When she decided to tell her parents that they couldn’t come to her home for Christmas, Jennifer Freyd hoped she was just having a nervous breakdown.
It was the 18th of December, 1990, and the 33-year-old psychology professor, wife and mother of two was experiencing something much more powerful than the usual preholiday panic. Yes, her parents were coming from Philadelphia for ten days; and, yes, the last time she saw them had been a disaster of tension and bickering that made her wonder if their marriage was in trouble; and, yes, her younger sister had already announced that she was boycotting Christmas until the family agreed to some group counseling. But none of this was new in the family Freyd (rhymes with “cried”): It was what her mother referred to as their “unfinished business.”
What was new was that Jennifer, who had always been against the family getting counseling, had quietly decided to see a psychologist. And while she went into her therapist’s office viewing herself as “this together person ready to deal with some stuff that would make me even more together,” she didn’t sound that way after the therapist’s door closed. In fact, she started crying almost immediately, and during the second session, when her parents’ planned visit came up, she became terribly agitated. It was then that her psychologist asked if she had any history of sexual abuse. She answered, “No, but …” and proceeded to discuss some things that had always disturbed her about her family.
She explained that she loved seeing her mother, Pam, a schoolteacher and education researcher, and had always wished they were even closer. But her father, Peter, she said, “drives me crazy.” He was brilliant and engaging, a conceptual mathematician who got tenure at Penn before age 30 and taught around the world. She saw him as all-knowing but all-critical, loving but invasive and confrontational—especially before he got help with his drinking problem in the early ’80s.
Even now that she was grown up and lived about as far from Philadelphia as one could get without actually leaving the country—in Eugene, Oregon, where she taught at the university—Jennifer still felt anxious about her father. That anxiety had been a secret between her and her mother; Pam didn’t think Peter could bear knowing that when Jennifer was about to deliver her second son back in 1988, she begged her mother to visit alone. But that secret was about to be revealed, along with just about every other secret they ever had.
Jennifer says that a few hours after her second session with the psychologist, she was visited by waking “visions” of rape scenes and male genitalia. That afternoon, when her husband came home early for dinner, he found her crouched in the study, shaking. She wasn’t sure what the perverse images were. Either she was going crazy or these were uncorked memories of what she jokingly referred to—except when she was around her parents—as “the black hole of my childhood.” A National Science Foundation-funded memory and perception researcher, she understood that recall couldn’t always be trusted. But she was pretty sure that whatever these visions were—psychotic hallucinations, she hoped—it was time to tell her parents to make other plans for Christmas. Her husband J.Q. and her therapist agreed.
But then Pam called her, chirpily finalizing flight plans and gushing about her grandsons. Jennifer chickened out, and Pam and Peter Freyd flew to Oregon on December 20th as scheduled. After dinner, the jet-lagged grandparents played with the kids while Jennifer retired to her bedroom. Only her husband knew that she wasn’t exhausted but was on the phone frantically speaking to her sister and then her therapist. Later, she tried to sleep but couldn’t, and gradually she was so consumed by an inexplicable fear that her children were in danger that she made J.Q. sleep on the floor in the hall outside the boys’ bedroom. Before dawn, she woke her husband, grabbed the kids and said they had to get away from her parents immediately. When her groggy mother saw them sneaking out, Jennifer made up a story about having to take her son to the doctor and then bolted.
Several hours later, Peter Freyd answered the phone in his daughter’s house and Pam picked up the extension. It was J.Q. calling. He said that he and Jennifer wanted them to leave immediately. They had already booked them a return flight and arranged for a taxi. The reason stunned them even more than the request: J.Q. said that Jennifer was beginning to have memories of being “seriously abused” as a child. She was remembering her father as her abuser.
“I have no memory of that,” Peter responded. “Either I’m psychotic or she’s under someone’s control.” As Peter asked for even a hint of what kind of abuse Jennifer was remembering, the line went dead.
Christmas was canceled after all. It has been canceled ever since.
My Whole Life is Ruined
The Freyd family is in group agony. Their pain is intense and contagious, and almost everything they have done to try to alleviate it has made it worse.
And they have done a lot. Pam and Peter Freyd are the pained parents of “false memory syndrome”—their theory of how otherwise healthy families are being destroyed by ill-trained therapists who are too quick to believe recollections of childhood sexual abuse, especially those based on “repressed memories actively sought during treatment.” In fewer than two years, the organization they founded in Philadelphia—the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF)—has become the most controversial institution in all of mental health. It has inspired so many ugly professional confrontations and has received so much impassioned media coverage—weeklong series in major newspapers, endless talk shows, cover stories in major magazines—that it’s hard to believe it began in the Freyds’ cramped Center City trinity house and now operates out of a sparse office in University City. For all its impact, the foundation is just two middle-aged academics with active word processors who are convinced that they are no longer allowed to see their grandchildren because their daughter is the unwitting Patient Zero of a new social disease.
False memory syndrome sounds like a medical diagnosis, and some of its proponents believe it should be one. They see the Freyds, who coined the term, as heroes—along with veteran Philadelphia psychiatrists Martin Orne and Harold Lief, who are founding members of the FMSF scientific advisory board, and the late Inquirer columnist Darrell Sifford, who gave the FMSF concept its first national publicity. These supporters, including mental health professionals and more than 7,500 member families, believe the foundation is helping expose a foul byproduct of America’s growing industry of sexual abuse treatment. While they do not deny the existence of abuse, they believe that its prevalence and perhaps its lasting impact have been exaggerated by therapists, self-help books and the media. The nonprofit group functions to help shell-shocked parents deal with “false” charges, many from middle-to-upper-middle-class women in their 30s. Its board members, mostly researchers rather than clinicians, often testify as experts in cases when abuse charges lead to legal action.
The organization’s detractors—including, but not led by, Jennifer Freyd—believe the “false memory movement” diverts attention away from a huge problem (unreported and untreated sexual abuse) and toward a relatively minor problem (false accusations). While they don’t doubt that some overzealous or ill-trained therapists make mistakes, they believe the FMSF undermines the therapy and 12-step programs victims rely upon while offering sex offenders an outrageous new defense strategy. They are baffled by the marriage of a support group to credible scientists who decry the dangers of support-group mentality—like volunteer diagnoses. They wonder how many FMSF parents have “false memories.”
Each side sees the deluge of attention being paid to sexual abuse as the tip of an iceberg. They just disagree about which iceberg. And somehow, what the Freyds think about this debate has come to matter as much as the opinions of the so-called experts. The Freyds have managed to redefine one of the oldest issues in mental health—the reliability of memory—so that their problems, their concerns and their fears now loom in judgment over a hundred years of psychoanalytic colloquy. Because of the foundation, says one nationally known psychiatrist, “therapists are shitting a brick.” This month, for the first time, a California therapist will go on trial for “implanting false memories” in a patient. “It’s not unusual with accusations of incest for a therapist to get triangulated between parents and children,” says another prominent psychiatrist. “But, somehow, this one family has triangulated all of therapy into their situation. It’s like they’ve taken us hostage.”
The tragedy of this intellectually gifted family—four Ph.D.s who fight about the problems caused by therapy instead of getting some—is a case study that might one day rank with “Anna O.,” Freud’s “first patient” of psychoanalysis. This article contains the first in-depth interviews granted by the family, though pieces of their story have already appeared in the professional literature: Pam wrote a journal article under the pseudonym “Jane Doe,” attributing her daughter’s memories to delusions stemming from a shaky marriage and teenage drug use. Jennifer gave a paper at an academic conference in which she questioned her father’s sexuality, detailed his alcoholism and read pained selections from her teenage poetry.
Their story raises fascinating and troubling questions about memory and denial and the science of emotion. But as Jennifer pointed out in front of 200 therapists at a conference her parents were barred from attending, “The FMSF is not just about memory research, it is … about a family in pain.” That may be the only point of agreement left between Jennifer and her parents. “This whole thing is so bizarre,” says Pam Freyd, her eyes filling with tears. “Why am I having this conversation with you instead of my daughter? But then, my whole life is ruined anyway … I can’t take much more of this. I don’t want to live anymore.”
I Always Enjoy a Good Argument
Dr. Peter Freyd is professorial and rumpled, of medium height with brown hair, a bushy, grizzled Vandyke and puffy eyes behind half-glasses. He is one of those people who may deserve to be full of himself but is, nonetheless, full of himself. His specialty in mathematics, category theory, was considered completely abstract until the computer revolution gave it practical applications. Terribly bright, he tends to raise points that are merely hypothetical and then insist that it is someone else’s responsibility to prove him wrong.
Dr. Pamela Freyd has curly, graying hair and cried-out eyes that make her look as if she hasn’t slept soundly in years. She is the Freyd who seems to have had the hardest time functioning since all of this happened. But she is still a dynamo, working on two National Science Foundation-funded projects administered through Penn—a science mentorship program she developed for public school students and a kindergarten science program—besides her endless hours of office work, traveling and late nights on the home computer as executive director of the FMSF. She defends her actions forcefully as the only possible responses to the “unbelievable” circumstances forced upon her, and at some point in almost every interview on the subject, she breaks down.
Dr. Jennifer Freyd is an overburdened working mom who has to try a little too hard to live up to her electronic-mail address: “jjf@dynamic.” (She made her name proving that perception and memory were dynamic, active, changing, and she runs the Dynamics Lab at the University of Oregon.) She is tall, with an upturned nose, deep-set eyes, round cheeks and light brown hair, and she often gets up at 5 a.m. to get some work done before her children wake up. Like both of her parents, she gives herself more credit for self-awareness than she deserves.
The Freyds’ younger daughter wants nothing to do with the debate. Also a Ph.D. who teaches at the college level, she does not speak to her parents or to journalists, but is known to support Jennifer’s view of the family—she believes her sister’s allegations of abuse. Pam, Peter and Jennifer agreed to be interviewed only on the condition that the other daughter not be identified. She will be referred to here as Joan.
The Freyds have always argued. Peter wanted his family to communicate, but what he taught them to do was debate. Or more accurately, Jennifer and Joan—with Pam generally sitting on the sidelines—were taught to tty to prove Peter wrong using the rules of debate. At family gatherings it was not uncommon for Peter to announce a topic and create a lively war of words. “I always enjoy a good argument,” he says. “I am known for getting people to respond to opinions of mine, and I often say tilings to the point of outrageousness to demand disagreement.”
Not everyone enjoyed this as much as Peter. At one of the family’s last Christmases together, Jennifer bolted from the room when the “English is the best language” argument got out of hand. Peter brought up the same topics so many times that one of Jennifer’s boyfriends printed up a list of his proclamations—“classical music is better than rock,” for example—that hangs framed over Peter’s desk. There was even a running debate over whether Peter was a fair debater: Was he really that much smarter than everybody else? Or did he, as his kids felt, take unfair advantage by switching from participant to moderator at will, always giving himself the last word? Sometimes his words were so oppressive that the Freyd household seemed like an intellectual version of The Great Santini.
The family also had a history of arguing about memory. “We kept what they call at Cambridge a ‘betting book,’” Peter recalls, sitting in the FMSF office. “If you and somebody else disagree on something, a fact or a memory, you write it down in the book and look it up later. The last one was a little notebook we kept by the phone. It was a way to keep tally on the imperfections of our memories. I found it useful for keeping myself honest, to remember the number of times I was right about something. It’s humbling.”
“Memory has been an issue for us for a long time,” Pam agrees. “Joan used to call Peter’s memory a ‘flypaper memory.’ I’m sorry, I shouldn’t speak for the girl, but we sometimes got frustrated that Peter would remember things we didn’t.”
Tell the Children I’m Dead
After they were told to leave Jennifer’s home that day three years ago, Pam and Peter stayed in a hotel in Eugene for one night and then flew back East. “We still wonder why we left town,” Pam says. “If I had anything to do over again, I would not have left.”
Once in Philadelphia, they initiated what became a flurry of long-distance communication. Some was by phone, but most was conducted via electronic mail—e-mail, sent computer to computer—favored by academics because it allows them to cram the sending and reading of messages into their busy schedules and because they don’t have to pay for it. A printout of the Freyds’ e-mail covers thousands of pages, documenting a family that has been hurling ideas, feelings and accusations back and forth across the country without really communicating very much at all. Mostly they have argued about what the argument is about.
For several weeks after that Christmas, as most Americans were immersed in the Gulf War, the Freyds were sending e-mail that covered everything buts pecific memories of abuse. Jennifer was still trying to make sense of her memories. She believed intuitively that these “visions” were “repressed memories of actual abuse” burping their way out of her subconscious. But Jennifer had not planned to share her feelings with her parents so early, and she didn’t want what she had already told them to overwhelm her therapy. She was seeing her life in a new way, and she had a million questions about her past, about Pam and Peter and their pasts. She felt she could finally reveal her true self, offering new insights into her teenage drug use, her anorexia in her freshman year at Penn, her brief first marriage to her college boyfriend, her sexual dissatisfaction and her feeling that Peter baited her husband and disapproved of their lifestyle, which was more conventional than his. Via e-mail, she sent poems and letters she had written as a teenager, tortured writings that now made sense to her. She was trying to reintroduce herself to her mother and figure out her relationship with her father.
While Peter continued to say that he had no memory of sexually abusing Jennifer, he still didn’t know specifically what he was being accused of. He was angry and hurt, but he was already trying to figure out how one could logically address such a false accusation. Like the mathematician he is, he was already working on a “proof” for a theorem about Jennifer’s memories. It had occurred to him within an hour of being accused that the proof would include people outside his family equation. He knew he wasn’t the only person in his situation and figured that he could only solve his problem by changing the widespread view that nobody would make such accusations unless they were true.
Pam reacted much more emotionally. She was outraged by the way she had been treated in Oregon—even convinced that Jennifer had set up the whole incident. And she was shattered by both the suggestion that Peter had abused Jennifer and the implication that she had been some “pathetic dodo” of a mother, either oblivious to her daughter’s pain and suffering or unwilling to stop it. But mostly, she refused to believe that she hadn’t known her daughter. She couldn’t match the Jennifer she had known before December 20th with the one she was now struggling to stay in contact with. She was like a hostage negotiator trying to keep her daughter’s kidnapper on the phone.
“At times,” says Jennifer, “I am flabbergasted that my memory is considered ‘false’ and my alcoholic father’s memory is considered rational and sane.”
At the same time, it surprised Jennifer that Pam didn’t just side with her, “I thought my mother would support me as a chance to escape being mistreated herself,” she recalls. “Peter always put down things she said, and for years he said negative things about her mental abilities … and her moods. I actually thought my parents might be getting ready to separate just before this all happened. And I wasn’t upset by that idea.”
After three weeks of e-mail sparring, Jennifer decided to share some of her new memories. She sat down at the computer in her study and spent a Saturday afternoon writing her parents another in a series of e-mail letters labeled CONFRONTATION. And, against the express advice of her therapist, she sent this one. Several hours later, Peter and Pam sat together in front of their home computer. They called the letter up on their Mac and, with growing astonishment, read a series of searing accusations: Jennifer said Peter had molested her in a bathtub when she was three or four and used her body to masturbate. She said he had made repeated nighttime visits to her bedroom, and when she was 14 he began having sex regularly with her. She said that just before she left for college at 16 (she had skipped her senior year of high school) he had raped her in the study of their house.
She said he liked to stick his penis into little children’s mouths and make them gag. The letter referred to other forms of molestation that Jennifer said she remembered but was unwilling to discuss because she thought her father would get “turned on” by them. It also included a cryptic reference to repressed memories that she could “not even get close to” but suspected were “more horrible.” The letter ended with a threat that Peter would never see her or her children again unless he got “healed.”
Later, Jennifer would wish that she had waited to confront her parents (most therapists don’t recommend doing it until much further into treatment, if ever) or that she had done it in a letter with less rage. But at the time, she felt great relief. In fact, she sent another message three hours later. In the time-warp communication of e-mail, she was responding to a message Pam apparently had sent before the confrontation letter was posted. This second message was much tamer. In it, Jennifer challenged Pam’s interest in the name and qualifications of her therapist and said that she reveled in not revealing that information, in having some privacy from her parents. She correctly predicted that her parents would think she was psychotic and was being brainwashed. She wondered if they knew how “textbook” their denial was.
Peter was flabbergasted by the messages, but felt it was best not to respond personally. The mother in Pam was in anguish, the wife incensed. She wondered if someone else had abused Jennifer and the memory had been transferred onto Peter. She wondered if Peter could have a side of him she didn’t know about, but immediately decided that was not possible. Pam e-mailed back: “My poor dear Jennifer. No one should have to have such secrets locked away. How horrible … I struggle for understanding … [since] Peter has no memories of all this. I have no memories of all this. In our small house, for so many years, how could all this have happened without my awareness?”
A week later, Pam received an e-mail message that somehow was even more devastating. In it, Jennifer wondered why Pam was so worried about her. She said that expressing herself in e-mail was making her feel much better. She talked about buying the kids blue jeans and taking them out for ice cream. And then she said that she felt very supported because she had told close to 20 people about her revelation in December. As far as Pam was concerned, those 20 people meant that her daughter’s allegations were public. Her grandchildren had been told that grandpa had given mommy “a bad touch.” Anybody who mattered to Pam in Eugene—where she had been trying to convince Peter to buy a second home—probably knew.
“I think,” says Jennifer, “that’s when Pam said I was supposed to tell the children she was dead.”
The Dog Would Have Barked
The first person Peter and Pam sought for advice was Harold Lief, a psychiatrist emeritus at Pennsylvania Hospital who had been Pam’s therapist for several years in the early ’80s—when she considered leaving Peter if he didn’t stop drinking. Lief had also briefly seen Peter, arranging for him to spend four weeks in rehab in 1982. At the time, Lief wondered what effect Peter’s drinking was having on their children. “She said that the kids were wonderful and the apples of her eye,” Lief recalls. “She gave me no hint of psychopathology. Of course, we now know that isn’t true.” He even discussed the question of abuse with Pam. She had assured him there was none of any kind.
This time, the Freyds were coming to Lief not for psychotherapy but for advice on what to do about their daughter and her memories. At Jennifer’s suggestion, they had read Courage to Heal, the popular self-help book for female sexual abuse victims, and they had become convinced that the “recovery movement” had made it impossible for overzealous therapists to do anything but validate and even encourage such memories—supporting some real victims, but also brainwashing people with malleable psyches. Pam and Peter were especially bothered that, along with the book’s supportive advice for victims, there wasn’t even a mention that memory wasn’t always accurate. One sentence in the introduction even suggested that if you thought you were abused but had no memory of it, you probably were. As a result, they decided that Jennifer’s therapist had already leapt to a “diagnosis of sexual abuse.”
Lief gave them every reason to believe that their theory was valid. He had long taken a dim view of the recovery movement for sexual abuse victims because of what he called the “contagiousness of emotions.” A sexuality specialist, he had been treating abuse victims and perpetrators for more than 25 years. But now he felt the pendulum of awareness had swung too far, that people were too quick to identify themselves as victims and blame past sexual abuse foreverything. He believed the Freyds’ plight was a perfect example of what could happen, and was astonished when another couple came to see him the same week complaining about the same problem.
Based solely on what Pam and Peter told him, Lief “doubted” incest had taken place. He saw Peter as someone with a very special need to be different, to shock. He had no doubt that, in expressing this need, Peter might have ignored normal parent-child boundaries and made Jennifer feel terribly violated—even without any inappropriate physical contact. Jennifer’s memories, he felt, were largely metaphorical.
Since Peter wanted to take a lie-detector test to prove his innocence, Lief arranged for the Freyds to see a colleague, Dr, Martin Orne, an expert in forensic hypnosis best known for his testimony in the Patty Hearst and Hillside. Strangler cases. Lief joined the Freyds when they met Orne and his wife Emily, with whom he worked, at their home. They discussed the situation not so much as doctors and patients but as colleagues and fellow concerned parents.
Orne, too, was skeptical. He believed that under-trained therapists—just like the police interrogators his research was meant to enlighten—could encourage memories of abuse and then etch them into the subconscious of suggestible patients, often with quasi-hypnotic techniques he felt they did not really understand. He suspected Pam and Peter Freyd were victims of just such a situation and offered to help them set up a lie-detector test with an FBI expert to convince their daughter that her memories were false. Orne believed lie-detector tests to be about 85 percent accurate—better than psychiatrists, who he felt did not do much better than 50-50.
Several weeks later, Peter took the grueling, three-hour test. He was extremely nervous. “I had not ruled out the possibility that I was crazy,” he says, “that I had repressed the memories and was suffering from severe disassociation. But I don’t think I would repress such memories.” The test results indicated he “was not practicing deception.”
But much to his disappointment, the results did not seem to impress Jennifer. She, too, had been attempting to corroborate her memory. Several months into her therapy, her psychologist tried clinical hypnosis, but Jennifer says the technique was ineffective because she was a bad hypnotic subject. She continued to test her memory by sending her parents a series of probing e-mail letters. Those exchanges grew increasingly surreal: One ended with Jennifer and Peter both believing the other had corroborated the most crucial details of their contradictory memories of her childhood baths.
Then Jennifer wrote that she remembered vividly how Peter’s penis looked when erect, Peter took the opportunity to challenge her. Via e-mail, he pointed out that there was a “very noticeable anomaly about my genitals” and asked her to identify it. He remembers the wait for her reply as “a rough 24 hours.” Finally, Jennifer responded: “I do not know the answer right now … but it doesn’t undo my sense of being violated …” Peter took that as vindication, although Jennifer says now that the message did not represent her true feelings. “I just didn’t want to talk to him about his penis,” she says. “I forget what I told my therapist it was. I think I said it was a mole. I just didn’t want to play. I know that I never win those games with my father.”
Peter challenged her again to identify the anomaly. “If you are able to tell me what it is,” he wrote, “I will be crushed.” He then received a message from Jennifer’s husband, who had not been a very active participant in the exchanges but was getting copies of all the messages sent to his e-mail address. (Jennifer often wrote to one of her parents and sent a copy to the other.) In his e-mail, J.Q. accused Peter of playing games. “Peter,” he added, “incest is not an intellectual game.”
The issue went unresolved, and the rest of the debate didn’t go much better. Peter disputed the rape accusation by arguing that at the time Jennifer remembered being raped, the bookshelves she remembered being pushed up against hadn’t yet been installed (he offered to show her the invoice for their construction). He also asserted that if there were any sexual activity in the house, somebody else would have noticed the commotion because the dog would have barked. Jennifer said her room had an air conditioner that drowned out all sound and that her sister recalled the dog being a heavy sleeper.
The communication was absurd, but it was all they had. Peter just couldn’t let the “charges” go unanswered. Jennifer felt that she hadn’t really made any formal “charges”—she had even expressed skepticism about some of her memories—and couldn’t understand why her parents wouldn’t just back off and give her some space. She was obviously going through an emotional crisis, and all they seemed to want was for her to agree to their answers for her life questions.
But the Freyds refused to retreat, even though Peter was sometimes reminded of one of his most vivid memories of raising his daughter: “I remember once trying to get Jennifer to stop crying,” he says, “and she looked up to me and said, ‘Daddy, let me cry.’”
I Was a Kept Boy
Pam and Peter knew that Jennifer was getting moral support from her younger sister—who refused to answer their questions about whether she had memories of abuse but made it clear she was siding with her sister. Joan had been attending meetings for adult children of alcoholics for several years: Before Jennifer’s revelations, it was she who Peter joked had been brainwashed.
But Jennifer’s parents did not know that she also had a supportive confidant in Peter’s long-estranged older brother. Bill and Peter Freyd hadn’t spoken in decades—their acrimonious relationship ended over a dispute about their father’s treatment for cancer. But Jennifer had been in contact with Bill for several years. She hadn’t told her parents because she was afraid they would feel betrayed.
Bill’s first reaction to Jennifer’s memories was “That explains a lot of the strange behavior I’d seen in that family.” He confirmed for Jennifer that a lot of the odd stories her father had told her about his past were, indeed, odd. Bill didn’t claim to have been a Boy Scout himself—“Let’s just say that in our family we had a high tolerance for aberrant behavior”—but he knew there were events in Peter’s background that couldn’t be ignored.
For one thing, Peter and Pam were stepbrother and step-sister. They had met as children when Peter’s father and Pam’s mother, both married to other people, had an affair—which later led to marriage. Around the time they met, nine-year-old Peter had a sexual relationship with a well-known male artist in Providence, who even took him to Mexico for a summer. Peter told his daughters about this without giving much thought to what they would make of it. “He was a pedophile, I was a kept boy,” Peter says now. “I never repressed a thing. What happened is certainly abusive. I suspect I did not perceive it as abusive then. My relationship … stopped at a critical point when I detected sexual feelings in myself. And, from the age of 11 on, I was living very much the life of a typical 11-year-old. It was one of those things about me that was on the table from the beginning.”
The story makes Pam wince. “What people are going to say,” she laments, “is that Peter was abused as a boy and he must have done it.”
Peter also told his daughters that he had made a conscious decision in his mid-teens to be heterosexual. “I went to a therapist at the age of 14,” he recalls, “and he said, ‘You don’t need therapy, you just have to get used to the fact that it’s okay to be a homosexual.’ I knew what the nature of my fantasies were. He removed a tremendous amount of my anxiety. And with some surprise, I must confess, in the course of the next months I found my homosexual fantasies decreasing and becoming exclusively heterosexual fantasies for, like, ten years. But, I’m not talking about behavior, I’m talking about internal things. When it came to behavior, I was remarkably prudish. But one should never feel any guilt about your mental life. You should be a sexual adventurer in mental life. But in behavior I was very prudish. I got married very young.”
Jennifer, however, had found nothing prudish about her father. “My father used to talk about the Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) and the Greek system of boys being sexually indoctrinated,” she recalls. “He’d talk about that fairly often. My mother never participated in these conversations, but my father talked about sex in one form or another much of the time … Even since the discussion about my memories, he still brings up sexual topics [in e-mail or on the phone], like how I was sexually attractive to neighbors or that our dog could sense when I was sexually attracted to a man or that he had conversations with my first husband about masturbation.”
“Look,” Peter responds, “if one says that I have a different idea about boundaries than other people, I would plead guilty. I have an insensitivity to privacy … It was my intent to try and let my kids not feel they had to be ashamed about their sex. I tried to create an environment where they didn’t have to try and hide these things. I also had this funny theory that one should try to treat female children as similarly to male children as one could … I could never have mentioned NAMBLA because I never heard of them until recently, although the subject of the Greek system would certainly have come up … What I hoped would be a certain openness about sexual matters might be incompatible with parenthood. But I’m not talking about behavior, just what was discussable.”
Of course, for Jennifer the issue that hung over all discussions of Peter’s behavior was his drinking. “At times I am flabbergasted that my memory is considered ‘false’ and my alcoholic father’s memory is considered rational and sane,” she says. “My father was an active alcoholic during most, if not all, of my childhood, and that alcoholism was denied until I was no longer in my parents’ house.” (Peter stopped drinking in 1982 and stayed sober without AA, which he left after a few months because he found it anti-intellectual and overly religious. Pam attended Al-Anon meetings for several years.)
Instead of wondering whether his drinking had caused blackouts or amnesia—Peter says that that was never the case and that the worst of his drinking took place after Jennifer left for college—her parents were suggesting that Jennifer’s drug use as a teenager was an explanation for her warped memory. She had, in fact, smoked a lot of pot in high school and sometimes took Seconal. But what Jennifer really found bizarre about her parents pursuing this argument was that her worst drug experience had occurred when she came home from college and ate some brownies she found in the freezer. They turned out to be hash brownies made “as an experiment” by Pam, and Jennifer had ended up in the emergency room.
This is About Me!
At least once a day, the four Freyds logged onto e-mail, at home or at work, to see what missives had arrived. The longer the e-mail dialogue went on, the more clear it became that it was going nowhere. Jennifer wanted Pam and Peter to listen and sympathize when she related her memories and quoted from the growing body of literature that supported such claims. She got angry when all they seemed interested in doing was proving that her memories were wrong and quoting from the literature they were amassing. She had no doubt that some therapy patients had destroyed their families with what the literature referred to as “confabulated memories.” She just had no reason to believe she was one of them.
While the communication grew more and more elliptical, by May it had come to a head. Jennifer wanted Pam to come out to Eugene, alone, to have therapy with her. Pam refused for many months—she couldn’t imagine returning to the town where her woes had begun—and insisted she wanted a neutral site, which Jennifer found unreasonable. In the meantime, Dr. Lief called Jennifer and tried to talk to her about getting together with her parents. He told her several reasons why he didn’t believe Peter had raped her, one being that he understood that her father’s sexual fantasies were primarily homoerotic. This she found unconvincing, but remarkable—her mother’s old therapist telling her about her father’s sexual fantasies.
Then Pam agreed to come to Oregon. As the plans were being finalized, however, Jennifer sent a long list of “conditions” for the visit—Pam could not come to the house, for example, and she could not be alone with her grandchildren. Insulted, Pam told Jennifer she would meet her at a neutral site, with no conditions. When Jennifer said no, Pam offered to come to Eugene with no conditions. Jennifer said no again, and decided that perhaps it was time to stop the e-mail; she got the idea from Joan, who had just announced herintention to stop computer correspondence for a while. Jennifer also stopped attending the incest survivors group she had joined in March.
“Look,” says Peter, “if one says I have a different idea about boundaries than other people, I plead guilty.”
On June 16th, Jennifer sent a message that she was going to cut off contact for a few months. She did, and had what she considered a terrific, productive summer. On June 17th, she began teaching a seminar called “Repression, Dissociation and Trauma,” which included many of the basic readings in the growing literature on how people dissociate—become selectively amnesiac or even split off parts of their personality—in response to traumas. She also began work on a paper she planned to present in the fall in San Francisco about her “betrayal-trauma theory”—which she thought might explain, by examining the physical and psychic pain of being betrayed by a loved one, how “repressed” memories of childhood abuse get repressed.
Pam was, in Peter’s eyes, “showing the strain of the last six months.” Not only had her children cut off communication, but Peter was away giving lectures in Europe. Trying to keep her sanity, she started to read more and to write. She found some comfort in the literature of Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL), a national organization of people claiming to be victimized by “overenforcement” of recently enacted child-abuse reporting laws. She also discovered an obscure quarterly journal called Issues in Child Abuse Accusations.
Pam decided to write for the journal about her experiences, under the pseudonym “Jane Doe.” The result was an 11-page article: HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? COPING WITH A FALSE ACCUSATION OF INCEST AND RAPE. Filled with pain, it mixes fact with speculation and exaggeration. Under the cover of anonymity, it also betrays some confidential statements Jennifer had made to Pam about sex, marriage, breast feeding and the difficulty of balancing motherhood and career. It even disparages Jennifer’s career, reporting that she had been “refused tenure” when, in fact, she had not been offered early tenure at Cornell and left because she received it at the University of Oregon.
While painting the “Doe” family as pretty much normal, “Jane” laments her daughter’s misguided therapy and the questions it inspired about her past: “Why this fascination with our childhoods?” It seems an odd query coming from a woman who was in psychotherapy herself for three years and who, according to Peter, realized during her treatment that she had been “abandoned by her mother, who went off to live with my father.”
Remarkably, Pam seems to have believed both that publishing the article would help her stalled communication with her daughter and that the article would remain anonymous—even though she gave it to people who knew both her and Jennifer, including colleagues in the University of Oregon psychology department (some of whom received it pre-publication—just as they were deciding on Jennifer’s promotion).
Pam had been warned by Harold Lief that publishing the article “might irrevocably damage” any chance of reconciling with Jennifer. But Peter remembers Liefs as the only discouraging voice. “Writing the thing had a positive effect on Pam,” he recalls. “She showed it to four or five people, all of whom later became advisers, and everyone seemed to agree it was a powerful story: Yes, you should publish this. It might have been a huge error. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we were sitting there being accused of the worst crime you can have short of murder. It does not make for calm thought.”
Before the article was published, before Jennifer had any clue of its existence, Pam wrote to Jennifer’s therapist in Oregon, 36-year-old psychologist Julie Williams. Pam invited her to come to Philadelphia—all expenses paid—to meet with them and with others who had known Jennifer, to view the tapes of Peter’s lie-detector test and to see if their home jibed with Jennifer’s rape descriptions. Through Lief, Williams turned down the offer, because she felt that Jennifer would see such a visit as a betrayal.
The only thing that came of the exchange was that Lief gleaned some insight into Jennifer’s therapist, now contained only in his 76-year-old memory. Lief says Williams told him that 70 to 80 percent, of her patients reported having been sexually abused—a number he found incredibly high. When he asked if she routinely inquired about sexual abuse, she said she usually, did at around the fourth session, which also surprised Lief, who doesn’t believe in asking at all. The only thing Williams, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told Lief about Jennifer was that she had recommended that she read Courage to Heal.
This is the only information the Freyds have ever received about Jennifer’s therapy. They have filled in the considerable gaps in their data with what Peter refers to as “best available evidence”—which is sometimes no evidence at all.
Of her therapy with Williams, Jennifer says: “I came to feel that she believed I was sexually abused—I felt believed and that was important … But she didn’t make me prove it or disprove it. In fact, she didn’t tell me a diagnosis at all until she said there was some thing with the insurance company—months and months after the therapy started. I think she diagnosed me as having post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, although you don’t have to identify the underlying trauma to make that diagnosis.”
Four weeks after her offer was refused, Pam wrote Williams to complain that she’d heard that “Jennifer is now being quite open about her beliefs, doing things like starting classes by saying ‘I want you to know that I’m a victim, too.’ It is my understanding from Jennifer’s letters that making such public announcements about her abuse is a part of her therapy along with cutting off contact with all people who question her revelation of incest.”
The rumor about her talking about her own experiences in class was untrue—although the rumor itself probably did exist. But Jennifer did not see herself as part of a therapy situation in which she was told to cut herself off from anyone who questioned her. Her feelings toward her parents hadn’t really changed throughout the ordeal: She loved them, and she feared them. And she was trying to balance all of her good memories with all of her bad ones, not just the ones that had come out during Christmas. She longed for them but knew she was, at the moment, happier and healthier without them. So she ignored Pam’s letter to her therapist.
Five days later, however, Jennifer broke her silence and sent an e-mail. In it, she tried to explain that she was not cutting them off forever—she just needed a few months. She also tried to confront her parents about what she felt was their fear of legal action: “The content of your letters … suggest to me that you are putting effort into a legal defense. I understand, for instance, that you wondered whether I had reported any charges of sexual abuse to any state agency. All along your focus on ‘accusations’ of a ‘major crime’ has seemed most hurtful to me. I am asking for your support and your help. I have not brought any legal charges against you for what I remember. I do not have any intention of attempting to use the legal system to heal wounds from years ago. Perhaps you are responding to my memories as accusations so that you can put me in the perpetrator role, so you can make sense of your own panic and distress, and so you can avoid dealing with the real issues … I have no desire to punish you and I wish you no harm. I love you. I ask you to help me by honoring my requests.”
But this last plea was probably moot. “Jane Doe” was at the printer, and Pam had already drafted a follow-up, in which she wrote “we are preparing for the worst: a book or a lawsuit because that has become part of the therapy in many similar cases reported recently in the news.” Jennifer found out about “Jane Doe” when a copy of the journal mysteriously appeared in the university mailbox of her best friend in the psychology department. “I was in her office flipping through this journal we had never heard of,” Jennifer recalls, “and I saw the story and said, ‘This is about me!’”
Therapy’s Big Bang
The Jane Doe article in October 1991 effectively ended communication between Jennifer and her parents (although, during the fall, Peter did get Jennifer on the phone a few times until she figured out that he always called at the same hour and stopped answering the phone then). Jennifer had worried from the beginning that she was sharing too much, that her parents were misinterpreting what she was telling them. Jane Doe was her proof that she couldn’t trust them at all. “When I first heard that they were contacting my colleagues, everybody would look at me like I was nuts,” she says. “But now it’s hard to tell when I’m being paranoid and when I’m being reasonably paranoid.”
The article also led directly to the creation of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. While Jennifer and her sister were incensed by the piece, it was well-received by many others—including Inquirer columnist Darrell Sifford, who used it as the centerpiece of a column that ran the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Sifford repeated the Jane Doe version of the story, and allowed Peter and Pam to speak out anonymously. Pam told him that she believed her daughter had grabbed hold of a therapist’s suggestion of childhood sexual abuse because of “her unwillingness or inability to assume responsibility for her own life.”
Sifford received more response to his column than anything he had published in a decade—75 percent of it positive and appreciative. Pam and Peter had already been in contact with several other families who shared their problem, and they had started placing ads: “Has your grown child falsely accused you as a consequence of repressed ‘memories’? You are not alone. Please help us document the scope of this problem.” They set up an 800 number. In early January 1992, Sifford did a follow-up column. He quoted from letters about therapists who “wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer” to questions about sexual abuse. He ended his column, which was nationally syndicated, with the 800 number.
As the calls began, Pam and Jennifer came close to meeting. They agreed to get together at the office of a neutral therapist in Eugene, but after speaking on the phone with Pam, the therapist pulled out. “She thought it would not be a good thing for me,” Jennifer recalls. “She also thought it was a dangerous situation for her. She didn’t want to be the therapist in the next Jane Doe…. She told me my mother said that if my sister and I didn’t stop what we were doing—which I took to mean refusing to reunite with them—that we would be very embarrassed.”
By February, Pam and Peter had been contacted by 180 families and had already received a grant from one of them to survey the group and assess this “social phenomenon.” They decided to start a nonprofit foundation, which they first considered calling “Center for Information on Decade Delayed Disclosures.” Pam agreed to leave her job teaching two days a week in the public schools to serve as unpaid executive director. Peter chose an unofficial position because he didn’t want his having been accused to detract from the main agenda.
Peter and Pam even invited Jennifer to join the board, and, much to her astonishment, seemed surprised and disappointed when she refused. “I actually thought you would agree,” Peter later wrote. “I still insist on thinking of … the [foundation] as being primarily a way of communicating with our daughters … I am sorry it didn’t occur to me that you would so resent it.”
Jennifer was especially resentful when she received a list of the professionals who had agreed to serve on the scientific board. Many of them were her professional colleagues—or people she had hoped to make her colleagues—and several were longtime family friends from Penn’s faculty. She was reminded of a feeling she often had growing up that her parents, especially her father, always got friendly with her friends and beaus and even picked up on her professional interests. Her mother had chosen as a mentor at Penn the professor who had first gotten Jennifer interested in psychology. That professor was now on the FMSF board. (He has since resigned.)
In March 1992, the first official FMSF newsletter appeared, with a message from “Pamela” and various short items of interest to accused parents. (Peter never signs his contributions.) It included a short tribute to Darrell Sifford, who had drowned, and an unpublished column he had written about false memory. In it, he had predicted that “this issue of false accusations will be the Big Bang that will rock therapy in the 1990s.” He was right about that.
Pam was contacted by national and local TV reporters almost immediately. The desktop-published newsletter was like a bulletin board of Pam and Peter’s collective mind. It captured their desperation, their drive and their zeal for doing something that seemed constructive with their pain. And it showed how savvy they were about the media, a skill learned supporting mostly liberal political causes in Philadelphia. The newsletter also offered the media constantly revised surveys of members that attached quotable numbers to the “phenomenon”—even if the information was coming, entirely unverified, from the accused parents.
The best “hook” for the FMSF story followed Roseanne Arnold’s headline-grabbing announcement that she had recently remembered being sexually abused as a child—uncovering abuse memories from as early as six months old. Roseanne’s parents were charter members of the foundation—which Pam gladly told reporters, off the record, as she did her identity as “Jane Doe.” (In June 1992, Jennifer retained a lawyer to stop an FMSF board member from presenting the Jane Doe version of her life at a professional symposium.)
The foundation was small but well-funded. Members were asked to pay $100 a year in dues, although many paid more. The surveys showed that most accusers were women in their 30s and that most of the families were middle-to-upper-middle class; most of the accusations had not led to litigation. Membership and media interest in the FMSF grew steadily until July, when the New York Times did a story called CHILDHOOD TRAUMA: MEMORY OR INVENTION?, which read almost as if it had been packaged by Pam Freyd. Every expert quoted about “false” memories was on the FMSF board—except one, who was immediately invited to join. Pam was identified in the article as a psychologist, which, while incorrect, immediately established her as an expert in the field—not just an aggrieved, accused mom who had started a support group. (Pam’s Ph.D. is in education, although she is a lay member of the American Psychological Association.) Suddenly, the phones at the FMSF office started ringing off the hook.
The Times article humiliated Jennifer. Incredibly, some people actually called to congratulate her, assuming that she was being written up for her memory research and that the Times had simply gotten her first name wrong. On top of everything else, she now had to cope with the fact that her mother was becoming known in her field. “What identity confusion,” Jennifer says. Before the article, she had decided to lie low for a while, but the piece convinced her that the FMSF wasn’t going away and that she should, perhaps, try to find a dignified way to quietly share her concerns with some of the top trauma people the foundation was targeting. She and her mother were now competing for the loyalties of the leading experts in the field.
Among others, Jennifer called Harvard’s Dr. Judith Herman, author of the landmark Father-Daughter Incest and Trauma and Recovery. Soon after, Pam contacted Herman, who was prepared for her. “Herman said I had to choose between my husband and my daughter and I had chosen my husband,” Pam recalls. “That is untrue. We have chosen our daughter. We love our daughter. How have I chosen between my husband and my daughter? I chose between telling the truth and lying.”
I Want My Parents Out of My Sex Life
Instead of using e-mail, the Freyd family was now communicating through academic journals and the national news media as the first clearly anti-FMSF material began appearing. The newsletter of the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse predicted that professionals who intervene in child sex-abuse cases could expect a “backlash suggesting that children and now adults have been brainwashed into claiming abuse.” The newsletter included a letter from an incest survivor who argued that the FMSF “is a particular threat to all survivors because once it gains national recognition, it will have the full support, vocal and financial, of anybody who is accused or suspected of sexual abuse. The media may also … far prefer to deal with a titillating debate over whether … sexual abuse occurs than to focus on the real and prevalent tragedy that incest is.”
In November, Jennifer spoke at a private conference in Sacramento, two days after Pam had appeared on the CBS Evening News. She gave a short presentation on her professional training and her betrayal-trauma theory, and then got involved in the general analysis of “backlash literature”—much of which, of course, had been authored by her mother. The Sacramento conference was the first time Jennifer acknowledged among a group of professional peers that her mother had, indeed, started the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and was Jane Doe. While she didn’t spend much time discussing her personal situation, Jennifer hinted that her and her sister’s memories of their childhoods were consistent and that they had made no legal charges or public disclosures. When she left the meeting early, she found herself being thanked and then, suddenly, applauded.
When her parents showed up, Jennifer refused to see them: “Doesn’t this sound a little paranoid?”
The second Christmas since Pam and Peter were sent home passed with the Freyds and their children largely incommunicado. Pam was grasping onto any sign of hope she could find—the “tone” of the last e-mail she had received, the fact that one before it had been signed “Love.” She decided to send Jennifer and her family Christmas presents, but what she chose incensed her daughter. “In the middle of all this, my mother sends me string bikini underpants for Christmas,” Jennifer recalls, incredulously. “I want my parents out of my sex life!”
Nevertheless, in March 1993 Jennifer decided to inform her mother that she was pregnant again. Pam responded that she was going to be on the West Coast on FMSF business—they were sponsoring informational meetings and opening chapters—and hoped there would be a chance for them to meet. But Jennifer was having bad morning sickness and was scheduled to undergo amniocentesis the week Pam wanted to come. She e-mailed back that it wouldn’t be a good time.
Pam decided to go anyway. Peter went, too. When they got to Eugene, they called Jennifer and left a message that they were both in town and hoped she could meet them for lunch. Jennifer felt panicked and invaded, afraid of what her parents might do. Having them in town made her so nervous that she canceled the amnio. “Doesn’t this sound a little paranoid?” Pam asks. “As a mother, I am tremendously concerned about a daughter who has said she is afraid her father is going to kill her.”
Soon after, Pam learned that she had been disinvited to a conference. She had originally been asked, along with a psychiatrist on the FMSF board, to sit on a panel on recovered memories of incest and ritualistic abuse, planned for August in Ann Arbor. But on March 13th, Pam received an e-mail from the director of the workshop, psychologist Stephen Landman, saying that her invitation was being withdrawn. Landman said he initially had been impressed with the FMSF board but after inviting Pam, he had carefully examined her newsletters and found a bias he considered disturbing. He felt that although the literature stated that “some” reports of incest were valid, “the implication is that it is more common that reports of incest are based on pure confabulation resulting from therapists’ suggestions and that actual childhood sexual abuse is relatively rare … I do not find the FMSF to be objective, and the use of scientists on the advisory board presents a facade of scientific respectability to disguise a bias.” He did not mention that he planned to invite Jennifer to speak at the workshop in Pam’s place.
In early April, the San Francisco Examiner did a weeklong series called “Buried Memories, Broken Families,” the most comprehensive pro-FMSF look at the repressed-memory debate to date. It did, however, include one quote that was extremely damaging to the organization. Judith Herman asserted that only 10 percent of FMSF parents could possibly be innocent. (While the FMSF is generally pretty quiet about the subject, several board members have said privately that they assume at least some members are, in fact, guilty as accused.)
In mid-April, the Freyds’ one-year-old brainchild had grown large enough to justify a three-day conference at the Valley Forge Convention Center—sort of the Woodstock of the False Memory Syndrome. It was attended by 600 people, 34 members of the press and most of the organization’s stellar board of directors. The weekend included dozens of rousing speeches. Some offered calm critiques of the fairly esoteric subject matter; others suggested that trauma-based therapy is a parent-bashing cult that makes monsters rather than identifying them, either unwittingly or knowingly for profit. But the highlight was the appearance of five women who are called, in FMSF parlance, “recanters.” Ail five testified to having made false accusations at the urging of irresponsible and unethical therapists; several later told their stories on national television.
In the meantime, Jennifer accepted the invitation to replace Pam on the panel of the Ann Arbor conference. She also decided to use the conference as an opportunity to break her public silence on the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. She prepared her talk from bits and pieces of statements and letters she had been mailing privately for more than six months—one of which was titled “I Remembered Childhood Abuse; My Mother Created the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.” And she let the word sneak out that she was going to speak out publicly about her parents for the first time.
The Most Influentially Dysfunctional Family in America
On August 7th, several hundred therapists jammed into the ballroom at the Holiday Inn West in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a daylong conference on recovered memories. Pam and Peter Freyd were not there, but it wasn’t because they didn’t try. In the week before the conference, there was a flurry of e-mail between Jennifer, Pam and conference director Stephen Landman. Not only didn’t Jennifer want them to come (she said she would take their presence in Ann Arbor as “an attempt to intimidate or harm” her), but Landman insisted that the conference was open only to mental health professionals—which, he curtly reminded them, they are not.
Jennifer was the last speaker of the day. Huge with child in a white maternity dress, her voice occasionally shaking, she first went through her standard talk on the betrayal-trauma theory. Compared to the three therapists before her, who could charm the audience with examples from their own practices, Jennifer sounded academic, dry. Then, when she was done with her paper, she paused, building audience expectations until she retook the lectern and announced, “Today I will break with tradition.”
In a voice that often sounded as if she were on the verge of tears, Jennifer announced that she wanted to talk about “patterns of behavior” in her family, patterns that made it seem almost inevitable that the Freyds would become one of the most influentially dysfunctional families in America. She avoided a direct accusation of her father by carefully noting that her parents claimed she had falsely accused them and mentioning only “memories of incest” in her “father’s house.” The speech recounted many of the most private details of the Freyd family’s life and wove together Jennifer’s own chronology of how her own “reasonable behavior has been brilliantly used against me” and how she came to be “punished … at a national and professional level … for my private and personal memories.” She issued a call for the FMSF to stop harming survivors of child abuse, and proclaimed that she was an adult and had the right to choose not to have contact with her parents. She also questioned whether Martin Orne and Harold Lief had violated ethical codes with their “dual relationships” with her parents—first therapeutic, then collegial. (Lief and Orne both express confusion about what possible ethical violation their relationship with the foundation could represent.)
But, while some parts of Jennifer’s speech were enlightening and wise, other seemed convoluted, overly confessional even competitive. She recited two poem she had written, one at 13, one at 18 When addressing the issue of why someone might believe her father instead of her, she asked: “Is it academic success? No, think by just about any measure I am a successful or more successful than either of my parents.” At times her speech seemed no less self-righteous than the thousands of pages her parents had cranked out in support of their cause. But it was still dramatic and struck many as brave. Jennifer received a standing ovation and was quickly ushered out the side door.
I Am Not a Recanter
Several weeks after her speech, Jennifer elaborated on what she didn’t discuss in Ann Arbor—her specific allegations. Sh sounded tentative, but it was unclear if she was unsure of her memory or just nervously careful to avoid saying anything he parents might sue over.
“I am sure my parents mistreated me,” she said, “and the form of that mistreatment included hurting my sexual self. That’s not about the repressed memories. I would say I have come to accept the limits of what I can know under the circumstances. I am not a recanter. At the same time, I have a certain amount of uncertainty, because I have no way to corroborate the memories. I don’t know anyone who has recovered memories who doesn’t express doubt about them. What I can say is I stand by the memories as carrying an essential truth, and I believe they are true.
“It’s hard to know how I’d feel if I didn’t have the whole False Memory Syndrome position constantly there … It still seems to me that if they had given me some time and space, and had not been so intent on blaming [my therapist] for my memories, it would have taken a different route … Sometimes I imagine a conversation with my father, this dream conversation where he tells me You’re right about this, but I didn’t do blah, blah, blah’ … I imagine the tremendous relief I would feel, especially if he could tell me the worst things weren’t true and it all kind of fit together. The problem is, since he was drunk, it’s just a fantasy.”
But the false-memory debate is still very much a reality, and Jennifer’s speech doesn’t appear to have stopped the phones from ringing or the mail from pouring in at the foundation’s office on Market Street. Its annual budget is now more than $600,000, and regular meetings are held in living rooms and auditoriums across the country. During weekdays, staff and volunteers man the phones and Pam is in constant demand. On weekends, however, it’s usually just she, and sometimes Peter, quietly working overtime in the office—reading, writing or just filing another complaint to a therapists’ licensing board. (Pam recently filed a complaint against Jennifer’s therapist without knowing that Jennifer had stopped seeing her last June.)
The FMSF has made professional progress. The American Medical Association recently announced that it regards the use of memory enhancement techniques in eliciting accounts of childhood sexual abuse “to be fraught with problems of potential misapplication.” The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis issued a proposed release that patients should sign before being hypnotized—largely to guard therapists against FMSF-inspired lawsuits. Several major organizations for mental health professionals have launched formal studies into repressed memory. On the media front, some FMSF recanters recently appeared on Donahue, and their stories appear in two paperback books—Confabulations, which anthologizes Jane Doe, and True Stories of False Memories. The foundation was prominently mentioned in recent cover stories in Time and U.S. News and World Report.
The biggest difference since Jennifer’s speech is that reporters who call to do general stories on the False Memory Syndrome now ask probing questions about the Freyds’ private situation. Pam says she doesn’t understand why she should be interviewed about anything except “gross misdiagnoses of sexual abuse.” But she answers the questions anyway. She has courted the media since the beginning. Now that they’re listening, she has to try to give them what they need without breaking down. Being interviewed is a process of intellectual and emotional churning that a trauma therapist might describe as revictimization. But it is part of her job. And Pam—who, like too many schoolteachers, suffered a career where her talents were undervalued—has finally found her calling in this occupation, as well as a common ground with her husband.
To clarify her positions on Jennifer’s speech, Pam has circulated a piece called “Trial by Therapy,” in which she disputes most of Jennifer’s points but concedes that her Jane Doe article was “no more a description of ‘historical’ reality than are ‘memories’ that develop between client and therapist … it is narrative truth and was written for therapy.” (In the false memory critique, “narrative truth” is never to leave the therapist’s office or be acted upon publicly without solid corroboration.)
No one knows the “historical truth” of what really happened between the Freyds. Maybe the Freyds don’t even know themselves anymore. Peter and Pam try to convince reporters that not only didn’t the abuse take place, but that their family was never even “dysfunctional.” Pam believes, in fact, that FMSF families are not dysfunctional, just victims of bad therapy. She rarely fails to note that Martin Orne told her “he suspected that maybe these were families where the best parenting was going on.”
Peter interrupts, “I mean, really, what would one take as evidence that a family was not dysfunctional?”
In September, Jennifer Freyd went into labor, which her sister, her friends, her lab staff and several reporters knew, but her parents did not. On the 11th, she gave birth to a daughter, Alexandra. The news reached Pam and Peter days later.
Who finally told you that you had another grandchild? Peter is later asked.
“I don’t remember,” he says. “Didn’t you?”
[Image Credit: University of Oregon]