The British False Memory Society (BFMS) is a registered charity formed in 1993 to deal with issues relating to false memory.
False memory is the phenomenon in which a person is convinced a memory is true when it is not. It was first postulated and diagnosed more than 100 years ago. More recently, clinical evidence suggests it is more widespread than had previously been appreciated.
In particular, it is creating severe problems in the field of alleged sexual abuse. The Society acknowledges and abhors the fact that there are many genuine cases of child abuse that may require the application of the criminal law. However, what is happening is that a number of people, usually during psychotherapy or counselling, are recovering ‘memories’ of having been sexually abused in childhood, even though those accused – usually, but not always, their parents – deny such abuse and there is no corroborating evidence. A worrying feature of these cases is that the accusers did not remember being abused prior to receiving therapy.
Not surprisingly, such memories, if false, have severe consequences both for the person concerned and for his or her family. It is not uncommon for a whole network of family relationships to be destroyed as a result.
The extent of the phenomenon led, in 1993, to the formation of The BFMS and to the establishment of its Scientific and Professional Advisory Board.
Formation of the BFMS
The earliest autobiographical accounts of incest and childhood sexual abuse did not rely on repressed memories. These were people who had simply never spoken of their always-remembered trauma. Soon, however, some ‘survivor’ histories began to suggest the notion of frozen memories of abuse. The supposed existence of these hidden incest histories became conflated with the idea that therapists could heal the ‘victims’ and in the early 1980s this became formalised into a conscious search for abuse histories. In 1988, following the publication of The Courage to Heal, the number of accusations based on newly ‘recovered memories’ of sexual abuse increased.
To quote Richard Webster, “The Courage to Heal has been described as the Bible of the recovered memory movement … and one of the aims of The Courage to Heal is to help women who have no memories of being sexually abused in childhood to ‘find’ such memories … With the help of The Courage to Heal and of therapists who believe in the possibility of ‘massive repression,’ hundreds of thousands of women have ‘recovered’ memories of being raped, or being sexually abused repeatedly and for long periods during their childhood. As yet no external evidence has been produced which convincingly demonstrates that any therapeutically recovered ‘memory’ of repeated and sustained sexual abuse actually corresponds to real episodes of sexual abuse …”¹
In 1992, after an article in the American press drew a huge response, a group of accused parents in America attended a meeting with professionals from the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) was formed. The appointment of a scientific advisory board led to a critical scrutiny of the social movement in which these therapeutic theories and practices were emerging. The rationale being offered by the therapists and their designated forms of treatment began to be challenged.
In Britain, the turning point was 1990 when the British edition of The Courage to Heal appeared and, following the American experience, a belief arose that ‘repressed memories’ of sexual abuse were commonplace. After the first FMSF conference in Philadelphia in the spring of 1993, accused parents who attended from the UK met and formed an organisation which was to become the British False Memory Society.
The Purposes of the Society
- The Society aims to raise public awareness of the inherent dangers of false memory by: disseminating relevant information through newsletters and articles in learned journals; organising seminars and conferences; and, when appropriate, assisting the media to produce suitable articles and programmes.
- The BFMS collaborates with professional organisations, for example, to encourage the highest standards in the training and practice of psychotherapy and counselling.
- The BFMS incorporates a telephone helpline to support families affected by the phenomenon of false memory. The Society also offers advice and access to legal assistance. However, we do not offer counselling services nor do we have in-house legal advisors, although both these matters are open to general discussion.
- The BFMS aims to improve the understanding of false memory by encouraging, sponsoring, conducting and publishing academic and professional research.
1. Richard Webster, Freud’s False Memories: Psychoanalysis and the Recovered Memory Movement (The Orwell Press: Suffolk, 1995), p. 13.