The last time Jennifer Freyd saw her parents was in December 1990. At 33, Jennifer was a tenured professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the mother of two young boys. Her folks, Peter and Pamela Freyd, were coming for a visit over Christmas. In years past, Jennifer’s sister, Gwen, would have been there too. But that fall, a few months before their parents were scheduled to arrive, Gwen had called Jennifer to say she wouldn’t becoming. Something, she said, was deeply wrong with their family. By then, Peter Freyd, a renowned mathematician, had been through rehab at Silver Hill, an elite psychiatric hospital in Connecticut favored by the famous and the wealthy. Still, Peter’s years of heavy drinking weighed especially on Gwen, who is six years younger than Jennifer. She had lived at home, without her sister, for the worst of it.
Jennifer tried to talk Gwen into coming, but she refused. It wasn’t that the sisters didn’t recall the same things; they agreed that their father’s behavior had been strange, even inappropriate, at times. But then Gwen said something that prompted a recontextualization in Jennifer’s mind— something that made her see her entire childhood in a new light. “You know our father was sexually abused, right?” Gwen asked her.
“That was like an earthquake for me,” Jennifer recalls 30 years later. “It was the first time those words were put to our family in any way.”
There were things about her father that Jennifer had previously written off as jokes or exaggerations: his repeated, prideful references to his onetime status as a “kept boy” of a prominent artist; how he always wanted to talk about Lolita; the pin-art impression of his penis that was displayed in the family’s living room. But after what Gwen said, Jennifer suddenly saw these things differently. What had once been a low-grade anxiety in the presence of her father became intolerable.
Jennifer started seeing a therapist. In their second session, the therapist asked her a series of clinical intake questions: whether she smoked, how much she drank, whether she had ever been sexually abused. To the last question, Jennifer gave a thoughtless “No.”
Later that day, she began to remember.
Jennifer has never publicly described what she says her father did to her; she sees no benefit in recounting the details. If pressed to give it a name, she says he molested her. In her earliest memory of it, she recognizes the bathroom in the house where the family lived when she was 3 years old; in her latest, she is a teenager, meaning the abuse would have spanned at least a decade. The memories didn’t arrive all at once but were staggered, resurfacing with special intensity after her parents came for their visit.
The plan was just to get through it. Jennifer had told her husband, JQ, about her memories, and she thought she could temporarily set them aside. After all, she had lived without them well enough for years. But when her parents showed up, Jennifer found she couldn’t stop worrying about her sons. That first night, she asked her husband to sleep on a camping mat in the hall outside their bedroom. It wasn’t enough. In the middle of the night, Jennifer wrested her family from where they slept, and the four of them fled to the home of a colleague who had answered her panicked midnight call.
In the morning, at Jennifer’s request, JQ called her parents and told them they had to leave. Pam, blindsided, demanded to know why. Eventually, JQ blurted it out: Jennifer says Peter molested her as a child, and we can’t have him around our children. Peter denied his daughter’s claims, but JQ found his response unsettling. He was neither disoriented nor outraged but oddly prepared, almost as though he had been expecting it. Pam and Peter left, cutting their visit short.
How should a parent respond to allegations of decades-earlier abuse from an adult child? If you believe yourself—or your spouse—to be innocent, how should you sound on the phone? What should you do in the days and weeks after a bombshell like that? You might believe your child, or you might not. You could try to support her either way. You could cut her out of your life.
Pam and Peter Freyd retaliated. In the wake of Jennifer’s disclosure, they formed an organization called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Through the nonprofit’s work, they popularized a term— false memory—that became one of the most effective tools to instill doubt not only about allegations of child sex abuse but in all forms of sexual violence. Between 1992, when the foundation was launched, and December 2019, when it abruptly shuttered, it bolstered the defense strategy employed by countless sex offenders, from Michael Jackson to Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. Today, the notion that one’s own memories of sexual violence are unreliable is owed, in large part, to how the Freyds responded to their daughter.
Although Pam Freyd believes otherwise, Jennifer wasn’t interested in making her accusations public, much less in taking her father to court. For several months after her disclosure, Jennifer kept up an email correspondence with her mother. She hoped for reconciliation and never expected an admission of guilt from her father. All she wanted was her mother’s love and emotional support.
At some point, though, the tenor of their messages changed. To Jennifer, Pam seemed frantic and defensive. To Pam, Jennifer seemed hostile. According to Pam, a university colleague of Jennifer’s told the Freyds that Jennifer had identified herself as a “survivor” in her classes— something Jennifer strenuously denies. Even now, she isn’t particularly comfortable with the term. To publicly use it to describe herself at that time, she says, would have been “career suicide.”
As tensions grew, Jennifer wrote her parents to ask for a brief break in communication. She was not, she assured them, attempting to sever their relationship; she just needed a little space to allow her to process. Pam ignored the request, and Jennifer felt something shift. “The content of your letters … suggests to me that you are putting effort into a legal defense,” she wrote her mother in a letter dated September 6, 1991. “I do not have any intention of attempting to use the legal system to heal wounds from years ago.”
Jennifer’s suspicion was correct: Her parents were, in fact, developing a legal defense and then some.
About ten months after Jennifer confronted her parents, Pam anonymously published an academic article, her first, in a small journal called Issues in Child Abuse Accusations. Using pseudonyms (Jennifer is “Susan”), Pam describes her daughter’s claim against her husband and outlines her defense. Her daughter “had done lots of experimenting with drugs when she was a teenager,” she writes, speculating about whether that might explain the mistaken memories. Other potential explanations: her daughter’s marital problems (including a lackluster sex life), new motherhood, career stress, nursing her son for too long, jealousy of her mother’s professional success, a history of anorexia, a feminist therapist, and The Courage to Heal—a book then gaining prominence in feminist and trauma-therapy circles—which Pam calls “slop.”
Jennifer didn’t know her mother was writing the article until a stack of copies showed up at her place of work. Jennifer was, at the time, under consideration for promotion to full professor. At least one of the copies contained a note from her mother, identifying herself as the author and Jennifer as the subject. The article was titled “How Could This Happen? Coping With a False Accusation of Incest and Rape.”
A month later, Pam’s article was covered by her hometown newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. In a piece headlined “Accusations of Sex Abuse, Years Later,” reporter Darrell Sifford recounted the Freyds’ version of events, including a claim that Jennifer had recovered her memories though hypnosis. (Jennifer denies undergoing hypnosis, then or ever.) Sifford went on to publish three more stories on so-called recovered memories, some of which were syndicated by the Inquirer’s then-parent company, Knight-Ridder, in newspapers nationwide. According to Pam, Sifford said he had never seen a response like it. He told Pam he wanted to help all the accused parents who wrote to him, to direct them to some sort of resource, but there was nothing he could find.
So the Freyds—both proud academics— built one themselves. On the heels of the national panic over satanic-ritual child abuse in the 1980s, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation helped shift cultural sympathies from alleged victims to the accused, portraying survivors as casualties of radical-feminist therapists who “implanted” memories of child abuse in gullible patients. The theory the Freyds promoted made its way into college textbooks, syndicated talk shows, and Supreme Court confirmation hearings. With the help of Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield, married psychologists who had gained prominence as expert witnesses for defendants accused of satanic-ritual abuse, the Freyds recruited a highly credentialed advisory board. Among the members were Paul McHugh, known in recent years for insisting that transgender people suffer from a psychological disorder, and Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor who testified on behalf of Ted Bundy in his 1976 trial, before he escaped and went on another killing spree.
WHAT WE KNOW for sure about memory is that there’s a lot we don’t know. There is no truth serum one can administer to be sure that what a person remembers really happened as they state it; there is no way to look inside a person’s brain and see what they see when they picture something that happened to them. Neuroimaging scans show the same parts of the brain lighting up when a person recounts a true memory as when they recount a false one, so long as the person doing the remembering believes the false memory to be true. Vivid memories and vivid fantasies, it turns out, look very similar: Did you really turn off the oven before leaving the house, or are you just very good at picturing yourself having done it?
Perhaps no one alive has been harder on memory’s reputation than Loftus. In 1974, the Department of Transportation awarded Loftus—then a newly minted Ph.D. in psychology—a grant to study memory distortion among eyewitnesses of car accidents. That same year, she used her findings to assist a public defender in a murder trial; the defendant got off, and Loftus has had no shortage of work as an expert witness ever since.
In the early ’90s, she took a particular interest in cases involving allegations of child sex abuse. She testified for the defense in the infamous case of George Franklin, who was charged with murder after his adult daughter Eileen claimed she had recovered memories of watching him rape and kill her childhood best friend. Susan Nason had been found dead at 8 years old, her body left on a hillside off California Highway 92, partly obscured by a worn mattress. Little physical evidence remained, and the case had gone cold. But in 1990, more than two decades after Nason was killed, Franklin was sentenced to life in prison for the crime, largely on the basis of his daughter’s memories. He went free after Eileen’s sister, Janice, revealed that Eileen had recovered her memories of Nason’s murder through hypnosis, which both sisters had denied at trial.
Loftus believed that Eileen’s memories were entirely false and suspected her hypnosis might have been to blame. She wanted to figure out if (and how) it was possible to implant a seed of false memory that might then grow into a richly detailed fabrication. “At some point,” she says, “I came up with the idea: Why don’t we try to make people believe and remember that they were lost in a shopping mall—that they were frightened and crying and ultimately rescued and reunited with their family?” Loftus, then a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, offered this challenge to her undergrad students in cognitive psych as an extracredit assignment. It was worth five points.
Jim Coan, one of Loftus’s students, thought the idea sounded fun. His subject would be his 14-year-old brother, Chris. With the help of their mother, Jim described four events Chris had supposedly experienced as a child. Three were true, but one was false: that Chris had gotten separated from his mother in a shopping mall at age 5 and was lost for a while before being rescued by an elderly man. Chris was asked to journal about these four “memories” over five days and to add any details he might remember.
Over those five days, Chris recalled specific moments about being lost in the mall. He remembered being afraid he would never see his family again. He remembered the man who rescued him as “really cool” and that he was wearing a blue flannel shirt and glasses. Asked to rate his confidence in each memory from one (not clear) to 11 (very clear), Chris gave the mall memory an eight. Jim then told Chris that one of the four memories had never happened and asked him if he knew which one. Chris selected one of the real memories. Through the power of suggestion, Chris apparently believed he had experienced something he hadn’t.
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