Join our Community

Become a Member

Become a Member of Blue Knot Foundation and support adult Australians who have survived childhood trauma and abuse.

Receive our monthly newsletters, information about our programs, services and events, as well as discounts to our training. 


Recovered memories and traumatic amnesia

"Recovered" or "repressed" memories are terms that refer to the recall of traumatic events, typically but not exclusively, of child sexual abuse, by adults who have exhibited little or no previous awareness of such experiences. This is also called "traumatic amnesia".

The phenomenon of traumatic amnesia has been noted in a variety of populations over the last century, including war veterans, Holocaust survivors, and survivors of natural disasters. By the mid-1980s, a significant body of research indicated that many adult survivors of child sexual abuse also suffer from traumatic amnesia. While some people always remember having been abused, others do not remember anything about their experiences for many years, whilst others recall some but not all of the details of their abuse.

Traumatic amnesia can be a major obstacle to the prosecution of child sexual abuse. Prior to the 1980s, survivors were often unable to pursue civil charges, because the crime had occured so long previously that they were not permitted to sue by law. In criminal cases, defendants often claimed that adult survivors were unreliable witnesses because they had not reported the abuse until years or decades later.

By the late 1980s, lawyers argued that the limitation period (or the "statute of limitations") for child sex offenses should be extended in cases where a complainant has suffered from traumatic amnesia. Parents accused of sexual abuse sought defence lawyers and psychological experts to help defend against these claims. A new concept, “False Memory Syndrome”, was created to explain delayed memories of sexual abuse in court.

The debate on "recovered memories" and "false memories" dominated the media coverage of child abuse for much of the 1990s. In the media, proponents of the "false memory" position argued that there was no evidence for traumatic amnesia, and that "recovered memories" of sexual abuse were unreliable, and often the product of overly zealous therapists, and hysterical, malicious or confabulating women. Since then, this debate has become less heated, with science increasingly affirming the existence of traumatic amnesia and the reliability of "recovered memories".

While it has been established that false memories can and do occur their existence does not negate that of recovered memories. The validity of "False Memory Syndrome" per se has not however been established. 

If you are interested in reading more about the debate on "recovered memory", please see two articles by Dr. Kenneth Pope: 'Questioning Claims about the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic' and 'Science as Careful Questioning'.

False Memories

What is “False Memory Syndrome”?

The definition of the syndrome is vague, and Pamela Freyd was unable to provide a list of symptoms or signs a year after establishing the Foundation.*It was later defined by Kilhstrom as:

“a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes.”

There have been a number of criticisms of FMS, such as:

  • The definition of the syndrome did not evolve from clinical studies, but instead it is based on the accounts of parents claiming to be false accused of sexual abuse.*
  • The syndrome is based on vague, unsubstantiated generalisations that do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. *
  • The primary purpose of the syndrome is to discredit the testimony of people alleging child sexual abuse in court.*
  • No empirical validation has been offered for the syndrome, nor have the symptoms been described and studied.*
  • Where empirical evidence has been preferred for “False Memory Syndrome”, it has involved evidence of general memory errors rather then evidence of vivid, confabulated memories of child sexual abuse.*
  • The syndrome has never been accepted as a valid diagnosis by any professional organisation, and use of the term in academic literature has prompted heated criticism.*


What is “Recovered Memory Therapy”?

The FMSF claims that “False Memory Syndrome” is caused by “Recovered Memory Therapy”. There is no psychological therapy called “Recovered Memory Therapy”, and the term was invented by the Foundation in 1992 to describe any form of therapy in which a client might disclose memories of sexual abuse in childhood.

The FMSF argues that a recovered memory is likely to be a false memory, and that recovered memories are usually caused by therapists practing “Recovered Memory Therapy”. A number of criticisms can be made of this argument:

  • The FMSF lumps evidence-based treatment for traumatic amnesia with fringe therapies under the term RMT, in an apparent attempt to discredit all treatment modalities for people with traumatic amnesia.
  • A substantial proportion of those who recover memories do so without ever having participated in therapy, and where people recover memories whilst participating in therapy, most memories are recalled outside of therapy and without the use of specific memory techniques.*
  • In a review of 30 former patients who sued their therapists for implanting false memories, Scheflin and Brown (1999) found that none of the cases involved therapy that could be characterised as “recovered memory therapy” e.g. a single-minded focus on recovering memories, or a client being misled in treatment.*
  • After undertaking a review of research, Lindsay and Read (1994) concluded “there is little reason to fear that a few suggestive questions will lead psychotherapy clients to conjure up vivid and compelling illusory memories of childhood sexual abuse”. *
  • It is extremely difficult to make people believe that a painful or graphic event occurred in their lives when it did not.*


The false memory defence in court

Whitfield (2001) and Brown (2001) provides an excellent summaries of the manner in which accused child abusers attempt to defend themselves in court using “false memory” arguments and other defences:

  • The “looking good” defence: Emphasises that the accused is an upstanding member of the community, a family man/woman, religious, hard working, respectable.
  • The accused is the “real victim”: Inverts the allegations by suggesting that the accused is the person who is being victimised (by a false allegation), rather then plaintiff who claims to have been abused. Often goes hand-in-hand with claims that the accused does not blame the plaintiff, loves the plaintiff or forgives the plaintiff.
  • Choose someone else to blame: Blame for the “false allegation” is usually laid at the feet of the therapist or social worker, or else at books, newspapers, the media and other venues.
  • Blame the plaintiff: The person making the allegation of abuse is often blamed, particularly if their allegations are unusual. Often, the natural symptoms of trauma (such as self-harm, dissocation, or amnesia) are used to characterise the plaintiff as untrustworthy or unreliable.
  • Plaintiff has not shown “hard” evidence of sexual abuse: In cases of child sexual abuse, it is rare for there to be eyewitness testimony, physical evidence, or other forms of evidence such as photos, diaries or confessions. The plaintiffs is often criticised for not having this evidence, as though such evidence would be an expected feature of their case. Meanwhile, indirect evidence of abuse (such as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder) are often dismissed.
  • Hire a “false memory” expert: There are a range of “expert witnesses” who will make “false memory” arguments in court in exchange for money, regardless of the merits of the argument or the case.
  • Inappropriate introduce extreme elements: In court, false memory advocates often introduce extreme situations, such as ritual abuse, alien abduction and past lives, in order to discredit the plaintiff’s claims of abuse, even where such situations have nothing to do with the case.
  • Misinterpret the effects of trauma: False memory advocates often demonstrate a poor understanding of the effects of trauma and sexual abuse, often using the symptoms of trauma to characterise the plaintiff as unstable and unreliable.
  • Negate or confuse traumatic amnesia: It is a common tactic of the FMSF to deliberately confuse traumatic amnesia with a concept that they call “repression”, which they then claim does not exist. The two concepts are distinct, and there is over a century of evidence for traumatic amnesia.
  • Propose other explanations for accuser’s symptoms: False memory advocates commonly try to dismiss symptoms of trauma by suggesting they are related to everyday problems, such as an unhappy marriage or job difficulties. Some false memory “experts” have argued that there is no link between child sexual abuse and adult mental illness.
  • Use contrived terms and other pseudo-scientific jargon: In court, accused molestors often try to use invented terms and concepts like “false memory syndrome”, “recovered memory therapy” or “parental alienation syndrome”.
  • Make up categories with no scientific support: Acused molestors have often engaged “experts” who use new categories or terms that they invent in court e.g. “robust repression” vs “partial repression”.
  • Equate retraction with proof of false memory: It is common for children or adults who were sexually abused, at some point in their lives, to claim that they were not sexually abused. Many accused molestors and their defence team have used retractions as “proof” that the initial disclosure was false, or that the plaintiff cannot be trusted.
  • Play on our individual and collective wishes and doubts: Sexual abuse is difficult to hear about, and it is natural to wish that it did not occur. Many people harbour doubts that an adult would really harm a child, particularly their own. Many child abusers play on these doubts and wishes in the courtroom.