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Copyright 1998 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Republished here with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


Furor over false memories puts hypnotherapist in the spotlight

Sunday, June 28, 1998

By John G. Carlton

Post-Dispatch Medical Writer

All she wanted was a few counseling sessions to help her cope with depression and get on with graduate school. Instead, she spent four years and tens of thousands of dollars in the bizarre world of a hypnotherapist who talked to ancient deities and convinced her she was the victim of satanic abuse.

She came to believe she'd been raped as a child by her father, the leader of a satanic cult that also included her mother, brother, grandfather and a neighbor.

She thought she had served as a high priestess - sacrificing babies in secret caves throughout Southern Illinois and killing who knows how many innocent people.

Her therapist, Geraldine A. Lamb of Kirkwood, thought so too. It was that horrific abuse that was the root of her depression, she said Lamb told her.

So the young woman cut off all ties with her family for more than a year. Lamb told her that was the only way she could hope to recover.

On Friday, St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge John Kintz sentenced Lamb to 30 months in state prison, the dramatic end of a criminal case with national significance.

Lamb and two co-defendants, psychologists who practiced in the Creve Couer counseling center she founded, are believed to be the first people in the nation to face criminal charges that included allegations of implanting false memories during psychotherapy. Those charges were contained in an indictment handed up by a St. Louis County grand jury in April 1996.

The two psychologists allowed Lamb to use their names on fraudulent bills she submitted to insurance companies. Both pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. They were placed on probation and ordered to make restitution.

In April, Lamb pleaded guilty to two counts of insurance fraud and one misdemeanor count of practicing psychology without a license. In her plea bargain, the felony charges that included implanting false memories were dropped.

At a 5 1/2-hour sentencing hearing Friday, Kintz heard another young victim tell how Lamb convinced her that her parents sexually abused her as part of a satanic cult that included members of the parents' bridge club.

The judge heard a tearful mother say her daughter is "as dead to us as if she had been murdered." Their daughter, an attractive young woman in her early 20s, refused to be in the same room as her parents and grandparents during that part of the hearing because she still believes she was abused as a child.

The judge heard how Lamb encouraged clients to seek advice from a patient who "channeled," or communicated with an ancient Egyptian goddess named Amon and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

But he didn't hear a single expression of regret from the 58-year-old hypnotherapist.

Lamb's attorney produced a string of other former patients who talked about the good that came from their sessions, how she helped them resolve problems and get on with their lives. Several freely admitted to taking part in the channeling and also claimed to be survivors of childhood ritual satanic abuse.

Nothing about Lamb's case detracts from the horrible reality of child sexual abuse. In fact, two of the five patients whose treatment led to Lamb's indictment acknowledge that they were molested as children.

But painful as it was, the women said they had always known about that abuse. It was only after receiving suggestive treatment by Lamb that they "remembered" elaborate ritual sexual abuse, which they now realize never occurred.

Six months before Lamb entered her guilty plea, a federal grand jury in Houston indicted a psychiatric hospital administrator and four mental health professionals on 60 counts of conspiracy and mail fraud.

The five operated a clinic at Spring Shadows Glen Hospital in Texas. They allegedly reaped millions of dollars in fraudulent insurance payments by implanting false memories of ritual satanic abuse using what the indictment calls "techniques commonly associated with mind control and brainwashing." That case is still pending.

Together, those two criminal prosecutions represent a new wave of legal actions involving the controversial theory of recovered memories - the latest twist in a decade-old tale that is still playing out on talk shows, in courtrooms and psychotherapy offices.

Recovered memories

It burst into the public consciousness with a flurry of suits in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were filed by people who said they had been sexually abused as children, but had blocked out all memories of those attacks until decades later.

Many named parents or stepparents as defendants. Several named priests and church officials. And at least two high-profile murder cases - including one in Metropolis, Ill. - were filed after adult children recovered memories implicating their fathers.

The key to those cases, indeed the key to all cases involving what are also called repressed or delayed memories, is the notion that people can block out repeated, extreme child abuse until years afterward.

This is substantially different from people who have some vague knowledge of being abused, but can recall only hazy details. It goes against the grain of traditional psychological theory, and flies in the face of much research involving disaster victims.

For example, when a group of children from a California town were kidnapped and buried alive in their school bus for many hours, none of them forgot the experience. Several of those students sought psychiatric help years later because vivid memories of the event kept intruding into their consciousness.

Researchers who have interviewed the survivors of combat, plane crashes and natural disasters have reported the same kind of results: People are troubled because they can't forget the events, not because they can't remember.

"All of these things are supposed to be repressed," said Henry L. Roediger, chairman of the psychology department at Washington University and a nationally recognized expert on memory. "But all the research evidence seems to show that they actually make good memories."

Still, many therapists in St. Louis and elsewhere around the country believe in recovered memories - although they often prefer to use other terms for the phenomenon. One of them is Helen Friedman, a licensed psychologist in private practice in St. Louis County.

Friedman and other believers cite research of their own that they say validates the theory. Much of it is performed or published by members of a group called the International Society for the Study of Dissociative Disorders.

Friedman said she has worked with more than 450 cases of childhood sexual abuse, most of them in adult survivors. "Not all of them have (memories) that come back, but some of them do," she said. Sometimes they can involve satanic ritual abuse, she said.

"There's a backlash in our country against believing that children are abused," Friedman said. "Who would want to believe that?"

Research and her own clinical experience tells her that such abuse is very real, she said. And it can often be forgotten for years or decades.

"Combat amnesia is very well established, it has been since World War II," she said. "Why, in the area of sexual abuse, are people wondering if this is real?"

Waves of lawsuits

However, veterans who experience combat amnesia have almost never forgotten that they saw combat. They forget gruesome details of their battles, which sometimes come back years later with horrifying clarity, but not the fact that they were in a war.

In the same way, psychiatrists say, the vast majority of men and women sexually abused after age 4 have at least some awareness of that fact. They may not remember exact details, but most realize something has happened to them.

The idea of recovered memories was popularized in self-help books during the 1980s and early 1990s. It was accepted unquestioningly by talk-show hosts and some juries.

But beginning in the early 1990s, another wave of suits began to challenge its validity. These were filed by parents who had been accused - on the basis of nothing more than recovered memories - of abusing their children. Usually, they named therapists as defendants.

In 1994, a California father won $500,000 in damages against a therapist he accused of implanting false memories in his daughter, who had alleged that she suffered abuse at his hands. The victory came despite the fact that his daughter testified against him.

Soon, other suits were being filed by former patients and their families.

One of the most famous involved a Springfield, Mo., minister named Thomas Rutherford who lost his job and ended up working as a janitor after his daughter's therapist told church officials he had abused his child.

On the basis of recovered memories, the therapist told church officials Rutherford had twice impregnated his daughter and forced her to have crude abortions using wire coat hangers. In fact, Rutherford had a vasectomy when his daughter was 4. A medical examination revealed his daughter was a virgin.

The Rutherfords received a $1 million settlement from the church in 1996. But that case was soon eclipsed by others.

Last year, a woman in Chicago received $10.6 million in a suit against her therapist and the hospital where he practiced. She alleged her psychologist implanted false memories that she was a satanic priestess who practiced cannibalism and abused her own two children.

And a jury in Houston awarded $5.8 million to a woman there who also claimed that her family was torn apart when her psychotherapy produced false memories of ritual satanic abuse.

True believers

With so many allegations of ritual satanic abuse, you might expect that at least some cult members would have been arrested over the years.

But a 1994 national study that investigated more than 12,000 reports of ritual abuse found only a handful of cases where someone molested children while wearing the trappings of Satanism.

It was unable to establish even a single case of widespread sexual abuse by organized cults of the kind so often alleged.

True believers in recovered memories often charge their critics with condoning child abuse.

They frequently single out a Philadelphia-based group called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which was founded by families torn apart by incest allegations based on recovered memories.

Its members have a vested interest in undercutting allegations of abuse, true believers say.

But in recent years, criticism has been coming from more than just families.

The American Medical Association and American Psychological Association have both issued statements warning about accepting abuse allegations based solely on recovered memories.

"I was at the American Psychiatric Association meeting recently, and this didn't even come up," said Dr. Carol S. North, a Washington University Medical School professor. "There was no one making presentations on it. I'd say well over 90 percent of American psychiatrists don't believe it."

Her colleague, Richard D. Wetzel, a psychologist, said, "We think a lot of people are being hurt by this sort of thing."

"And hurt really bad," North added. "This is really serious, life-changing stuff."

Copyright 1998 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Republished here with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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