Mark Pendergrast

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Chapter 8: The Retractors

I did it not out of any anger, malice or ill-will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them, but what I did was [done] ignorantly …. I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humbled for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families.

–Ann Putnam, writing in 1706, 14 years after her accusations helped spark the Salem witch trials

Interviews in this chapter:

Olivia McKillop, retractor
Laura Pasley, retractor
Maria Granucci, retractor
Leslie Hannegan, Christian retractor
Nell Charette, MPD retractor
Stephanie Krauss, retractor from a psychiatric hospital
Robert Wilson, retractor

Some of the most compelling voices in this book belong to those who were once convinced that they had recovered memories of incest and have since changed their minds. I call them “retractors,” for lack of a better term, though that sounds awfully clinical. A longer but more accurate description would be ventured-to-hell-and-back-survivors. They offer startling personal insights into the repressed memory phenomenon.

I hope that, after reading these stories, readers will better understand how and why someone could come to believe in bizarre, unreal allegations. Most entered therapy wanting to get better , to find answers to extremely unsettling problems. “I was desperate,” Laura Pasley says. “It was like I was drowning and this person reached out a hand to me, and he was my only hope.” As a result, they usually became extremely dependent on their therapists. “It’s like I sold my soul to this man,” Pasley explains.

It is difficult to read these stories without becoming enraged at the therapists who fostered these illusions, even when they appeared well-intentioned. Some of these professionals clearly brought their own needs, neuroses, and insecurities to their work. Nell Charette’s therapist, for instance, styled himself as a mini-guru and had sex with clients, while ex-Marine Robert Wilson’s counselor took a more intellectual approach. “She was trying to create a monster,” he observes, “and I happened to be her monster.” Clearly, there is something sick about these therapists’ voyeuristic delight at their patients’ self-destruction. Olivia McKillop recalls bitterly how her therapist smiled in triumph after a particularly harrowing memory retrieval session, then practically ordered her to hurt herself.

Yet blaming only the therapists is too simplistic. Leslie Hannegan provides an example of a self-made repressed memory survivor who convinced herself, largely without a therapist’s assistance, that her father had committed incest on her. She read Christian Survivor self-help books and interpreted sleep paralysis and panic-induced choking as evidence of returning memories. Later, Hannegan promptly dumped a therapist who expressed skepticism about whether her father had really committed these acts. Clearly, all of these retractors “bought into” the process and, at least at some level, enjoyed the resulting attention, drama, and sympathy.

I have come to regard the process as a warped kind of tango in which therapist and client dance through a fractured hall of mental mirrors. During most of the dance, the therapist leads, but at other times, the client takes over. Between them, they clasp childhood photos and The Courage to Heal , implicated in nearly every case, or other self-help recovery books. My dance analogy breaks down, however, at its height. It is not the therapist who cuts herself, tries to commit suicide, develops multiple personalities, writes hate letters to her parents, becomes a drugged-out zombie, gets divorced, or finds herself bound in psychiatric ward restraints.

I am not sure these early retractors are entirely representative. It takes great courage to admit that you were wrong about something so major and serious. Though these retractors are indeed courageous, I believe that they had to get out of therapy or die. In general, their therapy was so coercive and horrible, their mental and physical state so shattered, that they had little choice but to flee. There are other “Survivors” who remain firmly convinced of their recovered memories, because they have not had such atrocious experiences–though they have all gone through the pain of losing their families and redefining their identities.

Nonetheless, the seven stories recounted here provide lessons and hope. They make it clear that to escape from harmful therapy and begin to question memories, people need to get away from their recovered memory therapists and stop taking massive, inappropriate drug doses . Once they take these two steps, their minds begin to clear, and they can begin to make more rational life choices. It also helps if trusted acquaintances or authority figures plant seeds of doubt. When Olivia McKillop’s friend Fran told her she didn’t believe in the incest memories, McKillop was livid–but she began to question her therapy. Similarly, when Leslie Hannegan’s pastor confronted her, she refused to believe him at first, but then “it was like a wall coming down around me.”

As I have already stressed, it is difficult to find a reliable common denominator for those who have recovered memories. Most are women, though macho ex-Marine Robert Wilson offers proof that this delusion can be fostered in either gender. Most are white and come from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, probably because they could afford therapy. Many, such as Nell Charette and Maria Granucci, find memories as housewives in their 30s and 40s, while others, such as Olivia McKillop and Leslie Hannegan, are much younger.

I did not have room here for Faith Sylvester’s narrative, one of the saddest stories I heard. When she was only 12, Sylvester’s aunt persuaded her to read The Courage to Heal and recover “memories” of being abused by her stepfather. As a consequence, Sylvester spent most of her adolescence living with a man she thought had molested her. When her mother discovered her journal about it, the situation blew up. Even though Sylvester, now 19, has realized that her allegations were wrong, her mother and stepfather have yet to forgive her.

Some of the retractors, including Olivia McKillop, fit the pattern of young women who never rebelled as teenagers and who became incest Survivors partly to individuate from their parents. Like many others, McKillop is highly creative, dramatic, empathetic, and suggestible. Nell Charette told me that she had discovered her artistic and literary creativity in the process of becoming a multiple personality. “I do have a lot of talents in me that I probably wouldn’t have known about, but they’re my talents, not my alters’,” she concludes.

Others who seek memories may suffer from an inherited biological disposition toward depression. Leslie Hannegan and Robert Wilson appear to be examples where such tendencies run in the family. Some retractors, such as Laura Pasley, really were sexually abused as children, though this always-remembered experience wasn’t enough for their therapists. Many others weren’t victims of incest, but certainly endured difficult childhoods. Robert Wilson, for instance, was harassed by his alcoholic father, while Leslie Hannegan was raised by a chronically ill mother and depressive father. Olivia McKillop, on the other hand, grew up with adoring parents, but she still felt neglected. Maria Granucci wasn’t abused, but missed parental hugs and affection. The bottom line? Regardless of their backgrounds, the retractors–like all children–felt some resentment toward their parents. Essentially, I agree with Olivia McKillop and Robert Wilson, both of whom said, “If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone .”

Once they finally realized that their induced incest memories weren’t real, all of the retractors experienced profound shame, guilt, and depression–particularly if, like Maria Granucci, their accused father nearly died before they retracted their allegations. Or, like another woman I interviewed, it took her mother’s death to snap her out of it. “Post-retraction is no bed of roses,” Granucci told me. Some people, like Olivia McKillop, Laura Pasley, and Stephanie Krauss, seek qualified counselors to help them sort out issues and reestablish family relations. Others, like Maria Granucci or Robert Wilson, are too distrustful of therapists to go anywhere near them.

Even when the incest accusations have been dropped, family relations inevitably remain strained. Spouses of retractors, who supported them throughout the ordeal while watching their families disintegrate, often express deep bitterness over what they’ve had to go through. In rare cases, such as that of Faith Sylvester, the formerly accused parents may be so hurt that they won’t take their children back. Even in the majority of the cases, where mothers and fathers gladly forgive and celebrate the prodigal’s return, there may be an abundance of love–but trust takes longer to rebuild. Sometimes retractors can’t get the well-rehearsed abuse images out of their heads. “I still have flashbacks in a way,” one retractor told me in an unpublished interview. “The memories still seem so real. It’s frightening.”

Retractors struggle to understand how they could have been so sure of such unlikely events. What does it all mean? How could it have happened? As Melody Gavigan put it in the first issue of her newsletter, the Retractor , “We are frightened, we are embarrassed, we are confused, and we are in shock.” While attempting to understand the process that engulfed them, however, she recognized that they must learn to forgive themselves. She quoted Dante, who also journeyed to hell and back: “Midway life’s journey I was made aware / That I had strayed into a dark forest / And the right path appeared not anywhere.”

Fortunately, the following people have found their ways out of their own dark mental forests.

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