By: David Bloomberg
Re: One Family
One family's tragedy spawns national group
THE BALTIMORE SUN
PHILADELPHIA -- Pamela Freyd says she'd rather be doing
anything than telling strangers the wretched details of her family
tragedy -- the ugly feud that erupted four years ago when her adult
daughter unleashed an account of childhood molestation.
The calamity unfolded when her daughter, a psychology
professor at the University of Oregon, suddenly kicked her parents
out of her life, saying she had begun to remember that her father
had forced her into sexual contact over 13 years.
This is unlike many publicized accounts of alleged abuse: the
daughter has filed no criminal or civil charges and stopped talking
to reporters months ago. But the parents willingly give interviews,
and her mother operates a national advocacy group in Philadelphia
for people claiming to have been wrongly accused of physical and
"It is the most awful nightmare you can imagine," said Dr.
Freyd, a woman in her 50s who holds a doctorate in education. "My
fantasy is to go somewhere, change my name and grow potatoes. But I
only know something terribly wrong is going on and it has to stop
someplace. It may as well stop with me."
In just three years, her organization, the False Memory
Syndrome Foundation, has attracted more than 7,500 members -- most
of them parents who say they are victims of a national epidemic.
Pamela Freyd, its director, has become America's most visible
advocate for accused parents.
The group has attracted a following of psychiatrists and
mental health professionals who say that while child abuse sadly
exists, thousands of Americans have been accused of horrors that
didn't happen. They blame colleagues who coax accusations and
presume that anyone charging abuse must be telling the truth.
Dr. Freyd's foundation boasts an advisory board made up of
professionals from some of America's most prestigious universities.
Dr. Paul McHugh, chief of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of
Medicine, is a member. So are professors from Harvard, Stanford,
Emory and the University of Pennsylvania.
Beginning today, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation is
co-sponsoring a national conference in Baltimore with the Johns
Hopkins Medical Institutions. The conference, the first of its kind
at a major university, will feature scientific presentations
through Sunday at the Stouffer's Harborplace Hotel.
"I'm involved in this because I believe a very great
miscarriage of psychiatry and psychotherapy is in action here,"
said Dr. McHugh, who has written extensively on a trend he
considers one of the worst "misdirections" of 20th-century
psychiatry. "I see this as like a witch hunt, a witch trial."
Dr. McHugh said it is remotely possible for a person to forget
traumatic events of childhood -- such as incest -- and remember as
an adult. But he said he has never personally seen such a case, and
has examined many patients who recanted accusations after leaving
What disturbs him, he said, is that mental health
professionals too often accept an accusation as truth without
trying to confirm it with physical evidence, medical records,
diaries or interviews with family members.
"What I'm looking for is a good-faith effort to decide," he
said. "In most cases that have come to me. . . no effort has been
Just as the group has won its professional admirers, so has it
sparked criticism from other therapists, academics and victims'
advocates. Many fear the foundation has whipped up a backlash that
could intimidate abused patients and keep them from seeking help.
Dr. Elizabeth Brett, president of the International Society
for Traumatic Stress Studies, said the foundation has ignored
decades of evidence that people can forget the worst features of
natural disasters and war -- as well as sexual abuse. Sometimes,
she said, the memory is rekindled years later by sights, sounds,
smells or experiences that remind them of the event.
This pattern is one type of post-traumatic stress, she said.
Dr. Judith Herman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical
school, said the foundation has made a habit of using case studies
of accusers who later recant as ostensible "proof" that recovered
memories are always coaxed.
"That scenario is a silly caricature of psychotherapy," Dr.
Only one criticism seems to truly rankle Pamela Freyd -- the
charge that her work deflects attention from the nation's serious
problem of child abuse. She says she abhors child abuse as much as
anyone but thinks society lost its moorings in its zeal to root out
"Raising questions shouldn't mean that you are against
progress in helping children," she said.
Her family "nightmare" began during the Christmas holiday in
1990, when Dr. Freyd and her husband, Peter Freyd, a mathematics
professor at the University of Pennsylvania, were visiting their
daughter's home in Eugene, Ore.
Jennifer Freyd, in her early 30s, was pregnant with her third
child when the parents came to visit. She had recently entered
therapy where, she later said, horrible images began to haunt her.
Shortly after her parents arrived, Jennifer's husband told
them of her recalled memories and asked them to leave. It was the
last time the Freyds have seen their daughter.
"It was totally out of the blue," Mr. Freyd said of the
allegation. "I'm hearing my son-in-law saying that I had been
In e-mail exchanges, according to Philadelphia magazine, she
accused her father of molesting her as a small child and having sex
with her beginning at 14. Both parents said they were
flabbergasted, and deny that anything like that happened.
They contacted Dr. Harold Lief, a Philadelphia psychiatrist
who had counseled them a decade earlier when Peter Freyd's
alcoholism was straining their marriage. His drinking ended in the
early 1980s, he said, when he checked into a rehabilitation center.
Dr. Lief, now a member of the foundation's advisory board,
said he began to suspect that Jennifer Freyd's therapy had been
anything but neutral when he contacted her psychologist.
"The therapist said almost all her clients were women, and I
asked what percentage had been sexually abused as children. She
said, `Oh, about 85 to 90 percent,' and that raised my level of
suspicion." The Oregon therapist has declined interviews, and
Jennifer Freyd stopped all contact with the press earlier this year.
Fifteen months ago, Jennifer Freyd told a Michigan conference
on recovered memory that recollections of abuse started filtering
back when her therapist asked if she had ever been sexually abused.
"I was immediately thrown into a strange state; no one had
ever asked me such a question. I responded `no, but. . .' and
blurted out some of the events. . .
"After the session, I walked in a daze to my husband's office
and whispered the words, `sexual abuse.' I went home and within a
few hours I was shaking uncontrollably, overwhelmed with intense
and terrible flashbacks."
In her speech, she did not detail the alleged abuse. But she
described a history of more subtle behaviors that demonstrated what
she called her family's obsession with sexuality:
She and a friend had once danced nude for her father when they
were 9 or 10. During her childhood, her father discussed how he had
been sexually abused by a gay man. Once, when their dog began to
rub against a visitor, he explained that the dog was reflecting the
daughter's sexual interest in the guest.
Peter Freyd said he has no memory of the dancing. The episode
with their family pet could have happened, he said, but only in a
context of innocence. And, yes, he had discussed his past as a
"kept boy" -- but only to maintain a healthy atmosphere of openness.
"I'm quite prepared to say, the attitude I thought was
appropriate -- of being open about things of a sexual nature -- in
retrospect may have been wrong. There may have been a reason why
society evolved in a certain way to a kind of puritanism."
He said he has no idea why his daughter accused him, but
thinks she believes her allegations to be true.
Pamela Freyd started the foundation in a one-room office
without windows, then moved to a suite now cluttered with desks,
file cabinets and computers. Several file drawers hold
questionnaires completed by 7,000 people claiming to have been
falsely accused. One out of 16 are in legal trouble, either charged
criminally or sued for damages.
She coined "false memory syndrome," a term attacked as
unscientific by detractors who note that it is not listed in the
psychiatric manual recognized as the profession's bible. She and
her supporters, however, say therapists have documented cases of
false memories for many years.
At the office, seven employees answer a steady stream of phone
calls, send information to accused parents and circulate the names
of lawyers and therapists who have proven helpful. The foundation
has benefited from several well-publicized recantations.
In one, a 34-year-old man dropped a $10 million lawsuit
against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, saying he could not
rely on his "recovered" memory of being sexually abused by the
priest as a teenager. He said the memory came to him when he was
hypnotized by an unlicensed therapist who had been trained on
The foundation's detractors, however, are just as likely to
invoke the case of James R. Porter, a former Massachusetts priest
who two years ago confessed to molesting scores of children in the
1960s. Revelations of the abuse came from a man, now 43, who said
he remembered the abuse while undergoing psychotherapy for
Dr. Richard Lowenstein, who heads the disassociative disorders
clinic at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, said
debunkers of false memory have gained ammunition from anecdotes of
ill-trained therapists who have misled patients.
"We see lots of people who had horrible therapy," he said.
"The people in my field have to recognize that we have a lot of
people who are very poorly trained. Many of them are way out of
But, he said, the idea of therapists "implanting" memories in
vulnerable patients bears no resemblance to what actually occurs in
Patients are often so tormented by recollections -- some true,
some delusional -- that good therapists help them put their
memories away before proceeding further with therapy, he said.
Dr. Lowenstein said he welcomes the Hopkins conference, and
hopes it will bring scientific inquiry to a debate that's been too
loud and mean to accomplish much.