Updated: Mar 9, 2021
Incest is one of the most common forms of sexual abuse, and yet — despite the gains of the #METOO movement — it remains conspicuously missing from the conversation. One of the underlying reasons for this is that the “false memory” defense that was created to silence incest survivors has somehow persisted, in mainstream media, in academia, and in the public consciousness.
A brief history of the false memory defense:
In the 1980s and 90s, a movement of incest survivor activism emerged as an outgrowth of the Women’s Liberation movement of the 60s and 70s. And when incest survivors began taking their perpetrators to court, a furious and powerful backlash erupted and took the media by storm.
At the center of the backlash movement was an organization called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). Founded in 1992, the FMSF was on its surface an “advocacy group” created by and for parents who’d been accused by their children of sexual abuse. The group’s supposed agenda was to provide support and fellowship to families that had been “destroyed” by accusations of incest. They launched a well-funded media campaign purporting the existence of an epidemic of “False Memory Syndrome” — not a scientifically researched condition, but rather a slogan concocted by accused parents to discredit the testimonies of their children. The campaign was highly effective, and the media eagerly gobbled it up.
Today, despite the changing times and the gains of the #MeToo movement, this “false memory” rhetoric continues to be validated in both media and academia:
In media, many popular psychology magazines still publish articles that validate the false memory myth, while providing very little information about the reality of incest. These publications include Psychology Today, BetterHelp, GoodTherapy, Healthline, Verywellmind, and others.
In academia, false memory rhetoric still shows up in mainstream textbooks and courses on both psychology and law.
Therefore, the false memory myth is still very much embedded in the public consciousness.
So, what can we do to make the world a safer place for incest survivors and to support inclusion as we collectively strive to end rape culture? All successful anti-oppression movements are founded on consciousness raising. That is what #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have used as fuel for cultural and political change. Why not build on the armatures that have already been so bravely constructed? For example, share the words of incest survivors with a hashtag like #believeincestsurvivors. Correct community members when they perpetuate myths that harm incest survivors. Demand accountability from media outlets that perpetuate misinformation. And publish content that debunks myths about incest. These actions can have culture-shifting impact.
- Anna Holtzman
Anna Holtzman is a writer and mind-body psychotherapist who helps clients heal from trauma and chronic pain. Her writing includes a history of the so-called “false memory” movement that attempted to silence incest survivors. She enjoys learning, long walks, and lazing around with her partner and their three orange cats. Her website is www.annaholtzman.com.