Psychiatrist and patient
A Dane County Circuit Court case concluded in January 2011 could be precedent-setting because the patient of the accused therapists is not a party to the suit and maintains that her memories of abuse are true. iStock photo

In 1991, Charlotte Johnson dropped a bomb on her parents. She accused her father, Charles Johnson, of sexually abusing her. Two years later she accused her mother, Karen Johnson, of being complicit in the sexual abuse and of being physically abusive to her. The abuse, she believes to this day, happened when she was a young child.

The painful memories, buried deep in Johnson's subconsciousness, surfaced in adulthood. 

Charles and Karen Johnson, of St. Louis, say the abuse never happened and that mental health treatment providers encouraged and fostered false memories of abuse.

In 1996 the Johnsons sued Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, where their daughter was admitted for treatment. They also sued Heartland Counseling Services in Madison, Madison therapist Kay Phillips, Oconomowoc therapists Jeff Hollowell and Tim Reisenauer, and the defendants’ insurers. The lawsuit has wound through the legal system for more than 14 years, including two trips to the state Supreme Court.

Finally, starting on Jan. 10, a two-week trial in Dane County will determine whether the treatment providers negligently implanted in Charlotte Johnson false memories of abuse.

The Johnsons, who paid for their daughter’s treatment, claim that her treatment was negligent, caused emotional distress, and breached a contract to provide appropriate care.

The Johnsons’ attorney, Bill Smoler, has racked up multimillion-dollar wins in false memory cases. In one case, he won $5 million for a family who obtained the medical records for their daughter upon her death, even though the daughter had maintained until she died that her parents physically and sexually abused her as a child. In two others, the patients recanted what they once believed were repressed memories of abuse, which they later came to realize were false.

Charlotte Johnson maintains that the abuse happened, and she opposed the release of her medical records to her parents. That issue went to the state Supreme Court, which in 2005 allowed the parents limited access to the records. Because of that, the case could be precedent-setting. It could be the only case in the nation in which the parents of a living patient have successfully taken a case to trial against the will of the patient.

“The one thing that’s unusual and sets this case apart is the patient wants nothing to do with the lawsuit, is not a party, has raised no complaints whatsoever against the therapists,” says attorney David McFarlane, who represents the treatment providers and says they did nothing wrong. “The claim is being brought only by parents who were never patients of any of the therapists.”

•    •    •    •

Trials concerning false or implanted memories are nothing new. In fact, this one could be seen as a layover from an era when mental health professionals commonly performed therapy that in many cases dredged up false memories, practices that have prompted numerous scandals, lawsuits and media exposure.

While several false memory court cases made headlines in the 1990s — some of them criminal cases — thousands more were happening quietly across the country, many stemming from a then-popular trend in psychotherapy: repressed memory therapy.

The trend was fueled by the 1988 best-selling book “The Courage to Heal,” which encouraged women to find the source of their emotional problems by dredging up painful memories of childhood abuse. The problem was that much of that abuse never happened.

Written by feminist poet and creative writing teacher Ellen Bass and incest survivor Laura Davis, “The Courage to Heal” was assailed by some in the scientific community, but embraced by a large number of therapists and read by many of the women who went on to accuse their families of abuse.

Katie Spanuello’s daughter was one of them.

“When we were falsely accused, we couldn’t understand for the life of us what had happened, because we knew we never abused her,” says Spanuello, who lives in Wauwatosa. “But we also knew that our daughter was sure that we had. So we had to try to figure out how that came to be.”

Spanuello and her husband discovered that their daughter, after reading “The Courage to Heal” and affiliating herself with people who Spanuello calls “militant feminists” in Madison, accused the couple of sexually abusing her as a young child.

“It’s like going to hell and you can’t get out,” she says of the experience.

About nine months ago, after nearly 20 years she says, the nightmare ended when her daughter recanted her accusations and reconciled with her parents.

Spanuello knows many families who have endured similar ordeals. Not long after she was first accused, Spanuello and other parents formed the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. That was in 1992. By 1994, the foundation had a membership of more than 11,000 families.

“Early on the growth rate was phenomenal because every time there was a mention on any kind of television or radio program we would get thousands and thousands of letters,” says Pam Freyd, executive director of the foundation. Her daughter accused Freyd and her husband of abusing her, and still maintains that the abuse occurred.

Exposés like the “Frontline” program “Divided Memories” in 1995 documented some of the therapies that induced false memories. In one account, a woman says on the public television documentary that a technique called rage therapy included group sessions in which participants beat pillows as stand-ins for their abusers, egged on by therapists and other clients.

“You’re raging, you’re hearing it, it becomes real,” the woman says on the program.

As a counterpoint to “The Courage to Heal,” several accounts have been written by women who have accused their parents of abuse, then come to realize that the abuse never occurred. In her recent memoir, “My Lie: A True Story of False Memory,” Meredith Maran cites “The Courage to Heal” as a factor in the false memories that led her to accuse her father of sexually abusing her as a child. (Read an interview with Meredith Maran here.)

•    •    •    •

In the legal backlash against repressed memory therapy, the Johnsons’ attorney, Smoler, has made such cases something of a specialty. In 1997 he won a $2.4 million settlement in Outagamie County on behalf of Nadean Cool of Appleton. Cool said her therapist, Kenneth Olson, used hypnosis to convince her that she had been a member of a satanic cult, ate babies, took part in human sacrifices and had multiple personalities. A case Smoler is handling for another woman who was treated by Olson is in the appeals process. 

In 1999 Smoler won an $850,000 jury award for Joan Hess in Marathon County. Hess accused her therapist, Juan Fernandez, of implanting false memories, through hypnosis, that she was sexually abused by her father, and that her parents were members of a cult that forced people to have sex with animals.

Smoler, who declined comment for this article, also won a $5 million award from an Eau Claire County jury for Tom and Delores Sawyer, whose daughter accused them of sexual abuse. The daughter, who had changed her name to Nancy Anneatra to avoid being found by her parents, died of cancer in 1995. She never reconciled with her parents, who filed the lawsuit after taking control of her estate.

The fact that Charlotte Johnson has not recanted and opposes the lawsuit is at the heart of why the suit filed by her parents has dragged on so long.

Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser initially dismissed the case in 1998, saying the Johnsons had no legal standing to sue. The Supreme Court said there weren’t enough facts presented to make that determination and sent the case back to circuit court. Then in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that the Johnsons could have limited access to Charlotte’s therapy records to build that factual record.

It’s the second time McFarlane and Smoler will be on opposite sides of a false memory case. In 2002 Smoler and his wife, attorney Pamela Smoler, lost a case in Green County in which Marilyn Daly claimed therapists insisted that she recover memories as a way to relieve her mental distress. Those memories included sexual abuse by relatives and neighbors and the ritual murder of babies who were fed to animals.

But McFarlane says that this time Smoler doesn’t even have the cooperation of the alleged victim.

“The therapists are quite profoundly distressed, and I think the patient is as well, that her therapy records have been disclosed — even in some limited way — in a lawsuit that the patient wants nothing to do with,” he says.