For nearly four years, Deborah David’s life centered on her memories of childhood sexual abuse. She stopped working. She separated from her husband. She cut off friends who questioned her therapy. She changed her name. While her children raised themselves, she spent her time in therapy groups with other women who’d recovered repressed memories of satanic sexual abuse.
David, who lives in Sacramento, Calif., is not a survivor of sexual abuse, she says now. She is a survivor of the cult of repressed memory syndrome.
The parents who’d taken her to church each week were recast in her mind as “satanists, killing people, cutting up babies, pouring blood on me, pouring hot wax on my face.”
“I had a memory of my mother sexually abusing me when I was 4 months old. My grandparents, my uncles, anybody and everybody.”
She persuaded one of her brothers that he’d been abused too.
One Christmas Day, she called up a cousin. “How dare you have my parents to your house. Don’t you know they’re satanists! They’re going to rape your children.”
It started when David had a hysterectomy that left her feeling depressed and angry. Her physician suggested therapy.
When she told the therapist a dream, “He told me point blank I’d been sexually abused as a child.”
David denied it. “How could this happen and me not know about it?” she asked.
The therapist told her she’d repressed the memory because it was so traumatic. He told her most women who’ve been sexually abused have repressed the memory.
David grew up in the country with her parents and two younger brothers. She remembered fishing, climbing trees, running through the grass, building forts, baking pies, gardening, swimming. She couldn’t remember any abuse.
But she trusted her therapist. “All I wanted was to find out who did this to me, when was this done to me. It was all I was focusing on.”
The therapist told her to think of anything negative in her childhood, anything that had caused her fear.
He thought her grandfather had abused her. He sent her to a therapist whose specialty was retrieving memories of childhood sexual abuse.
After hypnosis, David started to visualize scenes. “I thought I’d been hung up and raped in satanic rituals.” The rapist was her grandfather.
She stopped working. She spent much of her time locked in the bedroom. Her physical problems were “body memories” of past abuse, she’d been told. She tried to figure out what each pain was telling her about her past.
She became angry with anyone who questioned her therapy. “My therapist was my savior.”
The memories didn’t feel real, but the therapist told her that recovered memories are different from other memories. “But I think I’m making it up,” she said.
“Why would you make up something so horrible?” he replied.
David remembered having a baby when she was 13. She went back to the town where she’d lived at that age. None of her former classmates remembered her being pregnant.
Her therapist told her that everyone was in denial.
In therapy groups, she met other women who’d recovered memories of horrendous abuse. She came to believe that “the only people who are sane are people in therapy and therapists.”
Finally, David left therapy. She’d lost her business, and spent the equity in her home. She had no money. Her therapist dropped her.
Then, three months after leaving her last therapy group, David started to think. She recalled a story told by a woman in a therapy group. “I realized it couldn’t be true. Her memory had come from my dream.”
She thought about her old friends denying she’d been pregnant. “You’d be the talk of the school if you were pregnant at 13. Nobody would forget that.”
She thought about her memories of being tortured with hot wax. Why did she have no scars?
Outside of therapy, she’d met a woman who’d been sexually abused as a child, and had always known it. This woman didn’t tell abuse stories. She wasn’t angry and hateful. She hadn’t cut herself off completely from her family. “She was a true survivor,” David realized. And she was very different from the recovered memory “survivors” in therapy groups.
“I figured it out,” David says. “I spent two days walking around and thinking: ‘Oh my God. This never happened.”’
Her suicidal thoughts went away. She reconciled with her parents, and got back together with her husband. She changed her name back.
She realized that while she’d been focused on memories of things that never happened, her children had been growing up. “I missed a lot of years.”
David sued her therapists. She went public with her story, hoping to warn other women.
But the damage can’t be repaired.
“At the moment the therapist said I’d been sexually abused, he set off a bomb that hurt everybody in my life,” David says. “I’ll be picking up the pieces of devastation for the rest of my life.”