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What is False Memory Syndrome?

The concept of a horrific memory being repressed by the brain only for it to dramatically re-surface later is a common plot device in modern movies and novels. However, the phenomenon of apparent victims suffering sudden flashbacks of past crimes is not limited to fictional cases.

Real life criminal cases have been brought on the basis of repressed memories recovered by therapy but there is a perception that they may have more basis in fiction than actual events. The emergence of False Memory Syndrome as a defence to recovered memories of criminal acts has had important and controversial implications for criminal law, particularly in relation to sexual offences.

Recovered Memory v False Memory Syndrome

Proponents of False Memory Syndrome (FMS) believe that traumatic recovered memories are often influenced by non-real events which are falsely remembered during therapy sessions. However, the condition is not recognised by official mental health diagnosis.

A couple falsely accused of sexual assault by their daughter set up the British False Memory Society in 1992 to increase awareness of the phenomenon. The Society's underlying concern is that in many cases it is poor therapy which is implanting or contributing to ‘memories', leading to false accusations of sexual abuse.

A sexual assault prosecution in Britain was dropped with some publicity in 1996 when experts advised that the alleged victim could be suffering from FMS. In that case it was argued that FMS was brought on by the alleged victim seeing similar storylines in the TV shows Brookside and Cracker and reading Courage to Heal; a book which argues that people may have been abused even if they have no recollection of the abuse.

In a high profile American lawsuit, in 1997, $10.75 million was paid out by the insurers of a psychiatrist to a former patient for negligent care after the patient later retracted memories of recollections of satanic ritual abuse and other trauma.

Conflicting Evidence

False Memory Syndrome and recovered memory are controversial subjects among psychiatrists and psychologists and a number of conflicting studies having been carried out to investigate both FMS and repressed memory.

A study from Royal Holloway, University of London found that it was rare for memories to return during therapy and, despite the claims of FMS campaigners, no scientific evidence existed to support the proposition that therapy resulted in widespread production of false memories. The study did not conclude whether or not such memories were true but it did conclude that the assumption that they were all recovered during therapy was wrong.

On the other hand, a Harvard study into historical instances or references of repressed memory found that the condition appeared to originate around the nineteenth century, with the best known example being Dr. Manette in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. This study suggested that the cause may be more cultural than neurological and that the challenge now fell upon anyone who believed that repressed memory was real to explain its absence from accounts in earlier historical periods.

Conclusion

False Memory Syndrome and repressed memory are still very much contested ground. Despite examples of FMS being used successfully as a criminal defence, those wishing to rely on it will have an uphill battle proving the condition. It is only likely to have a reasonable chance of succeeding where the prosecution relies solely upon an alleged victim's testimony and there is clear evidence that therapy induced the memories.

Useful Links

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