False memory syndrome
As women bring lawsuits, therapists are having to pay for their mistakes.
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By Kevin Giordano
Dec. 22, 1999 | Valerie Jenks grew up in Rigby, Idaho. Her father owned a roofing company and her mother worked for an accountant. She describes her family life as happy, filled with camping trips, outings and annual vacations. But when Jenks was 14, she was raped by a 19-year-old. She never reported it to authorities and the man went free.
Jenks didn't appear to suffer from the trauma. She graduated from high school in the top 10 percent of her class, worked on the newspaper and played on the bowling team. She finished high school with dreams of being a journalist. But at 17 she became pregnant. "I had a misconception of what love and marriage and sex were supposed to be like," she says now. "I had no other sexual experiences besides being raped."
She married and had a baby boy. Her husband, seven years her senior, worked construction and was often out of town. Jenks worked part-time as a waitress but money was tight. That was when things got bad. "Right after I had the baby I had a hard time," she says. "All my friends went off to college, I had no support, I was 19 and I had weight problems." Around this time, Valerie decided to enter therapy.
Before she did, she sought advice from other women. They recommended Dr. Mark Stephenson, then affiliated with the Eastern Idaho Medical Treatment Center. Jenks, 20 at the time, went to her first session with her first husband. Her original reasons for going were a weight problem and alcohol abuse. "He asked if I knew anything about hypnosis and gave a brief description of what it would entail," Jenks says. "I never went under hypnosis before, but my husband was there and, after all, this was a doctor who was supposed to be helping me."
By the end of the first hypnotherapy session, Jenks came to believe that she'd been sexually abused not only by her family but also by friends and strangers. Jenks says she answered "yes" to many of Stephenson's questions by tapping the index finger of her left hand.
"I had no belief I was molested by anyone. But it wasn't a dream," she says about being under hypnosis, during which time the doctor took notes or recorded what she was saying. "I was conscious and awake and knew what I was saying. When I'd ask how can I believe it, he would say, 'Our memories are true.'
"I already suffered abuse, so I made myself vulnerable," she says now. "I was searching for answers and he offered the right ones. He made everything fit. I wanted to believe there were reasons for my weight problems, alcohol problems and depression."
Over the course of six months, Jenks was led through a series of so-called repressed childhood memories that included specific details of being sexually molested. Meanwhile, her marriage began to crumble. Already an introverted person, she cut off family and friends and frequently considered suicide. She had nightmares of the sexual abuse; she recounted them to her therapist. The doctor then drew out further memories, including one of her being a member of her grandparents' satanic cult. She was led to believe she had helped torture and kill babies and children. After six sessions, Jenks' entire perception of her memory had been altered. Jenks claims that by asking repeated questions and coaxing "yes" or "no" answers from her, Stephenson was able to create pictures in her mind of events that haunt her to this day.
"His leading and guiding questions brought me to the conclusion that I had been molested and raped by several family members," she says.
Later that summer, Stephenson concluded that Jenks was having an affair with her father and diagnosed her with multiple personality disorder (MPD). Jenks claims this was an incorrect diagnosis spawned from the memories he was planting in her mind. But that wasn't enough to get Jenks out of Stephenson's office. The sessions reached a finale when Stephenson asked Jenks to participate in a three-hour hypnosis session to unearth the object implanted in her mind that originally made her a satanic cult member.
Sound wacky enough for you? It was for Jenks. She stopped seeing Stephenson in August 1993. In the fall, she visited the doctor's employer, the Eastern Idaho Medical Treatment Center, and made her complaint.
There, Jenks found out that several other patients of Stephenson had the same stories. Shortly after, Stephenson was fired, although he was then rehired by the hospital due to a contract dispute. It wasn't until Jenks and two other former Stephenson clients filed a complaint with Idaho's state licensing board that Stephenson's activities came to light.
In November 1998 Jenks reached a modest out-of-court settlement with Stephenson, who, she says, changed her perception of her childhood forever. She was ruled the victim of false memory syndrome (FMS), a sister epidemic to the widely publicized MPD. In FMS, using mostly hypnotherapy, mental-health practitioners recover so-called repressed memories from patients they believe are suffering from traumatic events they've blocked from their memories.
According to a new book by Joan Acocella, "Creating Hysteria: Women and the Myth of Multiple Personality Disorder," 40,000 cases of MPD were reported between 1985 and 1995. According to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 92 percent of the people who have it are female; 74 percent are between the ages of 31 and 50; 31 percent have education beyond college; and 60 percent report memory of abuse prior to age 4.
In the past five years the number of reported cases has declined, but malpractice suits continue to fill courtrooms and women like Valerie Jenks are now telling their stories and seeking compensation. Sums of $11 million and more are being paid to victims and, most recently, mental-health practitioners are being prosecuted. In September of this year, a Wisconsin jury awarded $862,000 to a victim of a psychiatrist's incorrect recovered-memory and MPD diagnosis.
Acocella argues that the rise in recovered-memory treatment was aided by feminism and child-protection groups as well as by the belief that, as she says, "Childhood sexual abuse is very common, affecting about one-third of girls."
Repressed memory syndrome (RMS) therapy is based on the idea that childhood traumatic events often dictate emotional behavior in adulthood. As Elizabeth Loftus, Ph. D., professor of psychology and adjunct professor of law at University of Washington, puts it, "Mental-health practitioners use techniques to dig out allegedly buried trauma memories under the belief that they must be ferreted out to heal the patient."
Jenks' therapist used hypnotherapy to get at those memories. In his statement before the board of psychologists of the state of Idaho in 1996, Stephenson cited his paper, "Overcoming the Structure of Control," in which he explains that patients can discover this structure through motor responses to questions (hence the finger movements).
"He was trying to get a response via body movement," says Chuck Lloyd of the Minneapolis firm Lindquist & Vennum. Lloyd was one of three lawyers who represented Jenks. "When he [Stephenson] didn't get the answer he liked he'd tap on the 'yes' finger."
Stephenson's technique used the concept of ideomotor response, or a physical response to an idea, in which fingers are used to designate "yes," "no" and "I'm not sure" answers. At Jenks' first session, the questions went from the innocuous (name, birthday) to the more significant ("Have you ever been sexually molested?").
"The notion of hypnotherapy makes sense if you believe that we store everything we hear or see," says Pamela Freyd, Ph.D., of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in Philadelphia. "But it makes no sense because that's not how the memory works. These recovered memories are highly contaminated; they can be false because of the suggestions by the therapist."
New York therapist David Halperin, Ph.D., steers clear of hypnotherapy. "The problem is the issue of suggestibility," he says. "When a person is in a state of hypnosis, the question is, To what extent are they impressionable? Is it a reflection of the patient, or a reflection of what the hypnotist is bringing to the situation?" And yet Halperin, as do thousands of others, concedes: "Freud used hypnosis. A colleague of mine used it. It can be used as a relaxation technique, but suggestibility is much more part of the process, and the risks are greater."
According to Freyd, most people treated for RMS are white and female, between 25 and 45. "All of them were distressed with something in their life to go into therapy for the first place," he says. "Some went after birth of a baby, some were anxious about relationships, a lot of people got into this because they were too fat, so people entered into therapy for a variety of reasons. But if you turn to somebody for help, and they tell you you were abused, then that stage is set."
Attorneys are getting a big boost from the epidemic through malpractice cases. Christopher Barden, a Minnesota psychologist and another of Jenks' attorneys, has made a career of successfully suing therapists in MPD cases. Barden participated in one of the largest settlements in history in a psychotherapy negligence case when one of his clients, Patricia Burgus, received a $10.6 million settlement in November 1997.
Lloyd points out that big settlements generally occur in states such as Texas, where juries historically award big sums, as opposed to states such as Idaho, where juries tend to behave more conservatively.
Although media hype has waned, court cases and victims continue to crop up. America's therapy community may be partly to blame. Also, in an atmosphere filled with inaccurate information and dramatic Hollywood reenactments, few laws govern how psychotherapists and mental-health practitioners operate. "In Washington, you can call yourself a therapist if you have $80 and take a test," Loftus says. "The public is not at all educated on therapy. They can't make distinctions.
"Because it wasn't regulated, the crisis erupted and these false accusations became widespread," Loftus says. "The regulation [of therapists] has, sadly, been accomplished through litigation. Only after huge settlements that were leveled against psychotherapists have insurers stopped paying."
Acocella claims that many women who missed the boat on feminism found solace in their presumed mental dilemmas. "Many of these had the same grim lives as their mothers: early pregnancy, unkind husbands or boyfriends, boring jobs, little money, no education. The process helps to explain the great outbreak of female disorders in the last few decades. Many women, then, had reason to take shelter in multiple personality disorder. It restored their dignity; it gave them a career."
Jenks is now working on a real career. She lives in Boise, Idaho, with her second husband and newborn. Her plans are to attend college and pursue journalism. Looking back, she says, "Before I met [Stephenson] I had a weight problem and guilty feelings. Now I've lost childhood memories and I have severe depression. I've lost a lot of time with my family. I'm never going to therapy again. Heavens, no."
salon.com | Dec. 22, 1999
Thanks for the Repressed Memories, Junk vs. science in the Paul Shanley trial. By Dahlia Lithwick, Posted Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005, at 2:11 PM PT
Hmm. Do I know you?
Defrocked priest Paul Shanley faced his accuser (unnamed in the media) yesterday, in his criminal trial for molesting young boys in the 1980s at St. Jean's Parish in Newton, Mass. Shanley, who turned 74 this week, faces three charges of raping a child and two charges of indecent assault and battery on a child. He is eligible for a maximum sentence of life in prison. Of the four original complaining witnesses, three have dropped out of the case, leaving just one to testify to years of alleged sexual abuse. The state's case is further weakened by the fact that the accuser claims to have recovered his memory of this abuse only recently.
According to the 27-year-old witness, his memories of the abuse began to surface only in 2002, when he was a military police officer stationed in Colorado. His girlfriend called to tell him about an article about Shanley in the Boston Globe and about another man, Greg Ford, who claimed to have been raped by Shanley at St. Jean's. Ford was a good friend, and hearing about his experience seems to have tripped his own memory. He called a lawyer.
Not surprisingly, one of the crucial issues in the Shanley trial is whether "repressed memories" represent medical fact or junk science. And the trial itself has become something of a referendum on whether human beings are capable of forgetting, then remembering, details of traumatic, life-changing events.
The notion of repressed memory was floated by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century. He suggested it occurred when a patient (usually a hysterical female victim of sexual abuse) "intentionally seeks to forget an experience, or forcibly repudiates, inhibits and suppresses" memory. The basic theory of repressed memory, as described by Jacqueline Hough in a 1996 article in the Southern California Law Review holds:
It is often beneficial for victims to forget these events because at the time of the abuse a victim experiences a variety of overwhelming emotions including helplessness, fear, shame, guilt, pain and betrayal. To survive, the victim is forced to mentally cope with these emotions because the victim often cannot physically escape the abusive environment. Blurring of the trauma, denial, repression and amnesia of the experience are common ways children cope with the trauma and the accompanying emotions.
Clinicians argue that repressed memories can be recovered through treatments including hypnosis, age regression, or suggestion therapies, but—as is allegedly the case with Shanley's accuser—some victims experience spontaneous recovery. The American Psychiatric Association formally recognized repressed-memory syndrome in 1994, calling it "dissociative amnesia."
Advocates of repressed-memory syndrome have been well met on the battlefield in recent years by proponents of what's known as the "false memory syndrome." They insist that the recovery of repressed traumatic memories is all bunk and that most repressed memories of sexual abuse are the result of negligent therapists who implant and reinforce false memories during treatment. The APA does not recognize "false memory syndrome," which doesn't help much in the courtroom. But the public is still vaguely aware that repressed memories were fashionable in the '80s and went out again by the late '90s.
The chasm between the two camps in this debate—and the stunning contempt they evince for one another's research—is to some degree a function of warring agendas and approaches. One legal writer claims that "in over 1,000 child sexual abuse, rape and other types of cases in which I have been personally involved, I have not met one real victim who has forgotten that they were assaulted and then remembered it at a later date." On the other hand, Wendy J. Murphy summarily dismisses false memory syndrome, stating, "This simply does not exist as a recognized medical condition. The phrase was coined by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an organization formed to provide legal and emotional support to those accused of sexual abuse."
Brain scientists, the proponents of false memory syndrome, must believe that memory is fluid and malleable, whereas clinical therapists who are proponents of repressed memory syndrome have to rely on their patient's autobiographical accuracy in order to treat them. The politics of the parties themselves—with sex-abuse victims on one hand and falsely accused abusers on the other—means the scholarly debate is mired in hate mail, death threats, and near-toxic levels of recrimination.
The legal community was relatively late to this party, only starting to grapple with problems of proof and admissibility after widespread clinical and public reports of repressed memories occurred in the 1980s. Most cases involving recovered memories arise in the civil, as opposed to criminal, context, precisely because of the lower burden of proof. And it's an understatement to say that there is vast disagreement within and among courts about the reliability and admissibility of this evidence. The Supreme Court of New Hampshire reviewed the available literature on recovered memories and found that "the phenomenon of recovery of repressed memories has not yet reached the point where we may perceive these particular recovered memories as reliable." On the other hand, the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan held that a proposed expert demonstrated sufficient support for recovered-memory theory to allow her to testify before a jury.The truth is that no one seems to know anymore whether repressed memory is a medical fact or something that only happens to Cheryl Ladd on Lifetime Television for Women.
The two legal questions concerning the science of repression have centered on whether evidence of repressed memories can be used to halt a statute of limitations, and whether it meets the requirements of legitimate scientific evidence. In the Shanley case, the statute of limitations is not in question. The issue of whether repressed memory constitutes scientific evidence, however, is still very much on the table.
The most common standard for scientific testimony in court was laid out in 1993 by the Supreme Court in Daubert v. Merrell Dow.Daubert attempted to clarify the federal rule for determining which kinds of scientific expert testimony are reliable enough to introduce at trial. Daubert suggested that trial courts consider four factors: 1) the ability of the expert's theories to be tested; 2) whether their theories have been subject to peer review; 3) the rate of error in the studies; and 4) the overall rates of acceptance of these theories among the scientific community. Daubert allows juries to hear and assess a wider range of scientific evidence than they previously might have, but it sets up individual judges as the gatekeepers. In effect, Daubert makes lay judges the arbiters of complex scientific theories. Although not all states use the Daubert test, most state judges are now in the uncomfortable position of having to evaluate whether jurors should get to hear about the science of repressed memory, a science that's far from exact.
The notion of repressed memories are a dream come true for snarky defense lawyers who argue that people can't simply forget years of sodomy. Defense lawyers base their strongest scientific objections to repressed memories on studies showing that such memories can be implanted and manipulated. There are reputable studies supporting both sides of this debate: A 1994 study by Linda Meyer Williams, published in the Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, suggested that over one-third of the patients she examined had repressed childhood incidents of sexual abuse (her study has come under fire for methodological flaws). Another famous study, by Professor Elizabeth Loftus—in which older family members were used to implant false memories of having been lost as a child at a shopping mall—revealed that subjects were not only susceptible to the implantation of false memories, but that some were likely both to fabricate details and to insist that the memory was accurate, even upon being told that it was just an experiment.
Defense lawyers seeking to keep testimony about recovered memory from jurors tend to go for baby-with-the-bathwater arguments: Since some recovered memories prove false, all recovered memories are presumptively unreliable. Since some therapists are able to suggest false memories to their clients, all recovered memories are presumptively fabricated. That sexual-abuse cases often lack physical evidence or outside witnesses only makes the stakes higher on both sides.
Since the sole Shanley witness claims to have had a spontaneous resurfacing of his repressed memory, as opposed to a memory recovered in therapy, the most common empirical objection—that his memories were implanted—has not been raised in this trial. What is very much at issue is his motive: He recovered $500,000 in the civil settlement, and defense counsel keeps telling the jury that he called a plaintiff's attorney within nanoseconds of recovering his memory. Most urgently, however, Shanley's lawyer continues to tell jurors that no one simply loses years of traumatic life history. Period.
It doesn't help Shanley's case that church documents reveal that officials knew he advocated sex between men and boys and yet continued to transfer him from parish to parish; or that they were aware of complaints against him as early as 1967 but did nothing about it.
Still, the bottom line remains that there is probably no one crystalline answer about the scientific truth of repressed memories. As with most overheated scientific controversies in the courtroom, the truth probably lies midway between two bitterly polarized camps: Some witnesses do make up stories, and some therapist do implant memories; but some victims surely do recover lost childhood memories that were too terrible to consider at the time. The reason we have trials—indeed, the reason we have juries—is that sometimes sorting between the "junk" and the "science" has less to do with experts and scientific journals than with the truth behind a witness's eyes.
On a balmy night in June 1989, Bernard Lefkowitz, an investigative journalist and associate professor in the writing program at Columbia University, attended the graduation of the Class of '89 in Glen Ridge, N.J. Less than a month before, the manicured, upper-middle-class town had made news when four of its popular athletes were accused of raping a 17-year-old retarded girl. The boys, all high school seniors, lured the girl into the basement of one of their homes with the promise that if she joined them, she would be able to go out on a date with their friend, a boy she idolized. Once there, they raped her with a broomstick, a baseball bat and another stick while several other boys cheered them on. Six in the group eventually left the basement, but not one tried to stop their friends or intervene. The next day, a group of 30 boys tried to convince her to return to the basement for a repeat performance, but she refused.
The girl -- who had no friends, attended a special school for retarded children and had long been the target of jokes and pranks -- did not actively resist the boys and was reluctant to report the assault because she regarded them as her friends and desperately sought their approval. But when the story finally emerged, many people found the leafy town's reaction to the rape as stunning as the attack itself.
"It's such a tragedy," remarked one of the parents at a graduation party Lefkowitz attended after the ceremony. It took Lefkowitz a moment to realize that the man was not talking about the victim, but about the boys who had raped her. "They're such beautiful boys and this will scar them forever."
Eight years and 250 interviews later, Lefkowitz's book, "Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb," is a chilling examination of the character of the boys and their town. Lefkowtiz writes that the gang rape -- which town residents euphemistically called the boys' "alleged misconduct" -- provoked no community introspection in Glen Ridge. Instead, adults and fellow students rallied around the accused athletes -- twins Kevin and Kyle Scherzer, Christopher Archer and Bryant Grober -- and dismissed the victim, who had the mental age of an 8-year-old, as a slut. During the five-month trial, neighbors donated over $30,000 to the families of the defendants to defray their legal bills. Rather than exploring the incident with students, the staff at Glen Ridge High urged them "not to be judgmental"; the female superintendent of schools went further and asked them to "stand by our boys."
Lefkowitz paints a portrait of a town willing to go to almost any extreme to keep the image of its community and its favorite sons untarnished. It is a town that had paid little heed to a 1941 Yale University study that declared the local high school placed "too great emphasis on producing winning teams at the expense of important social values." In Lefkowitz's surreal picture, parents seem like mere spectators on the sidelines, closing their eyes as the behavior of their "beautiful boys" grows increasingly disturbing and brutal. Horrible events go ignored and unpunished by both the boys' own parents and those of the numerous girls they mistreat along the way.
The boys' torture of the victim, whom Lefkowitz calls Leslie Faber, began at the age of 5, when they convinced her to lick the point of a ballpoint pen that had been coated in dog feces; by the time she was 16 and knocked on the door at one of their homes while selling Girl Scout cookies, they talked her into letting them stick a hot dog in her vagina. Students recall one of the boys openly masturbating through his sweat pants in class and occasionally fondling his penis openly, tapping on the shoulders of girls sitting nearby to make sure they saw. ("There's Kevin, with his hands down his pants again," sighs a teacher on one occasion.)
After Lefkowitz piles up enough shocking stories to convince the reader that these boys and this town must be an aberration, he produces a battery of statistics and studies intended to demonstrate just how much the Glen Ridge story fits into the classic pattern of gang rape: that elite groups who tend to be above suspicion -- football and basketball players and fraternity brothers -- are most likely to be involved in college rapes, that football and basketball players are reported for sexual assault 38 percent more often than the average male college students, that 81 percent of female public school students report that they have been sexually harassed. Not only could it happen elsewhere, says Lefkowitz, it probably has.
The final outrage in the Glen Ridge story came when justice was at last handed down. Although three of the four young men were found guilty of first-degree rape, they were allowed to go free for years while their cases were appealed. Just six weeks ago, they received relatively light sentences. This didn't surprise prosecutor Robert Laurino, who remarks in the book that sexual offenders usually receive lighter sentences when the victim is retarded. Even the judge seemed to feel that that the damage done to the lives of the boys outweighed that done to their victim. "If it hadn't been for that horrible day," writes Lefkowitz, "they would have been someone's all-American boys."