Donna Smith once tried to put her father in jail for alleged acts of sexual abuse, some of them supposedly performed during Satanic rituals. But yesterday, she told a gathering of 800 people at a Baltimore conference that the crimes never happened -- they appeared in "false memories" coaxed by therapists.
Now, the St. Mary's County native said, two things have put her on the road to mental health: her parents' unconditional love and her resolve to stay out of therapy.
"Therapy is a very scary thing for me," she said, winning applause at a conference on the "false memory syndrome" held at Stouffer's Harborplace Hotel. "Trust is very difficult, and I fear that another therapist will get ahold of me and put me in another psychiatric hospital."
The 20-year-old nursing student, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., wasn't engaging in casual doctor-bashing. Hers was a specific complaint: that therapists encouraged her to remember that her father had sexually abused her in the most vile ways, even though she previously harbored no such suspicions.
Three members of the Smith family -- Donna and her parents, Judee and Danny -- staged an unusual reunion yesterday, telling their story of estrangement and reconciliation to a crowd of mental health professionals and families who say they have experienced similar ordeals.
The conference was co-sponsored by Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a Philadelphia-based group that serves as an advocate for people who claim they have been falsely accused of sex crimes by sons, daughters and others close to them.
Dr. Paul McHugh, chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, said society has been swept by an epidemic of false accusations based on a "fad" theory -- recovered memory of sexual abuse. He said the memories often occur while the patients are under hypnosis, a technique that makes them vulnerable to suggestion.
"If these practices become standard, then no family that has a member who goes in for psychotherapy is safe from persecution," he said.
Since recanting her allegations in March, Miss Smith has returned four times to visit her parents in St. Mary's County. The reconciliation began when she summoned the courage to pick up the telephone and ask her parents to forgive her.
"It was something I wouldn't want to relive," she said yesterday. "It was probably the most stressful event in my life. It was the shame that I felt, the shame was just so intense. The grief was so bad I just shut it out."
As a teen-ager, Miss Smith suffered from anorexia, a severe eating disorder, and had been taken to a succession of therapists without making any progress. Four years ago, she told her 12th therapist that she had once been sexually molested by a neighbor in the Philippines, where her family had lived while her father was serving in the Navy.
She said she was urged to dig deeper for other memories of abuse, and began to consider the possibility that she had been sexually abused by her father. Eventually she gave specific accounts, which the therapist reported to the St. Mary's County social services department.
In 1992, her father was arrested and charged with 12 counts of sexual abuse -- alleged acts of intercourse and forced oral sex spanning the period of 1984 to 1991.
In the meantime, Miss Smith was admitted to Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, where she spent 20 months and amassed more than $300,000 in bills. Most of the cost was paid by taxpayers; by that time she had been placed in foster care and made eligible for Medicaid.
Her father's trial in St. Mary's County ended in a hung jury, with jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquittal. A few weeks later, Miss Smith was deemed well enough to be discharged, and she moved with her foster family to Michigan.
Miss Smith said she didn't start feeling better until she left therapy and began to realize that the abuse had never happened. In Michigan, she was diagnosed and treated for Graves' disease, a hormonal condition that she says may have contributed to her emotional disturbances.
The Smiths recently filed malpractice suits against the private therapist, Sheppard Pratt and two of its doctors. Contacted by phone, the hospital's defense attorney Daniel J. Moore said yesterday that "evidence will show the patient was properly diagnosed and made significant progress while at Sheppard Pratt."
Although many scientists at the three-day conference disputed the idea that victims can forget and then remember their trauma, one researcher presented evidence that the phenomenon may be common.
Linda Meyer Williams, a sociologist from the University of New Hampshire, recently interviewed 129 women who had been admitted to emergency rooms in the 1970s with documented evidence of sexual molestation. More than a third said they didn't remember the abuse at all, and 16 percent of the women who did remember said there had been a time when they had forgotten.
Outside the hotel, in a cold rain, about a dozen people picketed the conference, saying that it did a disservice to people who are truly victims of sexual abuse.
"I think there are some bad therapists out there," said Rus Funk, a Baltimore therapist who counsels victims of sexual molestation.
"There are therapists who are overambitious about identifying abuse when it really didn't happen. But it is such a small piece of the overwhelming iceberg that is childhood sexual abuse, a problem that isn't being addressed."