Oral History Interviews of Therapists, Survivors, the Accused, and Retractors. Also available in print in The Repressed Memory Epidemic: How It Happened and What We Need to Learn from It (Springer, 2017). A Note on the Interviews I conducted the interviews that follow throughout the United States, Canada and England from 1992 to 1995, in person or by telephone. I found subjects through numerous means -- by contacting organizations such as Survivors of Incest Anonymous, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, or the British False Memory Society, by reading newspapers and watching television, by browsing through yellow pages in telephone books, and, quite often, by word-of-mouth, referral, or pure serendipity. Because the repressed-memory phenomenon has affected so many people, it was not difficult to find a cross-section of stories.
I told people that I was writing a book about the repressed memory debate and that I was conducting interviews with those on all sides of the issue. In every case except one, I sent the transcript to each interview subject for approval, change, or amendment. (In the single exception to that rule, the massage therapist specifically assured me that he did not need to see the interview.) I explained that I would use fictitious names unless they preferred using their real names, and that the interviews would be edited, but that they would feature verbatim voices and opinions. Therefore, unless otherwise noted, pseudonyms have been used throughout these oral history transcripts, and place names have usually been altered.
To remove my questions from the transcripts, I sometimes had to paraphrase a sentence. For example, I might have asked, “How did you feel about your parents before your memories came back?” In the printed interview, that becomes, “How did I feel about my parents before I recovered my memories? Well, I knew I never felt loved ...” Aside from such minor adjustments, all words here were spoken by the subjects. I cut extraneous background information, using it to write the italicized introductions. Since most conversations jumped from one idea or time reference to another, I also rearranged portions of the interviews to promote a smooth flow. These are standard journalistic techniques pioneered largely by Studs Terkel, whom I considered a mentor. –Mark Pendergrast
Chapter 1a: The Therapists
We are especially prone to make mistakes when dealing with a domain in which we are expert. Knowing a lot about the self and a little about the other person is a recipe for a radical misreading of personality . . . . This means that an expert is not open-minded about himself or about other people, and is less open-minded as the information available declines in quality.
—Jeremy Campbell, The Improbable Machine1
Interviews in this chapter:
Sam Holden, Christian counselor
Peter Jones, British physician/hypnotherapist
Janet Griffin, M.S.W.
Horace Stone, minister/counselor
Leslie Watkins, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Delia Wadsworth, British consultant psychiatrist
Charlotte Halpern, psychiatrist
Jason Ransom, body worker
Hamish Pitceathly, British primary cause analyst
Katherine Hylander, past-life hypnotherapist
Sally Bixby, psychotherapist
Linda Ross, retractor therapist I conducted interviews in the early 1990s with therapists, “Survivors” who had only recently unearthed repressed memories of abuse, accused parents, and retractors who once believed in repressed memories but had realized that they weren’t true. In the next four chapters, you will hear, in their own words, what they told me.
If I had met the following therapists at a party and the subject of repressed memories had never come up, I would have thought most them were interesting, vital, caring people. And, in their own ways, they were. Yet all of them, except Sally Bixby and (now) Linda Ross, were busily helping their clients unearth memories, most of which I believe were illusory. They repeated the same clichés that we've already encountered, speaking with great assurance about repression, dissociation, inner children, body memories, and intergenerational abuse. They explained how they helped their patients overcome the inevitable denial following their returned memories. They spoke soothingly of safety and healing, while promoting what appeared to be mental tortures.
The voices represented here were by no means unusual or extreme. I conducted many more interviews than those you will read here, some far more outrageous. These therapists were representative of those whose specialty was repressed-memory extraction. They attended the same continuing-education conferences, read the same books, consulted with one another, and developed their own pet variations and theories. The majority of American therapists still believe in the reality of repressed memories, as several surveys have demonstrated. A sizeable minority—perhaps 25 percent—specialized in incest memory retrieval in the early 1990s.2 With few exceptions, those who doubted the validity of memory extraction techniques kept their opinions to themselves. Indeed, perhaps the most disturbing voice in this chapter belongs to Sally Bixby, who knew exactly what her colleagues were doing but was afraid to speak out. “I'd be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail,” she told me. “If you can tell me how to make a living afterwards, I'll be glad to go on the record.”
Included here are a psychiatrist and Ph.D. psychologist, as well as those with master’s degrees in counseling and social work. There are also a minister, a body worker (massage therapist), and a minimally trained past-life hypnotherapist. Generally speaking, one would expect that the less formal education, and the more “far-out” the approach, the greater the danger of misdiagnosis. To a very limited degree, this may be true.
As a group, psychiatrists, indoctrinated in the much-maligned “medical model,” appeared to be the least eager to find hidden memories. As we will hear from a few retractors in Chapter 4a, some psychiatrists literally saved their lives. On the other hand, because they could prescribe medicine and sign off on insurance forms, these psychiatrists often headed large mental health clinics, where they sometimes lost touch with therapy administered by the social workers working under their nominal supervision. In addition, many psychiatrists were directly implicated in this disaster, as the interview with Charlotte Halpern indicates. Indeed, because MPD was considered a more exotic “disease,” it appealed to those with medical training.
Doctoral-level clinical psychologists tended to be much worse, in large part because their training had only marginally stressed scientific research. Rather, they were encouraged to exercise their “clinical intuition” to discover the subtle causes of their clients' symptoms. Steeped in neo-Freudian dogma, they were primed to uncover repressed memories.
The most zealous memory extractors, however, appeared to be those with master’s degrees or less. I interviewed a terrifying young man, for instance, who possessed only a bachelor's degree and a summer's experience at a recovery movement retreat center. He used automatic writing, visualization, and body work to help 70 percent of his clients find memories of abuse. His command of the jargon was in no way inferior to that of the Ph.D.s. “I'm very careful not to lead my patients even when I know unequivocally they are secret incest survivors. I don't plant memories. I let them figure it out.” Even Katherine Hylander, the past life tour guide, spouted the familiar rhetoric. So did the older woman I interviewed who “channeled” Krishna and Jesus Christ through automatic writing—which revealed long-forgotten incest, of course. Educational level did not really appear to make a substantial difference in this process. What was vital for successful trauma therapists, regardless of any particular philosophy or approach, was the expectation that their clients would remember abuse (or, in the case of the channeler, that Krishna woud prompt her to write about it).
In the 1990s, more and more clients brought that expectation into therapy with them, as Janet Griffin observed in her interview. They arrived demanding to retrieve memories, already having the feeling that they were molested as children. They had already seen Oprah, already read The Courage to Heal. With such well-primed repressed memory candidates, therapists coulc easily believe that they were not leading clients.
Most of the therapists I interviewed told me that a few of their colleagues were probably eliciting false memories, because they were pushing their patients far too hard. But they themselves never used suggestive or leading techniques, of course. They would tell me this just after revealing in detail how they led clients into such beliefs and then insisted upon their maintaining them.
It is remarkable how many therapists believed in ritual abuse, with its human sacrifice, blood, and multiple sadists. Six of the therapists interviewed here believed (or once believed) that satanic cults were thriving in their particular parts of the country. The “Christian” counselors appeared to be among the worst offenders, which I found particularly distressing. When a parishioner approached her pastor for counseling, she should not have to worry that he might try to convince her that her parents and their friends were monsters.
It has long been recognized that some psychotherapists enter their profession in order to heal their own neuroses, as Sam Holden's story demonstrates. Some trauma therapists were themselves incest victims who brought their own agendas to each session. More frequently, they had recovered their own “repressed memories.”3 I believe it is a mistake, however, to emphasize the therapists-with-their-own- issues aspect of this phenomenon. Those quoted here did indeed have an agenda, but it wasn’t a particularly personal crusade. Rather, it was a dogma learned from books, tapes, fellow therapists, and seminars.4
Nor was it my sense that female therapists elicited memories more frequently than their male peers. While women recovered the majority of the incest memories, both genders participated in promoting the process. (More female therapists helped clients recall repressed memories simply because more women than men were becoming counselors.5
Even though “feminist” therapists were sometimes accused of conducting a warlock hunt against fathers, it is obvious from these interviews that mothers were also on their hit lists—see Leslie Watkins' observations on mothers who try to drown their infants.
I was particularly disturbed by the tendency of most therapists to absolve themselves of any responsibility. Almost all of them asserted that it didn’t matter whether the memories were literally true or not. The memories represented the “internal truth” for the client, and it wasn’t the therapist's job to search out the facts. It didn’t disturb them that their clients nearly went crazy thinking such awful things, or that the “memories” often resulted in shattered families and lawsuits.
I urge readers to attend to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that these therapists encouraged their patients to redefine their pasts—or, as Janet Griffin phrased it, “expand the problem space.” If they always remembered abuse, that isn't enough. They must remember more! Ever vigilant to spot symptoms that might indicate abuse, therapists unwittingly created the very problems they sought to heal. As Leslie Watkins observed, “You start to see things when you realize that they might be there.”
I close this chapter with a hopeful and revealing interview with Linda Ross, a therapist who once led her clients into believing their “repressed memories” and who now realizes what harm she was doing. She provides a wonderful role model for other therapists who have the courage to admit they were wrong, and the compassion and wisdom to help reunite the very families that they once tore asunder.
Sam Holden, Christian Counselor
Sam Holden, a slightly built, soft-spoken man of 35, billed himself as a “Christian counselor,” in part because he served as a fundamentalist minister for ten years, as did his father before him. Holden was remarkably open about his own personal problems and his therapeutic methodology. “I really wished I was a girl,” he told me. “At the age of six, I realized I would never turn into a girl, and it disappointed me. I think it's because I felt so rejected at birth, when my mother's breast milk gave out and she switched me to a bottle.” He received his masters in counseling through an innovative program that allowed minimal classroom time and substantial correspondence through the mail. He practiced in Los Angeles.
In addition to memory retrieval, Holden was involved in a child sex abuse case in which a father, convicted of sodomizing his sons, was sent to prison. The case commenced when the wife went for a counseling session with Sam Holden. When she described her concern about her children's sexual acting out, Holden deduced that the husband was a pedophile and gave her two hours to get a restraining order before he turned the case over to the social service agency. From there, the case escalated, the children were subjected to repeated, coercive interviews, and a case was built. When I first saw John Bradshaw's Homecoming video series, he had a man imagine he was holding a younger version of himself on his lap. He said, “Tell him you'll be there for him,” and the man started crying. He couldn't do it. So I imagined my two-year-old self, and the first thing that flashed into my mind was pushing him onto the floor and kicking him. That was a piece of me I couldn't accept. I didn't like the temper tantrums, the part that was always getting spanked. I went on to heal that part of my life.
Yes, inner child work has helped me a lot. I combine it with faith work as well. I ask people to imagine their Higher Power coming and talking to the child.
I was very confused about sexuality when I hit puberty. Many classmates informed me that I was gay, harassed me on a daily basis, called me a fag or a fairy. Mostly they would imitate me. It hurt a lot. I became very depressed for years. I didn't become suicidal, but I wished I was dead. I spent a lot of time praying.
After I hit puberty, I had fantasies of cross-dressing. I was curious about other males and their sexuality. I had strong homosexual tendencies, which upset me a lot. My parents tell me that they never noticed I was effeminate, but every single classmate noticed it.
I was socially adept in structured situations, was the president of the drama club and debating team and did well in school. But I took part in no sports.
I went to a small fundamentalist college, where I started to date. It made me feel more masculine. The girls I dated liked me, because I wasn't so threatening. I eventually married someone who appreciated not being threatened. No, that's not a great reason to marry someone. When I really got into the recovery process and started to become more masculine, she felt scared. She said she didn't like my voice, it frightened her.
For a long time as an adult, I had exhibitionistic tendencies. I was really captivated by nudity, and I would find some woods where I could be naked. I almost got caught several times. There's an addictive nature to it. I think it had to do with a lot of repressed anger coming out. I was one of the nicest people you'd meet, almost saccharine; some people couldn't stand it.
I was also sexually attracted to boys. I did grooming behavior, trying to get close to them and see them naked. I once went skinny dipping with a group of boys. I had clear boundaries against molesting and didn't act on anything, but it really upset me.
I eventually grew out of my denomination. I don't consider myself a fundamentalist any more. Being a therapist is a lot less stressful than the ministry. When I was a minister, I used to have somatic complaints, pinched nerves, a numb right arm. Besides, I'm more well-respected as a therapist.
I started to deal with sex abuse about eight years ago, when some of my parishioners came to me with their problems. I received my training mostly by reading and talking with other therapists. At first, I used free association and guided imagery, but now I use hypnotic age regression to get at repressed memories. I learned it from the Bradshaw videos. I never called it hypnosis until a few months ago when I described it to other counselors and they said, “Yep, that's hypnotism, all right.” About 80 percent of my current clients have been sexually abused.
I'll describe the hypnotic process. I usually ask a person to uncross their legs, put their hands by their sides, and take a few deep breaths. Then I say, “Imagine walking down a flight of stairs. Remember that as an infant, you practiced holding on and letting go, holding on and letting go, until you knew just when to let go and when to hold on. As a toddler, you practiced running away and coming back, running away and coming back, until you had just enough distance. Those skills will help you in this meditation. If you encounter something scary, you can run upstairs and open your eyes any time; you don't need my permission. When you get to the bottom of the stairs, imagine walking along a corridor with doors on either side. They may be multicolored or all one color. Behind each door is a memory or an age. Find the door that you need to look at today. When you find the door, say 'Aha.' When you are ready, open the door and walk through.”
If they are worried about having been sexually abused, I'll ask, “Do you want to open the door, or look through the window?” That way, it feels safer. “Look around for yourself as a young person. Tell me when you can see yourself. For a few moments, I want you to become that little person, see what they see, hear what they hear, and feel what you feel.” Notice that I shift from saying they to you.
“Now tell me what's going on.” I ask what they are wearing, how old they are, and who's with them, if they don't come up with that on their own. If nothing is happening and they are all alone, I say, “Someone is coming down the hallway and entering the room. Who is it, and what do they do?” Usually, though, as soon as they walk into the room, they are in the place where they were sexually abused.
I can't give you specific case histories, but I'll describe composite semi-hypothetical clients. Let's say Ralph comes into therapy feeling depressed and isolated. He's had sex only a few times, and it was a very anxious experience for him. When we do memory work, he sees himself in a city park near his home. Three men jump on top of him, throw him to the ground, yank his pants down, and anally rape him. He cries, asking them to stop, stop, but they all rape him. In later sessions, he remembers more about this scene, how one man forced him to perform oral sex and then ejaculated on his face.
Ralph might also do memory retrievals at home. I often teach my clients to do this process on their own. He tells me he remembers one of the men who raped him was his private school teacher, who drugged him and took him to an apartment in the city, where he was raped, then given candy and a Coke in the kitchen. Then he was told to perform sex acts in front of a camera with lights. Ralph was eight at the time. All of this was filmed. That's pretty common with many pedophiles. He remembers numbness around the mouth from the drug.
Typically, Ralph might not be sure any of these memories are true. “I believe you,” I tell him. “Everyone questions whether these memories are real.” I used to tell clients that it's normal to need validation, that they're in denial. Now I just tell them that they will know whether the memories are true or not eventually. I tell Ralph, “If they aren't true, it's okay, let's just work on your depression.” I used to tell people it didn't matter if it was true or not, but I've stopped saying that. It does matter, I think. But it's getting away from therapy to try to verify and play detective. That would be like the therapist saying to the client, “I don't trust you.”
I also do some dream work. Many clients dream about the rapes, and sometimes they have flashbacks, body memories. I had a client once whose shoulder popped out of its socket. It was the arm that had been pulled up behind her back during a rape.
I've had multiple personality disorders. Actually, they were more of a simple dissociative disorder, but they have names for different pieces of themselves, and each has a different age. Most can't control who comes out, and people can tell they act differently at different times. Usually, these multiples were severely, sadistically abused by one or both parents, often just the mother. It comes out in age regression work. I sometimes suggest to people that it would be good to cut off from their abusive parents. In their present life, if they can stand up to them, it would be much better than cutting off relations, though.
Many clients remember multiple perpetrators, maybe including their father, uncle, the next-door-neighbor, and a cousin—all separate instances, and not all of them necessarily successful molestation. Why would someone be subjected to so many perpetrators? People can sense when someone is vulnerable. In fact, sometimes when I'm sitting with a client, I will have the urge to beat up on them. Why? They're giving out a message that they expect to be beaten up at every turn.
I do think that preverbal memories come back. Some clients remember back to six months old, when their fathers may have taken them out of their cribs and molested them. One of my clients remembers being dropped on the floor after being molested and dislocating her hip. That memory came back to her at home, in a meditation she did on her own.
Some of my clients were abused as part of satanic ritual abuse. Oh, yes, I'm quite sure satanic cults exist. In fact, there's an active cult that the police know all about near here.
Memories come back only when they are ready to come back. Often, they are triggered when someone's child reaches the same age they were at the time of the abuse. If they aren't prepared to face them, they might find dragons in the hypnotic hallway or a locked gate, so they can't even get to the doors. Those memories are too dangerous to deal with yet. I've tried to push people to get memories, and they won't do it if they're not ready. They just open their eyes and say, “That didn't happen. I just made that up.”
I do sometimes recommend bringing parents into therapy, but I've never done it in a sex abuse case. I encourage clients to confront perpetrators in an assertive manner. We fantasize aggression, but they should just be assertive in reality. An in-person confrontation is best, but a letter is okay. I will help them with the letter, asking them to rewrite it after we go over it, encouraging them to be more specific about the accusations, what they want from the perpetrator, etc. With each person, what they want is different: an apology, commitment for the perpetrator to go to therapy, or money to go to their own therapy.
There's another, more subtle form of abuse called emotional incest. They show the same symptoms as other incest victims, sometimes worse. I believe that all gay people were emotionally incested and show severe symptoms. These cases can involve parents who were either too close or too distant. In my case, I was my Mom's best friend. Also, just looking at your daughter lustfully or barging unannounced into the bathroom is incest.
I agree with The Courage to Heal that if you think you were abused, then you were. People have been told that they can't trust how they feel or trust their memories. You know, “Don't tell me I hit you! I didn't hit you.” Or, “I never promised you we'd go to the store.” So to counterbalance that, they need to hear, “I believe you, I believe you one hundred times over.”
Yes, this sort of therapy is fascinating in a bizarre sort of way. I often worry about whether I'm a voyeur. The answer is yes, in a sense, but as long as I know it, I can do good therapy.
I do worry sometimes about whether these memories are all true. I'm very careful not to use leading or directive techniques. Still, I have to wrestle with my conscience. Am I helping them make this up? But then I think about people like Jeffrey Dahmer, the mass murderer. I know that psychopaths like that exist, and all their victims aren't killed. They grow up. These things do happen. So I just sit and listen.
– • –
Peter Jones, British Physician/Hypnotherapist
Dr. Peter Jones, a Birmingham physician in general practice for over two decades in the U.K., had also become a specialist in hypnosis over the past few years, training with the British Society for Medical and Dental Hypnosis for two weekends, and subsequently taking advanced courses and workshops. He lectured on the subject and conducted private hypnotherapy. In much of his work, he used hypnosis for stress management, weight loss, and smoking cessation, but he also used it in ““age regression” sessions to recover hidden memories of sexual abuse. Here he described one such case. To regress clients, I put them in trance and ask them to go to that time and place which their subconscious mind thinks is important. I never use leading phrases or ask them to go to a specific time when a specific thing was happening to them. I am extremely careful not to give verbal cues, and so my verbalizations are probably limited to a non-specific “mmm ...”
The case I am going to tell you about involves regression therapy with Cheryl, who was 32 years old. She had always remembered that she had been sexually abused by her father when she was a child. She remembered some things but wanted to know more details and asked that she be regressed and notes taken or a tape recording made so that she would know every detail.
Her father had been accused of sexual abuse of her best friend when they were about eight years old. She had been interviewed then but could not give any corroborating evidence, so the case was dropped by the police. Soon after this, her mother left the marriage, abandoning her and her older brother with their father. After this, he abused her regularly and used to beat up her brother in front of her, telling her that she too would be beaten up if she did not do as she was told. She ran away on many occasions to her mother, but she was always taken back to her father. Eventually, she went to live with her mother.
I engaged in regression therapy with Cheryl shortly after her father”s death. She said she felt someone else had also been involved in the abuse. She had watched a television program about false memory syndrome, so she knew those issues. I assured her that I would be scrupulously careful not to implant false memories and said I wanted a witness present during the regression therapy. I chose to use a Community Psychiatric Nurse for this purpose. She saw Cheryl on her own for three sessions, then we all met for an hour on her premises to do the regression therapy.
Before the session, in Cheryl’s presence, I asked the nurse to watch very carefully that I did not ask any leading questions or put in any false ideas. Cheryl entered trance easily. I asked if there was a time and place where her subconscious mind felt she should go in order to help her. I then checked by ideomotor signaling [lifting a finger to indicate “Yes”], which comes from the subconscious part of the brain, that it was safe to re-live this experience. She indicated that it was.
During this session, she described an occasion when a group of men visited her home, and she was taken into a room in the house -- she didn’t say where, but it sounded like a cellar or attic. Black candles were lit in black candlesticks, and there was a symbol like superimposed triangles painted on the floor. She was undressed and then held down over this symbol by the group, who formed a circle.
While in trance, she assumed a position with her arms above her and her legs apart. While crying, she struggled in this position, but the remarkable thing was that her wrists and ankles stayed in the same position as if held there. She then cried out, “Don’t, Daddy, you’re hurting me.” I asked where she was hurting and she said, “My bottom.”
The sobbing settled down, and I asked her to go in her mind to a safe place where she was secure, and told her that the painful memories were now dealt with and would not trouble her again. I then taught her self-hypnosis and then reversed the trance. She was not too distressed prior to leaving and said she would return the following week. Being involved in her disclosure of such events was extremely distressing to me. She had mentioned sexual abuse prior to the therapy but had not mentioned satanic abuse, and I believe did not know any of the details. She said that the same group of men used to visit her house quite frequently. She did not know any of their identities, but she felt that one was a solicitor.
During the second session, she described an incident in a farmhouse set in the middle of a field, where she went with her brother. He was told to wait outside while she and her father went in. There was a group of people in a circle in the large kitchen. She was told to sit on a man’s knee and he “played with her bottom,” as she put it. They then all went into another room, and a carpet was rolled back to reveal a symbol similar to the one she had described before. She was again undressed and held down over this sign. A door opened, and a man came in wearing a cloak and a long red mask. She again described what was clearly rape.
On the third occasion, she said she was much better and did not need further therapy. She said she always remembered her distress after coming out of this farmhouse but could never remember what had caused it. She also said that a friend had a long mask on the wall, and she became extremely distressed whenever she saw the mask. She had always wondered why she reacted in this way to what was only an inanimate object. Now, of course, she understood fully.
This case made a great impression on me, and I was pleased that it was sorted out very successfully in two treatment sessions and one review. The psychiatric nurse with whom I worked was amazed. She has considerable experience in satanic abuse and said the normal experience was that after 18 months of counseling, one would be left with someone who was still very scarred and who would not function well socially. Here we had a lady who “got her act together” very successfully.
What worries me is non-professional people who use hypnosis after what is in some cases totally inadequate training. In some cases, they believe that every person has some extremely distressing event which is the root of their problems. Hence they persevere in fishing for what is in some cases not there.
On the other hand, I totally believe Cheryl”s story. I do not feel she could have faked her struggling movements while in trance.