PHILADELPHIA -- Pamela Freyd says she'd rather be doing anything than telling strangers the wretched details of her family tragedy -- the ugly feud that erupted four years ago when her adult daughter unleashed an account of childhood molestation.
The calamity unfolded when her daughter, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, suddenly kicked her parents out of her life, saying she had begun to remember that her father had forced her into sexual contact over 13 years.
This is unlike many publicized accounts of alleged abuse: the daughter has filed no criminal or civil charges and stopped talking to reporters months ago. But the parents willingly give interviews, and her mother operates a national advocacy group in Philadelphia for people claiming to have been wrongly accused of physical and sexual abuse.
"It is the most awful nightmare you can imagine," said Dr. Freyd, a woman in her 50s who holds a doctorate in education. "My fantasy is to go somewhere, change my name and grow potatoes. But I only know something terribly wrong is going on and it has to stop someplace. It may as well stop with me.""
In just three years, her organization, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, has attracted more than 7,500 members -- most of them parents who say they are victims of a national epidemic. Pamela Freyd, its director, has become America's most visible advocate for accused parents.
The group has attracted a following of psychiatrists and mental health professionals who say that while child abuse sadly exists, thousands of Americans have been accused of horrors that didn't happen. They blame colleagues who coax accusations and presume that anyone charging abuse must be telling the truth.
Dr. Freyd's foundation boasts an advisory board made up of professionals from some of America's most prestigious universities. Dr. Paul McHugh, chief of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is a member. So are professors from Harvard, Stanford, Emory and the University of Pennsylvania.
Beginning today, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation is co-sponsoring a national conference in Baltimore with the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. The conference, the first of its kind at a major university, will feature scientific presentations through Sunday at the Stouffer's Harborplace Hotel.
"I'm involved in this because I believe a very great miscarriage of psychiatry and psychotherapy is in action here," said Dr. McHugh, who has written extensively on a trend he considers one of the worst "misdirections" of 20th-century psychiatry. "I see this as like a witch hunt, a witch trial."
Dr. McHugh said it is remotely possible for a person to forget traumatic events of childhood -- such as incest -- and remember as an adult. But he said he has never personally seen such a case, and has examined many patients who recanted accusations after leaving zealous therapists.
What disturbs him, he said, is that mental health professionals too often accept an accusation as truth without trying to confirm it with physical evidence, medical records, diaries or interviews with family members.
"What I'm looking for is a good-faith effort to decide," he said. "In most cases that have come to me. . . no effort has been made."
Just as the group has won its professional admirers, so has it sparked criticism from other therapists, academics and victims' advocates. Many fear the foundation has whipped up a backlash that could intimidate abused patients and keep them from seeking help.
Dr. Elizabeth Brett, president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, said the foundation has ignored decades of evidence that people can forget the worst features of natural disasters and war -- as well as sexual abuse. Sometimes, she said, the memory is rekindled years later by sights, sounds, smells or experiences that remind them of the event.
This pattern is one type of post-traumatic stress, she said.
Dr. Judith Herman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school, said the foundation has made a habit of using case studies of accusers who later recant as ostensible "proof" that recovered memories are always coaxed.
HTC "That scenario is a silly caricature of psychotherapy," Dr. Herman said.
Only one criticism seems to truly rankle Pamela Freyd -- the charge that her work deflects attention from the nation's serious problem of child abuse. She says she abhors child abuse as much as anyone but thinks society lost its moorings in its zeal to root out perpetrators.
"Raising questions shouldn't mean that you are against progress in helping children," she said.
Her family "nightmare" began during the Christmas holiday in 1990, when Dr. Freyd and her husband, Peter Freyd, a mathematics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, were visiting their daughter's home in Eugene, Ore.
Jennifer Freyd, in her early 30s, was pregnant with her third child when the parents came to visit. She had recently entered therapy where, she later said, horrible images began to haunt her.
Shortly after her parents arrived, Jennifer's husband told them of her recalled memories and asked them to leave. It was the last time the Freyds have seen their daughter.
"It was totally out of the blue," Mr. Freyd said of the allegation. "I'm hearing my son-in-law saying that I had been accused."
In e-mail exchanges, according to Philadelphia magazine, she accused her father of molesting her as a small child and having sex with her beginning at 14. Both parents said they were flabbergasted, and deny that anything like that happened.
They contacted Dr. Harold Lief, a Philadelphia psychiatrist who had counseled them a decade earlier when Peter Freyd's alcoholism was straining their marriage. His drinking ended in the early 1980s, he said, when he checked into a rehabilitation center.
Dr. Lief, now a member of the foundation's advisory board, said he began to suspect that Jennifer Freyd's therapy had been anything but neutral when he contacted her psychologist.
"The therapist said almost all her clients were women, and I asked what percentage had been sexually abused as children. She said, 'Oh, about 85 to 90 percent,' and that raised my level of suspicion." The Oregon therapist has declined interviews, and Jennifer Freyd stopped all contact with the press earlier this year.
Fifteen months ago, Jennifer Freyd told a Michigan conference on recovered memory that recollections of abuse started filtering back when her therapist asked if she had ever been sexually abused.
"I was immediately thrown into a strange state; no one had ever asked me such a question. I responded 'no, but. . .' and blurted out some of the events. . .
"After the session, I walked in a daze to my husband's office and whispered the words, 'sexual abuse.' I went home and within a few hours I was shaking uncontrollably, overwhelmed with intense and terrible flashbacks."
In her speech, she did not detail the alleged abuse. But she described a history of more subtle behaviors that demonstrated what she called her family's obsession with sexuality:
She and a friend had once danced nude for her father when they were 9 or 10. During her childhood, her father discussed how he had been sexually abused by a gay man. Once, when their dog began to rub against a visitor, he explained that the dog was reflecting the daughter's sexual interest in the guest.
Peter Freyd said he has no memory of the dancing. The episode with their family pet could have happened, he said, but only in a context of innocence. And, yes, he had discussed his past as a "kept boy" -- but only to maintain a healthy atmosphere of openness.
"I'm quite prepared to say, the attitude I thought was appropriate of being open about things of a sexual nature -- in retrospect may have been wrong. There may have been a reason why society evolved in a certain way to a kind of puritanism."
He said he has no idea why his daughter accused him, but thinks she believes her allegations to be true.
Pamela Freyd started the foundation in a one-room office without windows, then moved to a suite now cluttered with desks, file cabinets and computers. Several file drawers hold questionnaires completed by7,000 people claiming to have been falsely accused. One out of 16 are in legal trouble, either charged criminally or sued for damages.
She coined "false memory syndrome," a term attacked as unscientific by detractors who note that it is not listed in the psychiatric manual recognized as the profession's bible. She and her supporters, however, say therapists have documented cases of false memories for many years.
At the office, seven employees answer a steady stream of phone calls, send information to accused parents and circulate the names of lawyers and therapists who have proven helpful. The foundation has benefited from several well-publicized recantations.
In one, a 34-year-old man dropped a $10 million lawsuit against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, saying he could not rely on his "recovered" memory of being sexually abused by the priest as a teenager. He said the memory came to him when he was hypnotized by an unlicensed therapist who had been trained on weekends.
The foundation's detractors, however, are just as likely to invoke the case of James R. Porter, a former Massachusetts priest who two years ago confessed to molesting scores of children in the 1960s. Revelations of the abuse came from a man, now 43, who said he remembered the abuse while undergoing psychotherapy for depression.
Dr. Richard Lowenstein, who heads the disassociative disorders clinic at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, said debunkers of false memory have gained ammunition from anecdotes of ill-trained therapists who have misled patients.
"We see lots of people who had horrible therapy," he said. "The people in my field have to recognize that we have a lot of people who are very poorly trained. Many of them are way out of their depth."
But, he said, the idea of therapists "implanting" memories in vulnerable patients bears no resemblance to what actually occurs in competent facilities.
Patients are often so tormented by recollections -- some true, some delusional -- that good therapists help them put their memories away before proceeding further with therapy, he said.
Dr. Lowenstein said he welcomes the Hopkins conference, and hopes it will bring scientific inquiry to a debate that's been too loud and mean to accomplish much.