Christian Therapist Beware
False Memory Syndrome

Chaplain Paul G. Durbin
Diretor of Pastoral Care. Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital. New Orleans, La.

Dr. John F. Kihlstrom, Ph.D. describes the False Memory Syndrome as a condition that results when the memory is distorted or confabulated so that a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of a traumatic experience or experiences which are false but in which the person strongly believes. The syndrome is diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual's entire personality and lifestyle and disrupting adaptive behaviors. The False Memory Syndrome is especially destructive because the person stubbornly refuses to accept any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own which is resistant to any effort to discover the truth. The person may become so focused on the memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with the real problems in his or her life.

Beware of false memories: We have one mind but two parts: the conscious and subconscious. The conscious and subconscious parts of the mind can be compared to an iceberg. The portion of the iceberg above the surface of the water is the conscious portion and the ice beneath the water is the subconscious portion. The conscious portion consist of about 10% of our thinking ability and the subconscious consist of about 90%. Our conscious mind consist of what is available to our conscious thinking process. It is the analytical, rational, logical, two plus two is four part of the mind. The subconscious is not logical and it contains our emotions, habits, automatic responses, feelings, instincts, impressions and much of our memory. In regards to memory; a thought, image, idea whether real or not repeated often enough or when emotionally charged becomes like a real memory to the subconscious mind.

Some therapist believe that childhood sexual abuse is the specific cause of numerous physical and mental problems which emerge in adulthood. Regardless of the problem, these therapist will began to look for and search for sexual abuse. These therapists are not discouraged to find that the client may not remember any sexual abuse in her history. If given time, they will help client find the memories. I use the female pronoun because of the thousands of patients of Recovered Memory Therapy most are women. These therapists believe that children immediately repress all memory of sexual abuse shortly after it occurs so that it is not available to conscious awareness until it comes forth in therapy. I believe that some sexual abuse is repressed, but I am convinced that generally it is a single event or perhaps a number of events that happen very early in life. I do not believe that a person can be repeated abused over many years including teen years and not remember it.

A few years ago, a woman come to me stating that she had been to a psychiatrist who regressed her back to a supposed sexual molestation by her father. She was considering confronting her father and accusing him of sexual abuse when she was a little girl. Before doing confronting her father, she wanted a second opinion. Before Recovered Memory Therapy, she had no memory of abuse and had always felt very close to her father and was never consciously afraid of him. She had experience a proper and appropriate amount of affection from her father and in spite of her supposed 'recovered memory' loved him very much.

During a regression, I asked her to go back to any experience in her past that could clarify her situation in relation to her father. She went back to a situation that occurred when she was three years old and continued on and off for about two years. She used to like to have her dad rock her on his foot which she called, "riding the horsey." An activity that many small children enjoy without any sexual content. During this time of play, she experienced sexual pleasure and orgasms. Of the first time she experienced sexual pleasure, she said in a childlike voice, "Daddy is holding my hands while I ride the horsey and it feels good between my legs. Something is happening, if feels so good, but I don't understand. The good feeling is coming form where I pee pee."

I asked her, "Is there anyone else in the room with you and your father? She replied, "Yes, my mama and my brother and when I get through riding the horsey, my brother can ride." From this regression, it appears that her father was totally innocent of any abuse and was just playing a normal child's game with his daughter the same way that he played with her older brother who wanted to "ride the horsey."

Following that session, I began to read everything I could on the False Memory Syndrome. I decided that I would prepare a seminar and write an article on "Beware of False Memories" I did this because of the pain and harm that Recovered Memory Therapy was inflecting on clients and their families. Aging parents accused of sexual abuse were often being sued by their adult children because of "recovered memory" without any verification of the reality of their abuse.

Beware of false memories because of the trauma caused to the client who experiences these false memories. Beware of false memories because of the hurt and pain experienced by parents who are accused. Beware of false memories because of the damage to families that results from false memories. Beware of false memories for your own well-being. Many families and retractors (individuals who experienced false memories and are now refuting those memories) are suing the therapist who developed the false memories.

A few years ago, a new therapy system referred to as "Recovered Memory Therapy" caught on with many professional therapist to include psychiatrist, psychologist, social workers, ministers, counselors, and hypnotherapist. In this group, I do not include those who use hypnosis and other counseling techniques to discover past history that might contribute to a present day problem and use it to help the person live better today without destruction of others. I do not included those therapist who work with individuals who have always remembered that they were sexually abused and are working in the here and now to overcome any problems initiated by that abuse.

I am including those therapist who plant false memories and encourage their clients to confront, hate, break with and sue parents for something that may or may not have happened years ago. These therapist generally believe that just about any adult problem is caused by sexual abuse and this is especially true of women. For example all women with eating problems were sexually abused as a child whether they remember it or not. In all my reading, I did not find this to be as assumption for men with eating disorders. Based upon my finding and interpretation of those finding, I consider Recovered Memory Therapy to be based on bad assumptions and the results is bad therapy.

From books and other materials which I have read, a pattern tends to occur with striking frequency. These sessions began with a client coming to the therapist with a presenting problem other than sexual abuse. Regardless of the presenting problem, the therapist tends to assume that if a person has certain symptoms that is proof of childhood sexual abuse. The abuser is usually assumed to be the father and/or perhaps the grandfather, and may also include the mother and grandmother well as others. The symptoms that indicate that the person has experienced sexual abuse includes but is not limited to eating disorders, headaches, vaginal infections, sleep disorders, stomachaches, dizziness, problems maintaining stable relationships, warring baggy clothes, obesity, depression, or low self-esteem. Anyone may face one or more of these symptoms during their life time, but the Recovered Memory Therapist acknowledge only one cause: repressed memories of childhood abuse.

With this motivation, the therapist next step is to convince the client that she was abused whether she can remember abuse or not. If the client says she was not abused, the therapist will often respond that the denial is another proof of her childhood sexual abuse. It is similar to the witch trails at Salem. Those suspected of being witches were thrown into a pond. If they floated they were guilty and burned. If they sank, they were innocent but dead.

The client is told that only by believing in the sexual abuse and recovering memories of abuse can she be healed. Whether the clients accepts the diagnosis or continues to deny, they are are often encouraged to read one of the so-called survivor's books like The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal Workbook by Laura Davis, Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffect in Women by E. Sue Blume, The Emotional Incest Syndrome by Patrica Love, Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery Sexual Abuse by Rene Fredrickson, and The Sexual Healing Journal: A guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Wendy Maltz and a host of other survivor books.

Once the client is convinced that her problems can be cured by remembering childhood memories of abuse, the therapist uses a variety of techniques to help the client uncovered repressed memories. Among these techniques used are hypnosis, sodium amytal, guided imagery, age regression, progressive relaxation with suggestions, trance writing, body memory group survivors work and many other such therapies to get to the so-called repressed memories. As a certified clinical hypnotherapist, I use most of these technique. Except for sodium amythal, it is not the technique that I have problems with, but with the way it is used or rather misused.

Among many stories told by Eileen Franklin of how she recovered memories of her father, George, raping and killing her friend years before was from a flashback. She told her brother that she recalled the incident while under hypnosis. She told her sister that the she became aware of the killings from a dream. At her fathers trail, she told the jury that she had remembered the murder during a flashback triggered by when looking at her own daughter's face. Based upon Eileen testimony of the recovered memory, George was convicted of murder and sent to jail.

Recovered Memory Therapy is bad therapy because it makes assumptions that are not valid, it rewrites a persons history with very painful results, it makes the client very dependent on the therapist, separates clients from their natural families, it causes the client to induce some very emotionally painful experiences which comes only from the imagination and quite often makes the client worse instead of better.

Perhaps nothing fueled the flames of the fires of recovered memory therapy as much as the books by survivors mentioned above. Do these books provide good advice to help women recover memories or do they tend to implant memories? During the twentieth century, few books have done more harm than the Bass and Davis book The Courage to Heal which is considered the bible of the Recovered Memory Therapy movement. Early in the book the claim is made "If you are unable to remember any specific instances like the ones mentioned above and still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did." The book continues "Often the knowledge that you were abused starts with a tiny feeling, an intuition... Assume your feelings are valid." Another statement to prepare the soil of the mind for implanted memories is "If you have unfamiliar or uncomfortable feelings as you read this book, don't be alarmed. Strong feelings are part of the healing process. On the other hand, if you breeze through these chapters, you probably aren't feeling safe enough to confront these issues. Or you may be coping with the book the same way you coped with abuse - by separating your intellect from your feeling." They have got you whether you are feeling uncomfortable or if you are feeling nothing. Either way the authors assumes that you were sexually abused and they will go to any lengths to recover the memories without regards to the truth.

The authors encourages women to separate themselves from their "family of origin", to sue their parents, to disassociate with anyone who does not support their claims and hate those who they discovered abused them. The book tells of one woman who claims that she was abused by her grandfather went to his deathbed and , in front of all the other relatives, angrily confronted him right there in the hospital. Forgiveness may be considered, but is not encouraged and in fact is discouraged.

I believe that forgiveness can contribute much to healing. Habitual grudges, resentment, smoldering rage, the war within plays havoc with our health and well-being and weakens our resistance to disease and/or emotional illness. We need to forgive those who have harmed us. That does not mean that we condone what they did nor do we need to have a close relationship to that person. By forgiving them, we release ourselves from the power that they hold over us. We need to forgive even when the person who has harmed us do not ask for nor deserves our forgiveness. Whether the person is living or dead, we need to forgive in order to free ourselves from the power that person has over us. This is true regardless of what has happened to us including sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

I am reminded of Sandy who came to me for counseling. Sandy was a 21 year old lady who had been sexual abused by an older brother who was seven years older than she. Sue was a Christian but was having trouble forgiving her brother. She was concerned because of Jesus said "forgive and ye shall be forgiven." She could not be freed until she could forgive him. He had not asked her for forgiveness nor was he visibly sorry for his abuse. The forgiving act of Sandy did not change her brother, but it did change her. After several sessions covering many issues, she said that she was ready to forgive her brother. I said, "In your imagination, you are setting in a chair on the stage in front of your brother. Now prepare to forgive him even if he does not request forgiveness nor deserves forgiveness. She said, "I forgive you brother for the sexual things you did to me as we were growing up. I forgive you Robert. In so doing I release myself from the power that you have had over me. The power that made me feel guilty, has prevented me from fully enjoying sex with my husband and has weakened my self-esteem. I am now free to live my life joyfully." Sandy lives a much happier life and responds joyfully during sexual relations with her husband.

There is a concerted effort to make the patient experience the emotional pain of rape, sexual abuse and other horrible experiences through abreaction. They have the client relive the supposed abuse and thereby releasing its power. (Most hypnotherapist use abreaction as a releasing technique, but most of the time the therapist will have the patient distant themselves from the pain and view the experience from a safe place or as if it were on a TV screen.) The Recovered Memory Therapist persuades their clients to literally feel the pain of the rape and torture and the humiliation of their supposed experiences. In their book Making Monsters, Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters state, "Although we don't suggest that these recovered memory therapist take sexual pleasure from these abuse 'recreations,' some recovered memory therapist perhaps deserve recognition as a new class of sexual predator."

The client is encourage to have a confrontation with their abuser and/or abusers This is usually done in the therapist office with strict guidelines. Supported by the therapist and perhaps others, the client generals reads from a prepared statement. They lists a variety of accusations such as "you molested me when I was six months old, you raped me when I was four until I was seventeen. Mother you let it happen. You did nothing to stop him and in fact you assisted him and molested me also."

The parents are not allowed to challenge the accuser and if they say that the abuse never occurred, they are accused of being in denial. Sometimes the accusations are made over the telephone or in a letter with similar letters written to other family members and friends. During these confrontations there is usually a demand for the parents to pay for therapy and additional sums of money for the pain they caused the survivor. If they don't get what they want from the confrontation, they quite often sue and most of the so-called survivors books encourage them to do so.

Recovered Memory Therapist encourages clients to give up their natural families to included any relatives who does not agree with the client concerning the alleged abuse. The authors of The Courage to Heal suggest that one should separate themselves from the cause of their problems which in their terms is "the family of origin." Their tendency is to picture the family as poison for the client and destructive to the client. Fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles and added to that list; mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts who either participated in the abuse, allowed it to happen without interfering, or did not believe the accusation of the survivor.

About 20% of adults who remembered childhood sexual abuse while undergoing Recovered Memory Therapy eventually recalled being victims of satanic ritual abuse (SRA). A recent survey funded by the US government stated that among 6,900 psychiatrists, psychologist, and social workers; 70% had never seen an SRA client, most of the rest had handled one or two, but l.4% had over a 100 cases. Much of the current beliefs about satanic ritual abuse goes back to four books: Michelle Remembers, Satan Seller, Satan's Underground, and He Came to Set the Captive Free. All of these books were written by authors who claimed to be either victim or perpetrator. The most influential of the four is Michelle Remembers by Dr. Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith. SRA survivors have similar memories of abuse. They remember evil, robe-covered adults, candles, knives, an altar and countless horror stories of being breeders, having to kill their babies and eat the babies, of being put in graves with snakes and spiders, and other such experiences.

The Recovery Memory Therapy Movement has many cult-like qualities. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary definition of cult is a group with a "devoted or extreme attachment to or extravagant admiration for a thing or ideal, especially as manifested by a body of admirers; any system for treating human sickness that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific." Generally a cult will claim to be the only way to God, Nirvana, Paradise, healing, and such. Some characteristics of a cult are: (1) Their leader/s may claim a special revelation. The therapist is the leader and develops a situation where the client depends upon on them for salvation. (2) They believe that they have the whole truth. Everyone is a victim and needs to recovery the memories of abuse in order to be whole. (3) They use intimidation or psychological manipulation to keep members loyal to their truth. If one says they experienced no childhood sexual abuse, they are said to be in denial. (4) Members will be expected to give substantial support. The cost of therapy is high and can go on for years. (5) There is great emphasis on loyalty to the group and its teachings. You must accept the diagnosis of the leader and allow yourself to discover the repressed memories of abuse. (6) Members are encouraged go give up their natural families for the family of the cult. The survivors group is to take the place of the family of origin and the family of origin must be denounced.(7) Members will look to their leaders for guidance in everything they do. During treatment the client becomes overly dependent on their therapist. (8) Any questioning of the group's teaching is discouraged. If one suggest that they have no sexual abuse history, the group ridicule them and say that they are in denial. (9) Attempts to leave may be met with threats. The client is told that they can never heal until they have dealt with their abuse and cannot make it on their own.

Some guidelines for therapist: (1) If the therapist is going to bring up the possibility of sexual abuse, it should be part of the patient history intake information and should be one question among many. The question may be "Were sexually abused as a child?" If the answer to that question is "No." accept the answer. (2) Do not diagnosis sexual abuse based on the client's symptoms. (3) A therapist should not assume that sexual abuse has occurred because a person has periods from her past that she can not remember. (3) Be aware of how you word questions or suggestions so that you do not lead a person to have false memories. (4) Be aware that because of books, TV/radio programs, magazines articles and newspaper articles that false memories may have already been planted before the client come to you. (5) Understand that memory can be distorted even when the person is in a hypnotic state. (6) Work toward coping with life in the here and now rather than focusing on the past especially with repeated emotionally reliving painful experiences whether real or false. (7) Do not put a client without clear and detailed memories of abuse into a survivors therapy group and then only if the group deals with adjusting to the world in the here and now. (8) Do not advise a client to read The Courage to Heal or any other book written by a so-called survivor. (9) Be careful when using progressive relaxation, suggestions, guided imagery, hypnosis, or other hypnotic like states that you do not give leading suggestions of abuse. (10) Be certain that you are not meeting some sexual need of your own by helping your client come to share with you sexual abuse whether real or false.

(11) If you were sexually abused as a child, do not assume that everyone else was abused also. (12)

Question your motives before you suggest that a client confront and separates from her natural family. (13) Do no harm.

Continue to use hypnosis to help others come to terms with life and thus live a better life, but beware of false memories.


Bass, E. and Davis, L. (1994) The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. 3rd ed. NY: Harper Perennial.

Blume, E. S. (1990) Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women. NY: Ballantine.

Dawes, R. M. (1994) House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth. NY: Free Press.

False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 3401, Ste 130, Philadelphia, PA. 19104-3318

Fredrickson, R. (1992) Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse. NY: Simon & Schuster.

Goldstein, E. and Farmer, K. (1993) True Stories of False Memories. Boca Raton, FL: SIRS.

Goldstein, E., with Farmer, K. (1992) Confabulations: Creating False Memories, Destroying Families. Boca Raton, FL: SIRS.

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Loftus, E. and Ketcham, K. (1994) The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse. NY: St. Martin's.

Maltz, Wendy. (1991) The Sexual Healing Journal: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse NY: Haper Collins.

Nathan, D. and Snedeker, M. (1995) Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. NY: Basic Books.

Ofshe, R. and Watters, E. (1994) Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria. NY: Scribner.

Pendergrast, M. (1995, 1996) Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives. Second ed. Hinesburg, VT: Upper Access.

Stephens, R.L. (1996) Hyponsis and False Memories. Freeport, PA: Ziotech.

Underwager, R. and Wakefield, H. (1994) The Return of the Furies: Analysis of Recovered Memory Therapy. Chicago: Open Court.

Wassil-Grimm, C. (1995) Diagnosis for Disaster: The Devastating Truth about False Memory Syndrome and Its Impact on Accusers and Families. Woodstock, NY: Overlook.

Yapko, M.D. (1994) Suggestions of Abuse: True and False Memories of Childhood Sexual Traumas. NY: Simon & Schuster.

(c)1997 Paul G. Durbin. All rights reserved.