The False Memory Myth & Memory Repression

A common question we’ve got is people asking if their memories are “real” if they “made it up” and similar concerns. This is distressing to us because it comes from a place of not only misinformation but the effects of a deep culture of victim-blaming, the denial of sexual abuse and dates back to truly bad actors.

The process of denying and blaming sexual abuse survivors has happened for such a long time, so has the misunderstandings of memory. Victims need to be believed, and people who purport to educate or report on memory or trauma need to understand what they are talking about.

Four broad false beliefs fuel this feeling that we must have made up our abuse:

  1. People can spontaneously makeup memories of abuse or otherwise convince themselves abuse happened
  2. Memories can’t be repressed and therefore recovered memory sare false
  3. All recovered memories are driven by therapists and therefore false
  4. Our memory is inherently fallible therefore false accusations and memories of abuse are common. Often inferring that because of trauma the memory is even more likely to be wrong

These myths and misunderstandings of trauma and memory harm cultural competency, real legal cases, normal children’s lives, rape victims and even have been used to propagate political harm.

Current Cultural Perspectives

False Memories and Repressed memories are almost always seen as a debate when talking about rape, abuse and especially child sexual abuse. It’s treated as something we have no proof of existing, and often is divorced from a real understanding of trauma.

These ideas of false memories and trying to make victims doubt something happened is heavily placed on child abuse, sexual violence and IPV survivors over any other crime or trauma. Repressed memories being false tends to only come up in child abuse, especially csa, almost exclusively even when plenty of soldiers and survivors of other trauma describe periods of amnesia without anyone saying it didn’t happen.

The topic most usually cited in modern times is the current proof that eyewitnesses can be mistaken and that memory is fallible, all true. The reality of our memories not always being trustworthy is then used to say that repressed memories can never be true and to try and prove that charges of child sexual abuse are often wrong. Why these things are almost always framed around sexual abuse charges only second to talking about eyewitnesses. Their aims are rarely truly about justice or care for the victims of CSA.

What I find also troubling is much of this work doesn’t discuss trauma in their articles to any real extent. They overlook mountains of evidence that show traumatic memory is processed differently than normal memories. They seldom talk about flashbacks, dissociative amnesia or somatic memory as part of the understanding of false memories and repressed memories. They also equate any degree of memory drift with the entire memory fabricated.

The article False Memories of Sexual Abuse Lead to Terrible Miscarriages of Justice (French, 2017) ran in the guardian. This article includes trauma in its discussion of memory and sexual exactly once, in the citations, and never mentions dissociation. The key issues being looking at only certain parts of the discussion of memory without understanding the physiology of trauma. They also generalise across sexual abuse survivors without cultural and situational awareness.

This is also a problem in the True Crime community. In general, they deeply misunderstand repressed and recovered memories, the psychology of trauma in general really, but it’s a topic they cover with regularity.

In the Last Podcast on The Left’s episodes on The Satanic Panic (Kissel, Parks, & Zebrowski, 2017) they push the idea of rampant false memories and state that recovered memories don’t exist. They mention that it was a lot of police pushing, and mentions culture but put no time into understanding trauma’s neurology. Like many, they believe that repressed memories never moved past the Freudian framework of repressed memories and believe all recovered memories are fake.

The News Podcast Worst Year Ever‘s episode Kamala Harris’ Calculated Progressivism (Evans, Johnston, & Stoll, 2019) they discuss a real case of George Gag who’d been arrested for sexually abusing his stepdaughter. This case was a miscarriage of justice and he was likely innocent. However, the podcasters when discussing it brought up the Satanic Panic. They told their audience that girls and women had a history of falls accusing their male relations. Spreading the idea that false accusations of incest are incredibly common and a real problem even now.

In testimony to the Senate in the 2018 confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, Dr Krstine Blazey Ford testified on the incident of sexual assault she suffered and false memory theory was invoked. Understandable memory drift around the assault was used at best to say she was confused at worst that she was lying on purpose. The belief in false memories put a sexual abuser in one of the highest and most powerful positions of power.

Neurology and Physiology of Traumatic Memory:

During a trauma, the sympathetic nervous system is activated causing the normal functions of memory encoding to go offline. This stress and dissociative responses cause the events to not be filed properly in short or long term memory therefore aren’t integrated or recallable. The somatic, visual, auditory and narrative aspects of events are encoded in multiple parts. This is why we have flashbacks as well. Memories of trauma are fundamentally different from other memories.

Studies of fabricated memories show driven memory does exist but these driven memories lack arousal patterns of real stressful events. Driven memory can not form flashbacks or show the physiological or neurological patterns associated with PTSD/C-PTSD that people recalling traumatic memories do. This shows that one can’t simply makeup, dream or be convinced to form traumatic memories. And you could not think your way into a state of post-traumatic stress. (Kolk & Fisher, 1995 & Loftus, 2005, & Klok, 2015)

Studies on Repressed & Recovered Memories

The PTSD diagnostic criteria have included aspects of memory loss for a very long time, the APA itself considers this as valid. Dating to world war I & II soldiers showed dissociative amnesia including people forgetting documented events related to Dunkirk. (Kolk, 2014

Recovered memories were approximately as accurate as those that had never been lost.

L,M. Williams, 1995

In this 1995 study is showed that fact drift was common but not to the extent it offers doubt on the survivors. Dissociative memory repression was common and could be severe enough that even with medical and police records some victims believed they had never been abused. Having been abused by someone known to the victim and lacking a supportive family increased the likelihood of not remembering the trauma. Other studies back up that some degree of dissociative amnesia is incredibly common in CSA survivors and that there is a 19-38% rate of complete memory loss. (Loftus, Polonsky, & Fullilove, 1994

A 2017 American Psychologist study looked at the effects of therapy on the accuracy of documented CSA survivors memories. Addressing the belief that therapist forms false memories and that seeing a therapist indicates driven memory. What the outcomes showed was therapy having a positive effect on the narrative memory of survivors and counteracting the common dissociative and repression phenomenon (Goodman, Goldfarb, Quas, & Lyon, 2017).  

A Note on Reporting:

A British study showed that only .6% of rape accusations were false and that many false reports were by people who were likely assaulted or abused but not in the way that they reported. (Stammer, 2013).

Truly fabricated allegations of child sexual abuse occur at a rate of 0% to 2%. There is no reputable research to support the notion that children can be brainwashed to believe they have been sexually abused when they have not. (Oates, Jones, Denson, Sirotnak, Gary & Krugman, 2000) Only 1% of reports of child sexual abuse were false. (Jones & McGraw, 1987)

Only 27% of victims report within a month and 28% of victims of CSA never disclose to authorities (McElvaney, Rosaleen 2013)

The History:

We can look back and see how we got here pretty easily. Much of the misunderstandings can be linked back to Freudian psychology.
He started on the right track, finding that sexual trauma was the cause of “hysteria” in female patients. But through many events in his life, one being the reputation of rich fathers and husbands of patients, he threw victims under the bus. Adding to the idea women and girls want the abuse, are recounting fantasies and can unconsciously create false memories. Some of his ideas have fallen but the belief girls and women just dream up false memories holds.

The social worker and activist Florence Rush wrote about how Freud effectively gaslight our entire culture the same way he did to his patients. She talked about her history and used statistics and sociology to show how child sexual abuse is a social health crisis, and that politics seep into the abuse itself and how we treat it. (Brownmiller, 2009) We can see this in the majority of false memory accusations are applied to victims of sexual and intimate violence, and the lag in people truly viewing CSA and domestic violence trauma. Even incest was viewed as beginning till the 70s. (Kolk, 2015)

People think that therapists will all assume abuse happened then try and convince the patient of it. However, most psychologists and practitioners don’t push memories and are incredibly warry to even suggest that trauma of some type might have happened. The memories are more likely to be triggered out. There is not an epidemic of therapists driving repressed memories. (Dallam, 2002))

The next major events that affected our cultural understanding is the Satanic Panic, a period in the 80s-90s in the USA where there were many cases of alleged abuse by satanic cults. There are many cultural events fo effects of Satanic Panic however the important part for us, is that many accusations were proven to be false. The false claims of abuse than are extrapolated to all victims and is referenced when talking about false memories. However, these events don’t prove false memories and reporting or prove spontaneous trauma memories.

The most famous case involving CSA was the McMartin trial, an event where people at a daycare were accused of satanic sexual ritual abuse. Later that they were innocent. This case can’t be extrapolated because the original accusers had Schizophrenia and were in a severe psychotic episode. Another factor was an unlicensed professional and the police heavily pushing children to testify that extreme abuse happened. The adults had political goals, religious drives and most importantly they were in positions of power. The techniques used were also isolated by the faux experts, and police driving is not present for most people who have recovered memories. These events can not be extrapolated across time to victims of abuse at large. (Romano, 2016)

Most of the other cases around it including Frank and Ileana Fuster & Gerard, Violet, and Cheryl Amirault & Dan and Fran Keller & The West Memphis Three all included both specific kinds of therapeutic and police coercion. The forms of therapeutic pushes are no longer as prevalent, making this hard to apply to modern cases. It is also relevant to note all of these included elements of Satanic Cults. (Romano, 2016) They were also accused in community groups and during an intense and specific social climate. Due to the specific nature of these incidents, we can’t assume that the way these played out apply to most CSA cases.

We must also consider the dynamics of power. The police, politicians, wealthy people and churches were pushing to accuse people of Satanic crimes. Popular support backed this as it fit the culture of religiosity and “family values”. Everyone of influence was for “believing” the victim. These were powerful people manipulating children to tell the stories of abuse they wanted, sometimes this equated to using traumatised children as props, further hurting them. Even here the kids were still victimised along with the falsely accused, this wasn’t even a case of “uncritically believing” children.

When the power is against the victim, like in cases of Priests and Fathers, the victims are accused of having false memories. Abusers and their protectors drive victims to not report and to say they were wrong if they do. Church has crafted justifications to shut up victims since the 16th century at least. (Boer, 2019) There are charges of abuse against dioceses in the US, a problem which dates to US Indian School in the 1800s, recognized by the church since the 50s and even after exposure in 90s repercussions for abusers are still rare. Accusations and incidents of abuse occurred concurrently with the satanic panic, and the victims were disbelieved and the perpetrators protected, they still are. (Keyser, 2019) Similar patterns of state and church power being used to silence CSA victims can be seen in Canadian residential schools (Irving & Wolochatiuk, 2012)

This is important to understand because it shows that victims being disbelieved predated, happening during, and continued after we started to believe victims so-called false memories.

False Memory Syndrome & False Memory Syndrome Foundation

Ideas of rampant false memories, false allegations and the idea that all recovered memories are pushed by therapists was heavily pushed by The False Memory Syndrome Foundation [founded 1992]. This Foundation and a general uptick in beliefs that false memories are rampant was part of the backlash against feminist support for victims of intimate violence.

False Memory Syndrome is the “psychological” diagnosis or framework that is pushed to prove these false memories are rampant. The problem is no data backs up its existence and its main proponents the were accused of incestuous abuse.

False Memory Syndrome was loosely defined as “When a memory is distorted, or confabulated, the result can be what has been called the False Memory Syndrome –a condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centred around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual’s entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behaviours. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional” (Kihlstrom, 1993, p. 10)

This definition offers no clear diagnostic criteria to be used in a clinical setting, or as they wanted a legal setting. It uses the changes trauma has on the victim to prove trauma didn’t happen. No research has backed this framework either.

The “False Memory Syndrome” is a controversial theoretical construct based entirely on the reports of parents who claim to be falsely accused of incestuous abuse.

Empirical evidence suggests that the existence of such a syndrome must be rejected…Likewise, there no credible data showing that the vague symptoms they ascribe to this purported syndrome are widespread or constitute a crisis or epidemic.

Dallam, 2001

Advocates for those claiming to have been falsely accused have generated a new concept – ‘false memory syndrome’ – as an alternative explanation for delayed memories of CSA…Psychotherapists and the profession as a whole have become involved in a heated controversy, whose substance as well as intensity is to a large extent litigation driven.

Williams, Journal of Psychiatry and Law

Thinking about where these ideas came from and who propagates them should have us rethink uncritically pushing the idea false and fabricated memories are incredibly common. Instead of jumping to conclusions and saying “of course these things are common, look at the satanic panic or false memory syndrome” we need to look at this history to with a critical and empathetic lens.

Perpetrators never have the false memory charged used against them. Including the people who created the framework. The FMSF’s noncritical acceptance of the denials of those accused of child abuse is particularly problematic given that offenders who molest children have been found to have an extraordinary capacity for denial and minimization…They [Researchers on Abusers] cautioned that in evaluating allegations of sexual abuse, clinicians should rely on independent corroboration as opposed to denials of those accused of molestation. (Dalam, 2001)

It shows an extreme flaw in our focus on false memories that we assume victims have them but not the person denying it. Why would only child abuse and sexual violence victims and survivors be told we can’t trust ourselves?

From its inception, the False Memory Foundation has made media influence a priority, funnelling public perceptions of the research through a specific value-laden filter. Yet there is no research to date documenting either a set of symptoms making up such a syndrome or an epidemic of those symptoms, in spite of the widespread promulgation of this term for political uses. We need to ask the following: Do false denials happen? If one is going to name syndromes, one also needs to ask about a false denial syndrome, which works with abusers suggests.

Jennifer Freyd Betrayal Trauma

This dichotomy solidified by the original pushers of the idea has continued to plague discussions. Victims memories are questioned constantly but abusers aren’t. Even outside of the False Memory Foundation this belief in common false memories continued to be used in courts to defend abusers and against victims.


Repressed memories and dissociative amnesia are a common experience with trauma survivors, CSA especially, having memories gaps doesn’t disprove abuse. Recovered memories can be trusted and respected. Memory can be confused and fact drift happens, but in no way does this reach the point where children and adults that report abuse should be doubted. False memories do not spontaneously or unconsciously form, and traumatic memories can not be imagined or driven the way other memories can. Body memories and flashbacks can never be falsified. The rate of false reports of sexual abuse is incredibly low and disproves the hysterics around false accusations.

False memories are a concept supported by people in power and have a history of being used by child abusers to silence their victims. It’s a discredited concept but is incredibly common. The stories brought up by these people are from a specific time frame and are not analogous to the common CSA survivors. These beliefs are part of a rape and abuse culture, and it’s a shame that people are so willing to believe them without being trauma-informed.

To Survivors: You didn't make it up, you're not lying, your symptoms are real and so is the pain. Your healing journey will help you work out the facts in time, not knowing everything doesn't mean nothing happened.
To those who want to support them: Believe your loved one, don't pressure them, just listen and work to form a supportive space. They can work out what happened trying to prove them wrong or doubt them won't heal them. 
To those who firmly believe in rampant false memories and allegations: Consider where you have gotten these beliefs and if any of them discussed the neurophysiology of trauma and it's effects on children. Why would you rather believe these people have made this up?  Why do you think to tell them they are mistaken or lying is helpful? Also, consider that a victim being weaponized doesn't make the child at fault. 
  1. French, C. (2010, November 25). False memories of sexual abuse lead to terrible miscarriages of justice. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from
  2. Kissel, B., Parks, M., & Zebrowski, H. (2017, December 30). Retrieved from
  3. Zebrowski, H., Kissel, B., & Parks, M. (2017, December 30). Retrieved from
  4. Dallam, S. J. (2001). Crisis or Creation? A Systematic Examination of False Memory Syndrome. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse9(3-4), 9–36. DOI: 10.1300/j070v09n03_02
  5. Brownmiller, S. (2009, January 26). The Woman Who Fought Freud-and Won. Retrieved November 7, 2019, from
  6. Romano, A. (2016, October 30). The history of Satanic Panic in the US – and why it’s not over yet. Retrieved November 8, 2019, from
  7. Freyd, J. (1997). Betrayal trauma: the logic of forgetting childhood abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  8. Williams, M. R. (1996). Suits by adults for childhood sexual abuse: Legal origins of the “repressed memory” controversy. The Journal of Psychiatry & Law24(2), 207–228. doi: 10.1177/009318539602400205
  9. Evans, R., Johnston, C., & Stoll, K. (2019 13). Retrieved from
  10. Keyser, M. (2019, January 31). Timeline: A history of priest sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Retrieved November 19, 2019, from
  11. Kolk, B. A. Van Der. (2015). The Body Keeps The score: mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.
  12. Kolk, B. V. D., & Fisler, R. (1995). Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: Overview and exploratory study. Journal of Traumatic Stress8(4), 505–525. doi: 10.1002/jts.2490080402
  13. Loftus, E. F. (2005). Planting Misinformation in The Human Mind: A 30-year Investigation of The Malleability of Memory. Learning & Memory12(4), 361–366. doi: 10.1101/lm.94705
  14. Loftus, E. F., Polonsky, S., & Fullilove, M. T. (1994). Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Remembering and Repressing. Psychology of Women Quarterly18(1), 67–84. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.1994.tb00297.x
  15. Goodman, G., Goldfarb, D., Quas, J. A., & Lyon, A. (2017). Psychological counseling and accuracy of memory for child sexual abuse. American Psychologist9, 920–931. doi: 10.1037/amp0000282
  16. Williams, L. M. (1995). Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories. Journal of Traumatic Stress8(4), 649–673. doi: 10.1002/jts.2490080408
  17. Jones, D. P. H. & McGraw, J. M., Reliable and Fictitious Accounts of Sexual Abuse to Children, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2, pp. 27-45, 1987.
  18. Oates, R. K., Jones, D. P. H., Denson, D., Sirotnak, A., Gary, N., & Krugman, R. D., Erroneous Concerns About Child Sexual Abuse, Child Abuse & Neglect, 24(1), pp. 149-157, 2000.
  19. Starmer, K. (2013, March 13). False allegations of rape and domestic violence are few and far between | Keir Starmer. Retrieved January 7, 2020, from
  20. McElvaney, Rosaleen. (2013). Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse: Delays, Non-disclosure and Partial Disclosure. What the Research Tells Us and Implications for Practice. Child Abuse Review. 24. 10.1002/car.2280.

2 thoughts on “The False Memory Myth & Memory Repression

  1. When I began to remember and was not yet sure what was going on I was researching things online. I found a paper by JF Kihlstrom at Berkeley in which he discussed some French doctor who was the first to describe trauma in a young woman. He discussed prosopagnosia and some other things. It made me feel very secure in the fact that I had remembered. So I sent him a thank you note by email for having that paper posted online. I got back a very nasty reply. It confused me. I did some research and discovered he testifies for the “you can’t have newly remembered, because it is impossible to forget trauma” crowd.
    BTW we do not repress or recover. We forget then we remember because those two things are real and normal the first two are made up ideas trying to change the topic and sow confusion about a thing we all know intrinsically.


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