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“Recovered memories are not accurate. They cannot be trusted.”

“There is no evidence that recovered memories accurately reveal the specifics of long-ago events.” - August Piper, in the FMSF Newsletter. [1]

“Although belief in historically accurate recovered repressed memories is frequently found in books and movies, it is just that: fiction.” - Pamela Freyd, in the FMSF Newsletter. [2]

“Dr. [Harrison] Pope testified that even if there really was such a thing as a repressed or recovered memory, that to a reasonable degree of psychiatric certainty, one cannot evaluate the accuracy of retrieved memories without corroborating evidence." - Published in the FMSF newsletter. [3]


How trustworthy memories are and whether or not they are continuous are different questions. Accuracy and continuity are two independent qualities of memory - arguing that discontinuous (recovered) memories are always inaccurate is a conflation of these qualities.
A detailed description of these dimensions can be found on Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s website, under ‘Recovered Memory: Context and Controversy’ and ‘Two Common conceptual tangles about recovered memories.’

The documented cases of corroborated recovered memories in our archive are all examples of the accuracy of recovered memories. These are two exceptional examples of accuracy:
The case of “Claudia.” After experiencing flashbacks of sexual abuse, Claudia told her group therapy members that from the time she was 4 years old to her brother’s enlistment in the Army three years later, he had regularly handcuffed her, burned her with cigarettes, and forced her to submit to a variety of sexual acts. Claudia’s brother had died in combat in Vietnam more than 15 years before her horrifying memories surfaced. Yet Claudia’s parents had left his room and his belongings untouched since then. When Claudia searched the room, she found a large pornography collection, handcuffs, and a diary in which her brother had extensively planned and recorded what he called sexual ‘experiments’ with his sister. [4]
The case of R v. Thomas Bowman: The Daughter of Thomas Bowman recovered memories during therapy of the night of her mother's death more than 20 years after her mother, Mary, passed away. She remembered watching her father strangle her mother. In response, Mary’s body was exhumed, and an autopsy revealed evidence of strangling and death by asphyxiation. At trial, Bowman was convicted of murder. [5]

In Linda Meyer Williams Study of 129 women who had previous hospital records regarding documented cases of abuse, Williams found that only 80 remembered the abuse 16 years later, and 16% of those 80 had a period of time where they were unable to remember the abuse.
Excerpt: “Regarding the accuracy of the accounts, this study suggests that while the women’s reports of some details have changed (N.B., this may be a problem in the original account, not the adult memory) the women’s stories were in large part true to the basic elements of the original incident… [Furthermore,] the woman’s level of uncertainty about recovered memories was not associated with more discrepancies in her account. While these findings cannot be used to assert the validity of all recovered memories of child abuse, this study does suggest that recovered memories of child sexual abuse reported by adults can be quite consistent with contemporaneous documentation of the abuse and should not be summarily dismissed by therapists, lawyers, family members, judges, or the women themselves” (pp.669-670). [6]

The argument that corroboration should be required to believe recovered memories harkens back to a time where women’s accusations of sexual abuse weren’t believed without supporting evidence. As our rules regarding law and testimony in court cases have evolved, we have gotten rid of corroboration requirements in order to respect the integrity of victims.


[1 ] Piper, August. (2008, Fall). What’s Wrong with Believing in Repression? FMS Foundation Newsletter. 17(4), 5.

[2] Freyd, Pamela. (2008, Winter). Skeptical Review. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 17(1), 6.

[3] Rivers v. Father Flanagan's Boys Home and James E. Kelly, Doc. 1024 No. 743 (District Court of Douglas County Nebraska, 2005).
Cited in Legal Corner. (2006, January/February) FMS Foundation Newsletter. 15(1), 8.

[4] Bower, Bruce. (1993, September 18). Sudden recall: adult memories of child abuse spark a heated debate. Science News, 144(12), 184-86.

[5] Powell, Adam. (2002, July 24). After 24 years a daughter’s memory sends killer to jail. Daily Mail, p. 37.

[6] Williams, L. M. (1995). Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8, 649-673.

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