Here, in the

midst of other

“lies of the 

mind,” the 

false memory 


seems so




Book Review
Stranger Than Fiction: When Our Minds Betray Us
Marc Feldman and Jacqueline Feldman with Roxenne Smith. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press. 1998. (Hardbound $23.00) 270pp.
 Reviewed by Dr. Loren Pankratz 

The reviewer is an O4R member,  Consultation Psychologist and Clinical Professor at Oregon Health Sciences University, Portland, OR, and is on the Scientific and Professional Advisory Board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

In Stranger Than Fiction, University of Alabama psychiatrists Marc and Jacqueline Feldman review a spectrum of mental disorders in which a person’s thinking becomes unintentionally distorted. I have long been acquainted with the work of Marc Feldman because of our common interest in psychiatric consultation on medical services and, more specifically, in factitious disorders - those conditions manufactured by patients that allow them to play the sick role. Dr. Feldman is acquainted with patients who are not always accurate in what they report to their health-care providers. I was not surprised, therefore, to see a chapter in this book devoted to false memory syndrome. Thus, I wrote a review for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation newsletter, which I provide here with only a few modifications.

     Here, in the midst of other “lies of the mind,” the false memory syndrome seems so ordinary. The authors have no axe to grind, no side to take, and no need to make anyone look foolish. Nevertheless, they leave no doubt about their position on this phenomenon. While not ruling out the possibility of repressed memories, they take “strong issue with the extent to which repressed memories are reported to exist.”

     The authors attack the unscientific use of survivors’ symptom check lists as “a crude home test kit” that is deceptively simpleminded. They dismiss the idea that current feelings are strong indicators of abuse as suggested in The Courage to Heal. Adopting such approaches, they declare, allows recovery therapists to “write themselves an intellectual blank check.”

     Why do patients cling so fiercely to a painful conclusion of abuse when the only evidence is a memory constructed from shadows? The Feldmans’ responses are insightful and sensitive. Having bought their recovered memories at such a high emotional price, patients are not easily persuaded to relinquish what they believe to be their only hope for wellness. Further, these patients bond with their therapists, whose treatment styles usually encourage excessive attachment.

     Marc Feldman describes a patient who made up stories of sexual abuse in a survivors’ group. But when the patient retracted her claims, her therapists said she was now trying to protect herself from painful memories. Caught in this dilemma she was then too angry to form a relationship with any therapist and also too dysfunctional to make it on her own. Feldman helped her identify her strengths and create specific goals for therapy. He then had her describe the attributes, therapeutic skills, and educational training that she wanted in a therapist. This sensitive strategy allowed her to begin reclaiming her life.

     The Feldmans offer a masterful review of the false memory syndrome, but the chapter does not stop there. They continue with sections on facilitated communication, satanic ritual abuse, and John Mack’s alien abductions - topics which belong together.

     I have long believed that John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist who describes alien abductions, should receive an award from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation or CSICOP. Here’s why: The idea of recovering memories of sexual abuse has a certain popular appeal that is easily believable, but John Mack has unwittingly shown the public that some people will endorse any idea, no matter how utterly without objective foundation.

     Of course, Mack is only one in a long history of those who believe it is possible to communicate with “something out there.” I have been collecting historical books on this topic for many years. For example, Swedenborg (1688-1772) discoursed with spirits and angels about the inhabitants of all our nearby planets and some of the moons (Earths in Our Solar System). Some dismissed him as psychotic.

     At times it is difficult to tell whether the visionary is under the influence of narcotics, hysteria, seizures, or delirium. (See for example, Clanny, The Miraculous Case of Mary Jobson, 1841.) The Seeress of Prevorst (Kerner, 1845) was medically ill also, but her communication with spirits about the geography of spiritual realms were explained by magnetism. Kerner now had a scientific explanation for her ability. How can anyone be so absurd as to assert that her vision can be ascribed to the influences of others, he taunted the reader in his preface, in (vain) hope of eliminating suggestion as an explanation.

     Then in 1851, Alphonse Cahagnet published The Celestial Telegraph, which described the startling results of his experiments in mesmerism with eight normal individuals. As in the case of Mack, Cahagnet’s subjects contacted a world unknown but expected by many. Their vivid descriptions of heaven, like those of Mack’s subjects, fit the notions of the day about what things out there should be like. For example, the reader discovers that there is no sex in heaven and that our families and friends are there in white robes, eagerly waiting our arrival. Cahagnet believed, like Mack, that the convergence of these stories by multiple subjects confirmed their reality.

     With the introduction of modern spiritualism in 1848, messages arrived more directly, first with raps, then on slates, and finally through the voices of mediums - those go-betweens for the bereaved and their loved ones. Spirits were eager to tell us how happy they were on the other side. (See such early books as Post, Voices from the Spirit World, 1852; Hewitt, Messages from the Superior State, 1853.) Eventually, spiritualism fell apart as the tricks of mediums were unraveled and people lost interest in heaven. But the idea of someone out there trying to contact us has never disappeared. Mack has simply wrapped Swedenborg’s fascination with people from other planets into modern dress.

     Because Stranger Than Fiction is written for the general public, people who might not read a whole book on the topic will learn about the false memory syndrome. I highly recommend it. However, I have some small quarrels with pieces here and there. The book’s introduction is more likely to confuse than illuminate the reader when trying to define lies of the mind. Also, the discussion of defense mechanisms and insight is too simplistic for these sophisticated authors. Nevertheless, the general public will greatly enjoy this book, especially the many fascinating case examples.


     The reader can find out more about false memory syndrome from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation on the web or by writing them at:

Memory Syndrome Foundation
3401 Market Street, Suite 130
Philadelphia, PA 19104

or calling (215) 387-1865. They have a helpful booklet on frequently asked questions with suggested further readings.

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