Mark Pendergrast

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Chapter 13: Conclusions and Recommendations

All hatred driven hence
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting.
–William Butler Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”


I would like to think that the repressed-memory craze has already crested and will quickly disappear. There has certainly been a great deal of publicity about the issue, much of it fomented by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, but more by the sheer scope of the problem, which is only beginning to become apparent. Time and U.S. News & World Report ran simultaneous cover stories on the debate late in November of 1993. Various retractors, flanked by professional critics Elizabeth Loftus, Michael Yapko, or Richard Ofshe, have appeared on the talk-show programs. Only two years ago, few people in the media or the public questioned the horrifying stories that self-proclaimed incest survivors told, nor did they differentiate memories that had always been there from those that were newly “discovered.” Today, most people realize that the validity of repressed memory is a hotly debated topic.

Several high-profile cases have contributed to public awareness. In November of 1993, Steven Cook accused Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of having sexually abused him when he was a teenager. He recalled the abuse through hypnosis. Months later, Cook dropped his lawsuit, explaining that he now realized how questionable hypnotically induced memories could be. (His unlicensed hypnotist, Michele Moul, had earned her master’s in psychology from an unaccredited weekend institution and had previously been employed in a print shop and delicatessen.)

Also emblematic of the changing public attitude is the recent decision in the Holly Ramona case, in which 12 jurors found two therapists guilty of misleading a young woman through the use of sodium Amytal and other suggestive techniques and assumptions. In other multiple lawsuits, angry retractors are suing their former therapists for encouraging them to believe in repressed memories, multiple personalities, and/or satanic cult involvement. These court proceedings, in which some therapists face as many as six separate suits from as many clients, are bringing into public scrutiny the outrageous paranoid delusions that passed for therapy until recently. Among those being sued are Houston’s Judith Peterson, Chicago’s Bennett Braun, and Minneapolis’ Diane Humenansky. In the first of these suits to go to trial in 1995, in which Vynnette Hamanne sued Humenansky, the therapist was found guilty of inducing memories of satanic ritual abuse and fined $2.6 million.

Meanwhile, several appeals courts have gotten the message from researchers such as Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck that little children can be led into stating and believing the most outrageous falsehoods. Robert Kelly has been freed from jail in the North Carolina Little Rascals Day Care case, Violet Amirault and Cheryl LeFave are out of jail in the Massachusetts Fells Acres case, while in Canada most of the Martensville defendants have been exonerated. In my own state of Vermont, the conviction of Robert Lawton, accused of sodomizing his three young sons, has been overturned, and a new trial ordered.

Perhaps the most important ruling came in 1995 from Judge William J. Groff in New Hampshire. Groff insisted on a pretrial hearing before allowing cases based solely on recovered memories to go forward. One case involved a woman who believed her father had raped her throughout her childhood, right up until two days before her wedding at the age of 23. The other featured a woman who believed her eighth grade teacher had impregnated her when she was 12–even though she did not begin menstruating until she was 14. After hearing scientific testimony, Groff ruled: “The phenomenon of memory repression, and the process of therapy used in these cases to recover the memories, have not gained general acceptance in the field of psychology and are not scientifically reliable.” The judge was even more outspoken later in his opinion:

The very concept of a ‘repressed’ memory, that is, that a person can experience a traumatic event, and have no memory of it whatsoever for several years, transcends human experience. There is nothing in our development as human beings which enables us to empirically accept the phenomenon…. It is inappropriately suggestive for a therapist to communicate to a client his or her belief that a dream or a flashback is a representation of a real life event, that a physical pain is a ‘body memory’ of sexual abuse, or even that a particular memory recovered by a client is in fact a real event…. [Such therapy] thoroughly and schematically violates the guidelines and standards of practice of psychotherapy.

Despite such unequivocal legal judgments, however, it is unlikely that the sex abuse hysteria phenomenon will disappear quite so quickly. In 1992, Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Paul McHugh published an interesting article called “Psychiatric Misadventures” in The American Scholar . “During the thirty years of my professional experience,” he wrote, “I have witnessed the power of cultural fashion to lead psychiatric thought and practice off in false, even disastrous, directions.” He noted that these fads–the notion that schizophrenia was culturally induced, the popularity of sex-change operations, and the proliferation of multiple personalities–seemed to last about ten years. If he is correct, the hunt for repressed memories will probably extend until near the turn of the century, since it began in earnest in 1988 with the publication of The Courage to Heal .

Even then, I doubt it will die out completely. Once an idea enters the cultural mainstream, it has a way of resurfacing like a bloated corpse every few years. Ever since Freud applied his “pressure procedure” to extract repressed memories of incest, psychologists have periodically imitated the Viennese master. Soon after the turn of the century, Morton Prince hypnotized Christine Beauchamp to “uncover” her multiple personalities, while Boris Sidis and J. E. Donley also used hypnotism to promote “abreactions.” In the wake of World War I, there was another spate of traumatic reliving in trance. In the 1920s, “hypnoidalization” was proposed to unearth memories, while Otto Rank convinced his followers that only by reliving the birth trauma could they be healed. Sandor Ferenczi unearthed hidden memories of abuse in the 1930s, while American and British therapists were simultaneously inventing “narco-analysis,” using barbiturates to facilitate the recovery of supposedly repressed memories.

During the 1940s, psychiatrists encouraged World War II veterans to “abreact” traumatic memories while under sodium Pentothal or hypnosis. As a result, one soldier acted out the entire battle of Iwo Jima, even though he had never left the United States. In 1944, prison psychologist Robert Lindner published Rebel Without a Cause (made into a film in 1955), his account of how he regressed a “criminal psychopath” to six months old, when he “remembered” being traumatized by watching his parents engage in sexual intercourse. And we have seen in Chapter 11 how Arthur Janov and others kept the idea alive in the United States throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Consequently, I would be surprised if the search for repressed memories completely disappeared.

Indeed, if recent developments are any indication, accusations based on rediscovered memories continue to sell books and fill the courts. Even though stories of satanic ritual abuse have been thoroughly discredited, a mass market paperback called The New Satanists came out in 1994. Author Linda Blood solemnly writes:

“There are thousands of women who report having been childhood victims of mind-numbingly vicious and brutal forms of physical and mental torture at the hands of members of their families. They tell of having been subjected to every conceivable abuse as well as some that would be inconceivable to any normal human being.”

In August of 1994, an unusual item hit the sports pages. Oakland Athletics’ outfielder Rickey Henderson, 35, is being sued for $3 million by his half-sister Paula, who is four years younger. She alleges that he raped her for three years, beginning when she was 12, but she only recalled this abuse a year ago, after giving birth to her first child. She describes her lawsuit as “part of the healing process.” As late as the fall of 1995, a publication issued by the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital included this familiar, dangerous misinformation:

There are all sorts of therapeutic techniques to aid in reconstructing the trauma story. These include hypnosis, group therapy and psychodrama, as well as biological methods, such as sodium Amytal…. However, traumatic memories may not be accessible by language since they are sometimes recorded in the form of vivid sensations and images.”

Also in 1995, Sage Publications came out with A Survivor’s Guide , by Washington State counselor Sharice Lee, on both sides of the Atlantic. Intended for teenage girls, it is a kind of Courage to Heal for adolescents. “Just because you can’t remember some of the things that happened to you doesn’t mean that these things are gone from your brain forever,” Lee writes. Appealing to computer-hip teens, she explains that retrieving the memories is similar to playing a PC keyboard: “It’s kind of like a computer program that you have to have an access code to get into.” At first, the returning sex abuse memories will come as “bits and pieces or small flashes.” They may be “fuzzy at the beginning.” In time, however, they will begin to “fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.” In the afterword for therapists, Lee explains that the book should be used as an “educational tool” in group work, with teenagers reading chapters aloud to see if any memories come up.

The same year, a Texas conference for therapists was held by the Society for the Investigation, Treatment and Prevention of Ritual and Cult Abuse (SITPRCA). It offered an extremely disturbing mix of ritual abuse stories, CIA conspiracy theories, and militia-group warnings about the New World Order to be imposed by Jews and liberals. One of the speakers, Cathy O’Brian, claimed that the CIA had programmed her to be a multiple personality. She had recovered memories of having sex with assorted American political figures, including George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Hillary Clinton. Another speaker, former FBI agent Ted Gunderson, informed everyone that there were 500 satanic cults in New York City alone, sacrificing 4,000 humans each year. Gunderson, famous for his involvement in the McMartin Day Care case, also has close ties with right-wing militia groups. In fact, he believes that the U.S. government itself bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in order to promote passage of anti-terrorism bills.

What is so frightening about this conference is that most of the audience members appeared to believe what they were told, according to Evan Harrington, a skeptical psychologist in attendance. Indeed, when he raised the slightest doubts, he was treated as a pariah. “I frequently observed a categorical rejection of the possibility that there could be false memories of traumatic events,” he writes. “Strong beliefs are highly resistant to discrepant input and they do have a certain persuasive power.” Harrington quotes an attending physicist: “I came away with the opinion that cults are far more prevalent, well connected, sophisticated and dangerous than I had ever dreamed.” A second annual conference of the SITPRCA was planned for the following year.

As 1996 commenced, a caller on the psychological public radio program, “Voices in the Family,” informed listeners that in 1990, she had suddenly recalled being molested by her grandfather when she was three. The host and guests were not the least bit skeptical of her “memories.”

Psychiatrist Gary Almy and his physician wife Carol wrote a scathing indictment of current psychological trends–including recovered-memory therapy–in their 1994 book, Addicted to Recovery . As Christians, they are particularly concerned about the extensive involvement of so-called Christian therapists. The Almy’s conclude their book with this shrewd appraisal:

Do not expect this psycho-fad to go quietly into the night. This searching of the “subconscious” and probing the past is…at the heart of the false memory phenomenon and the multiple personality fad…. This is the heart and soul of the psychotherapy industry, its major theoretical underpinning and resultant practice pattern. This has come to be economically vital. Entire livelihoods, reputations, and businesses depend on the survival of the recovery industry, and sadly, all too many of these are within the Christian community.

The Almys continued by quoting 2 Timothy 4:3-4: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah long ago warned against false prophets who “speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23: 16)

[Continued… To order the book directly from the publisher, Upper Access Books, click here.]