Relationships: False Memory

Q: Dear Dr. Ochberg:

I’m sure you receive countless e-mails from people needing your expertise, as I know you are the best in mental health. My sister really needs some help and she doesn’t know it! I’m so sorry to bother you, but our family doesn’t know where to turn, we are desperate!! …. You see, my sister thinks my mom molested her and my other sister as children. My other sister who is involved in these vivid memories says it is absolutely not true, which we as a family already know, as that is an oxy-moron of my mom. In the beginning of all of this, she also accused my dad of molesting them, too (If you ever met my dad, that would be laughable, as that is also an oxy-moron of my dad!). After seeing a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist said that she probably walked in on my parents and got mixed up from that, so she has now dismissed my dad of doing anything.

My parents have been the most loving, giving and God loving parents that anyone could ever dream of having. It is tearing my parents and all of us siblings up!! She is not allowing my parents (we don’t understand why she is doing this to our dad as well) to see her 2 year old and will not allow them to have any contact with her, her spouse and her child, unless she does the contacting. My mom and she had a great relationship in all of her growing up years. Once my sister moved to California (we live in IL) for a teaching position, she was “really busy” and not able to talk much. Once she got married, she started distancing herself more, and then after her baby was born, she called all of her siblings with these terrible memories she had and asked if we had any memories of things happening to us. Of course, we didn’t. Then she approached my mom with it and my mom was speechless … she didn’t know what to say, except of course that she did not do these horrific things she’s been accused of. My sister doesn’t have a history of mental health problems, or medical problems as far as that goes. This has just come out of the blue for us, for her it has been progressing into more vivid memories for the past 5 years.

I know you can read this and know what it is, can you help us? What can we get her to do? Our family was so close, and we really miss her!!! Like I said, I’m so sorry to bother you with this; I’m just hoping you can find it in your heart to help an unknown family.

Thank you for anything you can guide us with!

A: Dear K,

My heart goes out to you and your family–all of them, including your sister who may have “false memories.” There is quite a literature out there on the topic “false memory syndrome.” Unfortunately, some of the advocates have been rather strident and the field had too much anger, animosity and litigation. That phase has subsided, with cooler heads prevailing.

My area of expertise is PTSD. To make the diagnosis, you must have a clear memory of a true trauma, not a delusion based on a misperception, nor a “recovered memory” of doubtful authenticity. PTSD treatment is different from Freudian and related therapies. Those therapies are usually based upon repressed, unconscious events from childhood that result in neuroses or personality disorders. The Freudian therapist helps the adult expose, explore and resolve these unconscious residues by making them conscious.

I’m usually faced with memories that are all too conscious, like the repetitive and horrifying memory of a rape or a child’s violent death.

When a family member like you comes my way I do offer counseling to the healthy family members, once I become convinced that there was no incest or abuse. The diagnosis is “family problem.” Insurance never pays for that. The therapy is quite collegial, sometimes in the form of facilitated family therapy (which amounts to focused, friendly conversation). Sometimes, in the course of those conversations, new ideas arise. At least, tensions and frustrations are managed. But getting the family member who believes she was abused to accept the view that her convictions are wrong and that she needs help is never easy.

If your sister has symptoms that bother her, she might be motivated to find a good therapist who is skilled working with adults who are fixed on unproved early events. But she might also find poorly trained therapists who confirm her convictions. There is actually a page in the World Almanac with an AMA finding that such therapy is unscientific and unethical.

So to sum it up, many of us are very familiar with similar family issues. There are professionals who could assist, but it will be costly and may not solve the whole situation. You can read about the problem, starting with a Google search of false memory or recovered memory.