What is False Memory?

Psychiatrist, Paul R McHugh, described false memory as “a condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centred around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes.”

Victims of false memory may continue to believe vehemently that their ‘memories’ are accurate, in spite of objective evidence to the contrary.


What kind of cases does the British False Memory Society see?

Typically the Society deals with adult accusers who accuse family members or other relatives in contested historical sexual allegations. The adult accusers allege they have recently remembered childhood abuse, of which s/he had no previous memory. Very often these cases are characterised by the emergence of new abuse memories following psychiatric illness, counselling or psychotherapy.

Drug and alcohol abuse can also lead to false memories.


How do people come to believe in false memories?

Some therapists believe that problems which present in adult life are a result of repressed trauma, usually in the form of sexual abuse.

Based on highly controversial principles and diagnoses, this treatment can broadly be described as ‘recovered memory therapy.’ It is not accepted by the mainstream medical and psychiatric professions and it is renowned for implanting false memories.

Following intensive therapy, patients are exposed to and become vulnerable to suggestion. For example, a therapist may ask a patient to imagine what it would be like to be raped. After imagining what it would be like, some patients later believe that they were raped.

Practitioners of recovered memory therapy believe that buried in the psyche of every adult are detailed memories of every experience from birth. Therapy is administered to unlock these supposedly repressed memories. False memories can also be created through the use of guided and imaginative imagery, and through therapeutic suggestion and hypnosis.

Dr Peter Naish, a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society has served as an expert witness on false memory cases. According to Dr Naish, “some therapists … are convinced that all manner of dysfunction in adults are clear indicators that they were abused. This reasoning is as foolish as the following: ‘People with malaria have a fever. Mary has a fever, so Mary must have malaria … This is a logical fallacy which has destroyed families all over the world. And it continues to do so.’


How does false memory differ from genuine allegations of sexual assault?

The BFMS abhors child abuse. It is a heinous crime which may have devastating and long-lasting consequences for victims. However there is an important distinction to be made between these crimes and false memory cases: sexual abuse is easy to remember and extremely difficult to forget. Genuine victims unfortunately cannot repress or forget what has happened to them.

False memory, conversely, is often characterised by the emergence of new memories and victims of false memory often claim to have been assaulted repeatedly, hundreds of times in some cases, but these memories are supposed to have been repressed completely prior to receiving therapy.

When did the problem of false memory first begin?

In the United Kingdom, the widespread use of recovered memory beliefs and techniques among therapists began in the late 1980s. The BFMS was formed in 1993, following reports by parents who claimed they were unjustly accused. Most of these families told a similar story of a well-educated adult daughter in her twenties or early thirties suddenly making accusations of severe childhood sexual abuse after undergoing therapy.

A similar pattern had emerged in the United States and throughout the English-speaking world. A key influence in the explosion of allegations was the self-help book, The Courage to Heal, first published in the United States in 1998 and in the United Kingdom in 1990. The book encouraged readers to accept and to believe that psychological problems are caused by unconscious memories of incest in childhood.

Other self-help books, recovered memory ‘survivor’ narratives, television documentaries, films and shows helped reinforce a bourgeoning belief that repressed memories could be recovered through therapy. The basis for this notion originates from early Freudian theory that the mind represses traumatic memories which needed to be recovered to heal problems which subsequently manifested during adulthood. This hypothesis has since been comprehensively and definitively debunked.


What type of professionals are most at risk of creating or encouraging false memory?

Any mental health, welfare or criminal justice professional can unwittingly collude in reinforcing false allegations of abuse. However the creation of a false memory is correlated strongly with therapists who take a special interest in sexual abuse discovery and treatment. Some therapists take the view that sexual abuse underlies a multitude of diffuse social and psychological problems. They are inclined to interpret unhappiness in adults as an indication of sexual abuse and subtly or inadvertently in some cases convey their beliefs to their clients. Other therapists believe overtly in repressed trauma and overtly seek to recover what they believe are repressed memories of abuse. A number of therapists may claim to be recovered memory survivors themselves as a prelude to becoming a therapist in the field, or as a consequence.

Unfortunately, many of the books recommended in sexual abuse therapy training advocate using recovered memory techniques. Many of the histories of abuse which act as a template for therapists’ expectations are in fact recovered memory histories. There is a real danger that therapists may operate according to false stereotypes of abuse when interviewing clients.

However grotesque and un-real the false claims emanating from recovered memory may be, it would be wrong to underestimate the emotional dynamics of recovered memories which serve as a powerful and cathartic force which convinces those caught up in it of the authenticity of the claims.



Heather, a 43 year-old Chartered Accountant was persuaded to enter therapy by her husband. Heather describes her experience as follows:

“I had been sent to a very famous Harley Street Psychiatrist who recovered some ‘memories’ for me which ‘helped’ me understand why I was so sexually inadequate for my partner. It’s all too easy to guess what comes next – it was all due to being sexually abused by my Dad. Even worse was that the psychiatrist ‘helped’ me realize that my Mum was bad too, as there ‘is no such thing’ as an innocent parent where any type of abuse is concerned … I could remember the nice psychiatrist with the truth drug needle hanging off my wrist and all the bad feelings that came with the memories. Then, about two or three years ago, I really began to think and did a little research – the truth drug is mind-altering. My memories were really muddled: stairs in the bungalow, the wrong dog in the house … and friends being the wrong age in the ‘memories.’

Following therapy, Heather’s new memories included one that her father carried her down the stairs of the family home before sexually abusing her. They lived in a bungalow at the time this was supposed to have happened.

Heather came to realize that her new abuse memories had been implanted during psychotherapy while she was heavily medicated. Fortunately there was light at the end of the tunnel and she is now reconciled with her father, but only following much heartache, after they became estranged for 15 years.

Can a therapist uncover buried memories of abuse through regression therapy?

There is no evidence to support this. Fringe therapists who practise Regression Therapy take the concept of recovered memory theory a step further. They believe that memories can be traced back to the womb and to past lives. One father who made false allegations of abuse following regressive therapy undertook background research into the therapist’s qualifications and experience:

(He) discovered that the so-called College of which the therapist is a ‘graduate’ bases its teachings on the belief that within everyone are memories of everything that has ever happened right back to birth and within the womb – and that with the help of psychotherapy they can be recovered. In one case history reported on the college’s website, the therapist claims to have helped his client (a woman) ‘remember’ 13 instances of abuse within the womb. Another even offers counselling in cases of alien-abductions. In order to ‘graduate’ and start practising, students undergo four weekends of training for a fee of several hundred pounds …

Unfortunately the psychotherapy industry is poorly-regulated and no formal qualifications are required to enter the industry.


Is it credible that people would believe in horrific abuse if it were not true?

Very often, when a person commences therapy she/he is in a vulnerable state. However grotesque and unreal the believed-in events, the emotional dynamics of recovered memory are powerful forces which can have a tumultuous impact on even the most commonsensical and pragmatic people. A patient may come to believe that their therapist is the only person that can supply the emotional support which they desperately need. Sadly, they are often encouraged by their therapist to sever and break off contact with family members.


Has recovered memory formed the basis of criminal prosecutions?

It is very difficult to shake off the stigma of a false allegation and people have been brought to trial on the basis of unreliable and uncorroborated recovered memories and, in a number of cases, convicted. Many more have been arrested, prosecuted and acquitted. The criminal justice system treats these allegations as delayed reports and there is no time limit for prosecuting alleged sexual abuse. The BFMS abhors sexual abuse and supports rigorous criminal investigation where there is sufficient evidence. However there are a disturbing number of cases in which accusers had no memory of ever being abused prior to entering therapy and often these are not adequately investigated and the evidence is unreliable. It is not uncommon in such a scenario where a case is based on recovered memory for that to be concealed by prosecutors until the accused has been committed for trial. No one benefits from a false allegation – and victims of sexual abuse certainly do not because the resources are directed away from genuine cases. Thorough and informed investigation at an early stage could help prevent subsequent distress to all parties, the dreadful waste of public funding, and the danger of wrongful conviction.


How can false memory be detected?

False memories are often created while a client is receiving therapy from a particular therapist who believes in the recovered memory process. In a smaller number of cases, the false memories may already be forming when a client is first seen. In many cases, there is a process whereby new memories are presented as “flashbacks.” In essence, these are abuse memories generated in therapy. Sometimes false memories may be linked to an underlying mental or physical disorder or disposition. The source of abuse allegations should be checked out by asking the client when s/he first told anybody and if there was a time when s/he did not remember being abused. Searching for the truth does not mean undermining support. While false memory victims are usually resistant to any querying about the veracity of their memories, sometimes what they need is the opportunity to explore a defective process of reasoning.


What are the legal implications of false memory?

The scientific evidence pointing to the danger of recovered memory therapy in creating false memory is now overwhelming. The damage caused by false allegations, which includes family breakdown and false imprisonment, can be long-lasting and irreparable. In the United States and elsewhere therapists have been successfully sued for negligence. In 2011, Dr Charles Johnson and Karen Johnson were awarded $1 million in compensation after suing their daughter’s therapists for implanting false memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse. “Their daughter had imaginings of Satanic cults, rapes, cutting off a baby’s head, dogs nailed to a cross” after receiving recovered memory therapy 15 years previously. Similarly in February 2012, in a landmark hearing following a six day civil trial, a former patient was awarded $16. 5 million in an American court after she sued her therapist for implanting false memories that she was raped by her family in Satanic rituals.


CASE STUDY – Katrina Fairlie

Awarded £20, 000 in an out-of-court settlement after she launched an action for negligence against Tayside NHS Trust, in Scotland.

A woman who falsely accused her father of rape after undergoing a discredited “recovered memory” psychotherapy has won a £20,000 payout from a local health authority.

Katrina Fairlie claimed a hospital psychiatrist almost ruined her life after he extracted false memories that her father, Jim, a former deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, had sexually abused her.

Miss Fairlie, who withdrew the baseless allegations months after making them, revealed during other sessions with consultant Dr Alex Yellowlees that she witnessed her father murder a child and named him and 17 other men, including two politicians, as paedophiles.

In 2005, she launched a £500,000 action for negligence against NHS Tayside asserting that its staff had failed in their duty of care to her by failing to check the likely truth of her allegations which have caused her and her family years of distress.

The case was due to be heard at the Court of Session in Edinburgh this week, but at the eleventh hour, bosses at the trust offered the substantial out-of-court settlement instead.

Yesterday, 37-year-old Miss Fairlie said: “After so many traumatic years, I finally feel that I can put this nightmare behind me and start getting on with my life.”

Daily Mail, 19 October 2007.

More on the case: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-488623/20-000-payout-woman-falsely-accused-father-rape-recovered-memory-therapy.html



What the experts say

The most authoritative report on the reliability of ‘recovered memory’ is the 1998 report of a working party of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, chaired by the late Professor Sydney Brandon. It confirmed that there are no safe ways of practising recovered memory therapy since all methods are prone to inducing false memories of abuse. This is the case regardless of the training or status of the therapist or welfare professional. The report remains the lead authority tendered in expert evidence in the courts and it continues to exert a strong influence on mainstream mental health and allied professional practice. The following quotations are extracted from the report:

What evidence is there for repression and dissociation of abuse memories?

  • Despite widespread clinical support and popular belief that memories can be ‘blocked out’ by the mind, no empirical evidence exists to support either repression or dissociation.
  • There is no evidence to support the wholesale forgetting of repeated experience of abuse, nor of single episodes of brutality or sadistic assault, apart from the normal experience of infantile amnesia.
  • Given the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse, even if only a small proportion are repressed and only some of them are subsequently recovered, there should be a significant number of corroborated cases. In fact there is none …


Is recovered memory therapy harmful?

  • The damage done to families if the accusations are untrue is immense … Patients, who are mistakenly diagnosed as having been abused, frequently end up as mental health casualties …

What is the difference between the pattern of recovered memory and ordinary recall?

  • Recovered memories differ from other forms of forgotten and remembered events in being built-up over time … they resemble narrative rather than memory with more being added at each attempt at recall, after becoming increasingly elaborate and bizarre.

How can you distinguish between true and false memories?

  • There is no reliable means of distinguishing a true memory from an illusionary one other than by external confirmation.

What are the likely preconditions of creating false memory?

  • Therapists and/or patient expectations, reinforced by guided reading, particular techniques and survivors’ group participation may distort any existing memory or implant a wholly new one.

SOURCE: Brandon, S., et al, Recovered Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse – Implications for Clinical Practice, The British Journal of Psychiatry, April 1998, VOL 172, pp. 296 – 307.

False Memories and Dangerous Therapies – Dr Peter Naish

This article was originally produced in The Newsletter of the British False Memory Society (Vol. 21, No. 1 – July 2013).

The problem

The bulk of false memory cases we hear about at the BFMS concern memories of childhood abuse which were recovered by an adult undergoing therapy. These apparent memories are not in fact recovered at all, because they are not recollections of actual events; they are false memories, produced by very bad therapeutic practice. What is worse, the bad practice is not accidental: the procedures are carried out deliberately.

Why do therapists cause harm?

Of course they do not intend to, and most do only good, but some are influenced by three misguided beliefs, ideas which are unfortunately very plausible. They are as follows:

  1. If you were abused as a child your brain protected you from the awful effects, by repressing all knowledge of the event.
  2. The protection is never complete, so some symptoms (often quite common ones, such as depression) will emerge in adulthood.
  3. The only way to a cure is to remember and then ‘work through’ what happened.

Working in this framework, some therapists will interpret almost any symptom as abuse, and denials by the client are explained as the result of repression. The therapist goes to work, helping the client to remember what happened, and the procedures used (trying to picture likely events, seeing if they feel familiar, sometimes employing hypnosis) cause many people to feel that they are beginning to remember things. These are not real memories.

But didn’t Freud prove we repress things?

Freud didn’t prove anything, although he did have various theories, including on repression, most of which have been discredited. He was working a century ago, and we have learned an enormous amount about the workings of the brain since then. Unfortunately, because Freud was one of the first in the field and his ideas were simple to grasp, the theories have entered popular culture. The truth about brain function, including memory and the response to abuse, is very complex. Nevertheless, our Scientific Advisory Board assures us that modern brain science (1) calls into question all the assertions (a), (b), (c).

Why are therapists allowed to continue these practices?

Many culprits are not properly trained psychologists, so do not come under the British Psychological Society umbrella. Currently, the law does not prevent any person from offering a psychotherapeutic service. Until such time as this situation is changed the BFMS believes that the best weapon against these practices is education. We urge you to help us disseminate the details provided in this article as widely as possible.


(1) Those wishing to know more of the science behind this assertion may request the original Advisory Board document: BFMS Position Statement on the Recovery of Memory in Therapy.