False Memory Syndrome
False memory syndrome refers to a memory disorder in
which the individual has come to believe fantasies, usually invoked
during hypnotism or while undergoing psychotherapeutic
counseling, are real. The term ‘‘false memory syndrome’’
has come to replace ‘‘survivor syndrome’’ or ‘‘incest
survivor syndrome’’ as the name given the set of symptoms that
led the individual to try hypnotism or therapy in the first place.
During the 1970s, two different but structurally similar stories
began to be told by individuals. One story was related by
individuals who claimed that at some point in the past they had
been confronted by beings from outer space. They were taken
aboard their spacecraft and physically examined. The examination
was physically intrusive, personally embarrassing, and
often painful. Afterward, they had no memory of what had occurred,
though occasionally they had the sense that they had
lost several hours of their life. One of the more famous cases
concerned Barney and Betty Hill, who later under hypnosis
told a very similar story of their abduction while driving home
in the early morning hours on a New Hampshire highway. In
some cases, such as the famous account by Whitley Strieber,
further exploration revealed multiple accounts of abductions.
Then in the 1980s, beginning with the book Michelle Remembers
(1980) by Michelle Smith, women began to emerge telling
the story of their recovered memory of having been involved
in a Satanic cult in their childhood. The stories claimed that
parents were introducing their daughters into the cult and the
child was being forced to participate in a variety of rituals and
was sexually abused. After a period of time, usually a few years,
the child was allowed to leave and continue her life as if nothing
peculiar had ever happened to her. Their friends and peer
group at school were never aware of their Satanic ritual abuse.
As the number of cases increased, their veracity was apparently
bolstered by contemporary stories of children who were
being forced into abusive situations with Satanic parents. The
most famous case concerned the McMartin Dayschool in Manhattan
Beach, California. Beginning from a single accusation
of sexual abuse directed at one of the school’s employees, the
town’s police chief sent out a letter to several hundred parents
whose children were attending the school or had attended it in
the past. The letter, leaked to the press, created a communitywide
panic and eventually several hundred children were interviewed
by psychologists, who diagnosed more than 300 as victims
of abuse. During the interviews, as the story developed, it
moved from a case of child abuse to a case of multiple child
abuse to a case of ritual child abuse. A child questioned on a
number of occasions would begin to agree with suggestions
made by the psychologists and then elaborate on the story.
Children told of being forced to participate in the making of
child pornography movies, watching animal sacrifices, and
being involved in Satanic rituals in an elaborate tunnel complex
below the school. The accusations resulted in the longest
criminal trial in California history and resulted in no convictions.
However, the extended proceedings contributed greatly
to the belief in the existence of widespread Satanism.
The stories of UFO abduction and Satanic ritual abuse grew
up side by side but were rarely associated. The stories of abduction
were initially pursued by UFO investigators, who were assisted
by hypnotists. They were then joined by psychological
professionals, some of whom had a prior interest in either
UFOs or in past life therapy. They were also different from the
Satanic cases in that the actual abduction event was ascribed to
extraterrestrials and thus had no implications for law enforcement.
The entities accused of doing what were unquestionably
illegal acts were not available for arrest. Those who argued for
the genuineness of the abductions had the additional task of
convincing skeptics of the existence of UFOs.
Such was not the case with reports of Satanic abuse. While
never a large phenomenon, Satanism undoubtedly existed.
There were several quite public Satanist groups (such as the
Church of Satan and the Temple of Set), and several incidents
of small informal Satanist groups that had committed various
violent acts, including murder. The more informal groups,
whose existence was usually discovered when a crime was traced
to them, also verified that Satanic groups were operating sub
rosa in the society.
As the cases of Satanic ritual abuse multiplied, people were
called out as the perpetrators of crimes, usually rape and/or
child abuse. In the first cases, male parents were accused of
abusing their now-grown daughter when she was a child. These
were joined by ex-spouses accusing former mates who had retained
custody of their children of abuse. Cases in which the accusation
carried no occult content mixed with cases of ritual
abuse. By the end of the 1980s the number of cases had grown
into the thousands. From North America (the original case was
Canadian), the idea migrated to the United Kingdom and Continental
Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
The idea of Satanic ritual abuse rested upon a series of hypotheses
that had been suggested by psychologists operating
within the larger child protection movement that was attempting
to ferret out cases of child abuse and change public perceptions
about its widespread existence in the culture. At the beginning
of modern psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud had noted
the existence of suppressed memories. As early as 1978, psychologist
Roland Summit had authored a paper suggesting
that children should be believed when they told stories of
Falls Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
abuse, no matter how incredible they sounded. The spread of
this opinion among child psychologists led credence to accounts
of Satanic abuse when they were told by children.
The existence of Satanic groups and the belief in the accusations
of children that they had been involved in Satanic rituals,
made the stories of adult women of childhood involvement in
a Satanic cult highly believable to many, especially among conservative
Christians possessed of a strong personal belief in the
existence of the Devil. Through the 1980s, psychologists
emerged who specialized in treating people with what were believed
to be repressed memories of childhood involvement in
a Satanic cult. At the same time, police who had an interest in
occult-related crime began to offer professional training seminars
on Satanic crimes. Several cities, such as Los Angeles, California,
organized groups to study and make recommendations
for action on Satanic cult activity.
By the end of the 1980s thousands of cases of Satanic ritual
abuse had emerged and observers realized that society was entering
a major state of panic about the existence of Satanic
groups throughout the English-speaking world. The panic was
becoming visible in the spread of popular literature advocating
the growth of Satanism, the reallocating of law enforcement
funds to investigate accusations of Satanic activity, and a series
of civil and criminal court cases with individuals standing trial
for events that reputedly occurred several decades earlier. The
primary evidence in these cases was the recovered memory of
the accusing offspring. Where actual court cases did not occur,
many families were torn apart by adult children accusing their
parents of abuse, breaking relations with them and asking their
siblings to join them.
The accusations of ritual abuse had a variety of problems. As
the number of cases multiplied, they described the existence of
a vast underground Satanic network that had existed for several
generations, yet, prior to the 1980s was completely unknown.
Other stories that emerged through the 1980s described rituals
and activities largely based upon and similar to those described
by Michelle Smith in her book. Then, it was discovered that her
book was a hoax and that the rituals had actually been copied
from some traditional African practices. The discovery of the
Michelle Smith hoax followed the discovery of several other fictionalized
accounts being offered by other self-confessed survivors—most
notably Lauren Stratford and Rebecca Brown.
Most importantly, in the early 1990s, a series of reports on
the investigations of accusations of Satanic abuse concluded
that investigators had been unable to find any collaborating evidence.
The lack of hard evidence to verify either ritual abuse
or the existence of the Satanic network has made most police
departments very skeptical of further reports of Satanism.
In the early 1990s, psychologists, especially those who had
been called upon to counsel parents who had been accused of
abuse by their children based upon recovered memories, became
concerned over the practice of recovered memory therapy
by their colleagues. They encouraged the formation of parent
support groups and in 1992 led in the formation of the
False Memory Syndrome Foundation. They proposed that the
so-called survivors of ritual abuse were really suffering from a
memory disorder that they termed the false memory syndrome.
They suggested that recovered memory therapy was
based upon a false understanding of memory and its malleability.
Rather than recovering memories, they were by their therapy
assisting their clients in the creation of false memories.
Through the 1990s, a number of therapists whose patients had
recovered memories of abuse and subsequently accused their
parents of abuse, found themselves in court defending their actions.
The understanding of the false memory syndrome as it exists
in Satanic cases has had a rebound affect on UFO abduction
reports. Structurally they are very like the Satanic reports and
like them, there is little collaborating hard evidence of the abduction
accounts. In the wake of the action taken against therapists
who promoted Satanic ritual abuse, psychologists have
also criticized those of their colleagues who have championed
therapy with UFO abductees as also generation of a false memory
syndrome in their clients.
Goldstein, E., and Kevin Farmer. Confabulations: Creating
False Memories, Destroying Families. Boca Raton, Fla.: Upton
Books, 1995.
Hicks, Robert. In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult.
Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991.
Hochman, John. ‘‘Recovered Memory Therapy and False
Memory Syndrome.’’ Skeptic 2, 3 (1994): 58-61.
Loftus, Elizabeth, and Katherine Ketchum. The Myth of Repressed
Memories: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Nathan, Debbie, and Michael Snedeker. Satan’s Silence: Ritual
Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. New
York: Basic Books, 1995.