Volume 2, Number 5, pp.
1993, Pamela Birrell. Used by permission.
citation for this article
An Open Letter to the
Advisory Board Members of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation
Editor's note: The
following letter was sent to each False
Memory Syndrome Foundation Advisory Board Member on September 1,
1993, by psychologist and University of Oregon Adjunct Professor of
Psychology Pamela Birrell, Ph.D. It is reprinted here with her
by Pamela Birrell
As a close friend of Jennifer Freyd, I
have watched the development of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation
(FMSF) from the beginning. Recently, Dr. Freyd eloquently and
effectively documented the unwelcome intrusion of this organization,
founded by her parents, into her professional life (Freyd, 1993). In
addition, as a clinical psychologist, I have seen the damage done by
this organization to survivors of *documented* sexual abuse as they
struggle to establish their own reality and to deal with the
overwhelming pain of their trauma. I can remain silent no longer.
I am writing this letter to ask all of
you to examine your motives and to look at the consequences of your
membership on the advisory board of this particular foundation. There
are several reasons for membership on this particular board and
therefore association with an organization of this type. They are as
1. Advisory Board membership as an
enhancement of professional life and credentials.
I have heard board member Dr. George
Ganaway state on two occasions (Ganaway, 1993a; Ganaway, 1993b) that
his affiliation with this organization in no way communicates his
agreement or disagreement with the official stance of the
organization. In other words, he sees his board membership as neutral
and entirely advisory in nature. I would hope that Dr. Ganaway and
others of you on the board for this reason could see that this is not
a neutral stance. I am sure that he would not be on the advisory board
of Paidika (a Danish journal for and about pedophilia), even to advise
them in the "right" direction. Membership noted in their
publications implies agreement [with] and support [of] and,
furthermore, offers scientific credibility to the "false memory
syndrome" where none exists. An example of this can be seen in
the popular press: "In March, 1992, a group of distinguished
psychologists ... banded together to form the FMSF." The author
goes on to state the FMSF position in a way that is truly damaging to
incest survivors. For example, the author states that the
"better-trained, older psychiatrists do not believe that
childhood memories of trauma can be repressed for any length of time,
except in rare cases of brain damage" (Gardner, 1993). This
statement is not only damaging but patently untrue, as anyone aware of
the literature will agree (see Herman, 1992; Herman and Schatzow,
2. Anger against psychotherapists
and the field of psychotherapy.
The FMSF emphasizes the harm being
done by bad therapy and megalomaniac therapists (see Ofshe and Waters,
1993). This is a legitimate stance (although somewhat overstated, as I
note below). Any profession in this country can benefit from
constructive criticism both from within and from outside its ranks,
and therapists need to continually monitor their activities. But for
those of you who are on the board for this reason, wouldn't it be more
intellectually honest to join or form a group that specifically
targets therapists and not their clients? The name, False Memory
Syndrome, clearly implies that the person with the memories is, at
worst, a liar and, at best, a naive and unwilling pawn in the hands of
the malignant therapist.
I would like to add a parenthetical
note here. There is no question that bad therapists exist and bad
therapy happens, but it is important to remember that many of the
memories of incest reported are recovered under normal circumstances,
in and out of therapy. Although there is power in the transference,
and therapists need to be aware of this, we just do not have the kind
of power attributed to us. I often sit in my office with a client who
is in great pain while he or she recounts uninvited and overwhelming
memories of abuse. If I had the kind of power attributed to me by the
FMSF, I would stop the pain and stop the memories as soon as I could.
Therapists are not out to "make monsters." Good therapy
assists in creating conscious and whole human beings who are able to
deal with pain in their lives in a constructive manner.
3. To promote the scientific study
There are those of you who may feel
that this "foundation" offers the opportunity and platform
for the scientific study of memory. Can the goals of objectivity in
science be met by an organization that appears dedicated to proving
that memories of abuse are false? How many of you give the same
credence to research on the effects of smoking done by the American
Tobacco Institute compared to that same research done by researchers
supported by neutral grants at universities? The scientific study of
memory needs to stay at universities and other institutions of basic
research that are uncontaminated by a self-serving bias.
4. To help reunite families torn
apart by claims of incest.
The goal of reuniting families is most
worthy. It is hard to see family members accusing one another while
simultaneously longing for reconciliation. However, a foundation named
the False Memory Syndrome Foundation is hardly the vehicle for this
reunification given that its very name contains an accusation and also
denies the reality of at least one family member. FMSF may argue that
this reality is not a true one because it was "implanted" by
therapists; but in healthy families, members do not attack one
another's reality. I think that the true absurdity of this can be seen
in the invitation to Jennifer Freyd by her parents to join the
advisory board of this organization.
It is a common phenomenon for people
to become angry with their parents during the course of psychotherapy.
It is also a common phenomenon for these same people to enter into a
mature and conscious relationship with their parents later in therapy
-- at least when those parents do not continue to attack their
children's vulnerability. I know of cases where incest has occurred
and yet reunion has been possible because of the parents' willingness
to confront their own behavior and to remain in relationships without
intrusion. This would be even more likely to happen in families where
"false memories" have been "implanted."
The problem of abuse in our society is
a complex one. It involves power, control, victimization, denial and,
most of all, pain. Peter Vaill has movingly described the pain in our
organizations and in our culture: "We can't just share our pain
and confusion with each other. . . There is massive suppression of
anguish going on in the organizations and communities of the developed
world -- no one's fault in particular; just a fundamental part of our
culture. I think there is a lot of collective, but unexpressed,
anguish in our modern organizations" (Vaill, 1990). We as a
society must find ways to experience and share this pain. There are no
simple solutions. Some therapists have attempted to foreclose on the
pain by attaching it to discrete memories. The FMSF has attempted to
cover the pain by attacking the messenger (see Freyd, 1993). We need
to somehow be able to go through the pain to find the meaning it holds
for each of us.
I would ask that each of you consider
carefully your particular motives for being associated with this
organization and to decide whether your objectives are being met.
Jennifer Freyd has been deeply hurt by this organization, as have many
other survivors. Those dealing with real memories of incest are in
turmoil, in pain, and in constant doubt of their own reality. They
feel shameful, anxious, and frightened. It is often easier for them to
believe that they are crazy than to face the truth of their past. This
organization has done them a great disservice. It is particularly
tragic because the needs of a small number of those [who are] truly
falsely accused could have been met without causing such damage.
Pamela J. Birrell, Ph.D.
Freyd, J. (1993). Theoretical and
personal perspectives on the delayed memory debate. Paper presented at
The Center for Mental Health at Foote Hospital's Continuing Education
Conference: Controversies around recovered memories of incest and
ritualistic abuse. August, 1993, Ann Arbor, MI.
Ganaway, G. (1993a). Town meeting:
Delayed memory controversy in abuse recovery. Panel presented at the
Fifth Anniversary Eastern Regional Conference on Abuse and Multiple
Personality. June, 1993, Alexandria, VA.
Ganaway, G. (1993b). Panel presented
at The Center for Mental Health at Foote Hospital's Continuing
Education Conference: Controversies around recovered memories of
incest and ritualistic abuse. August, 1993. Ann Arbor, MI.
Gardner, M. (1993). Notes of a fringe
watcher: The false memory syndrome. Skeptical Inquirer, 17
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and
Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Herman, J., & Schatzow, E. (1987).
Recovery and verification of memories of childhood trauma.
Psychoanalytic Psychology, 4, 1-16.
Ofshe, R., & Watters, E. (1993).
Making monsters. Society, 4-16.
Vaill, P.B. (1990). The rediscovery of
anguish. Creative Change, 10 (3), 18-24.
Memory Syndrome Foundation Advisory Board Members FMS
Foundation Asks Underwager and Wakefield To Resign From Advisory
Board, then Changes Position Ralph
Underwager Responds to Paidika Interview Underwager
Resigns from From False Memory Syndrome Foundation Advisory Board,
Wakefield and Others Remain
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Birrell, Pamela. (1993).
"An Open Letter to the Advisory Board Members of the False Memory
Syndrome Foundation," in Moving Forward, Vol. II, No. 5,
pp. 4-5. Retrieved
from the World Wide Web: http://movingforward.org/v2n5-birrell.html
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