IF MEMORIES can be unearthed, do therapeutic techniques taint or manipulate them? A statute change in 1990 unleashed a flurry of lawsuits over sex crimes allegedly committed decades ago. Last week a King County Superior Court jury ruled for a plaintiff who resurrected memories of molestation in the 1970s.
Lawsuits based on repressed memories of sexual abuse are sweeping through Washington courts, stirring confrontation among families, advocates and mental-health professionals.
Accuser and accused, often a daughter and a father, testify over events alleged to have happened between a decade and 40 years ago.
Behind the accusers are groups who say the lawsuits are rightful actions from victims who have been robbed of their childhood and self-esteem. Those backing the accused insist the accusations are either lies or the work of therapists encouraging not only faulty memories but also lawsuits.
And mental-health experts are moving from clinics and classrooms to courtrooms as they debate whether memories of major events such as ongoing childhood sexual abuse can be tucked away and recalled decades later. If memories can be unearthed, do therapeutic techniques taint or manipulate them?
The 1990 Legislature, accepting that such abuse can be repressed until well into adulthood, changed the statute of limitation for filing suits to three years after the alleged incidents are remembered or connected to an existing problem.
Last week, in what is believed to be one of the first jury awards to a plaintiff in the state since the law was altered, a King County Superior Court jury found that Ronald Edie, 57, of Auburn, had molested his former neighbor between 1973 and 1977.
The jury awarded 32-year-old Sharon Keene of Renton $313,000.
Keene told the jury she had forgotten about the repeated assaults until a 1990 therapy session dealing with marital problems. She had denied being assaulted when she gave a 1987 deposition in a related case.
Not only did the jury believe her memory had been repressed and accurately recalled later, it connected the alleged abuse in the '70s to her current problems of anger and depression.
Unusual aspects of case
Her claims were bolstered by testimony from two of Edie's daughters and a woman who testified he molested them when they were children.
Keene's case is unusual in two respects: Many cases involve families, a father, a daughter, an uncle, a brother. And often, corroboration, other than a therapist's opinion, is completely lacking.
Among the cases that have gone to trial in King County Superior Court:
-- Last month, Judge Dale Ramerman denied a woman's claim she had been molested in the early '70s by her mother's former boyfriend. She recalled the five years of childhood abuse, she said, during therapy in the late '80s.
Ramerman, faced with conflicting testimony about the allegations and validity of repressed memory, crystallized the difficulty in sorting the facts in his written opinion. "The failure to meet the burden of proof could well be because of the very long passage of time, the secretive nature of the offense and the debate, uncertainty and confusion in the relevant scientific community," he wrote.
"Or it could be because the abuse did not occur."
-- In 1991, Judge John Darrah awarded $75,000 to a woman who said her uncle, a successful architect, had molested her when she was a child 30 years ago.
Darrah seemed troubled that the woman went through two years of therapy but did not recall the sexual abuse until she read an account of forced oral sex in a book.
But Darrah found, "I would find it difficult for the plaintiff to fabricate well enough to get past the eye of her therapist."
-- A Federal Way man was acquitted of child rape a few years ago in what may be the only repressed-memory criminal case brought by county prosecutors.
One of the man's daughters allegedly told a therapist she had been molested by her father eight years before. But former Judge Warren Chan found the man, a professional for a large local company, not guilty.
In a pending Pierce County case, a woman is suing her father and another man for molesting her more than 40 years ago. Again, the memories were recalled through therapy.
Repression of traumatic memories is a generally accepted phenomenon among clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, who sometimes call it, "motivated amnesia." Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by some Vietnam veterans is an oft-cited example of forgetting as a means of coping.
But several researchers, notably University of Washington psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, contend there is no scientific basis to believe memory can be completely repressed.
"The belief by some clinicians is that you can block out or repress memories, shoving them in a corner of the mind until the shell is cracked and the memories pour forth in pristine form," says Loftus, who testified as a defense witness in Keene's case and scores of others across the country.
"There is just no scientific data to support that."
Loftus has done experimentation showing that false memory - being lost in a shopping mall as a child - can be implanted. She testifies that some clinicians use highly suggestive techniques, including hypnotherapy, to develop "memory."
Keene was hypnotized by her therapist, but Judge Charles Mertel excluded all recollections that came as a result of it.
The proliferation of claims across the country has spawned a Philadelphia-based group calling itself the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. It contends some therapists are encouraging lawsuits as a method of treatment and are planting and misshaping memories of clients.
The group's newsletters are filled with accounts from people who say their therapists manipulated them into believing they had been abused.
Dallas woman awarded $300,000
A Dallas woman last week won a settlement of more than $300,000 after suing her therapists, who she claimed made her believe she had been abused by members of her family in satanic rituals. The woman had seen the therapists for treatment of an eating disorder.
"This is the biggest issue in mental health," said her attorney, Skip Simpson. "And frankly that's because there are too many therapists chasing too few dollars."
But Seattle clinical psychologist Laura Brown, who often testifies on the other side of cases from Loftus, said in most cases the memories are real and that reputable mental-health professionals do not plant memories or have a stake in lawsuits.
`I was a skeptic'
"When I began my practice I didn't believe in repressed memories," Brown said. "I was a skeptic. But then I listened to all these people give their accounts, and no two people told their stories in the same way. And I didn't plant any memories."
Brown acknowledges the mechanism for repression and recall isn't understood, but she disagrees with Loftus' study.
If repression is a familiar issue in mental health, it is still a novel legal one.
Seattle attorney Steve Moen represented the defendants in Ramerman's courtroom and in the criminal case. He says plaintiffs often find a courtroom a far different venue from treatment.
"When the person comes to court," he said, "they typically have little to back up their claims. It is a much greater burden in the courtroom and their claims are strenuously contested."
Seattle attorney Barbara Jo Levy, who has handled several plaintiffs' cases, acknowledges the odds of proving a case can be long. But she believes many of those taken to court are legitimate.
Considering merits of each case
Levy said juries are becoming educated about repressed memories and should do as the mental-health professionals do: consider each case on its merits.
"Even Dr. Loftus will acknowledge that `true' memories can be jarred by a smell, a song or something else," said Levy. "We've all experienced it."