New York Magazine Is (Also) Ignoring This Letter from a Central Character in Their Story
About a week ago, I wrote about New York Magazine’s worryingly poor reporting in a story about the debate over so-called “recovered memory” (Heaney, Jan. 6, 2021). I was reporting then that New York Magazine and its website, The Cut, seemed to be ignoring critical feedback and requests for corrections, some from experts, some from their own sources, and some from readers who spotted important holes in the coverage.
I published several of the letters New York Magazine didn’t print. (If you haven’t read them, they’re worth your time.) The only reply I received from Vox Media (which owns both The Cut and New York Magazine) was a brief exchange that quickly climaxed with them sending a lawyer after me. Charmed, I’m sure.
Well, reader, I am back to tell you… things have not gotten better. And now, a critically important character in the story, Pam Freyd, has spoken up, sending her own letter on January 31st. Freyd (who I’ve never before met or interacted with) shared the letter with me. I asked New York Magazine if they would be printing Freyd’s letter, or any of the others. No reply.
In an era when trust in journalists is not exactly at its apex, it’s not encouraging to see a reputable outlet stick their head in the sand about their own errors. Yet, here was a story that had been reported for a year, presumably made its way past numerous editors, and still obscured the central facts of the matter: recovered memory is, at best, an extremely shady “science.”
As I said in my last post, any outlet has the right to choose which letters they wish to print and which don’t rise to the level of “thoughtful criticism.” But at the very least, anyone named in the story should also have the right to defend themselves, especially if they bring to light that reporting may have been selective and misleading.
Which brings us to… Pam Freyd.
Freyd, you will remember, is one of the main characters of the New York Magazine story. She and her husband formed the (now closed) False Memory Syndrome Foundation after their adult daughter accused Mr. Freyd — her father — of sexually abusing her decades before. Jennifer Freyd (again, that’s the daughter), claimed she had “recovered” the memory, though she told inconsistent stories about how this recovery happened.
Heaney’s story paints the Freyds as probable-abusers who used shady science to shield other probable-abusers from prosecution. But according to Freyd’s letter, the journalistic standards of New York Magazine have either fallen substantially or were never very high. She details a method of checking sources that would be unacceptable under nearly any respectable code of ethics.
It is entirely possible that Jennifer Freyd was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. It is also entirely possible that she was not, and that the entire Freyd family comprises victims of life-destroying pseudoscience. We cannot know the answer for certain, and this is deeply uncomfortable. But discomfort is not a sufficient reason to ignore our sizeable responsibilities as journalists. We are here to report honestly and completely, even when the biggest picture available still produces justified uncertainty.
Pam Freyd’s letter follows. Footnotes appear in the original.
As of this writing, she has received no reply.
[Edit Feb 12, 2021: Ms. Freyd reports that she has received a reply, acknowledging minor errors. More to come.]
“To the journalist’s credit, she did inquire what salad greens Peter and I prefer.”
A letter from Pam Freyd
January 31, 2021
To: Ted Hart, Melissa Dahl
CC: Eric Bates
Re: “The Memory War: A daughter’s accusations, and the foundation built to discredit them,” by Katie Heaney, New York Magazine, THE CUT, January 4, 2021.
Disinformation is Dangerous
“The Memory War” by Katie Heaney is so error-ridded, factually distorted and biased that I write to point out some of those errors and request a response.
When Katie Heaney phoned me over a year ago, she said she was working on a story for New York Magazine about the controversy over recovered memories. She indicated that her interest was in the scientific issues of that debate and the role The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) had in it. I agreed to speak with her because of the reputation of the publication. Instead, the article is an opinion piece and character assassination, fraught with factual errors, biased language, and numerous misinterpretations presented as facts – including a gross misrepresentation of the FMSF’s basic stance and its purpose.
Starting with [the] title and initial description of the article, The Memory War: “Jennifer Freyd accused her father of sexual abuse. Her parents’ attempt to discredit her created a defense for countless sex offenders” we have several problems.
“The Memory Wars” is a term first coined by Fredrick Crews in 1993 to describe the controversy surrounding the modern misuse of a Freudian theory to supposedly break amnesiac barriers and recover long-forgotten memories.1 In Heaney’s entire article she does not give a single example of this theory being part of a sex offender case, much less the FMS Foundation’s work being used as a defense. She does not even explain the issues of memory that are fundamental to understanding the memory wars. Instead, she enumerates famous cases of latent disclosure of abuse, none of which were based on claims of repression (also known as psychogenic amnesia; aka robust repression; aka dissociative traumatic amnesia) and thus were not part of the FMS Foundation’s purview. Michael Jackson’s victim Wade Robson made this distinction clear in his interview for the documentary Leaving Neverland when he stated: “First of all, one thing I want to clear up is this is not a case of repressed memory…I never forgot one moment of what Michael did to me.”2
The Foundation was concerned with only one type of false memory3 – and that one was not an issue in the Michael Jackson accusations, Brett Kavanaugh, or Bill Cosby cases. In her testimony, Christine Blasey-Ford shows that she was not claiming repression/amnesia to images retrieved in therapy, but instead reported a failed attempt at willed-forgetting of intrusive memories: "I did my best to ignore memories of the assault because recounting the details caused me to relive the experience, and caused panic attacks and anxiety"...and ..."I told my husband before we were married."4 This again was not a case that fell under the purview of the FMS Foundation’s focus, which is why you will find no reference to it in our archives. 5
Heaney brings up cases in which Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on the malleability of memory, testified. Although Loftus served as a scientific advisor to the FMS Foundation, her work focuses on many different types of false memory. Most of the Loftus cases that Heaney mentions have nothing to do with the memory issue of concern to the Foundation: Can an individual repress memories of years of repeated sexual abuse and then decades later recover memories that are historically accurate?
I would like to think this was a simple misunderstanding on the part of the journalist, but it’s an inexcusable one as I know the distinction was explained to Ms. Heaney many times by several different interviewees. The fact that she was unable to support her lead (lede) statement with any direct quotes from 27 years of our published work should have alerted editors that something was amiss.
Furthermore, the FMS Foundation was not created to discredit Jennifer Freyd as Ms. Heaney claims. The Foundation was not even Pam or Peter Freyd’s idea. The late Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Darrell Sifford was the first to suggest that there needed to be a place for families whose adult children had accused them of child abuse solely on the basis of claims of recovered repressed-memories could get information. Martin Orne, MD, Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania and Paul McHugh, MD Chairman of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, actually made the Foundation happen. They felt a foundation was needed to call attention to the spread of new pseudoscientific beliefs and treatments being advocated within the mental health profession - beliefs and treatments lacking in scientific support. 6
Later in the article Ms. Heaney describes the FMSF’s board as a “highly credentialed advisory board,” but she then mentions only a few of the board members whose character or work she attempts to undermine. Scientific advisors to the FMSF also included: Aaron T. Beck, the father of cognitive therapy; world-famous skeptics Martin Gardner and James Randi; Freud scholar Frederick Crews; dissociative disorders expert George Ganaway; psychiatrist and renowned advocate for sex education, Harold Lief; Rosland Cartwright, a pioneer in the fields of clinical sleep medicine and psychological sleep science; Ernest Hilgard and Martin Orne, known for pioneering hypnosis research; Richard Ofshe for his work in coercive social control; Ulric Neisser, called the father of cognitive psychology; along with many other distinguished scholars.7
Heaney’s assumption that renowned scholars would risk their professional careers to join the Scientific Advisory Board of some unknown entity because one set of parents wanted to retaliate against their daughter is so ridiculous, I cannot understand how New York Magazine allowed that assertion to go to print.
Heaney goes on to make statements for the FMS Foundation, proclaiming them as the FMS Foundation’s stance on various topics. These are not statements of mine nor do they accurately represent the FMS Foundation’s stances. We want these removed.
• Heaney states “every single parent who reached out to the FMSF over the years was presumed innocent. All of their children’s allegations, by the same token, were presumed to be false” This is absolutely untrue – it’s not anywhere close to being what we have believed, said, or how we operated. I don’t know who told Ms. Heaney this because she simply states it as fact with no supporting quotes or evidence. I believe the word for this is a lie. The Foundation stated many times that any accusation of sexual should be independently investigated.
• Heaney states “contrary to the FMSF’s claims, most victims of child sex abuse are extremely reluctant to share their abuse with others or reporting it to the police.” Contrary to what claims? We never made claims contrary to that statement. Such a claim would be contrary to what is known about disclosure. The words “contrary to the FMSF’s claims” are both unwarranted and unjustified. They need to be removed from that paragraph.
• The article failed to mention “retractors” entirely. Retractors are people who have gone through a “memory recovery” process, believed that they’d uncovered a buried past, but later realized the images were fears, dreams, and imaginings but not real memories. They documented in courts of law the consequences of suggestive techniques and poor treatments and the harm that pseudoscientific treatments had wrought. The large awards in some of these cases help explain why the FMS Foundation concerns achieved such credibility. (i.e Carl v Keraga, $5.8 million or the settlement in Burgus v. Braun, Rush Presbyterian, $10.6 million.)
The FMS Foundation has many stories from these previous recovered-memory therapy patients and Ms. Heaney was offered the opportunity to talk with some. Ms. Heaney did not avail herself of that opportunity, but she reports that the FMS Foundation portrays all who have gone through this process as “gullible.” This is Ms. Heaney’s word, not mine nor one the FMS Foundation used in that way. When retractors would call us with these stories, the person would often report feeling “gullible,” but we would explain that they’d sought therapy because they were having difficulties, and those difficulties had made them vulnerable. A quick search of the FMSF website will verify that “vulnerable” is the term we have used consistently.
Ms. Heaney does not back any of those statements with material from our interview, our website, or our archives, because they are simply unsupportable.
Heaney repeatedly states her own assumptions as fact, then takes quotes out-of-context to support her views rather than accurately conveying the views of her sources.
Ms. Heaney selectively quoted an early letter I’d written, changing the meaning entirely to imply that I said attractive people could not be sexual abusers. It sounded absurd in the article because it is absurd. In reality, the “good looking bunch” quote was an encouragement that people wishing to dispute recovered memory accusations should not hide in shame, but be willing to go public. Heaney omitted both that context as well as the letter’s assertion that the “the polygraph is the best tool that we have to tell the world the truth of our stories” so “members should express a willingness to be polygraphed” because “we are not in the business of representing pedophiles.” Along this same line, Ms. Heaney was provided a study showing that while only 22% of people accused of sexual abuse were able to pass a polygraph, 96% of those accused with a claim of amnesia (repressed memory) on the part of the accuser had passed. While polygraphs are imperfect, there is clearly a difference between latent disclosures and claims of amnesia with recovered memory.
Heaney states without attribution that “JQ found [Peter’s response] unsettling” and went on to describe other beliefs of JQ. This is puzzling as JQ died 9 years ago and thus could not have been interviewed by Heaney for his actions much less his inner thoughts.
Neuroscientist Jim Coan, reports that his comments were selectively edited to completely change his meaning. The way Ms. Heaney used his quotes made it appear as if he is displeased with the memory research study in which he took part. Rather, Coan explains now in frustration that his “decades of grief” comment was in regard to being misrepresented in the press, such as he was in this article.
Dr. Loftus says that her courtroom testimony was presented in a false light. The article leaves readers with the errant impression that she proffered an opinion on the guilt or innocence of Harvey Weinstein and others. She explicitly did not.
A representative at the Center for Scientific Inquiry says there are multiple errors in the short portion of the article about Ms. Heaney’s visit to its archives.8
Lucien Greaves says that his interview was misrepresented in its entirety. He’s written a lengthy discussion of those issues published by Patheos entitled “Lying for Pseudoscience.” 9
I’m requesting that the information from my February 1992 letter be updated to reflect my views rather than Ms. Heaney’s – and that an accounting as to how Ms. Heaney was able to interview JQ, despite him being deceased, be added.
These factual errors are not matters of opinion and should be corrected immediately:
· Heaney talks about Peter Freyd’s “involvement” with an older man starting at the age of eleven. In fact, Peter was abused by the pedophile from the ages of 7 to 11.
· Heaney says Pam and Peter began dating while both attended the same high school for one year. We were in the same Latin class for 1 semester. We began dating when Peter was a sophomore in college.
· Heaney says she found an FMSF newsletter dated February 1992. In fact, the FMSF did not form until March of that year and had no newsletters in February 1992.
· Heaney says that Pamela’s article in Child Abuse Accusations was her first academic article. My first was in 1986, dealing with primary school education.
· Lucien Greaves has said in a public response that his age was mis-stated. Someone will need to contact him for this correction.
I understand that the editors have already corrected at least one factual error regarding the false memory research described to Heaney by Elizabeth Loftus. This seems an extraordinary number of factual errors to be made in an article that took a year to write.
The author’s bias throughout the article is so flagrant that I’m unsure if it’s even necessary to detail it. Here are just a few examples:
The word “Retaliated” is used rather than “responded.”
Peter is described as “prideful” rather than “stoic.”
A defendant “got off” rather than “was found innocent.”
Peter and Pam were “intimate” rather than “were married.”
Multiple items associated with Pam and Peter are referred to as “elite,” “wealthy” or “affluent.” Victims of therapeutic suggestion are “gullible” rather than “vulnerable.”
Peter “professes to be nonchalant” but Jennifer “approaches her memories from a scholarly distance.”
Peter was abused as a young child by a grown man, a locally prominent artist, who was supposed to be Peter’s mentor. In the article, Ms. Heaney refers to that as Peter’s “involvement” with an older man. It seems a crass way of describing child sexual abuse.
Maybe the most egregious is the author’s snide comment “Even in his experience of child sex abuse, Peter is superior to others.” I found that one noxious. These were not part of an interviewee’s quotes, but Ms. Heaney’s own choice of words.
The bias goes further than choice of descriptive terms, a large portion of the article is an outright character assassination of my husband and me. Just as Ms. Heaney willfully ignored the 27 years of written record of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, so she ignored much of what we said or sent.
It is the case that in one of the early calls, I told Heaney that I chose not to speak about my family, in particular the time relations to the accusations because it was so painful. To lose a child is devastating. I relented when Heaney said some background was needed for interest. Had I been made aware that the focus would be on my family early on, I would never have agreed even to the initial interview. Still, if a journalist intends to publish accusations against me, I should be given the opportunity to respond to everything. Neither Peter nor I were ever asked about most of the accusations levied against us. Let me state now categorically that I did not withdraw further as Jennifer matured; Peter did not always want to discuss Lolita; I was never angry out of jealously towards my daughter; Peter did not surreptitiously watch his daughter make out with a boyfriend… While I understand that these were accusations made by another interviewee, we should have been asked for our accounts of each event that involved us.
I will however admit to having snatched my daughter’s Princess phone away when she was thirteen because she disobeyed me multiple times by chatting with friends too late on a school night. That was 1970 and I am bewildered as to why the event is worthy of a NY Magazine article more than 50 years later.
To the journalist’s credit, she did inquire what salad greens Peter and I prefer. I thought it an odd question at the time and still do – but at least she requested our input before dramatically outing us for our supposed hoity-toity romaine lettuce partiality.
Heaney says that “[Peter] and Pam entertained the artist who molested him as a guest in their home,” leaving readers with the ugly impression that we invited this man over for tea. What Heaney must be referring to is a time when Peter and I had an apartment in a historically significant house in Providence. There was an event attended by a small group of local artists and Peter’s abuser showed up with another attendee. The group visited the whole house. That was 1957, and we did not entertain him. He was never otherwise in our home.10
Ms. Heaney says I described: “her husband’s own experience of abuse as a child in Providence as a sort of valuable (if unwanted) tutorial on what is and is not appropriate between adults and children.” What I’d actually explained to Ms. Heaney is that child sexual abuse disrupts the normal developmental process of sexual maturation and is wrong at any age under any conditions. I also explained that my husband’s experience had made us extra vigilant in protecting our children.
Regarding an accusation of which we were informed, our response has been grossly distorted. I refer here to the anonymous source called “Stephen” whose account is given without explaining why the person was given anonymity. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states that journalists should “Consider sources motives before promising anonymity…Explain why anonymity was granted.” Had Ms. Heaney informed us that this person was being given anonymity, we could have explained the reason for his grudge. Why is he anonymous?
Heaney describes [anonymous] as a “former student” – leading readers to infer that he was once a student of Peters, which he was not. Heaney leaves the impression that [anonymous] was still a student at the time of the incident, which he was not, having received his Ph.D. two years earlier. She gives the impression that the incident happened in our home, but in fact, [anonymous] lived and worked in another state at the time, and he had driven many miles to visit Peter when he was lecturing in another city. Omitted is the context of many years of self-questioning by [anonymous] of his own sexuality and the purpose of his visit seemed obvious as conversation ensued. Heaney then uses many quotes from her anonymous source, combined with her own assumptions, to create a titillating scenario, which she claims Peter and I confirmed.
After his conversation with Ms. Heaney, Peter told me several times that he was worried that what he had said could be misinterpreted. At 85, it is no secret that because of difficulty hearing, he rarely talks on the phone. At the time, I assured Peter that New York Magazine is a publication of good repute so if he was unclear, I was sure the journalist will request clarification and get it correct. I was wrong.
It is unclear what Heaney’s purpose was in including this anonymous person’s tale. But we object to Heaney’s gross underlying insinuation that bi-sexuality would be a predictor of pedophilia.
Had we been asked we could have provided evidence to dispute many of the other claims – such as emails from our daughter dated January 1991 saying she was using hypnosis and taking her accusations public. We also could have disputed the disclosure scenario credited to JQ. But Ms. Heaney didn’t ask. Just as the journalist neglected to give even the most basic explanation for the scientific questions underlying what became known as the memory wars, Ms. Heaney neglected to provide the relevant context for what happened in our family.
Ms. Heaney never addressed the scientific question that underlies the memory war, the context for her story: Can an individual repress all memories of repeated sexual abuse from three to college age and then decades later recover memories that are historically accurate?
Frankly there are too many examples of errors, misrepresentations, biases, failures to clarify, and willful inaccuracies for me to enumerate succinctly. I have been fortunate in my life to have been associated with organizations that sought to be truthful and present facts in an unbiased manner or else to state up front their bias. I made that assumption about New York Magazine and I was wrong.
I’d like to believe that New York Magazine would have enough integrity to remove this entire article. If that is not to occur, then it needs a complete rewrite with the errors corrected, biased language and matters of my private life unrelated to the recovered memory controversy removed, anonymous sources revealed, and an opportunity to respond to all of the accusations made therein.
- Crews, F. “The Unknown Freud.” The New York Review, 18 Nov. 1993. https://archive.org/details/memorywarsfreuds00crew
- Leaving Neverland. HBO, 2019.
3. “What is the Recovered-Memory Controversy About” False Memory Syndrome Foundation
- Dr. Blasey-Ford Testimony. Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing, 4 Sep. 2018. https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/brett-kavanaugh-christine-blasey-ford-testimony-supreme-court-hearing-transcript
- “Going Back to Basics” FMSF News Updates.” 8 Oct. 2018. http://www.fmsfonline.org/index.php?news2018update=Going%20Back%20to%20Basics
- “Early History” False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
- “Advisory Board Profiles.” False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
8. Binga, T. Director of Libraries, Center for Inquiry; letter dated 26 Jan. 2021
9. Greaves, L. “Lying for Pseudoscience.” Patheos, 21 Jan. 2021. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/infernal/2021/01/lying-for-pseudoscience-new-york-magazines-dishonest-defense-of-a-harmful-discredited-theory/
10. I may have conflated two events in my mind during the conversation with Ms. Heaney and told her about an event taking place long after the artist’s death. I didn’t worry about correcting it at the time because it seemed unimportant as I didn’t expect our personal lives to be such a big part of the article. This question raises a real problem of an interviewer suddenly asking a person an unexpected question that covers a huge time span many years ago – and not being upfront about their objective.