The Danger Behind the “False Memory” Myth
As Harvey Weinstein’s legal team mounts its defense, it has been reported that it will call at least one expert witness to the stand to testify to “false memory theory,” a tool that has been used to try to discredit survivors of sexual assault for decades. Weinstein’s expert witnesses testifying to this theory is Elizabeth Loftus, who has used “false memory theory” to testify on behalf of O.J. Simpson, Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh and Michael Jackson, and recently served as an advisor to the long-discredited and now-dissolved False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
The bottom line: Current evidence shows “false memory theory” to be “scientifically inaccurate, damaging to survivors, and unhelpful to the public.” Here’s why.
Never — not after 30 years of trying.
In fact, a forthcoming article in the Association for Psychological Science (APS) journal Current Directions in Psychological Science includes new research demonstrating that the central claims of “false memory theory” promoted by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation “rest on shaky foundations.”
FACT: “False Memory Theory” is a Tool to Discredit Survivors of Sexual Trauma
“False memory” gives a pseudoscientific name to the trope that survivors somehow develop entirely new memories of sexual assaults that never happened. That’s not how memory works — but it is how perpetrators of sexual violence have worked to deny accountability.
Pioneering psychologist Dr. Jennifer Freyd has found that perpetrators of sexual assault often “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender,” a phenomenon she calls “DARVO.” When Weinstein’s defense team introduces testimony that suggests that the survivor’s memories of assault are fabricated, or when it attempts discredit alleged victims’ testimony by highlighting peripheral details that they do not remember, it is attempting to both deny the assault and attack the credibility of the survivor in classic DARVO fashion.
The reality is that most scientific research shows traumatic events of all kinds are often cemented in a person’s memory. And current research shows that memories of sexual assault are even more vivid than memories of other sorts of traumas, such as car accidents.
FACT: Weinstein’s Alleged Victims’ Memories are Consistent with Those of Sexual Trauma Survivors
Scientific research shows traumatic events of all kinds are often cemented in a person’s memory. And current research shows that memories of sexual assault are even more vivid than memories of other sorts of traumas, such as car accidents.
Traumatic events themselves are processed differently than peripheral information about traumatic events. With extreme emotional arousal during a traumatic event, people experiencing trauma often become narrowly focused on what is happening and are therefore more likely to remember it. In contrast, they often have incomplete and less clear memories about other aspects of the traumatic event, such as the day of the week or the clothes they were wearing at the time.
Likewise, traumatic memories often come to mind as involuntary and intrusive thoughts or ruminations replayed and rehearsed over an entire lifetime. Extraneous details and information, on the other hand, do not re-appear as intrusive thoughts or ruminations, so they become easily forgotten, especially as time passes.
FACT: Gaps in Memory and Recovered Memories Don’t Diminish the Credibility of the Underlying Memory
Research has established that it is normal for gaps to exist in a survivor’s memory of an assault due to scientifically validated reactions like dissociation or the consolidation and coding of traumatic memories.
Even in incidents where an assault has been repressed for long periods of time, several studies have found that the accuracy of recovered memories are comparable to memories that have not been repressed.
FACT: The Prominence of “False Memory Theory” Stems from a Misinformation Campaign by the Now-Defunct False Memory Syndrome Foundation, whose Founder Has Been Accused of Sexual Abuse of His Daughter, Who is Now a Highly Accomplished Professional
“False memory theory” was championed by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an organization founded in 1992 that gained infamy for promoting pseudoscience not backed by the American Psychological Association with the purpose of protecting people accused of sexual abuse.
Michele Landsberg, a Toronto Star columnist, described the False Memory Syndrome Foundation founders and advisors as “people who had motive to deny the truth.” In fact, the founder of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Peter Freyd, was accused by his own daughter of child sexual abuse. One of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation’s founding advisors, Ralph Underwager, was forced to resign after he was quoted as describing pedophilia as “an acceptable expression of God’s will for love.” Another advisor, James Randi, had been recorded having sexually explicit phone conversations with teenagers.
The main mechanism by which the False Memory Syndrome Foundation created distrust of survivors was through a sustained, decades-long media campaign. In 1991, over 80 percent of media coverage treated recovered memory of sexual abuse as reliable. But three years into the public relations campaign waged by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation over 80 percent of the stories on this issue focused on false accusations.
FACT: The Discredited “False Memory Syndrome Foundation” Abruptly Dissolved — Observers Point to a Lack of Support from the Scientific Community and the Public
For undisclosed reasons, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation announced its dissolution on December 31, 2019. But close observers of the Foundation have pointed out a number of the Foundation’s advisors are sidelined from the scientific community today.
Despite the Foundation’s lack of scientific recognition or respect, an incredible amount of damage has been done to our cultural understanding of sexual trauma and the ability of survivors to achieve justice. As Michael Salter, a professor of criminal psychology, has said, “the legacy of [the False Memory Syndrome Foundation’s] lies and distortions remain, alongside unanswered questions about media ethics and academic accountability.”
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