact of mental health records being used against a patient's will?" asks Kelly Anderson, executive director of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center.

Anderson says that stigma, shame and a host of other obstacles already prevent many people from coming forward with reports of sexual abuse. And faith in the confidentiality of statements made to therapists is "fundamental to being able to heal."

She says the release of protected mental health records could set a dangerous precedent.

"There are many barriers to victims seeking services," says Anderson. "We should not be creating more reasons for people to fear seeking those services."

With that victory, time may be running out for the foundation, which as the years go by has less of a role to play.

Freyd says the number of cases of false memories has fallen precipitously as litigation has changed psychiatric practices.

"If you look at meetings, for example, of professionals, it used to be back in the 90s that a third or a quarter of the sessions would be involved in recovering memories of sexual abuse," says Freyd. "You don't see that anymore."

In addition, she says, the Internet has made information about repressed memories readily available, information that the foundation used to provide to thousands of parents each year over the phone.

"The world has changed," Freyd says.

Does that mean: Mission accomplished?

"I think we can slowly disappear," says Freyd.

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.