Copyright 1997, The New York Times

Page 1, Column 1


By Pam Belluck

Chicago, Nov. 5 -- While undergoing psychiatric therapy at a Chicago hospital from 1986 to 1992, Patricia Burgus says, she was convinced by doctors that she had memories of being part of a satanic cult, being sexually abused by numerous men and abusing her own two sons.

She says that hypnosis and other treatments caused her to believe she remembered cannibalizing people, so much so that her husband brought in a hamburger from a family picnic and therapists agreed to test the meat to see if it was human.

Today lawyers for Mrs. Burgus said that insurance companies for two doctors and the hospital, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's, had agreed to pay $10.6 million, the biggest settlement in a lawsuit alleging that therapists had instilled false memories and part of a growing legal backlash against therapies that try to elicit suppressed recollections.

Treatment that focuses on recovered memories gained popularity in the 1980's and over the last decade or so, recollections of abuse and other traumatic experiences have been the basis for lawsuits and criminal cases. Six years ago, a jury in Redwood City, Calif., convicted a man of raping and murdering his daughter's playmate in 1969, based largely on the daughter's latent recollections.

But recently the tide has been turning away from accepting the validity of these recovered memories.

Three years ago, the American Psychiatric Association cautioned that such memories were often not true and expressed skepticism about using hypnosis and other techniques to help elicit them. Judges have recently suppressed testimony based on recovered memories. And a growing number of patients have won lawsuits against such therapists.

At least 20 such lawsuits have been filed in the last two years, with the plaintiffs being successful in virtually all the ones that have been completed.

In 1996, a church in Missouri agreed to pay $1 million to a woman who said that under the guidance of a church counselor, she came to believe that her father had raped her, got her pregnant and performed a coat-hanger abortion -- when in fact, she was still a virgin and her father had had a vasectomy. And in August, a jury awarded $5.8 million to a woman in Houston who said her psychotherapist had implanted memories of murder, satanism and cannibalism.

Last week, in a related Houston case, a Federal grand jury brought what are believed to be the first criminal charges in a such case. The indictment charges that a hospital administrator and four therapists collected millions of dollars in fraudulent insurance payments by exaggerating patients' diagnoses and inducing false memories of being part of a satanic cult.

''As in most crazes, it has produced its damage and most people are coming to see the kinds of problems it represents,'' said Dr. Paul R. McHugh, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a consultant for Mrs. Burgus.

''Could there have been someone who is abused and not remember it? I'm not saying that that's not possible. I'm saying first that these memories can never be validated without corroborating evidence. And secondly it's a slippery slope opening the door for these conspiracy theories about satanic cults and alien abductions.''

A spokesman for Rush-Presbyterian, John Pontarelli, said officials there would not comment on the settlement, in which none of the parties admitted wrongdoing. The psychiatrist who treated Mrs. Burgus's sons from 1986 to 1989, Dr. Elva Poznanski, the hospital's section chief of child and adolescent psychiatry, issued a statement saying, ''On the basis of the knowledge available at that time, I would not change the treatment of these boys.''

Mrs. Burgus's sons were hospitalized starting at the ages of 4 and 5, and subjected, she says, to disturbing therapy sessions, including one that involved seeing if they knew how to use handcuffs and a gun in an effort to verify what doctors suspected might be abusive incidents.

The other psychiatrist, Dr. Bennett G. Braun, director of the hospital's section of psychiatric trauma, today called the settlement a ''travesty'' and said that it was done over his objections.

''A patient comes into the hospital doing so bad that she belongs in the hospital and after several serious events in the hospital which I can't disclose because of patient confidentiality, she was discharged and is doing much better,'' he said. ''Where's the damage?''

Dr. Braun said Mrs. Burgus raised the stories herself. ''She just spit it out,'' he said. ''All of the cult stuff that she was talking about I learned from her. The idea to bring the meat in was hers. I merely said if he does bring it in, I will try to get it analyzed for human protein. Yes the kids did see handcuffs. They did see a gun. But it was for therapeutic reasons.''

He said Mrs. Burgus had exaggerated the use of hypnotism in treating her. ''I'm not disagreeing with some of the things she says. It's just the slant.''

Dr. Braun, 57, was the founding president of the International Society for the Study of Dissociation, which looks at theories of multiple personality and the idea that parts of the mind can dissociate certain experiences from other parts of the mind.

Dr. Elizabeth S. Bowman, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Indiana in Indianapolis and a past-president of the society, said that such therapists ''firmly believe that people forget trauma, there's no question that memories return, and that some of the memories that return are accurate.''

But Dr. Bowman said ''the field has become more cautious because of lawsuits and we also with time are gaining more awareness that these memories sometimes are accurate and sometimes are not. We do try to educate patients about that.''

Mrs. Burgus, 41, said in an interview that she was referred to the hospitals by therapists in her hometown of Des Moines who had been treating her for what she describes as a severe post-partum depression. She said she received a diagnosis of multiple personality disorder and was treated with various medications, hypnosis and was occasionally kept in leather restraints during six years of treatment, two and a half years as an inpatient. She said her children were hospitalized because doctors believed her disorder might be genetic.

She said decided to file suit when, after getting out of the hospital, ''I started to check out certain things that we had now based our lives on, these horror stories. I couldn't find any proof of anything.''

Across the country in the last two years, other cases have been filed, many of them alleging similarly bizarre or violent memories. In 1995, a jury in Minnesota awarded $2.6 million to woman who claimed her St. Paul psychiatrist told her that if she recovered her buried memories she would discover that she had been sexually abused by relatives.

''The next thing I think there will be is legislation to force informed consent by psychiatric patients for this treatment,'' said Dr. R. Christopher Barden, a psychologist and a lawyer, who worked on Mrs. Burgus's case. ''I think insurance companies will stop reimbursing people for mental health treatments not proven safe and effective. This is the death knell for recovered memory therapy.''

Chicago Magazine ten page story