A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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reader comments: false memory

17 July 2009

Dr. Carroll,

I always read your site with great enthusiasm and interest. I have many things to say about many topics but I will limit my thoughts to just one.

I recently reread the "Multiple Personality Disorder" topic and would like to share a bit of my story and some information that so far I have not seen researched by anyone who supports MPD or not.

I completely agree that MPD is a socially constructed disorder.

I had a very difficult youth. I was always a very odd child: intelligent, creative, gifted...but something was never quite right about me. I never did well in school because I wasn't interested and I never had any friends. I was very naive, lived in my own world, and didn't understand the world around me. Despite my intelligence I was placed in special ed and diagnosed with various learning disabilities.

At eleven I was finally taken to a therapist because of self-harm and severe depression. [The therapist] decided that my father had sexually abused me. This belief, that I must have been abused in some way, went on for about seven years. In the meantime, I was placed in institutions, hospitals, had various types of therapy, etc.

I NEVER believed that I had been abused. It never made any sense to me because I didn't remember it. My father was always kind to me and cared for me. But I didn't remember anything [abusive]. Wouldn't I remember something like that? No one could convince me that I had ever been abused in any way (except abuse by my therapists and the psychiatric system).

At nineteen a doctor ... told me that I had high-functioning autism. Finally, I knew what my problem was and that none of my symptoms were related to "abuse." I am now 21 and still recovering from my horrible therapeutic and psychiatric abuse.

I find the socially constructed theory of MPD particularly intriguing considering that I have autism. As you may or may not know people with autism have extreme difficulty understanding social situations: I cannot grasp "subtle" behavior, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. I lack empathy and have no "Theory of Mind," meaning, basically, that I think everyone knows what I know. I do not understand anything political or social, and so never follow any social "fad."

As you have read, I NEVER believed that I had been abused. No one could ever convince me. Could this be because I have autism, because I am not socially motivated in any way to "please" anyone? I would be very interested to know if people with autism could be "tricked" into having a mental disorder like MPD. (Of course, many people diagnosed with autism today don't have it, but the "epidemic" of autism is another story...)

I did a bit of research and found a study that stated that people with autism have increased discrimination in false memories.

I really do not find this surprising considering that "false memories" of any type, not just of abuse, seem to be socially motivated in some way or another: high functioning autistic people tend to be very logical and rigid, sticking to facts, rarely lie, and they are obviously not socially motivated.

Needless to say, I find this all very interesting. Since I had many therapists attempt to convince me of false memories for years and I never believed them, Is it because of my autism, the fact that I am not socially motivated/interested? Would other autistic individuals be able to be convinced that they had a mental disorder considering their severe social impairments?

I realize such a study could not be done due to ethical reasons, but the premise is interesting. I have not yet come across anyone else with autism who has had therapists attempt to plant false memories in them, so I try to share my story and information when I can.

(name withheld by request)

reply: It is known that patients often want to please their doctors and report falsehoods and errors to them in an effort, apparently, to please those providing treatment. This is sometimes referred to as "patient politeness or subordination" (the patient doesn’t want to disappoint the healer). It is certainly possible that not being disposed to want to please anyone would tend to make a patient less likely to go along with a therapist's claims that the patient was sexually abused by her father when she has no memory of such abuse.

As you note, however, an important element in your not believing that you were abused, despite your therapist's speculation that you were, is the fact that you have an excellent memory. The study you found, "Increased discrimination of 'false memories' in autism spectrum disorder" by David Q. Beversdorf et al., found that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are able to discriminate false memory items from true items significantly better than are control subjects. Furthermore, their results also suggested that high-functioning ASD individuals have unusually high memory capacities.

On the other hand, many individuals who have not been diagnosed with ASD have been led to believe they have MPD by their therapists. It is certainly possible that some individuals with ASD might have been similarly misled.


25 Apr 2002

RE: Repressed Memory Therapy Article. Please check your references against this article which provides an intelligent analysis of this issue, that contradicts your article as cited above. It appears that your research has fallen short: http://www.feminista.com/v2n10/cutlerpage.html

(name withheld by request)

reply: I'm afraid it is your research that has fallen short. The article you assert is an "intelligent analysis" of the issue is a diatribe and consists of little more than appeals to authority, straw man caricatures, and a litany of ad hominem attacks, including the vicious allegations against James Randi that have been making the rounds in low places for years. Juliette Cutler, the author of the article you cite, seems to have made no effort to find out if these allegations are true. She just passes them on because they fit her agenda. 'Randi is a bad man. If a bad man is on the board of the False Memory Foundation then that foundation must be bad. If it's bad, then their arguments about false memories must be bad.' In case you don't understand, that was a paraphrase of the reasoning underlying Cutler's "intelligent analysis." Of course, she does not state her poor reasoning so blatantly, because its inadequacy would be too obvious. She makes similar ad hominem attacks on Elizabeth Loftus and the founders of the FMF. Again, no effort seems to have been made to determine if these charges are justified, not that being so would make the charges any more relevant to the issue of whether false memory therapists have been abusing patients on a grand scale.

Cutler's straw man argument consists of her underlying assumption that one must deny there are any repressed or lost memories if one is to be critical of therapies based on the assumption that most emotional problems are due to repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Nonsense. Her appeals to "the literature" to support the claim that various mechanism have been used by psychologists to explain forgotten traumatic experiences is irrelevant. One does not need to deny there are any lost memories to be critical of repressed memory therapy. On the other hand, Cutler has made no effort to understand the issue in terms of what is known about memory and therapy. Where is her reference to "the literature" on what we know about how memory works? Where is her reference to "the literature" on abusive therapies? They are completely lacking from her diatribe.

Finally, to justify being critical of repressed memory therapy, one does not have to deny that there are some people who have abused children but who claim those they abused suffer from "false memory syndrome." It has been said before by critics of repressed memory therapy, but it bears repeating: the real victims of bad therapy have been those who have had their memories of abuse created by therapists and those who have been abused but who are not believed because of the suspicions raised that they are just trying to evoke sympathy or attention, or that their memories, like so many others, are false memories.

postscript: I think you will find that of all the many charges of sexual abuse being made lately against Catholic priests, few, if any, of the accusations have come from those who have remembered the abuse while under treatment by a recovered memory therapist. Many of them have been in treatment because of their abuse. Most have remained silent, not because they forgot what happened to them, but because they were threatened, paid off or convinced that they should suffer in silence for the good of Mother Church.

post postscript: (April 28, 2002) Yesterday's Sacramento Bee had an article by Dorothy Korber regarding a 39-year-old woman who four years ago claimed to have had a recovered memory of five years of sexual abuse by her parish priest beginning in 1974. She claims that "the memories of her molestation first flooded back as she watched a television documentary on pedophiles during the late 1980s." Then, in 1988 she followed "the advice of sexual assault counselors in Washington" and reported the alleged molestation to the Vallejo police. The priest was never charged with any crime by the Vallejo district attorney. To this day, the priest denies the charges.

While it is impossible for us to know with absolute certainty whether the priest molested the girl, there are facts we do know.

  • the alleged victim claims she was sexually abused by the priest from ages of 11 to 16

  • for 20 years she did not remember the abuse and did not report it

  • while watching a television program on abuse the memory of her own abuse "flooded back"

  • her parents claim the priest babysat their daughters and that they walked in on the priest in bed with the girl

  • the diocese of Sacramento and its insurance company paid the alleged victim $350,000 in a confidential settlement that the alleged victim has not kept confidential

  • the alleged victim's sister, who shared a room with her, does not remember any of this, including the night that the parents claim they saw the priest in bed with their daughter

  • the priest married the daughter who doesn't remember the abuse of her sister, apparently without protest from the parents

  • the parents invited the priest to their home for dinner and for counseling after they allegedly found him in their daughter's bed

  • the priest denies he ever served as a babysitter for anyone

  • he denies he abused the girl

  • no other charges of abuse are known to have been made against this priest by anyone else in the thirty or so years he has been a priest (see below: another charge has been made)

The fact that her parents, who are now separated, both claim that they saw the priest in bed with their daughter when she was 12 seems most damning. Why would they make up such a story? Who knows. Perhaps they are telling the truth. But perhaps they are protecting someone, another person who is called 'father.' Perhaps the girl was abused by her own father, but rather than face such a thought, she has transferred the source of her abuse to another 'father,' her parish priest.

I must admit it would be odd to find a parish priest babysitting teenage girls. It is even odder to think a child's parents would be so stupid as to invite an abuser to dinner, request that he counsel them, and allow him to marry their other daughter. And it is certainly not consistent with what we know about trauma and memory that a girl who was abused from the ages of eleven to sixteen would not remember it until her memory was jarred by a television program twenty years later.

It is not odd for people to lie to protect people they love or fear. It is not odd for people to be confused about source memory, even about such things as sexual assault. Nor is it odd for the mind to reconstruct memories that distort the truth. Finally, it is not odd for insurance companies to settle cases, even when the accused is innocent.

I don't know who is telling the truth in this matter and neither does reporter Dorothy Korber. Yet, her story is clearly sympathetic to the alleged victim and her parents. Why? Perhaps because journalists have declared it open season on Catholic priests. The media did this once before with child care workers. This time there should be no excuse. There is a way to tell the John Geoghans and Cardinal Laws from others who are accused with evidence that is underwhelming.

I find it more than just interesting that the Bee placed the story of the allegations against the priest on the front page juxtaposed to the story about the the boy who killed 18 people in a German school. (I'd link you to the article but the Bee took it down the day after the story ran.) On the same day, a story about the arraignment of a local man who shot and killed his girlfriend, abandoned their 18-month old son by the San Francisco airport and then fled to France where he was caught a few days later and held for four years while he fought extradition, was buried on the 3rd page of the Metro section.

update: (May 1) Dorothy Korber, the author of the Bee article responded to my criticisms by telling me "You're wrong"and "There were other instances over the years that were corroborated by her sisters and her parents." Korber thinks this strengthens the case against the priest, but I think it weakens it. If they knew of other instances over the years and these were corroborated by her sisters and parents, then it makes it more inexplicable why the parents would continue to invite the priest to the house and let him perform the marriage of one of their daughters.

update: (June 15, 2002) Jennifer Garza, Bee staff writer, had the lead story in today's Sacramento Bee: Lincoln priest suspended over 2nd allegation. This is the same priest Korber wrote about. Very little information about the new charge is given by Garza. A woman alleges Brady "molested her" more than twenty-five years ago and the Bishop is reported as having called the allegations "credible." Garza writes that the charge is unconnected to the earlier charge by another woman and was received via a hotline set up last April "for victims to report allegations of sexual abuse to the diocese." "Law-enforcement officials" have been notified and are investigating the charge, according to Garza, as is the church. The priest has been put on "administrative leave" pending the outcome of the investigations.

update: (June 26, 2003) Jennifer Garza reports in today's Sacramento Bee that Ilah Duplantis "is suing the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, alleging she was molested by the Rev. Vincent Brady for several years in the 1970s and that the resulting stress has caused permanent health problems." Duplantis says "she was molested by Brady from 1974, when she was in the eighth grade, until 1979" while she was working in the rectory of St. Vincent Ferrer Church in Vallejo. According to Garza, Duplantis told her parents about the abuse in 1986. "In her suit, Duplantis says she didn't realize the impact the alleged sexual abuse had on her until reading a 2002 newspaper account about a lawsuit against Brady."

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