(rare content warning for child sexual abuse and incest)
This isn’t to say that people’s memories are infallible, or that some people don’t confabulate memories of abuse. But these cases are rare; most false accusations of child sexual abuse come from adults in their lives (e.g., unscrupulous therapists or aggrieved parents who want to frame their exes) rather than the victims themselves. It is rare for someone to fabricate multiple memories of sexual abuse, especially something like incest.
Incest—particularly parent–child incest—is the kind of thing that people develop dissociative amnesia for, since the betrayal is just that bad. Also, a lot of child sexual abuse survivors don’t understand that what happened to them was sexual abuse. That’s especially true for victims of parent–child incest. There’s no point of comparison. When your father presents sexually abusive behaviour as “playing with Daddy,” or when he gets away with calling his abuse “cleaning” or “hygiene,” how are you to know that you’re being molested? Children are taught to avoid strangers and report coaches and teachers who abuse them—but which adults do they tell you to approach? Mommy and Daddy. But what if Daddy’s the one at fault, and Mommy is none the wiser, and Daddy is threatening you? And if the incestuous abuse gets so violent that the betrayal is obvious, who wouldn’t try to dissociate and try to forget the experience? The idea of parent–child incest is so unspeakable, unthinkable, that it allows perpetrators to get away with it and accuse their victims of generating false memories. And nobody warns kids about parental sexual abuse. You’re supposed to go to Mom and Dad, not complain about them. Also, kids are often taught that parents and doctors are the only adults entitled to touch children’s bodies. Incestuous parents take advantage of this and justify their behaviour by saying that it’s “hygiene” or “playing.”
The argument from incredulity is a logical fallacy, but people fall for it anyway—or take advantage of it, like the psychologists who have bought into the nonsense spread by the now-defunct False Memory Syndrome Foundation and researchers like Elizabeth Loftus, who have made it their life’s mission to discredit survivors of child abuse by stating that any memory of abuse that was decontextualised, dissociated, or partway forgotten is false. Loftus presents herself as a disinterested scholar who wants to find the truth, but she has testified as a witness for the defence for multiple perpetrators, including the disgraced Harvey Weinstein. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was created by a couple who were accused of incestuous child abuse.
(For more information, check out the work of Jennifer Freyd, Ross Cheit, or Jim Hopper, all of whose research informed this post. Anna Holtzman also has a good run-down of the “false memory” defence, and the FMSF’s role as an abusers’ lobby, on Fourth Wave.)