False memory syndrome

As women bring lawsuits, therapists are having to pay for their mistakes.


Kevin Giordano
December 22, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Valerie Jenks grew up in Rigby, Idaho. Her father owned a roofing company
and her mother worked for an accountant. She describes her family life as
happy, filled with camping trips, outings and annual vacations. But
when Jenks was 14, she was raped by a 19-year-old. She never reported
it to authorities and the man went free.

Jenks didn't appear to suffer from the trauma. She graduated from high school in the top 10 percent of her class, worked on the newspaper and played on the bowling team. She finished high school with dreams of being a journalist. But at 17 she became pregnant. "I had a
misconception of what love and marriage and sex were supposed to be like," she says now. "I had no other sexual experiences besides being raped."

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She married and had a baby boy. Her husband, seven years her senior, worked construction and was often out of town. Jenks worked part-time as a
waitress but money was tight. That was when things
got bad. "Right after I had the baby I had a hard time," she says. "All my
friends went off to college, I had no support, I was 19 and I had weight problems." Around this time, Valerie decided to enter therapy.

Before she did, she sought advice from other
women. They recommended Dr. Mark Stephenson, then affiliated with the Eastern Idaho Medical Treatment Center. Jenks, 20 at the time, went to her first session with her first husband. Her original reasons for going were a weight problem and alcohol abuse. "He asked if I knew anything about hypnosis and gave a brief description of what it would entail," Jenks says. "I never went under hypnosis before, but my husband was there and, after all, this was a doctor who was supposed to be helping me."

By the end of the first hypnotherapy session, Jenks came to believe that she'd been sexually abused not only by her family but also by friends and strangers. Jenks says she answered "yes" to many of Stephenson's questions by tapping the index finger of her left hand.

"I had no belief I was molested by anyone. But it wasn't a dream," she says about being under hypnosis, during which time the doctor took notes or recorded what she was saying. "I was conscious and awake and knew what I was saying. When I'd ask how can I believe it, he would say, 'Our memories are true.'

"I already suffered abuse, so I made myself vulnerable," she says now. "I
was searching for answers and he offered the right ones. He made everything fit. I wanted to believe there were reasons for my weight problems, alcohol problems and depression."

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Over the course of six months, Jenks was led through a series of
so-called repressed childhood memories that included specific details of
being sexually molested. Meanwhile, her marriage began to crumble.
Already an introverted person, she cut off family and friends and
frequently considered suicide. She had nightmares of the sexual
abuse; she recounted them to her therapist. The doctor then drew out further memories, including one of her being a member of her grandparents' satanic cult. She was led to believe she had helped torture and kill babies
and children. After six sessions, Jenks' entire perception of her memory had been altered. Jenks claims that by asking repeated questions and coaxing "yes" or "no" answers from her, Stephenson was able to create pictures in her mind of events that haunt her to this day.

"His leading and guiding questions brought me to the conclusion that I had
been molested and raped by several family members," she says.

Later that summer, Stephenson concluded that Jenks was having an affair with her father and diagnosed her with multiple personality disorder (MPD). Jenks claims this was an incorrect diagnosis spawned from the memories he was planting in her mind. But that wasn't enough to get Jenks out of Stephenson's office. The sessions reached a finale
when Stephenson asked Jenks to participate in a three-hour hypnosis session to unearth the object implanted in her mind that originally made her a satanic cult member.

Sound wacky enough for you? It was for Jenks. She stopped seeing Stephenson in August 1993. In the fall, she visited the doctor's employer, the Eastern Idaho Medical Treatment Center, and made her complaint.

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There, Jenks found out that several other patients of
Stephenson had the same stories. Shortly after, Stephenson was fired, although he was then rehired by the hospital due to a contract dispute. It wasn't
until Jenks and two other former Stephenson clients filed a complaint with Idaho's state licensing board that Stephenson's activities came to light.

In November 1998 Jenks reached a modest out-of-court settlement with Stephenson, who, she says, changed her perception of her
childhood forever. She was ruled the victim of false memory syndrome (FMS), a sister epidemic to the widely publicized MPD. In FMS, using mostly hypnotherapy, mental-health practitioners recover so-called repressed memories from patients they believe are suffering from traumatic events they've blocked from their memories.

According to a new book by Joan Acocella, "Creating Hysteria: Women and the Myth of Multiple Personality Disorder," 40,000 cases of MPD were reported between 1985 and 1995. According to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 92 percent of the people who have it are female; 74 percent are between the ages of 31 and 50; 31 percent have education beyond college; and 60 percent report memory of abuse prior to age 4.

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In the past five years the number of reported cases has declined, but malpractice suits continue to fill courtrooms and women like Valerie Jenks are now telling their stories and seeking compensation. Sums of $11 million and more are being paid to victims and, most recently,
mental-health practitioners are being prosecuted. In September of this
year, a Wisconsin jury awarded $862,000 to a victim of a psychiatrist's
incorrect recovered-memory and MPD diagnosis.

Acocella argues that the rise in recovered-memory treatment was aided by feminism and child-protection groups as well as by the belief that, as she says, "Childhood sexual abuse is very common, affecting about one-third of girls."

Repressed memory syndrome (RMS) therapy is based on the idea that childhood traumatic events often
dictate emotional behavior in adulthood. As Elizabeth Loftus, Ph. D.,
professor of psychology and adjunct professor of law at University of
Washington, puts it, "Mental-health practitioners use techniques to dig out
allegedly buried trauma memories under the belief that they must be ferreted out to heal the patient."

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Jenks' therapist used hypnotherapy to get at those memories. In his statement before the board of psychologists of the state of Idaho in 1996, Stephenson cited his paper, "Overcoming the Structure of Control," in which he explains that patients can discover this structure through motor responses to questions (hence the finger movements).

"He was trying to get a response via body movement," says Chuck Lloyd of
the Minneapolis firm Lindquist & Vennum. Lloyd was one of three lawyers who represented Jenks. "When he [Stephenson] didn't get the answer he
liked he'd tap on the 'yes' finger."

Stephenson's technique used the concept of ideomotor response, or a
physical response to an idea, in which fingers are used to designate
"yes," "no" and "I'm not sure" answers. At Jenks' first session, the questions went from the innocuous (name, birthday) to the more significant ("Have you ever been sexually molested?").

"The notion of hypnotherapy makes sense if you believe that we
store everything we hear or see," says Pamela Freyd, Ph.D., of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in Philadelphia. "But it makes no sense because that's not how the memory works. These recovered memories are highly contaminated; they can be false because of the suggestions by the
therapist."

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New York therapist David Halperin, Ph.D., steers clear of
hypnotherapy. "The problem is the issue of suggestibility," he says. "When a person is in a state of hypnosis, the question is, To what extent are they impressionable? Is it a reflection of the patient, or a reflection of what the hypnotist is bringing to the situation?" And yet Halperin, as do thousands of others, concedes: "Freud used hypnosis. A colleague of mine used it. It can be used as a relaxation technique, but suggestibility is much more part of the process, and the risks are greater."

According to Freyd, most people treated for RMS are white and female, between 25 and 45. "All of them were distressed with something in their life to go into
therapy for the first place," he says. "Some went after birth of a baby, some were
anxious about relationships, a lot of people got into this because they
were too fat, so people entered into therapy for a variety of reasons. But
if you turn to somebody for help, and they tell you you were abused, then
that stage is set."

Attorneys are getting a big boost from the epidemic through
malpractice cases. Christopher Barden, a Minnesota psychologist and another of Jenks' attorneys, has made a career of successfully suing therapists in MPD cases. Barden participated in one of the largest settlements in history in a psychotherapy negligence case when one of his clients, Patricia Burgus, received a $10.6 million settlement in November 1997.

Lloyd points out that big settlements generally occur in states such as Texas, where juries historically award big sums, as opposed to states such as Idaho, where juries tend to behave more conservatively.

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Although media hype has waned, court cases and victims continue to crop up. America's therapy community may be partly to blame. Also, in an atmosphere filled with inaccurate information and dramatic Hollywood reenactments, few laws govern how psychotherapists and mental-health practitioners operate. "In Washington, you can call yourself a therapist if you have $80 and take a test," Loftus says. "The public is not at all educated on therapy. They can't make distinctions.

"Because it wasn't regulated, the crisis
erupted and these false accusations became widespread," Loftus says.
"The regulation [of therapists] has, sadly, been accomplished through
litigation. Only after huge settlements that were leveled against
psychotherapists have insurers stopped paying."

Acocella claims that many women who missed the boat on feminism found solace in their presumed mental dilemmas. "Many of these had the same grim lives as their mothers: early pregnancy, unkind husbands or boyfriends, boring jobs, little money, no education. The process helps to explain the great outbreak of female disorders in the last few decades. Many women, then, had reason to take shelter in multiple personality disorder. It restored their dignity; it gave them a career."

Jenks is now working on a real career. She lives in Boise, Idaho, with her second husband and newborn. Her plans are to attend college and pursue journalism. Looking back, she says, "Before I met [Stephenson] I had a weight problem and guilty feelings. Now I've lost childhood memories and I have severe depression. I've lost a lot of time with my family. I'm never going to therapy again. Heavens, no."

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Kevin Giordano

Kevin Giordano is a writer in New York.

MORE FROM Kevin Giordano

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Mental Illness Sexual Abuse Violence Against Women

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