This is an eyewitness account of the "memory wars" of the 1990s in the United States, as they related to professional psychiatry. The eyewitness giving testimony is a distinguished academic psychiatrist, and a man with an agenda. It is the total reform of psychiatry, as it has been developed and institutionalized over the past century. First on the agenda is the eradication of psychoanalysis, which in McHugh's firm opinion has caused serious damage to the profession.
The "memory wars", which actually started in the 1970s, involved a small number of psychiatrists and a large number of psychotherapists. In a earlier review published here (Beit-Hallahmi, 2005), I wrote: "Psychotherapy is a social phenomenon which is part of modern culture. In many cases it has little to do with academic or professional training. Some psychotherapists have been trained as psychologists or psychiatrists, but they are a minority. Psychotherapy is carried out all over the world by (mostly) social workers, counselors, teachers, clergy, psychologists, psychiatrists, and whoever feels like it".
In the early 1990s, McHugh became aware of psychiatrists who were claiming that memories of alleged childhood abuse were appearing in adults. Later on he became aware of a an alleged connection between repressed childhood abuse and the diagnosis of a multiple personality disorder (MPD) and later DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) in adults. In McHugh's judgment, both child abuse allegations and the MPD diagnoses, which were becoming more common, were being manufactured, rather than recognized by the treatment process itself. Before the 1980s, all textbooks stated that MPD was an extremely rare phenomenon, and then thousands of cases were being diagnosed, with specialized centers headed by psychiatrists were being set up to treat them.
The MPD epidemic was partially triggered by, a psychiatrist named Cornelia Wilbur, whose patient Sybil, having 16 personalities, became the subject of an eponymous 1973 best seller. I can recall the sensation the book caused and my own reaction to it. At the time, I thought the story of 16 personalities in one body was a fabrication designed to sell books, but the numbers of multiples or alters, as they became known, were to grow a hundredfold in some cases presented by credentialed professionals.
McHugh describes the development of what he calls the "Mannerist Freudian" view: "They picked up Sybil, multiple personality, and shameful buried traumas from Cornelia Wilbur. They threw in repression, symptom formation, and psychic defenses. They ended p by explaining mental disorders in a way that seemed at once fashionable and linked to tradition" (p. 21). This complex of ideas gained a following among numerous practitioners of psychotherapy, and then led to some lawsuits by clients against their families for abuse carried out decades earlier and supposedly leading to a host of symptoms, if not the dreaded MPD itself. This complex was also embraced by leading feminists, such as Gloria Steinem. Legal actions and accusations by clients against their families led in 1992 to the founding the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). The FMSF enjoyed the support of distinguished academic researchers, in addition to McHugh himself, and became a player in the US media "memory wars".
Accusations became more and more bizarre, as the cause of alien abductions was taken up by John E. Mack, a prominent Harvard psychiatrist, and stories about Satanic rituals gave rise to several court cases. As McHugh points out, official psychiatry in the United States refused to take a stand. The repressed memory/recovered memory industry was creating thousands of victims, and the MPD diagnosis entered the DSM-III.
How did this nightmare end? As the story unfolds, it turns out that there were several legal cases that turned things around. Among the most important was that of Bennett G. Braun, a psychiatrist from Chicago who diagnosed one depressed housewife from Des Moines as a high priestess of Satan. This woman, Pat Burgus, sued Dr. Braun and won $10.6 million in damages. This verdict led to the end of the MPD epidemic, but it was helped by important work on the part of journalists. These courageous individuals did was the mental health professionals failed to do.
McHugh gives credit to many journalists, but fails to mention the crucial role of one television producer, who was the first to systematically expose the absurdities of the recovered memory movement and the MPD/Satanic Ritual Abuse crowd. That producer is Ofra Bikel, who was responsible for five PBS Frontline programs (Innocence Lost, 1991; Innocence Lost: The Verdict, 1993; Innocence Lost: The Plea, 1997; The Search for Satan,1995; Divided Memories,1995) that remain a stunning and accurate historical record of this historical episode.
The main lesson from this incredibly tragic episode is that contemporary psychotherapy lacks any professional standards and is not really a profession. Anybody can not only practice psychotherapy, but create a new school within it, based on any kind of whim or fantasy, rather than basic research in human behavior. The consequences of this reality may lead to disaster, as we see in this book, but the lessons of the "memory wars" are rarely discussed among professionals. Many of those who promoted the crazy notions of Satanic rituals leading to MPD have never been demoted or penalized.
Critics like McHugh are few and far between, and he is the kind of critic who not only wants to stop current practices, but has something to offer instead. In this vein, he states that the current PTSD epidemic is a successor to the repressed memory insanity of the 1990s and recommends cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) as the cure to the ills of psychotherapy.
If you read carefully the acknowledgement section, as I did, and look into the background of the publisher, you will discover another aspect of the author's public life. Paul McHugh, in addition to being a psychiatrist, is part of the right-wing cum religious network which was has been so influential in the United States since the 1980s. The Dana Press, which published this book, operates as part of the Dana Foundation, headed by William Safire, speechwriter and ardent supporter of Richard M. Nixon. And so the "memory wars" in this context turn out to be part of the "culture wars" in United States politics, with promoters of repressed/recovered memories being on the left, and their opponents being on the right. I must admit that this idea took me by surprise. While the fantastic accusations against parents certainly reflect a refusal to respect tradition and authority, and feminists were prominent among them, the sex and Satanism allegations drew the support of many religious individuals and organizations. Most of those who challenged the repressed memory movement were by no means right-wingers. McHugh's political and religious views clearly have no bearing on his sound analysis of what ails psychiatry and the whole "mental health" industry in the United States and around the world.
Beit-Hallahmi, B. Review of L. J. Cozolino, The Making of a Therapist: A Practical Guide for the Inner Journey, 2004. Metapsychology Online Reviews, December 31, 2005.
© 2009 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi
Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi has written about the ideology and morality of psychotherapy, most extensively in his book Despair and Deliverance. His major interest has been the psychological study of religion, and his books include Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion and The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief, and Experience.