Mark Pendergrast

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Chapter 5: The Therapists

We are especially prone to make mistakes when dealing with a domain in which we are expert. Knowing a lot about the self and a little about the other person is a recipe for a radical misreading of personality …. This means that an expert is not open-minded about himself or about other people, and is less open-minded as the information available declines in quality.
–Jeremy Campbell, The Improbable Machine

Interviews in This Chapter:

Sam Holden, Christian counselor
Janet Griffin, M.S.W.
Horace Stone, minister/counselor
Leslie Watkins, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Charlotte Halpern, psychiatrist
Jason Ransom, body worker
Katherine Hylander, past-life hypnotherapist
Sally Bixby, psychotherapist
Robin Newsome, retractor therapist

If I had met the following therapists at a party and the subject of repressed memories had never come up, I would have thought they were interesting, vital, caring people. And, in their own ways, they are. Yet all of them, except Sally Bixby and (now) Robin Newsome, are busily helping their clients unearth memories, most of which I believe are illusory. They repeat the same clichés that we’ve already encountered in Chapter 1, speaking with great assurance about repression, dissociation, inner children, body memories, and intergenerational abuse. They explain how they help their patients overcome the inevitable denial following their returned memories. They speak soothingly of safety and healing, while promoting what appear to be mental tortures.

The voices represented here are by no means unusual or extreme. I conducted many more interviews than those you will read here, some far more outrageous. These therapists are representative of those whose specialty is repressed-memory extraction. They attend the same continuing-education conferences, read the same books, consult with one another, and develop their own pet variations and theories. The vast majority of American therapists believe in the reality of repressed memories, as several recent surveys have demonstrated. A sizeable minority–perhaps 25 percent–specialize in incest memory retrieval. With few exceptions, those who doubt the validity of memory extraction techniques keep their opinions to themselves. Indeed, perhaps the most disturbing voice in this chapter belongs to Sally Bixby, who knows exactly what her colleagues are doing but is afraid to speak out. “I’d be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail,” she told me. “If you can tell me how to make a living afterwards, I’ll be glad to go on the record.”

Included here are a psychiatrist and Ph.D. psychologist, as well as those with masters’ degrees in counseling and social work. There are also a minister, a body worker (massage therapist), and a minimally trained past-life hypnotherapist. Generally speaking, one would expect that the less formal education, and the more “far-out” the approach, the greater the danger of misdiagnosis. To a very limited degree , this may be true.

As a group, psychiatrists, indoctrinated in the much-maligned “medical model,” appear to be the least eager to find hidden memories. As we will hear from a few retractors in Chapter 8, some psychiatrists literally saved their lives. On the other hand, because they can prescribe medicine and sign off on insurance forms, these psychiatrists often head large mental health clinics, where they sometimes lose touch with therapy administered by the social workers working under their nominal supervision. In addition, many psychiatrists are directly implicated in this disaster, as the interview with Charlotte Halpern indicates. Indeed, because MPD is considered a more exotic “disease,” it appeals to those with medical training.

Doctoral-level clinical psychologists tend to be much worse , in large part because their training, over the last few decades, has only marginally stressed scientific research. Rather, they are encouraged to exercise their “clinical intuition” to discover the subtle causes of their clients’ symptoms. Steeped in neo-Freudian dogma, they are primed to uncover repressed memories.
The most zealous memory extractors, however, appear to be those with masters degrees or less . I interviewed a terrifying young man, for instance, who possessed only a bachelor’s degree and a summer’s experience at a recovery movement retreat center. He used automatic writing, visualization, and body work to help 70 percent of his clients find memories of abuse. His command of the jargon was in no way inferior to that of the Ph.D.s. “I’m very careful not to lead my patients even when I know unequivocally they are secret incest survivors. I don’t plant memories. I let them figure it out.” Even Katherine Hylander, the past life tour guide, spouts the familiar rhetoric. So does the older woman I interviewed who “channels” Krishna and Jesus Christ through automatic writing–which reveals long-forgotten incest, of course. Educational level does not really appear to make a substantial difference in this process . What is vital for successful trauma therapists, regardless of any particular philosophy or approach, is the expectation that their clients will remember abuse (or, in the case of the channeler, that Krishna will prompt her to write about it).

In the past few years, more and more clients have brought that expectation into therapy with them, as Janet Griffin observes in her interview. They arrive demanding to retrieve memories, already having the feeling that they were molested as children. They’ve already seen Oprah, already read The Courage to Heal . With such well-primed repressed memory candidates, therapists can easily believe that they are not leading clients.

Most of the therapists I interviewed told me that a few of their colleagues were probably eliciting false memories, because they were pushing their patients far too hard. But they themselves never used suggestive or leading techniques, of course. They would tell me this just after revealing in detail how they led clients into such beliefs and then insisted upon their maintaining them.

It is remarkable how many therapists believe in ritual abuse, with its human sacrifice, blood, and multiple sadists. Six of the therapists interviewed here believe (or once believed) that satanic cults are thriving in their particular parts of the country. The “Christian” counselors appear to be among the worst offenders, which I find particularly distressing. When a parishioner approaches her pastor for counseling, she should not have to worry that he might try to convince her that her parents and their friends were monsters.

It has long been recognized that some psychotherapists enter their profession in order to heal their own neuroses, as Sam Holden’s story demonstrates. Some trauma therapists were themselves incest victims who bring their own agendas to each session. More frequently, they have recovered their own “repressed memories.” I believe it is a mistake, however, to emphasize the therapists-with-their-own-issues aspect of this phenomenon. Those quoted here do indeed have an agenda, but it isn’t a particularly personal crusade. Rather, it is a dogma learned from books, tapes, fellow therapists, and seminars.

Nor is it my sense that female therapists elicit memories more frequently than their male peers. While women recover the majority of the incest memories, both genders participate in promoting the process. (More female therapists help clients recall repressed memories simply because more women than men currently become counselors.)

Even though “feminist” therapists have been accused of conducting a warlock hunt against fathers, it is obvious from these interviews that mothers are also on their hit lists–see Leslie Watkins’ observations on mothers who try to drown their infants.

I was particularly disturbed by the tendency of most therapists to absolve themselves of any responsibility. Almost all of them assert that it doesn’t matter whether the memories are literally true or not. The memories represent the “internal truth” for the client, and it isn’t the therapist’s job to search out the facts. It doesn’t disturb them that their clients nearly go crazy thinking such awful things, or that the “memories” often result in shattered families and lawsuits.

I urge readers to attend to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that these therapists encourage their patients to redefine their pasts–or, as Janet Griffin phrases it, “expand the problem space.” If they always remembered abuse, that isn’t enough. They must remember more! Ever vigilant to spot symptoms that might indicate abuse, therapists unwittingly create the very problems they seek to heal. As Leslie Watkins observes, “You start to see things when you realize that they might be there.”

I close this chapter with a hopeful and revealing interview with Robin Newsome, a therapist who once led her clients into believing their “repressed memories” and who now realizes what harm she was doing. She provides a wonderful role model for other therapists who have the courage to admit they were wrong, and the compassion and wisdom to help reunite the very families that they once tore asunder.

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