Notes of a Fringe-Watcher
The Tragedies of False Memories
The greatest scandal of the century in American psychiatry--
the topic of my Summer 1993 column--is the growing mania
among thousands of inept therapists, family counselors, and
social workers for arousing false memories of childhood
No one denies that children are molested, but memories of
events that never happened are easily fabricated in the
minds of suggestible patients by techniques that include
hypnotism, regression therapy, drugs, dream interpretation,
and guided imagery. These fake memories become so vivid that
patients who acquire them make enormously convincing court
witnesses. Jurors tend to believe them rather than the
expected denials of those accused. The result: an epidemic
of wrong convictions and a mass hysteria that is now far
more extensive than the old Salem witch-hunts.
Perhaps the tide is starting to turn. More and more
judges, attorneys, police officers, media personnel, and
ordinary citizens are becoming aware of the terrible
injustices being done. Reputations are ruined, innocent
adults are sent to prison for life, and some ten thousand
once-happy families are ripped apart by the testimony
of patients, mainly children and middle-aged women, who
firmly believe their ersatz memories. On the bright side
are recent court cases suggesting that innocent victims are
finally starting to hit back. Higher courts are beginning to
overturn convictions, an increasing number of victims are
winning malpractice suits, and many children and adults are
recanting their charges.
In Chicago last year, Steven Cook, in hypnotic trances
induced by Michele Moul, a Philadelphia therapist, began
recalling sexual attacks by Chicago's highly respected
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin--memories Cook thought he had
repressed for 17 years. It turned out that Moul's degree in
psychology was from a school run by New Age guru John-Roger,
who, according to Time (March 14, 1994), "claims to be the
embodiment of a divine spirit."
On the sole basis of cooked-up memories, Cook sued the
cardinal for $10 million. Fortunately, after a competent
clinician convinced Cook his memories were confabulations,
he recanted and dropped his civil suit. The vindicated
cardinal was too kind to sue Moul for quackery.
All over the United States and Canada Protestant
fundamentalists are convinced that Satan is on a final
rampage preceding the Second Coming of Christ. Dozens of
shabby books have been published about satanic rituals, in
spite of a careful study by Kenneth Lanning, of the FBI's
Behavioral Science Unit, that found no evidence that such
ritual crimes take place. Stimulated by books on Satanism,
and by talk shows on the topic, about 30 percent of false
memories involved bizarre Satanic rituals, and it is claimed
that in some of these the babies are killed and
If such cults existed there would be tens of thousands of
bodies of mutilated. babies buried around the land. Not one
has been found. The Salt Lake Tribune (September 19, 1993)
reported that a Utah task force spent $250,000 trying to
find evidence of Satanic ritual abuse. It found nothing. How
do fundamentalists explain this? Satan is so powerful, they
argue, that he obliterates all evidence!
In June 1992, in Martensville, Canada, nine persons
associated with a baby-sitting service were charged with
ritual abuse on the basis of testimony by 30 young children.
The accused included Ronald Sterling and his wife, Linda,
their son Travis, an unnamed woman of 20, and five members
of the local police department. The accusations began when a
fundamentalist mother decided her two-year-old son had been
ritually abused because he had a diaper rash. Constable
Claudia Bryden, described by the press as "terribly
paranoid" in her fear of Satanism, was chiefly responsible
for the arrest of the "Martensville Nine."
The children first denied anything improper had happened,
but, after scores of relentless grillings and coaxing by
police and counseling by therapists, their "memories" slowly
emerged. They spoke of being forced to drink blood and urine
and to eat feces. A seven-year-old boy said one of the
accused women cut off a child's nipple and swallowed it. Two
boys each said that an axe handle had been shoved up his
anus, and a vibrator, up his penis. No medical evidence for
such acts was found.
A child testified he had seen people killed and acid
poured on their faces. Another boy claimed he had been put
nude in a cage suspended by a rope. He accused Linda
Sterling of threatening him with a knife until he sucked her
breasts. On another occasion he recalled her saying, "If you
don't pee in my mouth I'll kill you." Both Ron Sterling and
his son were accused of sodomy.
Seven of the nine were eventually acquitted, their
reputations forever scarred. Travis Sterling was sentenced
to five years, and the young woman to two years. Some of the
acquitted are considering lawsuits of up to $200 million.
Mothers of the children remain firmly convinced that the
town is infested with secret Satanist cults. (Source: "The
Martensville Horror," by David Roberts, in Toronto's Globe
and Mail February 19, 1994.)
Harold Joseph Levy, 52, a respected attorney and
editorial writer on the Toronto Star was arrested in May
1993. A woman undergoing therapy had long-repressed memories
aroused of being sexually molested by Levy. A year later,
persuaded that her memories were false, she recanted. As the
Toronto Globe and Mail put it (April 30, 1994), this ended a
year of "professional humiliation, social repudiation, and
searing gossip." Incredibly, the Crown's attorney, Christine
McGoey, said she withdrew her charges "reluctantly." Said
Levy's lawyer, "I am completely flabbergasted at the use of
the word 'reluctantly.' There was never a shred of evidence.
The Crown should be ashamed" (Toronto Sun, April 30, 1994).
In 1989, Holly Ramona was suffering from bulimia. Marche
Isabella, a family counselor, told her that 80 percent of
bulimia cases arise from repressed memories of child abuse--
a preposterous claim. There is no such connection. After
months of therapy with Isabella, Holly began having
flashbacks of repeated rapes by her father, Gary, when she
was a small child. After Richard Rose, a psychiatrist, gave
her sodium amytal, lurid details of these molestations began
to take shape in her mind. Because of her daughter's
charges, Gary's wife divorced him and he was fired from his
job as vice president of a California winery.
Infuriated by what he called therapeutic quackery, Gary
Ramona sued the two therapists for $8 million in damages.
Last May a grand jury in Napa County, California, issued a
ground-breaking verdict. Ramona was awarded half a million
Lenore Terr, a San Francisco child psychiatrist, was a
chief witness for the defense of the two therapists. A
tireless defender of repressed memory therapy, Terr has this
year published a book titled Unchained Memories: True
Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found (Basic Books).
Terr told the jury that Holly's memories were corroborated
by her dislike of teeth that resembled her father's and by
her aversion to pickles and bananas because they reminded
her of oral sex. However, under questioning, Terr admitted
that Holly's "memory" of being forced by her father to
perform oral sex on the family dog was "dubious." (Sources:
"Dubious Memories," by Jill Smolowe, Time, May 23, 1994, and
Jane Gross's article in the New York Times, April 8, 1994.)
Terr was also an expert witness for the prosecution of
George Thomas Franklin, a former California firefighter now
in prison for life on the sole testimony of his daughter
Eileen. She said she "adored" her father until 1989, when
therapy revived a 20-year-old memory of having seen him
murder her best friend, eight-year-old Susan Nason. It had
been an unsolved crime, and the details were long familiar
In 1989, Eileen "remembered" her father hitting Susan on
the head with a rock after raping her. She also had revived
memories of herself being sexually molested by her father,
and on one occasion being held down by her father while one
of his friends raped her. In 1990 the California Court of
Appeals upheld Franklin's life sentence. Terr firmly
believes Eileen's long-repressed memories. On CNN's "Sonya
Live" (March 13,1994),1 heard Terr say that one-sixth of all
women have been sexually abused as children and that the
cases of revived memories' proving false are only a "drop in
the bucket" compared with revived memories that are true.
Dale Anthony Akiki, 35, mentally retarded and physically
deformed, spent two and a half years in jail after ten
children (ages 3 and 4) in San Diego accused him of sexually
abusing them in satanic rituals at Faith Chapel, where he
taught Sunday School. The children had been pressured to fan
tasize by parents and therapists. Akiki was accused of
hanging them upside down from a chandelier, sodomizing them
with a curling iron, dunking them in toilets, forcing them
to drink blood and urine and ingest feces, mutilating
animals and a human baby, and bringing an elephant and a
giraffe to Sunday school class, where he killed them.
Akiki was acquitted in November 1993 by a San Diego grand
jury. Terr testified for the prosecution, insisting that
only clinicians, not research psychologists and
psychiatrists, are capable of judging the validity of re
pressed memory theory. In June 1994 the jury lambasted the
therapists for their techniques. Akiki's attorneys are
bringing a civil suit of $110 million against the San Diego
county. (Source: New York Times, June 3, 1994.)
In Hendersonville, N.C., where I live, a gullible jury
convicted Michael Parker in 1993 of ritually abusing his
three young children. Their memories had been revived by
therapists at the insistence of their mother, who had been
impressed by a book about Satanism. As usual, the children's
memories were as bizarre as they were unsubstantiated. Not
only Parker, but his mother and seven others were accused of
Satanic cult abuse. The children testified to being
surrounded by the accused, who were wearing Ku Klux
Klan-type robes with emblems on the sleeves, holding burning
candles, and chanting. One little girl recalled her father
raping her with a big spoon. It became filled with blood,
which he poured into a cup and drank.
Divorced and living alone in a trailer camp in the nearby
town of Saluda, Parker was too poor to hire a lawyer. "Sodom
and Saluda" was what Mike Edwards, the prosecuting attorney,
called the town. (Saludians were of course furious.) He
quoted frequently from the Bible while jurors smiled and one
man murmured "Amen." It took them only 55 minutes to find
Parker guilty. He is now in prison, eligible for parole in
160 years. Michael Edney, his court-appointed attorney,
plans to appeal.
One of Parker's daughters, who had been in a mental
hospital, said Parker had forced her to lie on the ground,
her arms and legs pinned down by horseshoes, while he mol
ested her. She told the jury of a time when a poster on her
bedroom wall, advertising the "I Love Lucy" show, talked to
her and said she deserved all her suffering. None of the
children had told anyone about their abuse until undergoing
In spite of the FBI's report that satanic cults are a
myth fabricated by fundamentalists and Pentecostals, the
prosecuting attorney says they are widespread in North
Carolina. "My experience is when you uncover the evidence of
Satanism you get dribs and drabs," he said. "It's a
fraternity that has a code of silence like no other. We've
got a peek at what it looks like." To escape prison,
Parker's mother accepted a plea bargain and pleaded "no
contest." Trials of the other seven are coming up soon.
(Source: Hendersonville's Times-News from February 13, 1993,
through February 5, 1994.)
A few earlier cases, out of thousands, deserve mention.
The McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California,
ended in 1990 without convictions of the school's director
and her son. They had been accused of hundreds of episodes
of rape, oral and anal intercourse, and unspeakable acts
involving satanic mutilations of animals--all solely on the
basis of memories planted in the minds of suggestible
children by honest but quack psychologists. It was the
longest (six and a half years) and costliest criminal trial
in U.S. history. The accusations had been triggered by a
mother who was later hospitalized for acute paranoid
schizophrenia. For details see The Abuse of Innocence: The
McMartin Preschool Trial, by Paul and Shirley Eberle
(Prometheus Books, 1993) .
In 1993 a New Jersey Court of Appeals overturned the
47-year sentence of Margaret Kelly Michaels for abusing 19
children at the Wee Care preschool, in Maplewood, N.J. An
Essex County prosecutor spent almost $3 million of taxpayer
money in his zeal to convict Michaels solely on the basis of
testimony by children who had been undergoing dubious
therapy. They testified that Michaels could toss cars into
trees and that she liked to cover her nude body with peanut
butter and make them lick it off. They added the charge, so
often repeated in books on satanic cults, that they were
forced to ingest feces and urine. They said Michaels had
pushed Leggo toys into their vaginas and rectums. Michaels
spent five years in jail before her acquittal. Incredibly,
the state is appealing .
Laura Pasley, 39, a secretary in the Dallas Police
Department, sought therapy for her bulimia and was told that
all eating disorders spring from repressed memories of child
sex abuse. Using hypnosis and dream analysis, her therapist
soon persuaded her that she had been abused by her mother,
father, and grandfather, and a neighbor, and that her
brother once tried to kill her. She "remembered" sex abuse
by animals. In 1992 she decided that all these aroused
memories were false, and sued both her counselor and
therapist. The case was settled out of court.
"These therapists are doing something as evil as evil can
be," Paisley told a reporter. She said that when she tried
to tell her therapist that certain horrible events had not
happened, he shook his head, insisting she was "in denial"
and only trying to protect her family. (Source: Pasley's
article, "Misplaced Trust," in True Stories of False
Memories, edited by Eleanor Goldstein and Kevin Farmer [SIRS
The most tragic and still ongoing case of fabricated
memories involves the Little Rascals day-care center in
Edenton, North Carolina, a town torn apart by the case. On
no basis except preposterous claims by children, egged on by
angry, mind-closed mothers, and memories evoked by
therapists, Robert Kelly, owner of the school, was convicted
on 99 counts of first-degree sex offenses. He is currently
serving a sentence of 12 consecutive life terms, the longest
sentence in North Carolina history. He can apply for parole
in 240 years. Early this year his wife, Betsey, pleaded "no
contest," which allowed her a reduced sentence on 48 counts.
She is serving seven years in prison.
Willard Scott Privott, a video-store owner associated
with the Little Rascals case, spent almost four years in
jail awaiting trial because he could not raise a $1-million
bond. At his May 1994 trial, he escaped a possible 363 years
in prison by accepting a plea bargain, and was released on a
suspended ten-year sentence. He had been accused of sex acts
with Betsey in front of the children, as well as sex acts
with the children, while photos were taken. No such photos
were found. Three other defendants still await trials, and
have been offered plea bargains.
All those charged maintain total innocence. When the
children were first interviewed by therapists they had no
memories of sex abuse, but after prolonged therapy, and hun
dreds of leading questions, memories of abuse began to
emerge. Some notion of the accuracy of these "memories" can
be gained by one child's recalling that "Mr. Bob" had taken
a group of children aboard a ship surrounded by sharks. He
threw one of the girls in the ocean. Was she eaten by
sharks? No, the boy replied. He had jumped into the water
and rescued her!
Children recalled seeing Mr. Bob kill babies with a
pistol and take photos of employees engaging in sex. They
testified to sodomy by Mr. Bob, and said he routinely shot
children into outer space on rocket ships. To this day the
children, now young adults, swear their revived memories are
genuine. "We know. We were there," they have said many times
on TV talk-shows. One can only marvel at the intensity with
which the prosecuting attorneys continue to pursue the case.
Could it be that winning a court victory overrides their con
The cases described only scratch the surface of
nightmares that are splintering families all over the U.S.
and Canada and sending innocent adults to prison for life.
During the past dozen years, hundreds of preschool teachers
have been arrested on the basis of repressed-memory therapy.
Leading psychiatrists seem powerless to combat the epidemic.
The same techniques used to awaken long-repressed memories
of sex abuse are also being used by scores of therapists to
revive memories of abductions by aliens in UFOs, as well as
memories of traumas experienced in previous incarnations!
John Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist, has just published
Abductions: Human Encounters with Aliens (Scribner's), a
book about his successes in using hypnosis to uncover
memories of sex abuse on flying saucers. Mack believes the
aliens live in dimensions invisible to us. See his 1994
interviews in The New York Times Magazine (March 20), Time
(April 25), and Psychology Today (March/April).
Readers interested in up-to-date information about this
mania can contact the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 3401
Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104, which publishes a
newsletter. Books on both sides of the bitter controversy
are proliferating. Of special interest is Lawrence Wright's
Remembering Satan: A Case of Recovered Memory and the
Shattering of an American Family (Knopf). The book reprints
his explosive two-part New Yorker article (May 17 and 24,
1993), about the conviction of a pious policeman in Olympia,
Washington, on the basis of "recovered" memories of his two
daughters. Because I discussed this tragic case, which
involved an alleged Satanic cult, in my previous column on
false memories, I won't repeat its crazy details here. It is
a book every American should read. Someday you may be called
for jury duty on a repressed memory case that can result in
terrible injustice unless you and your fellow jurors are
By far the best, most detailed, most accurate, most
compassionate history of this tragic witch-hunt is Victims
of Memory, by Mark Pendergrast, scheduled for publication
this fall by Upper Access Books. If the book is hard to come
by, you can order it through the toll-free number
Case Study of Implanted Memory
The following dialogue is from Daniel Goleman's article
"Studies Reflect Suggestibility of Very Young as Witnesses,"
in the New York Times (June 11, 1993). It is an excerpt from
11 interviews of a four-year-old boy, who each week was told
falsely: "You went to the hospital because your finger got
caught in a mousetrap. Did this ever happen to you?"
First Interview: "No. I've never been to the hospital."
Second Interview: "Yes. I cried."
Third Interview: "Yes. My mom went to the hospital with me."
Fourth Interview: "Yes. I remember. It felt like a cut."
Fifth Interview: "Yes." [Pointing to index finger....]
Eleventh Interview: "Uh huh. My daddy, mommy, and my brother
[Took me to the hospital] in our van.... The hospital gave
me . . . a little bandage, and it was right here.
[Pointing to index finger.]
The interviewer then asked: "How did it happen?"
"I was looking and then I didn't see what I was doing and
it [finger] got in there somehow.... The mousetrap was in
our house because there's a mouse in our house.... The
mousetrap is down in the basement next to the firewood.... I
was playing a game called 'Operation' and then I went
downstairs and said to Dad, 'I want to eat lunch' and then
it got stuck in the mousetrap.... My daddy was down in the
basement collecting firewood.... [My brother] pushed me into
the mousetrap.... It happened yesterday. The mouse was in my
house yesterday. I caught my finger in it yesterday. I went
to the hospital yesterday."