MotherJones JF93: Doors of Memory

Over the past several years, psychotherapists have helped thousands of people discover repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. What is more disturbing still is that many of these memories may be false.

"Welcome to Texas tornado weather," says Sam Spear, as we drive the short distance between his house and his daughter's. All around us the sky is black with thunderheads, but here on this wide suburban street the sun shines and the hot air doesn't move. A few neighbors have come out of their homes to gaze up uneasily at this stalemate between the elements. I look at Sam, a hardy well-scrubbed man in his sixties, to see whether he is serious about the possibility of a tornado, but his attention has shifted. He points to a house that looks like every other house in the neighborhood, with a manicured lawn and a child's bicycle sprawled in the driveway.

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"That's the one, that's Kathy's house," he says, slowing the car for a moment, then accelerating past. We speed by because Sam doesn't want his daughter or her family to spot him snooping. It has been over three years since Sam set foot in the house where his daughter lives with her husband and children, and, if he were caught cruising by with a stranger and pointing, an already bad situation could get worse. In May of 1989, Kathy White still offered an emotional breakdown, checked into the psychiatric ward of a hospital, and discovered, for the first time, long-repressed memories of Sam raping her when she was a child. She believes that her unconscious mind hid these memories from her for more than twenty years.

Back at the Spear home, Sam's wife, Edna, has laid out cookies, lemonade, and the family photo albums. Edna, a small porcelain woman, has devoted her life to keeping her home tidy, her chin up, and her faith in Jesus strong. A prayer entitled "God's Standard" is framed in the kitchen: "God made us a family/We need each other/We love and accept one another/We forgive one another." Kathy's charges do not fit well into Edna's world of forced optimism. When the word "sodomy" was first mentioned, Edna had to get out the family dictionary.

Edna opens her most prized photo album onto the coffee table. Each December, the Spears send out Christmas cards featuring a family portrait, and Edna has carefully preserved one card from each year. On the first card, dated 1955, Kathy sits, blond and toothless, on her mother's lap. By grade school, she is a smiling, lanky nine-year-old, sharing the frame with a brother and two sisters. It takes me just a few minutes to glance through this baby-boomer's childhood, from sharp black and white to fuzzy Kodacolor.

Knowing the charges that Kathy has leveled at her parents, I find it impossible not to scrutinize every corner of these pictures for signs of the dark and painful childhood Kathy has described. Is her smile genuine in 1959? Do things look too perfect in 1965?

"I didn't do these things to my daughter," Sam says, searching my eyes for signs that I believe him. "Out of all my children I was closest to Kathy. I love my daughter. I don't know why I've been accused. It hurts so deeply."

In the end, the photos of Kathy in her starched Christmas dresses reveal nothing beyond her upper-middle-class upbringing--an upbringing that may have been rigid, but no more than that of millions of children in God-fearing families across the South. Every witness excep one agrees that Kathy's childhood was nearly idyllic.

"She was very outgoing," says her youngest sister. "She always had friends coming over. She dated and sang in choir. She was my role model and advice giver."

"She was always happy," agrees her other sister. The two shared a room until Kathy was ten.

"I had a really good relationship with her," says her younger brother. "When she had friends over and they would pick on me, Kathy would always stand up for me."

Half a dozen more photo albums sit on the coffee table, ready for my inspection. Kathy holding a poodle on a pile of autumn leaves. Helping her dad wash the car. Playing the piano. Blowing soap bubbles. . . . I can't find the words to tell Edna and Sam that her childhood--or each hour--could not quell suspicion. After all, the one person who says her childhood was not idyllic, the one person who says the pictures lie, is Kathy herself. And she should know.

There was a time when Kathy would have more or less agreed with her family's view of her childhood. That was pre-therapy.

In 1985, Kathy and her husband moved from a nearby suburb back to her parents' neighborhood, and this allowed Edna to spoil her grandchildren nearly every day. Those were good times for the Spears. Sam and Edna liked nothing better than to gather their four children for parties and fuss over the latest addition to a family that was increasing by one or two babies a year.

Of all their grandchildren, Edna and Sam were especially close to Kathy's oldest daughter, Sarah, who was six years old at the time. Each day, Sarah would run the two blocks home from schoo, change into her play clothes, and ask if she could visit her grandparents. Edna and Sarah's favorite activity was baking cookies, which Sarah would proudly share with her siblings. The time spent at her grandparents' house was such a treat for Sarah that if she misbehaved at home, Kathy would punish her by forbidding her afternoon visit.

Why Sarah loved visiting Sam and Edna may also have had something to do with the climate in her own home at that time.

Kathy, who had dropped out of a Christian collegeand married young, found herself by her early thirties with a house full of children, several of them unplanned and still in diapers. Her husband, Matthew, who was working compulsively on a business start-up, gave scant attention to the kids and traveled for two weeks of each month. Kathy told her sister that she thought Matthew might be using these business trips as cover for an affair.

When Matthew was in town, he spent seventeen-hour days at the office. During the few hours he was home, he and Kathy fought predictable fights. They talked about seeing their pastor for marriage counseling, but Matthew vetoed the idea because word might get around. Kathy told her parents during this time that she seemed to have lost her sense of who she was and of what God meant in her life. Edna told her that if she kept faith in the Lord, everything would be all right. Everything would make sense.

Nothing Kathy said or yelled seemed to change anything, until one night in the winter of 1988, when she called Matthew in London and said she was going to kill herself. Although he didn't shorten his trip, Matthew arranged for her to be evaluated at a local Christian mental-health clinic the next morning. When he talked with the doctors on the phone the following day, they told him that, while "some people just need a tune-up, Kathy needs a major overhaul." On that gloomy note, Kathy started taking a variety of antidepressants and attending regular therapy sessions.

Within a few sessions, Kathy came back with news of progress. She told Matthew that even though there were problems with their marriage and home life, she'd discovered in therapy that her current unhappiness wasn't her root problem - it was just a symptom.

"She said that I wasn't in the gun sight," Matthew remembers. "So I asked, Well, if it's not between us, what is the problem?"

Kathy often left her children with Edna and Sam when she went to therapy. When she picked them up, Edna would ask about the sessions. "Today was very difficult," Kathy said once. "I cried the whole time." Other times Edna would get no response at all.

Kathy had good reason to avoid talking to her parents. She was discovering in therapy that most of her problems were their fault and that she had an emotionally incestuous relationship with them. This was a fancy way of saying that her parents were too much a part of her life, and many agreed, especially Matthew. Countless times Matthew had swallowed his pride and allowed Sam to act as unofficial head of his household. Sam gave advice on everything from child-rearing to what kind of refrigerator to buy Every Saturday morning, he would walk in without knocking and fix the family breakfast. Amen, thought Matthew at the time of the diagnosis - high time for a change.

Her problem seemingly identified, Kathy quit therapy in the winter of 1989 and went off Prozac and her other medication. Things seemed fine for about three months, until, as her husband puts it, "she just came unraveled again." Kathy's moods began to swing dramatically. For periods of several days, she would refuse to get out of bed and say that she didn't want to go on living.

This time, Kathy turned to a friend who was making dramatic progress with a therapist named Tim Armstrong. With Armstrong's help, this friend had discovered horrible, long-hidden memories of sexual abuse. Kathy also learned that Armstrong was a Christian man who incorporated biblical messages into therapy; this was important to both her and Matthew.

"This guy is different," Kathy said to her husband after her first two visits to Armstrong. "He is really gentle and he understands me." On her third visit, says Matthew, "Kathy just went poof."

Nobody is sure exactly what happened that day; Tim Armstrong has declined to discuss the case. But according to Matthew, Armstrong asked Kathy to lie back and free-associate while he sang the ABC song. By the time he reached L-M-N-O-P, Kathy was crying and yelling hysterically. After she stopped, an hour and a half later, she couldn't distinguish colors and felt she shouldn't drive.

The next day, Kathy checked into a local medical center for six weeks of intensive therapy. A nurse who interviewed Kathy and Matthew surprised them both by diagnosing what might be wrong. "This is classic," the nurse said after finishing with her questions.

"Of what?" Matthew asked.

"These symptoms are classic of someone who has been abused in her past," said the nurse. When Matthew responded that Kathy had never mentioned being abused, the nurse stopped him mid-sentence.

"I know," she said. "This is just how it happens."

During her first twenty-four hours in the hospital, Kathy began to have pains in her vaginal and rectal areas. These were "body memories," which occur when the body remembers being abused before the mind does, Armstrong explained to Matthew. The next night, Kathy had full-body memories of being raped and sodomizedi and would convulse and yell, as if someone were actually raping her at that moment.

The subsequent night, Kathy told Matthew that during these body memories she was beginning to see fleeting images. Several times, she glimpsed a man pushing down on her, but she couldn't see his face because he had a bed sheet wrapped around his head. Her screams were so loud that they frightened the hospital staff.

On her third day in the hospital, dehydrated and sedated, Kathy saw the man's face. "It's Daddy," Matthew remembers her saying. "I can see clearly. it's my father."

A few days later, Sam got a letter from Matthew detailing Kathy's accusations. He gathered his other children and the family pastor so they could hear the charges for themselves. As the letter was read, Kathy's youngest sister, Doreen, who was unmarried and raising a baby while living with her parents, cried out, "This is bullshit! " Others in the room didn't know what to think. No one wanted to believe Kathy's claims, but they could think of no reason why she would lie. Even Doreen was concerned enough to have her baby checked for signs of sexual abuse.

News spread fast. One of Kathy's friends detailed the crisis in a church bulletin. Edna was asked to stop volunteering at the church nursery. Old friends walked away from Sam and Edna when they saw them at church, or didn't return their phone calls. People felt obliged to believe one side or the other.

Many eventually decided to believe Sam, not because of his denials (what child abuser doesn't deny his crime?) but because of the additional accusations that Kathy soon started making. During her stay in the hospital, Kathy remembered that, when she was six months old, her mother held her down as her father raped her. In another vision, Kathy saw her father raping her while her mother held a Bible over her head and chanted, "Jesus loves you, Jesus loves you, Jesus loves you."

To many friends and church members, and to Edna and Sam's other three children, these accusations were ridiculous. "When she accused my mother, that's when I threw up my hands and said no chance," says Doreen. "For my mother to watch or help my father do something like this - no way. As small as my mother is and as big as my dad is, she'd whip the crap out of him. He wouldn't be living."

The accusations didn't stop there, however. Over the following months and years, Kathy remembered instances of abuse that took place from the time she was six months old to the year she turned sixteen. Memories sparked without warning. Smells would bring on flashbacks. One time Matthew was driving her past a hardware store when she suddenly had a memory of being abused in its parking lot.

Each memory was more disturbing than the last. Kathy remembered her parents taking her to satanic cult meetings, where she was raped by a business associate of her father. At these meetings, she saw several dozen babies and teenagers nailed to upside-down crosses and ritually murdered. Kathy remembers her parents forcing her to drink the babies' blood.

In the winter of 1990, Kathy was hospitalized again when she began to exhibit signs of having a multiple personality. Using a Macintosh computer, Kathy has since diagramed "fifty or sixty" different personalities, according to her husband.

Matthew wrote another letter to Sam and Edna, telling them that until they admitted what they had done, paid for Kathy's therapy, and left the church that the two families attended, there would be no hope of reconciliation. Little Sarah was told she could never visit her grandparents again.

Not too many months after Kathy first went into the hospital, Edna and Sam were leaving a neighbor's house when they saw Sarah playing on the sidewalk. "I saw her and my first thought was that she'd come racing into our arms," says Edna. "But she turned and ran toward her home screaming, 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!'"

The debate over the mind's ability to repress memories started with Sigmund Freud at the end of the last century. Freud's multiple definitions of repression and his contradictory statements about its effects started a debate among scholars that has lasted five generations. In his most general definition, Freud described repression as the avoidance of frightening or uncomfortable wishes, fantasies, emotions, or memories. The debate over childhood memories is particularly nasty because Freud first advanced and then repudiated the seduction theory - the idea that adult neuroses could often be traced to childhood sexual abuse. Later in life, he claimed that his patients' stories of abuse were based not on repressed memories but on fantasies that came from their own repressed sexual desires.

Freud's broad definition of repression and his dramatic turn-about on the seduction theory provide much of the historical and intellectual context for the debate over repressed memories that still rages today. The term "repression" is now generally used to describe the process by which the unconscious mind crafts a long-term defense strategy against threatening thoughts or feelings. Despite some agreement on this definition, there is no agreement that this mechanism exists in any way that can be measured empirically. There is also no agreement on the amount of material (if any) that the mind is capable of repressing, on how deeply memories can become submerged in the subconscious, or on the accuracy of these memories once recalled. One scholar, David Holmes at the University of Kansas, goes so far as to ask that a label be attached to the term: "Warning. The concept of repression has not been validated with experimental research, and its use may be hazardous to the accurate interpretation of clinical behavior."

The debate over Freud's seduction theory is no less contentious than that over repression. Amid increasing evidence that childhood sexual abuse is widespread, some have looked back at Freud's flip-flop on the seduction theory and wondered if he might have betrayed his patients when he claimed that their memories were fantasies.

"The perceived wisdom when I first began practicing was that most memories of abuse were fantasy," explains Jerome Singer, director of graduate studies in psychology at Yale University. "[But we've learned that a lot of sexual abuse and sexual fooling around does happen in family settings."

While scholars debate the theories involved, a substantial segment of the therapy community has charged ahead, creating a growth industry around the concept of recovered memories of childhood sexual assault.

Most nights, in most U.S. cities, "adult survivors" meet in church basements or community-center conference rooms, hold stuffed animals to their chests, and share newly discovered memories of sexual abuse. Books on the subject have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Several celebrities have publicly related recovered memories of sexual assault, and national talk shows have broadcast still more stories of adult survivors. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has sprung up in support of parents who have been accused.

Groups ranging from the National Organization for Women to the Christian Right to New Age believers have hailed the growing attention given to recovered memories, and legislatures in over two dozen states have recently lengthened statutes of limitations to allow those with newly uncovered memories to sue their alleged abusers. In less than ten years, the popular conception of how memory works seems to have been fundamentally altered.

This new view troubles some experts and has sparked a heated debate that is threatening to tear the mental-health community in two. "When bad things happen, people often try - very successfully - to avoid remembering them," says Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of Washington. "That is normal forgetting, and it happens all the time. This is distinct from what is being meant by ~repressed memory.' The current believers in repression would have us believe that the mind can take the memory of events and hold them in pristine form in the subconscious for years. There is no laboratory evidence that this is possible."

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the new view of repression is the surprise that patients generally experience when discovering a memory of abuse. While soldiers may dam up thoughts of a frightening battle, only to have the memories suddenly wash over them years later, they are not surprised by the discovery that they were in a battle. Even when it has been avoided for long periods of time, the memory, when it resurfaces, fits in with other memories in both context and texture. This is not so with many recovered memories of sexual abuse.

Women who have recovered repressed memories (and men, though women account for approximately 90 percent of adult survivors) often express shock at their discovery. They are forced to choose between two utterly incompatible versions of their past - one created from "normal" conscious memories and another from newly revealed repressed memories. In some cases, the amount of memory recovered comprises entire alternative childhoods. Some adult survivors, like Kathy, believe they were able to repress hundreds of specific memories without a trace.

Patients are often troubled that their recovered memories don't feel like normal memories, but are dreamlike and nonsensical. Often, recovered memories are strangely vivid-recalling exact dialogue, smells, or room decor from decades before. Taking themselves back twenty or more years, many patients recover clear memories from their first year of life.

Critics note troubling parallels in the memories being recovered by some patients. Many from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, for instance, have memories of abuse at the hands of satanic cults, despite no evidence that such cults even exist.

Because of these anomalies, some have begun to examine the therapy process for evidence of subtle or not-so-subtle coercion. "I would have to say that without putting down the reality of child abuse, there may be some times when therapists are suggesting or leading the patients on into fantasies of abuse," says Yale's Jerome Singer.

"Therapists today are much more open to the notion that sexual assault in childhood is real, frequent, common, and devastating," says author Jeffrey Masson, whose research into the Freud archives helped trigger re-examination of the seduction theory. "That couldn't be said ten years ago. On the other hand, I don't think that it's been an entirely sincere or deep change of heart. Some years ago, therapists didn't believe women. Now they believe them all too readily, because there is profit in it. But merely believing someone is not necessarily going to help them. It could be a shallow change of heart: ~Yes, yes, come to me, I will believe you'; in other words, ~I need a patient.'"

Therapy, by its nature, is private and difficult to analyze. Some clues to what may be happening behind therapists' doors, though, can be found in the growing body of popular literature on the subject of repressed memory. The self-help aisle of any popular bookstore is stocked with dozens of books on the subject.

The Sexual Healing Journey, by Wendy Maltz, tells those who have yet to remember the abuse: "If you sense that you were sexually abused and have no memories of it, it's likely that you were.... Spend time imagining that you were sexually abused, without worrying about accuracy or having your ideas make sense.... When you feel ready, ask yourself.... Who would have been likely perpetrators?"

Other books, with titles like Repressed Memories and The Courage to Heal, contain similar messages. The latter, a bestseller, states: "So far, no one we've talked to thought she might have been abused, and then later discovered that she hadn't been. The progression always goes the other way, from suspicion to confirmation. If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you probably were." (Italics added.)

Given the belief that suspicion always leads to confirmation, some have speculated that the advice being handed out might lead patients on a "sexual healing journey" with a predetermined destination. "When someone who claims an expertise in how the mind works convinces a subject that what they imagine equates to a memory, there is almost no memory that you couldn't produce," says University of California sociologist Dr. Richard Ofshe, who has studied methods of influence used by cults. "You can get people to believe that they led past lives where they fought intergalactic wars. You could arbitrarily make up any event and stand a good chance of creating a memory around it."

For Ofshe, the fact that patients sometimes manifest symptoms such as "body memories" and multiple personalities makes perfect sense. "When mental illness was commonly diagnosed as a matter of being possessed by an evil spirit, those who were believed to be possessed quite often acted out the symptoms the cleric predicted they would manifest," Ofshe says. "Social institutions have a way of prescribing roles and people tend to act out the symptoms that are expected of them."

"The simple solution is very attractive," says Dr. Richard Gardener, a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University. "You're thirty-five or forty and your life is all screwed up, and someone offers this very simple solution. ~Ah, I never realized that I was sexually abused. That explains it all!' - it's a simple answer for the therapist as well as the patient."

Yale's Singer and others worry that if enough false charges are encouraged by irresponsible therapists, no one will believe the millions of people who have truly been sexually abused.

Recently, a number of people have renounced as untrue the memories that they retrieved in therapy. Even those still "in recovery" often struggle to believe their new memories. "The brain is capable of avoiding painful memories. The brain is also capable of extreme creativity and of mistaking fantasy for memory," says Dr. Saul Levine, head of psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Science Center and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. "The truth of these allegations does matter - but sometimes we will just not know. In some cases we are simply going to have to leave the issue and deal with the pain that these people are going through."

Kathy, now in her late thirties, still has the straight-ahead swayless walk and rigid posture that her mother was always so proud of. Throughout all her troubles she has managed to stay well groomed, fastidiously putting on her makeup on all but the most traumatic days. When she talks about what has happened, her normally soft voice often falls to a sad, barely audible whisper. Nearly four years into what she calls her "journey," Kathy says that her recovery of new memories has slowed down quite a bit. She has been doing a lot of thinking about the accuracy of her recovered memories.

"I know that the type of memories I've had would be considered close to impossible. I know that they are farfetched," Kathy says, her voice dropping. "I no longer think that every memory I've had in my head is 100 percent true."

Kathy has been trying to stake out some middle ground. "I believe that my memories are based on reality," she says. "I believe the essence of these memories are true. I wish I could say that I knew they were 100 percent true. But I can't. If they are all based on falsehoods, I deserve to be damned, and that is really tough. I've made some really important decisions that have affected a lot of people. I still get back to [the feeling that the essence of the belief has to be true."

What Kathy has learned in therapy has explained the pain in her life. She acknowledges that, if she were ever to reject her recovered memories totally, she would not only be admitting that she had destroyed her family without cause but also that her pain and recovery have made no sense. "I've been in recovery for nearly five years now. You don't go through something like this for nothing. You go through this to make the pieces of your life fit together. You go through. it to get well."

Amid all the accounts of satanic worship, murder, and rape, sometimes the bland things that Kathy says are the most surprising. "My parents have their good sides and bad," she observes at one point. "It will never be all black and white." Or: "My dad always gave me the feeling that I was born to be dumb." Or, later: "I have the feeling that my mother never loved me." Statements like these draw real emotion from Kathy's voice. I find myself wondering what Kathy's life would be like today if her therapists had concentrated on these less sensational but nonetheless painful memories.

Kathy doesn't really like to talk about which memories she questions and why. "The only validation I have that these things are true is that I'm so much better than I was before," she says. "If you'd been where I'd been and where I am now - seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and to know that you are going to make it all the way through - I don't know that you'd change. I'm perfectly comfortable waiting until I die to find out what really happened to me. We all go through life looking at things from a perspective that we feel most comfortable with, and my perspective has to be that these things are based on reality. I think it all depends on your perspective."

When I suggest to Kathy that among all the different perspectives there might exist an objective reality unaffected by what people believe, she thinks for several moments. "Well," she says finally, "if there is, I'd love to see it. I think that it's possible to look at evil and think that it's beautiful. You have to look at the two sides of this case and say which one is evil. You are going to have to make that choice. Welcome to our journey."

Six months after Kathy went into the hospital for the first time, her daughter Sarah began to exhibit mood swings not unlike her own. Barred from visiting her grandparents, she became obsessed with the "bad things" Sam and Edna had done to her mother.

"We don't talk about these things," her father would tell her. "You're too young and you don't need to know. Grandma and Grandpa hurt Mommy very badly, but I'm not going to tell you what they did."

With her mother routinely suicidal and her father working all the time, Sarah must have found home to be an unhappy place. Worst of all, she was no longer able to visit the one sanctuary she knew from the pain in her life. In Sarah's mind, her grandparents had been slowly transformed into monsters. A few months later, Sarah told her father that she wanted to kill herself. "Daddy," she said one night, "I'm going to run into the street, and I want a car to hit me. I want to die."

For help, the family again turned to the therapy community. They chose a child therapist, who evaluated Sarah for several weeks.

"I'm 90 percent convinced," the therapist proclaimed at the end of the evaluation period, "that your daughter has been sexually abused."

"I asked, 'By whom?'" Matthew remembers.

"We don't know yet," said the therapist.

It took another nine months of coaxing for Sarah finally to tell her own stories of being sexually assaulted by her grandparents. "They made me watch dirty movies and take showers with them," she claimed. "They said they would cut my arms off if I told."

Ethan Watters is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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