Skeptical Inquirer Fall 1994 Notes of a Fringe-Watcher MARTIN GARDNER The Tragedies of Fal

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

Skeptical Inquirer Fall 1994 Notes of a Fringe-Watcher MARTIN GARDNER 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 sexual abuse. 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 cannibalized. 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 dollars. 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 to Eileen. 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 therapy. 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 Books, 1993].) 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 sciences? 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 adequately informed. 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 800-356-9315. Sidebar: 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."

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank