Crisis or Creation?

A Systematic Examination of "False Memory Syndrome"


Stephanie J. Dallam

Leadership Council

Citation: Dallam, S. J. (2002). Crisis or Creation: A systematic examination of false memory claims. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse,9 (3/4), 9-36.

Simultaneously published as a chapter in Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors (Charles L. Whitfield, MD, FASAM; Joyanna Silberg, PhD; and Paul Jay Fink, MD, Eds.) Haworth Press, 2002

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©2001 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved


In 1992, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), an advocacy organization for people claiming to be falsely accused of sexual abuse, announced the discovery of a new syndrome in-

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volving iatrogenically created false memories of childhood sexual abuse. This article critically examines the assumptions underlying “False Memory Syndrome” to determine whether there is sufficient empirical evidence to support it as a valid diagnostic construct. Epidemiological evidence is also examined to determine whether there is data to support its advocates’ claim of a public health crisis or epidemic. A review of the relevant literature demonstrates that the existence of such a syndrome lacks general acceptance in the mental health field, and that the construct is based on a series of faulty assumptions, many of which have been scientifically disproven. There is a similar lack of empirical validation for claims of a “false memory” epidemic. It is concluded that in the absence of any substantive scientific support, “False Memory Syndrome” is best characterized as a pseudoscientific syndrome that was developed to defend against claims of child abuse.

KEYWORDSs: Amnesia, child sexual abuse, epidemic, false memory, incest, legislation, pseudoscience, public policy, recovered memory, syndrome evidence, suggestibility.


“False Memory Syndrome” has been described as a widespread social phenomenon where misguided therapists cause patients to invent memories of sexual abuse (McCarty & Hough, 1992). The syndrome was described and named by the families and professionals who comprise the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (see Freyd, March 1993, p. 4), an organization formed by parents claiming to be falsely accused of child sexual abuse. Proponents of the syndrome claim that it is occurring at epidemic levels, and some have gone so far as to characterize it as the mental health crisis of the 1990s (e.g., Gardner, 1993, p. 370). Critics, on the other hand, have suggested that the syndrome is based on vague, unsubstantiated generalizations, which do not hold up to scientific scrutiny (e.g., Page, 1999), and that the syndrome’s primary purpose is to discredit victims’ testimony (e.g., Murphy, 1997). This article critically examines the assumptions underlying the concept to determine whether there is sufficient empirical evidence to support “False Memory Syndrome” as a valid diagnostic construct. Epidemiological evidence is then examined to determine whether there is data to support claims of either a public health crisis or epi-demic.

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The History of the FMSF

Two consistent findings have emerged from research on child sexual abuse: the problem is widespread (e.g., Finkelhor, 1994) and child abuse is extensively undisclosed and underreported (e.g., Lawson & Chaffin, 1992; National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, 1997). Even when reported, child sexual abuse is extremely difficult to prosecute and few perpetrators are ever brought to justice (Dziech & Schudson, 1989). Despite research showing that children rarely confabulate stories of abuse (e.g., Goodwin, Sahd, & Rada, 1979; Thoennes & Tjaden, 1990), offenders often convincingly argue that their accuser has falsely accused them. In addition, the legal system has historically viewed children as the property of their parents and professionals have discounted women’s reports of incestuous abuse as wishful fantasies (Haugaard & Reppucci, 1988). As a result, legal and mental health professionals have tended to be overly suspicious of and unresponsive to reports of sexual abuse (Clevenger, 1992).

In the 1980s, some incest victims attempted to hold their abusers accountable by seeking compensation in courts for abuse-related injuries. Although, many had corroboration for their abuse, most lawsuits were disallowed because the time period (i.e., statute of limitations) in which they had to raise such a claim had expired. Most state laws consider sexual abuse to be a personal injury, which tend to have short statute of limitations. Consequently, actions were generally time-barred by a victim’s 19th or 20th birthday — an age where most people are still dependent on their parents.

Armed with a growing body of research and clinical literature (e.g., Herman & Schatzow, 1987; Terr, 1991) showing that many child abuse victims experience traumatic or dissociative amnesia, or for other reasons are unable to recognize the harm the abuse has caused them until they are well into adulthood, advocates lobbied state legislatures to extend the time period for filing suits. Many states responded by extending statutes of limitations for civil actions related to child sexual abuse and, for the first time, many incest perpetrators were within reach of the law. However, for the most part, only victims who claimed to have recently remembered their abuse qualified for this exception in the statute of limitations (Brown, Scheflin, & Hammond, 1998).

Accused parents, many of whom were affluent and respected members of the community, sought out defense lawyers and psychological experts for help in defending against abuse-related claims. A new concept, “False Memory Syndrome,” was advanced by parents and professionals as an alternative explanation for delayed memories of sexual abuse (see, P. Freyd, March 1993, p. 4) and in March 1992 the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) was founded.

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The foundation’s leaders, Pamela and Peter Freyd, were motivated because their adult daughter privately accused Peter of sexually abusing her as a child. They were put in touch with other parents claiming to be falsely accused by Dr. Harold Lief (Calof, 1993a), who was later revealed to be Pamela’s personal psychiatrist (J. Freyd, 1993). Families were also referred by Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield, a husband and wife team who are prominent advocates for people accused of molesting children. A frequent defense expert witness, Underwager’s philosophy concerning the prosecution of child sexual abuse has been summed up by the statement that it is “more desirable that a thousand children in abuse situations are not discovered than for one innocent person to be convicted wrongly” (Kraft, 1985, p. 1).

Underwager and Wakefield were also instrumental in helping the Freyds organize the foundation (P. Freyd, May 21, 1992; Underwager & Wakefield, 1994). The original toll-free number for the FMSF rang at Underwager’s private Institute for Psychological Therapies, and Underwager and Wakefield developed the initial questionnaire used to survey families who contacted the FMSF (P. Freyd, May 21, 1992).

With the help of Harold Lief and Marin Orne,2 the FMSF quickly gathered a respectable appearing advisory board, giving the new syndrome an aura of scientific acceptance (P. Freyd, June 1998, p. 1). Although, the FMSF was billed as a scientific organization, its actions were mainly geared toward defending parents against abuse accusations and blaming them on psychotherapists. According to Pamela Freyd . “This Foundation came into being because many of us believe that we have been judged guilty by therapists who have never met us . . . ” (p. 1). According to Martin Gardner (1993), a prominent member of the FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board, the FMSF was formed “to combat a fast-growing epidemic of dubious therapy that is ripping thousands of families apart, scarring patients for life, and breaking the hearts of innocent parents and other relatives” (p. 370).

Despite the fact that “False Memory Syndrome” remained undefined and had never been the subject of any research, the FMSF focused its early activities on influencing the media and legal system. In its first official newsletter, supporters were told that the main activities the foundation would be:

  1. “press releases with accurate information on topics such as child abuse statistics and memory”;
  2. developing a resource center and database for legal cases involving repressed memories; 
  3. a study of beliefs of mental health professionals;
  4. other things that you tell us need to be done to help you” (“Foundation Activities”, March 1992, p. 2).

After surveying its members, the FMSF reported that most parents who joined the organization were concerned that they were going to be sued by their children (“Legal Actions,” June 12, 1992, p. 2). Some had even been

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criminally convicted for molesting children (FMSF, 1993). An early FMSF newsletter assured these parents that, “the FMS Foundation Legal Advisory Board is working with all possible speed” (“Legal News,” November 1992). The FMSF immediately began to disseminate information to the media concerning this burgeoning “epidemic” of what the foundation alleged to be false memories.



Definition of “False Memory Syndrome”

The definition of “False Memory Syndrome” did not evolve from clinical studies; rather the purported syndrome’s description is based on the accounts of parents claiming to be falsely accused of child sexual abuse, usually by their adult daughters. As a result, more than a year after her organization was founded, Pamela Freyd, the FMSF’s Executive Director, was still unable to articulate a list of the signs and symptoms that characterize the “syndrome” (Calof, 1993a). The FMSF later adopted the following definition, offered by research psychologist and then FMSF advisor John Kihlstrom3 (1993):

When a memory is distorted, or confabulated, the result can be what has been called the False Memory Syndrome –a condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply engrained that it orients the individual’s entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behaviors. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional. False Memory Syndrome is especially destructive because the person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated, and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on the memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with the real problems in his or her life. (p.10)

According to Campbell Perry (1995), a member of the FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board, the main distinguishing feature of “False Memory Syndrome” is that “an individual enters therapy with a `recovered memory’ therapist; one who believes that all psychic distresses are the product of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, and who interprets all failures

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to recall the incest as evidence of ‘denial'” (p. 192). The therapist than uses “disguised” hypnosis (i.e., procedures such as guided imagery, relaxation, dream analysis, regression work and sodium amytal) to elicit abuse-related “memories” (p. 189). The real tragedy of “False Memory Syndrome,” according to Pamela Freyd, is that afflicted patients lose their families and all their “memory of childhood happiness” ( Taylor , 1992).

The FMSF’s Index Case

“False Memory Syndrome” is unconventional in that it is usually “diagnosed” without any supporting clinical evaluation. The earliest publicized case of what was purported to be “False Memory Syndrome” is that of Jennifer Freyd, the daughter of FMSF founders Peter and Pamela Freyd. In December 1990, Jennifer, a respected psychologist and memory researcher, privately accused her father of sexually abusing her. Ten months later, Pamela anonymously published an article in Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, an obscure journal devoted to defending against child abuse accusations published by Ralph Underwager. In the article, Pamela claimed her daughter had falsely accused her father of incest and that “the accusations arose during the course of therapy in which the therapist elicited `repressed memories'” (Doe, 1991, p. 154 ).

Although it appeared under the pseudonym “Jane Doe,” Pamela mailed the article, and revealed both her own and her daughter’s real identity, to many people including senior members of Jennifer’s department, who received it at the time they were deciding whether to promote her. Hechler (1996) noted that the portrait that the article painted of Jennifer was far from flattering. “She was described during various periods of her life as sexually promiscuous, professionally unproductive, anorexic and sexually frustrated.”

When Jennifer Freyd, PhD, (1993) finally told her side of the story, it became apparent that her case meets few of the characteristics of “False Memory Syndrome” described in FMSF literature. First, she did not spend months in therapy for an unrelated problem before she remembered the abuse. Jennifer consulted the therapist because of intense anxiety over her parents’ upcoming visit. She recalled the abuse after her second session. Second, no memory recovery techniques were utilized; Jennifer’s memories emerged at home after the therapist merely asked if she had ever been abused. Third, after recovering the memories, she did not sue her parents, threaten them with public exposure, and according to Jennifer, it was never her intention to cut her parents out of her life. Jennifer reported that she broke off communication only after “repeated and intense efforts to communicate constructively” (p. 20), and in response to her parent’s ongoing “obsession” with her sexuality (p. 16). Finally,

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although “False Memory Syndrome” is said to disrupt all sorts of “adaptive behaviors” and to distract sufferers “from coping with the real problems in her life” (Kihlstrom, 1993, p. 10), in the wake of the charges, Jennifer did not abandon her career, neglect her children, or leave her husband. Rather than organizing her life around the accusation, Jennifer Freyd, has remained a respected and productive academic psychologist at the University of Oregon .

In answering her parent’s charges, Jennifer Freyd (1993) also revealed information which casts doubt on their motives and the credibility of Pamela Freyd’s published account of her daughter’s case. For example, Jennifer revealed that Pamela introduced a number of fictional elements into what was billed as a true story of a mother’s struggle with her daughter’s “false accusation” of paternal sexual abuse. Throughout the story Pamela wrote, falsely, that her daughter had been denied tenure at her last job. Astonishingly, it is this fictional element that Pamela Freyd offers as a possible explanation for Jennifer’s “false memories.” She wrote: “Is `violation’ a feeling that comes when tenure doesn’t?” (Doe, 1991, p. 162).

Jennifer Freyd (1993) also revealed that her father was a chronic alcoholic throughout her childhood,4 and had himself been sexually abused as a boy by an older man, a fact he seemed to take pride in (according to Jennifer, he frequently described himself as having been a “kept” boy). She also noted that her abuse memories were consistent with never forgotten memories of her family’s pattern of sexualized and intrusive behavior (p. 13); memories which Peter and Pam have for the most part confirmed (Fried, 1994; Hechler, 1996). Jennifer Freyd (1993) also noted that her only sibling, a sister, was already estranged from her parents at the time of the allegations. In addition, Peter Freyd’s own mother (who is also Pamela’s step-mother) and his only sibling, a brother, were also estranged from Pamela and Peter. It should be noted that these family members support Jennifer’s side of the story. In a statement, Peter’s brother, William Freyd stated, “There is no doubt in my mind that there was severe abuse in the home of Peter and Pam. . . . The False Memory Syndrome Foundation is a fraud designed to deny a reality that Peter and Pam have spent most of their lives trying to escape” (W. Freyd, 1995, as cited by Whitfield, 1995, p. 7).

Lack of Empirical Validation for “False Memory Syndrome”

To date, no empirical validation has been offered for “False Memory Syndrome” as a diagnostic construct; nor have the symptoms that characterize this putative syndrome ever been systematically described and studied. As a result, “False Memory Syndrome” has never been accepted as a valid diagnosis by any professional organization and usage of the term has been the subject of

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heated criticism in peer reviewed scientific journals. For example, 17 behavioral scientists coauthored a statement objecting to the term “False Memory Syndrome” as “a non-psychological term originated by a private foundation whose stated purpose is to support accused parents” (Carstensen et al., 1993, p. 23). Critics have suggested that the syndrome is based on vague, unsubstantiated generalizations, which do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. For example, Page (1999) noted, “FMSF members paradoxically claim to place great value on scientific inquiry, while permitting their syndrome to remain so vaguely defined that it is virtually impossible not only to study it, but to determine who suffers from it” ( ).

The FMSF has responded to such criticism by admitting that it does not have any evidence for its syndrome besides the stories that it hears from those who call the foundation seeking help:

We wish to emphasize the existence of a condition that needs to be considered and then confirmed or rejected when further information emerges. For that aim, the term “false memory syndrome” is satisfactory (“Our Critics,” April 1993, p. 3).

Examination of the Assumptions Underlying the Construct

  1. Due to the lack of research on “False Memory Syndrome”, assumptions underlying the concept were examined. A review of the writings of, and media interviews granted by, false memory proponents reveals that their construction of the purported syndrome is, for the most part, based on 6 main assumptions. These assumptions are as follows:  A recovered memory is likely to be a false memory;  
  2. False/recovered memories are usually caused by incompetent therapists doing “recovered memory therapy;”
  3. It is easy to implant false memories of traumatic events that never happened; 
  4. People who recover memories are highly suggestible; 
  5. “False Memory Syndrome” is common among psychotherapy patients who recover traumatic memories; 
  6. Alleged perpetrators are somehow immune to developing false memories.

For “False Memory Syndrome” to be considered a valid construct, each of these assumptions must be tested and supported by scholarly research. Furthermore, to qualify as a syndrome, each assumed characteristic should be found in relation to the others. For example, a person who recovers a memory of sexual abuse should be found to be suggestible, to have recovered the memories only after undergoing extensive psychotherapy focused on finding memories, and no corroboration should be found for memories that “return” in this fashion (Brown, Scheflin, & Whitfield, 1999). A brief review of the scientific

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literature fails to support these assumptions, both alone, and in relation to one another.

Assumption 1: A recovered memory is likely to be false memory. The most common argument offered in support of “False Memory Syndrome” is the purported lack of evidence for repression. An early FMSF publication stated: “Psychiatrists advising the Foundation members seem to be unanimous in the belief that memories of such atrocities cannot be repressed. Horrible incidents of childhood are remembered” (FMSF, 1992, p. 2). This statement implies that any traumatic memory that is forgotten and then recalled later must be false. Some false memory proponents have admitted that traumatic amnesia can occur for a single, traumatic event such as rape. However, they argue that there is no support for the claim that individuals can be completely amnesiac for repeated episodes of sexual abuse or that memories of abuse can be accurately remembered years later (e.g., Underwager & Wakefield, 1995).

The assumption that delayed memories should be considered false is countered by countless studies of traumatized populations. At last count, over 68 studies have documented the reality of recovering forgotten memories of trauma (Brown et al., 1999). At the same time, research has shown that the misremembering of childhood events is more often characterized by forgetting negative experiences that actually happened than it is by remembering ones that did not (Brewin, Andrews, & Gotlib, 1995). In addition, the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals (i.e., Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed.) recognizes memory problems to be a common feature of five post-traumatic conditions: post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, dissociative disorder not-otherwise-specified, and dissociative identity disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

As to the reliability of recovered memories, research suggests that recovered memories are no more and no less accurate than continuous memories (Brown et al., 1999). Longitudinal studies have demonstrated that individuals with legally documented abuse histories have recovered accurate abuse-related memories after claiming to have forgotten the traumatic experience (Corwin & Olafson, 1997; Duggal & Sroufe, 1998; Weene, 1995; Williams, 1995), and substantial proportions of those who recover memories of abuse have been able to find external corroborative evidence to support their memory (e.g., Andrews et al., 1999;Chu, Frey, Ganzel, & Matthews, 1999; Dalenberg, 1996).5 After reviewing the evidence, Scheflin and Brown (1996) suggested that if courts require an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether repressed memories are reliable, then they “must, consistent with the science, hold either that such memories are reliable or that all memory, repressed or otherwise, is unreliable” (p. 183).

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Another problem with the assumption that a recovered memory should be considered false is that, while there is abundant research demonstrating the fallibility of retrospective recall (e.g., Loftus, Korf & Schooler, 1989), there has been no systematic research documenting “False Memory Syndrome” and no professional organization has officially recognized its existence. Conversely, at least one professional body has questioned the syndrome’s validity. The British Psychological Society (BPS) surveyed 108 therapists on their patients who had recovered memories. The results revealed that many patients recovered their memories prior to beginning therapy, few therapists reported using any techniques to aid recall, and some form of corroboration was reported in 41% of cases (Andrews et al., 1999). Overall, the BPS could find no convincing evidence for a specific “False Memory Syndrome” leading the Society to issue a statement asserting: “There is now consistent evidence that `False Memory Syndrome’ cannot explain all, or even most, examples of recovered memories of trauma” (Reaney, 2000).

Assumption 2: Recovered memories are usually caused by therapists practicing “recovered memory therapy.” Anytime a therapy patient recovers a memory either inside or outside of therapy, false memory proponents are likely to accuse the therapist of engaging in “recovered memory therapy.” Although many clinicians report that what critics call “memory recovery therapy” (e.g., hypnosis, guided imagery, sodium amytal, etc., that is focused solely on memory recovery) is not common among mainstream clinicians (e.g., Briere, 1995; Calof, 1993b), false memory proponents claim that such therapy is a nation-wide phenomenon that “has devastated thousands of lives” (Ofshe & Watters, 1993, p. 4). In fact, Underwager has asserted that when a person has no recall of abuse and they go to therapist and recover a memory, “it’s common sense to realize that the therapy caused the memory” (Morris, April 24, 1992).

The assumption that recovered memories are usually caused by therapists using suggestive techniques is countered by numerous studies reporting that a substantial proportion of those who recover memories of abuse, do so without ever having participated in therapy (e.g., Albach, Moorman, & Bermond, 1996; Andrews et al., 1999; Chu et al., 1999). For example, Albach et al. (1996) found no significant differences in amnesia, memory recovery, or other memory phenomena between abuse survivors in the Netherlands who participated in psychotherapy and those who did not. The authors concluded that therapy was not a significant contributor to the recall of abuse in a majority of Dutch patients. Further research has shown that when memories are recovered while participating in some type of therapy, most memories are recalled outside of therapy and without the prior use of recall techniques (e.g., Andrews et al., 2000; Chu et al. , 1999; Dalenberg, 1996; Elliot, 1997).

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Scheflin and Brown (1999) tested this assumption by examining the types of therapy received by 30 former patients who sued their therapists for implanting false memories. Scheflin and Brown reported that none of the cases fit the profile of the patient being misled in treatment and subsequently correcting their misperceptions. Instead, they found that patients tended to re-evaluate their perceptions of their therapy after pressure from their families and significant exposure to the views of false memory proponents. In addition, ” none [italics in original] of the 30 cases could be classified narrowly as `recovered memory therapy,’ and none had a single-minded focus on recovering memories” (p. 685).

A ssumption 3: It is easy to implant false memories of traumatic events. False memory proponents have asserted that it is extremely easy for therapists to inadvertently implant in their patients a set of false autobiographical memories of child abuse. Kihlstrom (1996), for example, wrote that “even a few probing questions and suggestive remarks by an authoritative figure such as a therapist may be sufficient to inculcate a belief on the part of a patient that he or she was abused.” There is currently mixed data on the ability of authority figures to “implant” wholly false traumatic memories; however, memory researchers agree that the creation of illusory memories require substantial suggestive influence (e.g., Lindsay, 1998). After a comprehensive review of the literature, Lindsay and Read (1994) concluded “There is little reason to fear that a few suggestive questions will lead psychotherapy clients to conjure up vivid and compelling illusory memories of childhood sexual abuse” (p. 294).

Empirical research indicates that two main factors influence the likelihood of a subject producing a false memory report:

  1. The strength of suggestive influences, and
  2.  The perceived “plausibility” of the suggested event (Lindsay, 1998). For example, Porter, Yuille and Lehman (1999) reported that they have been successful in getting some research subjects to “recover” a memory for a false stressful event (e.g., dog attack) after using extensive suggestive techniques coupled with misleading participants to believe that the false scenario was witnessed and reported by a parent. After using guided imagery and repeated retrieval attempts, Porter et al. reported that 26% of participants “recovered” a complete memory for the false experience ostensibly endorsed as true by their parents, and another 30% recalled aspects of the false experience. Using similar techniques, Pezdek, Finger and Hodge (1997) tried to mislead adults to believe that they had been lost in a shopping mall as children. They also tried to convince them that they had experienced rectal enemas as children. While 3 out of 20 subjects erroneously claimed to have been lost in the mall (a relatively common and familiar experience), no subjects would erroneously agree that they had had a rectal enema (an event more analogous to sexual abuse).

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The willingness of some research subjects to modify childhood memories in favor of their parents’ recollections points to a neglected area of research on memory and suggestibility: the ability of authority figures to induce false reports of not having been abused (Fish, 1998). Richard Kluft, a psychiatrist at Temple University , observed that such experiments show that “a family determined to mess up a child’s sense of reality has a good chance of succeeding” (Bavley, 1995).

Assumption 4: People who recover memories are highly suggestible. The assumption of suggestibility is central to the contention that therapists are rewriting the memory banks of vulnerable patients. An article in the FMSF’s newsletter stated, “When a distressed client enters therapy, that person is almost by definition `highly suggestible” (“How Could This,” November, 1993, p. 3). However, the assumption that adults who recover memories of abuse are highly suggestible has not been supported by research specifically designed to test its validity. In fact, investigators have found that the memory of patients who reported having recovered memories of childhood sexual trauma were actually less subject to distortion following suggestive prompts than psychiatric patients who did not report having recovered such memories (Leavitt, 1997; 1999). Clancy, McNally and Schachter (1999) compared women who had recovered memories of abuse to those who had not to see whether imagining unusual childhood events inflated their confidence that these events had happened to them. They found that although guided imagery did not significantly inflate confidence that early childhood events had occurred in either group, the control group was more likely to be confident that an imagined event had occurred than the group with a history of recovered memory.

Assumption 5: “False Memory Syndrome” is common. Within a month of the founding of the FMSF, its leaders claimed that “False Memory Syndrome” was widespread. For example, Pamela Freyd told a reporter for the Utah County Journal that “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of families across the country are grappling with fallout from false memories of sexual abuse brought on by psychotherapy” (Morris, April 21, 1992). In 1998, FMSF advisor Terrence W. Campbell estimated that in any given year, as many as 750,000 clients are at a risk of developing false memories due to psychotherapy (Tyroler, 1999). Clearly, claims about a new diagnostic category reaching epidemic proportions require careful analysis and substantiation (Pope, 1996). However, the FMSF has never performed any epidemiological research to support its claims.

In fact, a major problem hampering the study of the construct is that it is not being found in the clinical populations where its proponents claim the syndrome is rampant. For example, Hovdestad and Kristiansen (1996) surveyed 113 women with self-reported histories of incest, approximately half of whom reported at least one recovered memory and who could, therefore, potentially

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be suffering from false memories. They found that women who had recovered memories of child sexual abuse did not differ significantly from those with continuous memories. Not only did the criteria described by the FMSF fail to discriminate between the two groups, there was also no evidence to suggest that recovered memories were associated with certain types of therapy.

Assumption 6: Alleged perpetrators are immune to FMS. FMSF advisory board member Campbell Perry (1995) has acknowledged the lack of empirical underpinnings for “False Memory Syndrome” noting that, “FMS is not a syndrome in the conventional sense.” Instead, he insisted on a “looser” meaning of this term, suggesting that “False Memory Syndrome” qualifies as a syndrome in terms of “a set of behaviors believed to have a common cause or basis” (pp. 191-2). According to Perry, “The False Memory Syndrome fits comfortably into this alternative formulation, which conceptualizes a syndrome in terms of a process that led to a particular outcome” (p. 192).

Critics, however, point out that in the case of “False Memory Syndrome” the “outcome” (i.e., a false memory) proceeds a priori from the assumption that the disputed memories are in fact false (e.g., Calof, 1993a). The FMSF has never tested this assumption as it does not investigate the backgrounds of those claiming to be falsely accused (P. Freyd, March 1994 ) and professionals rarely evaluate those said to be afflicted with the disorder (Pope, 1996). Consequently, in absentia “diagnoses” of the syndrome are often made by untrained lay people based solely on the denials of the alleged perpetrator.

The assumption that memories of parents are more accurate or truthful than those of their children has led many to criticize the FMSF’s lack of objectivity in their syndrome’s conceptualization and application (e.g., Courtois, 1995; Hoult, 1998; Whitfield; 1995).6 Not only is there no empirical support for such a biased assumption, the results of numerous studies have shown the direct opposite. After reviewing the literature on retrospective recall of childhood experiences, Brewin et al. (1995) found that parents often recall a happier childhood for their offspring than collateral data would account for, while adults recall their own childhood with greater accuracy. Moreover, Brewin et al. found that memory distortion occurred more often to inhibit recall, and that parents may play a significant role in distorting reality and determining the family mythology concerning earlier events.

The FMSF’s noncritical acceptance of the denials of those accused of child abuse is particularly problematic given that offenders who molest children have been found to have an extraordinary capacity for denial and minimization. In a study of sex offenders, Nugent and Kroner (1996) found that child molesters tend to be particularly skilled at impression management, and that denial is so ingrained and pervasive of a response that it has little relation to whether or not offenders committed the offense. They cautioned that in

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evaluating allegations of sexual abuse, clinicians should rely on independent corroboration as opposed to denials of those accused of molestation. After reviewing the research and clinical literature on sex offenders, forensic psychologist Richard Lanyon wrote the following:

Clinical evidence suggests that in denying an actual molestation, it is not uncommon for the man to vigorously denigrate and vilify the child and other accusers, to loudly proclaim his innocence, to present unsolicited evidence of a frame-up, and to actively seek to influence the examiner and others with statements about the unfairness of the accusation, the financial burden, and the amount of personal suffering that is being forced on him. (Lanyon, 1993, p. 38).

Despite ample evidence of sex offenders strong defenses against admitting or recognizing their problem, the only time false memory proponents have “diagnosed” “False Memory Syndrome” in those accused of abuse, has been after they confessed to molesting children. In these instances the diagnosis has been used to counter the confessions of men now claiming to be innocent. For example, a defense psychiatrist argued that a Canadian minister’s confession to sexually assaulting his daughter was based on a false memory that spontaneously developed during marital therapy with his wife. The psychiatrist testified that the man was emotionally unstable because of his daughter’s allegations of abuse and his marital difficulties. In this emotionally charged atmosphere, the man experienced “spontaneous” hypnosis, which caused him to create false memories. His daughter, who moved out of the house at age 16, was not called to testify and the man was acquitted ( Tyler , 1997).7


To date, the only statistical evidence offered to support claims of a false memory epidemic is the telephone contacts to and/or membership figures of the FMSF. Because no other data exist, FMSF advisor Campell Perry (1995) has suggested that the FMSF’s figures must be considered “crude estimates” of the phenomenon (p. 191). To determine whether the FMSF has collected data suggestive of a mental health crisis, a systematic study of their data collection and reporting practices was undertaken.

Examination of FMSF Membership and Contact Figures

Method. A number of leading databases (e.g., Lexis-Nexis, NewsBank, Index to Legal Periodicals, PsychLit, Medline, etc.) were searched to find both

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professional and lay articles reporting statistical information on the FMSF’s contacts and membership. Transcripts from television programs and the complete archive of FMSF newsletters were also reviewed for similar information. To be included in this study, the article or transcript had to include a precise numerical figure that was explicitly identified as either FMSF membership or contacts. In addition, the article must have attributed the number to an FMSF member or publication, or indicated that a member of the FMSF was interviewed while researching the article. A total of 92 media reports (primarily newspaper articles), 8 journal articles, and 36 FMSF newsletter references met inclusion criteria.

FMSF tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) were obtained to provide a standard of comparison and were assumed to contain correct information. As a nonprofit charity, the FMSF’s is required to file it’s a tax form every year (IRS 990), and the forms are available to the public. Although membership figures are not required by these forms, the foundation’s accountant reported current membership figures on two of the forms — 1995 and 1996.8

Results. Careful examination of the FMSF’s reporting practices revealed that contact and membership figures reported to the public were unaccountably variable (See Table 1). In addition, membership figures quoted to the public often were highly inflated over the actual figures reported to the IRS during the same time period. For example, in early 1994, the Sacramento Bee reported that Pamela Freyd “said her Foundation has 11,000 members, including health professionals and lawyers” (Dobbin, March 9, 1994). In an article ironically titled, “Ethical Issues in the Search for Repressed Memories,” FMSF advisor Harold Merskey (1996) reported, “The FMSF has grown rapidly with over 12,000 members by early 1995 and with more than 21,000 listed inquiries” (pp. 328-9). In April 1995, Ofra Bikel’s Frontline documentary “Divided Memories” (which relied heavily on the FMSF for information) reported that the foundation had 15,000 members.9 Toward the end of 1995, the FMSF’s newsletter suggested that the organization was “over 17,000 strong” (“Make a Difference,” 1995).10 These figures significantly larger than those reported to the IRS for 1995. The FMSF reported that by the end of 1995; they had 2,385 members, a portion of who were professionals rather than families.

Although the problem of inaccurate membership figures being reported to the public was brought to Pamela Freyd’s attention in 1995 (see Lawrence , 1995), inflated figures continued to be a problem. As Table 1 demonstrates, in 1996 the average membership figure reported to the public was approximately six times higher than the figure reported to the IRS.

Figure 1 displays reported membership figures in relation to reported contacts. This graph demonstrates that while both contacts and membership figures appear to rise rapidly, actual membership levels remained relatively flat. Figure 1

*page 24*

also reveals a pattern of what appears to be the intermixing of cumulative contact figures (usually phone calls to the organization) with membership figures. The FMSF stopped reporting membership figures in 1997. Although it is not possible to say for certain why the FMSF stopped this practice, it did so right after Mike Stanton, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter, reported that the FMSF’s true membership was “about 3,000” in July of 1997 (p. 45). Several months prior to the publication of Stanton ‘s article, a member of the FMSF reported in testimony before a Georgia Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that the organization had 18,000 members (Renaud, March 6, 1997).11 The last membership figure found in the print media was in the Los Angeles Daily Journal. Citing Pamela Freyd, the article reported that the FMSF has “some 3,000 dues-paying members” and has been contacted by 18,000 adults (Romo, September 22, 1997). No further mention of FMSF membership figures was found.

Table 1. Comparison between numbers reported in FMSF literature or by media and actual membership figures reported to IRS.


Membership Figures Reported to Public

Figures Reported to IRS*




































*Obtained from 990 tax forms filed with the IRS. Membership figures were only documented on IRS tax forms for 2 years ” 1995 and 1996.

By January of 1999, Pamela Freyd announced that the epidemic of false memories was winding down. Phone calls to the organization had declined steadily since 1995 and “the vast majority” of families which had called in 1998 were concerned about accusations by young children, not accusations based on recovered memories (P. Freyd, January 1999, p. 1). According to Freyd, “The number of families newly accused on the basis of recovered memories is now no more than a trickle” (p. 1).

An Example of the FMSF’s Mishandling of Its Statistical Data

Examination of the FMSF’s reporting practices in early 1994 provide an intriguing case-study in how FMSF statistics were at times mislabeled to support the perception of a growing epidemic. In the January 1994 newsletter, Pamela Freyd states:

*page 25*

We start the new year with almost 10,000 families. Imagine, 10,000 families who have contacted the foundation to say that they are worried about someone in their family who entered therapy and who then claimed to have recovered repressed memories of abuse taking place 10, 20, 30, even 40 years ago [italics added]. (P. Freyd, January 1994, p. 1)

In the next newsletter, these same “worried” contacts were presented with a different spin: “There are now over 10,000 families who have complained that someone they love has received radical therapy for a condition that did not exist” (P. Freyd, February 1994, p. 3).

Figure 1. Comparison of Average FMSF Contact and Membership Figures Reported to the Media Versus Actual Membership Figures Reported to the IRS *

*Obtained from 990 tax forms filed with the IRS. Membership figures were only documented on IRS tax forms for 2 years 1995 and 1996.

The following newsletter (March 1994), implied that 11,000 “worried” contacts now represented both “documented cases,” and members of the organization. The front page of the March 1994 newsletter featured a bar graph titled: “Number of Cases Documented.” The graph shows 11,000 documented cases of false memory during the preceding two years. However, a close examination of the accompanying text revealed that the FMSF had been contacted by 11,000 people. Thus, “documented cases” were actually phone calls asking for information. The text also reveals that in over a third of these 11,000 calls, the “callers or writers have said they had a family problem, but we do not yet

*page 26*

have the details” (P. Freyd, March 1994, p. 1).12 It should also be noted that FMSF’s phones are answered by lay volunteers rather than mental health professionals (“Who’s Who,” 1992). These volunteers do not investigate the story of the person on the other end of the line and Pamela Freyd has admitted that “we do not know the truth or falsity of any of the reports that we receive” (P. Freyd, March 1994, p. 1). Thus, rather than 11,000 cases, in actuality the FMSF had no documented cases of “False Memory Syndrome”. Despite this lack of data, Pamela Freyd concluded that “False Memory Syndrome” is now at “crisis” levels (p. 1).

The same issue of the FMSF newsletter included a letter written by an anonymous FMSF volunteer. The volunteer wrote: “Can you conceive of an organization that grew from 250 families in March 1992, to 11,000 in February 1994?” (p. 8). This letter implied that contacts (phone calls and letters with questions and concerns, along with 4,000 cases of “family problems” of which the organization has no details) were now members of the foundation. The next day, the transformation of phone queries into FMSF membership was completed when an article in the Sacramento Bee reported that Pamela Freyd “said her Foundation has 11,000 members, including health professionals and lawyers” (Dobbin, March 9, 1994).

These erroneous statistics later found their way into professional journals. For example, citing the March 1994 issue of the FMSF newsletter, an article in the Journal of Family Law reported that the FMSF claims “over 11,000 members” (Ahrens, 1996, p. 389). Figure 1 demonstrates that rather than having over 11,000 members in 1994, the FMSF’s actual membership would have been less than 2,385.13

Pamela Freyd has frequently broadcast her organization’s commitment to accurate reporting of information to the public. In the FMSF’s newsletter she stated: “We are alarmed about the misconceptions about memory that are being relayed in the media and in the incest-survivor movement and we are trying to get the most accurate and most scientific information about memory available to the public” (P. Freyd, March 1993, p. 4). Pamela Freyd has also criticized those who misuse science for political purposes:

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the current phenomenon [repressed memories], is the misuse of science to promote a political end. It

*page 27*

is the scientific issues that are the focus of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. (P. Freyd, January 1994, p. 1)

Noting that statistics can have social consequences, the FMSF has also criticized incest activists who misuse their statistical data to promote their own agenda:

Activists inevitably present themselves as knowledgeable enough about some social condition to bring it to our attention.. [T]his putative knowledge seems to give the crusaders’ estimates the weight of authority. The activists seek to emphasize the problem’s magnitude and importance; they have nothing to lose by providing big numbers. (“Thoughts on Sex Abuse”, April 1993, p. 6)

The current review reveals that the FMSF has acted like the special interest groups it frequently criticizes. Specifically, the FMSF has emphasized the magnitude and importance of “False Memory Syndrome” and yet failed to publish any empirically based research supporting the existence of an identifiable syndrome or an epidemic. It has also participated in the dissemination of inaccurate statistical data which misled the public about the extent of the alleged problem. This lack of scholarly activities coupled with advocacy activities on behalf of those accused of sexually abusing children run counter to the FMSF’s claim to be an objective scientific organization. In sum, the FMSF has conducted itself as a partisan organization with a strong sociopolitical agenda. As such, it has been extraordinarily successful in influencing social attitudes toward child abuse and fueling the current controversy about the validity of reports by those claiming to be victims of sexual assault.

The Response of the Media. Because of the FMSF’s emphasis on influencing the press (see e.g., “I Want to Help,” 1992, p. 4), the debate over false memories has largely been played out in the national media (Heaton & Wilson, 1998). Sociologist Katherine Beckett (1996) analyzed the evolution of the treatment of child sexual abuse in leading magazines and found that between 1980 and 1984 only 7% of stories focused on false accusations of child sexual abuse. With the founding of the FMSF in 1992, stories about false memories emerged; by 1994 Beckett found that 85% of the articles on child sexual abuse focused on false memories and false accusations. Mike Stanton (1997) spent a year studying the recovered memory controversy. Like Beckett, he found that false memory rhetoric had greatly influenced media reporting and that articles about false memory had been heavily slanted in favor of accepting the accused parents’ stories without questioning whether they might in fact be guilty. Stanton faulted the press for neglecting to examine the motivations of the

*page 28*

foundation and for having uncritically relied on “FMSF experts and propaganda” for their information (p. 46). Research by Kondora (1998) supported these findings. She noted that with the advent of false memory stories, “lost was any substantive concern for the women and children who had endured abuse.” Instead, the media’s sympathies were focused on a newly constructed victim: the accused perpetrator.

Legal and Legislative Actions. Claims of a false memory epidemic, supported by newspaper articles quoting FMSF experts and statistics, have been used by false memory proponents to lobby federal and state legislatures to enact legislation helpful to accused child molesters (e.g., Renaud, 1997). Legislation has been introduced in numerous states that would severely limit the types of treatment that therapists could do with their patients.14 The proposed legislation would also allow third-parties (e.g., alleged sex offenders) access to a patient’s confidential therapy records, and make therapists liable to third-parties who object to any aspect of the therapy being done (for a review of legislative efforts see Dallam, 1998).

The FMSF has also attempted to sway the outcome of numerous legal cases involving charges of child molestation by filing amicus briefs on behalf of the accused (e.g., State of New Hampshire v. Hungerford , 1997; Wilson v. Phillips, 1999). In addition, many false memory proponents are high priced defense experts who appear overly willing to attach the label of “False Memory Syndrome” on alleged victims in order to discredit their testimony. For example, FMSF advisor Harold Merskey testified that a woman suing Toronto doctor, Leo Pilo, for damages caused by childhood sexual abuse probably suffered from “False Memory Syndrome”. He offered this opinion without any direct examination of the plaintiff, and in spite of the fact that the woman’s story was corroborated by two other victims, and Pilo’s medical license had been previously revoked in a separate proceeding in which he admitted the women’s charges (Landsberg, 1995).

Treatment of Abuse Victims. False memory rhetoric has made it popular to question the credibility of those reporting childhood abuse. A study of 113 adult victims of childhood sexual abuse in Ottawa found that although many of the women had corroborative evidence for their memories, over one-half had been accused by someone of having false memories. The women reported that exposure to false memory rhetoric led to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, increased self-doubt about their memories, and an overall slowing of the progress of therapy (Allard, Kristiansen, Hovdestad, & Felton, accepted for publication, cited in Brown et al., 1998).

The “false memory” label has also been used in an attempt to discredit victims who have won judgments against their perpetrator. Consider the experience

*page 29*

of Jennifer Hoult as reported in the peer-reviewed professional journal Ethics and Behavior . Hoult (1998) won a civil suit against her father (a FMSF member) for rape. Despite the judgment against her father and his record of having admitted to molesting another child (he denied molesting his daughter), Jennifer was portrayed as suffering from “False Memory Syndrome” on promotional materials distributed at FMSF conferences. Hoult reported that false memory proponents misrepresented the facts of her case to make it appear that her therapist implanted her memories and to make her appear unstable: “They claimed I was suicidal, unemployed, estranged from my family, and a victim of therapy, and they insinuated that I was malicious and a liar” (p. 137).

False memory rhetoric has also had a chilling effect on the willingness of therapists to believe and appropriately treat abuse survivors (see the Courtois article in this issue). Because of the risk of being charged with implanting false memories, some insurance providers are advising practitioners to refuse to take clients who allege delayed recall (Brown, 1997). Those who do treat such patients have been subjected to threats, picketing, ethics complaints, and civil and criminal legal actions (Calof, 1998). Despite the fact that a memory cannot be confirmed as either true or false without some form of external corroboration, some false memory advocates have improperly suggested to patients that the abuse they allege never happened. A London newspaper recently reported that a young woman committed suicide after being told by a therapist that her memories of abuse by her father were false. The mother confirmed the abuse and lodged a formal complaint against the practitioner who treated her daughter. The bereaved mother issued the following statement:

My daughter has been abused by her father from the age of seven until 15. She had developed psychiatric problems and was admitted voluntarily to a clinic, where she was seen by the therapist. She rang me afterwards and was in a terrible state. She had been told her abuse was part of false memory syndrome. Two weeks later she took an overdose of prescription medication and died. I believe that had my daughter been believed, she would have stayed at the unit and would be alive today. (Dobson, 1998)


The “False Memory Syndrome” is a controversial theoretical construct based entirely on the reports of parents who claim to be falsely accused of incestuous abuse. In 1993, the FMSF noted that “False Memory Syndrome” is “a condition that needs to be considered and then confirmed or rejected when further information emerges” (“Our Critics,” April 1993, p. 3). The current

*page 30*

empirical evidence suggests that the existence of such a syndrome must be rejected. False memory advocates have failed to adequately define or document the existence of a specific syndrome, and a review of the relevant literature demonstrates that the construct is based on a series of faulty assumptions, many of which have been disproven. Likewise, there no credible data showing that the vague symptoms they ascribe to this purported syndrome are widespread or constitute a crisis or epidemic.

This does not imply, however, that memory is infallible or that all people who are accused of sexual abuse are guilty. Both continuous and delayed memories are subject to distortion, and there are valid reasons to be suspicious of memories that are recalled only after the extensive use of suggestive techniques. Nevertheless, common sense and professional practice dictates that claims about a new diagnostic category reaching epidemic proportions require scientific substantiation. The public policy issues impacted by the false memory controversy are so important, that they deserve the most careful and intellectually honest scholarship that the academic and professional community has to offer. In the absence of any substantive scientific documentation, “False Memory Syndrome” must be recognized as a pseudoscientific syndrome that was developed by an advocacy group formed by people seeking to defend against claims of child abuse.


  1. Shortly before the founding of the FMSF, Underwager and Wakefield gave an interview to the editor of Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia, a Dutch journal that promotes social acceptance for pedophilia. In the article, Underwager expressed his belief that choosing pedophilia can be “a responsible choice” for an individual. Underwager asserted that, “Paedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they choose. They can say what they want is to find the best way to love. I am also a theologian and as a theologian I believe it is God’s will that there be closeness and intimacy, unity of the flesh, between people. A paedophile can say: `This closeness is possible for me within the choices that I’ve made'” (Geraci, 1993, pp. 3-4). When the interview came to light in 1993, Underwager was asked to resign from the foundation. Wakefield remains on the board (see Dallam [1997] for more information).
  2. According to Jennifer Freyd (1993), both Lief and Orne treated Peter Freyd for chronic alcoholism during the 1980s
  3. Kihlstrom later resigned from the FMSF and is no longer affiliated with the foundation.
  4. In an interview, Peter Freyd stated that one of the reasons he finally sought treatment for his chronic alcoholism was because “I was worried about the fact that my memory wasn’t as good as it used to be” (Hechler, 1996).
  5. See also the Recovered Memory Archive at Brown University. The archive is available on the internet and has documented more than 80 corroborated cases of

*page 31*

recovered traumatic memories


  1. In an article titled “How Do We Know We Are Not Representing Pedophiles,” Pamela Freyd (February 29, 1992) suggested that the new organization could not be harboring molesters because “we are a good-looking bunch of people, graying hair, well dressed, healthy, smiling . . .” (p. 1).
  2. As one might expect, the FMSF has become popular with pedophiles. In fact, many pedophile organizations now link directly to the FMSF’s website (e.g., see SafeHaven Foundation, an organization for “responsible boylovers,”
  3. As a nonprofit charity, the FMSF’s tax forms (IRS 990) are available to the public.
  4. The FMSF also promoted and distributed a videotape of “Divided Memories” along with numerous other newspaper articles containing incorrect membership or contact figures for the foundation. I was not able to find any corrections either in the newspapers, or in materials distributed by the FMSF.
  5. The full statement was: “Remember that three years ago, FMSF didn’t exist. A group of 50 or so people found each other and today we are over 17,000. Together we have made a difference.”
  6. This figure was provided by a FMSF member during testimony before the Georgia Senate Judiciary Subcommittee. The testimony was supportive of H.B. 440 — a bill that would allow relatives of patients to sue therapists for creating or suggesting false memories of abuse.
  7.  FMSF’s records have never been examined by an independent scientific body, thus it is unclear if all reported telephone contacts actually represent concerned families. For example, at one point the FMSF newsletter stated, “.approximately 40% of our calls are from professionals requesting information” (“Who Calls,” 1992). It is also unclear how repeat phone calls are handled, or how many of the situations described by callers fit the definition of False Memory Syndrome offered by Kihlstrom (1993). These questions are particularly important given that the fact that when the British Psychological Society (1995) examined the files of the FMSF’s counterpart in England , the British False Memory Society (BFMS), they found that many files were “sketchy, unsystematically recorded notes.” About half were merely records of telephone inquires. Of the rest, only about a third contained any reference to recovered memory but did not contain any information on how the memories had returned. Despite this lack of documentation the BFMS has represented their contacts as evidence of a false memory crisis.
  8.  Although membership figures were not reported to the IRS in 1994, during this time period FMSF literature reported membership figures were steadily increasing. If these reports are correct, then prior to 1995 the FMSF would have had fewer members than in 1995 when the FMSF reported to the IRS that it had 2,500 members.
  9. The legislation has yet to pass in any state.


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