Marshalling the Media
1995  Mar/Apr
By Katy Butler

In less than three years, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) has catalyzed a national debate about therapeutic accountability, denial, and the nature of memory. But it began with a painful dispute within a single family that of Pamela and Peter Freyd of Philadelphia, and their daughter Jennifer, of Eugene, Oregon over a shared and equivocal past.

Their account of their once-private difficulties is contained in two documents. The first, by the mother, Philadelphia educator Pamela Freyd, was published anonymously in October 1991, in a small-circulation Minnesota journal called Issues in Child Abuse Accusations. I t was entitled, "How Could This Happen? Coping With A False Accusation of Incest and Rape."

The second was delivered as a speech by her daughter, cognitive psychologist Jennifer Freyd, at a mental health conference in Ann Arbor. Michigan, in the summer of 1993, more than a year after her mother and her father founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. In that speech, later republished in a small newsletter for incest survivors, Jennifer Freyd said, "I remember incest in my father's house."

By all accounts, the trouble among the Freyds began or surfaced a week before Christmas in 1990, when Jennifer Freyd went to her second therapy session with a Ph.D level licensed clinical psychologist who was part of a medical group in Eugene, Oregon.

Freyd was 33, married, with two children. She was also a tenured research professor at the University of Oregon, a former fellow of the Guggenheim and National Science Foundations and an expert on memory. A colleague has described her as a "tough cookie."

But she didn't seem so tough as she sat in the therapy office speaking of her agitation at her parents' impending Christmas visit and a lifetime of uneasiness with her father. During the session, her therapist asked her if she had a history of sexual abuse.

Freyd said no. But later that evening, according to a carefully researched account by Stephen Fried in the January 1994 issue of Philadelphia Magazine, she found herself trembling, overwhelmed by intense and terrible flashbacks of male genitals.

Her agitation continued until two evenings later, when her parents Pamela and Peter, a brilliant and unconventional mathematician who had entered a treatment center for alcoholism in the early 1980s arrived for Christmas. Over chicken dinner that night, Jennifer Freyd later said, her father talked at length, in front of her young children, about how lesbians use turkey basters to inseminate themselves a conversation that Pamela Freyd saw as nothing more than a good-humored and open family discussion.

That night, Jennifer Freyd found herself so inexplicably afraid for the safety of her children that she asked her husband to sleep outside the children's bedroom door.

The next morning, she and her family fled the house, and her husband later phoned the elder Freyds to ask them to take a cab to the airport and fly home. Jennifer, he told them, had remembered being seriously abused by her father.

"I have no memory of that," said Peter Freyd. according to Philadelphia Magazine. "Either I'm psychotic or she's under someone's control."

Not long afterward, Jennifer at her distressed parents' urging but against her therapist's express advice sent her father, via e-mail, an account of vivid recollections of abuse ranging from a molestation in the bathtub at age 3 or 4 to a rape at age 16. She suggested that her parents read The Courage To Heal.

She also began, for the first time in her life, to question what she saw as lifelong family patterns of sexualized conversation and invasiveness. She said she had told about 20 friends about her memories of abuse, including her children's teachers and many of the people the elder Freyds had met on previous visits to Eugene.

To Pamela, who believed her husband's denials almost immediately, the changes in her formerly affectionate and compliant daughter amounted to a shocking and frightening "personality change." She and her husband consulted her former psychiatrist, Harold Lief, who suggested Peter Freyd take a lie detector test and came to believe the eider Freyds. Pamela also went to the library, read the literature of the incest recovery movement, and became convinced that her daughter had manufactured false incest beliefs through exposure to suggestive self-help books and a trigger-happy therapist.

For several months, all of the Freyds communicated frantically by e-mail. Peter Freyd took the lie detector test and passed it, but that had little effect on his daughter.

Things went from bad to worse. The elder Freyds fruitlessly offered to fly Jennifer's therapist to Philadelphia to show her tapes of the lie detector test and other evidence that they said demonstrated Peter's innocence. Meanwhile, Jennifer told her paternal uncle and her sister, both of whom believed and supported her. Jennifer has been quoted as saying that her sister, referring to their shared childhood, responded to her disclosures by saying, "So that's why you had all those locks on your door."

In the summer of 1991, after repeated e-mail exchanges and after negotiations between Jennifer and her mother to arrange a family therapy session failed, Jennifer announced via e-mail that she was cutting off contact for a few months.

That fall, against the express advice of Lief, an anguished Pamela Freyd anonymously published her side of the family story as "Jane Doe." She said she could continue loving her daughter by regarding her as "temporarily deranged" She blamed her daughter's therapist for what Jennifer reported as memories. And in her search for psychological stresses that might have generated what she thought were delusions, .she questioned Jennifer Freyd's academic productivity and inaccurately said that her daughter had left an earlier university job after being turned down for tenure. (In fact, Jennifer Freyd had left one university after being refused a decision on early tenure, and had gone to the University of Oregon because it offered her tenure at 29.) In the article, Pamela Freyd also revealed intimate details that her grown daughter had confided to her about her first marriage, her present marital life, her experiences with breast feeding, her teenage drag experimentation and her college-age anorexia.

Nothing in the article revealed Jennifer Freyd's identity, but in the course of the next year, as Pamela solicited support for her fledgling False Memory Syndrome Foundation, she sent her article to mental health professionals all over the country and spoke to the press, sometimes identifying herself as "Jane Doe."

Four of Jennifer Freyd's departmental colleagues at the University of Oregon received copies of the article while she was being considered for promotion to full professor two from Pamela Freyd directly, one anonymously, and one from a research psychologist who had become a member of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation board.

Jennifer Freyd, who is now a MI professor at the University of Oregon, has barely spoken to her parents since.

In March 1992, not long after the "Jane Doe" article was published the elder Freyds incorporated the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and asked psychologists, psychiatrists and academics, including experts in memory ironically, their daughter's field to join its scientific advisory board. They also asked Jennifer Freyd, who", not surprisingly, declined Peter Freyd, referring in a general way to the Foundation's parent-members, later wrote to Jennifer, "I still insist on thinking of. . the Foundation as being primarily a way of communicating with our daughters.''

The Freyds placed classified ads looking for other accused parents and listed an 800 number that rang in the Minnesota offices of psychologists Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager, publishers of Issues in Child Abuse Accusations and frequent expert witnesses for the defense in child sexual abuse cases. By February 1992, after two supportive columns appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Freyds had been contacted by 180 parents who reported they had been falsely accused of abuse. Pamela continued to contact the press, and a stream off avorable coverage began. More parents called after The New York Times published an article headlined "Childhood Trauma: Memory or Invention?" In April 1993, the San Francisco Examiner published a six-day, front-page series called "Buried Memories, Broken Families"; and Time later published "lies of the Mind."

Jennifer Freyd did not speak publicly about her family for two years after the e-mail confrontation with her parents. Then, in August 1993, visibly pregnant with her third child, she spoke in Ann Arbor before an audience of mental-health professionals. .She refrained from elaborating on what she called her "recovered memories" of events that she acknowledged she could not prove. But she described a long history of what she characterized as invasive and sexualized interactions with her father that she had never forgotten. She said that since she bad told her parents of her recovered memories of abuse, they had invaded her privacy, contacted her elderly mother-in-law and embarrassed her to academic colleagues and family friends.

"I am being punished," she said, "at a national and professional level... for my private and personal memories." The debate was only partly about memory, she said. It was also about "a family in pain"

But at the same time, she revealed intimate details about her parents' private life. She said her parents continued to minimize her father's history of :heavy drinking, and that he had been a "late-stage alcoholic" by the time he was treated for alcoholism in the 1980s and quit entirely. She said he referred to himself as a "kept boy" when describing a year of sexual abuse, at the age of nine, by a nationally known male artist

"At times I am flabbergasted that my memory is considered false' and my alcoholic father's memory is considered rational and sane," she said. "Am I not believed because I am a woman? If Peter Freyd were a man who lived in my neighborhood during my childhood instead of my father, would he and his wife be so believable? If not, what is it about his status as my father that makes him more credible?" She denied her memories had arisen, as newspaper stories and her mother sometimes suggested, through hypnosis. "Terrible therapeutic things did not happen to me," she said. "And yet my story is told as though they did. .. For my parents' sake I hope they can find a way to look inward, to do their own healing, instead of waging a kind of war at the national level"

Jennifer Freyd's speech fell into a black hole, receiving little attention except among professionals in trauma therapy, in the newsletters of incest recovery groups and in Philadelphia Magazine, to which she granted an interview in January 1994. Since then, she has refused to be interviewed by the press. Pamela Freyd continues to say publicly that she knows of no cases in which memories of repeated sexual abuse, over many years, that surface during therapy-as her daughter's did were found to be   corroborated.

In the wake of the Freyd family's dispute,  news coverage of false and recovered   memory has equalled, and sometimes eclipsed, combined coverage of all other issues relating to incest and child sexual abuse.

Between mid-1993 and mid-1994, for example, the three leading news magazines ( Time, Newsweek, and U .S. News and World Report) published 54 pages concerned with child sex abuse. After subtracting 20 pages devoted to Michael Jackson and the Menendez brothers, media researcher Michael Males discovered that 17 pages were devoted to "false memory" and 17 to all other questions related to the sexual victimization of children.

By the end of 1994, more than 300 articles on "false memory" had appeared in magazines and newspapers. Headlines included, "When Tales of Sex Abuse Aren't True," ( Philadelphia Inquirer) "Beware the Incest Survivor Machine" (New York Times Sunday Book Review), and "Cry Incest" (Playboy). Only a handful mentioned the ambiguous nature of the Freyd family's own story. Only a few reporters seemed aware of two excellent research studies, one by FMSF board member Elizabeth Lotos and the other by Linda Meyer WilIiams of the Family Research Laboratory in New Hampshire, suggesting that between 19 percent and 38 percent of sexual abuse survivors have a period of amnesia for abuse.

With some exceptions notably the Boston Globe and US. News and World Report articles quoted a predominance of experts who were members of the FMSFs scientific advisory board without listing their affiliation with it or searching out opposing academic views. On the whole, says psychiatrist Judith Herman, author of Father-Daughter Incest, the coverage "favored the position of those accused of sexual abuse, allowing them to claim the support of educated opinion, while relegating their accusers to the realm of 'mass hysteria.'"

In an article published last spring by Harvard's Nieman Foundation for journalism, Herman argued that only one side of the false memory debate the accused parents were organized and eager to speak to the media, while the other side composed of incest survivors and their therapists often didn't want to identify themselves and wanted mostly to be left alone.

The rules of journalism, Herman said, assume that the truth will emerge out of an intellectual contest between two equally matched opponents who come forward and aggressively press their points of view. "These rules, she said, "are made for the public world, the world of war and politics, the world of men ... The same principles that ensure a reasonable degree of equity in conflicts between men do not ensure equity in conflicts between men and women, parents and children. Rather, they guarantee an advantage to those who command status and power in the public realm; they favor men over women, parents over children."

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation has a yearly budget of about $700,000, funded by dues and by larger grants from more wealthy members, supporters and family foundations. Its members run about 48 local parents' action and support groups in the United States and Canada. In Seattle, as many as 400 people attend local group meetings. Many of its active and vocal volunteers are, like executive director Pamela Freyd, the wives of men who say they have been falsely accused.

The Foundation puts out a newsletter ten times a year and acts as a non-profit public relations group, distributing selected research about memory and advocating deep skepticism about "recovered memories." Lawyers have been featured speakers at a number of recent FMSF events and have been mentioned in its newsletter. "Although we do not actively promote or fund lawsuits, we feel that this may be one avenue that retractors and parents have to hold therapists accountable," said a spokeswoman for the Foundation. The Foundation also acts as a support group for accused parents, provides them with some information when they want to file complaints with state mental health licensing boards, and advocates its cause with professional associations.

Nobody knows how many cases of false accusation and/or suggestive therapy are represented by the families of the Foundation, which does not investigate its members' accounts. But it continues to raise questions about the therapeutic misuse of hypnosis, sodium amytal, incest symptom "checklists," unconfirmed beliefs in Satanic conspiracies, and heavy-handed suggestions that incest must lie behind all eating disorders, sexual difficulties, substance abuse or depression.

The Foundation's large advisory board of M.D.s and PhD.s conveys the impression to the media and the general public that an overwhelming scientific consensus favors the Foundation's position on the rarity of the delayed recall of traumatic events. But, as in every human conflict, especially those involving the more than 200 competing dogmas of the mental health field, "experts" on both sides are motivated and informed not only by research data and the search for abstract scientific truth but by personal experience and education, allegiance to a particular psychological tradition, deeply felt beliefs about human nature, what constitutes probable and improbable behavior, and what constitutes convincing evidence.

The scientific advisory board includes many eminent research-oriented psychologists and several biologically oriented psychiatrists and several prominent older psychoanalytically oriented psychiatrists, but no younger female therapists who have worked closely with incest survivors; and some perennial expert witnesses for parents and other aduits accused of child sex abuse.

Perhaps the best known are: a Biologically oriented psychiatrists Harrison Pope, jr., M.D., chief of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass; and Paul McHugh, M.D. of Johns Hopkins University.

Clinicians concerned about suggestive therapy and excesses in incest treatment, including George K. Ganaway, an Atlanta psychiatrist who treats dissociative disorders and psychiatrist August Piper, Jr. of Seattle, who wrote in a recent Foundation newsletter that he hoped to find ways to bridge the "chasm" between the two sides of the false memory debate.

Cognitive psychology researchers Elizabeth Loftus of me University of Washington and Uric Neisser of Emory University. They and others have shown that normal memory is malleable, that adults sometimes have vivid but erroneous recollections, and that some people, especially children, can be persuaded to report traumatic events that never took place.

They are not therapists and give little credence to research and clinical accounts reporting total amnesia and later recall of traumatic events. "Memory is distorted every day," says Neisser, "while the scenario postulated by these people happens rarefy, if ever." For the past 20 years, Loftus has also appeared frequently as an expert witness for the defense in criminal trials, casting doubt on the validity of eyewitness identifications.

Psychiatrist Martin Orne, an early board member who has spent a lifetime publicizing the suggestive effects of hypnosis. A veteran psychiatrist and nationally known forensic hypnosis expert, he was poet Anne Sexton's psychiatrist, the early 1990s, Orne told Sexton's biographer, Diane Middlebrook, that he believed that Sexton's reports of sexual abuse by her alcoholic father were "pseudomemories." (Sexton had alcohol problems, sexually abused her own daughter, wrote a play about incest, and became sexually involved with her next psychiatrist before committing suicide.)

Richard Ofshe, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeky and a researcher into persuasion techniques used in cults and other authoritarian communities. He was co-awarded a Pulitzer Prize, along with the editors of California's Point Reyes Light newspaper, for reporting about Synanon. More recently, Ofshe has studied persuasion by police who extract confessions and by the incest recovery culture. He was promi-nently featured in a 1993 New Yorker magazine account, which became the book, Remembering Satan, about Paul Ingram, a sheriffs deputy in Olympia, Washington, who confessed to molesting his two daughters and then, under suggestive interrogation, to increasingly bizarre satanic cult rituals and group sex.

Ofshe, in an experiment to prove Ingram's suggestibility, persuaded Ingram, before trial, to "remember" a sexual abuse crime that Ofshe had actually invented, {He told Ingram that Ingram had been accused of forcing his children to have sex with each other, and within hours, Ingram said he'd visualized the scene and confessed to it.) Ofshe and New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright have widely publicized their view that Ingram was probably innocent of everything except suggestibility. The judge in the case found Ofshe's expert testimony on this point unconvincing and found Ingram guilty of molesting fats daughters. The judge noted that Ingram had confessed to those crimes within hours of being questioned by junior colleagues in his department, and before he was subjected to suggestive interrogation and intense psychological and religious "counseling."

In 1994, another Washington state judge described Ofshe's testimony as "cynical" and unconvincing and awarded $150,000 to Lynn Crook, who had sued her parents on the basis of "recovered: memories" of sexual abuse. Ofshe, who appeared on behalf of Crook's parents, testified that Crook had been led, by books like The Courage to Heal and suggestive therapy, into false memories of abuse progressing toward delusions of satanic ritual Superior court judge Dennis Yale disagreed Just as [Dr. Ofshe accuses therapists] of resolving at the outset to find repressed memories of abuse and then constructing them," Yule said, "(Qfshe)| has resolved at the outset to find a macabre scheme of memories progressing toward satanic cult ritual and then creates them,"

In 1993, Ofshe and psychologist Margaret Singer sued the American Psycho-logical Association, the American Sociological Association, and 12 individuals, charging them with having conspired under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to discredit them as expert witnesses and deprive them of income. The defendants disagreed with Ofshe and Singer's views on brainwashing and coercive persuasion in cults, and the APA had rejected as "lacking in scientific rigor" a draft report on persuasive techniques in nonconventional religious movements written by a committee headed by Singer in 1987.

The suit was dismissed within weeks by the federal district court in New York on the grounds that although the defendants expressed disagreement with Ofshe and Singer, there was no evidence of a criminal conspiracy. A similar suit, filed later in California and opposed with the assistance of the American Civil liberties Union, was dismissed last year on First Amendment grounds. Ofshe and Singer have appealed.

Hollida Wakefield and her husband Ralph Underwager, a psychologist, Lutheran minister, and former FMSF Advisory board member. Both run the Institute for Psychological Therapies in Northfield, Minnesota, where the FMSFs original 8 00 number was answered.

Underwager has appeared as an expert witness for the defense in more than 200 sexual abuse trials. He and his wife co-edit Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, which promotes the view that most sexual abuse accusations involving children stem from memories implanted by faulty clinical techniques rather than by genuine sexual contact.

The Supreme Court of the state of Washington has held that Underwager's views are not accepted by the scientific community.

In the mid- 1980s, Underwager testified in a preliminary hearing in Australia on behalf of Tony Deren, whom the Australian press had nicknamed "Mr. Bubbles" because he was accused of sexually assaulting children in the whirlpool bath of his wife's daycare center. In the hearing, Underwager presented as scientific consensus the notion that there are nine "false positives" or false accusations of child abuse for every one genuine case. He also testified that children rarely remember or describe sexual events accurately. After his testimony at the hearing, charges against Deren were dropped.

The "Mr. Bubbles'' case caused a scandal in Australia, and was the subject of an investigative report by "60 Minutes Australia" a television news program. Subsequently;, Anna Saltier, a New Hampshire psychotherapist, and Patricia Toth, a former prosecutor, spoke at several sexual abuse conferences publicizing their opinions that Underwager had severely misstated me research in "Mr. Bubbles" and other child abuse cases. Underwager and Wakefield later sued Toth and Salter for defamation. A federal appeals court dismissed the suit The court's opinion stated that Tom and Salter had come to their views on the basis of their research, and mat their opinion that "Underwager is a hired gun who makes a living by deceiving judges about the state of medical knowledge and thus assisting child moles-ters to evade punishment" -were sincerely held and did not constitute defamation.

Underwager and Wakefield were closely involved in founding the FMSF in 1992, and Underwager spoke frequently as an expert on its behalf on television programs and in newspaper articles. That role ended in 1993, after an interview with Underwager and Wakefield, conducted in 1991, was published in Paidika: the Journal of Paedophilia, which is published in English in the Netherlands, In the interview, the couple stated that they thought pedophile relationships, while never positive, could be a neutral event in a child's life, and said that condemnatory attitudes in the United States made it impossible to conduct research to explore that possibility.

Paidika quoted Underwager as saying, "Paedophiles need to become more positive and make the claim that paedophilia is an acceptable expression of God's will for love and unity among human beings." He also blamed "radical feminism" for child sex abuse hysteria and opposition to pedophile sex.

In the same interview, Hollida Wakefield said, "It would be nice if someone could get some kind of big research grant to do a longitudinal study of, let's say, a hundred twelve-year-old boys in relationships with loving paedophiles . . . that is impossible in the U.S. right now."

Underwager now says "at no point have I approved or condoned sexual contact with children." In a 1993 interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he said in response to criticism of the Paidika interview that he thought pedophiles must begin to take responsibility for their actions and that the interview was a means of speaking to the "intellectual and political leadership of pedophiles in Europe" as a means of primary prevention.

After the Paidika interview appeared, Underwager agreed to resign from the FMSF's Professional and Scientific Advisory Board. Hollida Wakefield remains a member.

IN INFLUENCING PUBLIC OPINION, the FMSF has been a remarkable success. "Major changes in thinking have begun to take place," says Pamela Freyd. "Three years ago, people were strongly advocating the use of hypnosis. Now people are extremely cautious. Three years ago, people were saying that if somebody had a memory, it must be true, and they don't say that any more. When we first started, the assumption was that all the families were guilty. Now people may give all kinds of different estimates, but they recognize the fact that there is a problem." On a personal level, however, things are no better between Pamela and Jennifer Freyd. "Why won't she speak to me?" Pamela asks. "Why are the grandchildren not allowed to see me?" She still hopes, eventually, for reconciliation. "I probably would just have to die," she says, "if I couldn't keep some hope."


1995 Katy Butler.  All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.