The Repressed Memory Myth

You may well get justice in Lilliput, but you are going to go through hell to get it in the United States. Although a victim of false allegations may have a valid civil rights claim for wrongful charges pressed against him, those most responsible for the persecution usually escape punishment.

Prosecutors and mental health workers try to hide behind a cloak of immunity. And even if that cloak can be pierced by showing that they abandoned their official roles and thereby lost their immunity, it is highly unlikely that they will ever be held personally responsible for the damages. If anyone pays, it will be the taxpayers. The taxpayers pay because when a judgment is entered against a prosecutor or mental health worker, their employer picks up the expense.

This problem is shown with fearful clarity in cases involving repressed memory and sexual abuse allegations. Most judges assigned to these cases behave like ex-officio members of the prosecution. They do not extend to the defendant the presumption of innocence; rather there is a presumption of guilt, which is often impossible to overcome.

"False Memory Syndrome (FMS) is a nosociologically unrecognized term referred to an unestablished phenomenon whereby an unknown number of incompetent, untrained therapists implant erroneous memories of childhood abuse into the vacuous minds of an unspecified number of unsuspecting, fantasy-prone, suggestible, female clients." 1

In over 1,000 child sexual abuse, rape and other types of cases in which I have been personally involved, I have not met one real victim who has forgotten that they were assaulted and then remembered it at a later date. Further, the dozens of law enforcement officers and other investigators with whom I have personally dealt, who exclusively investigate these types of cases, have yet to find a victim who has forgotten a violent assault which they had personally experienced.

Quite the contrary, violent crime is an experience that is never forgotten. It is often ignored, or not spoken about, but it is never forgotten.

This article will assist you in defending a client charged in a criminal matter as a result of an FMS claim, or to assist a plaintiff in pursuing civil charges against those who create a memory of abuse and falsely accuse your client.

Exposing the Monster

An accusation based on Recovered Memory Syndrome (RMS) comes at your client like a runaway freight train. Unfortunately, it often comes disguised in the form of an anonymous phone call, an unsigned letter, or at a family meeting which your client has innocently agreed to attend to help facilitate the healing of his or her adult child who is in the midst of some sort of therapy. But when it comes, it comes with all the strength and devastation of a tornado-the announcement being made without warning. Your client is usually male, has raised a family, is retired, and is trying to enjoy the golden years.

Recovered Memory Syndrome

Recovered Memory Syndrome (RMS) is the popular celebrity cause of the 90's. Have an eating disorder?-RMS. Don't get along with your parents and siblings?-RMS. Having marital difficulties?-of course, RMS!

RMS is the perfect diagnosis for the person who has screwed up his or her life. In keeping with the motto, "I have problems, but I'm not responsible for any of them," RMS offers the perfect excuse for every ailment. It is the employment act that gives therapists years of income.

Do you find yourself wondering why many therapists never fully document the case? Why there are no videotapes of these sessions when the most horrible, outrageous allegations are made? Why there are no audiotapes? Why there are no third parties present? Why notes are destroyed or lost? Why this phenomenon isn't officially recognized by the psychiatric community?

All of the above are questions which the therapist does not like to answer. Jurors, especially, wonder why these steps are not taken to ensure some validity to the allegations.

The last thing the therapist wants you to see are the methods used in getting a client to make these allegations. The reason for that is, of course, the fear of a malpractice suit.

A recent national survey of clinical psychologists found that 1,908 clinical psychologists reported treating no cases of ritual abuse and 785 treating only one or two cases. 2 However, only sixteen of them reported having treated over a hundred cases of ritual abuse each, perhaps indicating that a few therapists may be highly predisposed to see disturbed people as suffering from the effects of satanic cult ritual abuse.

No scientific data has ever been published which supports the existence of RMS. What does feed this monster is rumor, innuendo, slander, and the unethical therapists who go out and beat the drum for it.

David Holmes examined sixty years of research and could not find one scientific study showing that memories can be repressed and then unearthed in their pristine state. He described most of the psychological literature on repression as impressionistic, anecdotal, and speculative. Holmes found no controlled laboratory study support for the concept of repressed memory. 3

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, considered by many to be the foremost expert on memory in the United States today, writes:

Sympathetic therapists like to argue that the repressed memory controversy has been created by pedagogic professors who have no sense of the issue as having a human face. On the contrary, when these traumatic memories are accepted uncritically by therapists, social workers, police officers and attorneys in the absence of any corroborating evidence, the result is the wholesale destruction of families. The ultimate tragedy is that society will begin to disbelieve the cases of genuine abuse that need its vigilance. 4

When you, or your client, are first confronted with the accusations of abuse, it is often uncertain how these accusations came to light. That is because when the accusation of abuse is made to the grand jury or the prosecutor, the therapist and alleged victim will not usually reveal the accusation to be a repressed memory, but will claim that it is a memory that the "victim" is just now able to talk about due to the expertise of the therapist. Withholding this information is designed to make the "victim" appear to be more credible.

What you will not read in the grand jury transcripts, or civil suit pleadings, is that the alleged victim had initially consulted this miracle worker therapist for an eating disorder, or perhaps a marital problem, that could have been treated for around $2,000. What occurs all too frequently is that the therapist offers a "victim" a single unambiguous explanation for complex problems and a very special identity as a "survivor." It also turns that $2,000 eating disorder into a $100,000 multiple-personality disorder. Often the charge is gender-motivated. Since most charges are brought by adult women against male relatives, some critics believe the allegations are prompted by a radical feminist agenda.

But, whatever the reasons, this freight train has an engineer, and that engineer wants everyone to know who is driving this train, but not what his/her qualifications are for driving it.

License and Educational Qualifications

Nurses, doctors, lawyers, and hair stylists are almost without exception always required to undergo stringent background investigations and difficult examinations so that they can practice their craft. Not so with therapists. Twenty-eight states and D.C. have no licensing requirements. For example, in Illinois there is no licensing requirement, background check, or any agency which oversees the qualifications of, or complaints against, a therapist. In contrast, all clinical psychologists in Illinois are licensed. As 90% of the therapists who are proponents of RMS are not registered psychologists, they are able to make the diagnosis with impunity. They are generally protected from civil suits, especially when criminal charges are brought.

However, there is a recent movement towards accountability. In May of 1994, in a case of first impression, a Napa County, California jury awarded $500,000 to a father who had been accused of incest. The father, Gary Ramona, had sued two therapists, a social worker and a psychiatrist who had relied on drugs, hypnosis and other techniques to get Ramona's daughter to claim she had repressed memories concerning incest. As a result of the allegations, Ramona lost his job, his home and his family.

When the investigation turns to academia, never assume that the stated or declared degree received is in fact the one that was received. Often, close examination will reveal that a declared B.A. in psychology was, in fact, a B.A. in education, or even physical education. At a deposition or a trial, it is always useful to have certified copies of the subject's official college transcript. The transcript may provide fertile areas for cross examination during the voir dire phase of any trial.

Killing the Allegation

One of the most substantial issues in these cases is: What did the therapist do to verify the patient's or alleged victim's story? A responsible forensic psychologist will always want any and all written materials available for a complete picture and will insist on seeing the accused and all other available witnesses.

Seldom will the therapist request any of this information, seeing his/her job only as to treat, rather than to investigate. This may be commendable, but when one starts acting as an advocate, advisor, confidant and expert witness, the responsibility should widen.

In your attempts to disprove this fairy tale, your strategy should also include:

  • Contact the Plaintiff's childhood pediatrician. (The pediatrician's record will often reflect severe ailments, accidents, course of treatment, drugs taken, etc.).
  • Ask the accused's family members to submit to polygraph tests. (Any accused or other significant party in your case who passes a legitimate polygraph examination helps bolster their explanation or denial. In most jurisdictions, this is considered exculpatory and thus all or part is admissible.)
  • Obtain grade school attendance records and grades. (School records will expose attendance and disciplinary problems. They will also show special education evaluations, parent-teacher conferences and stability or lack thereof.)
  • Contact and interview childhood friends of the plaintiff. 5(Childhood friends and relatives will be able to tell you the alleged victim's reputation for truthfulness and honesty. They will also be able to recall any significant emotional events that occurred in the alleged victim's life.)

Scorched Earth Investigation

After you have received your retainer, the first order of business is to discover everything you can about the person who has diagnosed the case as RMS.

In either criminal or civil cases, you will have subpoena power. The subpoena for the therapist should demand the following materials:

  • All video and audio tapes in their original state.
  • All notes (raw) and reports. Get a court order preserving the raw notes.
  • All correspondence, invoices, insurance billings, or request for payment to the patient, the District Attorney, and the patient's private attorney.
  • Current copy (dated) of résumé or curriculum vitae.
  • All articles written by the therapist or referred to in assisting the therapist with a diagnosis.
  • A list of all speaking engagements of the therapists.
  • The dates and places of any radio or TV appearances.
  • A list of all workshops and seminars attended by the therapist in the last five years (with a copy of the program).
  • A list of all speaking engagement fees.

After you have gathered these materials, you will have to verify all of the information.

The most critical piece of information-the one that will be most closely examined-is the therapist's résumé or curriculum vitae. This will list the therapist's past employment, licensing information, articles authored, education and so forth. The two most scrutinized areas should be past employment and education, as they are the most self-serving and "massaged" on a résumé. You will find that you will often be able to prove that the résumé is frequently misleading and occasionally fraudulent.

Get into the habit of checking your own experts as well. There should be no surprises at trial! Assume that the other side is checking your expert's credentials as well.

You will also need to find out where this therapist has testified before. Get transcripts whenever they are available. Interview other lawyers who have retained the therapist or have been on the other side. Contact other investigators to see if they have had contact with this therapist. If the therapist has a long established pattern of diagnosing and testifying in this type of case, you will be able to locate other victims of false allegations. They are an invaluable source of intelligence.

Always do a NEXUS check on the therapist. Quite often statements will have been made to a friendly interviewer which are outrageous and without merit or truth.

Check all civil and criminal records for personal involvement of the therapist in any controversial cases. Always ask former employers for salary information. You will usually be able to prove financial bias in these cases.

Your efforts in this area of the investigation are costly, time consuming and, at times, frustrating. However, you will be rewarded if you can prove that the engineer has no qualifications to drive the train.

- Paul Ciolino

"Scorched Earth Investigation" is nothing more than doing your job. You are not manipulating data, nor are you participating in character assassination. Your investigation may even help substantiate a claim of abuse, perhaps not against your client, but another unnamed party. If the therapist if legitimate, a close examination of their credentials and motives will be welcomed. If the therapist is a fraud or fighting for a cause, you and your investigation will be attacked in every way possible. The only way to avoid this is to always act within the law and the ethics of your profession. Always position yourself to remain above the fray. If you present yourself as the finder of facts and a competent professional, you will be able to keep the focus of the case on the therapist, rather than on you or your organization.

De-Mystifying Repressed Memories

Since Steven Cook dropped his sensational $10 million lawsuit against Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago in March of 1994, professionals have been more inclined to closely examine wild charges of sexual misconduct. Suggesting that the most respected member of the Catholic hierarchy was a child molester got even the most disinterested thinking about Repressed Memories.

Once again, the person behind this ludicrous accusation was an unqualified, untrained and unlicensed therapist. The only reason Cardinal Bernardin is not preparing to go to trial today is because the defense investigation exposed these facts.

Michele Moul was the Philadelphia therapist who treated Steven Cook for the stress he was suffering as an AIDS patient. During hypnosis administered by Moul, Cook "recalled" being molested by the Cardinal. Cook's entire case rested on Moul. When the investigation revealed that Moul's masters degree in psychology was earned on weekends, from an unaccredited school founded by a New Age Guru who claims to be the embodiment of a divine spirit, 6 the case fell apart.

It was also learned that Moul had only completed three of the twenty hours required in a course on hypnotism. Needless to say, when these facts were uncovered, Moul and the ten million dollar lawsuit disappeared!

In many recovered memory cases, the "victim" insists that both parents participated in satanic ritual abuse for years. Prosecutors are very reluctant to become involved in these cases because there is seldom any physical evidence to support these allegations.

Kenneth V. Lanning, an FBI agent with the Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, states:

For at least eight years American law enforcement has been aggressively investigating the allegations of victims of ritualistic abuse. There is little or no evidence for the portion of their allegations that deals with large scale breeding, human sacrifices, and organized satanic conspiracies. It is up to mental health professionals, not law enforcement, to explain why victims are alleging things that don't seem to be true. Mental health professionals must begin to accept the possibility that some victims are alleging things that just didn't happen and that this area desperately needs study and research by rational, objective social scientists.

There has been such a public backlash against satanic ritualistic allegations that the mental health community has backed away from the subject. However, they have replaced satanic abuse with just good old-fashioned regular sexual abuse and RMS. Some prosecutors have warned therapists that if the alleged victim even mentions satanic abuse they will not participate in the prosecution.

The poster person for the Repressed Memory movement is actress Roseanne Barr. Roseanne's memories of abuse came after therapy. On the Sally Jesse Raphael Show, Roseanne stated, "I have my first memory of being molested by my mother at six months old." It gets worse. Roseanne has stated that her parents have molested her two sisters, her brother and her daughter. Each of them have taken a very public position in denying these allegations and in the process have become the most famous "abusers" in the United States today.

The aforementioned examples are unusual in that they only involve famous people. The tragedy of Recovered Memory has affected well over several thousand families in the last few years. It is a true epidemic. The only way the epidemic will stop is if competent investigations are conducted by professional investigators.

Finding the Hidden Agenda

In most cases there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to closely question the treating social worker, therapist, psychologist, etc. It will be at this point that your background investigation will be invaluable. The following questions are a must if you are to locate that hidden agenda.

  • Have you ever been the victim of a sexual attack? (Where, when, who, police agency involved, civil suit?, etc.)
  • What articles have you authored? (Where were they published, when, any co-authors?)
  • Are you under contract to any publication for this case?
  • Have you ever accepted any advances or fees from any media source?
  • Have any third parties observed, taped, filmed or been involved in any therapeutic sessions?
  • Do you have a private practice outside of your real job?
  • Are you a stockholder or owner in any corporation or firm?
  • What is your spouse's occupation?
  • Does your spouse have a financial interest in any of your endeavors? (Background questions on spouse.)
  • What experts have you consulted in this case? (Names, dates, topic or point of conversation.)
  • What was the step-by-step procedure in reaching your diagnosis?
  • At what point did you make a diagnosis?
  • What steps did you take to verify any information provided to you by the alleged victim or other sources?
  • Has anyone reviewed your work or given you a written opinion on this case?
  • What are the names of any personnel who trained or supervised the deponent/witness? (Entire career.)
  • What other colleagues have you discussed this case with? (When, where, who, oral or written communications?)
  • Have you ever been sued? (Where, by whom, outcome?)
  • Have you ever sued anybody for unpaid fees, libel, slander, etc.?
  • Who is paying your legal fees in this matter?
  • Do you carry liability insurance or any other type of insurance? (Carrier, limits, past claims; obtain a copy of the policy.)
  • After you have eventually secured the answers to these questions, you will have helped expose the Repressed Memory Myth.

- Paul Ciolino


1 FMS Foundation Newsletter (April 1994). Published by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, FMS Foundation.

2 Buttons, Bette L., Shaver, Philip R., and Goodman, Gail G. Profile of Ritualistic and Religion-Related Abuse Allegations Reported to Clinical Psychologists in the United States. (Available from B. Buttons, Dept. of Psychology, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY)

3 D.A. Holmes, The Evidence for Repression: An Examination of Sixty Years of Research; Repression and Dissociation: Implications for Personality, Theory, Psychopathology, and Health, (1990) Chicago University Press., J. Singer ed., pp. 85-102.

4 Garry, Maryanne and Loftus, Elizabeth F., Repressed Memories of Childhood Trauma: Could Some of Them Be Suggested?, USA Today (January 1994), pp. 82-84. 

5 McHugh, Paul (quoted) in Carol McHugh, Suits Claiming Childhood Sex Abuse on Rise: Lawyers, Experts, Question "Recovered Memories", Law Bulletin, April 1994, published by Law Bulletin Publishing Co. 

6 Woodward, Kenneth L., Petter Annin and Alden Cohen, Was It Real or Memories, Newsweek, March 14, 1994, pp. 54-55.

Reprinted from The Legal Investigator, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, November 1994