Repressed memory backlash spreads

April 18, 1995|By Fred Tasker | Fred Tasker,Knight-Ridder News Service

"Lorraine," a 40-year-old Florida woman who sought professional help for depression and says she ended up convinced she had been sexually abused as a child in satanic rituals involving her father, mother and most of her kin, is preparing to sue her psychiatrist for planting those ideas.

"He used hypnosis," she says. "If I didn't see something, he said, 'Try harder.' He said the government is involved; they put microchips in people's noses to keep track of them.

"I was so needy. He really had me believing."

An extreme case. But it illustrates the growing national backlash against "repressed memory therapy" -- the technique that only a few years ago was seen as the most hopeful new tool for helping women so traumatized by childhood sex abuse that their minds had stifled all memories of it.

In turn, the backlash raises the fear that if repressed memory therapy is discredited, it will be a blow to those fighting a national shame: the sexual abuse of children -- nearly 130,000 cases in 1992, according to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.

The backlash exploded last year with four high-profile lawsuits.

* In California, a jury awarded $500,000 to Gary Ramona, a wine company executive whose daughter, after seeking psychological help for bulimia, ended up accusing him of sexually abusing her as a child.

* In Dallas, a psychiatrist had to pay $350,000 to the parents of a woman he persuaded to accuse them of sexually abusing her 40 years earlier.

* In Pittsburgh, a jury awarded $272,000 to the parents of a woman who was convinced that she gave birth to three children who were killed, and that she was raped in a crowded restaurant.

* In Chicago, a former seminary student who had accused Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of sexual abuse, dropped his $10 million suit after deciding that his painful memory, brought back by hypnosis, was faulty.

Three new books attack the therapy: "Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives," by Mark Pendergrast (Upper Access Books, 1995, $25); "Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, Sexual Hysteria," by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994, $23); and "The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse," by Elizabeth F. Loftus and Katherine Ketcham (St. Martin's Press, 1994, $23).

The situation has led the American Medical Association to issue a statement: "The AMA considers recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse to be of uncertain authenticity, which should be subject to external verification."

The trend to repressed memory therapy began less than a decade ago, with the publication of its "bible," the 1988 book "The Courage to Heal" by Ellen Bass, a creative-writing teacher who noticed her female students writing often about past abuse.

Ms. Bass didn't claim to be scientific.

"To say, 'I was abused,' you don't need the kind of recall that would stand up in a court of law," she wrote.

But in a 1992 book, "Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse," therapist Renee Fredrickson took it further: "If a memory fits your sense of your past, and, in the long run, you feel better for having dealt with it as real, then accept it as true . . ."

She proposed memory-retrieving techniques: hypnosis, imaging, dream work, journal writing, art therapy.

It seemed to work: Confessions were obtained, abusers sent to jail.

But some of the techniques -- hypnosis, truth serum, imaging -- were considered radical. And some of the charges were fantastical -- fathers raping daughters in public, whole networks of Satan-worshipers, doll beheadings.

Critics toe a fine line. Such techniques have legitimate uses, says Harvard psychology professor Daniel L. Schacter -- including desensitizing people from traumas or helping amnesia victims rediscover identities.

"They seem to bring out actual memories," he says. "But they also bring out things that never happened."

Imagery -- asking patients to make up images to see if they feel true -- can be particularly misleading, Mr. Schacter says. They can create the "rich perceptual visual detail that really feels like remembering, but there's no evidence that the image is accurate."

And the recalled images were being used in court as evidence.

Particularly disturbing were widespread accusations of vast networks of satanic cults engaging in ritual abuse of children. A survey of 11,000 psychiatric and police workers nationwide for the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect found more than 12,000 accusations of group cult sexual abuse. But hardly any could be substantiated.

In 1992, to counter the rising tide of charges, parents accused of molesting their children formed a self-help group: the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Today it claims 16,000 contacts from people who say they have seen their families destroyed, their careers ruined by false claims of abuse.

"We do not deny the existence of abuse," says Pamela Freyd, executive director of the foundation. "For so many years women were not believed. But now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Now they believe all the claims."

"Lorraine," the Florida woman, says she didn't realize her memories were false until she took psychology classes to earn a bachelor's degree in social work.

"I saw I was being brainwashed."

All the anger and pain, of course, make it even harder to turn the nation's attention back to the real issue -- the sexual abuse of children.

"What's truly tragic," says Harvard's Mr. Schacter, "is that the excesses will call into question the memories of people who really have been abused."

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