A Widening Gulf Splits Lab and Couch

New York Times/June 21, 1998
By Carol Tavris

The researcher-therapist gap came to public attention because of three psychological epidemics, which spread like wildfire during the 1980's and 90's: recovered memory, multiple-personality disorder and sex-abuse allegations at day-care centers. Each phenomenon was supported by clinical opinion; each has been discredited by empirical research.

Of course, research never provides "the" answer in a case; and, of course, clinical opinion is sometimes correct. But research does provide ways of correcting biases and testing assumptions. For example, the day-care scandals, from the McMartin case in California to Margaret Kelly Michaels in New Jersey to the Amiraults in Massachusetts, were perpetuated by therapists who testified that children never lie about sexual abuse and aren't curious about sex unless they have been molested, that masturbation is a sign of sexual abuse and that abuse can be diagnosed by observing how children play with anatomically correct dolls. But each claim has been disproved by research on the cognitive abilities of children, on factors that increase suggestibility, on the normalcy of masturbation and sex play among children and on the way nonabused children play with the dolls.

Although this research has overturned some of the more egregious convictions, as in Ms. Michaels's case, and improved ways of interviewing children, beliefs die hard when emotions run high. Despite petitions and testimony from leading child-development researchers that the children's testimonies in the Amiraults' case were coerced, fanciful and uncorroborated, Gerald Amirault remains in prison. His sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, is very likely to return there if her appeal is denied. (Their mother, Violet, died last year.) The researcher-therapist gap has been institutionalized by the rapid rise of free-standing schools of therapy not connected to university psychology departments. Graduates of these schools typically learn only to do therapy and seldom learn about other areas of psychology relevant to their work -- like the limitations of hypnosis, the fallibility of memory or the normal process of suggestion in therapy.


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