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The Truth About False Memories

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The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more, with host Avery Trufelman.

You needn’t have taken a psychology course to be familiar with the idea of false memories. It’s even a trope in television and film: “Are you sure the memory wasn’t implanted? Perhaps you were brainwashed!” But anyone who has taken Psych 101 knows where the notion gained validity — the 1995 “Lost in the Mall” experiment, which concluded that if you are told something happened to you as a child, you’re inclined to believe it and that we’re all susceptible to false memories being implanted in our minds. The Cut senior writer Katie Heaney has spent the past year exploring the limitations and ramifications of the study for a New York Magazine feature. She focused on the stories of two very different psychology professors, one whose life was torn apart and one whose career was made.

In 1990, Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, accused her father, Peter, of sexual abuse.

JENNIFER FREYD: I have snippets of memories from when we were living in New York, and I think I was around 3 [years old], plus or minus 6 months. There were things that were in the category of weird, but I told myself some story around them. It was very … a sense of everything was shaken. I probably at times was trying to make sense and remember things, and other times I was trying to not, to get it out of my mind.

Jennifer’s parents denied her accusation. Her mother, Pam, escalated the matter, publishing a rebuttal article, “How Could This Happen? Coping With a False Accusation of Incest and Rape,” in a small academic journal. Before long, she and Peter would found the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which worked with others who claimed to have been falsely accused of abuse based on fabricated childhood memories.

KATIE HEANEY: That name, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, sounds super-scientific, but false-memory syndrome has never been given any diagnostic criteria. It’s not in the DSM and isn’t really recognized as a psychological condition. I actually went to visit the archives of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in upstate New York. There are file cabinets full of letters from what they call the False Memory Syndrome Foundation “families,” which is two thousand-plus individuals and couples who’ve been accused by one or more of their adult children of child sex abuse.

One of the academic advisers they recruited to the foundation’s board was Elizabeth Loftus, the author of the Lost in the Mall study.

HEANEY: Elizabeth Loftus is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine now. Up until 2001, and for most of when this story takes place, she was a professor at the University of Washington. She has had a prolific career — side career, second career — as an expert witness for the defense.

Loftus testified for the defense in the 1990 George Franklin case, in which the accused’s adult daughter, Eileen, claimed she had recovered memories of watching her father rape and murder her childhood best friend 20 years earlier.

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: And supposedly the daughter had repressed her memory for 20 years, and now the memory was back. If the daughter’s memory wasn’t real, where could all of this detail come from? And so for a few years, I tried to figure out, How could I study this? I came up with the idea, Why don’t we try to make people believe and remember that they were lost in a shopping mall? 

AVERY TRUFELMAN: And then in 1997, just two years after the original mall study came out, a new study presented a real rebuttal. It was conducted by Kathy Pezdek, a cognitive psychologist at Claremont Graduate University. 

KATHY PEZDEK: Getting lost in the mall is a very plausible event. So planting a memory for that is one thing, and it has nothing to do with trauma. 

TRUFELMAN: In Pezdek’s study, she presented 20 subjects with one true memory and two false ones. One of the false memories was again being lost in the mall, and the other was receiving a rectal enema.

PEZDEK: We replicated the Loftus study using the Lost in the Mall scenario: exactly the same materials, same coding scheme, everything. But we found that when we used this other event, which was implausible, everyone said, “No, that never happened to me.”

Three of the 20 people remembered having been lost in the mall, but none remembered the enema.

PEZDEK: The typical response was “No fucking way. That didn’t happen.”

HEANEY: What Pezdek wanted to demonstrate, which I think she did, really effectively, is that we can only be made to “remember” things that seem plausible to us. For most people, rectal enemas are not a plausible childhood event, so they’re not going to develop a false memory of that, even if a relative tells them it happened. The natural response to something that incredible is to push back. And when you make it something as genuinely traumatic and stigmatized as child abuse, the average person just won’t be easily convinced that happened to them.

TRUFELMAN: It’s probably not impossible, but Pezdek’s research suggests that actually … very few people might be susceptible to false memories of child sex abuse. And that the percentage is likely much, much smaller than the “quarter of participants” that Loftus’s study found and that Loftus continues to cite.

Loftus has consistently cited her findings in expert testimony over the years on behalf of figures including Harvey Weinstein, Scooter Libby, Ted Bundy, Michael Jackson, and Bill Cosby. In many of those cases, she argued, what the accusers were recounting might be a false memory. Then, on New Year’s Eve 2019, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation abruptly announced it would dissolve.

HEANEY: Pam and Peter are in their 80s, and nearly half of the board members listed on their website are marked with this morbid parenthetical, “(deceased).” I think that they see themselves as having completed the work that they set out to do. They really did shift the narrative. 

The false-memory-syndrome idea provided this really powerful criminal defense for people accused of sexual violence, but it’s also this really reassuring explanation for anyone who wants to believe that child sex abuse isn’t common. And I think that’s something that most people want to believe because it’s a horrible thing to think about. But given what we know, it just isn’t that rare. The child-abuse-prevention nonprofit Darkness to Light reports that one in ten children are sexually abused before the age of 18. That’s one in seven girls and one in 25 boys. There’s still a lot we don’t know about child sex abuse because it’s something that people don’t tend to report. It’s a very taboo issue. Most victims feel ashamed.

That being said, it’s unlikely that every single allegation of child sex abuse is fact or that it happened exactly as the person remembers it, because that’s just not how memory works. And we do know that some people sometimes say things happen to them that didn’t. But it’s also unlikely that they’re all made up. And between those two ends, there’s this whole range of possibility where we have to acknowledge that child sex abuse does happen.

To hear more about the controversy behind the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and its origins, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Truth About False Memories