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The Wichita Eagle (KS)
January 29, 1994
Author: Amy Kuebelbeck, Associated Press
OAKDALE, Minn. Desperate to emerge from a dark depression, Elizabeth Carlson sought therapy. What she got instead was a terrifying belief that she had repressed memories of satanic ritual abuse as a child.
With hypnosis and mind-altering drugs, she became convinced that she had created multiple personalities including animals and a nun to deal with sexual assaults by her parents, neighbors and godmother.
But most devastating, says the 39-year-old Carlson, is that she now realizes the abuse never happened.
She is part of a growing movement that questions whether all memories of abuse, especially those retrieved years after the fact, are true.
”The books all say, ‘Don’t doubt,’ ” said Carlson, who is suing her therapist. “I’m saying, ‘If you do have thoughts that flash into your head, challenge them.’ ”
Such skepticism comes as a challenge to the idea that children sometimes repress memories of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, but can regain those memories as adults through psychotherapy.
Many such cases have given rise to lawsuits and even criminal charges; Chicago’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, for example, is the defendant in a civil lawsuit over alleged sexual abuse filed by a man who says he recovered memories of abuse while in therapy.
The skeptical viewpoint is gaining some ground. The American Medical Association last year adopted a resolution saying that memory enhancement techniques in the area of childhood sexual abuse are “fraught with problems of potential misapplication.”
But some people with recovered memories of abuse have been able to verify their suspicions. And some experts who believe memories can be repressed say the skeptics are part of a backlash that doesn’t want to admit the prevalence of abuse.
”I sure hope we don’t let a bunch of accused perpetrators decide what public policy is going to be on memory repression,” said Renee Frederickson, a St. Paul therapist and author of “Repressed Memories.” She contends millions of people have buried memories of trauma or even entire childhoods.
The standard-bearer for the “false memory” movement is the Philadelphia- based False Memory Syndrome Foundation, made up of families who say they have been wrongly accused of abuse. Formed only last year, the group already claims 7,000 families as members.
The group was formed after parents seeking solace found patterns. Most accusers were women between 25 and 45 who had entered therapy for issues such as relationship problems, according to director Pamela Freyd. Confrontations with families were similar, and many daughters cited the “bible” of the incest-recovery movement, “The Courage to Heal” by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. ”If you are unable to remember any specific instances . . . but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did,” the book says in a much-quoted passage.
Parents who protest their innocence say allegations of sexual abuse have put thousands of couples across the country in a catch-22: If they deny it, they’re “in denial.” Either way, they effectively lose their children.
”The only defense we’ve got is to say, ‘We didn’t do this,’ ” said Terry Stone, mayor of the southern Minnesota town of Madelia, pop. 2,237.
One of his nine children accuses Stone and his wife, Colette, of sexually abusing her from infancy through age 18; the daughter said she retrieved the memories after entering therapy. The therapist also concluded the other eight children were abused without talking to any of them, the Stones say.
The siblings deny any abuse, and the daughter who made the accusation has cut contact with the family. Though the Stones hope for reconciliation with their daughter, they are angry about the therapy.
But some contend that abuse is far more common than malpractice by therapists.
”There may be some excesses by therapists going on . . . (but) a lot of people have been sexually abused,” said Sherry Quirk, president of the American Coalition for Abuse Awareness in Washington.
Richard Gardner, a professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University and author of “Sex Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited,” estimates that 95 percent of sex-abuse accusations are valid. But he says the “tragic plight” of those falsely accused must be addressed: Claims must be more carefully scrutinized, especially in fierce child custody disputes, day care centers and memories recovered in therapy.
Skeptics say false memories also have another victim: the accuser.
”The therapists who are doing this are a new kind of sexual predator,” said Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. “Without ever touching their victim, they move them as close as you can possibly get to experience rape and brutalization. . . . And they get paid by the hour for doing it.”
Why would someone believe in events that never happened? Carlson says she was suicidal and vulnerable and trusted her therapist. She said Diane Bay Humenansky required her to watch films and read books about abuse, and subsequent nightmares were interpreted as factual memories.
”My imagination and my dreams were reality, and if I doubted it, I was in denial,” Carlson said.
Humenansky, who faces at least three similar lawsuits in St. Paul, denies the allegations.
Carlson also says becoming a victim had benefits.
”It’s support you’ve never received in your entire life,” she said. “Everyone’s hugging and warm and you’re in these groups. . . . You create a new family. It really gives you a sense of belonging.”
Wendy Kaminer, author of “I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional” and a critic of various forms of the “recovery” movement, agrees.
”There is no regard for truth in all of this,” Kaminer said. “Instead of a regard for truth, we have a regard for feelings.”
Experts do not agree on the truth of repressed memories or if they even exist, but they do agree that human memory is not like a video cassette player, faithfully replaying the same scenes. Some researchers have successfully planted false memories.
More lawsuits over delayed memories are becoming possible as states extend statutes of limitations. In one Minnesota case, a 90-year-old man faces a lawsuit over allegations half a century old, after his 55-year-old daughter recovered alleged abuse memories in therapy.
”If this keeps up, nobody’s going to believe anybody anymore,” said Hollida Wakefield, a psychologist at the Institute for Psychological Therapies in Northfield who is skeptical of memory repression.
For two years, Elizabeth Carlson believed that she had been abused; she only came to realize that it wasn’t true when she cut back on her medication. One small consolation is that she never formally confronted her parents and accused them of crimes they didn’t commit.
”My family would have been horribly devastated,” she said. “I don’t know how I could ever repair the damage I had caused had I done that.”
Caption: PHOTO: “The books all say, ‘Don’t doubt.’ I’m saying, ‘If you do have thoughts that flash into your head, challenge them.’ ” (COUNSELING) Elizabeth Carlson Associated Press
Record Number: 9401050058
Copyright (c) 1994 The Wichita Eagle