Creating "Memories" of Sexual Abuse
ABSTRACT: An analysis of a case of alleged recovered memories of
sexual abuse is presented to illustrate how such mental images can be
created in therapy. The memories, although believed by the woman to be
of actual events, were the result of suggestions from both lay persons
While, just a few years ago, students of child sexual abuse
accusations thought they had seen every imaginable brand of
irresponsibility on the part of certain mental health professionals,
something new and equally terrible has emerged. To the growing number of
children trained to say and believe things which never happened is now
added a growing number of adults, usually women, being trained to say
and believe that they have suddenly "unblocked" memories of
childhood sexual abuse.
Just like allegations coming from children, concern about biased and
unprofessional methods of eliciting statements from adults should in no
way cast doubt on the reality of sexual abuse. There are countless
numbers of adults who were molested as children, who did not speak of
it, but who now may reveal their experiences as part of our society's
belated recognition of such abuse. But to acknowledge the reality of
sexual abuse, and the reality of the silence kept by some of the
victims, does nothing to mitigate the harm being done by those
therapists who are convincing patients that even if sexual abuse is not
remembered, it probably happened anyway.
In this article, I will illustrate the process by which a young
woman, moderately depressed and unsure of her life goals, but in no way
out of touch with reality (psychotic), came to make allegations which
were so bizarre that they might easily be thought to be the product of
major mental disorder. In such cases, I have repeatedly seen the falsely
accused and their closest family and friends make this assumption.
case will show, as have the others I have studied, that the source is
not a disorder in the patient, but a "disorder" in the
therapist. The problem is the irresponsible adoption by some therapists
of a new fad which will be clarified below.
Here, then, is a report I submitted to the Court hearing the civil
lawsuit filed by this woman against her cousin. All names and
identifying information have been changed.
Judge John Q. Smith
Superior Court, All American County
The following report concerns the suit between Susan Q. Smith and
John V. Public. The opinions expressed are based on a study of the
Amended List of Documents of the Plaintiff, dated April 6, 1992,
Additional Documents (such as police records and Children's Services
Records), Examination for Discovery transcripts of Mrs. Smith and Mr.
Public, and my examination of Mrs. Smith on May 4, 1992, which lasted
somewhat over three hours. I have also studied several videotapes
pertinent to the case, enumerated below.
Based upon all this information, as well my prior professional
experience, it is my opinion that the alleged "memories" of
Mrs. Smith, relating a variety of sexual and abusive acts perpetrated
upon her by Mr. Public and others, are not memories at all. They are,
instead, mental images which, however sincerely felt by her to be
memories of past events, are nonetheless the result of a series of
suggestions from both lay persons and professionals.
That Mrs. Smith has succumbed to these influences in no way implies
that she suffers from any mental disorder. By her own account, she has
had problems of low self-esteem, depression, and bulimia in her past.
has, however, never suffered and does not now suffer a mental disorder
which would imply a loss of contact with reality. If the reliability of
her claims are to be best evaluated by the Court, it should be
understood that there is another way that a person may say things that
may not be true, yet be entirely sincere.
Suggestibility is something we all share as part of our being human,
with some persons obviously being more suggestible than others. In this
case, Mrs. Smith has been involved with individuals and groups, over a
period of years, the end result of which has been to promote a process
of accepting the false idea that whatever mental image is conjured up,
especially if part of "therapy," is necessarily a valid
retrieval of past experience, i.e. a "memory."
Let me now document the evidence which has led me to the above
1. Mrs. Smith's suspicions about John Public and his daughter
From several sources, such as her deposition, my interview, and
investigative interviews, it seems clear that Mrs. Smith suspected for
several years that her cousin John Public was engaging in sexual
behavior with his daughter Alice. When asked for examples which led to
these suspicions, she mentioned alleged comments from him that "a
child's hands" felt so good. She also mentioned that no other
adults seemed to be concerned about such comments.
Seeing Mr. Public and Alice (approximately eight years old at the
time) lying in bed together, in their underwear, reinforced her
suspicion, as did the alleged comment from Mr. Public to Mr. Smith (not
heard by Mrs. Smith), that his (Smith's) daughter would make him horny.
Mrs. Smith also noted that, until age 18 months, her own daughter would
cry if Mr. Public attempted to pick her up or get close to her, and Mrs.
Smith noted to herself, "She's a smart child." (It should be
noted that such behavior in infants of this age is perfectly normal.)
Mrs. Smith told me that she had informed family members on several
occasions of her suspicions, but no one else apparently shared her
opinions, or felt anything needed to be reported.
The 1986 video of a family Halloween party was the event that
convinced Mrs. Smith she should report her suspicions. It is quite
important that the Court view this video, in order to judge for itself
whether the material could reasonably lead a person to believe something
untoward was taking place. My own opinion is there was nothing happening
that was unusual or abnormal. It was Alice who first struck a somewhat
playful and seductive pose, and such displays are hardly abnormal for a
teenage girl. Police investigators likewise saw nothing untoward on this
The question raised, then, is whether Mrs. Smith had for her own
personal reasons, upon which I will not attempt to speculate, developed
an obsession about Mr. Public and his daughter, one which was leading
her (Smith) to overinterpret ordinary behaviors.
It is not surprising, then, that when the report was investigated by
Children's Services, no evidence of abuse was uncovered. Mrs. Smith
tells me, however, that she was not reassured, and only felt that she
had fulfilled an obligation to report something.
2. Early Influences promoting in Mrs. Smith a belief that prior
sexual abuse might have occurred but not be remembered.
From numerous sources (deposition, my interview, journals, therapy
records), it is clear that Mrs. Smith was strongly influenced by a
statement she says Dr. Owen Olson made to her regarding bulimia, a
problem Mrs. Smith had suffered from to one degree or another since early
Mrs. Smith states that Dr. Olson told her, sometime in early 1987
(the records indicate this was in December 1986), that "one hundred
percent of my patients with bulimia have later found out that they were
sexual abuse victims." Whether these words were actually spoken by
Dr. Olson, or instead interpreted this way by Mrs. Smith, I of course do
not know. But in either case, the words Mrs. Smith took away with her
are extremely important, because the words "found out" would
imply that a person could have been sexually abused, not be aware of it,
and later recover such an awareness. I will later on be discussing the
lack of evidence for, and major evidence against, any such phenomenon
Mrs. Smith told me she was seriously affected by this, experiencing
crying and feelings of fear. She began to wonder if she might have been
sexually abused. When I asked her if she had ever before that time had
such a question, she said that she "had no memories" of any
such abuse. She had, in fact, told Children's Services shortly before,
during the investigation of Alice, that John Public had "never
before abused me ... I was relying on my memory."
At this time, Mrs. Smith was being seen in psychotherapy, first by
Edna Johnson, and then by Dr. Abraham, for what seems to be have been
feelings of anxiety and depression. Sexual abuse was apparently not an
issue in this therapy. Instead, Mrs. Smith states that her self-esteem
was low, and that she was "not functioning" well as a
housewife, even though she felt good about her marriage. Both she and
Dr. Abraham apparently felt she was "a bored housewife."
decided to start her own business, but this never happened because
events leading to the current accusations against John Public
Mrs. Smith explains that she went to an Entrepreneurs Training Camp
in the Fall of 1987, was doing extremely well, but then "sabotaged
myself" by performing poorly despite knowing correct answers on an
examination. She felt, after the camp, that she needed to work on
In addition, she saw an Oprah Winfrey program on the subject of child
abuse. Mrs. Smith told me that she cried as she watched this program,
"for me and not for them ... I wondered at my feelings and where
they were coming from."
Mrs. Smith confirms that it was shortly after seeing this program,
with all of the above background in place, that she called the Women's
Sexual Assault Center (WSAC) on September 3, 1987.
After a telephone intake, she had a face-to-face contact with Joan
Oliver, and told her that "I had concerns, feelings, but no memory
of being sexually assaulted ... I thought it would be better to wait
(for therapy) until I had a memory. They said OK, and put me on a
The records of WSAC generally confirm this account which I received
from Mrs. Smith on May 4, 1992. During the first telephone contact, Mrs.
... strong feelings of abuse as a child came up ... She can't remember
specific things ... her GP told her most bulimics have been sexually
abused as children...
A second telephone contact, September 16, include
... occluded memories. Sister was abused by neighborhood man as a
child. Susan gets very re-triggered by this and by shows about child
abuse. Her doctor told her that close to 100% of bulimics have been
sexually abused. This really brought up a lot of feelings and some
images but not really a memory."
Yet another important event happened around Christmas 1987, before
Mrs. Smith had entered the treatments (with Mary Brown and Veronica
Erickson) where the mental images alleged to be "memories"
started. This was something I had not discovered from any written
materials, and learned about for the first time from Mrs. Smith on May
Mrs. Smith had a friend, Valerie White, who told her about her
treatments for back problems. Biofeedback was used at the pain and
stress clinic she attended, and Ms. White told Mrs. Smith that she had
started to remember being abused. When I asked Mrs. Smith how she
reacted to this, she said, "I felt ... that if she was in therapy,
remembering, maybe I should start as well. I had no memory, but if she
was in therapy ..."
To summarize, then, the suggestive influences to this point: Mrs.
Smith is still not reassured that Alice is not being abused by John
Public; Dr. Olson either says or Mrs. Smith believes she says that in
her experience all bulimics are sexual abuse victims; finally, after she
decides she shouldn't go into therapy "until she has a memory"
of sexual abuse, a friend tells her "the remembering" can
wait, and Mrs. Smith concludes she should give it a try.
It is my opinion, based on the above material, that Mrs. Smith was at
this point being victimized by lay persons and professionals who were
representing to her that sexual abuse might not be remembered, when in
truth there is no evidence to support such a claim. While Mrs. Smith may
have had her own personal problems and/or motivations for claiming abuse
at the hands of Mr. Public (something I will not speculate upon) she was
being profoundly influenced by unsound information. It is my opinion
that this has persisted to this day.
3. Suggestive and Unprofessional Therapy Creates the
In March 1988, Mrs. Smith started seeing Mary Brown for individual
psychotherapy, and also had interviews with Veronica Erickson, a student
who was writing a thesis on "Recovering Memories of Childhood
Sexual Abuse." On March 9, 1988, Ms. Erickson commented that Mrs.
Smith had done
... a lot of great body work. Worked on her anger, hurt about being
sexually abused. Has a few memories about it and wants more.
On March 28, the WSAC records show that the
"memory recovery process" was getting into high gear: ...
had lots of memories come to her which she feels good about; 2
"rapes," 9 sodomies, and 2 oral sex (she has remembered both
rapes and 1 sodomy and oral sex), 8 sodomies and 1 oral sex to go.
Further WSAC records of Ms. Erickson show just as clearly that she
has lost all professional objectivity. Her April 5, 1988 note simply
says "FUCK!", presumably her reaction to hearing Mrs. Smith
verbalizing more and more outrageous claims about what Mr. Public did to
her. The June 14, 1988 note gives an insight as to the position Ms.
Erickson was taking with regard to whether Mrs. Smith's increasingly
severe claims should be automatically assumed to be accurate:
... trying to remember a memory that was just beginning to flash
really scared that this memory is made up ... I told her I believed
If there is any doubt about the stance being adopted by Ms. Erickson,
i.e. that whatever Mrs. Smith "recovers" from week to week is
a reliable statement about past events, a reading of her Ph.D. thesis
makes it abundantly clear that it was simply a given for her and the
selected sources she relies on, that the patient's claims must be taken
a face value. She writes, for example:
Validation, feeling believed, was seen as essential for incest
survivors struggling to reconcile their memories.
Nowhere in the thesis is mention made of any concern that false
claims may arise in therapy specifically aimed at such
"uncovering." Next, she speaks of
... the ability of counselor ... to facilitate the survivor's recall
of the abuse ... which of course assumes that abuse has taken place.
Just how broadly based is the source of these allegedly reliable
"memories," is indicated by her quoting the book, The Courage
to Heal, which has been influential in promoting the very ideas at the
center of this case:
"Occluded" memories are vague flashbacks, triggered by
touches, smells, sounds, body memories, bodily sensations as
"warning signs." Some women just intuitively knew that they
had been sexually abused and were struggling to trust their intuition.
It is also clear that the proper role for the therapist, according to
Ms. Erickson, is not only to accept all images as "memories,"
but to actively encourage this process. She writes of her method which
... serves to continually promote an atmosphere in which the
researcher is spontaneously both receptive and actively stimulating
the recollection of the participant ... The participants and
researcher ... create the world within which this study is
Ms. Erickson says of "Victoria" (pseudonym for Mrs. Smith),
She thought about who might have abused her and when she said his
name, she knew who the offender was but she still had no memories as
proof (p. 56 of Erickson thesis).
Let me now turn to her other therapist, Mary Brown. Ms. Brown in her
intake notes of March 1, 1988 refers to Mrs. Smith having
... flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse experiences, she believes
by this same cousin.
Ms. Brown's treatment plan was to "assist Susan express and
release the emotions associated with the sexual abuse experience."
This is important, because it shows that Ms. Brown, from the beginning,
assumed the truth of the allegations.
It wasn't too long after this, the night of March 12/13, that Mrs.
Smith's calendar indicates she had a "nightmare," and her
"first memories." When I asked Mrs. Smith about this, she said
... the nightmare which triggered the memory ... In the nightmare, the
neighbor had shot her husband in the chest. Her cleaning up his blood,
I recalled John blotting up my blood after raping me.
There are, of course, no reputable data which would indicate that a
patient or therapist can use dream material to reliably "recover
memories" of real events. Ms. Brown, however, seems to have utter
confidence in the process, for she wrote to the police on August 3,
The treatment methods I use enable clients to express and release
the very deepest feelings that may have been stifled ... It is
precisely because the emotional intensity of sexual abuse in childhood
is greater than what most children can integrate that these
experiences are quickly lost to memory. The ensuing forgetting and
denial are the mind's way of protecting the individual from total
disruption of their cognitive functioning. This was particularly true
of survivors of sexual abuse whose experiences occurred more than ten
years ago. The reason for this is that there was not the social
awareness nor the professional expertise for dealing with these
problems at that time. Children instinctively know when the adults
around them are going to be able to help them. When they find
themselves in situations where they may either be disbelieved ... this
forgetting and denial comes into play even more strongly ...
Memories tend to return in fragments and to be unclear or
non-specific in the beginning ... the blocks in the way of memory are
gradually removed ... This is precisely what occurred ... with Susan
Smith. It is my clinical judgment that Susan had reached a point in
her healing process when the memories that were returning were
completely reliable ... She was unprepared to report until she herself
was certain and until she received validation from me that I was in
agreement that the memories could be trusted ...
That Ms. Brown was not only accepting all statements as real events,
but actively encouraging them, is seen by the following passage from the
Susan herself questioned any inconsistency ... It took some
education on my part for her to ... understand the whole process of how
it is that the recall process works ...
Ms. Brown was even willing to assure the police that the other
persons that Mrs. Smith was gradually naming as victims during that
Spring and Summer of 1988 would also need "help" in
It is highly likely that most or all of the children that Susan
remembers ... will be unable to remember these experiences. This does
not mean they did not occur any more than Susan's former amnesia means
that these events had not happened to her. One of these (youngsters)
may he precipitated to remember and recapture the experiences through
a process similar to what occurred for Susan."
There is, of course, absolutely no evidence that this whole process
has anything to do with memory, or a recall of past events. The
professionals who advocate these ideas are those making up a small,
fringe group who hold themselves out as "specialists in treating
sexual abuse," but who (as this case shows) seem to assume that it
is permissible to pass off wild theories, like the ones above, to both
patients, families, and investigative agencies.
Most important, however, is that outsiders evaluate the possible
impact of such ideas on persons like Mrs. Smith. The evidence is clear
that she has raised doubts from time to time, but each time, these
"specialists" have told her that her mental images must
represent real events. In this sense, I believe the professionals
(Brown, Erickson, and others to be mentioned) are most responsible for
creating the unreliable information in this case.
Not only do the ideas promoted by Brown and Erickson hold great
potential to contaminate information coming from such counseling, but
the techniques used with Mrs. Smith would likely heighten this
possibility. Mrs. Smith described pounding pillows and being encouraged
to express her anger in sessions with Ms. Erickson, and in individual
and group sessions with Ms. Brown, she described exercises in which she
was using hyperventilation or bending from the waist. The many group
sessions she has attended, focusing on "recovery from sexual
abuse," have a potentially profound influence on the participants.
In addition, Ms. Brown had a technique, which she called the
"denial game," that was used when Mrs. Smith expressed caution
about whether her mental images were reliable. This process had the
intended effect of causing Mrs. Smith to once more assume that whatever
she could think of had actually happpened.
The police investigation was dropped for lack of evidence, for lack
of corroboration from any of the many alleged victims named by Mrs.
Smith, and because an outside consultant told the police that the impact
of the therapy might be contaminating the information (see p. 160 of
Mrs. Smith's statements to police include "trying to see"
alleged events, having
a flash ...( a) visual memory of a spirit part of me coming out of
me via my mouth and sitting on a head board. I now understand this to
be dissociation. (p. 200 of police investigation)
The police, quite understandably, wondered whether this might be a
sign of major mental disorder, like a psychosis. Instead, such
statements reflect not that Mrs. Smith was suffering a major mental
disorder, but simply that she was absorbing unsupported ideas from her
therapists. I have studied the process by which some mental health
professionals are passing these ideas to patients, via articles,
speeches, and in therapy sessions. Many, if not most, patients, will
accept these ideas as accepted scientific information, coming as they do
from a professional therapist.
Just how much Mrs. Smith had come to believe in this process, already
by April, 1988, is seen by her telling the police on April 20, 1988 that
These are not complete memories at this point but there are bits
and pieces of which I would like to tell you now and when I have the
complete memory back I will talk to you again .... I would like to add
that I expect to have further recall of incidents as I have just begun
to have recall in the last five weeks or so (p. 206 of police
4. The Growth of the Allegations
The process described above will often lead to a virtual flood of
allegations which grow and grow. Particularly if there are emotional
rewards for producing more claims, the sky is the limit. In this case,
it ultimately led to claims of ritual abuse, animal killings, gang rape,
multiple personalities, etc. which Mrs. Smith now seems to disavow but
which she at the time was claiming as legitimate memory. A brief review
of these developments offers important perspective on the unreliable
nature of this entire process.
Dr. Wagner saw Mrs. Smith from May 20, 1988 to January 27, 1989.
used a method Mrs. Smith describes as "regression," and which
she now does not trust. She feels that some of the things she said as a
result of these methods may not have happened.
For example, Dr. Wagner's notes of November 24, 1988 speak of
"... memory of John and 'Joe.' Tying her up raping her.
came in, Evan and [unreadable]." Mrs. Smith says she doesn't recall
saying this to Dr. Wagner, doesn't believe she said it to him, believes
his records are incorrect, and believes she talked about
Dr. Wagner, while nowhere in his records expressing any doubt about
the reality of these statements, did mention at the outset (June 3,
1988) that he thought Mrs. Smith was: "I suspect getting a lot of
mileage out of sexual abuse. Attention and support from home she never
got from mom and dad?"
When I questioned Mrs. Smith about other examples of statements drawn
from the notes of the many therapists she saw in the coming months, I
noted an interesting pattern. Whenever a statement in therapy records
referred to events which she now says may not have happened, like seeing
a boy with slits for eyes and no face, she says that she cannot recall
saying any of this. She repeatedly said it was only her study of the
therapy records which allows her to remember what she might have said in
However, when I asked her about a note from Morton Hunt's evaluation
of January 15, 1991, she was quite clear that she did not say the
following "... Then had nightmare. Chose John. Just knew it was him
(reviewed possible men)."
Such selective "memory" merely reinforces my opinion that
these multiple therapy contacts, of the nature described, makes a
mockery of the idea that claims growing out of the sessions, or growing
out of the mental images of a patient between such sessions, are
The fact that Mrs. Smith was in much more therapy than I have yet
summarized, only deepens the dilemmas. She was in group therapy with Ms.
Summers, for 32 sessions, from March 21, 1989 to December 1, 1989, and
Ms. Summers, who is another of those who specialize in "working
mainly with women recovering from childhood sexual abuse," wrote in
her records that "Susan's abuse was the most cruel and degrading I
Once again, unquestioning acceptance seems to be the sina qua non of
many of the therapists in this case. Sadly, such an attitude may be
quite destructive to patients. A review of her journals, which I will
highlight, shows that (as Dr. Wagner had indicated) Mrs. Smith was
getting a lot of positive feedback from more and more
"memories." A patient might feel good at the time of such
feedback, but the encouragement of this process does not bode well for
the long-term welfare of such patients.
May 24, 1988 "Another memory came back arms tied, Sam passed a
bowel movement into my mouth ... I know there are things I can't even
imagine yet that they did to me. I know I still have a lot of memories
to go ... I know I'll have the strength to handle them ... I'm on my way
to a happy successful life ... I love my strength.
May 26, 1988 This morning at the Mom's Group ... another memory came
back. Sam lay on my face with his penis in my mouth, my nose blocked,
suffocated by his belly then he urinated in my mouth ... I called WSAC.
The more I discover about what I've been through the more I wonder
how I ever survived ... You're so strong Susan, so wonderful. You're
capable of whatever you believe in. You're OK, Susan Smith.
strong, you're a survivor, and a winner, you're going straight to the
top, head of the class. You're OK, you're a winner I'm really truly
beginning to like myself and I really like that all these years I hated
May 27 I begin my workshop with my therapist. (Mary Brown)
May 28 ... we did rapid breathing ... I went to my sexual
abuse ... my body was twitching and squirming just as if it were tied up by the
hands ... I started getting these vague recollections of this blond
male being Warren and some occurrence happening ... I wasn't ready to
look at it until I could intellectually figure out how this could be
May 31 Describes Dave1
meeting with Smith "He explained to him that these memories had
been undisturbed for twenty years and had not been distorted ... and
that I was not making it up ... I knew Dave was not ready to look at
his abuse ... at WSAC I went into denial mode ... Veronica played the
denial game with me just to show me that I was crazy to believe I was
making this up.
June 14, 1988 Saw Veronica, talked about Yellowstone incident with
Gretchen involved, how I was blocking everything because I had no
proof John was in Yellowstone and the fact that Gretchen must have
repressed and that she would probably deny remembering such an
incident ... so she had me "hang" and it took a much longer
time for the feelings to come, but they did, I cried, pound pillows,
yelled, and got back more memories ... so much doesn't make sense.
is everyone else?
Nov. 9, l988 What I learned in therapy today: When I was abused it
happened to my body. It happened to a part of me that I dissociated
from. I have separated from and disowned the part of me that it
happened to ... I am ashamed of my body ... so I abuse it.
April 18, 1989 I love myself and that's something I couldn't have
said a year ago. I've come a long way ... Signed Terrific Susan.
May ?, 1989 ... I let my little girls talk ... etc.
June 8, 1989 attended Conference on Child Sexual Abuse ... I learned
a lot ... talked to Gretchen two weeks ago. More about her "other
personalities" ... Memories, memories. Where are they.
I want to
remember all the mean sadistic things John did to me.
July 5, 1989 I know I am going to go on and achieve great things in
my life ... speak out against abuse of children, especially sexual abuse.
I know I'm strong, a survivor, and a successeder. (sic)
Oct. 16, 1989 I got back memories of what happened after John gave
my body to the two "tough men" in exchange for drugs.
October 29, 1989 I don't think this can happily, successfully end
for me unless I have power over him.
Nov. 29, l989 Cousin Joe called and told me Warren had memories of
being sexually assaulted by John. The memories are just
beginning ... I told Warren ... I was really proud of him.
Nov. 27, l990 ... I don't want anymore memories!!! ... I called WSAC this
afternoon and bits of memories came up. One was John beside me, and
about 5 men, in black robes, or gowns full length with hoods on their
heads ... These men had sword like daggers in their hands ... a memory
of John slitting the throat of a cat with a knife ... telling us that
this is what would happen to us if we ever told about him.
Dec. 16, 1990 I think I might have multiple personalities.
something I've wondered about before, but believed you only developed
multiples if you were severely abused before age 8 ... My first day
with Veronica there was this other part of me talking. She named
herself Julie ... it was really weird cause I knew what was happening
I'm going to get to the other side of this new and improved.
But in the
mean time, I'm a nuttsy basketcase.
Dec. 25, 1990 I started back in therapy mid-December, I could no
longer contain the memories within me ... I want to write about and
keep track of my memories. I've had a feeling for several months now
that there might have been ritual abuse. When I started having flashes
of white candles, lots of them, burning, I thought well, this is
probably just an image I've seen on TV ... My 2nd day in therapy (3rd
time I'd seen June) I had this memory a faceless boy ... he had no nose
and only slits for eyes ... They told us if we didn't behave, or if we
ever told they would burn our faces with an iron ... They told the
girls they use their genitals as eyes, then when they grow older
they'd have furry, hairy eyes and everyone would laugh.
Toward the end of our meeting, I asked Mrs. Smith how she
distinguished between the many allegations which she insists took place,
and the many allegations which she made but now says she cannot remember
saying and isn't sure they are real. The gist of her answer (the tape is
of course available) was that "memories" which were like a
"videotape," where a picture is complete, from start to
finish, and which occurred to her sometimes in therapy but often by
herself, are reliable. Brief images, or "flashes," which are
incomplete, and which were often in response to therapeutic techniques
she now is critical of, like those of June Schreiber and others, she
I find this distinction, which I must assume to be sincere on Mrs.
Smith's part, to be utterly unreliable. First, the therapy from the
beginning has been manipulative, even though I have no doubt that all
the therapists were sincere in wanting to help. They all, nonetheless,
adopted the position that "the more memory the better."
While this might be interpreted to mean that this is standard
practice in the therapeutic community, since so many therapists in this
case acted in this manner, it is instead an artifact which resulted when
Mrs. Smith sought out or was referred to a selected group of therapists
who "specialize in recovery from sexual abuse." Amongst this
group, whose work and education I have studied intensively, it is common
practice to assume abuse occurs if anyone claims it has, common practice
to encourage as many "memories" as possible, common practice
to encourage anger and "empowerment," and common practice to
accept all allegations, however unlikely, as being real.
All this is terribly unscientific, without general agreement from the
mental health community, and in my view highly destructive to many
patients. Perhaps most important here, in the context of litigation, is
the fact that these techniques absolutely fly in the face of reliable
I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is for the Court,
in studying this case and deciding what is reliable and what is not, to
understand that if commonsense leads to one conclusion about where the
truth lies, the use of psychiatric labels and esoteric explanations
should not cause the Court to abandon what the facts otherwise seem to
As of this writing, the Court has yet to render a verdict. But
whatever is decided in this case, it should be clear that our society is
about to experience yet another wave of unreliable sexual abuse
allegations. Once again, it is the promulgation of faulty ideas by a
small segment of the mental health community (see for example Bass &
Davis, 1988; Blume, 1990; Briere & Conte, in press; Cozolino, 1989;
Maltz, 1990; Herman & Schatzow, 1987; Summit, 1987; Young, Sachs,
Braun, & Watkins, 1991), coupled with the apathy of the bulk of the
mental health community, which promises to create a new form of abuse of
patients, families, and the falsely accused. The moral and economic
costs are incalculable, and the promotion of pseudoscientific ideas
which confuse memory with mental imagery is already confusing the
Fortunately, clearer heads are also in evidence (see Ganaway, 1991;
Lanning, 1989 & 1992; Mulhern, 1991a, 1991b, 1991c; Nathan, 1989,
1990, 1991; Passantino, Passantino, & Trott, 1989; Price, 1992;
Putnam, 1991; Wakefield & Underwager, 1992 and undated). Given our
society's tendency to become infatuated with all manner of fads, it
should be obvious that this latest development in the child sexual abuse
circus is not going to go away quickly or easily. It will take insight
and perseverance to counteract the tendency of the media and most lay
persons to uncritically accept the "blocked memory" claims now
emerging with increasing regularity. If our society is serious about
responding to the reality of childhood sexual abuse, a critical
ingredient is the avoidance of irresponsible empire-building by some
mental health professionals who have abandoned both science and reason.
Bass, E., & Davis, L. (1988). The Courage to Heal
()(). New York,
Blume, E. (1990). Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its
Aftereffects in Women ()()(). New York:
J. Wiley & Sons.
Briere, J., & Conte, J. (in press). Self reported amnesia for
abuse in adults molested as children. Journal of Traumatic
Cozolino, L. (1989). The ritual abuse of children: Implications for
clinical practice and research, The
Journal of Sex Research(1), 131-138.
Ganaway, G. K. (1991, August 19). Alternate hypotheses regarding satanic ritual abuse memories. Presented at the 99th Annual
Convention of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco.
Herman, J. L., & Schatzow, E. (1987). Recovery and verification
of memories of childhood sexual trauma. Psychoanalytic Psychology,
Lanning, K. V. (1989, October). Satanic, occult, ritualistic crime: A
Law enforcement perspective. National Center for the Analysis of Violent
Crime, FBI Academy, Quantico, VA.
Lanning, K. V. (1992). Investigator's guide to allegations of "Ritual"
child abuse. National Center for the Analysis of Violent
Crime: Quantico, VA.
Maltz, W. (1990, December). Adult survivors of incest: How to help
them overcome the trauma. Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, 42-47.
Mulhern, S. (1991a). Ritual abuse: Defining a syndrome v.
a belief. Unpublished manuscript.
Mulhern, S. (1991b). [Letter to the Editor].
Child Abuse & Neglect, 15, 609-610.
Mulhern, S. (1991c). Satanism and psychotherapy: A rumor in search of
an inquisition. In J. T. Richardson, J. Best, & D. G. Bromley (Eds.),
The Satanism Scare ()()
(pp.145-172). New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Nathan, D. (1989, June 21). The Devil and Mr. Mattox, Texas
Observer, pp. 10-13.
Nathan, D. (1991). Satanism and child molestation: Constructing the
ritual abuse scare. In J. T. Richardson, J. Best, & D. G. Bromley
(Eds.), The Satanism scare ()()
(pp.75-94). New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Nathan, D., (1990, June 20). The ritual sex abuse hoax, Village
Passantino, G., Passantino, B., & Trott, J. (1989) Satan's
sideshow. Cornerstone, 18(90), 23-28.
Price, L. (1992, April 20). Presentation at the Midwest Regional False Memory Syndrome Foundation
Meeting. Benton Harbor, Michigan.
Putnam, F. (1991). The satanic ritual abuse controversy.
Child Abuse & Neglect, 15, 175-179.
Summit, R., (1987, July). Declaration of Roland Summit, MD, Regarding
People v. Dill.
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1992, June 20). Recovered memories of alleged sexual abuse: Lawsuits against
Presentation at 4th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Society, San Diego, CA. (Also,
Behavioral Sciences &
the Law, in
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (undated). Magic. mischief, and
memories: Remembering repressed abuse. Unpublished manuscript. (Also see
Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 1991,
Vol. 3, No. 3.)
Young, W. C., Sachs, R. G., Braun, B. G., & Watkins, R. (1991).
Patients reporting ritual abuse in childhood: A clinical syndrome of 37 cases.
Child Abuse & Neglect, 15, 181-189.
Coleman is a psychiatrist at 1889 Yosemite Road, Berkeley,
California, 94707. [Back]
cousin of Mrs. Smith, and one of the other alleged victims, non
of whom had any memories of abuse. [Back]