The False Memory Syndrome and its Implications in Primal Therapy

By John A. Speyrer

Sexual abuse of children is a worldwide phenomenon. In our country some estimates are that one child in six has been molested. But there is one phenomena which is almost as disturbing as being sexually molested as a child, and that is being falsely accused of molestation.

I think it is time that the primal movement begins seriously examining the issues raised by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. The FMS Foundation was formed in March of 1992. Its objective is to challenge findings in some psychotherapies which they claim uncover early childhood sexual molestation which really never existed. Lately there has been much discussion on television talk shows, in books and in magazines about accusations leveled against various therapists whose clients felt that, during psychotherapy, they had been implanted with the idea that they were incest victims.

Many of the purported FMS victims subsequently confronted their parents (very often their father or step-father), verbally or occasionally in courts of law, about their alleged abuse which had resulted in alienation from their families. Some of these victims later retracted their accusations that they had been sexually molested and concluded that the idea of their molestation had been implanted by their therapist. They claimed they were victims of the False Memory Syndrome and called themselves retractors. They realized what great harm they and their family had suffered when they made the false accusations, and it has become for them a cause celebre to attack their therapists and even the concept of repressed memory.

How did these problems arise in the psychotherapy movement and get to this point? The concept that repressed sexual trauma causes psychic disabilities had its origin in the theories and early writings of Sigmund Freud. He found that a large number of his hysteric patients recounted child sexual abuse. Although stunned by these revelations, he documented some of the case histories in Studies in Hysteria, (1895). However, so pervasive were his findings of sexual childhood trauma in the households of upper class Victorian Vienna that he had some doubts as to its reality.

So from either a sense of doubt or from lack of courage of his convictions, he later renounced his early findings and instead theorized that his patients were fantasizing their early memories of molestation. Some authors have contended that this changed the direction of the psychoanalytic movement in subsequent years (For an interesting book on this subject, see The Assault On Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory by Jeffrey M. Masson).

The issues with which the False Memory Syndrome is concerned, have polarized some members of the psychotherapy community. Because of the lack of courage on the part of Freud, some therapists feel that their patients' memories are "made up,'' while others seemingly overcompensate for Freud's hesitancy, perhaps seeing abuse where none exists. Charles Hanley, in a review of Masson's book (Int. Journal of Psychoanalysis 67:517-521), insists that Freud did not disavow his earlier findings. He writes that Freud ``amended them, to make them correspond with the facts, and he brought them into relationship with the discovery of infantile sexuality and its potential for pathogenesis.'' Hanley says instead that it was Masson who suppressed Freud's seduction theory by his choice of references and that Freud continued to recognize the sexual abuse of children.''

This point may never be resolved since Freud has written extensively on many subjects in abnormal psychology, at times even contradicting himself. As in quoting the Bible, one can mine Freud's writings to prove that he held any particular stance. Be that as it may, the ignoring or not stressing the importance of the trauma theory of neurosis in Freud's writing after Studies in Hysteria probably delayed the discovery of primal therapy by Arthur Janov by many decades.

When I first heard of the False Memory Syndrome I concluded that its victims were sexual abuse survivors who were in denial. But the more I thought and read about FMS, the more I began to believe that an explanation of denial was perhaps too simplistic. I think the primal community should begin considering the possibility that some memories which are accessed in primal therapy may be partly confabulated.

We all know that some primals are very subtle. That does not mean that they do not have a factual basis in reality, but because of their subtlety, they may be subject to possible misinterpretation by both therapists and patients. As we know, the material elicited from the unconscious by primals is frequently incomplete and it may take a number of re-connections or re-livings before the specific content of the trauma material becomes clear. It is during this period of time when I believe that it may become easy for the primal patient to confabulate, that is to fill in the blanks of unclear parts of the primal material with fantasies of "what could have happened.''

Some primal reliving which might fit in this category could be past lives experiences, sperm, ovum and implantation primals, ritual abuse primals and primals dealing with satanic cult abuse. I have not heard (as of yet!) of primals of alien abductions (That's when some extra-terrestrials in UFOs abduct earthlings to have sex or perform surgical experiments on them!), but I would not be surprised if such testimony of those re-livings will be forthcoming in the future.

Are primalers who are reliving some events victims of an over-active imagination? Many who are not in primal therapy would unequivocally answer in the affirmative. And while I do believe that some type of memory can be implanted at the cellular level, where does one draw a line between implausible yet possible and definitely impossible primal re-livings? Is there no limit to what is possible in primal re-livings as there is in holotopic breathwork therapy? In the future will we be hearing about some primalers re-living their past life as a mosquito, or re-experiencing the evolutionary phylogeny of our species?

I must admit that if I had never experienced birth primals, I perhaps would have questioned their reality. Nonetheless, those of us who are convinced of the reality of primal re-livings lose any credibility which we might have previously had with non-primalers when we assert that it is possible to re-live crib experiences. But even more raise their eyebrows in gestures of disbelief when we recount the belief that re-living one's birth is possible.

Our descriptions of intra-uterine relivings allow even more individuals to ridicule the whole concept of primal therapy. But what kind of a credence from other professionals or even from family and friends can we expect when we say that we have reexperienced our own fertilization and/or our life as a sperm and ovum?

Problems with communication don't stop there, for some of us go beyond cellular consciousness and proclaim that re-living traumas of prior lives makes it possible to alleviate present day emotional problems. At this stage, how much credibility remains for the primal concept with those outside the primal movement? Not much, I fear.

Should those who believe in the possibility of experiencing past lives or gamete cell primals, for example, be disavowed by the primal community? Of course not! But embracing all theories, even those which lack an iota of scientificity, detracts from the credibility of primal therapy. Perhaps these primals are in areas where science cannot investigate, and primalling will always be ahead of scientific discoveries which might validate some of its more abstruse concepts.

In discussing the problem of accepting without proof such ideas, Ashley Montagu in the foreword of Elizabeth Noble's Primal Connections rather kindly and generously writes that:

. . . speculation is the lifeblood of the scientist. . .The scientist believes in proof without certainty, while others believe in certainty without proof. But before one can get to proof one must speculate, even fantasize. The trick, of course, is not to fall into the error of mistaking one's speculations or fantasies for facts or certainties.

When repressed trauma is uncovered in primal therapy, what responsibility should a therapist have to determine, and to encourage his patient to determine, where truth ends and confabulation of memory begins? Should not the primal community at least express an opinion rather than ignore discussions of the False Memory Syndrome before the concept of repressed trauma becomes suspect even by those who should know better?

Some FMS advocates do not deny the possibility that repressed memories exist. However, they incorrectly believe that detailed memory points to the presence of confabulation. Those who have retracted their accusations believe that some who seek psychotherapy are unusually suggestible. They believe that when this susceptibility is coupled with hypnotism or with a therapist very anxious to uncover sexual trauma, then a situation is set up which encourages a patient to fabricate untruths.

A psychotherapist, either in primal therapy or in any other therapy, should never conduct the therapy with an agenda of attempting to uncover certain specific traumas. Implanting an idea into a patient's mind of what is the cause of his emotional or psychosomatic problems is unprofessional and unconscionable.

So what you do you think? How frequently, in primal therapy, do false memories occur? Do they occur at all? Has a false memory in primalling ever occurred to you?

A primal recounted to me by a friend involved his being untimely removed from his mother's breast before he had had enough milk. Seeking more information, he contacted an aunt who informed him that he had always been a bottle-fed baby and had never been breast fed due to his mother's breast disease. However, it is conceivable and not improbable, that his mother did make at least one attempt at breast feeding. So this example would not necessarily be a false memory. Instead, I pose these questions to those of you who have experienced (or whose clients have experienced) re-livings of definitely impossible, or of highly improbable proportions.


I received the following from Allen Esterson:

Reference to the "False memory syndrome" webpage. I note it reports the received story that Freud's seduction theory patients told him they had been sexually abused in childhood. As a number of scholars have now demonstrated, this stroy is false. You may be interested in a critique of both Freud's seduction theory claims and Jeffrey Masson's account of events in my History of the Human Sciences article "Jeffrey Masson and Freud's Seduction Theory: A New Fable Based on Old Myths", vol 11, no. 1 (1998) pp. 1-21. An abridged version, plus contributions to a discussion, can be found on the Seduction Theory website

As I document, Freud's accounts of the seduction theory episode are grossly misleading. For a start, he did not arrive at his theory because his patients reported sexual abuse in early childhood. That was the (false) story he told later. He alighted on the seduction theory in early October 1895 before he had claimed a single instance of uncovering early childhood sexual abuse among his patients. Then, only four months later (early February 1896), he completed two papers in which he claimed that for every one of his patients (a total of 16 at that stage) he had "traced back" by analysis (ie, essentially by the analytic interpretation of symptoms) to an infantile "sexual scene", in corroboration of his *preconceived* theory.

See also my forthcoming paper "The Mythologizing of Psychoanalytic History: Deception and Self-Deception in Freud's Accounts of the Seduction Theory Episode", History of Psychiatry, Vol. 12, Part 3, 2001. Also forthcoming is my paper "The Myth of Freud's Ostracism by the Medical Community in 1896-1905: Jeffrey Masson's Assault on Truth", History of Psychology, May 2002.

I will be happy to answer any questions you have on the seduction theory. Please direct any queries to: Allen Esterson