From Skeptic vol. 3, no. 4, 1995, pp. 36-41.

The following article is copyright © 1995 by the Skeptics Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice.

"First of All, Do No Harm"
A Recovered Memory Therapist Recants

An Interview With Robin Newsome

By Mark Pendergrast

In my book, Victims of Memory, I included four chapters of verbatim interviews with recovered memory therapists, self-described incest survivors who retrieved memories, accused parents, and retractors who once believed they had recovered memories and have now taken back the allegations. In the final chapter, I offered advice to therapists who specialize in unearthing incest memories: "It will take enormous courage for you to admit what you have done to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of clients, validating their belief in horrible events that never took place." I called for such therapists to develop a new specialty-helping to reunite the families torn asunder by these false incest charges. "After all," I wrote, "who better understands the Survivor Syndrome than you?"

Recently, I met just such a "retractor therapist," a woman who once conducted guided imagery to help clients unlock the horrible secrets from their subconscious and who now realizes that rather than contributing to healing,she was causing untold harm. A Christian therapist who is active in her evangelical church, Robin Newsome (not her real name), 49, is particularly concerned that so much evil has been done in the name of God, she is doing everything in her power to stop this form of therapy from ruining more lives. One by one, she is finding former clients, seeking to undo the damage.

The following interview follows the same format as those in Victims of Memory and can be considered that book's "missing interview."

Texan Robin Newsome is a soft-spoken, gentle woman. In her junior year in college, she became a devout Christian and joined a Christian campus organization. After graduating with a degree in early childhood education, she married and had two children. In 1982, she returned to school to obtain a masters in counseling, where she embraced Gestalt therapy and encountered her first case of recovered memory.

One of my first courses was called "Anger Therapy." It met every day for three weeks. After a short lecture, we'd meet in small groups with a therapist. This was a very intense, emotional experience. After a round of checking in, each group member was asked whether they wanted to "work" or not on any particular day. That meant doing a two-chair visualization, where you imagined the person you were angry at to be in the chair across from you, and you vented your anger, using a bataaka [foam filled] bat to hit a foam pad. This was supposed to get out your unresolved anger. This was a whole new world to me. I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole with this stuff. Here I was in my placid little world, and this was like entering a subterranean world I never knew existed. It turned me sideways and upside down. I had always been the nice Christian girl, and I wasn't aware of my great storehouse of anger.

(Newsome explained that she was angry at her husband, who was having an affair. When she figuratively put her husband in the chair, "I nearly took the head of the instructor off using the bataaka bat.")

One Friday, a woman in the group told us she had had an image of herself being sexually abused when she was two years old. She said, "I know I was abused by someone, but I can't see who it is." On Monday, she told us with tremendous sorrow that she had realized that it was her older brother. The therapist had her "put him in the chair," but instead of using the bat, she said she wanted to rip his head off. The therapist handed her some magazines and told her to have at it. She started screaming at the top of her lungs at her brother, crying and ripping magazines. Everything was going well until she grabbed one of the therapist's favorite Smithsonians, and the therapist yelled for her to stop and not rip that one. This woman completely shifted gears. She very politely said, "Oh, I'm sorry," and put it down. Then, with a vengeance, she grabbed another magazine and went back to ripping and tearing.

At the time, I interpreted this to mean that she had control over her anger. I had wondered if people would get so angry during these exercises that they might just lose it completely. This woman's ability to stop herself so quickly showed me that people weren't really losing total control. In fact, this incident made the therapy feel more like a play with a therapist/director who had just yelled, "Cut!"

Still, I had no reason to doubt that she had been abused-her tears, her sorrow, her anguish, her rage, her sense of betrayal were painful to witness. I remember being so angry at the thought that anyone could do such a thing to a small, helpless child. The fact that she had remembered her relationship with her brother as being happy prior to this memory seemed irrelevant. Obviously, her mind had shielded her from the awful truth. No one even remotely thought to question the memory of a two-year-old. Also, the idea was that young children had trouble giving words to their abuse, because they were in a preverbal state. So there was just this nameless rage buried there all these years.

Throughout my courses, there was a lot of talk about "body memories." We were taught that anger was stored in the body. During times of anger or stress, you could identify your "stress organ." Mine was in my neck muscles. The magazine-ripper woman stored her anger in her jaw. I found this concept very useful. During guided imagery, I would ask clients to recall a specific memory and ask them where they felt it, in what part of the body. When they finished their anger work, the tension would usually be gone, which I took as an indication that they had worked through that emotion.

Another woman in our group had come from an unhappy, dysfunctional home. Our instructor led her in a guided visualization and helped her create a new family for herself. At the therapist's suggestion, she re-invented her childhood, which included growing up in a different state, in a new house with a new, improved family. It seemed to be helpful to her, and everyone in the group praised her. I wondered at the time what she planned to do with her real family-the one she still had to deal with. But then, I was just a student and the therapist was the expert.

I also remember one woman who had polio when she was young. The therapist asked her what the purpose of the polio was. The idea was that your body and mind collaborate, and that nothing that happens is simply circumstantial. Initially, this feels like an insight and explanation for something that seems so unfair and irrational. In this case, the implication was that she was being sexually abused by her father, so she developed polio in order to escape to the hospital.

At the time, I really admired the therapist who led my group. She was bold, outspoken, and fearless-a really good role model for mousy little me. She seemed invincible and infallible. She was very much in control of the group, always starting and ending on time. She had people sharing their deepest secrets and unleashing their rage from day one. I'd never seen anything like it. Then, after people had bared their souls, she would be very tender and caring, like the Mom we had always wanted. But at precisely twelve noon, the warmth would end. I always had the feeling that if I saw her in the grocery store, she wouldn't give me the time of day. She was someone I both admired and feared.

Probably because I had not been very open with my true feelings before, I really took to Gestalt therapy. It was very freeing for me. I saw it work, and I still believe it can be very helpful to people. One of my first attempts at Gestalt therapy was a piece of work I did with a woman at my church who was still grieving over a miscarriage. She did a beautiful piece of grief work over the loss of her unborn child. That was one of the most amazing things I have witnessed. I saw her almost transform in my presence. She was able to find peace in her miscarriage and let go of some aspects of it.

Once I graduated with my masters in 1986, I began to counsel people on a variety of issues, but I also developed a sub-specialty in sexual abuse. In 1990, I ran a sexual abuse group that lasted nine months. While most of the women in the group had always remembered their abuse, there were a few who had vague images or just a gut feeling that they had been abused. I remember conducting a guided imagery session with one such woman. I had her close her eyes, get comfortable, and find the tension in her body. I said to her, "How old are you in this memory?" She said she was about four. I would ask other questions, like, "Do you know where you are? Do you feel like you're inside or out-of-doors?" In my own mind, I did not see this as leading at all. They seemed like innocuous questions. Later, I realized that this was almost like playing scrabble with someone and putting in a little word that suddenly opens up a whole new section of the board. I was helping her to take that little image and let it flow into a specific place. I was actually helping her fill in the details.

She said, "I feel like I'm being smothered. Something's in my face, and I don't know what." I took a pillow and gently put it on her face to simulate the experience. She sat with it for a while, then suddenly she started crying. She said, "I see it now." It was her babysitter abusing her. She remembered a nude woman forcing her to have oral sex. At that point, she sort of emotionally closed down and couldn't go any further with it. I said, "When you're ready, you can open your eyes. How is your stomach now?" It felt a little better, she said. Then I told her, "I'm really proud of you-you worked really hard." Others in the group also gave her feedback, such as, "What you remembered was really helpful to me, because it helped me be in touch with what it was like to be little and to remember what happened to me."

I wouldn't have said I was doing hypnosis at all. I tended to think of hypnosis as induced by a swinging watch chain. This was just guided imagery. I thought I was getting into the subconscious. We had been taught in our anger therapy class that you stored memories in your body. No one explained exactly how that was done. I just took it for granted. Another thing we learned was that claustrophobia often indicated a person had had oral sex forced on them. It made a certain amount of sense.

Unfortunately, this client with the babysitter memory never really got better. Few of my recovered memory clients ever improved. This person was always terrifically angry, and the work we did never seemed to help her. In fact, I would say that the sexual abuse group made her worse, and it just distracted her from real issues-her daughter, her troubled marriage, and a stressful job.

Still, I completely believed in the memories I was hearing in my therapy sessions. My first doubts began with Sally, whose story continues to haunt me, especially because it is on-going. Sally is in her mid-30s, and she came to see me almost four years ago, wanting help with her compulsive eating. Later, she told me that her father had been an alcoholic, and we began to focus on her dysfunctional family. One day, Sally came to see me after getting the image of a little girl sitting in a pool of blood. All the details of when, where, and who were unclear. I had her close her eyes and led her through guided imagery, asking my typical questions: "How old are you? What are you wearing? What time of year is it? What happens next?" With my prompting, she began to retrieve little bits of memory. In the end, she saw her father penetrating her when she was three.

At the end of the session, Sally asked, "Can this possibly be true?" She had always felt so close to her Dad. His drinking had always made him a happy drunk, and she was actually closer to him than her Mom. She had no memory of him sexually abusing her before this image. I gave her the classic line: "Sally, there would be no way for you to have invented this much detail unless it really happened."

After that first memory, she started having others. They would come to her during the week, and she would come to each session more and more depressed. She also had terrible insomnia and pelvic pain, which I explained to her as body memories. They were further proof that her memories were true. By this time, I had witnessed many clients recovering repressed memories, and I totally believed them. If you saw the emotion, you too would have no reason to doubt. The images were punctuated over and over again by the anguish, tears, contorted face, clenched fists, and rage that was expressed in hitting and kicking and ripping and gnashing of teeth. And there was always the pleading question, "How could he do this to me?" It would have been incomprehensible to think that the person just came up with it to play act. They weren't play acting. We honestly believed the images that came into their heads were the horrifying records of real events.

When Sally first came to see me, she was a relatively functional person. Home schooling is very popular here, and she had been home schooling her two boys for a couple of years. But after she started to get the abuse memories, she became so emotionally fragile that she decided to put her sons in public school. Sally would have horrible nightmares and days of sitting in a dark room just staring at the wall. She couldn't do her housework, so her husband had to do his work and then come home and do hers.

Sally's husband was very supportive of her, yet there were times he would get really frustrated, watching his wife slip away before his eyes. They had no sex life because she wouldn't let him touch her. He would vacillate between being understanding and being really angry.

Meanwhile, Sally decided to confront her Dad. I would say to clients, "One of the issues facing you is whether to confront the perpetrator or not." If a person decided to confront, we talked about how to do it, how to craft a letter, or, if they were going to confront in person, we would role-play. We always planned how they would react if the perpetrator denied what happened, what boundaries should be set. Sally wrote her father a letter. He called her and completely denied everything, but we took that as evidence that he was in denial.

After confronting her Dad, Sally seemed to get a little better, but it wasn't long before she started having more images, and another round of memories would begin. Just when we would start to work on current issues, like her troubled marriage or the problem she was having with her youngest son, boom! there would be another image.

Then one day, she came to me and said, "I had this image that involved my mother." She closed her eyes, and we went back to a time when she was a little girl living in Iowa, in this sleepy little midwestern town. She remembered that her mother had a miscarriage. Sally was seven years old; she found her mother in the kitchen dismembering the baby with a knife on a chopping block. When her mother saw her, she made her help. Sally remembered severing a tiny leg, and then she had to fry it and eat it.

I was horrified. During the week after this session, I began to realize I was having a hard time believing this memory. I told myself that it was so horrible that I probably just didn't want to believe it. That year, I had attended a presentation at a local Baptist church, where a patient described her experience in a multi-generational satanic ritual abuse [SRA] cult, so I was somewhat familiar with this type of story. She had been locked in a rat infested basement with other children. They had been drugged and programmed to cut themselves if they ever told. She described how she had repressed all of this and recalled it in therapy. Her therapist, a counselor at the church, was a man who seemed very caring, very professional. I bought this presentation hook, line, and sinker.

So now, when I was having troubled believing the memory, I put the blame on myself. I realized that I had to tell Sally and, even worse, I realized that I could no longer do therapy with her. We had built up such trust, and I was really worried about Sally's reaction. She had begun cutting herself by that point. I had been taught that it would mean a thousand years in purgatory to doubt the memory of a client. Nonetheless, I knew that I could not be effective in Sally's recovery as long as I harbored doubts. Furthermore, we had crossed into the uncharted territory of SRA, and I felt that I was no longer qualified to treat Sally. I referred her to an expert, the counselor at the Baptist church.

I later learned that after the first week or two of her new therapy, her counselor suggested that she might have multiple personality disorder [MPD]. By her fourth session, she had discovered three personalities. From that point on, she developed more and more. I understand that she now has 35 or so. She has been hospitalized at least five times. She has overdosed and cut herself again and again. After three years of weekly and sometimes twice weekly therapy with a counselor and a psychiatrist, she shows no sign of improvement. Her marriage is now on the brink of divorce, and her two sons are tired of their Mom being so crazy. They are frightened of her and for her. I get the feeling that they feel responsible for keeping her alive. Her new counselor told Sally that things would have to get worse before they got better. He sure was right about that!

A couple of months later, a woman named Rebecca came to see me. She was having images of ceremonial-type murders. In this case, there was a corroborating witness who had instigated an investigation against her parents. This involved a real unsolved murder from many years ago, and the police were called in. I thought, "Here's an example of SRA really happening." Before, I had queasy feelings, but here were the police giving credence to it. Again, I referred this client to the so-called experts, this time to a residential treatment center in New Mexico called Cottonwood, where they specialized in the treatment of SRA victims. The main focus was on recovering repressed memories. In group, they would share any thoughts or dreams, and if a person had a memory, they were highly praised for it. The worst thing you could say was, "I don't know if this is true or not."

Rebecca got much worse instead of better. She told me later that the images never felt quite like her other memories, and she continued to question their validity. She also found out that the corroborating "evidence" of her friend consisted of recovered memories she had retrieved in therapy. After the police investigation failed to turn up any physical evidence to support the accusations, she decided to take a break from all the stress of therapy and make an attempt to get back to some kind of normal life with her husband and young children. As time passed, she noticed that she felt better. The nightmares stopped, her symptoms abated, and her thoughts cleared. In fact, she began to seriously question whether any of her repressed memories were true. She missed her family but was uncertain how to reconcile with them, particularly with her father. Finally, when Rebecca became seriously ill herself, she called on her mother for help.

By this time, Rebecca's parents had discovered the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and had tried to get some FMS literature to me through my pastor. He gave it to me to read. I took one look at it, and the tone seemed very anti-therapist. I said, "This sounds like nonsense, like perpetrators trying to invent a safe haven." I didn't pay much attention to it.

Rebecca went through her surgery, and her parents were very loving and supportive-pretty amazing, since she had accused her Dad of murder. She finally allowed them to see her children, whom they had not seen in over a year. In the past few months, I have met her parents and tried to make amends for the damage I caused their family. They have been incredibly kind and forgiving.

After her surgery, Rebecca started reading the FMS material and realized that she fit the pattern of the repressed memory victim to a T. Instead of merely doubting her abuse memories, she began to denounce them. In early 1993, she came to me with the article about Paul Ingram from The New Yorker. That article was a turning point for me. As I read it, I kept thinking of my experience with Sally and how she had not gotten better, but worse. She had gone from mere hell to sheer hell.

I began to think maybe there was such a thing as false memory. I wondered why the Vietnam vet doesn't forget being in Vietnam, or the Chowchilla children being buried in a bus, or the Holocaust survivors. Why don't flood victims forget? The problem with real victims of trauma seems just the reverse-they can't forget about those experiences. Does the mind work like a movie camera, recording every detail of an event? How early can memories be retrieved? How can people remember back to six months old? One of my clients had recalled being sexually abused in her crib by her grandfather. Where is the science to give credence to a belief like that? Or for that matter, do women in their teens forget incidents of repeated abuse? One incident might be forgotten, but repeated acts of torture, how do they get repressed? And why was it only sexual abuse that was blocked from memory? Why not physical abuse?

I had just re-read The Crucible about the Salem witch trials, and I began to see parallels. The same flimsy "evidence" that condemned innocent people to die in Salem was now being used to accuse and sometimes even charge parents of crimes, the only evidence being a repressed memory. I realized that I had never once questioned the idea of repressed memory. It was a presupposition that had been laid down in my profession as a foundation, and I had just stepped out onto it without questioning whether it was a solid foundation on which to build beliefs. I began to read snippets of the FMSF literature, which was based on scientific research in the field of memory and hypnosis. I realized that I needed to rethink many of my fundamental assumptions.

In the fall of 1993, I attended my first local FMSF meeting. I wasn't sure what to expect. These were the accused, after all. I remembered all that I had learned about how all perpetrators are in denial. I expected a room full of defensive parents. What I found instead was a group of sad and shocked parents who asked the same question their daughters asked: "How could she do this to me?" I had been so supportive of women and their repressed memories, but I had never once considered what that experience was like for the parents. Now I heard how absolutely ludicrous it sounded. One elderly couple introduced themselves, and the wife told me that their daughter had accused her husband of murdering three people. Another woman had been accused of being in a Satanic cult that had used babies for sacrifices. This woman in a pink polyester suit was supposed to be a high priestess. The pain in these parents' faces was so obvious. And the unique thread was that their daughters had gone to therapy. I didn't feel very proud of myself or my profession that day.

I think that if I had been counseling only sex abuse cases, or if I had pressed my clients further when they denied being sexually abused, or if I had used "symptom lists" on clients, I probably would never had gone to that FMSF meeting. I think that there is a point of no return with repressed memory therapy, where admitting what you have done to clients would be too terrible to ever face. Fortunately, I had not yet reached that point. Still, I left that meeting with a tremendous discomfort, realizing that I had clients who had cut off all relationship with parents who would have looked exactly like these people and would be in as much shock and disbelief. I felt like the sorcerer's apprentice.

After that FMSF meeting, I would frequently wake up in the middle of the night in terror and anguish, thinking about clients who fit the pattern for False Memory Syndrome. Sometimes I worried about being sued. A number of the parents I had met were eager to sue their child's therapist. Most of the time, though, I just thought about those mothers and fathers who wanted their children back. Most of them hadn't talked to their children in at least two years, often longer.

There was one client who kept coming to mind. She had occasionally voiced doubts about her memories-they had always been very vague, and I had secretly wondered if she hadn't jumped to a false conclusion when she accused her Dad. The next time she came in, I asked if she would like me to attempt mediation with her father, and she was open to the idea. He must have been stunned when I identified myself as his daughter's therapist. He told me that he was so hurt that he never wanted to speak to her again. But he also told me, "You know, my daughter really was sexually abused by a babysitter when she was five," which coincided with the age she had memories of being abused. I told him a little bit about FMS and that his daughter had not maliciously accused him. I gently pressed the issue and found that he really did want to reunite with his daughter. Finally, after a good deal of trepidation, she called him. Now they are on the path to making peace with one another.

Since then, I have been going back to former clients, one by one, trying to undo the damage. I will meet with them and ask them to read over some FMSF material. "Even if it turns out that your repressed memories are true," I say, "you should know that information questioning them is out there. I want you to read it, and then we'll talk." Some clients, like the woman who thought her grandfather had abused her in the crib, have retracted with evident relief. Others have re-established some sort of relationship with their parents, but they haven't taken back the allegations. One just shrugged and told me, "I guess we'll never know whether these memories are true or false." That attitude really disturbs me. And Sally won't hear what I have to say yet, but some day, I hope she will retract.

I have also changed the way I practice sex abuse therapy. I only work with clients who have long-standing memories. Now I never ask if a client has been sexually abused. I leave it up to clients to present their own issues. And I no longer refer anyone to experts on Satanic Ritual Abuse, since there are no real experts. There may really be groups of people dabbling in ritual abuse, but I do not believe in multi-generational everyone-in-town-is-involved SRA cults. The FBI and police forces around the country have found no evidence to support their existence.

It is very disturbing to me that many who consider themselves Christian counselors are among those searching for repressed memories, particularly of SRA. Christians believe in the concept of an evil force called Satan. Ritual abuse gives credence to that kind of evil, a personal Satan with attendant spirits. It gives that spiritual dimension to the counseling. One counselor I know tells clients to ask God to tell them if they were sexually abused. God is supposed to reveal their abuse in response to their prayers. This makes God Himself an accessory to this dubious practice of retrieving memories. In the name of God, thousands of families are being split apart.

I believe that therapists constitute a new priesthood. I think we all have been sold a bill of goods that human misery can be attributed solely to traumatic childhood events. I'm often struck by people who have relatively normal lives who experience the same kind of misery. I am not minimizing the effects of trauma, but as Jesus said, "In this life, you will have tribulation."

Another saying of Jesus also has great resonance for me now. He said, "Perfect love casts out all fear." That's true, but I think the reverse is also true, that perfect fear casts out all love. That is what happens in recovered memory therapy.

I recently got a call from an elderly gentleman who had heard about my efforts to reconcile families. He wanted to talk to someone who would understand his story. He's 84 years old and had just lost his wife of 56 years. Five years ago, their only daughter had written them a letter accusing him of sexually abusing her and vowing never to speak to them again unless he confessed. He denied the charge and hasn't heard from her since. Other family members have told him that she now believes she has multiple personalities.

When I told him that there was a support organization for accused parents, he was really surprised. He and his wife had thought they were the only ones. But he saw no point in attending an FMSF meeting. At his advanced age, he didn't expect ever to see his daughter again. Before he left, I said, "I have a prayer for these lost daughters. Can I share it with you?" He agreed, and I began quoting from Luke 15, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. "I will arise and go to my father and will say unto him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee." Obviously recognizing the story, he stood and continued: "But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him." We finished together. "For this my son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found." Together, we found a small glimmer of hope in that moment, enveloped in an awful lot of charity. We both cried. I wished him Godspeed, and then he left.