Haunted Dreams: Real or Implanted?

Houston Chronicle/September 12, 1993
By Mark Smith

Woman says therapy begat visions

Lucy Abney went into treatment for depression but came out with more than 100 alternate personalities and horrifying memories of a past spent in a satanic cult. By the time Abney finished two years of therapy, she had flashbacks of cannibalism, blood drinking, orgies and the sacrifice of three of her babies. She said her therapist warned that some of her personalities could be turned on or off by a secret "programming code" and that her husband was a high priest in the satanic cult.

"The memories were very real, very vivid," said Abney, who said she had never had such visions before she began therapy in 1991. But after leaving a psychiatric hospital where she had spent nearly a year and more than $300,000, Abney suddenly had doubts about her bizarre memories: Were they real or fantasy? Abney, 45, of Houston decided they were fantasy and she blames her psychologist for her false memories and misplaced concerns about satanism.

Abney's case is similar to a growing number nationwide in which "repressed memories" have suddenly sprung forth, unleashing allegations of sexual abuse, satanism and other claims. A national parents' group, the Philadelphia-based False Memory Syndrome Foundation, has sprouted to support family members who claim their children have falsely accused them of child abuse.

The issue has divided therapists, who slugged it out at the annual American Psychological Association convention in Toronto in August. An APA panel of three scientists and three clinical practitioners agreed on two points: It is possible to create "false" beliefs and it is possible to revive a "lost" memory.

Abney's case is not simple. While her two daughters -- who claim abuse at the hands of their stepfather and a satanic cult -- are temporarily in the state's custody, Abney said she has filed a complaint against her psychologist, Judith Peterson. The state Board of Examiners of Psychologists reports having five complaints against Peterson, but will not reveal their nature or who filed them. The state department of Mental Health Retardation, in a series of inspections of Spring Shadows Glen psychiatric hospital, where Peterson was clinical director of the dissociative disorders unit, cited these violations: overuse of physical restraints on patients, censorship of patient mail and phone calls and, in one case, making a patient's discharge contingent upon safety from a "satanic cult."

As an example of the restrictions, Abney said that when her husband tried to deliver a carnation to her, he was turned away and later told the flower could have "caused mass hysteria on the unit." She said patients were warned such items as flowers could trigger alternate personalities. And Peterson is the target of separate malpractice lawsuits by former patient Janice Granata and members of another family who recanted memories of satanic cult abuse.

"I am not the person those people claim I am," Peterson says. " I am being lied about." Peterson specifically denied responsibility for any of the violations cited in the MHMR investigation. She said that, as a psychologist, she is unable to order patients into restraints or admit and discharge patients. She said only medical doctors have such authority. Citing client confidentiality rules, Peterson will not discuss specific cases. But she denies having created anyone's memories: "They (clients) bring the content to therapy. The therapist does not."

She now disavows a belief in mind-controlling satanic cults. Instead, repressed memories of satanic ritual abuse, Peterson says, might actually be several layers of memory implanted in patients by "organizes crime" to sidetrack therapists and law enforcement officials.

"I think organized crime could use people in child prostitution and drug running and then through (memory) layering disguise or cover it," Peterson said recently in an interview with her attorney present. Peterson, 47, who has a doctorate in psychology, has built a national reputation as an expert at helping clients retrieve repressed memories. For the past six years, she has traveled around Texas and the nation lecturing and promoting video training tapes espousing the ability through hypnosis and specialized treatment to uncover previously buried memories. She has helped build a 75 member study group in Houston for treatment of multiple personality disorders.

Despite her current disavowal of a satanic cult conspiracy, she co-authored a case study in 1990 of four family members whom she described as members of "transgenerational orthodox satanic cult." Her description of the family fits that of Kathryn Schwiderski and her three children. Schwiderski and her husband, Dennis, and two of their children, are suing Peterson for malpractice.

Again citing client confidentiality, Peterson will not confirm that her case study is of the Schwiderskis. She also refuses to discuss the report, as does her co-author, Houston therapist Cynthia Zarling. They presented their study to the 7th International Conference on Multiple Personality/Dissociative States in Chicago three years ago.

"The mother was born into the cult and the involvement can be traced back two generations," according to a summary of the Peterson-Zarling study provided at the conference. "The major memories as documented nationally by other cult victims were found in this family, including details about human sacrifice, cannibalism, black hole, shock to create alters (other personalities), marriage to Satan, buried alive, birth of Satan's child, internal booby traps, forced impregnation and sacrifice of her own child."

Today, Peterson tries to downplay the gory details. "The paper wasn't about blood and babies and all that, " she said. "It was about dynamics within a family." According to Dennis Schwiderski, the dynamics within the family and many other aspects of family life were destroyed by Peterson. In his suit filed in Harris County state district court, Schwiderski claims his family was selected for treatment of satanic cult ritual abuse "not because his family had in fact been part of a 'cult,' " but because it would be very profitable."

Schwiderski, an executive with Conoco Inc., and his insurance carrier paid out more than $2 million for treatment with Peterson, her staff, other therapist and several private psychiatric hospitals. Schwiderski, along with his ex-wife, son and daughter, allege in individual lawsuits that Peterson and other therapists attempted to bilk insurance from them while often placing patients in restraints and ordering them to recall cult activities.

None of the Schwiderskis will talk about their suits against the therapist, but Kari Schwiderski, 20, alleges in her suit that she spent her junior and senior years of high school locked up in a psychiatric ward "being treated for 'abuse' by a non-existent 'satanic cult.'" The suit claims Peterson diagnosed Kari as suffering from multiple personality disorder attributable to her by participation in "a satanic cult from Tomball."

Peterson, along with the staff at Houston Northwest Medical Center, often placed Schwiderski in restraints, the suit alleges, "ordered her to recall purported cult activities, and punished her by restriction of her hospital privileges if she failed to do so." Peterson, the suit added, also told Schwiderski that she had "killed babies in 'cult' rituals but had repressed these memories" and that both her parents had "sexually abused and tortured her."

Kari's mother, Kathryn Morgan Schwiderski, claims in her suit she was "often placed in physical restraints" and was threatened with punishment if she did not describe her alleged participation in 'cult' activities."

Meanwhile, another Schwiderski daughter has not recanted her satanic cult memories. Kelly Schwiderski, 22, remains so convinced of her cult involvement that she gave an affidavit to the Harris County Sheriffs Department admitting to three homicides in a 'fetus factory" in Colorado. A sheriff's detective spent two years investigating her claims but found no evidence to support them, according to law enforcement sources. Sheriff's deputies declined to discuss the case, saying it is still part of an open investigation.

Peterson says she has never threatened any of her patients with restraints, involuntary commitment, or planted fears that they were in danger from satanic cults. She also says it is not unusual for patients to recant.

"It's real normal for people to recant things that they have either difficulty dealing with or they have lots of shame about, or they feel they might go to jail about. That's one of the big problems with my parents -- recanting, because that's a good way out (for them)," Peterson said. As for what is real and what is fantasy, Peterson says only her patient have the answer to that.

As with the controversy surrounding repressed memories, questions have been raised for years about the accuracy of memories recalled during hypnosis. In 1985, an American Medical Association panel studying the issue warned that hypnosis can lead to "increases in false recollection and confabulation." Abney says hypnosis played an important part in her therapy while under Peterson's care.

And the accuracy of memories of satanic abuse has been challenged in several high-profile cases, including the McMartin Preschool child abuse case in California, in which the operators of a day-care center were acquitted.

In Austin several months ago, operators of Fran's Day Care were convicted of sexual abuse, with testimony from children who had memories of satanic ritual abuse during therapy. Sean Nash, father of one of the children alleging abuse, said of his 4 year-old: "When we asked him general questions he was very clear. Mostly he told us about the satanic cult such as being buried alive in boxes and sacrificing dogs." Although many of the children's stories uncovered during months of therapy could not be verified, Austin police believe substantial portions of their tales were true.

While most experts in the field of mental health agree that sexual abuse has been underestimated in the past, they worry that a number of cases are the result of imagined memories created through the biases of therapists. Critics believe that at least some of the memories of satanic ritual abuse are part of a cultural sex abuse hysteria in which psychotherapy has spun out of control. And law enforcement agencies strengthen that argument.

Thousands and thousands of police hours have been spent on satanic cult investigations searching for killings and murders and no evidence has come up," said Robert Hicks, a criminal analyst with Virginia Criminal Justice Services, who has investigated satanic ritual abuse for more than a decade. Ken Lanning, with the FBI's behavioral science unit in Quantico, Va., has investigated hundreds of cases since 1981 with "little or no evidence" of a massive cult with the ability to control members' minds.

Those in the mental health field say that despite the current debate over repressed memories and satanic cults, only a small percentage of therapists buy into cult conspiracy theories. But those who do may allow their bias to enter their cases.

"Because of the context and the bias of the therapist, they could interpret recollections as somehow fitting into a satanic ritualistic mode," said Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and expert on child sexual abuse with Houston's Baylor College of Medicine. I think there are some people who have had some false memories put into their head during therapy. The memory is very fragile."

Perry offers the example of one of his own patients who believed she had recovered memories of cult abuse with a previous therapist. The woman remembered being injected with needles as adults chanted and held her down. But after listening to her for about an hour, Perry said he realized she was not describing satanic ritual abuse, but chemotherapy she had had during childhood. Perry said he was concerned that his patient's earlier therapist had misled her.

Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of Washington and one of the members of a panel studying repressed memories for the American Psychological Association, offered her theory for how false memories are created. A growing body of research, she wrote in a May article for American Psychologist magazine, shows that new information can be incorporated into an old memory, altering one's recollection. The new information invades us like a Trojan horse, precisely because we do not detect its influence."

Lucy Abney now believes much of the substance of her satanic memories came from materials she had seen or discussed.

" I think a lot of the stuff I came up with was from books I had read during therapy, materials on television and from what other people in treatment were saying," Abney said.

Peterson, meanwhile, believes therapists are being victimized. She compares the attacks on her and many of her peers with the problems faced by Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis. In his initial hypothesis on "hysteria" among women he treated, Freud initially found they had been sexually abused by their father or a relative, Peterson said.

"In a Victorian society that was not something that was not acceptable, and so he changed his thinking and changed his belief and decided that it was all fantasy ... I don't have a problem with Freud; I just know how he felt."

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