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Home arrow False and "Recovered" Memories arrow False Memory Syndrome - Articles arrow Halloween and the Terror of False Memory

Halloween and the Terror of False Memory

STEPHANIE SALTER
Examiner columnist. 

Sun, Oct. 29, 1995

THE COLLECT call was from "Bobby."  He was in Los Angeles, and, "I really need to talk."

"Because it's Halloween?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said.  "I wonder if this is ever going to go away completely."

I first encountered Bobby (not his real name) in November 1992 while I was researching an Examiner series on recovered memory therapy.  The event was a "no-holds barred" incest survivors meeting in a San Francisco church.  About 20 young, white, well-dressed and articulate women and men attended.

All said they were victims not only of incest but of satanic or other ritual cult abuse.  Most of them related childhood "memories" of murder, cannibalism, sexual perversion and forced breeding.  Most of them believed they had been "programmed" to return to a cult.

I especially recall one beautiful woman in her early 20s who sobbed as she remembered her mother using scissors to mutilate her genitalia.

"I know I should have scars from it, but I don't," she wept.  "But I know it happened."

Bobby and the other survivors called out their support of her beliefs.

After the recovered memory therapy series ran, a hesitant young man phoned; it was Bobby.  Exhausted from dredging up increasingly horrible cult "memories" - and finding none of the promised relief in the process - he said he had been on the verge of suicide.  Then somebody showed him the Examiner articles.

"It just flipped everything over," he said.  "None of this s--- is true.  I've spent six years of my life getting sicker and sicker with memories of s--- that never happened."

To most of us, the idea of a worldwide conspiracy of ritual cultists is barely possible.

But plenty of people do believe in such a conspiracy, one that victimized them in childhood.  As a recent episode of Public Broadcasting's "Frontline" showed, the costs of believing - and accepting therapy as a cult abuse survivor - can be astronomical.

In "The Search for Satan," "Frontline" focussed on the cult abuse therapy industry and one of its stars, Bennett Braun.  A Chicago psychiatrist, Braun has built a revered practice, clinic and training seminar program, treating people he has diagnosed with multiple personality disorder.  A major cause of the disorder, according to Braun: ritual cult abuse.

Several of Braun's former patients are suing him for alleged malpractice.  "Frontline" told the stories of two who say their lives were shattered by years of hospitalization and therapy - totaling about $5.5 million - for cult abuse that never happened.

Back when Bobby believed (and was told) he had some three dozen personalities, he heard a lot from his own therapists about Braun and other like-minded doctors, psychologists and social workers.  For affirmation of his most bizarre memories, Bobby could point to dozens of books on the worldwide cult conspiracy or to magazines like the March 1993 issue of Ms., whose cover warned:

"BELIEVE IT! Cult Ritual Abuse Exists."

Lest he forget the particulars of ritual abuse, Bobby could have referred to a 31-page booklet of "definitions, glossary, the use of mind control" that was published by the 14-person Ritual Abuse Task Force of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women.

He still could.  The current edition of the booklet states:

"Ritual abuse is a serious and growing problem in our community and in our nation."  But, "There is the mistaken belief that satanic and other cult activity is isolated and rare."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation harbors that belief.  After hundreds of investigations of alleged cult murders, the FBI contends that, while there are ritual cults and sporadic incidents of cult violence, there is "little or no evidence" of "large scale" cult violence or an "organized satanic conspiracy."

Bobby heard all that when he was in the throes of his cult beliefs.  But there was an explanation: The FBI is in on the conspiracy.

"Everybody is in on it," he said.  "They (cult theorists) have explanations for every question you come up with."

Bobby has continued to struggle with genuine inner demons and those he imagined for six years.  On the plus side, he returned to college and finally visited the family he hadn't talked to in four years.

But Bobby is "bi-polar" or manic-depressive, which is rough enough without false memories of cult abuse.  He has been hospitalized at least three times.  Once, I drove him; it was summer solstice, when cult activity supposedly proliferates.  Four months later, he called from a locked ward; it was Halloween.

"I was losing it again," he cried.  "I couldn't even look at little kids' decorations in a school window without getting all the fears back."

A year later, he called from L.A.

"I'm sorry, I just needed to hear your voice.  I need to hear again what I already know," Bobby said.  "It's this time of year.  It keys so much stuff.  I try not to, but I keep thinking, maybe everybody really is in on it.  Maybe you are.  I hate this."