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The Difference Between Beliefs and Memory

I agree with Gudjonsson and Coons that distinguishing belief from memory is helpful at times and that we are dealing with cases of false belief and not simply with cases of false memory. However, I am not sure that the distinction can be used to reliably distinguish different cases of FMS. One may believe one was abused without having a memory of the abuse. However, having a memory of being abused that one believes is false is also possible. Although one's memory for an event certainly implies a past event, it does not necessarily imply belief in that event. Persons may or may not "trust" their memory and the phenomenology of memory needs deep investigation. Certainly we can agree that Beth believed she was abused without ever really having a "memory" of abuse. However, she (falsely) believed she was having memories. If one believes that a memory is present, separating the two may be difficult. Recall that Beth's therapist told her she needed to get more memories (rather than develop a stronger belief that she was abused). In retrospect, Ann said that she never really had a "memory" of being abused, but at the time she accused her parents, she stated that she "remembered" abuse. Doris's "memory" of satanic abuse clearly involved a source misattribution and a replacement (confusing her refusal of the proffered real baby with the cult's seizing of an imagined second baby). At the time Doris believed she had a memory but now she might simply say that she had a belief. Cath now believes she had "memories" of abuse that she now knows are false, but she cannot access these "memories" without regressing to the little girl who created the memories under the guidance of her therapist. Does she currently have "memories" of abuse?

To recapitulate, I am not sure if we can reliably distinguish between false beliefs and false memories in FMS cases. However, it is true that in retrospect, both Ann and Beth would say they had false beliefs whereas Cath and Doris would say they had false memories.

The Relation Between FMS and False Confessions

Kassin points out that striking parallels exist between FMS and internalized false confessions, and his studies demonstrate how we can take advantage of these similarities to advance our understanding of FMS. In both cases an authority figure claims to have privileged insight into the person's past experience and the person, vulnerable and socially isolated, becomes convinced of a horrible "truth" that he or she must have "repressed". This similarity is evident when FMS appears to be induced by mind control because in both cases the person's confidence is undermined, information is controlled, and the narrative is suggested by the authority figure.

The similarities are striking and important, but we may also want to articulate the difference between FMS and internalized false confessions. In FMS (at least in the mind-control variety that may be most similar to false confessions), the person has an emotional dependence on the therapist and is led to sever ties with the disbelieving family. One assumes (although this bears scrutiny) that this is not so when suspects are being interrogated. Thus, FMS may have an aspect of self-deception, a personal involvement in a believed-in-imagining, that may not be present in the internalized false confessions Kassin (and Gudjonsson) discuss. However, this sort of personal involvement may well be similar to the sort of false confessions that occurred in the communist purge trials in the 1930s. I return to this theme when the mind-control model is discussed later.

Adequacy of Sample

A number of commentators raise questions about the small number of cases. Gudjonsson points out that this limits the degree to which generalizations can be made. Kassin, and Lynn, Stafford, Malinoski, and Pintar ask

about the degree to which the sample is representative of the population of retractors or of the much larger population of persons in psychotherapy. Qin, Tyda, and Goodman ask about the extent to which the cases are representative of those reported to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) and whether the cases are representative of retractors in general.

Remember that the four cases were selected by calling everyone within a given telephone area code who had phoned the FMSF to report that they had retracted a charge of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) made on the basis of recovered memories. I was able to reach four of the five such persons and all were included in the sample. A small sample is almost certainly bound to miss variations that occur with low frequency in the population. For example, we know that about 8% of FMS cases are male, and we may surmise that some small percentage are psychotic yet none of the retractors in the sample were male or psychotic. On the other hand, an unbiased sample of four cases is very apt to represent major differences in a population. For example, if a characteristic is found in one half of the population, only one chance in 16 (½)4 exists that the characteristic will not be found in the sample. By including every case within a given area code, I believe an unbiased sample was achieved (unless one thinks that geography is a relevant variable). Hence, I am fairly confident that the sample captures the major variations in the population of retractors. Note that the sample has a rich variation and appears to conform to what we know from larger samples. Thus, one person (Beth) developed a belief that she was abused before she entered therapy, two (Cath and Doris) were hospitalized, and one (Doris) had suffered real abuse (a date rape). Of course we are limited in the type of generalizations we can make. For example, we certainly cannot conclude that one half of the FMS population experienced mind control. However, the fact that both the mind-control and narrative models are endorsed by more than one retractor clearly suggests that both processes occur frequently in the general population.

I believe we can regard the sample as representative of persons who call the FMSF to report a retraction, but they are certainly not representative of persons who have recovered memories of sexual abuse. As Qin, Tyda, and Goodman indicate, often the term recovered memory refers to the recovery of details or affect for events that were never completely forgotten. By contrast, the concept of FMS refers only to putative memories recovered from a complete amnesia. (Although only one half of the accusing letters examined by the British False Memory Society [BFMS] explicitly mention a complete amnesia prior to therapy, all of the families in the society report the "memory" to be new.)

For me, the most crucial question is whether the population of retractors represents the thousands of cases reported to the FMSF. How might this be ascertained? Prior to contacting the retractors, I had interviewed families reporting FMS cases in the same area code. I met with all the families who had attended an FMS parent support group in the locale served by that area code. By comparing the stories of these nine families with the stories told by the retractors we can get some sense of whether the retractors seem to represent the FMS cases reported by families.

In one sense the stories told by the retractors completely correspond to those of the families. In all cases an adult child who had been in friendly contact with the family had entered therapy, made accusations of sexual abuse for the first time, and (in all but one case) refused to communicate with members of the family who objected to the accusations.

In another sense, however, the retractors appeared rather different. Three years later, only one of the nine families had a retractor who had communicated with the FMSF (one of the four retractors in the sample). Of the other families, one reported a retraction made to family members but not called in to FMSF, one the complete return of a daughter who acted as though nothing had happened (giving hugs, allowing her parents to be alone with her children, etc., but who stated privately to her mother that she still felt she had been abused), three who reported the beginnings of communication with children (who were in various stages of believing they had been abused), and three who continued to suffer a complete loss of communication with children (who refused all attempts to contact them). If we are to believe the families (and they meet a number of criteria for believability; see de Rivera, 1994), the retractors appear to be unusual in saying that they were wrong. This conjecture concurs with what we know about how difficult most people find giving up false beliefs (see Festinger, Riecken, & Schacter, 1956). Thus, at least from the point of view of families reporting FMS cases, the retractors are representative of how FMS occurs but are not representative of how it is relinquished.

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