Bloomberg FMS book review
Book uses comic strips to challenge false memories

David Bloomberg is the chairman of the Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land (REALL). He can be reached via e-mail at chairman@reall.org.

The State Journal-Register
Springfield, IL

Pamela Freyd and Eleanor Goldstein have seen the horrible pain caused by false accusations of child abuse, and they use an interesting method to relate that to readers of their new book, "Smiling Through Tears," (Upton Books; $14.95). Rather than just telling the reader about False Memory Syndrome (FMS), they show that it has become a social force by reprinting more than 100 newspaper comics that have dealt with the topic.

As they note at the beginning of this book, "With a few strokes of the pen and a few words, (cartoonists) have cut to the heart of the matter."

Using those comics and their text, the authors summarize the views of repressed memory proponents and explain the problems with those beliefs. Repressed memories are supposedly memories of abuse that were so horrible, they were locked away by the mind. Therapists `unlock' these memories to heal the victim. Unfortunately, such a view is not supported by the weight of evidence.

The book is a fast read, with 24 three-page chapters on a variety of FMS-related subjects. The reader gets a lot of basic information, but those already familiar with the subject will not find new material here -- although they still might be surprised at the number of comics that have dealt with FMS.

Those comics, from Doonesbury to Dilbert, appear throughout the chapters related to their subject matter. Most of those strips appeared after the damage had been done and it was easier to laugh. But lives were ruined, families torn apart, and people's own conceptions about themselves shredded.

Our memories define who we are. As the authors note, "Most of us are uncomfortable with the thought that we could have false memories because, after all, we are our memories. We are who we are in terms of what we remember about ourselves."

This makes the specter of FMS that much more frightening. False memories change people -- the one having the false memories and also everybody who knows that person.

Scientists have shown that our brains are not like VCRs. We cannot store and retrieve memories exactly as the events happened -- especially when the events occurred long ago. We reconstruct our memories, and when those memories are influenced by therapists using suggestive methods, such as hypnosis, the result could be false memories.

In scientific procedures, a claim should be backed by evidence. In therapy, however, a claim is often taken at face value with the goal of helping the patient. The problem occurs when the two areas interact, such as when the patient sues supposed abusers. In that case, as the authors note, "If we want to be sure about the historical accuracy of the memory, we need to seek external corroboration."

Thus, allegations of huge, secret satanic cults that murder and abuse numerous people cannot simply be taken at face value. The authors cite several reports from extensive investigations showing a lack of evidence to corroborate these types of claims.

One of the best parts of the book is the discussion of denial. If an accused parent denies having committed the abuse, the accuser simply notes that perpetrators always deny their guilt. The denial is taken as further evidence for guilt, which makes no logical sense. The accused is guilty no matter what.

Another "denial" charge is that anybody who is skeptical of repressed memories is in denial of all child abuse. This simply isn't true, and the authors address it well: "We are fully aware of the extent of child abuse and of the terrible consequences that abuse may cause. Society should not tolerate such abhorrent behavior. False accusations of abuse, however, exacerbate the problem of child abuse by creating false doubt about all claims and draining scarce financial, legal and emotional resources from children who need them now."

This book comes at an interesting time. As the authors note in the conclusion, claims of repressed memories are in decline. Several charts show classic bell curves with the height of claims and lawsuits coming in 1992, and with a downward trend since then.

Claims started mostly in the late 1980s, propelled by books along the lines of 1990's "The Courage to Heal," by Laura Davis and Ellen Bass. Comics started appearing about five years later, which the authors take as an indication that the public had become aware enough of the issues to appreciate the humor and incisiveness.

This supports the authors' contention that the repressed memory phenomenon is a type of moral panic, similar to witch hunts and McCarthyism. The stages of such a panic are too similar to ignore: perception of a threat and spread of information of that threat, explosion of concern over the perceived threat, increased skepticism as time goes on and evidence does not support the threat, and finally a reversal such that the only people who still perceive the threat are those on the margins.

While people have spent time in jail and paid out huge cash penalties due to criminal and civil actions where the only "evidence" was a recovered memory, belief in the reality of repressed memories now seems to be heading toward the margins.

It's much easier to smile now than it was a few years ago, but the tears still remain for many families who were caught in the middle of this panic.


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