I did it not out of any anger, malice or ill-will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them, but what I did was [done] ignorantly . . . . I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humbled for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families.
—Ann Putnam, writing in 1706, 14 years after
her accusations helped spark the
Salem witch trials1
I hope that, after reading these stories, readers will better understand how and why someone could come to believe in bizarre, unreal allegations. Most entered therapy wanting to get better, to find answers to extremely unsettling problems. Recovered memory therapy offered those answers, along with initial hope. "I had been constantly living with frustration and disappointment. I never felt fulfilled," Linda Furness explains. In therapy, as she first perceived it, "I was finally getting myself sorting out, finding out what made me tick, and would become everything I could be." Similarly, Laura Pasley observes, "I was desperate. It was like I was drowning and this person reached out a hand to me, and he was my only hope." As a result, the retractors usually became extremely dependent on their therapists. "It's like I sold my soul to this man," Pasley explains.
It is difficult to read these stories without becoming enraged at the therapists who fostered these illusions, even when they appeared well-intentioned. Some of these professionals clearly brought their own needs, neuroses, and insecurities to their work. Nell Charette's therapist, for instance, styled himself as a mini-guru and had sex with clients, while ex-Marine Robert Wilson's counselor took a more intellectual approach. "She was trying to create a monster," he observes, "and I happened to be her monster." Clearly, there is something sick about these therapists' voyeuristic delight at their patients' self-destruction. Olivia McKillop recalls bitterly how her therapist smiled in triumph after a particularly harrowing memory retrieval session, then practically ordered her to hurt herself.b2
Yet blaming only the therapists is too simplistic. Leslie Hannegan provides an example of a self-made repressed memory survivor who convinced herself, largely without a therapist's assistance, that her father had committed incest on her. She read Christian Survivor self-help books and interpreted sleep paralysis and panic-induced choking as evidence of returning memories. Later, Hannegan promptly dumped a therapist who expressed skepticism about whether her father had really committed these acts. Similarly, Francine Boardman clearly needed little coaching to come up with grotesque stories of ritual abuse, which made her feel special. "All of a sudden, I had this childhood background that nobody else had," she explains. "I thought it was exciting in a way, I really did. This couple were giving me all their attention. They were basically pandering to whatever I said." Yet Boardman takes "absolutely no responsibility" for what happened. Clearly, all of these retractors "bought into" the process and, at least at some level, enjoyed the resulting attention, drama, and sympathy.c3
I have come to regard the process as a warped kind of tango in which therapist and client dance through a fractured hall of mental mirrors. During most of the dance, the therapist leads, but at other times, the client takes over. Between them, they clasp childhood photos and The Courage to Heal, implicated in nearly every case, or other self-help recovery books. My dance analogy breaks down, however, at its height. It is not the therapist who cuts herself, tries to commit suicide, develops multiple personalities, writes hate letters to her parents, becomes a drugged-out zombie, gets divorced, or finds herself bound in psychiatric ward restraints.
I am not sure these early retractors are entirely representative. It takes great courage to admit that you were wrong about something so major and serious. Though these retractors are indeed courageous, I believe that they had to get out of therapy or die. In general, their therapy was so coercive and horrible, their mental and physical state so shattered, that they had little choice but to flee. There are other "Survivors" who remain firmly convinced of their recovered memories, because they have not had such atrocious experiences—though they have all gone through the pain of losing their families and redefining their identities.
Nonetheless, the seven stories recounted here provide lessons and hope. They make it clear that to escape from harmful therapy and begin to question memories, people need to get away from their recovered memory therapists and stop taking massive, inappropriate drug doses.d Once they take these two steps, their minds begin to clear, and they can begin to make more rational life choices. It also helps if trusted acquaintances or authority figures plant seeds of doubt. When Olivia McKillop's friend Fran told her she didn't believe in the incest memories, McKillop was livid—but she began to question her therapy. Similarly, when Leslie Hannegan's pastor confronted her, she refused to believe him at first, but then "it was like a wall coming down around me."
As I have already stressed, it is difficult to find a reliable common denominator for those who have recovered memories. Most are women, though macho ex-Marine Robert Wilson offers proof that this delusion can be fostered in either gender. Most are white and come from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, probably because they could afford therapy. Many, such as Nell Charette and Maria Granucci, find memories as housewives in their 30s and 40s, while others, such as Olivia McKillop and Leslie Hannegan, are much younger.
I did not have room here for Faith Sylvester's narrative, one of the saddest stories I heard. When she was only 12, Sylvester's aunt persuaded her to read The Courage to Heal and recover "memories" of being abused by her stepfather. As a consequence, Sylvester spent most of her adolescence living with a man she thought had molested her. When her mother discovered her journal about it, the situation blew up. Even though Sylvester, now 19, has realized that her allegations were wrong, her mother and stepfather have yet to forgive her.
Some of the retractors, including Olivia McKillop, fit the pattern of young women who never rebelled as teenagers and who became incest Survivors partly to individuate from their parents. Like many others, McKillop is highly creative, dramatic, empathetic, and suggestible. Nell Charette told me that she had discovered her artistic and literary creativity in the process of becoming a multiple personality. "I do have a lot of talents in me that I probably wouldn't have known about, but they're my talents, not my alters'," she concludes.
Others who seek memories may suffer from an inherited biological disposition
toward depression. Leslie Hannegan and Robert Wilson appear to be examples
where such tendencies run in the family. Some retractors, such as Laura
Pasley, really were sexually abused as children, though this always-remembered
experience wasn't enough for their therapists. Many others weren't victims
of incest, but certainly endured difficult childhoods. Robert Wilson, for
instance, was harassed by his alcoholic father, while Leslie Hannegan was
raised by a chronically ill mother and depressive father. Olivia McKillop,
on the other hand, grew up with adoring parents, but she still felt neglected.
Maria Granucci wasn't abused, but missed parental hugs and affection. The
bottom line? Regardless of their backgrounds, the retractors—like all children—felt
some resentment toward their parents. Essentially, I agree with Olivia
McKillop and Robert Wilson, both of whom said, "If this could happen
to me, it could happen to anyone."
Even when the incest accusations have been dropped, family relations inevitably remain strained. Spouses of retractors, who supported them throughout the ordeal while watching their families disintegrate, often express deep bitterness over what they've had to go through. In rare cases, such as that of Faith Sylvester, the formerly accused parents may be so hurt that they won't take their children back. Even in the majority of the cases, where mothers and fathers gladly forgive and celebrate the prodigal's return, there may be an abundance of love—but trust takes longer to rebuild. Sometimes retractors can't get the well-rehearsed abuse images out of their heads. "I still have flashbacks in a way," one retractor told me in an unpublished interview. "The memories still seem so real. It's frightening."
Retractors struggle to understand how they could have been so sure of
such unlikely events. What does it all mean? How could it have happened?
As Melody Gavigan put it in the first issue of her newsletter, the Retractor,
"We are frightened, we are embarrassed, we are confused, and we are in
shock." While attempting to understand the process that engulfed them,
however, she recognized that they must learn to forgive themselves. She
quoted Dante, who also journeyed to hell and back: "Midway life's journey
I was made aware / That I had strayed into a dark forest / And the right
path appeared not anywhere."4
a. Laura Pasley is her real name.
b. McKillop's experience is not uncommon. "This began a pattern," one Survivor wrote in 1992. "I would cut myself, resolve not to do it again, she [the therapist] would say it was going to happen again, and I would cut myself again. It became a vicious cycle. I came to feel like no matter what I did, I would never be able to control what I was doing." Such women are tacitly encouraged to mutilate themselves by a newsletter aptly titled the Cutting Edge, filled with poetry such as: "Slip slash slide enters the blade / and all the pain will fade."
c. Indeed, it is remarkable the lengths some people will go to secure sympathy for fictitious mental or medical ailments. There is even a name for the phenomenon: Munchausen's Syndrome, in which patients actually fake their illnesses, sometimes going so far as to inject themselves with saliva or urine. Psychiatrists Marc Feldman and Charles Ford explore these extraordinary cases in Patient or Pretender (1994).
d. I do not mean to imply that Retractors should abandon all therapy, just the search for repressed memories. Nor should they necessarily avoid all medication that could ease their suffering. For some, such as those suffering from manic depression (bipolar disorder), proper medication appears to be essential.