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How the “false memory defense” continues to silence abuse survivors

Survivors of childhood abuse face countless challenges when they take the courageous step of speaking out. Many tried to speak up as children. Their concerns went unheeded, swept under the rug or, worse, used against them to trigger backlash and retaliation. As landmark laws like the New York Child Victims Act have opened the courts to adult victims of childhood abuse, more are coming forward to pursue accountability and justice. But they still encounter a needless hurdle that has silenced survivors for decades: the “false memory” defense.

The troubling roots of the so-called “false memory syndrome”

The false memory defense claims that victims of childhood abuse can’t be trusted because their memories are unreliable. This defense originated with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) in the early 1990s. The organization’s founders had an agenda: They were parents who had been accused of sexual abuse by their daughter (now a prominent and well-respected trauma researcher). They embarked on a well-funded media campaign to disseminate the myth of “false memory syndrome” — a scientific-sounding marketing term with no grounding in credible research.

The campaign was wildly successful. Over the course of three years, the percentage of media coverage treating abuse memories as unreliable soared from 20 percent to 80 percent.

The unsavory proponents of the false-memory defense

Numerous disreputable figures have been involved in the FMSF over the years. One of its founding members and advisors went on the record in favor of pedophilia as a legitimate sexual preference. (He was subsequently pressured to resign from the organization). Another, a psychiatrist, had a troubling career as a researcher for MKUltra, the covert mind-control program run by the CIA from the ’50s through the ’70s that experimented on unwitting civilians. One branch of that program used children as undercover sex workers to elicit intelligence. When the children started to speak out against the abuse they’d endured, the psychiatrist discredited their memories as crazy and unreliable.

The shortcomings of the “Lost in the Mall” study

Despite the vacuum of credible research supporting it, false memory syndrome remains a powerful tool for suppressing abuse survivors. So-called “experts” like Elizabeth Loftus have built entire careers (and lucrative ones, at that) on testifying against survivors in high-stakes cases like the Harvey Weinstein trial.

Loftus and other false-memory proponents rely heavily on a single study in which researchers manipulated adult subjects into mistakenly believing they’d been lost in a mall as children. The “Lost in the Mall” study was full of holes, and its conclusions had no bearing on traumatic memories. Trauma is stored and processed much differently than benign events like getting lost in a mall.

What’s more, plenty of research shows that those in a position of power — priests, teachers and parents — have a tremendous ability to convince their victims that abuse didn’t happen. When survivors do the hard, exhausting and often decades-long work of unearthing those memories, they are met with unfounded accusations that their memories are unreliable.

The damaging myth persists

Although the FMSF abruptly shut down in 2019, the false memory defense lives on as a means of discrediting abuse survivors. It’s a powerful form of gaslighting. It undermines survivors’ trust in themselves and their memories. And, sadly, it’s one more way that survivors are retraumatized when they find the courage to finally speak out.

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