One of the reasons the human givens approach developed was to counter the harm that many psychotherapists and counsellors were doing to vulnerable people by generating false memories of abuse. The approach has always emphasised that the principle of non-maleficence, ‘do no harm’, is as important in psychotherapy as it is in medical ethics, which is why Human Givens publications and teachings explain how to recognise cult behaviour in different schools of psychotherapy and ‘self-development’ movements and the harm this can do.
Given that malpractice is still a problem in psychotherapy, and that some psychotherapists will always be attracted to cult-like organisations like moths to a flame, we are pleased to add to the HG library this powerful discussion between Ivan Tyrrell and Mark Pendergrast, author of Victims of Memory and board member of the American National Centre for Reason and Justice, and the English writer Frances Hill, author of Delusions of Satan a widely acknowledged expert on the Salem witch trials.
Hypnosis, suggestibility, cult formation and psychotherapy malpractice.
IVAN TYRRELL: One of the many things that intrigued me in your book Victims of Memory is when you talk about the cult-like, almost religious fervour that goes along with people who got involved in recovering memories, multiple personality disorder (MPD), past lives, inner child work, satanic abuse and so on. You wrote in great detail about how cult behaviour stops people thinking clearly and yet have said that nobody who's interviewed you so far has shown any interest in this aspect of the book. Why do you think that is?
MARK PENDERGRAST: It's one of the later chapters in the book so perhaps it's just because people have not read that far before they talk to me! But it's nice to hear that someone else thinks it important. Centuries ago Pascal said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” That's just as true now as then. It's in the chapter called ‘Survivorship as Religion’ that I specifically compare this type of therapy with a destructive religious cult. I also say I don't much like the word ‘cult’ but I use it for lack of a better one. I prefer the word ‘sect’. But cults and recovered memory beliefs are similar and comparable in many ways.
TYRRELL: For those still unfamiliar with how cult thinking works would you describe the similarities?
PENDERGRAST: Certainly. In a cult-like setting there is usually a figure of authority, a guru that you completely rely on and, in the case of recovered memory therapy, the guru is usually the individual therapist or the writer of a particular ‘bible’ that the therapist has bought into. I've interviewed people who say that they wouldn't do anything whatsoever without consulting their therapists. They almost ask them what they should have for dinner! They develop an over-dependent relationship with their therapist.
In cult-like settings, there is often black and white thinking where everybody is either for you or against you – good or evil – there's no grey in between. Communication with the outside world is controlled so that you are programmed only to hear or read or listen to someone who endorses the belief system and uses the proper jargon. You're supposed to block out anybody who would offer a different point of view.
TYRRELL: Do you find people doing that to your book?
PENDERGRAST: Yes. I keep saying to recovered memory believers, “You know, I've read all of these books, like The Courage to Heal with great care and it would seem to me that, if you disagree with me, you should want to read Victims of Memory with great care and then try and pick it apart and see what's the matter with it.” But they don't. They sort of say, “Get that book away from me. It's from Satan! I can't read it.”
Another major characteristic of destructive cults is that they tend to demonise the biological family. They tend to promote the idea that your parents and your whole childhood were grim. They rewrite your past to make it terrible and emphasise any horrible thing that ever happened to you and make it worse. They also rewrite your very identity. Quite frequently, in a religious cult, they give you a new name, and that's one of the suggestions made in these incest survivor books – to rename yourself. But certainly, even if you don't rename yourself, you are defined in the movement as no longer a member of your family. You are an incest survivor, a victim with recovered memories of abuse.
One of the things I point out in that chapter is the similarity between dramatic religious conversion experiences and the experiences of people in incest survivor groups. It's a type of group dynamic. I think it's what happened in Salem where people became seized with emotion when they saw other people being seized with emotion. They literally fall to the ground, writhing and screaming. There is a vivid description of this process in The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Someone had this experience and thought they were almost dying. This sounds extraordinarily similar to experiences people have when they are ‘abreacting’ mythical abuse memories.
I also found a fascinating book by an anthropologist, M. Lewis – I believe he is British – called Ecstatic Religions and published in 1971. Incidentally, a lot of the research I did for this section of the book reinforced my belief that much of the best thinking about various subjects was done a long time ago. Anyway, Lewis talked about ‘possession cults’, which he called ‘peripheral possession cults’. He looked at different cultures around the world, not Western ones. He noted that it was predominantly women who joined these cults and he saw that membership of the cults gave the women an enormous advantage. In the societies he looked at, women were mostly disenfranchised – the men had most of the power. By becoming ‘witches’, or by ‘being possessed of demons’, they could suddenly wield an inordinate amount of power. Everyone paid attention to them and, by being possessed, they got a great deal of sympathy.
TYRRELL: These are astonishing parallels. I remember being present when the psychiatrist William Sargant showed us films he and his wife had made around the world to record techniques used to bring about abreaction and conversions. He filmed snake cults in America, African shamanistic cults, witch-doctor ceremonies and so on. He noted the methods common to them all. How they raised the emotional temperature so high that people hyperventilated until they entered into a particular state when catharsis takes place and a collapse follows – at which point new beliefs were introduced and absorbed by the participant. He also noted how this technique was successfully used by witch-doctors to treat psychosomatic problems.
PENDERGRAST: Fascinating, and you're right about the hyperventilation. I quoted William Sargant's book, Battle for the Mind, which he wrote in 1957, in this same chapter.
TYRRELL: Well, raising the emotional temperature is what all fundamental religions do to convert people and acquiesce to the belief system. The new followers lose volition and usually soon find themselves parted from a lot of their money.
PENDERGRAST: I'm a bit concerned. I don't want to come across as anti-religious.
TYRRELL: No. No, I'm just curious at the parallels because, as a culture, we need to have a clearer understanding about how easily we're led to believe things. It doesn't just stop at recovered memories. You point out yourself that this same process was how John Wesley converted people to Methodism believing that this cathartic moment was ‘the finger of God’. Just as the strong cries and tears of his congregation convinced him and them of the truth of their belief, so the strong cries and tears of recovered memory victims convince them and their therapists that the recovered memories they are experiencing are true horrors of the past.
I once had Marjorie Orr on the phone haranguing me when we held a conference on illusory memories with Michael Yapko. She's a Scottish astrologer who campaigns against anyone who questions the reality of recovered memories. She said about people who come to believe they have recovered memories, “you only have to see the emotion on their faces and hear it in their voices to know they are telling the truth.” I was so struck by her naive confidence in this belief that I wrote her words down. She was quite unaware that emotional intensity, belief and sincerity are no measure of the truth of anything at all, and also seems unaware of the necessity to step outside of such emotional states to see what's really going on. What do you think, Frances? Does your research into the Salem witch trials throw light on this?
FRANCES HILL: People who witnessed the agonies of the girls in Salem who claimed witches afflicted them, were completely convinced they must be telling the truth. The girls' agonies were so convincing. But one of the girls, Mary Warren, later described the experience of going into an hysterical trance state when making the accusations. She said that none of the accusations were true. She felt guilty and went to the magistrate and said “We're making all this up.” She described the state they got into, saying, to paraphrase, “I thought I saw a hundred apparitions, but afterwards, when I was of sound mind. I knew I had seen no such things.” So, when she was in the trance state she was taken over by it and she thought she was seeing these things, but afterwards she knew she hadn't.
PENDERGRAST: That's one good thing about the movie about Salem, The Crucible, because in it they showed Mary trying to say that it wasn't happening to her and that they were all pretending. And then they challenged her and said. “Well, go ahead, have a fainting fit now, if you were pretending so much.” And she couldn't do it. It was quite clear that she had got so involved emotionally that, while she was in that trance state, she felt as if this was real and it was only in that state that she could scream and faint and so on. And I think this is a very important point. Many of the therapists who deeply believe in this form of therapy – and who believe in it so deeply that they also believe these memories are true – have told me repeatedly, “You, too, would not doubt these memories if you had seen the overwhelming emotion. No one could fake this emotion.” They don't understand. It's not a matter of faking. They are actually experiencing it. But experiencing strong emotions is not a guarantee of accurate historical recall, or anything remotely like it. I mean, there weren't witches afflicting these young women in Salem.
HILL: Witnesses at the time said the same then about those poor girls as they do about recovered memory victims. “If you've seen these girls, you can't help believing that they were afflicted by witches.” People felt terribly sorry for them. They seemed to go through such a process, contorted and screaming in pain, that the onlookers were convinced that this possession was happening to them. It sounds to me as if exactly the same thing happens with recovered memories and the generation of multiple personalities. Strong emotions generate enormous, spurious authority.
PENDERGRAST: I want to read you this quote you referred to from John Wesley. This is from 1739, shortly after the Salem witch trials: “We understand that many were offended at the cries of those on whom the power of God came, among whom was a physician who was much afraid that there might be fraud or imposture in the case. Today, one whom he has known many years, was the first who broke out into strong cries and tears. He could hardly believe his own eyes and ears, He went and stood close to her and observed every symptom until great drops of sweat ran down her face and all her bones shook. He then knew not what to think... But when both her soul and body were healed in a moment, he acknowledged the finger of God."
TYRRELL: It's an extraordinary parallel. The interesting thing about Wesley, as with many therapists today, is that he was using a conditioning mechanism without realising it. There are simple, basic behavioural mechanisms that can change our beliefs and people are using and tapping into them today, getting all these strange things happening without any understanding. The fact is anyone can be made to believe almost anything!
PENDERGRAST: Yes. This is one of the things that I continually point out to people. They say: “Well, there must be something dreadfully the matter in this person's family for them to make such accusations. Maybe these ‘memories’ of massive repression or satanic abuse are not real, but there must be something terribly wrong with the families – where there's smoke there's fire – and there must be something dreadfully wrong with these young women (it's mostly women) who have these terrible memories come back.”
But it seems to me that jumping to this conclusion is how most normal people would distance themselves from it. It's almost like saying, “This couldn't happen to me. I couldn't ever be accused of this; my children wouldn't ever do this because they are normal.” Well, the fact of the matter is, virtually anyone under the right circumstances can be ‘had’. I might not fall for this particular thing because I've researched it, but I might…
TYRRELL: The only inoculation against being sucked into a belief system or overcome by strong emotions that I know of is having essential information. In the same way, we can override the limbic system's justifiable fear of jumping from a great height and leap out of an aeroplane with a parachute. The first time we do it the limbic system is screaming at us, don't jump! We're terrified. But the higher cortex has information – that parachutes work and that other people have jumped safely, that you have practised landing correctly, and so on – and, with that information, almost any fit person can learn to jump out of an aeroplane with a parachute. They may feel that they won't like it – the limbic system will be agitated – but the higher cortex will override that strong emotion of fear.
Just because the emotional centres of the brain can be turned on, and we can lose our volition and be manipulated, doesn't mean we're helpless. Many people, probably the majority, don't fall for recovering memories; they walk away from it when it's suggested.
Also, the problems with recovering memories, MPD and so on, only exist in countries where people exist who have a mind to find them, or to promote them. Third World countries don't experience these phenomena.
PENDERGRAST: Precisely. As a matter of fact that’s what happened at Salem. You had priests who could identify that someone was being possessed or abused by witches. They were the ‘experts’ and had undergone a conversion to the belief in Witches.
I had many therapists tell me, over and over again, “Well, I didn't start to hear all these memories until I was ready to hear them. I didn't start seeing multiple personalities until I started looking for them.” Over and over again I would hear this and it did not occur to any of them that they were actually creating these memories or multiple personalities.
I think inadvertent cueing – when people don't realise that they are leading somebody – is a terribly important point. Of course, we are all in a way constantly leading one another as we go about trying to influence people to like us, agree with us or do what we want them to do, but, in an intense relationship such as that between a psychotherapist and patient, this natural process can be extremely dangerous.
As is natural, the patient is continually looking to the therapist for clues as to how they are supposed to behave or react. It's a given in that situation. So if a therapist says, “Well, how do you feel about that?” the patient understands from the question that the therapist is looking for hidden motives, usually negative, usually of dysfunctional families. I think it's a shame that so often, although family life is rarely easy, families are also wonderful resources. Too many therapists are trained to look only for the dysfunctional in them rather than what functions well.
HILL: There is a piece of research that I'm sure you know about, but it startled me. It shows how the simple use of one word rather than another can cue people to remember something differently. People were asked in different ways about an accident they had witnessed. When they were asked, “What did you see when you witnessed that accident?” they say something different from when they were asked “What did you see when you saw that smash?” They would remember lots of broken glass if the word ‘smash’ were used – even though no broken glass was involved.
PENDERGRAST: Yes. That's from Elizabeth Loftus's work. I mentioned it in the book, and, of course, it is true. I find it amazing how much semantics enters into all of this. There are many cases where therapists asked people to rewrite their memories using different language and meanings so that the way they look at their past changes. For example, when Daddy was previously described as making jokes, these jokes are reinterpreted as lewd, sexist comments. And, if once Daddy accidentally came into the bathroom while you were there, says, “excuse me” and walks out, it's reinterpreted as a grotesque boundary violation.
TYRRELL: This is what's known as ‘semantic inflation’. There is another aspect of this that interests me: when people are in that type of intimate situation – a counselling or psychotherapy relationship – they are in trance most of the time. Trance is a form of focusing inwards. And in such states our brains are less in touch with the external world and we are highly suggestible.
PENDERGRAST: That's what an ‘absent-minded Professor’ is, isn't it?
TYRRELL: Of course. He's in a trance, totally engrossed in solving a problem – focused inwards. But trance states vary. In groups, for example, we often share similar trances, such as when we are watching football, a film, dancing or listening to a speaker. The more we concentrate on something important or distressing, the more we ratchet up the trance. So, when we go along to the doctor because we're worried about some symptom or other, our anxiety levels are raised because it may affect our survival or, at least the status quo. We are focused in an anxiety trance while listening to him. We can't think straight. Then, unless the doctor quickly reassures us, the trance deepens. The limbic system is primarily concerned with survival and generates emotional trance responses accordingly fears, passions, depression, anger and so on. And in this trance state of psychic worry, depression or concentration on pain, we are open to the subtlest suggestions given by the doctor. The same goes for psychotherapy: the more focused we are, the more suggestible we are. The amazing thing is that many doctors, therapists and counsellors seem unaware of this; they sometimes say and do the most crass and psychologically destructive things.
PENDERGRAST: This is interesting. I'm constantly warning people against the hazards of hypnosis. I tell them never to use hypnosis to try to enhance memory because there is solid scientific evidence, replicated over and over again, that you are very likely to come up with confabulation.
But you're saying that you don't need inducing into a formal hypnotic trance to become highly suggestible. People come into therapy and they're looking for a reason for why they are the way they are. If they hear a suggestion, however subtly implied, that, say, their problem comes from repressed memories, then they are quite likely to follow up on it.
PENDERGRAST: A lot of therapists have suggested to their clients that they “will probably dream about abuse”. Now we know that, if you worry about something upsetting, you are likely to dream about it. And so people do. When the patient goes back to the therapist and says they had a dream that seemed to be about being abused the therapist says, quite wrongly, that this is evidence that they were actually abused. They are generating self-fulfilling prophecies. Some of the most horrifying cases are where people are told by their therapist that they are likely to want to commit suicide – and then they go ahead and try to do just that! And some of them succeed. Hill: But the hypnotic trance essentially is a state of heightened suggestibility, isn't it?
TYRRELL: Well, it's a state of focussed attention. We all go into mini-trances all the time. If you present somebody with some new information that changes their model of the universe, you see them go off into a mini-trance. It's like a moment of distraction when they stop focussing on the external world while they absorb it.
HILL: We have to form a mental picture.
TYRRELL: Exactly, and you have to go inward to do that – you have to focus and concentrate in a particular way to reconfigure your model of the world in your mind. Curiously the hypnotic state is linked to dreaming. Joe Griffin pointed this out in The Origin of Dreams. Hypnosis is simply an artificial way to accessing the dream state. He describes dreaming as the process whereby our introspective thoughts are clothed in metaphorical garb: during the REM state in sleep, our 8 brain’s ‘reality simulator’ translates unresolved introspections from the previous day in to the rich, sensory reality of our dreams. This same process seems to happen in hypnosis. In dreaming, unresolved daytime introspections are the ‘dream script’ and the experience is totally real. In hypnosis, the hypnotist 's words replace the dream script in the mind of the subject. The subject's brain processes the words into a sensory reality, just as happens in dreaming – which is why someone can be given a broom, be told it's a beautiful woman, and dance with it in a convincing way. The brain evolved to look for analogies. That's how it can deal with all the ambiguous stimuli in our lives and in the environment; otherwise we would only react in pre-set, mechanical ways to everything, as a primitive, reptilian brain does. I think this same process is connected with why people can believe absolute nonsense with total sincerity. Their brain looks for analogies to deactivate patterns of emotional arousal, but sometimes finds the wrong ones.
PENDERGRAST: That's fascinating. You can imagine the impact when a ‘script’ that could totally change their world-view is presented to a patient by a therapist. This connects to the idea of cognitive dissidence that Festinger came up with in the 1950s. He realised that we can't tolerate the disharmony of two contradictory ideas or beliefs in our heads so we search for cognitive consistency. This means that, if contradictory ideas are in our minds, we have to go with one or the other. Once we choose one belief it's difficult to go back on it. So, when people are presented with the idea, and try to contain in their mind, that “Daddy loves me and was a pretty good guy” and “Daddy was raping me throughout my childhood”, it's intolerable. You have to come down one way or the other and be firm about it.
HILL: Yes. That's what happens.
PENDERGRAST: Ivan. I'd like to know whether you think that what I say about hypnosis is correct. That is, that there are different ways of defining hypnosis. One way is to say it's a state of enhanced suggestibility and, given that, if you are a therapist about to hypnotise someone for a particular purpose, you should give them informed consent. I accept that it can be useful in that instance – if you want to suggest to someone to stop smoking, say – because that's what he or she want. However, I think it's malpractice, even if not intentional, for someone to hypnotise a patient and say, “Now we're going to age regress you back to when you were three years old and remember it all,” because that's not what's going to happen.
TYRRELL: That's right. It is malpractice. The patient will fantasise about their past and you won't get accurate memories because, by and large, we can't remember things accurately much before six years-old. After all, we all find it hard enough to remember in detail what we did last year.
PENDERGRAST: But, with suggestion, if they expect it, they will ‘remember’. They'll even remember their birth or details about pre-birth ‘past lives.
TYRRELL: Yes. And they sincerely believe the confabulation. Hypnosis is, I think, a resource, a tool that all good therapists know about and use. Of course, if a therapist, counsellor or doctor doesn't know about it, they need to inform themselves pretty damn quick because people go in and out of trance states in which they are highly suggestible all the time. Depression, for example, is a trance state. It's one of the reasons it responds so well to any therapy that snaps them out of the trance. I had someone come to see me who was deeply depressed and had been so for about twelve years. During that time she had been hospitalised three times after serious suicide attempts. She sat in front of me, sluggish, not looking at me, so into her depression trance it influenced everyone around her. She'd been seen by several psychiatrists and been on antidepressant drugs, which made matters worse. She kept saying life wasn't worth living and was talking about suicide again. In other words, she was doing what all depressed people do, pulling a global blanket over her life to cut out all the positive memories and resources. In that state of negative hallucination she was totally focused on ruminating about bad things in the past and worrying about the impact of this on her future. Focusing attention is a hypnotic phenomena and endless worrying is also done in a hypnotic state. And its negative worrying that leads to depression.
After listening to her for half an hour I asked her, “When was the last time you had a really good laugh? When did you have tears of laughter running down your face?” She just looked blank at me and said, “I never laugh.” I said, “Oh come on, everyone has a sense of humour.” She disagreed: “No, I've got no sense of humour.” Then I focussed her attention into a deeper trance by saying, “Just go back to the last time when you had tears of laughter rolling down your face.” Very soon she began to smile and then she started to laugh. She laughed until the tears flowed down her cheeks. It was wonderful to see. She had remembered an incident several years earlier when her son had accidentally sprayed himself with oil whilst trying to fix his car and she had fallen about laughing.
Now that was a resource for her. It broke the depression trance. It gave her evidence that the depression was lying to her – she did have a sense of humour. The negative global view was punctured. She had hope and was now on the way to a recovery. So knowledge of hypnosis is valuable. It's too easy to dismiss it just because, like any other tool, it can be misused.
PENDERGRAST: I would say that, so long as your client understood she was being suggested into something to help her be more cheerful, which would be okay. I just think we should realise that when we're hypnotised, we're becoming suggestible.
TYRRELL: My point is that people are already in a trance to some degree when they go along to a therapist, or a counsellor or a doctor. They are already more focused, introspective, looking inwards and in that focused state the conscious mind doesn't work well and we are highly suggestible.
PENDERGRAST: Surely there is a difference between that and the formal trance induction
TYRRELL: Yes, a formal trance is deliberate and both parties are usually aware of what might happen and the person being put into trance will have expectations about the result. But what I'm saying is that everyone should be trained about what's going on. You know, a lot of doctors have no idea how the casual comment made to a patient can absolutely plunge them into despair or depression. But doctors are not well trained in language skills and suggestibility.
HILL: This is important. I've heard psychotherapists say, “Oh, but I never use hypnosis.” On Kilroy I seem to remember somebody talking as though the only dangerous therapists in this area of recovered memories were hypnotists ...
PENDERGRAST: It is important because, over and over again, the therapists I interviewed who were getting repressed memories from people would tell me how they were careful not to lead the client. Some of them were doing formal hypnosis, some of them weren't. But it is quite clear when you read the interviews that they were leading their clients in one direction or another simply by the beliefs that they brought to therapy.
TYRRELL: Exactly. It's the therapists’ beliefs that are the key, that's absolutely true. With depression, for example, if your belief is that you can help a depressed person lift the depression, break the depressive trance and quickly get them back to leading a more normal life it's going to happen. My clients never find repressed memories because I don't look for them. The few people who have come to me and mentioned childhood sexual abuse just said something like, “Oh, I had a really rotten childhood one way or another, but I don' t want to talk about that.” They want to do something about their problem now – which is usually being depressed, anxious, obsessive or phobic. The only time I come across problems with recovered memories is when people see me after seeing a psychiatrist or counsellor who suggested that they are suppressing something terrible and that that is the cause of their problem. A neighbour of mine went to an aromatherapist to try and get help with asthma, and the aromatherapist said, “Well, you know what causes asthma, don't you? It's abuse when you were little, sexual, to do with your mouth and all that, which you've just forgotten.”
I had another case where a woman was having panic attacks. She went to see a psychiatrist who tried to lead her into having disturbing memories of when she was little, blatantly suggesting the panic was as a result of abuse when she was two or three years old. She thought this was awful; she couldn't remember any sexual abuse and didn't know what he was going on about. So someone recommended she come and see me because she was still having panic attacks. When I asked her what was going on in her life now it turned out she was married to a compulsive gambler, something fundamental that the psychiatrist had completely missed because he was ‘looking’ for repressed memories. Her first panic attack had happened when her new husband had come home on payday with no housekeeping and no money to pay the mortgage because he'd gambled it all away. She had a new baby, she was depending on this man and her life was falling apart. She was having panic attacks because of her current situation. Was it surprising? No. Did the psychiatrist need to go looking in the past?
PENDERGRAST: Of course not. This is a tremendously important point. I try to mention it in every interview that I do because so many people do have panic attacks. I think about 35 percent of the population at one time or another, according to one study, have them. They are terrifying because you get dizzy, you think you're having a heart attack and dying – you don't know what's going on.
It infuriates me that by misinterpreting panic attacks, recovered memory therapists encourage them. They say something like, “This is a flashback and you're going to keep having them until you get all the memories out.” Of course, one of the ways in which panic attacks work is that they feed on one another. As Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear except fear itself.” You become afraid of having another panic attack and that fear triggers another one.
TYRRELL: Panic attacks respond well to good therapy in a relatively short time. It's been shown that you can even stop people having panic attacks just by explaining to them what they are – explaining about the limbic system and that a panic attack is just the inappropriate firing of the fight or flight response.
PENDERGRAST: A combination of cognitive and behavioural therapy works well. I wrote to David Barlow, the author of the definitive book about anxiety disorders, when I was researching my book. He replied, “People have panic attacks because of current life stress. There is absolutely no evidence that it's because of a traumatic childhood.”
HILL: There is, I think, another interesting parallel with the Salem witch trials with this matter of expectations causing people to believe one thing is happening rather than another. In Salem, a group of girls started having fits. Witchcraft! And soon adults around them began to believe witches were afflicting them too. About 50 years later in Northampton, Massachusetts, a group of young people started having fits in just the same way as the girls at Salem. But this time the adults around them thought that the fits showed they were ‘receiving Christ’ and that was the beginning of a ‘little awakening’. In Salem they were looking for Satan: in the second case they were looking for God.
TYRRELL: That's a fascinating parallel and shows why it's so important to be aware of the beliefs of therapists.Victims of Memory also made me think about the stresses our culture is creating, with the ‘I want it NOW!’ world of instant fixes, the expectation that solutions and explanations to problems should be quick, easy to understand and definitive. But why is our culture so obsessed with abuse?
PENDERGRAST: In some ways it's understandable, I've only been here in London for a week and there have been at least three or four reports of horrible things happening: a young girl murdered in the back of her house in Hastings, a gang rape of schoolgirls and so on. So these terrible crimes, real sexual abuse, do happen all the time. I think this has been so from time immemorial, but the difference is we weren't hearing about it constantly. Modern media has changed all that. As we said, people have panic attacks during times of stress in their lives, but I think now, overall, our whole society is going through a period of stress and uncertainty. Our economy is unstable, job security is gone, marriages are unstable, the family is falling apart – you only have a 50 percent chance of staying married if you get married. We have polluted our environment to the point where we don't know what causes what, although everything seems to cause cancer. We've lost our traditional religious and spiritual moorings, so people frantically search for miracles, guardian angels, New Age cures and astrologers. We live in disturbing and remarkable times, not that others have not done so in the past, but now it's so all-pervasive.
TYRRELL: On top of this we constantly have the means to raise the emotional temperature with music and TV. To keep sane we need to step outside, look at what we are doing and to see ourselves in the larger context.
PENDERGRAST: I agree. I think it is one of the more amorphous things. You can't lay your hands on it. One of the points of my book is that you can't just put your finger on something and say, “Ha-ha! This is why I'm the way I am.” And it's the same with society. We can't just point a finger and say, “Ha-ha! This is why we are having a witch hunt right now.” It's difficult to pin it down to any one thing.
HILL: I was on a television show the other day, where somebody said, “These false allegations are a price we must pay because of the real sexual abuse that's coming out.” I said, “That's a false dichotomy. We are talking about apples and oranges. You can recognise the reality of sexual abuse and be concerned about it because it is an injustice and a dreadful thing, and, at the same time, still be concerned about people who go into therapy, who were not sexually abused, but who come out with this horrible belief and ruin their family relationships. It is an equally horrible injustice.” It is very odd to me that people can't draw that elementary and logical conclusion. Did you hear what happened with the ‘Day of Repentance Conference’?
TYRRELL: What was that about?
HILL: A group of people called the Committee of Justice, who had members all over the United States, set themselves up to try to overturn false convictions for sexual abuse brought about by recovered memory therapists. They wanted to get people out of jail and try and prevent these things happening again. They decided to have a conference on the subject in Salem, Massachusetts, on January 14th, which was the 300th anniversary of the Day of Repentances. The Day of Repentances, in 1697, was five years after the Salem witch trials when a day of fasting was declared to repent the injustices that had taken place as a result of the witch trials, particularly in the light of people being hanged or pressed to death. And this was a good idea. It was going to be held at the Peebody Essex Museum but they had to change the venue to a Hotel because the Peebody Essex was swamped with e-mails from people saying, “You mustn't let this dreadful conference take place on your premises...” Fortunately these bigots didn't stop it. But the venue had to be changed.
PENDERGRAST: Many luminaries contributed: Arthur Miller, William Styron, John Putnam Demos, Debbie Nathan and Mike Snedeker who wrote an incredible book called Satan's Silence. It was remarkable that, five years after the witch trials, the twelve jurors apologised and came out with a public statement. They said, “We do therefore hereby signify our deep sense of, and sorrow for, our errors in acting on such evidence to the condemning of any person and do hereby declare that we 13 justly fear we were sadly deluded and mistaken.” That took a lot of courage, just five years after the terrible events. In America we have been going through the modern equivalent witch-hunt for 15 years!
TYRRELL: But you do have a story in your book, thank goodness, of a therapist who has said she's sorry for what she did.
PENDERGRAST: Yes. But I have only run into two such therapists, I know it takes a lot of courage for them to look at what they have done and admit it was wrong.
HILL: It's a difficult thing for people to say sorry...
PENDERGRAST: I think it going to be very difficult for them to do but I am convinced it will happen over time, just as I am quite convinced that most of the people who were separated from their families for no reason other than these illusory ‘recovered’ memories are going to come out of it in time.
TYRRELL: Another aspect of this is that, as more people are trained with the necessary skills to help people out of depressions, anxiety states, and other forms of distress, the public will find them. One of the reasons this false memory tragedy has happened is because psychiatry has let the public down, it’s largely ineffective and relies mainly on dubious drug treatments, and that opened the door to all kinds of quackery with weird New Age beliefs flourishing like weeds and others derived from ideas of Freud and Jung.
PENDERGRAST: Yes. We need to address psychotherapy in a rational and scientific way, and look at what works and what doesn't. Otherwise people will continue to create nutty fads. We went from psychoanalysis, rebirthing, primal screaming, now we are doing EMDR, eye movement desensitisation response, which is essentially waving a finger in front of people's faces – going back to Mesmer. We are going to continue to do this until we make sure that anybody who calls themselves a psychotherapist is made to take decent courses in how memory works, how suggestible we are and the hazards of hypnosis.
TYRRELL: The thing that appals me is the lack of interest in useful information that some people who say they want to help others have. They call themselves therapists but are getting a huge emotional payment for what they do: for them prurient excitement and self-importance is more important than getting people better. They would rather manufacture victims than see what is really going on.
HILL: There is a story in Victims of Memory about a hotel receptionist who got into hypnotherapy. Suddenly, instead of checking people into the hotel every day, she was exploring people's past lives.
PENDERGRAST: Yes, the past-life hypnotherapist. I talked about her in terms particularly of the people who are discovering multiple personality disorder. It's exciting to feel that you are on the cutting edge of a new thing, delving into the subconscious of people, getting dramatic results. Much of the time people change slowly, people have problems but have to learn to live with them. Unfortunately, people have an expectation that they deserve to be happy. Life's just not like that. It's a little more complicated.
TYRRELL: The Declaration of Independence did so much damage by saying we have a right to happiness!
HILL: If people could just be a little better educated, if they could learn in biology at school about all of this how biology isn't just the physical but the mind as well and how the mind and body are inseparable perhaps we could escape such madness in the future.
PENDERGRAST: This is a fascinating thing. Because you can cure warts with hypnosis.
TYRRELL: That's right. The mind affects the body and the body affects the mind. I had a woman come to see me whose feet were deformed with verrucas. One of them was bigger than a 50 pence piece. She had had surgery, had been to chiropodists up and down the country and had had treatment for years. None of it had worked. She was in agony all the time because verrucas are in-growing warts and her job involved standing all day. I put her into a deep trance and just told her a story that contained a metaphor for the problem and its solution.
HILL: What was the story?
TYRRELL: It was made up on the spot. I told her that, once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who had inherited a country when her father died. All went well for a while but then alien savages invaded the country in the south. They built formidable castles and ravaged and terrorised the people all around, draining the resources of the surrounding countryside and making everyone miserable and suffer dreadfully. She had no experience in warfare and didn't know what to do. Then one day a wise old warrior came along who understood what was necessary and instructed her on how to reclaim the land. “Surround their castles, lay siege to them and make absolutely sure that they can't get any food or water, no sustenance at all, from the surrounding countryside.” Now that sounds daft, doesn't it? But, you know, her verrucas died and fell off within three weeks. Six weeks later, her feet were completely smooth with fresh skin. It was wonderful!
PENDERGRAST: That shows the power of suggestion.
TYRRELL: It's done all the time. And the knowledge of how to do this goes back for centuries.
PENDERGRAST: Some therapists talk about so-called ‘body memories’. They convince people that one of the ways memories come back to you is that, if you were sodomised your anus will start to hurt, or, if someone was pinning you down in a particular place, your shoulder may hurt, or a tumour is the site of unresolved traumatic memories, things like that. It's quite remarkable that people can produce pains by thinking or worrying about them. They can even produce actual marks – stigmata, or marks around their necks if they ‘discover’ they had a past life in which they were hanged; they will suddenly develop this redness around their necks.
TYRRELL: That is hypnotic phenomena.
PENDERGRAST: In the book published in 1980, Michelle Remembers, which was one of the first books about recovered memories and ritual abuse, Michelle gave herself the mark of the devil's tail on her neck. There is a picture of it in the book shown a evidence of what supposedly had happened to her. But, precisely as you said, the mind can have an unbelievably powerful effect on the body and vice versa. So you have to be careful about drawing conclusions from something when suggestion is involved. Therapists have even convinced people that their cancer was caused because they had repressed memories! It's absolutely astonishing. And the range of people who suggest such nonsense goes from psychiatrists with all kinds of degrees down to your dance instructor who tells you that “you move like someone who was sexually abused.”
This interview with Mark Pendergrast and Frances Hill first appeared in the forerunner of the Human Givens Journal, The Therapist, 1997, Volume 4, No 3
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