The Lost Years

Long removed from the therapy that broke their families, anguished parents mourn the children who walked away.

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It's the type of day you see only in Claritin ads.

The sky is an azure blue, the sun sits high on the clouds, and in their huge, golf-course-like backyard in Westlake, Dawn and Michael Patterson are hovering over their propane grill, barbecuing chicken breasts and waiting for the guests to arrive.

"Do you think we have enough?" Michael asks, pointing his spatula at the dozen or so sizzling slabs.

Dawn, a grandmotherly woman with a kind face, rolls her eyes, though she too is a bit of a worrier. Since laying out the food a mere 15 minutes earlier, she has twice checked to make sure the vegetable platters are out, that there is both sugar and sugar substitute (for the diabetic guest), that the ice is ready.

"I think we're OK," she says finally, settling on a patio chair and taking a minute to soak in the rays.

Michael, on his way from the backyard to the kitchen -- he wants more chicken, after all -- winks and squeezes his wife's elbow.

"You holding up?" he asks.

Dawn nods and smiles in response.

By around six, the guests start to arrive, clad in cotton shirts and linen pants, and carrying homemade desserts. They greet each other as close relatives do, exchanging warm hugs and pecks on the cheek.

Bob Jones, a muscular man in a collared shirt and khakis, makes his way over to Michael and engages him in a bear hug. Michael squeezes back.

"These people," Michael says, nodding at Bob and his wife Marilyn, "are the best friends we've never wanted." They chuckle heartily.

The guests make their way to the backyard picnic table. Dawn opens up an umbrella to block out the rays and hands out chilled glasses of lemonade and tea.

As the guests settle back in their chairs, cross their legs, and shift in closer, talk volleys from vacations to new homes to summer plans.

Then Marilyn sits back, squeezes lemon into her tea, and nonchalantly asks:

"So, Nate, I forget -- when was the first time you and your wife were accused of molestation?"

For more than a decade, each of them has come here, every few months, to seek relief among others who understand the pain. "You can try," says Dawn, "but you will never know what it's like to have your child accuse you of sexual abuse unless you've had it happen to you. Your friends will not understand, nor will your relatives." She pauses, then smiles wryly. "Lucky them."

In 1990, when the Pattersons first received a letter from their 25-year-old daughter accusing them of sexual abuse, they didn't understand where such allegations could come from. Dawn remembers collapsing into a weeping heap; Michael became indignant and angry. But their struggle, initially, was a silent one. Telling people that your child has accused you of molestation is not like revealing that your child has diabetes -- there are immediate and lingering implications.

A year earlier, as clinical therapy was reaching the height of its popularity in America, Laura Davis and Ellen Bass wrote a book titled The Courage to Heal. An immediate bestseller, it became a bible of sorts for recovered-memory therapy, a Freudian concept in which repressed memories from traumatic childhood experiences are believed to account for present-day problems.

Even if people think they "don't have memories," the book said, "there emerges a constellation of feelings, reactions and recollections that add up to substantial information. To say 'I was abused' you don't need the kind of recall that would stand up in court."

The Pattersons' daughter Megan, it turned out, had recovered childhood memories of her own.

After her first accusatory letter arrived in the mail, Megan essentially ended all contact with her family. Letters they sent to her were returned unopened. Megan refused phone calls from her brothers and sisters and childhood friends, who she felt were ganging up on her. Dawn, a teacher studying for her master's degree at the University of Akron, was so grief-stricken that she dropped out. What had caused the sudden change in Megan? The Pattersons suspected that she'd become involved with a cult.

It was on a plane, on her way to a conference about cults in 1992, that Dawn's pulse began to quicken. She had been lackadaisically paging through a mental-health magazine when a particular story caught her eye: a first-person account by a woman whose child had gone to a therapist specializing in recovered-memory therapy. Not long afterward, the child suddenly started "remembering" numerous instances of sexual abuse that she suffered when she was younger. Like the Pattersons, the author insisted that the accusations were false.

Weeping, Dawn woke her sleeping husband, tore out the pages, and contacted the author, Pamela Freyd, at the time a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who had founded a national support network for parents dealing with recovered-memory accusations.

In the early 1990s, as recovered-memory techniques caught on, Freyd became the nation's go-to person for accused parents. Back in Ohio, Dawn and Michael started attending conferences and meeting other families torn apart by the therapy. Michael, an engineer by trade, and Dawn were hailed as the top counselors for Northeast Ohioans in crisis. Freyd starting referring some of her calls to the Westlake couple, who eventually started a Midwest branch of Freyd's organization.

Throughout the 1990s, the Pattersons received calls and e-mails from more than 700 families whose children accused them of abuse. Many parents were near-suicidal. The Pattersons' home became a sanctuary, and their roles as makeshift counselors evolved into part-time jobs. In Cleveland alone, more than 150 couples contacted them.

Meetings, which the Pattersons arranged a few times a month, were run AA-style. New members would stand up, legs trembling, and tell their stories. Their voices would crack, and they would start sobbing. Experienced members would try not to look too bored. "It got to be redundant," recalls Bob, who has been meeting the Pattersons with his wife for 12 years. "You just kept hearing the same story over and over again -- if you wanted to, you could recite the story for them." He pauses. "But there was comfort in that."

Yet, while the Pattersons were rocks of support for other families who needed them, they were still withering at the notion of their own fractured family and praying daily for Megan to come back.

"No one else understands us like these people," Dawn says, nodding to the group. "When my daughter got married without us there, the only one who really understood the pain was Nate's wife. She came over and held my hand while I cried."

These days, the dwindling group doesn't meet as often as it once did. Some of their wounds have healed, which is why they can now laugh and joke. But they each bear indelible scars from the damage wrought in the past decade, which is why they still seek one another's company.

Today is different, however: They are welcoming a new member, Carole, a 43-year-old Mentor woman whose story they hope will shed light on their own children's lives. Heavyset, with Jergens-soft hands and a sweet, heart-shaped face, Carole twitches a bit in her seat at the end of the picnic table. She's the last to arrive, the honorary guest at a party everyone wishes weren't necessary. Carole clears her throat and starts chattering nervously: about the weather, about a recent movie, about her husband -- she had asked him to accompany her, but then asked him to wait in their car out front. The others sit patiently. They've grown accustomed to leaping headlong into their own stories, like children unafraid of a cold swimming pool. For Carole, it's a more laborious process of toe-dipping and incremental submersions.

Eventually, she begins to speak in a thin voice, and then no one is able to cut her off. They lean their heads forward, as if in prayer.

In 1990, Carole was just learning about recovered memories. Acutely sensitive, with a masochistic streak, she had just broken up with a serious boyfriend. She contemplated suicide, but instead entered into weekly counseling.

One day, three months into her sessions, the therapist asked Carole to recount a few memories from her childhood -- times when she felt unprotected or scared or alone. Thinking hard, Carole remembered one experience where she had felt particularly vulnerable: Her father had been alone with her in the bathroom, giving her a bath and washing her entire body. She had felt extremely uncomfortable about the experience, the invasion of her privacy.

As Carole retold the story, her counselor said nothing -- but her upraised brow was enough to set Carole's mind reeling. When she left the session that day, the counselor recommended that Carole pick up a copy of The Courage to Heal.

Carole spent the next week paging through the book, and she found herself underlining passages like "If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were," and "If you are unable to remember any specific instances . . . but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did." Suddenly, she was recalling a whole new realm of abuses: her father fondling her in the living room, her mother sitting there, letting it happen.

The therapist recommended art therapy with other victims of sexual abuse. Twice a week, they were given brushes and watercolors, and told to fill a blank canvas with their emotions. Sometimes Carole would draw a burning tree, sometimes an eye or a clown. Counselors took notes on each painting.

Group sessions would follow, and at first they were soothing -- like girls gabbing at a sleepover. The usually shy Carole felt more comfortable with these women than she had with anyone in a long time. With the support of others, her memories became more vivid. After they recounted their stories about ritual abuse, Carole suddenly remembered that her father had gone into her bedroom at night and raped her while her mother watched -- and her brother participated as well. She broke down in sobs. The rest of the class cheered at her reconnaissance. Her therapists hailed it as a breakthrough.

In 1992, Carole confronted her family. Flanked by her counselor and a social worker, she blurted out the accusations, then fled the room. She remembers her father sitting there stoically -- not saying a word in response. Carole vowed never to speak to her parents again. Her therapy group was her new family.

But though the group held her hand and stroked her hair and told her how brave she was, Carole still was haunted.

"If all this were really true, I couldn't understand why I continued to feel so bad. When I was with the group, I was sure of the abuse, but when I was alone, I started to have doubts.

"'This is absolutely true,' I'd think. Then a second later, I'd go, 'No. I'm a liar. I'm mentally ill. None of this could possibly have happened.'"

Carole pauses from her story and grimaces at the remembrance.

"Don't torture yourself," Dawn says, trying to comfort her.

Plates still full of food have been pushed aside, and the stench of burning chicken wafts from the grill.

Carole nods, but still looks pained. "I keep thinking about my poor father," she says.

When her counselor moved away, Carole was referred to another therapist. During one of her sessions, Carole started recounting her frustrations with the art-therapy group.

"I told him that I felt things were getting out of control. My close friend in the group drew a picture of a nun, and the counselors started believing that she had been abused by the nuns as well. And she was like, 'No, no -- I drew a nun because I went to Catholic school when I was younger.'"

She told the counselor, too, about the group sessions: how when someone did not fully believe another person's story, he or she would be shunned and called out as a traitor.

"Carole," the psychiatrist said gently one day, "have you ever heard of something called false-memory syndrome?"

Becoming convinced of your own childhood abuse is not an easy thing.

"Recovered memories don't happen unless a therapist works on it and works on it. It's not like you come in one day and realize you were abused," says Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who specializes in mind-manipulation.

But memories, by nature, are fluid and malleable, easily influenced by suggestion. People told they were abused eventually believe that they were, regardless of fact. The mind creates a visual picture of the abusive act. And if a person is surrounded by others who encourage her to draw out these pictures and details, this new memory can become even more vivid than an actual remembrance. To complicate things further, the brain starts creating emotional responses to these memories, which seem to validate the claims even more.

Ofshe is a champion of "false-memory syndrome," a notion that came about in response to the recovered-memory-therapy boom of the late '80s and early '90s. It posits that most memories of sexual abuse recovered through regressive therapy are in fact false. Recovered-memory therapists often preached that they were the only ones who could cure supposed victims -- which, of course, created its own catch-22, Ofshe says. He believes that many therapists knowingly continued the practice for their own gain. To him, the "cult of recovered memory" is "total quackery." He argues that victims of Hitler did not repress what happened to them, nor do victims of proved sexual abuse ever tend to forget that it happened.

Just as cases of recovered memory resulted in many adult children bringing suits against their parents in the early '90s, false-memory syndrome, in turn, prompted parents to bring malpractice suits against their children's therapists. These suits, as well as the huge judgments sometimes awarded, caused many therapists to abandon the recovered-memory approach altogether.

When Carole first learned about false-memory syndrome, she felt a giddy, bubbly feeling of relief mixed with guilt.

"Deep in my heart, I knew this could not be true, but this explained how I could be thinking all that stuff," she says, eyes watering. She quit therapy and reconciled with her parents. Now, she says, her best friends are her family. In clinical terms, she is a retractor.

The three families gathered around the picnic table listen with movie-theater silence to Carole's tale. None of their own children has fully retracted, though some have quietly returned to the family. In hopes of fostering reconciliation, the parents have followed therapists' advice not to discuss the accusations. So the periods of noncommunication are deemed simply the "lost years," and their lives continue to run like a videotape that suddenly went fuzzy in the middle. They hope, in the ensuing years, to figure out the details, but for now the accusations, Marilyn says, "are like the elephant in the room that no one talks about."

Marilyn, an elementary school teacher with shapely brows and an easy smile, has been listening especially closely to Carole's story. She has heard other retractors' stories before, but never one that occurred so geographically near her own. So when Carole pauses to catch her breath, Marilyn jumps in: "Did you know anyone named Heather in your therapy group?" she asks, her brown eyes as round as pennies.

She looks disappointed when Carole shakes her head no.

"Bob," she says, nudging her husband. "Maybe this is what happened to Heather. Remember when she came to the house and asked to use my painting sets? She must have gone into art therapy."

Bob nods his head thoughtfully. "Maybe. It's possible."

The Elyria family's story started as many others have: In early 1990, 33-year-old Heather was miserable about her crumbling marriage and her job, so on the advice of a friend, she sought counseling from an Akron therapist. For months afterward, Heather seemed aloof and distant, but the Joneses thought it had to do only with her current troubles.

Then one day, Bob went to the mailbox and came back white-faced, holding a handwritten note from Heather scribbled on yellow legal paper. In the letter, Heather had accused both parents of abusing her. She wrote that she was only now realizing the extent of the damage they had wrought, and she warned them not to contact her until further notice. Six months later, they met Heather in a church. There, snuggled tight between a priest and a counselor, she told her parents they should never attempt to contact her again.

"Ironically, the best thing that happened to us, as a couple, during that time is that we were both accused," says Marilyn. "I knew that I hadn't done any of the things that Heather said, so I knew there was a good chance my husband hadn't either."

Five years passed with nary a word. Then one day Heather came back.

"It was my birthday," says Marilyn, "and Heather walked into the room, and everything stopped. We were so happy to see her -- finally -- but she just stood there, the whole time with her arms folded, not really talking.

"I was like, 'Heather, you look so angry.'" Marilyn pauses.

The family agreed to attend therapy together. They went to Don Lichi in Akron, a Christian educator and counselor who had become a nationally known resource in the reintegration of families torn apart by false-memory accusations. Lichi, who has successfully counseled half a dozen families and says he's been "moderately successful" in resurrecting half a dozen more, could see that theirs was a difficult case.

("Reconciliation is not an easy thing with the families splintered by recovered-memory therapy," says Lichi. "There is reluctance on both sides. The parents are worried -- could this happen again? They're hypersensitive and vigilant. And the accusers that I see are not 100 percent convinced that the abuse did not happen, so they're wary of trying to rebuild trust.")

The Joneses were partially successful in their therapy. Heather now attends family functions, though she has never recanted. And on the advice of Lichi, Bob and Marilyn have never brought up the accusations with Heather again. For them, there remains a void -- and an unshakable anger that won't leave, no matter how hard they try to dispel it.

"We still sleep with the accusatory notes under our bed," says Bob, "just to reinforce what we had gone through. To know that all this actually happened."

"Sometimes I want to shake Heather -- say, What was going through your head at that point? How could you do this to us?" adds Marilyn. "But I can't, because I'm just so happy to have her back." (Heather could not be reached for this story.)

Sticking a fork into a piece of cake, Dawn Patterson nods her head vigilantly. "My friends are still so mad at my daughter. One told me that she just wants to smack her whenever she sees her. But they don't understand that she was brainwashed. She was a really loving child. She'd never have done this if she hadn't been brainwashed."

Five years ago, after three years of self-imposed isolation, Megan showed up on the Pattersons' doorstep. Michael had been hospitalized for a heart procedure, and Megan said that she did not want her father to die without seeing him again. He has since recovered, and Megan now takes part in family activities and holidays, but an intimacy is missing from their relationship that is present with their other kids. Megan has never recanted her accusations -- which started when she first went to a therapist at Ohio State University in the late 1980s.

The Pattersons' story follows a familiar outline: Megan sent a letter accusing them of abuse, cut off all contact, and refused to talk to those who disagreed with her. But her parents, frustrated by the lack of contact, hired a private investigator to track her: The investigator reported that Megan was living in Columbus, and he found the name of the therapist she was seeing. Convinced that the therapist was the reason for Megan's epiphanies, the Pattersons hired another investigator, around the same age as Megan, to pose with the same sort of depressive symptoms their daughter had displayed. They sent the investigator into the sessions wired, and she came back with tapes.

In one instance, the investigator admitted that she "didn't have any memories of abuse," to which the therapist responded, "Most of the time that people have that particular collection of experiences, responses, and reactions, it's about some form of abuse."

The Pattersons sobbed while transcribing the rest of the tapes. It gave them a sense of vindication, but grievances remain. The Pattersons' home includes a room overflowing with accusatory letters from Megan, undercover tapes, and bills from the investigators.

If today their relationship is mended, the stitched-up seams can easily be seen.

"My daughter and I decided to not talk about it," says Dawn. "It causes so much friction. We've just built on our relationship, and it's worked. We're pretty much back to normal, though I honestly, truly do not know how she feels. I pray daily that she will recant, like Carole, and I hope she does so before her dad dies."

"She's our daughter. Of course we forgive her," says Bob. Nonetheless, they have cut back her inheritance.

She's my daughter. For a long time, Nate James thought such reasoning was total bullshit.

"Everyone else in our group just wanted their children to come back," says Nate, who has known the Pattersons for 10 years. "But I wanted more than that. I wanted an apology. My daughters accused me of something unforgivable, and I wanted my name back. It was a good name, and I wanted it back again." He sighs, and his cheeks flush red. The story, no matter how many times he tells it, always gets him agitated.

But Nate is much older now, with strands of yellowish blond hair that he carefully combs to one side. He buried his wife a little over a year ago and for the first time truly understands the meaning of loneliness -- though he had plenty of time to contemplate it before.

On May 3, 1993, police surprised Nate at his Fairview Park home. They wanted to discuss his elder daughter, who told cops he had molested her.

"My mouth dropped," he says.

Charges against Nate were eventually dropped; his daughter, it turned out, had accused no fewer than 26 others of molestation too.

"Your daughter sure must have been busy having all that sex. It's a wonder she had time to go to us at all," he remembers one cop telling him.

But though his daughter did not persuade the cops of her case, she did convince her younger sister to seek therapy too. Afterward, both of them dropped out of their parents' lives. (Neither daughter could be reached for this story.)

In the absence of his daughters, Nate's fury filled the empty space. But over the past decade, the anger has gradually subsided, like a battery slowly running out of energy.

And when his wife became sick a few years ago, the younger daughter came back in tears.

"It was a big love fest," says Nate. "But at the same time, no one was saying to me, 'Gee, Dad, I'm sorry I said those things."

His elder daughter still has not returned.

Carole listens carefully to Nate's story. She folds her fingers together as if in prayer, and her feet, clad in soft leather shoes, are crossed at the ankles. She says that she is still grieving -- her own dad died less than three months ago.

"My father," she says softly, "was not like the rest of you. He didn't want to talk about the accusations. All I wanted to do all day, every day, was apologize, and he just kept saying, 'Stop, stop, I don't want to discuss this."

"He was so loving, so wonderful. I would do anything to take it back."

When a tear starts to form at the edge of her eye, Marilyn jumps in: "Lots of people don't even get to apologize. Think about that, Carole."

Carole pauses. "Still, I can't even imagine how much I hurt him. When he was dying and started having these hallucinations, and they wanted to keep him in the hospital but he wanted to go home, my dad looked at me and said, 'Carole, are you doing this to me because you still believe I did that stuff to you when you were little?"

She sighs. The table falls silent.

"When I was moving this year, my husband and I were unpacking all these boxes in our new home, and I saw the book The Courage to Heal. We had been getting rid of lots of books by giving them to Goodwill. This one, I said, we have to throw away."

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