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“What about improbable things people claim to remember?”

“Of the stories that are told to FMSF… all the memories seem to be "recovered" using the same techniques. The same processes bring forth memories of past lives, space alien abduction, satanic ritual, incest, and a host of various kinds of abuse.” - FMS Foundation Staff, in the FMSF Newsletter. [1]

“Our question is: What makes the process of recovering repressed memories of incest different from the process used for past lives and extra-terrestrials? Why believe in one and not the other?” - FMS Foundation Staff, in the FMSF Newsletter. [2]

“Question… assumptions about the accuracy of long-repressed memories. Just because a person recovers vivid memories of abuse by space aliens does not mean that space aliens have invaded our planet. Just because someone recovers vivid memories of past lives does not establish the reality of such lives. Just because someone recovers memories of abuse during some sort of therapy does not mean that it really happened.” - Pamela Freyd, in the FMSF Newsletter. [3]


Arguments associating recovered memories with bizarre claims of alien abduction or widespread satanic cult activity does not invalidate the depth of scientific evidence and corroborated case reports supporting the phenomenon of recovered memory. This is an example of a logical fallacy, ‘guilt by association.’

Claim: Implantation of Improbable Beliefs by Therapists
Critics of recovered memories often claim these improbable beliefs are implanted by therapists using techniques common to ‘recovered memory therapy.’ It is important to note that these improbable beliefs occur outside of therapeutic settings and have occurred in situations completely unrelated to recovered memories. There is a long history of people becoming convinced they were abducted by aliens when they interpret experiences as “both anomalous and frightening” – often sleep paralysis, unidentified scars, or the feeling that one is flying – in a process unrelated to therapy [4]. There are also true stories of cult abuse unrelated to therapy or recovered memories; such as the Peoples Temple cult in Indiana which ended 909 lives, [5] or the Children of God cult founded in California which “encouraged sexual contact between adults and children.” [6]

It is true that there are agenda-driven therapists who insist on conforming their patients to a specific narrative against the better judgment of the patient, such as a false narrative of alien abduction or widespread satanic cult activity. These situations are complex, and often involve other forms of medical abuse towards the patient(s). As such, we cannot generalize these cases to memories recovered outside of medically abusive environments. You can read claims about recovered memory therapy and narratives of medical abuse at our page covering recovered memory therapy. [link to page]

However, therapists convincing clients of improbable events is rather rare. Only two therapists who convinced their clients of alien abduction are ever identified in the entirety of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation’s newsletter - a publication intending to “keep thousands informed of important developments” relating to false memories [7]. These therapists are David Jacobs and John Mack. On a website no longer available to the web, Jacob’s patient described him as “bizarre and psychologically abusive,” practicing without his patient’s consent and prescribing medications without a medical license. [8] John Mack was granted tenure before he started research on alien abduction – while Mack could not be fired, fellow professors attest that “he's not taken seriously by his colleagues anymore.” [9] Neither men are accepted in the professional psychiatric field.

The FMSF often overstates the credibility of fringe therapies. In June 1998, the FMSF newsletter published a segment claiming Brian Weiss’s past life therapy training workshops were accredited by the APA. Based on this, they argued that past life therapy was widely accepted in the psychological field.
"But do not think, dear reader, that such -- shall we say unusual -- psychotherapies are found exclusively on the fringe. Oh no. Professionals can get continuing education credit from groups sponsoring conferences and workshops in all manner of psychotherapies --``Past Life Regression Therapy'' and ``Thought Field Therapy'' are just two such examples. Who accredits organizations to offer continuing education for such therapies? Why, no less than the American Psychological Association (APA)." [10]
However, this turned out to be false. In the following newsletter – July/August 1998 – the FMSF published a correction in a small corner of the 6th page, stating that the APA did not accredit Weiss’s workshops. The FMSF admitted that they heard he was accredited from two phone calls and did not fact check the information before publishing it.
The claim that the APA supported past life therapy went against their own previously published information and general medical consensus. As published earlier in the July/August 1995 edition of the FMSF newsletter, “The American Psychiatric Association believes that past life regression therapy is pure quackery.” Furthermore, Weiss was “censured by the medical establishment in 1988 after he published ‘Many Lives, Many Masters.’” [11]

Fantastical Elements in Accounts of Abuse
Children’s narratives of abuse may include fantastical elements, such as reference to fantasy figures, impossible events, or extreme acts that should have been (but were not) corroborated by external evidence.

In a study by Dalenberg in 1996, 644 children’s disclosures of sexual abuse were evaluated in regard to fantastical elements. Half of the children consisted of a “gold standard” group, in which the perpetrator confessed and sufficient medical evidence of abuse was found. 7% of these children in the “gold standard” group included fantastical elements in their disclosures. The rate of fantastical elements in sexual abuse disclosures was 15% in “gold standard” children who had been severely abused. [12]

Mark Everson explains possible mechanisms behind these fantastical elements of disclosures, stating that “the existence of such elements should not result in an automatic dismissal of the child’s complaint without an analysis of the possible mechanisms underlying the fantastic material.” [12]

Furthermore, fantastic elements in cases of childhood sexual abuse are often overstated. Without citing any relevant information, Stephen Ceci described children’s testimony in the Frank Fuster case as ‘interweaved among the credible allegations… were ones that seemed fabulous, such as riding on sharks and eating the head of another person.” However, the only mention of riding sharks in interview transcriptions was in reference to television programs about Jacques Cousteau, an oceanographer. There was no reference in the interviews to children eating the heads of another person, only to a game where Fuster pretended to cut a child’s head off if they affirmed they’d like to eat a cupcake. [13]


[1] FMS Foundation Staff. (1993, February) What do Memories of Ritual Abuse have to do with FMS Foundation Newsletter. 2(2), 2.

[2] FMS Foundation Staff. (1992, June) Domains of Recovered Memories. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 1(6), 1.

[3] Freyd, Pamela. (1992, July) Dear Friends. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 1(7), 1.

[4] Banaji, M. R., & Kihlstrom, J. F. (1996). The Ordinary Nature of Alien Abduction Memories. Psychological Inquiry, 7(2), 132–135. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0702_3

[5] Yuko, Elizabeth. (2017, September 12). American Cult: 5 Spiritual Groups That Went Too Far. Rolling Stone.

[6] Brocklehurst, Steven. (2018, June 27). Children of God cult was “hell on earth.” BBC News.

[7] False Memory Syndrome Foundation. (2013, December 28). Frequently Asked Questions. Memory and Reality: Website of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

[8] Woods, Emma. (2015). Home. Emma Woods Files. Information about the Research of Dr. David M. Jacobs of Temple University.

[9] Boyce, N. (2012). The psychiatrist who wanted to believe. The Lancet, 380(9848), 1140–1141.

[10] Piper, August. (1998, June). EINSTEIN WAS RIGHT! Or, A Few Thoughts on the Eve of the 1998 FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board Meeting FMS Foundation Newsletter. 7(5), 13.

[11] Miller, L. (2010, August 27). Remembrances of Lives Past. The New York Times.

[12] Everson, Mark. (1997). Understanding Bizarre, Improbable, and Fantastic Elements in Children's Accounts of Abuse. Child Maltreatment. 2. 134-149. 10.1177/1077559597002002007.

[13] Cheit, R. E. (2014). The witch-hunt narrative: Politics, psychology, and the sexual abuse of children (pp. xx, 508). Oxford University Press.

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