The role of False Memory in Abuse Denial

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When a child is sexually abused, it is done within the context of a manipulation of love and trust.

For an abuser to achieve his or her goal of sexual gratification, the victim is persuaded to look on the act as “normal” interaction. Even worse, they are then sworn to silence through threats of violence or harm that may come to the abuser or the classic “this is our little secret”.  An essential part of recovery from child abuse issues is the ability and opportunity to name the abuser and remember and deal with issues surrounding the abuse. This often comes years later when the child becomes an adult and after years of dysfunction is finally ready to get their life together. However, convincing others of the facts is not always an easy process. There are, of course, many areas of society that prefer to believe that child abuse does not happen or happens “to those other people”. There are also governments and managed care systems who fail to provide efficient resources to victims to aid recovery, sending a sublime message that there are more important things to think about. That said, I believe the biggest obstacle to victims talking about their experiences is the accusation of, so-called False Memory Syndrome. This painfully describes a common tactic by abusers to deny the abuse by saying that the child imagined or “made-up” the abuse for whatever reason.

Denial of abuse by the abuser has been going on for centuries. Abusers come from all walks of life or background and can seem “normal” people making it hard to believe that they could have committed such a crime. However False Memory Syndrome (FMS) is being increasingly used as a defence by abusers even in court where lawyers gladly defend such concepts. There is even an association exactly for this topic, formed by lawyers and parents accused of abuse who freely publish dubious scientific evidence and publish networked articles about the number of cases involving children who “suddenly” remembered something. While I am not saying that memories cannot become distorted, we are treading a fine line here. Interestingly, most of the executive members of the association have been accused or their representatives who vouch for them in court, hardly an objective bunch. Equally important is there is no accepted diagnosis by the medical profession or study been done that can validate these claims. One can now see, given this kind of media attention that many abuse victims choose to retract their stories, mainly after being convinced that “couldn’t have happened”, usually by the abuser.  This could have something to do with official figures published by the US Department of Justice that states that of the estimated 50 to 80 million (yes, million!!) US citizens who have been the victim of some form of sexual abuse, only 5 million are in therapy or recovery programs. Of these, less than one million have confronted their attacker and less than three percent of those cases have been deemed “false”. When a case does come to court, with False Memory Syndrome as a defence, many abuse survivors are not willing to be grilled by “memory experts” called in by a team of lawyers to defend their client at all costs. Often the client is a giant insurance company fighting a compensation claim. Since the 80’s and 90′, being a “memory expert” is a growth area.

Memory is a strange thing and can play tricks on us at the best of times. Abuse victims often completely block memories as a defence mechanism and, of course, there are those who lie, those who truly cannot remember and those whose memories are distorted. However, as long as we allow the victims to be “punished” over again by the abuser and the system that often protects them, the rate of conviction for sexual abuse will not increase.

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner's approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients' internal "parts," or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this. My black dog still bites me, many, many years after the abuse has happened. I may not remember all the exact details, but I most certainly remember many details.

  2. Thanks for this invaluable post, Dr. Jenner. I think you know my story, but it’s pertinent to your topic.
    As a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of my parish priest, I was sworn to silence by threats of harm to my entire family when I was 10 years old. When I finally came to terms with the effects of that abuse in my life 20 years later and was ready to face my abuser in court, the fear of disbelief by my family made it too difficult to proceed. Although I had told two of my most trusted siblings about the abuse before my mother died, it wasn’t until after her death that I could talk more freely about it to my family.
    It might seem incredible to some but, after almost 50 years, I’m finally working with a law firm to bring my story into the justice system. Fortunately, in Canada the law has changed considerably about abuse events by authoritative figures and the statute of limitation no longer applies.
    I agree that the thought of being drilled in court or in a room full of lawyers might be difficult, but I will no longer be threatened by the fear that ‘experts’ might try and twist the truth about my memory of the events. I hope my story will bring awareness to parents about leaving their children unsupervised with people they think they should trust, and that it will help some innocent child escape such abuse.
    As always, thank you for your delivery of another difficult subject that needs to be addressed!
    Enjoy your week! 🙂

      1. Gloria Romlewski

        Thanks, Dr. Jenner! It feels like something I need to do to better my life. I thought it would be helpful to others to describe some factors that make it difficult it to come forward in the first place, let alone face the ‘experts’. It takes strength but brings more in the process.
        Have an amazing week! 🙂

  3. Ellen

    Thanks for posting this. This baloney ‘syndrome’, false memory, has hurt me and all the survivors I know, even if we’re not accused of it. It’s like one more stick to beat ourselves up with. Or for others to use.

    1. Yes, difficult it certainly is. However, we do need a legal system that supports victims coming forward and helps them to tell their story. At the moment that is not the case.

      1. vicbriggs

        I agree. It is important that a support system should be put in place and that there is greater awareness of what support is available already.

  4. Cat's Meow

    Thank you for posting this. I have a dissociative disorder because of childhood abuse. Unfortunately for me, the point when the memories started to break through also was at the height of the False Memory Syndrome frenzy- the early/mid 90s. It did terrible damage to my ability to believe myself.

    I have no siblings and only bits of corroborating evidence, so everything hinges on whether I believe myself or not. However, who wants to believe that her father abused her? In many ways, it seems to be better to feel crazy and unable to trust your mind than to believe the things that your mind is telling you. The whole False Memory thing makes it so much easier to cling to that damaging denial.

    True, memories can be distorted and a good therapist helps to keep a person grounded and from going off into flights of nightmare driven fancy, but being cautioned to proceed slowly is far different from being told that nothing that you believe can be true, simply because your father is “too nice of a guy.”