Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Multiple Personalities: Crime and Defense

Making MPD a Business

During the 1980s, many daycare workers fell victim to a hysteria that swept the nation in which these people were accused of performing satanic rituals with the children. This panic lasted from around 1982 until 1985. The children were subjected to repressed memory techniques, which ranged from manipulation via rewards to planted suggestions about what they had experienced. Many went along to please the adults, although some of their allegations about digging up corpses and playing with Martians were completely absurd.

Remembering Trauma
Remembering Trauma
Nevertheless, the adults accepted every detail and many innocent people went to prison. Richard McNally documents and debunks it all in Remembering Trauma, while Acocella provides a good summary in The New Yorker. Both document the damage done by some overzealous therapists and social workers, who planted ideas, pressured patients to exercise later personalities, and accepted all responses as genuine manifestations.

During the same period as the daycare scandals, psychotherapists used hypnosis, guided imagery, dream analysis and other techniques to persuade mostly female clients to remember childhood abuse. Patients were told that symptoms like forgetfulness, daydreaming, and inner arguments were subtle indicators of MPD, and therefore of forgotten abuse. Some books stated that one-third of all women had suffered this. Many fathers, stepfathers, and uncles were subsequently accused and the courts initially accepted false memories as fact. Some of those men were convicted.

Many people (mostly middle-class white women) turned up with dozens, hundreds, even a thousand alters, some of which werent even human. It wasnt just run-of-the-mill abuse they were reporting, but organized satanic ritual abuse. Whole businesses sprang up and flourished, with book publishers, convention promoters, group therapists, individual therapists, national organizations, and hospitals benefiting. (McNally makes a point of stating that when insurance ran out, such people were either cured or let go.)

Traumatologists made a name for themselves, going to court as expert witnesses and getting rich off vague self-help books that suggested almost anyone could be the victim of child abuse and therefore have hidden personalities they had long denied. For some reason, this movement swept the country, as documented in Elaine Showalters Hystories, and increasingly more people wanted a diagnosis of MPD to explain their troubles. Often, as they entered therapy, as Acocella documents, they got worse instead of better. Therapists would even advocate this as a necessary part of the treatment.

But then there was a backlash. One accused father and his wife began to research and document the possibility therapists were planting these memories, not recovering them, and they formed an organization for falsely accused relatives. They called MPD the ultimate false memory syndrome, and they set up a professional advisory board to affirm the problems with assumptions that had been made in the MPD movement. This organization was instrumental in overturning some convictions and urging courts to reconsider memory alone as evidence of criminal conduct. As the media turned against the MPD and recovered memory movements, more and more patients retracted their claims or were proven by their victims to have made false allegations.

Many therapists made a valiant stand, contending critics misunderstood and actual misconduct was rare, but they could not stop the wave of revolt by patients who felt betrayed. Nor could they stop the formation of guidelines that insisted there be some form of corroboration for the alleged memories.

Around the same time, some people in therapy were discovering that their MPD narratives were suspiciously similar to that of otherseven down to the names of the alters. They began to realize they had been scammed and they turned around and sued their therapists. Juries began to award significant damages. In one case in Illinois, Dr. Bennett Braun had used repressed memory therapy to convince a patient she had abused her children, was the high priestess of a satanic cult and had ritually consumed human flesh. He also encouraged her to accept she had 300 personalities. His license to practice was suspended and a settlement by insurance companies for him and several other therapists awarded her $10.6 million.

McNally, a Harvard psychology professor, analyzed the research and determined that trauma memories are no different neurologically than normal memories, and that standard memory retrieval methods are problematic. Events that trigger overwhelming terror are memorable, he states in Remembering Trauma. Unless a person experienced a physical shock to the brain, was under age 2, or suffered some extreme physical demands such as starvation, traumatic experiences are generally better    remembered than ordinary ones. The inability to recall a memory is no indicator of trauma and repression, but more likely a signal that no such experience happened. If it cognitively registered at all, it should be available to retrieval without the use of trance-induction or drugs.

Those who are looking for trauma tend to pathologize normal stress and reactions to horrific events. But such suffering is not necessarily indicative of mental illness. Nor are the manifestations always genuine. With the literature available and with many therapists seeking out true multiples, it became easy for certain people with an agenda to fake the disorder.