Talk Draws Controversy

NU Women's Center conference on controversial repressed memory therapy protested Wednesday

The Daily Northwestern (Northwestern University)/October 8, 1998
By Samantha Sommer

Outside of Norris University Center, two grandmothers protested Wednesday night a conference on trauma and repressed memory therapy held in the building.

They were closely watched by eight Northwestern University Police officers, who came at the request of organizers of the controversial conference, sponsored by NU's Women's Center.

About 150 people attended the first night of the two-day conference. Wednesday night's speaker was Judith Herman, whose research involves using repressed memory therapy, including hypnosis, to help adults deal with sexual abuse from their childhoods.

While there were more police officers present than there were protesters, Herman said the officers were necessary because of the threats and intimidation that often accompany her line of work.

But the two women picketing outside of Norris said they couldn't understand the need for all the attention. Mattie Zimmerman, whose daughter attended NU and has undergone repressed memory therapy, held homemade signs and passed out fliers.

Both protesters have children who underwent the therapy and subsequently accused their fathers of sexual abuse.

"This is part of the hysteria involved," Zimmerman said. "Here we are, two little grandmothers, and they are calling out the troops."

The conference, "Trauma: The Challenge of the Enlightened Witness," continues Thursday with seminars for mental health practitioners.

Zimmerman, along with Liz LaPlante, will be back on Thursday morning to continue protesting the conference and Herman's work. They said they want to make NU students aware of the possible effects of the therapy.

"We are just devasted for our children and all the vulnerable people who may be here and not asking any questions," Zimmerman said. "If we can cause one person to investigate this and doubt this, we have accomplished what we came to do."

NU Women's Center Director Renee Redd said the center jumped on the chance to bring Herman to campus because she is an established and respected figure in the psychology field.

Herman defended the therapy, likening it to the feminist and abortion movements because it liberates women. All have challenged mainstream ideals and traditional family values, bringing the movements harsh criticism she said.

"There has been an explosion of knowledge about trauma survivors in the last two decades," she said. "Yet, we know little more than we did 20 years ago because offenders continue to escape detection."

But Zimmerman and LaPlante said the therapy ruined their daughters' lives and forced them to separate from their families.

A former patient who underwent the therapy for six years, Nadean Cool said she planned on coming to protest, but couldn't due to a family illness. She said during her years of therapy, she became convinced of abusive incidents that allegedly occurred in her childhood. She said they were false memories.

"What (my therapist) did was wrong," Cool said. "He almost destroyed my family. This type of therapy changes your belief system."

Cool later sued her therapist and settled out of court for more than $2 million.

Herman acknowledged that false complaints occur, but she said they are only about 2 to 7 percent of all cases.

"False complaints do occur as with all crimes," Herman said. "We need to safeguard against the wrongly accused."

Falsely convincing patients that they were abused in their childhoods is extremely difficult, Herman said. Repeated coercive manipulation would need to be applied to the patient, she said.

"I approve of raising questions about this," Herman said. "But coercive manipulation is also how perpetrators can bully their victims into retracting their statements."

Repressed memory therapy attracts doctors despite being denounced by some scientific organizations and civil courts because of the money involved, LaPlante said.

"It is a very lucrative business," LaPlante said. "It is about money, money and money. And power."

Letters were sent to NU prior to the conference requesting also to hear the side of parents whose children accused them of abuse after they went through the therapy, Zimmerman said. She said she received a letter explaining that NU administrators considered the conference to have a balanced format. This conference only looks balanced, Zimmerman said.

"Now they have a moral responsibility to show the other side to have a conference with the experts," Zimmerman said. "This university has an obligation to have another conference that will touch on the damage that this type of therapy does."

Redd said she believed Herman's presentation was fair and represented all sides of the issue.

"She made comments about therapists that step over the line," Redd said. "She made comments about protecting the wrongly accused. (The speech) was objective and fair."

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