Martin Orne, 72, Psychiatrist and Expert on Hypnosis, Dies

New York Times, February 17, 2000
By Eric Nagourney

Dr. Martin T. Orne, a psychiatrist whose work on hypnosis influenced its use around the world and helped limit its role in criminal investigations, died on Friday in Paoli, Pa. He was 72.

The cause was cancer, his family said.

Dr. Orne, who was also a psychologist, was considered an expert in a variety of fields, including multiple personality disorder and what is popularly known as brainwashing. Yet what most interested him was how people behaved when, in the hands of an accomplished practitioner, they were lulled into trance-like states.

"Hypnosis was a lifelong work for him, from his very first paper to his very last paper," said Dr. David F. Dinges, director of the University of Pennsylvania's experimental psychology unit, which Dr. Orne founded. As an advocate of hypnosis, firm in the face of colleagues skeptical of its existence, Dr. Orne also proved to be among its most important critics. His first published paper, which he wrote as an undergraduate at Harvard, dispelled many of the myths associated with using hypnosis for age regression. While the practice has some merit, he found, adults under hypnosis are not literally reliving their early childhoods but presenting them through the prisms of adulthood. His last paper examined how hypnosis could encourage witnesses to confabulate or "remember" things they could not have seen or experienced.

Numerous state and federal courts have cited Dr. Orne's work in rulings greatly limiting the use of testimony by people hypnotized by investigators hoping for a lead.

Dr. Orne's reputation was buffeted in 1991, when it was revealed that he had aided a biographer of the poet Anne Sexton by turning over hundreds of hours of tape recordings of treatment sessions he had with her in the 1960's, when he was at Harvard.

Ms. Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974 at 45, prided herself on living her life as an open book. And Dr. Orne released the tapes to the biographer, Diane Wood Middlebrook, at the request of Ms. Sexton's daughter, her literary executor.

His decision brought heavy criticism from mental health professionals, some of whom said that even if patients wanted their records disclosed, psychiatrists should not agree. (In fact, the bylaws of the American Psychiatric Association do allow patients to control their records.) An editorial in The New York Times accused Dr. Orne of betraying Ms. Sexton and dishonoring his profession.

Dr. Orne, responding in a column on the Op-Ed page, wrote that Ms. Sexton had instructed him to use the tapes "as I saw fit to help others." He added: "In the judgment of all who knew her well, Anne definitely would have wanted the tapes released exactly as was done. What others would see as exposure, she saw as honesty."

Some colleagues were concerned that the controversy could distract attention from the many accomplishments of Dr. Orne, who worked at Penn for 32 years. He had already gained a wide reputation for work as an expert in two prominent criminal cases. In the first, he testified on behalf of Patricia Hearst, the heiress who took part in a 1974 bank robbery after being held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Dr. Orne said he believed Ms. Hearst had truly feared she would be killed if she did not cooperate with her captors. "She was the only private in an army of generals," he said. In the late 1970's, Dr. Orne testified for the prosecution in the murder trial of Kenneth Bianchi, who was accused of killing 10 young women near Los Angeles. Mr. Bianchi, known as the Hillside Strangler, contended that he suffered from multiple personality disorder, but Dr. Orne, after a series of interviews with the defendant, helped convince a judge that this was a fabrication.

Martin Theodore Orne was born on Oct. 16, 1927, in Vienna, the son of a surgeon, Dr. Frank Orne, and a psychiatrist, the former Martha Brunner. In 1938, the family left Austria for the United States, settling for a time in New York, where Martin attended the Bronx High School of Science, and then moving to Boston. He received his bachelor's degree and doctorate from Harvard University and a medical degree from Tufts University. He is survived by his wife, Emily Carota Orne, of Merion Station, Pa., a researcher in psychology at Penn, who worked with her husband closely over the years; a son, Franklin, and a daughter, Tracy, both of Merion Station;


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