Moving Forward Newsjournal
Volume 2, Number 5, pp. 4-5
September, 1993
Copyright 1993, Pamela Birrell. Used by permission.
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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 permission.

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 follows:

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, 1987).

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 of memory.

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 (3),370-375.

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.

False 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:

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