Skeptical Inquirer
1998, 22, 23-24
Copyright 1998 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

Elizabeth F. Loftus

The Price of Bad Memories

Elizabeth F. Loftus

After hundreds of articles on recovered memory therapy, one might have thought there was not much left to say. But a November 1997 front-page article in the New York Times headlined '"Memory' Therapy Leads to a Lawsuit and Big Settlement" suggested that the repressed memory controversy had broken new records (Belluck 1997).

The article reported on the case of Patricia Burgus, whose family had accepted a $10.6 million settlement, the biggest to date in any lawsuit accusing mental health professionals of implanting false memories into the minds of patients. Burgus had been referred to a large Chicago hospital for severe postpartum depression. Burgus alleged that while she was undergoing psychiatric therapy from 1986 to 1992, she was persuaded that she had been part of a satanic cult, had been abused by numerous men, had abused her own children, and had had sex with John F. Kennedy. Drugs and hypnosis helped her "recall" that she had cannibalized people. At one point, her husband brought in some hamburger meat from a family picnic, and the therapists agreed to test the meat to see if it was human.

Burgus was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (MPD) and developed numerous "alters" (alternative personalities). Even today, Burgus has trouble remembering what they were, in part because her therapist would get her alters mixed up with those of his other patients.

On the fourth day of her deposition, in December 1996, Burgus was trying to recall some of the alters for the attorney who was questioning her (Burgus v. Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center):

Q: Who did he ask to come out?

A : Little - Little One.

Q : Little Little One or just Little One?

A : I'm sorry. I stuttered. Little One. He - oh, just a second. There was . . . something called - let me think - guardian keeper or - I later found out that was someone else's personality, a different patient.

Q : Oh, he was mixing other people's personalities in with yours?

A : Yes.

She went on to explain that this would happen a couple times a month. Then she relayed the following unusual therapeutic activity:

A : Well, there was one where he played a tape recording to me of someone else's session, and it was a woman speaking in a child's voice. And later in the session that I was listening to, the person switched back to a voice that I recognized on the unit and realized that that was not me on the tape.

Burgus eventually realized that she did not have MPD after all. She had not been an abused devil-worshipping cannibal. She had not abused her young children, who had also been hospitalized for nearly three years because doctors thought her disorder might be genetic. She sued her former therapists, or mind "hackers," as they were called in a recent New Yorker piece (Andersen 1997). The case was settled on the day that the trial was expected to commence, six years after the case had been filed, and eleven years after Burgus began her questionable therapy. Of the $10.6 million, the medical center agreed to pay approximately $3 million and the psychiatrists agreed to pay the remainder.

Within weeks of the Burgus settlement, there was another "first" in the long, dreary repressed memory controversy. A federal grand jury in Houston, Texas, returned an indictment against the administrator and four caregivers at the former Spring Shadows Glen Hospital. The criminal charges accused the mental health professionals (psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists) of exaggerating diagnoses and overstating the need for expensive treatment in order to unjustly collect insurance payments.

The accusations are that the professionals convinced patients that they had participated in satanic cults and that they had MPD. In the words of the indictment: "It was further part of the conspiracy that the defendants and others would and did fraudulently treat the insured patients for MPD caused by unsubstantiated and unrealistic allegations and abuses, including satanic ritual abuse and cult activity, while at the same time creating medical records to substantiate such treatment" (United States v. Peterson et al., 8).

Moreover, the indictment alleged that the defendants "did fraudulently elicit statements of satanic ritual abuse and cult activities from the admitted patients, through nontraditional treatment modalities, including the use of leading or suggestive questions during therapy sessions while the patients were: under hypnosis; under the influence of a drug or combination of drugs; isolated from their families, friends, and the outside world . . ." (United States v. Peterson et al., 8).

While the case against the Spring Shadows Glen professionals is believed to be the first federal indictment involving allegations that therapists instilled false memories, the civil case brought by the Burgus family follows a long trail of similar cases.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) published the results of its survey of the outcomes of recent malpractice suits against therapists in its December 1997 newsletter ( False Memory Syndrome Foundation 1997). An analysis of 105 malpractice suits flied by former patients against their therapists for development of false memories revealed that one case was dropped, forty-two were settled out of court, fifty-three are still pending, and nine went to trial. Of the cases that went to trial, all ended in a verdict in favor of the plaintiff (patient) against the defendant (therapist).

A few of the specific trial outcomes were mentioned in a sidebar to the survey results: In 1994, a Pennsylvania jury awarded $272,232 to seventeen-year-old Nicole Althaus and her parents. In two separate Minnesota cases against the same psychiatrist, Vynnette Hammane was awarded approximately $2.6 million (in 1995) and Elizabeth Carlson was awarded $2.5 million (in 1996) against the psychiatrist, whom the women claimed had used hypnosis, guided imagery, sodium amytal, and other methods to get them to develop false memories of childhood sexual and ritual abuse. In 1997, a Texas jury awarded $5.8 million to Lynn Carl, who claimed she was misdiagnosed as an MPD with five hundred alters and treated for satanic ritual abuse.

What can we expect in the coming years? First, there will be more civil suits, as once-destroyed families find themselves reconciling. As for criminal indictments, it is hard to know whether more will follow. One organization to which at least one of the indicted therapists belongs, the International Society for the Study of Dissociation (ISSD), issued a news release objecting to the criminal charges and soliciting financial assistance for the defense. The ISSD said that the legal development could have a chilling effect on the provision of health care in the United States. The organization further said that prosecutions on charges of this kind show that "the Federal government is indicating their willingness to set standards for diagnosis and treatment" and that the government has decided the professionals involved "purposely created false memories" and has "seemingly decided that the patients' memories were not accurate."

The ISSD further invited readers of its news release to imagine when the criminalization scenario is generalized to other patients and other professionals: "Will any patient who is unhappy with the outcome of any form of therapy be able to allege that purposeful criminal fraudulent therapy was performed and cause a therapist to be indicted? Will the government now seek to imprison doctors treating patients who allege Agent Orange exposure, Gulf War Syndrome, unknowing exposure to government radiation testing, or other events that the government has not wished to acknowledge? Will mental health providers risk jail time for treating those traumatized by combat activities that the government prefers to deny? Will a physician be subject to prison time for mistakenly diagnosing indigestion in a patient who is having a heart attack? If these things can occur, then what professionals in their right mind will want to remain as providers of health care?"

Clearly some therapists are threatened by the very prospect, not to mention the reality, of criminal prosecution, and will take steps to make sure this doesn't happen again. Time will tell.

The problems that our society has had to face over the repressed memory controversy have changed to some extent, but they are still not over. Compared to the early 1990s, there are fewer cases of people suing individuals based on claims of massive repression and recovery of abuse. There are more cases of people suing their former therapists for planting false memories. There is the prospect of criminal prosecution based upon fraudulent practices. But can we walk away from this controversy now? There are still hundreds, perhaps thousands of families who have been devastated by repressed memory accusations. There are elderly parents who have one wish left in life - simply to be reunited with their children. There are talented mental health professionals who have found their profession tarred by the controversy. And there are the genuinely abused patients who have felt their experiences trivialized by the recent sea of unsubstantiated, unrealistic, and bizarre accusations.

There is still much to be done to fix these remaining problems.


Andersen, Kurt. 1997. Speak, memory. The New Yorker, November 24, p. 56.

Belluck, Pam. 1997. Memory therapy leads to a lawsuit and big settlement. New York Times, November 6, pp. A1, A10.

Burgus, Burgus, Burgus and Burgus v. Rush-Presbyterian-St Luke's Medical Center, a corp. et al. Deposition of Patricia Burgus, taken December 4, 1996.

False Memory Syndrome Foundation. 1997. Newsletter, 6 (11), December, pp. 7-9.

United States of America v. Peterson, Seward, Mueck, Keraga, and Davis. U.S. Dist. Ct., Southern District, Texas, No. H-97-237.


Elizabeth Loftus is in the Psychology Department, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195-1525. She coauthored The Myth of Repressed Memory (St. Martin's Press) and is
president-elect of the American Psychological Society.

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