When Elizabeth Carlson was a toddler in the mid-1950s, her parents nicknamed her Little Miss Fluff. Later on, she made up an imaginary playmate named Susarena, and when she was old enough for kindergarten, she befriended a classmate named Pamela Pink. "I thought her name was so cool," Carlson remembers.
Years later, however, all of these innocent childhood memories became part of a living nightmare for Carlson, who came to believe that she had unknowingly endured horrendous childhood sexual abuse – rape and torture in a satanic ritual cult. The abuse had been so awful that her conscious mind had been unable to cope with it, so she had "split off" alternate personalities in order to survive. One of them was Little Miss Fluff, a tearful infant alter who couldn’t speak. Pamela Pink was a footloose, carefree alter. Another was Susarena, a self-destructive personality who made repeated suicide attempts. And there were many, many more.
Did Carlson really have multiple personality disorder (MPD), a rare (and possibly mythical) condition? No. Today she is still trying to recover from the "therapy" that nearly destroyed her life.
It all started in 1989 when Carlson, then 35, entered United Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, for treatment of chronic depression, which ran in her family. She was treated by psychiatrist Diane Humenansky. "She seemed very knowledgeable and gentle. I came to trust her completely," Carlson recalled. The psychiatrist asked Carlson if she ever heard voices inside her head. "You mean," she said, "like when I say to myself, ÔYou shouldn’t have done that’?" Exactly, the doctor said. When driving on the highway, did Carlson ever miss an exit because she was thinking about something else? Yes, she did.
Humenansky informed Carlson that she wasn’t depressed; she had MPD. "The good news is, I can help you. But you’ll have to get worse before you get better." Humenansky gave her books to read: The Courage to Heal. Michelle Remembers. The Three Faces of Eve. When Rabbit Howls. Sybil. The psychiatrist led Carlson in guided imagery sessions in which she closed her eyes and visualized scenes of satanic ritual abuse. Humenansky prescribed huge doses of medicine – Restoril, Xanax, Valium, Desyrel – that fogged Carlson’s mind, taking her further from reality.
Humenansky interpreted virtually every behavior as a different hidden personality. When Carlson sat on the floor and played with her children, for instance, that was a child alter coming out. In hypnotic trances and under the influence of sodium amytal injections – which Humenansky called "truth serum" – a demonic alter emerged, growling and spitting as in The Exorcist. Eventually, Carlson had so many alters that she had to carry around file cards to keep them straight.
Two years later, after five hospitalizations and long-term group therapy, Elizabeth Carlson was a basket case. Although convinced that her parents had brutalized her in a satanic cult, she never confronted them. "I was too terrified that they or other cult members would hurt me, my family, or my therapist." So she made up excuses to avoid them. "For a year, I basically lived in my bedroom. I stunk. I didn’t have the will to take a shower or change. My 16-year-old daughter had to drop out of high school to take care of me and the family." It finally got to the point that Carlson literally fell to her knees in front of Humenansky and begged for a lobotomy. The pain was too horrible. Humenansky laughed, not believing she was serious.
Carlson might well be dead if she and other group members had not left Humenansky to form their own MPD group, where they discovered that they all shared identical "memories," many of them lifted straight out of the same books or movies. Then Carlson weaned herself from most of the medications and found her brain beginning to clear. She took a shower, dressed, and made dinner for her family. Her husband and children couldn’t believe it. Everyone cried.
One day in 1992, Carlson caught the end of a TV talk show about an organization called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. The show flashed an 800 number. Carlson called it.
Birth of a Movement
In 1990, Pamela and Peter Freyd visited their daughter Jennifer and her family for the Christmas holidays. Both of the parents were Pennsylvania academics: Peter, a theoretical mathematics professor; and Pamela, an education instructor whose dissertation had involved studies on how people store and recover simple memories of words. The Christmas visit ended disastrously, with Jennifer accusing her father of having molested her as a child. She had recovered the memories while in psychotherapy.
Stunned, confused, and grieving, Pamela Freyd went to the library and began to read The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. Published in 1988, it popularized and propelled the search for recovered memories. There were other books, too, by Wendy Maltz, Renee Fredrickson, and Judith Herman. "The theory goes like this," Freyd explains. "Sexual abuse is so horrible that a child must repress the memory of it. Even though the memories aren’t conscious, they leak in the form of troubling symptoms such as depression, low self-esteem, or even illnesses. For years, these repressed memories are somehow protected from the decay that affects other memories, and when they are dug out, they are completely accurate. And digging them out is essential to healing."
From her own research, Freyd knew that memory didn’t work this way. Rather, memory is subject to suggestion, distortion, and decay. Although the books espoused the use of hypnosis, guided imagery, or sodium amytal to ferret out memories, there was an overwhelming body of scientific research to indicate that people in a trance state often create confabulations, mixtures of fantasy and fact, to fulfill the expectations of an authority figure. The books also said that dreaming about abuse, or even thinking that something might have happened, proved that it must have happened.
The Freyds founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in 1992. So far, some 20,000 families have contacted the foundation with remarkably similar stories of allegedly false accusations and lost children. Along with those calls, they’ve also heard from an increasing number of former patients who’d been led to believe that they had recovered memories. These stories, too, were similar. When Elizabeth Carlson called, Pamela Freyd put her in touch with several other retractors, some of whom were suing their therapists. Carlson decided to find a lawyer.
Going to Court
Christopher Barden holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Minnesota and a law degree from Harvard. One day in 1993, while working at a Minneapolis law firm, he got a call from Elizabeth Carlson. "Through her bravery, diligence, and persistence, we brought in other Humenansky patients," Barden recalls. In January 1996, after the longest psychiatric malpractice trial in US history, Barden and colleagues won the case with a $2.5 million jury verdict, along with a similar finding for another former patient. Humenansky’s lawyers rushed to settle the other cases out of court.
Since then, Barden has become a one-man dynamo, the legal scourge of recovered memory therapy. To date, he has been involved in over 20 cases and has yet to lose one. "The secret to science-intensive litigation," Barden emphasizes, "is to turn the courtroom into a classroom. I use research documents to educate judges and juries in how to think like scientists."
Working methodically, Barden slowly picks apart testimony intended to show that recovered memories are reliable, reducing veteran recovered memory experts to embarrassed pseudoscientists all too eager to get off the stand. "I demonstrate that these so-called treatments are highly experimental and hazardous. Only treatments proven to be safe and effective should be used on human beings." Stressing the lack of informed consent, Barden hammers on the issue of memory. "Studies of over 10,000 trauma victims have produced no credible evidence for repression or dissociation. Victims of prolonged trauma remember what happened to them all too well." Barden emphasizes, however, that these cases have more to do with indoctrination and suggestibility than real memory.
No one will ever be able to disprove the theory of massive repression, in which years of abuse are supposedly forgotten, any more than anyone can disprove the existence of ghosts or alien abductions. But massive repression flies in the face of both science and common sense. No convincing cases have surfaced. There are corroborated cases in which people forgot sexual abuse, but they usually involve "mild" abuse, such as fondling, that occurred for a short duration. Such incidents were not necessarily perceived as traumatic at the time. These cases are probably examples of normal forgetting and remembering, not repression. As for MPD, virtually no one ever displays multiple personalities until they are coached into the roles through therapy, movies, or books. In a sense, we all have "alters," different aspects of ourselves, that could be segregated, stereotyped, and named.
To many observers, the battle over recovered memories and multiple personalities appears to be over. "Yes, I think that a large segment of the population is now aware that recovered memories are questionable at best," Pamela Freyd says. "But our work is far from finished. Many, many families are still torn apart by false memories." Freyd is frustrated that recovered memory zealots continue to portray her organization as a group of evil perpetrators in denial. Freyd emphasizes the reality and extent of real sexual abuse, but her primary focus is on false memories.
The recovered memory fad peaked in 1993 and 1994, with calls to the foundation falling off since then. But the practice has not died. "Most Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology are not teaching the hazards of hypnosis," Freyd says. "Graduate students still do not learn that memory isn’t a videotape but is reconstructive. At the present time, it’s a Ôpublic beware’ situation when it comes to therapy."
Chris Barden would like to change that through his proposed model legislation, the Truth and Responsibility in Mental Health Practices Act, which would force therapists to reveal the risks and benefits of therapy, would limit insurance coverage to treatments proven to be safe and effective, and would prevent expert witnesses from foisting off psychobabble theories as facts. So far, no state has passed the entire bill.
Elizabeth Carlson has founded the National Association Against Fraud in Psychotherapy. She still gets depressed sometimes, but that should come as no surprise.
Mark Pendergrast, a Vermont-based journalist, is the author of Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives (Upper Access). To reach the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, call (800) 568-8882.