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Farewell to ‘False Memory Syndrome’

On the 31st December 2019, the organisation known as the False Memory Syndrome Foundation was officially disbanded.  And we are delighted.  This foundation has caused untold grief, confusion and self-doubt for survivors coming to terms with remembering abuse that was perpetrated against them in childhood. At RASASC, we have been witness to the devastation caused by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation’s assertions to women who have started to remember someone abusing them years or decades after the abuse occurred.

Ask anyone on the street what they know of False Memory Syndrome (FMS), and they will most likely tell you this dangerous myth, as if it were the truth:  that many people imagine and remember abuse that never happened.  This myth has discredited survivors for decades with the alarming efficiency we have no doubt it was designed to do.  It is so pervasive in society that it pops up in conversation, on screen and in books every day.

However, while you may have heard of False Memory Syndrome (FMS), you may not know how it began.  You may or may not be surprised that the FMS Foundation was started by a man whose daughter had accused him of sexually abusing her in childhood. He and his wife founded the organisation together. They originally named it ‘Adult Children Accusing Parents’, but quickly rebranded as the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which was far catchier and made it sound like a society with real, clinical evidence to back it up.  The use of the word ‘syndrome’ seemed to legitimise the foundation – throw in a medical term, and anything seems legit.  Yet there isn’t a single case report documenting the existence of a condition known as false memory syndrome in any peer-reviewed clinical or scientific literature. It has never been recognised as a disorder by any of the mental health professional associations or societies and it is not included or mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The FMS Foundation historically blamed therapists for implanting memories in their clients’ heads.  Yet, the majority of survivors who retrieve memories of childhood sexual abuse do so without ever stepping into a therapy session.  Additionally, ask any therapist how they would go about putting such memories into the mind of a client, and they will tell you that they can’t – there simply is no therapy that makes clients remember abuse that never happened.

Despite this, FMS became mainstream with shocking speed, especially compared to the issue of male violence against women, which feminists had been speaking about for decades before it ever came into mass consciousness. Priority was given to the opinions of everyday people, who were far more likely to be given a platform than professional experts.  On top of this, the voices of those denying abuse were louder than the voices of those reporting it. Accused parents were seven times more likely to be quoted in the media than the person recalling the abuse.

Survivors doubt themselves enough due to abusers’ grooming, manipulation and lies, and it seems to us that FMS merely worked to enhance those perpetrator tactics.  It cast doubt on survivors’ credibility in a world where abuse is already ignored or denied, and created yet another context wherein abusers can get away with their crimes.

Studies have shown that it is not only possible to repress memories of childhood sexual abuse, but that it is actually common to do so.  It is common not only for those who were very young or pre-verbal at the time of the abuse, but for older children too, especially if the abuse happened repeatedly over an extended period of time. It is the only way that a child can live through the horrors of sexual abuse.

The idea of FMS has caused damage that is going to last a long time.  But an institution that, for decades, discredited survivors and supported perpetrators of child sexual abuse has dissolved.  There are a lot of things happening in the world that are difficult to bear at the moment, but at least we have this.  There is no such thing as False Memory Syndrome. And now that this is the official truth of the matter, what can we do going forward? Simply, we can believe – in our friends and family members, in our clients or patients and in ourselves.

We ALL know people who have survived childhood sexual abuse, and we ALL have the capacity to believe them and support them.  We can spread the word and begin to undo the years of damage done by the idea of FMS – sing from the rooftops that it is possible to recall memories of abuse many years later; that abuse, no matter where it’s stored in the depths of consciousness, can have devastating consequences.  If this has happened for you, then you deserve to be heard and believed.  You deserve the space to talk about it, how you feel affected by it.  You deserve to decide what you want to do now, and you deserve peace.

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