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Editor's note: Moving Forward received copies of several letters that were sent to PBS in response to its broadcast of Frontline's "Divided Memories." The film aired on April 4 and 11 ; was produced, written, and directed by Ofra Bikel; Associate producer, Karen O'Conner; Editor, Susan Fanshel. The following letters by Ross E. Cheit (a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Brown University), Ellen Bass (author several books including The Courage to Heal) and William Freyd (whose brother and sister-in-law founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation) are printed here with their permission.
[ Copyright 1995, Ross E. Cheit, All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.]
Mr. Ervin S. Duggan,
President and CEO
Public Broadcasting Service
July 23, 1995
Dear Mr. Duggan,
I am writing in reference to the Frontline program on "Divided Memories." First of all, let me say that this program did an excellent job of documenting examples of bad therapy. It is incredible that any licensed therapist would engage in something purporting to address trauma in "past lives" - or in the birth canal for that matter! The program performed a public service, I think, by bringing those examples to light. Unfortunately, the program made no serious effort to address the most obvious public policy question about such therapy: how widespread are these practices? The narration made vague references to "thousands of women" being in support groups and to "hundreds of stories" having been published, but the viewer was left without any actual evidence concerning the magnitude of the problems illustrated by a handful of stories. Indeed, the only number used with any precision was, as it turns out, exaggerated by a factor of six. (The narration claimed that the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has over 15,000 members; in fact, its membership is around 2,500.) In the end, the viewer was left with the impression that these practices are widespread, when in fact the program provided no systematic evidence to support that contention. This shortcoming is unfair to those therapists who do not engage in such techniques; and if, as various surveys suggest, that is the vast majority of therapists, then this program did a significant disservice by not making that clear.
Regrettably, the failures of this program are far worse on the issue of recovered memory. The narration posed two questions near the beginning of the show: Can memories be lost and retrieved? Are such memories accurate? I was surprised and disappointed that those questions were never actually answered in the remainder of this lengthy program. There is the implication that the answer to both questions is "no," but the whole issue seems to get lost in the vast attention given to bad therapy. I concluded in April that the program was inappropriately titled -- the show was about bad therapy, not about recovered memory -- that some of the narration did not fit the actual content, and that for some unexplained reason virtually all corroborated cases of recovered memory must have been left on the editing floor, so to speak. In short, while the program did an excellent job of asking whether some claims of child sexual abuse might actually be confabulations, the show never really addressed the question of whether some cases of recovered memory are in fact true. The omission was one of silence, and I chalked the whole matter up to poor editorial judgment and editing.
Thanks to the new PBS program "Media Matters," this very criticism -- that "Divided Memories" failed to present any corroborated cases of recovered memory -- was recently posed directly to Frontline by Judy Steed of the Toronto Star. Remarkably, Ofra Bickel [sic] responded that it was "impossible" to include such cases because none exist. (She seemed to qualify this statement by saying something about people who were unwilling to go on camera, but she never told us how many cases fell into that category. Ms. Bickel also said something about giving every therapist she interviewed "the task" of finding such cases. It is unclear how, if at all, Ms. Bickel thinks that this "assignment" to others alters her own obligation to research her subject.) Anyway, I have since learned that Ms. Bickel told a Chicago reporter essentially the same thing: that in thirteen months of research she found only one case - and that one, included at the beginning of the program, was actually ambiguous - "where a claim of recovered memory could be backed up by anything more substantial than a woman and her therapist believing it so" (Steve Johnson, "Past Imperfect: 'Divided Memories' Casts Skeptical Eye on Repressed-Memory Movement," Chicago Tribune, April 3, 1995).
To anyone familiar with the debate over recovered memory, Ms. Bickel's assertion is, at best, an indication of incredibly sloppy research. Take, for example, Mark Pendergrast's highly-publicized book Victims of Memory (Upper Access Press). This book, by an accused father and self-proclaimed skeptic of recovered memory, was available to reviewers in the summer of 1994. The author questions the scope and magnitude of recovered memory but he also allows that a few cases are "beyond dispute." (See pp. 101-104). [This includes Frank Fitzpatrick, whose case was corroborated by the testimony of dozens of men and the guilty plea of James Porter. Marilyn Van Derbur, former Miss America, has also obtained corroboration from her sister.] Strangely, these cases are not discussed in "Divided Memories."
But is it really so difficult to "find" corroborated cases of recovered memory? I asked my undergraduate Research Assistant to spend a few hours finding out. Using electronic databases that are widely available and presumably used by investigative reporters, she quickly found these cases in addition to those acknowledged by Pendergrast:
1. Herald v. Hood, C.A. No. 15986 (Court of Appeals of Ohio, July 21, 1993). Julie Herald sued her uncle in 1989 alleging sexual abuse from age 3 (in 1962) through 15. The memory returned when Herald was watching her 4-year-old daughter playing with a friend. She was awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. The Ohio Supreme Court recently upheld the decision. Herald presented a taped telephone conversation in which her uncle indicated his guilt, and two therapists testified about the confession he made in their presence. The case has been covered in the Plain Dealer since December 17, 1993.
2. Pfiefle v. Hustwaite, No. 98-2-00044-8 (King County Superior Court, Seattle, 1991). Mentioned in Anastaia Toufexis, "Can Memories be Trusted?" Time (October 28, 1991). Ms. Pfiefle received $1.4 million from her church-run school in settlement of her claim that a teacher repeatedly raped and sodomized her two decades earlier. According to Verdicts, Settlements & Tactics (Shepard's/McGraw-Hill, 1991), "discovery revealed several other victims whose testimony was helpful in establishing that the Seventh Day Adventist defendants should have known of the teacher's propensities."
3. Tingirides v. Tingirides (Case No. KC-000-053 Pomona, California; Verdict date July 7,1992. Reported under the Topic: Repressed Memory - Child Molestation in California Jury Verdict and Settlement Reports. Plaintiff verdict in the amount of $1.65 million.
4. From the St. Petersburg Times, March 6, 1994: "One who found proof was Frank Leonard of Fort Lauderdale. In a lawsuit Leonard said that therapy in 1992 helped him recover memories of sexual abuse in the 1960s by his uncle, Tampa publishing executive Frank Louis Cowles Jr. Records were produced showing that Cowles had been convicted in 1959 of sexually abusing young boys in Clearwater, and had been sentenced to probation and counseling. According to the lawsuit, Leonard's uncle admitted the abuse and then killed himself after a confrontation. Leonard won a settlement from Cowles' estate."
5. From the Washington Post, February 6, 1995: "The former altar boy, now a Baltimore-area professional who requested anonymity, told the Post that molestation began when he was 11 or 12 and continued until he was about 17. He began having marital problems several years ago and sought therapy. On Jan. 19, he met for nearly two hours with Monsignor William Lori, chancellor of the archdiocese. The next day, Lori separately interviewed the four priests and each admitted to the victim's allegations."
6. Jane Doe v. Budge (Case No. NWC 10610; Van Nuys, California) Verdict date: January 15, 1993. The case was originally tried in 1989; this was a retrial on the question of punitive damages. Plaintiff (age 26) alleged sexual abuse 14 years earlier. "Defendant admitted to a few acts, but denied most allegations. Defendant also argued that he had changed his life since the incident." Verdict in the amount of $1.25 million -- nine day trial; jury deliberations: 1 hour, 10 minutes.
Since Ms. Bickel has claimed that she could not "find" such cases, I think it is fair to ask: (a) whether she actually researched the cases mentioned above, and if so, (b) on what grounds she excluded them. If she did not consider these cases, the obvious question is: why not? Undoubtedly, it might require special investigative skill to find the parties in some of these cases, but that is exactly the kind of thing Ms. Bickel is supposed to be good at. Indeed, I can think of several other avenues likely to yield corroborated cases.
1. Cases involving accusations by more than one sibling. A 1993 survey published by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation indicates that eighty (80) families claiming "false" recovered memories by a family member report that the accusations are from more one sibling [FMSF, Family Survey Results: Summer 1993," p. 1 . Unless the siblings are under the influence of the same therapist, these cases seem ripe with the potential for containing corroboration. Ms. Bickel spent months looking into this Foundation and its members. Did she make any effort to look at these cases for possible corroborating evidence for recovered memory? I don't know whether ten or seventy of these cases contain convincing corroboration, but I wonder how hard Ms. Bickel tried to find out? Or did she take it for granted that cases reported as false by the accused were always false?
2. Prosecutions under California Penal Code Section 803(g). This would also be a natural place to "look" for such cases since this statute, which went into effect January 1, 1993, requires "corroboration by independent evidence" for retroactive prosecutions. How many California District Attorneys did Ms. Bickel contact to find out about cases brought under Section 803(g)? One of the first people arrested under the statute, Richard Giovannetti, has confessed to various charges dating back to 1960 (Sacramento Bee, Marc 12, 1994). Did any of these victims experience memory loss? Did Ms. Bickel "find" this case, or did she assume, as do some extremists who share her position on recovered memory, that the government somehow always makes the same mistake even when treating claims of child sexual abuse in the criminal justice system -- only prosecuting the innocent, never the guilty? [Oklahoma law also requires "objective, verifiable" evidence in corroboration of such civil claims. Stat. tit. xxii at 95 (West 1994). Did Ms. Bickel seek out any cases filed under this statute?]
How many of these avenues did Ms. Bickel explore before she concluded that she couldn't "find" any corroborated cases? Moreover, as I hope you'll seek to find out, how did she manage to dismiss everything mentioned above? What you will find, if you look hard enough, is that an associate producer of Frontline was told specifically about one corroborated case: my own. (I have enclosed for your information Katy Butler's article from the San Francisco Chronicle, ["S.F. Boys Chorus Settles Abuse Case; Man's 'recovered memories' supported by 5 witnesses, tape"] September 1, 1994, p.2.) My case was first covered by Miriam Horn in U. S. News & World Report, November 28, 1993. Early in 1994, Ms. Horn had a direct conversation with an associate producer of "Divided Memories." As she has recounted that conversation to me, she told the producer: "if you are looking for corroborated cases, give Ross Cheit a call."
They never called.
I point this out not to "promote" my case. Indeed, I have scrupulously avoided talks shows and all other television offers save two: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program "In the Nature of Things," and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. (Both of those requests came after Ms. Horn told Frontline to give me a call.) The Canadian program has not aired in the United States. The MacNeil/Lehrer story [2/2/95] was approximately eight minutes long; I appeared for the first few minutes. It is remarkable, in retrospect, that Lee Hochberg of MacNeil/Lehrer did a better job of presenting both sides of the recovered memory debate in eight minutes than Ofra Bickel did in four hours. You should take at look at his story before assessing Ms. Bickel's claim.
What Ms. Bickel did in "Divided Memories" is not just sloppy journalism. By saying what she did on "Media Matters" -- ironically, a show aimed at examining the media -- she has perpetuated a fraud on your viewers. It is difficult enough to believe that in thirteen months of research Ms. Bickel did not "find" any of the cases that my Research Assistant located in a few hours. But even if her research was that bad, the producers of this show knew about my case and did not even bother to conduct a telephone interview. It appears to me that this is journalism at its worst: ignoring contrary evidence, jumping to conclusions, and then lying about the breadth and depth of the investigation. It was not "impossible" for Ms. Bickel to find corroborated cases - she was so uninterested in finding them that she didn't even follow-up on a most promising lead.
Ms. Bickel fights extremism with extremism. She exposes the horror of the assuming that virtually all claims of recovered memory are true; but in doing so she falls into the equally horrendous position that all cases must be false -- as if her first argument somehow depended on this. Her position is far more extreme than that held by most of the "Science Advisory Board" of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation! But that is a subtlety that eludes Ms. Bickel, who spent months examining the organization.
Ms. Bickel told another reporter in April: "I don't really care if there is such a thing as repressed memory or not -- after a while, I put that argument behind me." (Mark Sauer, "Repressed Memory Case a War Zone," San Diego Union-Tribune, April 11, 1995) How long, I wonder, did Ms. Bickel spend investigating this issue before she lost interest? And what are we to conclude about the editorial judgment of someone who "doesn't really care" about the answer to a central question posed in her own documentary?
Why didn't Ms. Bickel give her viewers the benefit of just one or two of the corroborated cases mentioned above? Did her "investigation" into the matter really satisfy the journalistic standards of public television? Don't PBS viewers deserve to know the real story behind Ms. Bickel's failure to include corroborated cases in her program?
I look forward to your response.
Ross E. Cheit
[Public Policy & Political Science
[Addendum: Since sending this letter, I have learned about more than one corroborated case that Ofra Bickel acknowledged in the course other research, but did not include in "Divided Memories." First, there is Frank Fitzpatrick - certainly the most highly corroborated case of all. Sara Fitzpatrick recently informed me that Ms. Bickel interviewed the Fitzpatricks and chose not to include the case because it had "already been publicized." It should be noted that Ms. Bickel did not apply this editorial rule to cases she found dubious, such as Eileen Franklin's. Nor did she inform the viewers of "Media Matters" that she had excluded any cases for this reason, telling them instead that it was "impossible" to find such cases. Ms. Bickel also interviewed Lana Lawrence about her case. As an adult, Ms. Lawrence remembered abuse that was corroborated by a direct admission by the perpetrator to a Washington Post editor who called to verify the story. Ms. Bickel did not include this case, apparently deeming it "an exception" because Ms. Lawrence had remembered other abuse all along. Why did Ms. Bickel tell the viewers of "Media Matters" that it was "impossible" to find such cases, when in fact she had found some but quietly excluded them from her program? I am passing this additional question on to Mr. Duggan, who has not yet replied to my letter. RC 9/10/95] Since this letter was written in 1995, Ross Cheit has established The Recovered Memory Project, an archive of more than 30 of corroborated cases of recovered memory.
Following is the APA-style citation for this article, which may be copied and pasted into your document.
Freyd, William. (1993). "Divided Memories: Letters to PBS and Frontline" in Moving Forward, Vol. III, No. 3. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: movingforward.org/v3n3-cheit.html
Ellen Bass on "Divided Memories"
[Copyright, 1995 Ellen Bass.]
Ms. Ofra Bikel
125 Western Avenue
Boston, MA 9 May 1995
Dear Ms. Bikel:
I am appalled at the gross misrepresentation that you have managed in "Divided Memories." Of all the shows -- including tabloid talk shows -- that I have seen and participated in, yours is the most manipulative and distorted of all....
I don't mind being presented in opposition to groups such as the FMS -- with both sides having a clear hearing. But to be presented as though I am in alignment with therapists who believe in recovering memories from alien abductions or fallopian tubes -- or who don't think the truth about whether or not someone was abused matters -- is, in essence, lying.
Although you used real footage of my image and my words, you used it in such a way as to convey an absolute lie about me and my beliefs.
Less importantly, you misrepresented The Courage to Heal and its section in which we list the multitude of effects that survivors of child sexual abuse may suffer from. It is not a checklist by which someone can determine whether or not they were abused. In fact, in the new edition -- which you had -- we say that explicitly .... Yet in spite of our careful explanation that it was not a diagnostic tool, you said it was one.
But that is a small issue compared to the license you took in linking my work to Fallopian tube memories. What possible purpose can this wild distortion serve? ... [Y]ou created an unbearably long mishmash from which a viewer not sophisticated in this field cannot possibly emerge with a clearer understanding of the serious issues involved.
And how could you present a person of integrity, such as Jennifer Freyd, as though she were the victim of a kooky therapist? Or use the video tape of her speech or photographs of her children without her permission?
And why did you omit essential information about the FMS, such as the connections some of its founders and most prominent members have to pro-pedophilia publications? I have never seen such slanted coverage.
I am not innocent about the inevitable distortions that occur in the media. Yet, I am shocked -- truly shocked -- to see this kind of irresponsible, exploitative reporting from PBS.
I deeply regret having participated in your show. It was not serious journalism. It was a deliberate obfuscation of the real and important issues involved. And it was insulting to me and to other responsible professionals who have worked ethically in this field for many years.
cc: Ervin S. Duggan
Following is the APA-style citation for this article, which may be copied and pasted into your document.
Bass, Ellen. (1993). "Divided Memories: Letters to PBS and Frontline" in Moving Forward, Vol. III, No. 3. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: movingforward.org/v3n3-cheit.html
William Freyd on "Divided Memories"
[Copyright, 1995 William Freyd.]
Re: Frontline 125 Western Avenue
Boston, MA 02134 April 17, 1995
Peter Freyd is my brother. Pamela Freyd is both my stepsister and my sister-in-law. Jennifer and Gwendolyn are my nieces....
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation is a fraud designed to deny a reality that Peter and Pam have spent most of their lives trying to escape. There is no such thing as a False Memory Syndrome. It is not, by any normal standard, a Foundation. Neither Pam nor Peter have any significant mental health expertise.
That the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has been able to excite so much media attention has been a great surprise to those of us who would like to admire and respect the objectivity and motives of people in the media.... We do not understand why you would "buy" such an obviously flawed story. But buy it you did, based on the severely biased presentation you made of the memory issue that Peter and Pam created to deny their own difficult reality.
For the most part, you presented very credible parents and frequently quite incredible bizarre and exotic, alleged victims and therapists. Balance and objectivity would call for the presentation of more credible alleged victims and more bizarre parents. While you did present some highly regarded therapists as commentators (Dr. Herman, for example), most of the therapists you presented as providers of therapy were clearly not in the
main stream. While this selection of examples may make for much more interesting T.V., it most certainly does not make for objectivity and fairness.
I would advance the idea that "Divided Memories" hurt victims, helped abusers, and confused the public. I wonder why you thought these results would be in the public interest that Public Broadcasting is funded to support.
cc: Congressman John Porter Ervin S. Duggan
Related Letter: Follow-up to Frontline by William Freyd
Freyd, William. (1993). "Divided Memories: Letters to PBS and Frontline" in Moving Forward, Vol. III, No. 3.