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Repressed Memories, Ruptured Families

The unholy trinity of the American soul is the adult, the child, and the child within. The adult and child largely fend for themselves. But the child within the adult demands to be served; its appetites are exhausting and its gratitude rare.

"Kate," whom you can meet Tuesday night on Frontline, speaks for this unassuageable fury. When Kate was two her parents separated for 18 months; mom, by her own admission, shut down emotionally, and Kate grew up damaged goods.

But the child within insisted on an Answer. And helped along by a gentle and nonjudgmental therapist, Kate found the key to everything: first she remembered that her dad had molested her when she was young, eventually that her parents and grandparents were cultists who'd ritually tortured her with broomsticks, spiders, wires, vegetables, electrodes, and various tools. Kate realized that she was actually 27 separate personalities.

So Kate sued her parents and grandparents for $20 million. Her therapist, Douglas Sawin, backed her story.

"When I'm deposed in court cases the attorneys say, "Well, have you gotten corroborative evidence?"' Sawin told Frontline's Ofra Bikel. "And I say, no. And they say, "You haven't?' And I say, no. "Why not? I mean, how do you know it's true?' And I say I don't care if it's true. What's important to me is that I hear the child's truth, the patient's truth. That's what's important. What actually happened is irrelevant to me--it doesn't matter."

Kate describes herself as a "survivor" of childhood, although precious little of her seems intact. When Bikel asks if the ritual abuse is more painful to contemplate than her mother's indifference, Kate replies that the abuse was "just a fact of life." She goes on, "What continues to be, I think, the root of every pain that I feel, every bit of desperation in my life, is the lack of mother."

Kate's father remembers getting a call from Sawin. What's wrong with Kate, Sawin told him, is how you used to molest her.

"And I dropped the phone, I dropped the phone," says dad. "I couldn't talk. I couldn't even breathe."

Kate's mother says, "And I went to grab the phone from him because he was in shock. It was just an unbearable sound coming out of a man."

Two years ago I spoke with Bikel about her last Frontline report, "Innocence Lost: The Verdict," a study of a day-care center in Edenton, North Carolina, whose owner was sent to prison for life for ritually abusing the toddlers in his care. It took an extended period of firm but caring therapy before the toddlers could remember that anything had happened to them at all, and the children who failed to undergo this therapy never could.

Bikel's inquisitiveness about therapeutic environments is on view again in "Divided Memories," her four-hour Frontline report, which concludes on April 11. It's about a modern-day phenomenon: incest not as a remembered violation but as a buried memory therapeutically disinterred. In another sense it's about childhood--in particular the strange American notion that this most painful of times should have been the most joyous, and that when chronic despair contradicts the grins of old family snapshots there are hidden truths to be rooted out, even litigation to be pursued.

You will hear jargon choking out discussion--words like "dysfunction," "codependent," "body memories," and "boundary violation" that could make you titter if you weren't seeing such racking pain. Here is virtual reality at its grimmest: Bikel's parade of ordinary middle-class white people--not all of them women--doggedly asserting "truths" about themselves that lighten the burden of their own anguish.

But there's a water's edge--a place where the reinvention of biography must stop. Bikel, the most compassionate of interviewers, is appalled to see this line transgressed,

"It really is a war," she told me last week, meaning the debate over repressed memory. "It isn't something you could discuss reasonably with anybody. Those who believe it are very messianic--they're saving the souls of these people. And on the other side, every therapist is a quack."

And your position? I asked.

"There may be repressed memories," she said, "but incest forgotten and remembered is not enough of an answer to what I see happening--so many families broken, so many families. Twenty years ago you didn't hear of it. It's such a fad--I'm not saying it's a fad, but I'm saying that when you get the media together with therapists who are messianic and not very well trained, many of them, who say sexual abuse is an answer to so many things--even the psychiatrists tell you neglect is the most traumatic of all traumas anybody goes through."

The recovered memory of incest, she thinks, "is a metaphor for a lot of the pain women do have. When you have an answer to your pain it's more therapeutic than when you don't have an answer." And so the answer can be good without being true. But here's the water's edge. "Freud used to say that [therapy] was in the room of the therapist and never went out of the room. Now, when it's been transferred to the room of breaking with families or even suing your families, I don't accept that."

She said, "When you go and break with your family and then the therapist says it doesn't matter if it's true or not--well, I beg to differ. In the cases where the family is destroyed it better be. You can't take both positions: A, it doesn't matter; but B, if you want to sue them for $20 million I'll do the deposition for you that they were inserting wires into your vagina or whatever."

To Bikel, though not to many of the therapists who appear in "Divided Memories," the true purpose of therapy is reconciliation, not estrangement. "You realize the love you want is not the love that old woman can give you now. You forgive it or not forgive it. You come to terms with it. It's not that old man you're mad at anymore."

The victims in "Divided Memories" wish to think of themselves as free at last and finally healing. Through Bikel's lens they are sad, solemn, and maimed.

News Bites

Here's Raymond Coffey lecturing America's boy president for choosing to celebrate V-E Day in Moscow with Boris Yeltsin.

"Heck, we wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings over a little old war in which 292,000 Americans were killed in combat, more than a million wounded, and more than 16 million served, would we? You would think a little history might have brushed off on a guy who went to Georgetown, Yale and Oxford.

"Yeah, the Russians came in on our side--eventually, after Hitler invaded them. But does no one remember the infamous 1939 Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact, which in effect made the Soviet Union an ally of the Nazis?"

Coffey went on, "Winston Churchill had a lot more to do with the allied victory than did Stalin."

Some history that may not have brushed off on Coffey:

The Soviets came in on "our" side nearly six months before we did. By December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor day, the Soviet Union had lost more men in combat than the U.S. would lose in the entire war. By the time the war ended, total Soviet deaths--military and civilian--had passed 20 million.

But then, that infamous nonaggression pact negates this. No Western democracy would ever think of acting cynically to stay out of war in eastern Europe.

The word "faux" sent up shoots in the popular press back in the 1970s, an era when journalists thought it important to sound a cut above the rabble that read them. Because journalists continue to think this, faux has taken over the lawn. Now the Tribune reports: "Steinmetz also must relinquish the faux gold and silver medals."

A good rule of thumb is never to put language in the paper that you won't hear in conversation because no one's sure how to pronounce it. Besides, what's wrong with the good old-fashioned American "ersatz"?

A couple of Sundays ago you might have spotted an AP story in the Tribune on National Journal correspondent David Morrison. He's a national-security writer who recently published an anonymous 20,000-word account of his heroin addiction. The AP reported that the Washington Post had talked to Morrison, got his permission, then "splashed Morrison's life on its front page."

And you thought, boy, is this familiar. It was. Morrison's chilling confessions, "Me and My Monkey," ran as the Reader cover story of February 10. We picked it up from Washington's City Paper, the Reader-owned weekly where it originated on January 13.

Howard Kurtz, the Post's media writer, called the Reader, wanting to know why we'd run such a long article by someone incognito. Don't you know, said editor Alison True, that the piece originated two months ago in your backyard? Kurtz didn't.

True called Morrison and put him in touch with Kurtz.

A year ago I wrote a couple of columns slamming the media, particularly Channel Seven, for their sensationalistic coverage of Helmut Hofer. Last week Hofer was acquitted of the murder of Suzanne Olds. I claim no vindication whatsoever.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Hank Dunning.

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