In the early 1990s reports emerged of a new mental illness - false memory syndrome - in which people who had undergone psychotherapy or counselling came to 'remember' childhood abuse that had never actually happened. This was alleged to be an 'iatrogenic' condition - that is, one produced by harmful medical or therapeutic practice.
The culprits were said to be psychotherapists who practice 'recovered memory therapy', based on a belief that many forms of adult distress and psychological difficulties may be caused by experiences of sexual abuse in childhood that had been forgotten or 'repressed'.
It was claimed that such therapists would encourage patients to search for repressed memories, perhaps with the aid of special techniques involving hypnosis. Under the persuasive influence of the therapist, patients might come to believe in the reality of what were, in fact, imagined events, might cut themselves off from their family of origin and, even (in the USA), attempt to sue the alleged abuser, often the father. Protestations of innocence and bewilderment might be seen by the patient merely as evidence of the perpetrator's state of denial and inability to acknowledge his (or her) guilt. In these circumstances both the patient and the family could suffer unnecessarily as a result of misleading ideas promulgated in therapy.
When it became recognised that accusations of sexual abuse were becoming increasingly widespread, lobby groups were extablished to provide support for those accused, and also to promote awareness of the uncertainties of memory and disseminate information about 'false memory syndrome'.
Despite the existence of such organisations whose aim is to represent the interests of the relatives of those sufferinf from 'false memory syndrome', and the widespread coverage of this issue in both professionals and the general media, it is surprisingly difficult to find a definiton of this syndrome. Nor does it appear in any textbook of psychiatry, or any official listing of psychiatric or other medical conditions. However, John Kihlstrom, a cognitive psychologist and advisor to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in the United States, has offered the following definition:
"A condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterised by false memories as such... Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply engrained that it orientates the individual's entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behaviours...the person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory."
This purported syndrome has not been validated, is not listed in official diagnostic texts and no clinical case studies outlining its features have been published in any medical or scientific journal. Nor are there any psychotherapists who would term themselves 'recovered memory therapists'. The depth and intensity of the controversy over this issue would be difficult to exaggerate. A recent review text described the situation as follows:
"From the very beginning, the debate has been characterised by a viciousness unparalleled in th annals of contemporary scientific disagreements. Because of the zealotry, science has taken a back seat. In its place have been wild and inaccurate articulations or 'hyperbole' ad 'rhetorical devices'...that have served, not as science, but as emotional sound bites for a gullible media."
Nevertheless there are legitimate concerns about the reliability of memories of childhood and about misleading assumptions that may underlie the work of some psychotherapists.
False beliefs and false accusations regarding experiences of sexual abuse can cause immense emotional damage and anguish. Our current knowledge of memory shows that it can be subject to a number of distortions. Remembering is reconstructive - like telling a story - rather than a process of accessing an accurate record of an event. It is, indeed, a plausible possibility that certain kinds of 'therapy' or styles of interview that involve suggestion, exhortations to remember, group pressure or abandonment of a critical and thoughtful perspective by both patient and therapist could play on the deceptive plasticity of memory and lead to fallacious narratives of a person's childhood.
However, these processes are complex, and there is considerable ongoing debate about what is involved in the forgetting and remembering of childhood trauma, and also about the nature and extent of harmful therapeutic practices.