Here are two stories about memory:
When Carol Hopkins visited New York as a young woman, her best friend said to her, "Whenever you get into a cab, look at the license number. That way, if you leave anything in the cab, you can always retrieve that number under hypnosis.” Memory, she assumed, was a camcorder.
Sure, we might forget things, but nothing was ever really lost. “For years I religiously looked at the name of the driver and his number, and even now that I know it’s impossible, I still find myself doing it.”
The other story takes place in 1995 (I think) in a hotel room at India and Date. Before I had to run off to do an interview, I caught 20 minutes of the French Open tennis final between Chang and Muster on TV. As I drove away I found the scene still vivid in my mind’s eye: the red clay of Roland Garros stadium, Chang’s trademark slide across the baseline, his wristy forehand at full stretch, and Muster’s unforgettable grunt echoing Ah-UMMMMPH! as he wound up and struck each shot. Then I noticed something odd. The angle from which I was “watching” in recollection was not the same as the angle of the TV camera: I seemed to be seeing the game from closer to the ground.
As I started looking hard at my apparently vivid memory, I realized that instead of watching actual points, stored like film and replayed at will, I was actually seeing a rapid sequence of patched-together colorful images that didn’t quite connect up into a coherent narrative but nevertheless gave me an acceptable pastiche of that particular match. The more I studied this memory, the more it came apart like wet tissue paper. I was stunned. I wasn’t remembering the French Open at all. I was remembering something that I had apparently created for myself — a plausible facsimile. A convincing, and therefore misleading, fake.
Memory and its dark side, forgetting, are one of the great mysteries of human experience. How do we remember? And, given that, why do we forget? And how come we forget things and then remember them again? These questions have probably been asked for thousands of years, and for most of that time the debate has seemed, and been, academic.
For a brief period, though, which began in the late 1970s and may not yet be over, theories of memory were responsible for breaking up families, prompting lawsuits, instigating investigations at every level from small church groups to the FBI, driving people from their communities and towns, putting innocent people in jail, forcing children to undergo months and even years of interrogation, costing taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars, and leaving everyone involved shattered and angry. Even in San Diego. Especially in San Diego.
Carol Hopkins, executive director of the National Justice Committee, has lively blue eyes, hair tinted copper, a healthy but slightly worn-looking face, painted nails, and silver bracelet bands. Her office, a ten-by-ten room overlooking Broadway, is decorated with front-page newspaper clippings (“No More Witch Hunts,” “A Case of Sex and Satan,” “Akiki Is Cleared Completely”), various awards (Francis Parker Varsity Football Team Mom, Bud Light Triathlon Ironman), books such as Satanic Panic, Victims of Memory, and The Crucible, and a cartoon of a large dragon burping flame, surrounded by pieces of a suit of armor, with a caption that reads “No matter how hard you work, no matter how right you are, the dragon sometimes wins.”
This is how Carol Hopkins remembers what the author Frederick Crews has called “the memory wars,” or, more accurately, this is how she remembers them between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 3, 1998.
She, like most, had no idea she was going to stumble into this cauldron. She grew up in San Diego, earned a bachelor’s in philosophy and history, went to grad school in history, taught and was a school administrator, wrote math textbooks, was director of programs for the gifted, then adopted a very demanding child (after bringing up two of her own), and for several years devoted herself to raising him. “My career came to a screeching halt.”
Having never run a step in her life, at 38 (at her daughter’s suggestion) she began exercising and a year later, in 1984, was a national triathlon champion. “In the same way, when I was teaching I was working 16 or 17 hours a day on curriculum and lesson plans. I’m driven.” By late 1990 she had cut back on her exercise and was doing a lot of volunteer work and was asked by a judge to volunteer for a grand jury, starting in July 1991.
“The first day we were handed a letter from a congressman saying there were terrible problems with Child Protective Services in San Diego County.”
Grand juries are obligated to investigate county abuses if all previous remedies have been exhausted. “From what I’d seen in school and from being a founding member of Voices for Children (a court-appointed special advocacy program, the arm of the juvenile court that advocates for children], 1 tended to be very sympathetic to the child-abuse issue in general, and because I was a feminist I was very concerned with child molestation.
“But I also raised children, and I taught school for many years, and I knew how easy it is to distort memory. For example, I was a parent-effectiveness-training instructor for many years, and I was trained in doing active listening. The key to active listening is to feed things back. But as you feed things back, a child wants to give you more and more information, and as they give you more and more information they begin to create things that didn't happen at all.”
As soon as the grand jury began asking questions in the social services community, though, Hopkins was accused of being a protector of child molesters and by implication a child molester herself.
“It became immediately apparent that I had stepped into the middle of a war.”
A Brief History of Memory
The connection between child protective services and the memory wars is not obvious. To make sense of the extreme positions of the time, we need to step back a century or more and explore the history of memory.
The memory wars began in the late 1970s, but they had their roots in the late-19th-century theories of Charcot and his students Janet and Freud and the ailment known then as hysteria. All three believed that hysteria occurred when a child suffered so awful a trauma that the mind dissociated the event into another psychic compartment, where it lay unseen, unremembered but not forgotten. At the end of the 19th Century Freud (who in many respects diverged from both Charcot and Janet) named this hidden realm the “unconscious" and termed this phenomenon “repression." Repressed trauma, he believed, then expressed itself in the paralyses, bleeding, and fits that led his patients to seek treatment. The cure for hysteria was to bring the trauma into conscious recollection, preferably through psychoanalysis or hypnosis.
As it happens, Freud was not much good at hypnosis: he lacked the patience for it. Instead, his method largely consisted of deciding what was wrong with the patients well ahead of any evidence and then badgering them with suggestions and interpretations until they started to take the great man’s word for what was wrong with them. His efforts to bring unknown or forgotten memories to the surface were so energetic that he pressured individual patients for hours, complaining to colleagues that he grew almost hoarse in the process.
“The work keeps on coming to a stop and they keep on maintaining that this time nothing has occurred to them," he wrote. “We must not believe what they say, we must always assume, and tell them, too, that they have kept something back.... We must insist on this, we must repeat the pressure and represent ourselves as infallible, till at last we are really told something.... There are cases, too, in which the patient tries to disown (the memory) even after its return. ‘Something has occurred to me now, but you obviously put it into my head.’... In all such cases, I remain unshakably firm, I ...explain to the patient that [these distinctions] are only forms of his resistance and pretexts raised by it against reproducing this particular memory, which we must recognize in spite of all this.”
In 1909 Freud visited America on a lecture tour, and the nation received him with open arms. In doing so, the United States also adopted the habit of psychologizing social problems — that is, blaming them on individuals rather than looking for social and economic causes — to such a degree that the first major national survey of child abuse in the 1960s, which linked it (and battering) Firmly to poverty, was ignored. (It still is largely ignored, as is the research that shows sex abuse is also linked to poverty.) No, abuse must arise from the psychological makeup of the abuser — which in most cases meant the father.
In the 1970s, federal money started to flow into programs that tried to address the clearly underreported issues of child abuse, wife beating, and sexual abuse from a psychological perspective. The advent of successful programs in family therapy (some of them compulsory) shifted the problem out of the criminal realm and into the therapeutic. The entire investigation of a troubled family often fell not to the police but to a social worker or therapist, now in the joint role of detective and healer.
Attitudes toward child sexual abuse also took on a distinct gender perspective. A feminist interpretation of traditional family roles saw incest as an exercise in paternal power that fathers played out in their homes. Sonia Johnson, in doing Out of Our Minds, wrote, “Like rape.. .incest is not only encouraged, it is insisted upon; not just condoned, but blessed.... it is an institution of patriarchy — like the church, like the law: absolutely necessary to maintaining male privilege and power.”
Sadly, in the 1960s child abuse and child sexual abuse were extremely hard to prove and prosecute: at best, the evidence is often one person’s word against another’s and through the 1970s courts were very reluctant to take a child’s word against a parent’s. As the courts and the police were still overwhelmingly male, it was all too easy for child abuse to become a gender issue — especially as these new investigator-healers were, to an unprecedented degree, women.
The memory debate might never have been so heated if it hadn’t been fanned by the growing movement in women’s consciousness The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the baby boom children passing through college, providing a new cohort of educated and often idealistic young women. The burst of fiction and nonfiction addressing women’s issues followed through the 1970s and early 1980s, reaching and developing a reading
public eager for social analysis from a woman's viewpoint and suggestions for improvement and creating as a byproduct a self-help genre and a talk-show circuit that had virtually not existed before.
But social problems are notoriously complex and abstract, and blaming “the patriarchy” for a host of undeniable problems and injustices must have felt like punching the air. Everything changed with the invention of a theory that became a therapeutic technique, a means of criminal investigation, and a rallying cry against a wide range of social and personal injustices. The theory was called “recovered memory.”
“Recovered” memory can be said to have been created (or perhaps resurrected) by a psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder, whose book Michelle Remembers appeared in 1980. In it he told the story of a patient named Michelle who, after lengthy treatment, began to “remember” incidents of grotesque and horrific abuse. Why hadn’t she remembered them before? After all, the Holocaust was grotesque and horrific, but survivors remember it all too clearly. Because they had been so traumatic, Pazder argued, following Freud, she had repressed them, burying them deep in her unconscious so she didn’t have to look at them. But nothing is ever forgotten, he claimed: if only a therapist could re-create the original circumstances, either through hypnosis, or in dramatic reenactment, or by having the patient imaginatively reenter the past as a means of jump-starting the memory, then it could all come flooding back.
And sure enough, it did. The next decade saw a torrent of recoveries (and the term “recovered memory” closely allied this phenomenon with the recovery movement that was also gaining momentum) in therapists’ offices, in print, and on the new TV talk shows. At the very least, tens of thousands of women believed or were encouraged to believe that they had been sexually abused as children. In 1988 The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, the bible of the recovered-memory movement, set off the nationwide search for “recovered” memories among adults, selling more than 750,000 copies in the process. Patients with fairly general and nonspecific disorders such as anxiety or depression found themselves offered a clear and specific origin for their troubles — they had been sexually abused as children — and a clear and specific course of treatment. If memories surfaced, they justified the approach and the treatment; if they didn't, then perhaps they were still too deeply buried — which was seen as a sign that these might be especially horrific.
“Recovered” memory must have seemed to provide the smoking gun: here, at last, was a way of discovering and documenting the horrific means by which men maintained their social and domestic superiority. And if all these women were “recovering” memories of sexual abuse, then sexual abuse must still be going on, and the issue became a crusade for child protection services: the child’s voice had been unnaturally silenced, the argument went; to stop these horrifying crimes the child must be heard and believed. And in the background, there was a sense that women were at last discovering their voices—voices that had apparently been stifled in a very literal way for decades — so the
testimony itself took on added significance. Women and children must be heard: it was a political and philosophical credo. And if there was no physical evidence—well, there often isn’t in cases of sexual abuse, and besides, wasn’t memory evidence? What were witnesses but people whose memory was used in court to convict or acquit?
There were only two catches, and neither seemed significant at the time. The first concerned training. Although an increasing number of women attended medical school, a new, more direct route to clinical practice offered training in social work and psychotherapy, giving women the chance to sidestep the male-dominated, expensive, and hidebound medical schools, but thereby also bypassing detailed courses in basic sciences. The new generation of psychotherapists had almost no grounding in brain physiology or psychological research. In many cases, they didn't need either a grounding in science or even a degree.
(Mind you, the traditional Freudian psychiatrists, who had a far more extensive education, were just as likely to espouse “recovered” memory and to give it high-profile endorsements. This era is a striking illustration of how theory-driven mental health treatment is, and how divorced from hard experimental research.)
The second concerned children. Women were suddenly postponing marriage and childbearing in favor of a career or freedom, and many of the women entering the new human services and mental health fields had time to devote to their work but little experience of children. The claim that children always tell the truth is a distant, idealized vision; the belief that only abnormal children touch their genitals or go through periods of bed-wetting or appetite change is seldom held by those with parenting experience.
“People were very unsophisticated about what was normal developmental behavior,” Hopkins says, describing the grand jury’s investigations. “We found, for example, that very few of the social workers or therapists who were doing the evaluations had children of their own or had a good understanding of good, normal developmental sexual behavior in children, and to become a social worker you didn’t even need a college degree, much less a degree in psychology or child behavior. We found that children were being taken to these therapists, who were obsessed with sexual molestation...”
She takes a long breath. “Yes,” she says very quietly. “Yes. It was very hard for me as a feminist, it was very hard for me as a liberal to say ultimately that feminists and liberals stood by. She corrects herself: “They created the problem. Out of the best of intentions. They believed that molestation is a major societal problem. And it is a problem. However natural fathers molesting children under the age of five is a very rare occurrence. Very rare.”
But nobody knew that at the time: The late ’70s and the ’80s were a period of great moral alarm and very little good information. Estimates of the number of missing children, the percentage of children abused, and the incidence of rape varied wildly and were often based on projections from anecdotal evidence as no infrastructure yet existed to conduct valid surveys. With such new and important fields and such passionate concern, it’s hardly surprising that conjecture and action ran ahead of research and hard
The result was uproar: in homes, on television talk shows, in court, in ordinary conversation, and especially at gatherings of mental health professionals.
Dr. Philip Kaushall, a clinical and forensic psychologist and director of Psychology Affiliates, who studied pediatric neuropsychology at UCSD medical school and began practicing as a psychologist in 1986, first became aware of the tensions in the mental health professions when he started his practice.
“I had clients sent to me for evaluation who were alleged to have abused their children or grandchildren, and I just became more and more dismayed at some of these very, very flimsy accusations that were creating tremendous dislocations in families. Grandparents were being denied access to grandchildren because of something that had been said, children were being extensively interviewed here, there, and everywhere and going to multiple therapists.... It seemed like everything was being blown out of proportion.
“The workshops [and conferences] tend to be very agenda-driven. It goes back to the discovery of child abuse and how much there is, much more than we expected, and then of course we think there’s much more even than that, and the hysteria grows, and there are more cases, and the conferences generate more and more concerns. It’s a social-hysterical phenomenon, like some of the things that happened in the Middle Ages, the Children’s Crusade, and so on. It’s because people don’t seek verification, because the method of discovery is its own verification. It’s like the old witch trials,” he chuckled. “If they sink and drown they’re innocent, but they’re dead, and if they float, they’re guilty, so you kill them!” Michael Yapko, a clinical psychologist and national expert in hypnosis practicing in Solana Beach and author of Essentials of Hypnosis and Suggestions of Abuse, among other books, discovered what was going wrong when running clinical supervision sessions for therapists and watching videotapes of therapy sessions for supervision. “I would recoil in horror watching the methods that qualified and experienced clinicians who should have known better were using to elicit memories of trauma in their patients. They seemed oblivious to the recognition that they were using the very methods known to produce confabulations.”
The problem was what is now called contamination — namely, that the technique and
perhaps even the very presence of the therapist affects what the client says and believes. Freud’s old habit of hectoring his patients was far more dangerous than people realized. To vastly oversimplify matters, the therapist’s casual and even unintended suggestion acts like the stage hypnotist’s suggestion: it becomes a seed that can all too easily flourish into an image, a memory, or an action. Such contamination was hard to admit as the techniques of recovered memory seemed to produce the evidence that justified their use: Yes, the client said, I can remember my father fondling me in my crib. Time and again the client started to create the very material that the therapist was looking for.
Ironically, whereas the Freudian psychoanalyst would in theory be listening in silence, taking notes but neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the patient (and perhaps also looking for a way to blame the child or the mother for the problem), the new therapy was far more activist. The therapist’s role, wrote Bass and Davis (neither of whom was a trained therapist), was to be a witness for the client, to believe her and validate her anger. “Believing” the client, in fact, went beyond what the client said and ventured into the realm of what the therapist believed she might say. “Many women don’t have memories and don’t get memories,” they wrote. “This doesn’t mean they weren’t abused.”
If a client didn’t have memories of abuse, she was encouraged to imagine abusive situations, to re-create possible traumas. Some therapists used hypnosis, some used “truth drugs,” some carried out dramatic re-creations of rape or incest with the aim of jolting free “repressed" memories, some used age regression, some used dream analysis. The images that the mind threw up were to be treated as important and essentially factual. Rehearse your memories, advised Bass and Davis. Repeat them, write them down. Join survivors’ groups; avoid nonsurvivors who might doubt your story. Get angry. “No one fantasizes abuse.” Even though none of this has any basis in scientific evidence of how memory works, it’s important to bear in mind two things: first, that the therapists were working with the best of intentions to unearth what they suspected were heinous misdeeds from the past, and second, that mental health education did not make it widely known that “memories” could be “created.” Above all, the sheer ghastliness of some of the images that floated up to the mind’s eye, and the strength of emotion that accompanied such “recollections,” had a devastating rhetorical power all their own — a power to convince both the therapist and the client.
I’d forgotten about that power until I started researching this article, and then suddenly I was back at a party in Burlington, Vermont, in about 1991. I found myself talking to a woman of middle age, the wife of a respected therapist, who told me that she had recently recovered memories of being sexually abused as a child. I expressed interest and curiosity — not in the details, but in the principle. I wondered, 1 told her, how one could know for sure. It was often impossible for me to know whether 1 had been somewhere or just dreamed I’d been there; how could she qualitatively know whether what she had was a memory, or the memory of a dream, or of an imagined thought? Her eyes narrowed, and her face went hard as rock. “I know it in my bones,” she hissed.
Which was, in fact, a common belief: that “body memory” was stored in muscles and bones, which would store a trauma that the brain could not bear; some therapists went so far as to try to re-create the posture or physical experience of rape so the body would remember what the mind could not.
Michael Yapko found that if he implied that hypnosis might be heightening patients’ suggestibility rather than recovering clear and factual memories, this aroused intense fury.
“When traveling around the country running workshops and training sessions in clinical hypnosis, I was accused of crying wolf, of inventing a problem |i.e., the issue of contamination] that didn’t exist. I’d be the presenter, talking about human suggestibility, and when I’d use false memory as an example, I’d be openly accused of being supportive of perpetrators, or I must be a perpetrator myself, or I was making it easy for perpetrators to get off with a false-memory defense." Criticisms like his, he was told, were a backlash against feminism: men couldn't stand the idea of strong women speaking out, so they were trying to discredit the means of retrieving these memories.
Knowing virtually nothing of this background and not suspecting that it would become part of her daily life for at least the next seven years, Carol Hopkins and her colleagues on the grand jury immediately set themselves a detailed and intensive course of self-education.
“We read everything we could on memory, we examined hundreds of court files, we attended hundreds of trials, and then we started calling witnesses — 450 people from within the child-protection system, including psychologists lawyers judges, and experts on memory. Through the grand jury we had access to anyone we wanted to talk to in the world." In January 1992 several of the grand jury went to the American Professional Society for the Abuse of Children conference in San Diego and attended several sessions on memory, “and the professionals there were being taught that memory was like a camcorder. We were stunned, because there was no scientific evidence of this.
“We did phone interviews we traveled, we went to conferences, and we produced our first report in February 1992, ‘Families in Crisis.’ With due modesty, it was really a shot heard around the world. It said that Child Protective Services was out of control and that children were being ripped from their families with no investigation whatsoever. No due process. And that the county itself was in the throes of hysteria over satanic ritual abuse. What we hadn’t realized was that it was a very accurate reflection of the country at that time.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The grand jury’s first practical education in the relationship between child protection and theories of memory came almost at once, in the case of Alicia Wade.
We Know the Father Did It
The Alicia Wade case was the perfect illustration of some of the odd prevailing beliefs of memory: how the fresh memory of an event might be seen as less reliable than one 14 months old and how the same child’s recollection could on one hand be entirely disbelieved but later used as all the legal evidence necessary to break apart a family and indict an adult.
The facts of the case are familiar to many San Diegans, though at the time they were anything but clear and readily available.
In 1989, eight-year-old Alicia Wade was abducted through her bedroom window in the middle of the night, taken to a car, raped, and sodomized. She lived in Navy housing; her father was a chief petty officer, with 19 years in the Navy.
“She was put back in through the window,” Hopkins explained. “Next morning, after her father had left for work, the girl complained to her mother that it hurt to urinate. The mother, who didn’t drive, called the father, who came home and drove them all to a local emergency center. The doctor saw at once that the child was ripped, literally, from stem to stern and asked the girl, ‘Who did this to you?’ The child didn’t answer. The doctor said that he was mandated to call Child Protective Services and the police. The parents begged the girl to tell them, but the doctor refused to let them question or even talk to her. For an hour or more as they waited for the police to come, the girl sat on her father’s lap holding and hugging him. She was taken to the Center for Child Protection [at Children’s Hospital], where she refused to answer questions until she was told that unless she answered, she would never see her parents again. At this point she gave a perfectly detailed description of being taken from the room, the man who did it, the car that he drove.” She even described a pimple on the assailant’s chin.
(This is worth noting, because recovered-memory believers claimed that there were intrinsic differences between fantasy and true memory that allowed them to know a real memory when they heard it, especially the question of detail. Specific, vivid detail, they argued, could not he made up; it must he genuine.)
'The doctor and the police wrote the account down, hut they didn’t believe her. The child was taken to the hospital and surgically repaired. The parents were not allowed to see her. The child was put in a foster home, and the foster parents were told that the father had molested her. A social worker took the girl to a therapist [Kathleen Goodfriend] and told her, ‘We know the father did it.’ The child told the therapist over and over again the story of [her real assailant] taking her through the window, the therapist wrote it down hut didn’t believe her and told the girl she would never go home unless she said her father had done it. This went on twice a week for nearly 14 months.”
To understand this extended interrogation, again we need to understand a theory of memory. In the late 1970s Dr. Roland Summit developed two crucial theories. One was the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS), which at face value makes a certain amount of sense: if a child is molested by a family member, she has a strong incentive to want to protect the abuser or may even have been threatened into silence. The initial response, then, may be to deny the abuse. After protracted questioning, though, the child may feel sufficiently comfortable with the therapist to speak the truth — but then may retract the accusation when faced with the possibility of going back to the family. This theory became the cornerstone of a certain kind of extended questioning-cum-treatment; it also led to the possible assumption that the child who said that nothing had happened should not be believed.
Summit also wrote that “children never fabricate.. .explicit sexual manipulations,” which meant that children should always be believed, no matter how unlikely their accusations sound — in fact, the more extreme the detail, the more likely they were to be true.
(It is perhaps worth noting that Summit’s theories were not based on any research but were, in his own term, "impressionistic.” At the time he proposed CSAAS, it had been more than a decade since he had done therapy with a child under the age of seven, and even then his child patients were not being treated for sexual abuse. Nevertheless, he was one of the most influential thinkers and teachers of therapists who did conduct front-line treatment of suspected victims of sexual abuse.)
“There’s some evidence that, especially true in children, if you repeat a story over and over, it takes on a reality that it might not otherwise have had,” contends Dr. Stuart Zola,
professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California San Diego, here’s this series of studies by Stephen Ceci [of Cornell University] in which he does this with pre-school-age children, he asks them about a series of episodes that potentially could ave happened to them. Some of them are real episodes that actually did happen (he knows this because he’s collaborated with the parents of the child) and others are episodes that never happened. The classic example is the story of catching your thumb in a mouse-trap and having to go to the hospital to have the mousetrap removed. Initially the child says. No, that never happened,’ but he questioner says, ‘Well, just imagine what it would be like,’ and asks for more details. I don’t know what questions Ceci actually asked, but I can imagine you could ask questions like, 'Do you think you’d be scared? If you did get your thumb stuck, who would take you to the hospital? Your mom? What car would you go in? Would you see a nurse?’
“You do this repeatedly with the same questioner for ten sessions, and then in the next session you have somebody brand new ask, ‘Has this ever happened to you?’ and the child tells you the story, full of details. Full of richness. Full of emotion — all the things that a real story is. Is the child lying? No. This has now become part of the child’s life.
“It may be quite possible, then, that you’re pulling up a representation of an imagined event, and you can’t tell the difference. It’s not that you’re malingering, or pretending, or lying, it’s that you actually don’t know, because it feels right. ’The brain is giving you all these signals that are the right signals. It’s not that these people with ‘recovered memories’ are generating them for their own personal reasons or for evil motivations — it feds like that’s what happened.’’
Even a particularly strong and emotional memory will change over time. In his paper “The Neurobiology of Recovered Memory,” Zola tells the famous-in-memory-circles story of California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton, who in 1967 hit Red Sox batter Tony Conigliaro in the head, nearly killing him and ending his baseball career. When Conigliaro died in 1990 and Hamilton was interviewed about the incident, the pitcher said that it had been a traumatic event for him, one that he had relived over and over in his mind.
“I know in my heart I wasn’t trying to hit him.... It was, like, the sixth inning when it happened. I think the score was 2-1, and he was the eighth hitter in their batting order.... I had no reason to throw at him.... I tried to go see him in the hospital late that afternoon or early that evening, but they were just letting his family in.”
Much of this is simply not true. The incident happened not in the sixth inning but only the fourth, and Conigliaro was batting sixth, not eighth, so he was hardly the unthreatening little rabbit that Hamilton remembers. He was, in fact, a strong hitter: he already had 20 home runs and 67 RBIs that season, so in fact Hamilton might have had good reason to want to brush him back from the plate. Finally, as it was an evening game, Hamilton didn’t visit the hospital until the following day.
The fact that someone exactly fitting Alicia Wade’s description of her attacker had meanwhile been caught and convicted of assaults on four other girls in the Wades’ neighborhood —a man named Albert Carder, who had a history of child molesting and methamphetamine addiction—seemed to have no impact on either the prosecution of the Wade case or the way Alicia was being treated. San Diego went ahead with the prosecution, and Goodfriend continued with her counseling, even though she, along with a county counsel and a county social worker, knew of Carder’s activities.
“Eventually,” Hopkins continues, “Alicia gave one last account of the abduction, then told the therapist that her father had been the molester. The father was arrested. At the arraignment [Alicia] gave a detailed description of her father coming into her room and molesting her, though certain salient details were missing: she couldn’t describe how he pulled down her pants; she really didn’t want to give details. The first-day videotape she was sitting up talking dearly.... Fourteen months later she literally is lying on the floor in the fetal position talking about it giving monosyllabic answers, clearly doesn’t want to talk about it, but naming her father. The father was bound over for trial.”
Jim Wade faced 16 years in prison; the family’s legal bills had risen to more than $100,000. At one point the child-protection authorities threatened to seize Joshua, Alicia’s brother. Denise Wade, Alicia’s mother, under intense pressure to testify against her husband, attempted suicide.
“Meanwhile, the girl was still seeing the therapist twice a week and was still living with the foster family, who was telling her repeatedly that they knew her father did it. An adoption process was under way.”
The family—which chose to believe the father; in such cases the father has often been re-imagined by other family members as the guilty party and abandoned — hired a criminal defense lawyer, who demanded the nightshirt the girl had been wearing the night of the abduction, which the police had had in custody all along but claimed contained no DNA. The DA’s office was forced either to retest the nightshirt or hand over the potentially valuable evidence to the defense.
What happened next is unclear. According to a press release from the DA’s office, "Mr. Wade was cleared on the eve of trial by DNA testing, as the result of a prosecutor’s careful trial preparation.... Readying his evidence, Deputy District Attorney David Rubin requested a final review of the girl’s clothing to determine whether there were enough body fluid stains to complete a DNA test. The resulting DNA tests exonerated Wade.” The DA’s office said that one DNA expert cited Rubin as “the hero” of the case.
“That’s not how I remember it,” Jim Wade said. Michael McGlinn, Wade’s defense attorney, said that within a few days of beginning his investigation— even without DNA evidence — it became clear to him that prosecutors all along should have been looking at Carder, not Wade, as the attacker. “We immediately started seeking the evidence to have it tested,” McGlinn said. “But for our investigative efforts, and putting the pressure on the prosecutor’s office — they were either going to have to retest this stuff or give it to us to let us test — it wouldn’t have happened.”
It’s easy to conclude that one of the parties is lying, but the distinction between lying and truth telling is as unrealistically black-and-white as the distinction between memory and imagination. Many of the people accused of lying during the memory wars were almost certainly telling what seemed to them to be the truth, just as those who felt they were remembering something accurately may have been drawing or images they themselves created. Nobody is malicious in his own mind, or at any rate feels malicious for long; at accommodation seems to take place, a sense of self-justification, affecting not only feeling but images and memory itself. Like Hamilton, the pitcher, we have our own reasons for rewriting history, and especially i the absence of physical evidence, who is to say who, in the end, has got it right?
Or who, indeed, was tl hero? In Hopkins’s version, was the grand jury’s intervention that was crucial (Hopkins also credits an excellent defense lawyer and the persistent and scrupulous reporting of the case by the San Diego Union).
“In October 1991, several days before the adoption was final,’’ Hopkins says, “[the grand jury] received a letter from Jim Wade saying that his child was scheduled for immediate adoption even though the DNA evidence showed that he could not have perpetrated the rape of his child. The DNA findings had been released, though not the detailed testimony that the girl gave to the Child Protective Services when she had first been questioned and had continued to give for over a year even though nobody believed her.
“The child was now saying that her father did it, and the grand jury was able to go back and prove absolutely, conclusively, that the father did not do it. Even so, Child Protective Services didn’t want to give the child back, and the DA refused to lift the court order forbidding contact with her father. They said, ‘Now she’s accused her father, and even if he didn’t do it before, he’ll do it now. He’s going to have all this rage...’ etc., etc.
“We were able to effect a change in the court proceedings almost instantly: we were able to get a continuance on the adoption, and within two or three weeks there was a reversal and a court order that the child should be reunified with the parents."
"The Wade case was important, Hopkins says, “because it’s the only time when we’ve been able to get DNA that showed the child had actually been telling the truth. What are the odds of that? It was the first documented case, to my knowledge, of a child having a memory created that led to a prosecution which was clearly proven to be false.
“The other side was saying that it couldn’t happen, the child’s ‘memory’ was bound to be accurate. What we saw was that it was amazing that the child held out for 14 months under essentially brainwashing conditions. When we took the evidence to psychologists, they said the amazing thing was not that it happened, but that it didn’t happen after a week.”
His family at last reunited, Wade moved to Missouri. San Diego taxpayers ended up paying the Wades $783,000, as part of a multiparty settlement totaling $3.7 million. More than $200,000 of the county’s expenses came in one bill, submitted by Los Angeles psychiatrist Dr. Janice H. Carter-Lourenz, who was expected to testify for the county and other defendants. “I have never heard of a bill even close to that for an expert witness,” said Dr. Richard Rappaport, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSD, who frequently testifies as an expert witness.
A judge found Wade innocent in November 1991, but his opponents seemed undeterred by this conclusion, neither admitting any wrongdoing nor apologizing for subjecting the Wades to such an ordeal. The therapist, Kathleen Goodfriend, suffered no immediate professional censure and for several years went on practicing and getting referrals from the juvenile court.
Writing a Novel
Time to draw breath and step back. How Ls it possible for anyone, child or adult, to remember what never happened?
Since the development of positron-emission tomography (PET scanning) and other techniques, it’s now possible to find out what areas of the brain arc especially active when we’re carrying out specific mental activities, and on the walls of neurobiologists’ offices the gray brain map is literally being colored in zone by zone. The University of California San Diego is rich in neurology and memory research, and in Issues of memory, forgetting, and how the brain works, all pathways lead to the department of psychiatry and neurosciences and Drs. Larry Squire and Stuart Zola.
For some reason, I forgot to take notes on Larry Squire’s appearance or that of his office. I have a mental image of a cool, airy room of bookshelves and window’s, but the only detail that comes back with any clarity is the large photograph (or possibly two) of the house in Vermont where he has summered for the last 30 years. It’s not surprising I remember it: I, too, live in Vermont, and he and I chatted about the house for several minutes.
(This is what is known as “rehearsal”: just as rote learning pounds information into us, any repetition stimulates the growth of neuron connections, giving us a better and better chance of recalling the memory. The same is unfortunately true of the techniques of “recovered” memory, revisiting a scene over and over, even if it is imaginary, gives it the vividness and familiarity of true memory.)
As for Larry Squire himself — middle-aged, medium height, bespectacled, brown hair cut slightly long — he reminds me so much of my friend John Bramley that I’m already unsure how accurately I remember Squire, or whether I’ve transplanted John’s comfortable paunch onto Larry.
So how does memory work? It turns out that this is not quite the right question.
“Memory is a folk term invented by humans, not specialists, like so many terms," he explains. “Physicists want to redo the term ‘time,’ and neuroscientists want to redo the term ‘memory.’ ” In ordinary, everyday usage, he explains, “memory” refers to what is called “declarative memory,” but there are other forms of brain activity that allow us to change our behavior based on experience, and as such they, too, deserve to be called “memory,” at least in inverted commas.
Declarative memory (which depends especially on the hippocampus and related brain structures on the inner surface of the temporal lobe) is our capacity for conscious recollection of events and facts; its name comes from the fact that it can be declared in statements that can be termed true or false. It rained yesterday. True/false. We can also forget or lose our declarative memories, and we do so all the time — but we’ll get back to forgetting in a moment.
We also use a collection of other nonconscious forms of memory, though Larry warns me to be very clear that this is not the same as what Freud meant by “the unconscious.” These humble and functional forms of memory, which neurobiology can now show to use different pathways and different areas of the brain from declarative memory, turn up in skills and habits, and in unconsidered likes and dislikes. All animals need to be able to adapt their nervous systems as a result of experience so that they will later behave more successfully. A Californian who wintered in Vermont, rather than summering there, would learn how to walk safely and efficiently on ice, a “memory” that doesn’t need conscious recall of the skills involved. Someone born on ice wouldn’t even think of it as a learned skill — it would just be part of “who he is” and what he can do.
First category: procedural memory. Motor skills, perceptual skills, and cognitive skills are called “procedural learning” because they involve learning about procedures. Habit learning is an example of procedural learning. When someone offers a hand, we reach out and shake it. “We don’t say, *I have to remember to do that.’ It’s part of the procedure.”
Moving on: emotional memory. There are aspects of emotional memory that don’t pass through our conscious scrutiny. I know that I hate peanut butter. I don’t need to ask myself. Some such attitudes are genetic, but some are learned by experience, such as phobias. If there’s an aggressive dog next door while I’m growing up, I may find myself uneasy around all dogs as an adult, even though I may not remember the brute next door. Again, be wary: this doesn’t mean I’ve repressed the ghastly memory of the dog. That memory is probably still there and can be easily jogged; it’s just that the nonconscious branch of the memory, the “instinctive” wariness, is using a different brain system, one that bypasses the hippocampus and instead uses an area of the brain called the amygdala.
Then there’s conditioning, coordinated responses to stimuli in the Pavlovian sense: I open the pages of Gourmet magazine and begin to salivate. Even here, though, there are two forms of conditioning, which use different brain bases.
There’s also a phenomenon called “priming," which has to do with learning to detect and identify sensory data based on a recent exposure. The first time I see a particular hazard in a video game it takes me a little time to identify it and react to it. Each time after that I “remember,” though not in a conscious sense, to recognize the battle cruiser more quickly and dodge it — a phenomenon, Squire says, that has its locus very early in the visual system.
Finally, there’s habituation, the weakening of a response through repetition, a primitive
ability common to all vertebrates and even invertebrates, colloquially called “getting used to something.” longtime Los Angelenos barely notice smog.
This has nothing much in common with the terms “conscious” and “unconscious” as used by Freud, or, following him, by most of us.
“When Freud talked of the unconscious,” Squire says, “he talked about things that were stored, occupying the unconscious because of conflicts, sexual strivings, or whatever, and [he believed that] through certain procedures, and over time, the unconscious could be made conscious. [The] idea of the unconscious [provided by neurobiology] is a very different idea. It has nothing to do with sex and conflict. Second, it doesn’t become conscious. If you have a fear of a dog, you have a fear of a dog. The amygdala part of it has nothing to do with consciousness. You might independently and in parallel have a memory of the dog incident, but that can come and go; it has no effect on the fact that you have this feeling about dogs.
“If a child has a bad experience with a stove at the age of 11, at 25 the child may have a memory of what happened with the stove, and that’s declarative memory. That’s what’s lost in amnesia, and that [depends on] the hippocampus and related brain structures. Secondly, the adult may just feel a little differently about stoves than you or me. It may be very subtle: he may not like to cook so much, or he may give them a slightly wider berth. That is a different brain system that’s speaking, operating in parallel with the declarative memory of what happened, to produce a feeling-based change in your behavior.”
Okay. But even the declarative memory, the conscious stuff, is not nearly as simple as it seems. I tell him about my recollection of the French Open.
“That’s a perceptive and universal account of what memory really is,” he says. “It’s a reconstruction from pieces.”
Much of visual memory consists of plausible reconstructions around pieces of hard data. Remembering, one researcher has suggested, is not like reading a novel, it’s like writing a novel. I may recall one especially remarkable passing shot, or the visual imagine of Chang’s calves being twice as wide as his knees, but most of what I “remember,” when I look hard at it, is curiously shifty and lacking in detail -— like a hologram, there but not there. I’ve sketched it in myself, so the whole thing will make what I think of as sense.
The act of remembering, then, is not about truth and falsehood. We’re not making a mosaic out of a series of pieces of available data; we’re doing something that involves the overlapping of what are usually thought of as different faculties — memory and imagination.
This may sound radical, but it’s rooted in the way we perceive the world. Because we can’t focus our attention on everything around us, we have the ability to take small amounts of sensory information and quickly form a mental picture of what they probably mean. Out of the corner of my eye I see a shape that I take to be a cat; if I turn my head and look more closely, it becomes my daughter’s black coat that she dropped on the floor. Even if we look at something quite hard — a bicycle, say — we often can’t remember it accurately enough to draw it, unless we’ve taken one apart and know how it works. Nevertheless, I have seen enough to be able to say “bicycle,” even if I glimpse it for half a second.
So memory and imagination are intimately linked; in fact, one of the most interesting recent discoveries in neurological research is that the two seem to take place in the same regions of the brain.
“Functional imaging studies," says Larry Squire’s colleague Dr. Stuart Zola, “are beginning to show that certain regions of the brain — it’s not true of all areas of the brain — activate in much the same way whether the person is actually carrying out the behavior or is simply asked to imagine the behavior.” No wonder we have difficulty distinguishing between memory and imagination: we may be retrieving virtually the same brain activity.
Finally, another strange feature of memory that adds to the complications of the retrieval process: memories are not all stored in one place. One of the puzzling features of early neuroscience was that no one area of the brain seemed to be set aside for memory: no matter what bits of a rat’s brain were cut out, one scientist discovered, it didn’t lose its memory. Memory, it seems, draws on virtually every part of the brain.
“Certain regions of the brain are specialized for processing and storing certain components of the event, and at the time you recall things you essentially have to reconstruct," Stuart Zola says. Solid, thoughtful, humorous, Zola chooses his words carefully, laughs when he feels safe. His office in the Basic Science building on the UCSD campus is even smaller and more cluttered than Carol Hopkins’s. “You’re pulling all these disparate pieces of information back together.”
No wonder we make mistakes. A person’s name, face, and how you feel about him may be stored in three different areas of the brain; not surprisingly, then, we may meet someone after a period of time and recognize his face, have a strong sense of fondness, but not be able to recall his name. It’s also common to confuse data from different origins: there are many documented cases of a witness “remembering” as a suspect someone whom they saw not at the scene of the crime but on television around the same time.
“What’s more, each time it’s going to be different. Let’s say you remember it here, now, as we talk, and tomorrow you talk to somebody else and think of this same example — you’ll have*a little more information. Your memory will be changed. It won’t be the way it was the previous day. That’s the point. Every time these areas are reactivated, they in principle are changed, because the reactivation itself produces some changes. It’s happening in a different context, some other information is infiltrated— it’s getting stored back now with another link that it didn’t have before. So each time it changes."
So how do we forget, then? In a very literal sense. Squire says, remembering and forgetting work on the use-it-or-lose-it principle. “ Psychologists begin ning with Freud have liked to believe that there is no such thing as forgetting, that forgetting is just a temporary inaccessibility that can be overcome by the right techniques. That’s very unlikely to be true. The evidence in biology is overwhelming that forgetting is a [true] loss, as in a tree losing some of its branches.
“There’s been a revolution in the last 20 years or so in neuroscience in that the understanding of the brain.. .the brain grows and forms its connections according to a genetic program, and it’s quite fixed. How, then, do we learn and remember? We learn by changing the weights of these synaptic connections. How do we do that? By actually growing more connections and strengthening existing ones. So it’s not that some little chemical thing happens; the brain actually architecturally changes. The biology of the brain of each individual is actually different because of the experiences they’ve had.
“And just as there’s the possibility for growth, there’s the possibility for regression. You can gain, and you can lose. The connections are always competing with each other for target space, the target space being the next neuron in line. You have two sets of connections coming in, these are trying to find a spot [two hands closing in, fingers outstretched like dendrites], and the strong ones make it and the weak ones don’t We lose, and gain. The biology is right there in front of us for thinking about forgetting. Memory and forgetting are gains and losses in synaptic connections.” 'Hie connections don’t lie in straight lines, though. If they did, the withering of one connection, like a muscle wasting away through disuse, would mean that a memory would be irretrievably lost. Instead, a net work of connections exists, so an individual neuron can be reached by a wide variety of different paths. If a number of these paths atrophy, some connections will remain, though they’ll be fewer and less direct, and the overall accessibility will grow weaker. It’s called “graceful degradation.” The event is becoming harder and harder to access and to reconstruct.
Is there any possibility, then, that the nature of the memory itself could cause it to be hidden, which is the premise of “repressed” traumatic memory?
“Well, we have to not make this black-and-white. I like to say that ‘repression’ is nonrehearsal. Rather than think of some magical event that constrains the memory—if something bad happens to you, you just don’t want to think about it. Now, I’m not talking about horrible, life-threatening things that often get remembered all too well. You’re going to remember the stuff that you want to remember, because you’re going to rehearse and celebrate it, the stuff you don’t want to remember you’re not going to rehearse, and of course rehearsal is one of the most powerful mechanisms for strengthening your memory. If you and I were to have an extensive conversation about first grade, the chances are we’d come up with all sorts of memories we hadn’t thought about since third grade. Some of them would be trivial, maybe some of them were unpleasant, and we’d say, ‘My God! Remember that?’ But they hadn’t been repressed.”
I bring up the phrase “body memory,” and he frowns. “It’s just a distortion of the biology. None of the body remembers. It’s the brain that remembers. In a folksy kind of way it’s capturing what we were talking about — nondeclarative memory. Athletes and musicians talk of ‘muscle memory.’ It’s been ingrained through practice into circuits that don’t need declarative memory anymore. That’s what these people may have in mind — the amygdala contribution. Rats that are completely forgetful or humans who have amnesia because of damage to the hippocampal system are nonetheless completely able to acquire all these kinds of non-declarative memory. They’re from completely different brain bases.
“What is not known is if there's a potential for interaction between the amygdala system and the hippocampal system. If you have a dog phobia, for example, and let’s say it happened around the age of four so there’s a possibility that you might remember the event, and declaratively you say, ‘I don’t remember the event.’ The question is, does the fact that it exists in the amygdala — is that ever going to help you get it back declaratively? The amygdala never does anything consciously, but could having it in the amygdala trigger the little fragment of connection that’s left in the neocortex and hippocampal system to get you to remember it? The answer is, I guess, potentially, yes. The real issue, though, is testing the validity of what you come up with. When you come up with an idea, how are you going to know if it’s the truth or simply a plausible scenario?”
Some recent research at Princeton, he says, suggests that close analysis of the details may suggest a difference between real and fantasized memories in terms of the amount of sensory detail — but then if a therapist has specifically asked for such details, or suggested them, then surely the distinction would be easily blurred. And in a remote memory most of the sensory details may be lost anyway. There’s just no getting away from it: at the moment there’s no way to tell the difference between memories of real and imagined events.
Telling Stories. Bearing Witness
And if there’s no way to tell if our memories are accurate, what does that do for legal testimony in general? The research of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, has shown that eyewitness memory, far from being the clincher in a courtroom, is notoriously unreliable and subject to change. And as with “recovered” memory, the most misleading feature of the experience is our own inability to judge whether we’re remembering accurately.
A telling study was conducted among students at Emory University of their memories of the Challenger disaster.
1: “I was in my religion class and some people walked in and started talking about it. I didn’t know any details except that it had exploded and the schoolteacher’s students had all been watching, which I thought was so sad. Then after class I went to my room and watched the TV program talking about it, and I got all the details from that.”
2: “When I first heard about the Explosion I was sitting in my freshman dorm room with my roommate and we were watching TV. It came on a news flash, and we were both totally shocked. I was really upset and I went upstairs to talk to a friend of mine and then I called my parents.”
Forty-four students were interviewed the morning after the event, and then two and a half years later. These two descriptions were given by the same student. Number two, which is in many ways more dramatic, was the long-range recollection. Not only did many of the recollections vary over time, but perhaps more importantly the students didn’t realize that fact: often, the students who expressed confidence in the accuracy of their memories made the most mistakes.
The very act of telling stories, let alone the probing of a “recovered memory” therapist or the coaching of a prosecutor preparing a witness for trial, makes us tailor and reconceive memory.
“Stories are a chance for us to tell others about events the way we want to hear them, not necessarily about what actually happened,” explains Dr. Wayne Beach, professor of communications at San Diego State University. The relationship between the teller and the listener, or between the two people exchanging stories, may be at least as important as the facts of the event.
“We use stories to reconstruct reality in such a way that we have more influence over who and what we are in it, as a central character — rather than accepting life as it is dealt to us and dealing with that.”
Nobody wants to be a meaningless bit character in someone else's drama, and stories are a way of making us the key players in what seem to be our own dramas—as long as we tell them skillfully. “You rarely present a story that makes yourself out to be an ogre. Typically it’s about hero- or heroine-building, putting ourselves into the light where we are coming off pretty good, and often at others’ expense, or at the world’s expense.” If we can’t be the hero of the story, we can at least be a blameless victim. And if we tell our stories effectively enough, often enough, they become memories.
There’s now a large body of research on stories and interaction, he says, and it’s clear that in many respects and in many instances the listener may drive the story rather than the teller.
“Without an audience, what’s a storyteller to do? So they’re building (the story) for particular people’s hearings, and the way they do that allows recipients to do things like ask questions, show more interest here and less interest there, so the way the story emerges is not just the reconstruction of the memory, it’s about the moment-by-moment contingencies of the conversation. In many key ways, the dominant figure in the story is not the storyteller, it’s the recipient.”
The memory itself, then, is pliable; what is more important are the questions “How am I going to use it? What good is it going to do me?”
“Often (some of the details) that are necessary for shared mutual understanding...have to be more poetically (than literally) described, or more dramatic. . .rather than mundane. It’s incumbent on a storyteller to make the story interesting and relevant.... Stories become these things that I think are verbal art. They’re amazingly complex, requiring amazingly delicate competencies, but come off ” — he snaps his fingers — “off the cuff, just without a thought. In fact, if you think about what you’re doing...it’ll become (a| worse |story).”
These are such early-learned and well-lea rued skills that we’re largely unaware either that we embellish or that we have reasons for doing so. We’re not necessarily talking about lying or even self-dramatization. We’re talking about something everyone does, all the time, simply as part of being social beings. “Much of it is nonstrategic, unthinking — it’s just the way we live our lives.” Wayne shows me the transcript of an offhand conversation between two young guys about a date, and it’s fascinating to notice how the (often nonverbal) responses of the listener completely change the nature of the story and the direction of the conversation.
It’s the strength and the weakness of memory that we use these interactive skills so instinctively and so unconsciously, because it means that while we’re using our social storytelling skills, we’re turning our attention away from an accurate scrutiny of fact, and we’re often completely unaware that we’re making that shift of focus. “Thought moves quicker than voice,” he says. “Spontaneous improvisation on the cusp of real time.”
Moreover, he says, we start to believe the stories we tell because we watch the way our listener reacts to what we say, and when they believe us, we start to believe ourselves, “which can really warp what happened.” Even if a therapist is not inclined to use the dramatic techniques of the recovered-memory era, her dilemma becomes like the anthropologist's dilemma; how do you study a culture without changing people’s behavior simply because they know they’re being studied? How do I elicit the truth when simply asking may begin to change it? It’s like trying to pick up wet clay without leaving fingerprints.
If we rehearse memories and tell stories to amend our sense of ourselves and our place in the world, then the more a memory is amended, the harder it is to face a challenge to that memory, as it challenges our new, acceptable view of our self. Emotion is more important titan fact; inner life takes precedence over outer. A pitcher can live with a view of himself that says, “Jeez, I didn’t mean to hit the poor guy.” It would be a lot harder to spend the rest of his life thinking, “Yeah, I knew what I was doing. I threw at him, I hit him, I knocked him out of baseball, and I nearly killed him.” Not that we know if that’s wliat Hamilton actually thought.
It’s reassuring to know that solid research into memory is under way—but there was no such clarity in San Diego in 1991, and the Alicia Wade case would turn out to be easy to resolve and downright sane compared with what was to follow.
Attorneys Ministers, and Eagle Scouts
Three other bizarre extensions of the theory of recovered memory were the invention of multiple personality disorder, the epidemic fear of satanism, and the rash of allegations of sexual abuse in day cares.
'Hie first book of the recovered-memory genre, Michelle Remembers, was not just a book about child sexual abuse — it was a book about satanism. The longer Pazder treated Michelle, the more she began to “remember” satanic ritual abuse by everyone in the small town in which she lived. What was remarkable about such claims was not so much that she made them, but that within half a dozen years thousands of Americans would be making such claims, and millions would believe them. A 1992 survey by the University of New York at Buffalo of 2700 clinical psychologists from around the country found that nearly a third reported having patients who were victims of ritual abuse. Astoundingly, various other surveys showed that up to a third of all mental-health professionals would believe such reports.
Urban legends are the metamorphosis of common anxieties into tales that are widely circulated and believed, despite a complete lack of hard evidence. They tend to arise as new anxieties arise, which in turn are the result of social changes on a mass scale.
Our protective anxieties about our children make them prime targets for urban legends. Nineteen seventy-three saw the end of what had seemed the inevitable rise of American standards of living; ever since, family incomes have fallen steadily in real terms, until the single-income family has become a rarity, and for the first time in history, day care became an American institution. The novelty of the situation and the understandable anxiety among parents created a perfect breeding ground for imagining the worst.
Imagining the worst is the job of the horror genre, whether in books, films, or television, and at the same time as day cares were becoming an unfortunate necessity, Satan was enjoying a revival. In 1964 about a third of
Americans believed in the devil as a literal entity, a decade later, after the release of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and dozens of copycat movies, coinciding with the rapid growth of fundamentalist, evangelist, and Pentecostalist Christian groups, the figure had risen to a half, and it continued to climb. Rumors began that Procter and Gamble’s man-in-the-moon-surrounded-by-13-stars logo was a satanist symbol, and the company came under such pressure that in 1985 it removed the moon and stars front its products.
Urban legends are nothing new. What is new is the degree to which respectable vehicles of public information have been involved in the dissemination of rumor and speculation. In 1970, for example, the New York Times warned against razor blades in Halloween apples, an admonition that would be repeated in homes nationwide over the next few years, yet in those next two decades only two deaths could be blamed on candy tampering, and those were both by a member of the child’s own family. Likewise, while many urban legends seem to be passed on more or less as gossip, the satanic-ritual myths were presented as gospel, at the highest lewis—by state, county, and local agencies, at professional trainings and conferences for psychologists and social workers, even in law enforcement training.
A panel of child-abuse specialists who spoke in 1988 at the California State Psychological Association’s 40th anniversary convention in Coronado stated as if it were fact that satanic cults were real and had infiltrated every level of society. Dan Sexton, director of the National Child Abuse Hotline, said, “We’re not talking about the sleazebags in the park. We’re talking about attorneys, ministers, high-ranking military people, Eagle Scouts.”
What was astonishing about satanic ritual abuse was the number of preschool and day-care facilities involved and the network of cultists working in the facilities, said Dr. Catherine Gould, a supervising psychologist at UCLA who claimed to have documented about 20 cases in the Los Angeles area. (The San Diego Union wrote Gould “has documented”; subsequently its coverage would become more hard-nosed and its reporters, notably Mark Sauer and Jim Okerblom, would investigate such allegations very thoroughly.) The satanic movement uses child victims to kidnap other children, sometimes setting up the kidnapping so the victim thinks he was the actual perpetrator, Sexton said.
“There are women who do nothing but give birth to children," who are later used in rituals, he said. “Some of the missing kids we are dealing with are not going to show up again,” he added, explaining that problem children who are thought to be runaways sometimes die at the hands of satanic cultists.
Preoccupation with urine and feces, aggressive play with a marked sadistic quality, mutilation themes, harming animals, fear that something foreign such as a bomb or insects are in the body, fear of being tied up or caged, odd songs and chants, constant fatigue, numbers and letters written backward, and references to medicine or pills are indications that the child may be influenced by satanic cultists, the panel said.
Other “experts" warned that signs of ritual abuse in children’s artwork included mountains, Christmas trees, wavy lines, or scribble. Likewise, if a child showed a dislike for tomato juice, ketchup, cranberry juice, or raspberry tea, these were signs of a horror of blood developed during ritual abuse.
One therapist, recruited as an expert in satanic abuse and brought in to run an awareness program for a Canadian municipality, claimed that three in a hundred Canadians had been ritually abused and had witnessed a murder, though when questioned by a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewer she was at a loss to explain how 750,000 Canadians could have been murdered without leaving any trace. Similarly, she claimed to have a candle made out of baby wax — that is, wax made from the fatty flesh of babies used in satanic rituals — in her office safe but declined to produce it.
Backed up by such widespread apparent authority, the story became irresistible to news media, accustomed to relying on such “experts” for factual backup. In 1989 the Evening Tribune reported that stories of satanic abuse were “Horrible, But True.” A news series called “Significant Others," broadcast on KPIX in San Francisco, reported satanic ritual abuse as factual and epidemic, saying that experts believed that three-quarters of all patients diagnosed with multiple-personality disorder had been ritually abused in cults. Children and adults told the camera of seeing buckets of blood under beds, pregnant women having their babies killed, and “a whole bunch of children being killed." According to this report, there was satanism in every community in the country. The series was shown at psychology conferences as documentary evidence of satanism.
“There was quite a lot of tension at conferences,” Dr. Philip Kaushall recalls. “The Center for Child Protection has had this annual conference on child maltreatment in San Diego, and I’ve been to several of those and there have been several [tense exchanges]. One instance about five years ago, Ken Linning — he’s an FBI guy — was giving a big talk to this huge audience, and the first thing he said was ‘I want everyone to understand I’m not an agent of Satan,’ something lighthearted like that, and there were hisses from [members of] the audience who took it as an attack on them. And then there was all kinds of very aggressive questioning: ‘What are we supposed to do when people tell us about murdered babies?’ His response was ‘Well, there’s a criminal justice system available if you have the evidence of something happening,’ trying to pour oil on troubled waters, but there were some very hysterical questions asked.”
Lanning, who was responsible for investigating charges of satanic ritual activity, made several visits to San Diego in the early 1990s. As one of the few people involved in trying to ascertain hard evidence for these charges, he was in a curious position: his message, repeated time and again, was that there was no such evidence. For this, he was repeatedly vilified, and for some this merely threw the credibility of the FBI into question.
Multiple personality disorder (MPD) was the other curious flower to blossom from the roots of recovered memory. MPD has a very odd history. Like flying saucers, multiple personalities seemed barely to exist before World War II, then turn up everywhere. Before 1970, fewer than 200 people worldwide had ever been described with symptoms like those of MPD, barely a handful of whom were from the United States. It was not even included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the encyclopedia of the mental health profession. In 1973,though,the book Sybil appeared, describing a woman who supposedly developed 16 personalities after being chronically raped and tortured by her mentally ill mother. Sybil became a best seller and then a TV movie. The woman’s therapist joined the faculty at the
University of Kentucky, where she worked with faculty studying MPD patients, many of whom under hypnosis produced stories of grotesque abuse. By 1984, at least 1000 cases of MPD had been diagnosed, and by 1992 the number had reached 25,000. The vast majority were in the United States, they were overwhelmingly female, and a large percentage came from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds.
MPD, then, was interpreted as a memory issue: when the memory of satanic abuse was too horrifying to bear, the theory ran, the child split it off and hid it away in a distinct “personality." Using the techniques of recovered memory, therapists elicited stories that seemed to prove their own hypothesis. By 1990 some “experts" on MPD were claiming that as many as three-quarters of all MPD patients were the victims of satanic ritual abuse.
It’s important to note that by the late ’90s, not only are the recovered “memories” suspect, but so is the very notion of the MPD disintegration of personality. A commonly held view nowadays is that a fragile patient may develop distinct “personalities" at the unconscious invitation of the psychologist; a substantial body of expert opinion sees most, if not all so-called MPD as iatrogenic — that is, created by the physician.
All three of these issues — MPD, satanism, and day cares — arose from the same origins and were pursued by the same “expert” mental health workers, so in retrospect it's hardly surprising that all three appeared in dusters, most famously in the 1983 McMartin day-care case in Manhattan Beach, California, which lasted seven years and was the longest and costliest criminal trial in U.S. history. What is surprising is that, instead of convincing the public that satanic abuse was largely the invention of anxious parents and therapists, McMartin achieved the opposite effect: it spawned more than a hundred similar day-care sex-abuse cases in North America. Although the court found that no molesting had taken place, and the only abusers were, in effect, the therapists who had repeatedly led or even coerced the children into making graphic revelations that had no basis in fact, what the general public remembered of the trial, apparently, was not its outcome; it was the possibility that our children were horribly vulnerable.
The day-care cases took prosecution to a new level. “Very few [supposed perpetrators] were being prosecuted for the false-memory cases,” Carol Hopkins recalls. “They were being sued, and their lives were being torn to shreds, but |with the day-care cases] people were being put behind bars.
“Meanwhile, the grand jury had also found out that in late 1991 the county had adopted a protocol for removing children in cases that seemed to involve satanic ritual abuse, which said that ritual abuse in San Diego County was epidemic. All these women were going to these therapists and recovering memories of having been ritually abused as children, and if it happened to them, it was happening now. So where was it happening? It was happening in the day cares. It was happening in the churches.”
It was these fears that had led to the foundation, in 1988, of the San Diego Ritual Abuse Task Force.
Enter the Task Force
One of the first acts of the San Diego Ritual Abuse Task Force was to prepare a 56-page booklet, released by the task force’s parent body, the county Commission on Children and Youth in September 1991, warning of the satanic conspiracy and how to deal with it.
The booklet, entitled “Ritual Abuse — Treatment, Intervention and Safety Guidelines,” defined ritual abuse as a brutal, repetitive physical abuse or painful, sadistic, humiliating sexual abuse of children and adolescents coupled with emotional abuse that “is brainwashing at least as severe as wartime mind control,” according to Linda Walker, a licensed clinical social worker and executive officer of the commission.
According to the booklet, secret satanic cults were common. 1 hey had their own means of supplying small children to sacrifice, either by kidnapping or by using “breeders” — namely, women who bore children solely for sexual abuse and sacrifice. “Doctors, attorneys, politicians, and wealthy individuals often form a powerful shield and are principals in many established abusive cults,” it said. The fact that nobody had ever exposed such a cult was proof of how deeply entrenched and well protected they were. “ The ability to carry off ritualistic meeting and/or ceremonies, to include tortures, sexual abuses and sacrifices, requires a facility and/or space. Hie larger organizations can provide these requirements.” As for the tact that the large numbers of children involved seemed not to be reporting their abuse, the pamphlet said that satanists hypnotized children or told them that bombs had been planted inside their bodies and would go off if they ever revealed the truth. In .September 1991 the County of San Diego adopted a Ritual Abuse Protocol for dealing with the epidemic of satanism in San Diego.
If these bizarre details — which were taken very seriously at the time — have a surreal, nightmare quality it’s because of the curious, circular route by which they emerged. They were reported as fact by a select group of the region’s mental health professionals, who had become known in the mental health field precisely because they treated “survivors” of satanic abuse, and treated them seriously. Pamela Badger, a marriage and family counselor, for example, worked with a group called the Survivors Network at a La Mesa mental health clinic — the same clinic where Kathleen Goodfriend, the therapist to whom Alicia Wade was sent, practiced. For this reason, anyone who suspected that she (or in fewer cases, he) had been ritually abused would go to this group of therapists, who would be on the lookout for symptoms that proved ritual abuse. (Many patients who went into counseling believing that they were suffering only from anxiety or depression also came to believe they had been sexually or satanically abused. Lists of one-crime-fits-all symptoms were common in those days.) From there it was a relatively short step to use hypnosis or body work to call up “memories” of abuse, which were so grotesquely vivid that they in turn served as proof that satanism existed.
The booklet was only one “educational” tool. The county commission also carried out ritual abuse seminars for social workers and mental health professionals and offered instructional videotapes, the most confident and alarming of which were made by Catherine Gould and Vicki Graham-Costain for Cavalcade Productions of Ukiah. Gould and Graham-Costain were members of the Los Angeles Ritual Abuse Task Force, on which the San Diego body was modeled, and it’s a measure of the intensity of their beliefs that they would soon achieve notoriety by claiming that the Los Angeles Task Force was being poisoned by a conspiracy of satanists who were trying to silence them and their “witnesses” by secretly leaking diazanon, a chemical used in bug spray, into their offices, homes, and cars, even into the air-conditioning system of the County Hall of Administration, where the task force met. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here listening to this,"responded Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of the Los Angeles County toxic-substances program.
Other members of the San Diego Task Force who worked on the ritual abuse booklet included Sue Plante, a county social worker, and Candace Young, a psychologist. At this point it’s instructive to see how the recovered-memory and ritual-abuse theories affected other social work cases that were unfolding at the time and how the same names keep recurring in positions of authority and influence. Plante and Young were involved in a case in which a Rancho Penasquitos couple. Bill and Rebecca Wallis, were accused of preparing to sacrifice their own child to a multigenerational satanic cult, of which they were members. (It’s astonishing how many of these satanic cults were described as including generations of followers — until you realize that the recovered-memory-of-child-hood -abuse theory more or less insists that such weirdness has been going on for at least a couple of decades.) The accusation alone was enough to propel Child Protective Services to take their two-year-old son and five-year-old daughter and keep them for more than two months.
Let’s take this step by step. As with many of the early bizarre accusations of abuse, a genuinely diseased imagination is at work. There have always been such minds; the difference is that in the 1980sand early 1990s,such imaginings were taken seriously. Rebecca Wallis’s sister, diagnosed as a schizophrenic, had been in therapy with Candace Young since 1988. After some time Young was able to report to county Child Protective Services that the sister — we’ll call her Loretta — was hearing voices and having flashbacks of sexual abuse, including molestation by her mother in her crib before age one. (Neurological researchers, in a rare burst of certainty, flatly deny that any of us can remember anything from that age.) In September, after more than three years of recovered-memory therapy with Young, Loretta said she remembered being a child victim in a satanic cult that practiced sexual and physical torture and baby sacrifices. Young wrote. She went on to say that the Wallises were going to sacrifice her nephew, their son, on September 24, the child’s third birthday, and then cover up the deed by saying that it had happened in a car accident. (Satanic-abuse believers, pressed to explain why we weren’t seeing thousands of grotesquely mutilated bodies in every town in the nation, often claimed that car accidents were convenient coverups.)
Young, apparently taking this threat at face value, passed it on to Child Protective Services. Rebecca Wallis was arrested and the children seized. A pediatrician found medical “evidence” of sexual abuse of the girl, and a social worker, Cathy McClennan, determined after a two-hour interview that there was evidence of molestation. Luckily, sanity was restored a lot more quickly than in the Wade case: the medical findings were reversed, and a review of the interview by county officials suggested McClennan had badgered the child into implicating her mother. The Wallises sued Escondido and San Diego police officers, Palomar Medical Center and physician Mary Spencer, Young and Plante and other county officials, social workers, and attorneys for child abduction, conspiracy, fraud, false imprisonment, negligence, and other charges.
“During an investigation of the Child Protective Services system,” wrote the Sun Diego Union in early 1992, “[the newspaper) found that five other families and a North County church have been investigated by county social workers as suspected satanists or cultists. In three families, authorities have removed children from their homes for days, weeks, or months; other families have faced accusations of satanism. None of the cases has been substantiated.”
The grand jury was deeply suspicious. “We interviewed all the people who voted for the ritual abuse protocol,” Hopkins says, “the presiding judge, the juvenile court, the district attorney, almost everyone who voted for it — and we asked them, ‘Why did you vote for this? Had you seen any bodies? Had you seen any blood? Had you seen any evidence? This is paranoid, and it’s affected all these children who are being brought in now, and parents are being accused....’ And they said, ‘Well, you know, if we raised our hands and voted against it, we would have been suspected of being involved. Because written right into the protocol is the fact that judges and district attorneys and coroners must be ritual abusers, as that’s the only way these bodies have successfully disappeared.’ I came back to the grand jury and sat there and said,‘I feel like the child who has seen the emperor’s new clothes. Maybe I’m crazy, but where is the evidence?’ There was none. This was all based on this false-memory stuff. The day-care cases, the ritual abuse cases, were the flip side of the 'recovered memory’ cases.” (The protocol was abandoned in 1992.)
The establishment of the San Diego County Ritual Abuse Task Force led directly — perhaps more directly than was ever intended — to what was then the longest and costliest trial in the city’s history, the case of Dale Akiki and the Faith Chapel daycare center.
The Scopes Trial for Memory
Dale Akiki, a Navy supply clerk, volunteered to mind children from April 1988 to April 1989 at a small daycare attached to Faith Chapel in Spring Valley, where children were dropped off while their parents attended services. He met his wife, Sharon, who also tended children, at the church. No misbehavior was reported until August 1989 (four months after Akiki stopped his volunteer work), when a Faith Chapel mother was told by her daughter, who had been placed in a “time-out” chair for calling another child “pee-pee and poo-poo face,” that Sharon Akiki had slapped her. After more questioning, the mother reported, the girl told her, “He showed me him’s penis.”
In May 1991, Akiki was arrested and charged with up to 43 counts of abuse and 2 counts of kidnapping. In therapy sessions, nine of the children had accused him (and his wife and another child minder, though these two women were never indicted) of such ghastly and heinous acts that it must have seemed to many, with so much smoke, and such dark, evil-smelling smoke at that, that there must have been fire. Nobody was of that opinion more strongly than the Ritual Abuse Task Force.
According to testimony during the trial, District Attorney Ed Miller originally appointed a prosecutor named Sally Penso, who investigated the Akiki case and decided there was insufficient evidence to bring charges. At that point Miller had a private meeting with Jack and Mary Goodall. Jack Goodall, in addition to being CEO of Foodmaker, Inc., the parent company of Jack In The Box, and part owner of the San Diego Padres, was board chairman of the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation and its biggest contributor. Miller served as an honorary board member of the foundation. Mary Goodall was a member of the Ritual Abuse Task Force and the grandmother of one of the “molested” children. Both the Goodalls were members of the Faith Chapel congregation. After meeting the Goodalls, Miller gave the case to Mary Avery, another prosecutor who was also the cofounder of the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation—and a member of the Ritual Abuse Task Force. Avery recommended prosecution, and under her leadership the case went to trial in 1993.
“From the outset, the trial was about memory,” Carol Hopkins recalls. The trial became a trial of experts about memory and about how children could be made to say —and believe — these ghastly things. In its way, she says, the Akiki trial was for memory what the Scopes “Monkey” Trial was for evolution.
The case for the prosecution consisted almost entirely of recovered (or perhaps cajoled) memories (originally, virtually all the children denied that anything untoward had happened at the Faith Chapel day care) along with therapists and expert witnesses testifying that the children’s behavior (especially in such specialized settings as art therapy and play with anatomically correct dolls) was consistent with severe physical and sexual abuse.
Many of the “recollections” retrieved in therapy were so bizarre it’s hard to imagine how they could have been believed by anyone not predisposed to believe that children never lie and that satanism flourished under every rock. One boy said Akiki held children's heads underwater in a toilet, hit children “on their private parts” with a baseball bat, and sprayed children’s genitals with what “felt like acid.” He said Akiki threatened to kill his parents if he told anyone. Some children, he said, were hit with the bat until they bled or until their arms broke and that they later had casts on their arms. (No parents ever reported their children being hurt while in Akiki’s care.) He told the court that Akiki drowned a “real baby” who was kicking and crying in the toilet, touched children on their private parts with a knife, and cut some children until they bled. Two children died, he said.
One mother testified that she believed a live chicken was slaughtered in Akiki’s class; several children testified that Akiki killed rabbits; and one boy described Akiki killing an elephant and giraffe and drinking their blood. Therapists testified that they believed these accounts were true or that Akiki staged fake killings in a campaign of terror.
With all this mayhem, one might haw expected an avalanche of medical evidence, but this was not the case. Prosecutors had originally intended to present no physical evidence at all, for the simple reason that despite the grotesque activity supposedly going on in the day care, doctors found no signs of harm on any of the children. On the eve of the trial, though, following an irate call to a radio show by one of the children’s mothers (who claimed her child had extensive physical damage), Avery contacted the examining physician, a personal friend, and asked her to reexamine the child. According to testimony during the trial, the doctor did so and announced that she had been wrong in 1990, three years previously: there was indeed a small tear in the girl’s hymen.
On the witness stand, the doctor was asked if she believed the children’s tales of being sexually abused — raped, in effect — by swords and large branches. “Yes,” she replied. How could this not leave physical evidence? T*he organs were very elastic, she said, and might be able to take such penetration without any tearing or scarring. What about the fact that the parents were in the adjoining building and yet no one had heard a sound out of these children? Wouldn't they have screamed out in pain when penetrated by these large and sharp items? She answered no: if the child was relaxed it might not be that uncomfortable.
Kenneth Lanning, the special agent in the FBI’s behavioral science unit and the agency’s expert on ritual abuse, was called by the prosecution but testified that in ten yearsof investigation he had yet to find evidence of a single case of satanic ritual abuse. All the same, he was sympathetic to the prosecution in one respect: “I defy any DA, with 40 kids saying they were sexually abused,” he said, “to send them home and say it didn’t happen.”
Curiously, after 1992 the prosecution denied that this was a satanic-abuse case — possibly because one of its expert witnesses, Newport Beach psychiatrist Park Dietz, acknowledged under cross-examination by the defense that he did not believe that satanic ritual abuse existed, and he had agreed to testify only if the prosecution dropped the phrase from the proceedings.
But if satanic abuse was not supposed to be up for discussion in court — the prosecution in fact tried to prevent the defense even mentioning the issue — it transpired that plenty of discussion about satanism had been happening elsewhere. Witnesses called by the defense suggested that the uproar and bizarre behavior happened not during Faith Chapel services while the children were being supervised by Akiki and others but in homes and therapists’ offices after Akiki was first accused.
There is no evidence of what went on in the children’s therapy sessions, because the recovered-memory specialists had learned from McMartin not to videotape sessions in case they found themselves accused of asking leading questions and essentially planting the memories they were now using as evidence.
We do know, however, that despite its claim that satanic abuse was not a factor, the DA’s office referred the children to therapists who believed in satanic abuse and were looking for signs of it — such as Pamela Badger, a former task force member, co-author of the task force’s satanic abuse handbook, and firm believer both in multiple personality disorder and in the disorder’s origins in satanic or sadistic abuse.
Even outside the therapy sessions, the children were being pressed hard to “remember" abuse. One father drove his son around Spring Valley so he could point out buildings where Akiki had taken children by bus or by car during the 90-minute classes. Another father, believing (understandably) that he had been doing the right thing, testified that he sat his son down after the boy was uncooperative during a therapy session in June 1990 and told the child that he could not avoid talking about the abuse allegations. The boy then responded: “Fine, I saw a boy killed.’’The child then went on to describe how Akiki brought a four-year-old boy named Matt into the classroom at Faith Chapel and shot him in the head with a pistol. The father wrote in his notes that because the boy’s account was “so concise and factual... there was little question that it was true.” The father had kept notes and tapes of his questioning sessions with his son, and the court heard the child describing such things as Akiki throwing a classmate out a window, urinating in another boy’s mouth, stuffing a toy animal down a boy’s throat, and taking “like, a key or something” and putting it in a child’s rectum. The boy had initially denied being abused by Akiki. A sheriffs detective subsequently testified that the boy later denied all of the allegations he made to his parents.
The parents had been warned not to discuss the allegations with each other, but quite the reverse happened: a panic gripped many of the congregation, fueled apparently by Mary Avery and Mary Goodall.
A pastor who had been employed at Faith Chapel when Akiki worked there testified that it was Avery who chose Goodall to be the liaison between the DA’s office and parents at Faith Chapel. The former pastor said he did not recall the term “ritual abuse" being mentioned in connection with the Akiki case until about March 1990, the month after Avery replaced the original prosecutor. (thiat month, several church staff members and parents attended an EI Cajon conference on ritual abuse. One therapist testified that Avery urged her to attend, while a church official testified that Mary Goodall told him about it.) The pastor said Goodall gave him copies of literature about ritual abuse, including five copies of a book about a controversial ritual abuse case in Florida. He also said that Goodall suggested that the church arrange for Catherine Gould, of the Los Angeles Ritual Abuse Task Force, to come to speak to the parents of the children Akiki was suspected of abusing. He also learned of demands by jack Goodall, he said, that “he wanted [Akiki] out of the church.” Within the first few weeks of the initial allegations, the former pastor said, he and other church officials were inundated with reports from parents “about what might have happened to children,” and fear and anger began to mount.
More families became involved, and reports of disclosures by children began circulating among them. The pastor testified that church member Sandy Keith, who was related to one of Akiki’s young accusers, called him and “said to ask the children if there were any animals brought into the room, and what did they do to the animals.” A short time later, the former pastor testified, allegations of animal killings and other strange happenings began emerging and “a conspiracy mentality just set in: This was not just one or two people, but a whole host of people.”
A teacher at the church school testified that several church members arranged a “demon hunt” to exorcise the classroom where Akiki had worked and had “prayed away” a spirit. The fear grew so intense, the former pastor said, that he was told that the parents of one of the “abused” children had their home swept for electronic listening devices they suspected had been planted by child abuse conspirators working with Akiki.
“To me, it almost sounds psychotic, the kind of fear and conspiracy that was rampant here, that they would have people come in their home and have their home searched,” the former pastor said.
He said he called Avery to share his concerns, but “She told me, ‘Well, we have even had our own phones here,’ in the district attorney’s office or her office, ‘we have even had those phones checked because there’s information that’s been getting out.’"
The trial caught the attention of Stuart Zola (then Stuart Zola-Morgan), who realized that the questions involved were no longer academic.
“That was the epiphany for me, in terms of the fact that these things really can have an impact on people’s lives. I had heard about it — and in truth I can’t reconstruct this accurately! I’m not sure if Kate Coyne called me or if I began to read about it and then called her — but somehow Kate Coyne, the defense attorney, and I got hooked up. I never did testify, but I served behind the scenes unofficially as a consultant....
“As I first came to the trial to hear what was going on, it became clear to me that this was just a classic case of this phenomenon wherein people were beginning to generate memories of events that obviously couldn't have happened. The kids were describing things that were impossible; that Dale brought an elephant into the classroom, and a giraffe, and they drank blood.... These couldn’t be memories of real events.
“During the course of the testimony, I heard some of the mothers describing the things that they did with their kids at bedtime. They would read them a book that was like the Little Golden Books we were read as kids. It was like a Little Book of Satanic Ritual Abuse. It has these nice cartoon drawings showing this little kid sitting in the middle of this pentagram, and these hooded figures around the kid, and the text is ‘Your parents have given you to us. You must obey all our commands.’ The mothers would read these stories to their kids, and then there was a set of questions at the back of the book that they were asked to ask their children. ‘ Has this ever happened to you? Has something like this ever happened to you?’ I mean, it was unbelievable."
The book in question was Don't Make Me Go Back, Mommy: A Child’s Book about Satanic Ritual Abuse by Doris Sanford, published by Multnomah Press. It begins with worried parents saying, “look, she didn’t eat again — she used to love chicken,” and “She acts afraid all the time." These symptoms turn out to be the tip of the iceberg: a picture shows a clearing in the woods by a barn, with hooded figures, a pentagram, and a makeshift altar the children in the day care are indeed being used in satanic rituals. The book goes on to make the veiled implication that the judge investigating the case is “one of them” and concludes that “Children who are survivors of ritual abuse need a therapist with experience in working with these children....”
“These mothers would be reading this book to their kids at bedtime,” Zola said, “with the best of intentions but unknowingly making all these suggestions. Now the kid dreams about this — who knows what happens? So of course the kids begin to generate these stories. As I understand it, all the kids initially denied that Dale had ever done anything to them, but in the course of therapy, over several weeks, with a particular therapist to whom many of the kids were assigned, many of the children began to develop stories.”
Meanwhile, memory was turning out to be its usual unreliable self. On the stand, Mary (loodall said she could not recall giving a talk to a county commission in March 1989 on the subject of ritual abuse, even though the minutes showed she had done so. Not a memorable meeting, apparently, for in his testimony, jack Goodall denied that his wife had ever talked to him about satanic ritual child abuse. When shown the minutes of the meeting that indicated his wife had given a talk about satanic abuse and that he was present. Goodall said, "I have no recollection about that."
The girl whose single allegation started the panic nearly four years previously testified that Akiki “touched us in the privates” and “was hurting the bunnies” but made no mention of the original charge — that Akiki had once exposed himself in the classroom — and she could not remember several other allegations that her former therapists said she had made. When questioned by Avery she also said that she was taken to “the shower room” by Dale and Sharon Akiki, but under questioning by defense attorney Sue Clemens, the girl could not describe what the shower looked like or where it was and said “no” when asked if anything bad happened there.
In the end, it was an open-and-shut case. Alter a trial that lasted seven months and cost San Diego taxpayers more than $2 million, the jury was out for less than seven hours before finding Akiki innocent and issuing a strong reprimand to the prosecution for bringing the case to trial with so little evidence. Akiki left the courthouse in a limo paid for by sheriffs deputies.
Subsequently, he successfully sued San Diego County, Ed Miller, Mary Avery, the Goodalls, Pamela Badger and Linda Walker and various therapists involved in the case, and employees of Children’s Hospital and Faith Chapel, for professional negligence and spreading rumor, slander, libel, and hysteria that led to his arrest and two and a half years of false imprisonment. The county’s share was S832,500; the total settlement was “in the low seven figures.”
I’ve used published sources for the vast majority of this account of the Akiki case rather than Hopkins’s recollections because by the time it came to trial her grand jury term had ended and she was anything but a disinterested observer. She became active in the case, leading demonstrations, holding candlelight vigils, trying to educate the public about the myths of satanic ritual abuse. For that reason, you’d expect that her memories of the events would be partisan but also vivid and accurate. Once more, memory shows itself to be all too fallible.
“I never met Dale until the day he was acquitted,” she tells me.
When was that? I ask.
“Nineteen ninety-three," she says. “Ninety-four. Ninety-three.” She checks a framed page from the Union-Tribune, hanging on the office wall. “Ninety-three.”
If Akiki was the Scopes Trial, it no more ended the memory wars than Scopes ended creationism. “When Wenatchee, the next huge explosion of day-care accusations, occurred in Washington State,” Hopkins recalls, “I couldn’t believe it was happening after Akiki. I contacted them and offered to tell them what we now knew about memory. ‘You’re putting all these children with a therapist, and you’re getting the same ‘telephone’ effect. This is really dangerous, and that’s not the way memory works in any case: you cannot possibly recover infantile amnesia memories.’ Of course, they didn’t pay any attention to me.”
It would take another year or two before the tide would turn hard against “recovered” memory. The peak years of accusation based on memory were 1989 to 1994; likewise, lawsuits against “remembered" sexual abusers rose sharply in 1989 but in 1994 began to drop almost as sharply as they had risen. In 1994, the year District Attorney Ed Miller was voted out of office, the first national empirical study of the prevalence of satanic ritual abuse was published, based on information from district attorneys, social service workers, police, and therapists. The project examined 12,264 cases of suspected satanic ritual abuse and couldn’t find dear corroborating evidence for a single case.
The “children never lie” maxim has fallen from favor. “Give me a break,” says Geri Beattie, manager of the Center for Child Protection. “My own kids lie.”
Kathleen Goodfriend, Alicia Wade’s psychotherapist, was accused by government regulators of being “grossly negligent or incompetent” in her treatment, and in 1996 she surrendered her license on the eve of public disciplinary hearings on the state’s formal accusation, filed more than three years after the family asked regulators to investigate. Goodfriend admitted no wrongdoing, but she is no longer allowed to practice as a marriage, family, and child counselor in California.
At least one major insurer announced in 19% that it will no longer provide malpractice coverage for anyone who uses “hypnotherapy to assist clients in recovering failed or repressed memories of possible abuse.” Insurance, which had underwritten “recovered” memory, was backing out.
In 1993 Hopkins and Rosemary Royster, a Republican legislator, founded the Justice Committee, an information resource for lawyers, families, and media involved in cases in which adults are accused on the basis of “recovered” memories. In her frequent public appearances she has discovered that talk show hosts have changed “dramatically,” she says. The press, she believes, is now more informed, much less eager to create hysteria, and more balanced. “If they were using the same ethics in journalism 15 years ago that they*re using now, none of this could have happened.
“When I go into an office of a legislator or on a talk show, I’m always being called into a comer by a staffer to talk about his or her personal experience of this. It’s very rare when afterwards I don’t have to spend an hour listening to people telling me about a family member who’s been falsely accused. That’s among ordinary people. Among the professionals this has become a war, and the war is far from over.” The peak of animosity, Michael Yapko believes, may be behind us, though. “A therapist would have had to be in a coma for the last seven years not to have been exposed to the possibility for contamination.” People still believe in recovered memory, he says, but then again, people believe they’ve been abducted by spaceships. “There will always be those who are immune to common sense.”
Stuart Zola, though, has seen a different professional landscape, especially among clinicians — therapists, social workers, psychologists. “There is a remarkable, remarkable amount of ignorance about how the brain works (in) clinical practice, and a lot of hostility. When I give talks [about memory research] to clinicians, I often get a lot of hostile response. [People say] ‘You don’t understand. These patients are really telling us the truth. You just have to see these patients and you know they’re telling us the truth. They’re not lying.’ In some ways, [these clinicians] are missing the point, but even when I try to make the point that this is how the brain may operate, ‘No!’ Very strong resistance. Similarly, in some legal areas, particularly in this field of child protection, I’ve heard lawyers tell me, ‘look, kids don’t lie.’ But that’s one of the things we do know: that isn’t the case. And again, it’s not a question of the kid lying, it’s a case of the kid coming to believe a thing that may not have happened, but [he] can’t tell the difference.”
He still faces considerable hostility from some clinicians. Some argue that Zola, by doubting this particular form of “evidence,” is dismissing the possibility that children really are abused — he vehemently denies this — and that his views put him in the same camp as those promoting child pornography. Others say that he is undermining the “recovery” movement and discrediting all that has been gained by women working to prevent battering — presumably by implying that their claims are false as well Above all, though, he’s been told that “if I dealt with patients directly, it would be clear that they are not lying or pretending, that instead they are really suffering because they have had real experiences. This response, of course, misses the important point that it is possible that the patients can feel that the memory is a very real part of their lives, even when it is not.” The experience of emerging from the professional detachment of his lab into the fray of public life has been a salutary and sobering one: he has become far more aware of the importance of what is not known.
Even if the Akiki trial had clearly established in everyone’s mind how memory works, it wouldn’t have touched a deeper issue: how therapy works. In one critical exchange, defense attorney Kathleen Coyne asked therapist Pamela Badger if a diagnosis reached in therapy must be based on research-verified science.
“That’s a different type of science,” Badger said. “...I think there’s—there are different types of science. There’s research science and —”
“What type of science do you practice?" Coyne asked.
“Artful science,” Badger replied.
“So you’re saying it’s an art, it’s not a science?”
“A little of both....I think there’s a lot of counseling theory that has not necessarily been proven in scientific research.” What nobody wanted to admit, during this tense time, is that although recovered-memory and ritual-abuse therapy techniques were now starting to look extreme, dangerous, invasive, and ill-considered, the uncomfortable fact was that they had risen rapidly to popularity because all psychotherapeutic techniques are to some degree based on theory rather than hard proof. One psychologist and researcher who was following the trial observed that, “for the large part, the whole field of therapy is not validated. We are far from understanding what works, how it works, and why it works,” she said. “Any therapist can practically do anything they want in the therapy room. The fact is, people are far more concerned about what we put in our mouths, about whether it has passed | Food and Drug Administration] scrutiny, than we are about what we put in our minds.”
Consequently, even the professional bodies are curiously ambivalent about recovered memory and its attendant therapies. In October 1997, Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists issued guidelines discouraging any method used to recover memories of childhood abuse or sexual abuse because “no empirical evidence exists to support either repression or dissociation,” and because of concerns that the techniques employed can give rise to “strongly held false memories and lead to false allegations.” Hypnosis, the paper says, “increases the confidence with which the memory is held while reducing its reliability” and dream interpretation “usually reflects the training and personal con via ions of the therapist.” Any practitioner who continues may be reported to the General Medical Council for professional misconduct. Even this, though, is a compromise, reached after the initial report raised outcry within the college: instead of being published under the college’s name, it will appear under the names of the four authors in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
On the popular level, nobody knows much more about memory than they did before, I suspect. “People still believe that camcorder memory,” Hopkins says. “Even [Deepak] Chopra — in all of his books he writes that we can recover memories out of cells, and pre-life memories. So we have the general population believing something that, while very attractive, is simply untrue.”
What chance does it stand, this new research-driven view of memory as a complex and fallible system of multiple systems? Complex and fallible is un-American, especially un-Californian: we want simple and perfectible. Memory as camcorder is far more graphic and appealing than this new, elusive model-without-a-metaphor. I can’t help thinking that sooner or later this issue of how memory works will bite back — perhaps in recovered memories of alien abductions, perhaps of secret CIA experiments — and then the complex lessons of Wade and Akiki will be forgotten, just as McMartin was forgotten. We remember what fits, and we imagine what we need to imagine.
Living with Ambiguity
Nobody won the memory wars. Of the recovered-memory camp, Roland Summit has retired, other major players — Lenore Terr and Kee MacFarlane of the McMartin trials, and Catherine Gould — are no longer being called as expert witnesses, but all are unrepentant.
“When I think of the people who were involved in these cases,” Hopkins says, her voice mounting in frustration, “and could not and would not acknowledge that they had played a role in prosecuting innocent people and that they had created these ‘memories’ in the children — I think that if I had to look in the mirror and realize that my questioning had led children to say the things that came out (during the recovered-memory trials], I’d put a gun to my head.” It occurs to me that these people probably remember the whole incident entirely differently. It’s probably only a failure in the ability to recast memory that leaves people with guns to their heads, jack Hamilton, the pitcher, remembers the
Conigliaro incident as if he were the innocent participant in an unfortunate accident. Kathleen Goodfriend said the decision to forfeit her license was made “with great sadness,” and she added, “I continue to believe that I have done nothing wrong in my treatment of my patients.” Mary Battles, who claimed that a decades-old satanic cult had operated in a San Diego Baptist church, based on memories she had “recovered” from former church members, said, “I can’t save the world. I do a very good job at my job.” Her clients, she said, “are healed. They have catharsis.” Myra Riddell, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Ritual Abuse Task Force, claimed that evidence against recovered memory was “a movement to discredit” those who come forward with charges of abuse. “’I'he accusation that there are therapists coaching their patients or implanting false memories — that’s absolutely insane,” she said. People “would prefer to believe ritual abuse doesn’t exist. [They’re calling it] just junk and lies, and it makes working with survivors that much harder."
Hopkins might seem to be a de facto winner in that she is still active and has never been sued, but she sees it as a hollow triumph.
“[The conflict] changed all of our lives, and none of them for the better,” Hopkins says. “It was years before I even felt like touching a child again. I was afraid to hold [ my granddaughter], I was afraid to change her. When she fell down the stairs, I was afraid to take her to the emergency room.”
Two lessons were (in general) learned:(1) Never accept anything without corroborative physical evidence, and (2) Memory is not evidence. The hard, valuable, and sadly necessary work of those in human services and the legal professions would be easier if memory were evidence, but for now we’ll have to learn to adapt to ambiguity.
This is especially true for those who find themselves with vivid “memories" of horrifying events that may never have happened but which are now a part of their mental landscape, part of who they are.
The children who know that their testimony was made up to placate the authorities are no better off: they may be in the awful position of knowing they caused innocent people — in some cases their parents — to be vilified and even jailed. Some have been successfully reunited with their families, some have suffered breakdowns, some have committed suicide.
“The message is to tolerate the ambiguity and get better anyway,” Yapko advises. “If they believe that more hypnosis or more truth serum is going to recall accurate memories, they should give up trying. There’s no way to know, short of objective evidence. If there are medical records, or school records, or police records, fine. But 99 percent of the time no evidence exists. Look at the Jon-Benet case: there’s even a death, and nobody knows what happened. You have to get off the treadmill of believing you have to confirm or disconfirm and get on with your life.”
Freud's Last Land Mine
It’s far too easy to blame Freud for the memory wars; it assumes we can’t think for ourselves. All the same, it’s interesting that even if in 1998 we can reject his concept of the unconscious and his belief in repression, the old man laid one last land mine that is still doing damage more than 50 years after his death, one last misguided and misleading view of memory that has passed into common understanding.
If there’s one belief that goes hand-in-hand with the notion that all our psychic troubles have their roots in childhood, it’s the belief that we have to go back to the source of those troubles to begin to overcome them. This was the credo that in a sense underwrote the entire mess: we have to remember in order to heal. Without that conviction, there would have been no puddling in hypnosis, no radical “recovery” techniques.
Yet a substantial body of clinical opinion no longer believes this is true. It’s the coda to this whole period, the last grim joke: we may not even need to recover memory.
“The most common problems people have can be solved with no reference to history at all,” Yapko says. “The choices you make today are much more important than to try to understand fragments of the past. Tolerate ambiguity and get better anyway.” 'I'he Freudian notion that the past has to be dug up and pored over “definitely isn’t true. There’s a world of what’s called ‘efficacy literature’ — research that studies what are the most efficient ways of practicing psychotherapy — that shows clearly that [for] the most common problems that people come in with, depression and anxiety, what works best has very little focus on history. It has much more focus on skills in relationships and rational thinking. It’s the choices that people make today that will have an impact on their future. With post-traumatic stress disorder the past will inevitably be part of the treatment but not the focus of the treatment."
Get Your Wedding Pictures
Carol Hopkins tells one final story about memory — a story mocking Dr. Elizabeth Loftus
and herself. She first started calling Loftus when she was on the grand jury, asking her advice, reading her research, discussing cases. “We became friends over the phone, and when she came down and testified on Akiki it was going to be the first time I would meet her. I was very excited. For three years we had been good friends — colleagues — by telephone. I had tremendous admiration for her. for the courage she showed in speaking out. She and I agreed we would have dinner together |at my house) after she had testified on Akiki. We would spend the evening together, get to know one another." Hopkins, Loftus, and Mark Sauer, a reporter for the Union-Tribune who was covering the case and wanted to profile Loftus, drove out to Hopkins’s home, a big Spanish house overlooking a golf course.
“We get to the house, we drive up the driveway, and Beth becomes frozen. Literally frozen. Mark is talking and she says ‘Shit!’ She gets out of the car, and Mark and I are looking at each other thinking, This is weird. We follow her into the house, she walks around the house, this goes on for ten minutes. Minimum ten minutes. She comes back and says, I've been here before. I was at your wedding.’ I said, ‘You couldn’t have been at my wedding.’ She said, ‘I was at your wedding. Get your wedding pictures.’"
Her voice falls to a whisper.
“We pull the wedding pictures out — there’s Beth Loftus. At my wedding. Ten years earlier. She had accompanied a friend. Everyone else at the wedding I knew very well.... It was the most phenomenal experience. It was a genuine recovered memory. It was a three-day wedding, she attended multiple functions, there were only a hundred people there, we knew all of them intimately except for Beth, and I didn’t remember her being there at all."
When she told me this story, I was struck by her emphasis on the dramatic word “frozen.” Why was Loftus frozen? Because she couldn’t trust what her memory was telling her. This was ostensibly the house of a stranger, yet she recognized it. She couldn’t tell if what had presented itself to her, this message of familiarity, was a genuine memory or a deja vu experience, a phantom. (And nobody knows what causes deja vu.) When she claimed to remember the house, nobody believed her. In the end, it was the physical evidence — the wedding photographs — that clinched it. If it hadn’t been for them, who would have known? Flow could anyone tell?
— Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a regular essayist for National Public Radio and the author of Catching My Breath: An Asthmatic Explores His Illness and Signs of life: A Memoir of Dying and Discovery. He teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Vermont.