Conference Examines "False Memories," Beliefs about Childhood Abuse

November 22, 1994
Media Contact:Gary Stephenson
Phone: (410) 955-5384
E-mail: Gstephen@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu

The scenario has become familiar to viewers of TV talk shows or readers of popular magazines. During psychotherapy, an individual is stunned to find that dark, long-buried memories push their way to the surface, leading to the revelation of painful scenes of childhood sexual abuse, torture at the hands of satanic cults, or even abduction by alien beings. Suddenly, years of vague psychosomatic ailments fall into a dreadful focus. Lawsuits are filed, families are split, friends and relatives are shocked.

But how much basis in fact or scientific theory do these tales of "recovered memories," many times associated with the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder, really have?

Little or none, say the organizers of an upcoming conference co-sponsored by The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and the FMS (False Memory Syndrome) Foundation. Rather, they say, such "recovered memories" most often are beliefs produced in suggestible patients by the therapists who claim to discover and treat them. Equally important are the questions of how to put the charges and counter-charges on a course that will help people without destroying families.

These issues will be described December 9-11, 1994, in a meeting at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel entitled "Memory and Reality: Reconciliation." Nearly 600 persons have already registered for the conference, which has been advertised through national mailings to psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, and which carries continuing medical education credits recognized by the American Medical Association as well as prescribed hours required by the American Academy of Family Physicians. About half of the registrants are health professionals; the remainder are persons who have been affected in some way by the syndrome.

False memory syndrome, says the conference program, "is a condition in which a person's identity and relationships are centered around the memory of a traumatic experience which is objectively false but [which] the person strongly believes to be true. It has a devastating effect on the victim and typically produces a continuing dependency on the therapeutic program that created the syndrome. FMS proceeds to destroy the psychological well-being of the primary victim, the integrity of the family and the creation of secondary victims falsely accused of vile acts of incest and abuse."

Speakers at the conference include lawyers, mental health professionals and faculty members from institutions throughout the U.S. and Canada, including Harvard, Wayne State University, Loyola University of Chicago, the University of Western Ontario, Simon Fraser University, and the University of California, San Diego.

The program's directors, Paul R. McHugh, M.D., Henry Phipps professor and director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins, and Pamela P. Freyd, Ph.D., executive director of the FMS Foundation in Philadelphia, will hold a media briefing at noon on Friday, December 9. Members of the media who are interested in attending the briefing or other parts of the conference should call me in advance at (410) 955-6680.

Paid registration for health professionals or other interested persons is also still open. For information, call the Johns Hopkins Office of Continuing Medical Education at (410) 955-2959.


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