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Recovered Memories/False Memories: A Psychiatric Perspective

The Letter, Issue 15, Spring 1999, Pages 117 - 124


RECOVERED MEMORIES/FALSE MEMORIES:

A PSYCHIATRIC PERSPECTIVE

Peter Byrne


Introduction

False memory syndrome (FMS), as a concept, is a complete misnomer. As it describes a situation where someone reports a version of events which did not happen, it is not a memory. When we first challenged its status as a 'syndrome',[1] commenting that it had been elevated to the status of syndrome by the media and pressure groups rather than mental health professionals, we drew a sharp response from both the US and UK FMS pressure groups.[2] [3] The use of the word ’false' in the title can also be criticised: when an amputee describes pain in the missing limb, the condition is called a phantom limb,not false limb syndrome. Evenpsychiatric conditions where the patient tells lies, pseudologa fantastica and Munchausen's syndrome, have a softer ring to them than false memory syndrome. Not only has the term FMS become widely acceptable in scientific and professional circles, but it has become the starting point for discussions about child sexual abuse, the value of and basis for psychotherapy and latterly, psychiatry.

The Either/Or Discourse

The FMS debate has frequently been reduced to two positions: the allegation of child sexual abuse (CSA) is true, and circumstances have prevented disclosure until adult life, or the allegation is false, and may have been encouraged by the process of psychotherapy. Both views are sustainable, although extremes of each position exist and are easily discredited. Our experience[4] identified many instances where an allegation of CSA was made and subsequently withdrawn: psychiatric diagnoses included psychosis, depression, learning disability, intoxication, undue influence by another person and hysteria (in its classic sense). One of our cases had epilepsy, and experiences 'more real than memories' have also been documented in people who had parts of their cerebral cortex artificially stimulated.[5] It became clear to us that FMS was possible (not certain) in only a minority of the fourteen cases we studied. With one exception (a patient with vague recollections who had a chemical abreaction procedure which preceded a series of complex allegations), all cases presented with the CSA allegation, and could not be said to have been inspired by the process of psychotherapy or their psychotherapist.

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