Around the Network: Divided Memories

By Butler, Katy | Family Therapy Networker, July/August 1995 | Go to article overview

Around the Network: Divided Memories


Butler, Katy, Family Therapy Networker


ANN NORRIS FIRST WENT TO SEELaguna Beach psychologist Doug Sawin in 1988. She had recently graduated from college with a degree in music and suffered from insomnia and drank alcohol to sleep. But it was her relationship with her mother, Judy, that troubled her most. After Ann's triumphant college graduation vocal recital, Judy hadn't even congratulated her. Two days later, Judy had called and angrily attacked Ann over the phone until Ann cried.

It was the kind of issue that a good family or individual therapist might have addressed by building on Ann's obvious strengths, teaching her to contain and manage her feelings, and coaching her to develop a better relationship with her mother. But Sawin instead focussed intensely on the past. Ann soon had memories of her father sexually abusing her, and later of elaborate cultic abuse, which her three siblings didn't come close to corroborating. She was hospitalized after attempting suicide, and Sawin bluntly told her father, Al, over the phone, of Ann's charges Al collapsed in tears.

Over the years, Ann drew closer to Sawin while her relations with her family and her own mental state grew more troubled. She was diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder and, with Sawin's support, sued her parents and grandparents for $20 million. She spent six years in therapy with Sawin She now describes psychiatric hospitals where she still stays periodically because she cuts and burns herself as her "institutional mothers." She has not spoken to her true mother in six years. And she no longer sings.

It doesn't take a PhD in psychology or a seat on a state licensing board to see that Ann is worse off than when she entered therapy. Millions of nontherapists undoubtedly made just such an assessment when Ann, her therapist and her family told their stories before millions of prime-time viewers on "Divided Memories," a four-hour PBS Frontline documentary screened in early May.

In her wide-ranging investigation of therapy, sexual abuse and memory, producer Ofra Bikel used as her primary subject families divided by recovered memories of abuse. She also managed to persuade nearly half a dozen therapists to do therapy while her camera was running. It was a remarkable event, in which all of America was invited behind the one-way mirror to see therapy in action in the midst of its most divisive controversy and to judge it for themselves.

And what therapy they saw Clients weeping over flashbacks of their incestuous fathers, sobbing as they sat on carpets in their therapists' arms, remembering past lives in hypnotic trances and having "cellular memories" exorcised by masseurs The clients in the documentary seem to have replaced their blood families with therapists and fellow clients. Few of the therapists hold out much hope that women who've been sexually abused can heal, or that they can work out healthier relationships with their families. As California therapist Joanne Stillwagon put it, "Ninety percent of the time, if it's incest, the family is going to turn against you. So these survivors begin to be your family."

And what about the validity of recovered memories? Bikel plays neither detective nor researcher, but her choice of interview subjects for the Frontline program shows that she thinks therapists should be far more skeptical. One client in Boston says that, based on her dreams and her therapist's assessment, she accused her father of abuse and then retracted after her therapist met her father and decided she'd made a mistake. A hypnotherapist states that one of her clients recalls being stuck in the fallopian tube.

"What is going on in the name of recovered memory across the country is almost scandalous," says producer Bikel. "Therapists say this is just a fringe phenomenon, but the fringe is longer than the cloth. Something must be done. Therapists can't just ignore it."

Therapists' reactions to the documentary ranged from embarrassment to outrage to approval. …

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