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Magic Tool or Dangerous Quackery?

Once-popular 'recovered memory' therapy has left many victims struggling in its controversial wake

Adriaan Mak

A worldwide psychological war, which has turned children against their parents, has attracted the attention of Roy Romanow's commission on Canadian health care.

Recovered memory therapy, to its supporters, is still a revolutionary, therapeutic tool that helps cure people suffering from the trauma of sexual assault.

To opponents, it's a dangerous form of quackery that has torn families apart and even cost lives.

Adriaan Mak, who has heard complaints from around the world about recovered memory, made a presentation to the Romanow commission May 31, arguing the federal government should follow a similar move in the United States to cease funding therapists who use the practice.

"It's still going on," Mak said in an interview. "It hasn't died completely."

Mak's son accused him of assaulting him when he was a child after going through recovered memory therapy.

After a period of estrangement, Mak said, his son recanted his accusation and the two have reconciled.

Others haven't been so lucky.

Claudette Grieb blames a recovered memory therapist for the murder-suicide of her daughter Jackie, 26, and two-year-old granddaughter Dagmar.

"I will do anything in my power to stop the death of another mentally vulnerable person," Grieb said in an interview.

"The government has to stop funding it, and to stop funding psychological terrorism."

Recovered memory, according to the American Psychological Association Web site, is recalling something that has been supressed by a person because it is too painful to remember.

But, the association also adds, it is extremely rare to have a memory "recovered." It also notes that laboratory studies have shown that memory is "often inaccurate and can be influenced by outside factors."

Grieb's daughter committed suicide June 4, 1998 by hanging herself from a doorway. Dagmar was found hanging from a doorway opposite her mother.

For years Jackie suffered from depression, made worse when she started taking LSD after she moved to London, Ont. , in the early 1990s.

She moved back to Kitchener and started her own business selling paintings.

But her depression continued and got worse after she had her baby. She started seeing a counsellor.

In September 1997 Jackie told a friend she had been sexually abused by her parents when she was a baby.

It wasn't until Grieb got a call from a relative that she found out about the accusations Jackie had been making.

When she protested, Grieb was told she was in denial.

Two months later, in November, Jackie changed her phone number and severed all contact with her parents.

The next time Grieb saw her, she and her baby were dead.

"These abuse-excuse clinics do nobody any good. The memories are the delusions of a mentally ill person or (are) manufactured by inducement of their beliefs," Grieb said.

"The fact of the matter is (counsellors) like to keep their weaker sisters in society wallowing in their mud."

Grieb's story is one of thousands surrounding recovered memory therapy, said Mak.

In fact, groups have sprung up against the practice they term "false memory syndrome."

The use of recovered memory therapy continues in sexual assault centres, native counselling centres and even churchs where it takes the form of prayer, said Mak, a member of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and Parents Against Cruel Therapy.

Mak said governments spend "millions" on recovered memory therapy.


He still remembers the day his son accused him of raping him when he was two or three years old.

"It was a knife through the heart," Mak said. "At the end of this talk I told him, 'You realize I am not a pedophile.' He said, `I was told you would be in denial' and he left me standing there."

Many families remain torn apart — some through a voluntary separation, some because the accusations have led to jail sentences.

Mak estimated there have been 240 Canadian cases involving charges of incest and parental sexual abuse based on recovered memory.

Of those, about 180 were dismissed out of hand, he said, but 40 people wound up in jail for three months to seven years.

Judges are now skeptical of recovered memory evidence, said Toronto defence lawyer Alan Gold, but he added there was a time when it was accepted.

"By the mid-'90s to the later-'90s courts realized that what some of the experts were saying was not true."

Lawyer Cindy Wasser worked as defence counsel in the Grandview Training School case, which involved recovered memories of sexual abuse at a Cambridge-area school.

"It was pretty bad," she said. "This evidence was coming in everywhere and judges were overwhelmed. The Crown thought they had this wonderful tool and everyone was quite amazed by it."

In 1996 and 1997, numerous sex-related charges were stayed against her client, Robert Ross, and he was acquitted on six others after allegations surfaced about physical and sexual abuse in the 1970s at the reform school for girls, which closed in 1976.

Two other workers at the school were sentenced to jail terms for sex abuse.

People who claimed abuse at the school were paid out $60,000 from the Ontario government, plus counselling in exchange for an agreement not to sue the province.

Gold said the use of recovered memory therapy began in the U.S. and has been used mostly in civil cases there. In Canada recovered memory use is usually found in criminal cases.

"Recovered memory provides a convenient excuse," he said. "In the church cases sweeping the U.S., people are claiming recovered memory. Claiming a recovered memory becomes awfully convenient when there's a windfall."

Proponents of recovered memory, and the therapy, believe there should be more government money for research into the practice.

Ellen Campbell believes not all claims of successful recall can be dismissed.

"No good therapist will ever suggest that you were abused. When we get into a dangerous part is when the people with a little knowledge do just that," said Campbell, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness, Martin Kruze Fund.

"Suppressed memory is a reality. I've talked to too many people to think otherwise."

Some of recovered memory's critics have a vested interest — they're guilty, she added.

"It's a great hiding place for pedophiles."

The number of criminal charges laid as a result of recovered memory has fallen over the last five years, but Gold fears the practice is still going on but is being covered up.

"It may be appearing in complainants who are being advised to claim they remembered all along," he said. "Whenever you have one of these junk sciences you think they're gone and then they reappear."

The Canadian Psychological Association includes cautions in its code of ethics on recovered memory and warns psychologists about the use of techniques employed in recovered memory therapy like hypnosis and "body memory interpretation."

Recovered memory therapy has its risks because practitioners base their work on two assumptions, said Tim Moore, the chair of psychology at York University's Glendon College

"Number one, (that) the presence of symptoms are caused by past traumatic sexual abuse. The second is this lost or forgotten material can be faithfully remembered and it is necessary for the alleviation of the symptoms.

"That's a powerful set of assumptions," he added.

But proponents, like Campbell, think recovered memory may be the only way to prosecute people who committed sex crimes years ago.

"I know that people are accused for the wrong reasons," she said. "You can't discount it either way. We tend to err on the side of the survivor."

"If you're talking about something that happened 30 years ago, I would lean heavily on the therapy," she added.


Campbell admits that the label recovered memory can be used to falsely accuse someone. But what she thinks would help would be federal guidelines for judges on the use of recovered memory testimony.

"We do need some really good guidelines," she said. "Right now it's 'he said, she said.'

"You have to be very careful. Look what's happening where mothers are accusing fathers of sex abuse just to get back at husbands."

Grieb, meanwhile, is preparing to fire off her latest salvo against recovered memory therapy.

She wants the province's coroner to call an inquiry into her daughter's death after taking her fight to Ontario's Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

The board has agreed to pay Grieb compensation for Dagmar's death but refused to consider her daughter's, she said.

"They have denied that my daughter is a victim."

Man recants repressed 'memories'

When Rowland Mak mounts a podium today to retract accusations that his father sexually assaulted him as an infant, he will do more than simply conclude a long and poignant family drama.

The 35-year-old man's recantation at a Toronto conference will put a symbolic nail in the coffin of a controversial psychological phenomenon: repressed memory syndrome.

"It takes a lot of courage to come to the realization that someone abused you when you were young," Mr. Mak said. "It also takes a lot of courage to admit it wasn't true; that for all the years I was separated from my dad, I was wrong. It is very liberating."

It was back in 1991 that Mr. Mak first confronted his father — Adriaan Mak — with his allegation of being raped at the age of 2 or 3.

"He told me in a monotonous, almost trance-like voice," the 70-year-old man said in an interview. "He said his therapist had led him to expect that I would be 'in denial,' and that my denial confirmed my guilt. With that, he left me standing in the street. I was in total shock."

His family was devastated. Rowland — a bright youth who had enjoyed the usual privileges of a middle-class home — had been spiralling into an aimless world of LSD, drug-peddling, dead-end jobs and welfare payments. Depressed and confused, he had been undergoing regular therapy for a year.

Yesterday, he described himself as a sensitive youth whose psychological moorings were damaged in his teens by two separate incidents in which older men took advantage of him sexually.

He recalled being struck during one session when his therapist said she had been a victim of ritual abuse herself and knew a great deal about repressed memories.

"I remember her saying: 'I wouldn't close the door on sexual abuse — there has got to be some reason you're afraid of your father,' " he recalled. "Suddenly, it rang true for me — I believed my father had raped me."

Several months after levelling his accusations, Rowland's therapist floated the idea that his abuse could have been part of an elaborate cult ritual. He immediately seized upon the idea, and commenced patching together "memories" of his father and other men abusing him and other children.

"I came to believe they were connected to a secret society that controls all of society," he recalled.

How can a person actually create memories without realizing the falsity of what they are doing? Rowland Mak said it is not particularly difficult if one is both psychologically vulnerable and being aided by a sympathetic therapist who believes in what she is doing.

"When you are exploring your subconscious and deep emotions that you are unaware of, you give a therapist a tremendous amount of power," he said.

He said his convictions were continually reinforced by other "survivors," who clustered together at meetings and described the abuse they felt they had suffered.

While all this was going on, Adriaan Mak was attempting to fight his growing depression by immersing himself in the task of exposing repressed memory therapy as a fad that had destroyed thousands of families.

As successful as the campaign was, what the retired high school teacher wanted most was to get his disaffected son back.

In the late 1990s, Rowland Mak quit drugs, left therapy, settled down with a woman and took up the study of positive thinking. Then, a year ago, he was struck by a startling revelation as he changed his daughter's diapers.

The child was the same age Rowland had been when he was anally raped — at least, according to his reconstructed memories. He suddenly realized that the offence he had accused his father of perpetrating was improbable in the extreme — and that a child of such tender years simply couldn't carry that sort of coherent memories.

"It just hit me that this didn't happen," he said yesterday. "I called my father, and said: 'Dad, you were right. It didn't happen.' "

Rowland Mak intends to tell his story today to the group his father has worked with so tirelessly: the False Memory Foundation.

"I have problems when I think about my therapist, because she crossed lines she shouldn't have," he said yesterday. "But I don't have anger to the recovered memory therapy community itself. It was all just a colossal, well-intentioned mistake."