Twelve Myths about False Memories

1. False memories of abuse are always implanted by poorly trained therapists, usually through hypnosis

Not true. Any therapist, no matter how highly trained, may unwittingly encourage false memory if s/he subscribes to the belief that hidden memories of abuse are responsible for adult problems and that the memory can be recovered.

2. Dissociated memories which are recovered are more likely to be accurate than repressed ones

Not true. There is no more evidence for dissociation as a mechanism of abuse memory amnesia than repression. Some theorists prefer dissociation because it suggests that 'part of' the client always remembered the abuse so they cannot be false memories. On inspection, this often turns out to mean the memory was stored in a personality fragment called 'an alter' which is supposed to represent a frozen stage of development. There is no scientific basis for this construction and the process of mapping alters and quizzing them for information is a process of false memory formation.

3. Recovered memories are often corroborated

Not true. While individual instances of retrieved memories of an incident forgotten because it was not that serious are often corroborated, there are no cases known where histories of severe abuse were corroborated after being recovered from complete amnesia. Studies which are sometimes cited to lend support to corroboration of recovered memories are flawed because the evidence was either not independent of the accuser or was not checked by the researcher.

4. Sexual abuse cases are rarely corroborated so it is not surprising that recovered memory cases are not

Not true. There are many cases of corroborated sexual abuse. Forensic evidence is possible in some cases. Obscene video recordings and photographs are sometimes available, together with witnesses and admissions. None of these cases involve recovered memories.

5. Recovered memory is more reliable if it surfaced outside therapy

Not true. Recovered memory is unreliable whatever the cues. A climate of belief fostered by television, self-help books or talking to other people with similar beliefs together with anxiety can predispose people to believe that a dream of hallucinatory experience is a 'flashback' of reality outside a therapeutic setting.

6. It is not possible for people to imagine being seriously abused if it didn't happen

Not true. Imagination is a human trait. Some false memory victims have imagined being abused in past lives, future lives, by aliens and satanic cults. Research shows that people tend to imagine contexts according to external influence. A therapist who believes in alien abduction will discover abductee histories and so on.

7. Memory which is recovered bit by bit is a normal process of remembering abuse

Not true. Focusing on the past may result in slight memory improvement, but effort will result in diminishing returns. It is more likely that continued effort will result in confabulation.

8. If the memories cause distress, they are more likely to be true

Not true. Emotion is no guide to accuracy of recall, but only a guide to what the person may be feeling at the time. The thought of the abuse may cause distress, and the person may project other sources of distress onto the alleged abuse without their being any objective truth in the memory.

9. If someone has always remembered abuse, then recovered memories of further abuse are likely to be true

Not true. Many false memory victims can remember minor episodes of abuse which actually happened. Treatment, which encourages them to recover forgotten episodes, may lead them to believe in far more serious abuse by other perpetrators.

10. If other members of a family recover memories of abuse then it is more likely to be true

Not true. Recovered memory is unreliable no matter how many people undergo the process. A false memory victim can persuade other family members they might have been subject to similar memory loss and this triggers the process of memory recovery in them.

11. If sexual abuse is indicated, it must become the focal point of therapy

Not true. Research indicates that attempts to focus on abuse and find meaning in it have negative therapeutic outcomes. Investigation of alleged abuse as a criminal matter is a separate concern.

12. False memory is the standard ruse of perpetrators in denial

Not true. Most genuine sexual offenders confess. Before recovered memory became fashionable, sexual offence suspects had the highest rate of admission amongst crime suspects at 89.3 per cent. It is not credible that all, or even the majority of those denying recovered memory accusations are guilty when the facts are properly investigated.

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