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Spectral Evidence, The Ramona Case: Incest, Memory, and Truth on Trial in Napa Valley

Moira Johnston
Houghton Mifflin, $25


by Edward Greer

Spectral Evidence tells the sad and disturbing story of Holly Ramona, a woman who as a young adult claimed to have remembered experiences of childhood incest, and who subsequently became the protagonist in a therapeutic malpractice lawsuit in California. By focusing on the particulars of her case, Spectral Evidence raises troubling questions about the notion of "recovered memories" now fashionable in some feminist therapeutic and legal circles. The jury in the case, Ramona v. Isabella, found that Holly's memories of incest were false, and that her therapist--who had reinforced these objectively erroneous memories and encouraged her first to confront her father at a family therapy session and then to sue him--was liable for malpractice. After arguing among themselves over the appropriate verdict, the civil jurors compromised on awarding Holly's father, Gary Ramona, half a million dollars in damages.

At the time of the trial Moira Johnston was a local reporter on the wine industry, with no convictions on the subject either way. She reviewed the entire trial record and managed to interview all of the opposing family members as well as most of the other witnesses. Her detailed reporting reveals that notwithstanding the strongly held subjective beliefs of Holly Ramona, her mother (who divorced Holly's father over it), and her Christian fundamentalist therapist, Gary Ramona's guilt was most improbable.

The central and rather sad conclusion that emerges from the interviews and recorded trial testimony is one not so much of a father's malignity as of wealthy parents who emotionally starved their child, substituting an affluent milieu for serious engagement in her life. Johnston interviews Holly Ramona's mother, who admits to her that "I can't remember one time in our entire lives that we had what you'd call a real talk," and that the family never had a meal together because of the parents' social whirl.

Johnston discovers that the psychiatrist who administered sodium amytal to Holly (which some thought seemed to guarantee the truthfulness of her recollections) had been the subject of five prior medical malpractice claims; upon the filing of Ramona v. Isabella, the psychiatrist moved to Hawaii, giving up the practice of medicine entirely. Johnston reveals that the jurors were shocked that the amytal interview was not taped, and that no medical notes were taken by the treating therapists. According to Johnston, the jurors thought the matter should have remained in family therapy and never gone to court. While partisan therapists favor confrontations with the presumptively guilty fathers, followed by litigation to gain public recognition of the daughter's "silencing," Johnston interviews one of the defendant therapists' own expert psychiatric witnesses, Dr. Thomas Gutheil of Harvard Medical School, who cautions that this approach often leads to "developmental arrest" for the psychologically troubled women.

Organized chronologically, Spectral Evidence is written in an informal, almost breezy style that contrasts markedly with its grim subject matter: the rise and then terrible collapse of an arriviste family. From humble origins, the Ramonas became wealthy corporate executives; but no one could want to emulate their lives. The first part (subtitled "A Perfect Family") tells of their mediocre sexual and personal lives. The second part describes how Holly's adolescent eating disorder led to therapy and the "recovery" of incest memories, followed by the family's immediate and total destruction. The third part retraces the courtroom events. While an easy read, Spectral Evidence is not a very edifying one. Its main value is that it provides a sense of concreteness to a subject matter that is generally addressed as an ideological construct.

Because the Ramona jury refused to accept the objective accuracy of sincerely held and retrospectively recalled beliefs of childhood incest, the verdict met with a hostile reception in some quarters. A lead article in a 1996 Harvard Law Review by Cynthia Bowman and Elizabeth Mertz, for example, urged legal reforms that would preclude any similar future claims by parents against their adult daughters' therapists.

In legal academia, the school of feminism which holds that men tend toward sexual predatoriness and domination of women as victims is often denominated "dominance feminism." Its proponents believe that male sexual aggression is the main fault line in society. They generally favor increased use of state repression against various forms of male transgression: pornography, spousal abuse, "date rape," sexual harassment, failure to pay child support, and so forth. In the instance of retrieved memories of incest, dominance-feminist scholars see the underlying wrong as prototypical of male sexual aggression, view the women who sue as striking back at their oppressors, and regard those aspects of the legal system that impede these lawsuits as patriarchal repression.

Bowman and Mertz, who belong to the dominance-feminism school, assert that childhood "incestuous abuse" is commonplace. They rely on highly problematic studies that claim at least one in eight American women have been so assaulted. The basic methodological flaw in almost all the studies reporting such high prevalence rates is that they merge very disparate phenomena--both grave wrongdoing and trivia--under a common rubric. For instance, being exposed to the sight of male genitalia is something most of us would view as developmentally normal or at worst trivial, yet the studies count this as "incest," with the predictable result: incest appears to be not a rare occurrence but a daily fact of life.

Bowman and Mertz also presume that therapists can readily distinguish true memories from false. Consequently they argue that daughters' incest suits against their fathers, even without any corroboration, can be fairly decided. And they strongly intimate that "women do not lie" about claims of private sexual misbehavior by men, so that the overwhelming majority of claims are valid. While the authors don't commit themselves to a definite proportion, they approvingly cite studies by feminist sociologists and psychologists who offer low estimates of the rate of false claims. For example, writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Judith Herman, M.D. and Bessel A. Van der Kolk, M.D., leading authorities on sexual trauma, claim that "unsubstantiated complaints seem to hover at 5 percent." But with no known way to differentiate the wheat from the chaff, no useful estimate can be made.

Bowman and Mertz insist that agnosticism, skepticism, or outright disbelief about the objective validity of retrieved memories of incest not only wrongs the courageous individual "survivor" and frightens off therapists from helping such women, but more generally represents a vital component in patriarchy's "silencing" of women. Similarly, literary critic Helen Daniels, writing on Ramona, expressly asserts that to "require objective verification procedures" for daughters' retrieved incest claims is bad feminist politics. Rather "the survivor's truth-telling is an active process of radical self-interpretation." Daniels concludes that feminists "need to argue for the reliability of survivor stories . . . [as] child abuse is rampant, and therefore survivors are far more numerous than survivor stories."1In view of the weakness of the evidence, we should be skeptical about such claims for three reasons.

First, the major empirical studies conducted over the past half century (from Kinsey through the recent massive and authoritative survey on American sexual practices by Edward O. Laumann and his colleagues at the University of Chicago) have found father-daughter incest in fewer than one family in two hundred. Because of the (already-mentioned) flaws in more recent discussions, we have no reason to reject these findings.

Second, dominance feminists commit a logical error when they argue that if incest were as commonplace as they contend, that would be evidence that most claims are valid. On the contrary, absent some objective corroboration, the overall incidence of incest tells us nothing about the composition of actual claims. Even if large numbers of women were sexually abused by their fathers, we cannot infer anything from that fact alone about whether or not any individual claim (or indeed, any such lawsuit) is true or false.

Third, all of the major relevant professional associations (the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association) take the official position that absent objective corroboration, it is impossible for therapists to determine whether retrieved memories of childhood incest are valid.

Today there are perhaps hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of women struggling with the question of whether in the distant past they too were the victims of incest. (The leading self-help book, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis's The Courage to Heal, has sold close to a million copies.) Tens of thousands have confronted their fathers, often in their therapists' offices, and a thousand or more have brought civil lawsuits.

Ought we to regard this phenomenon with benign neutrality, on the ground that even if exaggerated, this movement of masses of ordinary women (aided and abetted by feminist activist attorneys, psychologists, and social workers) is a method of struggle against patriarchy? There are major problems with any such decision to remain agnostic about, or tactfully silent with regard to, a politics that proclaims that men are socially constructed as sexual predators and advocates that ever-broader categories of male behavior be curbed by strict legal sanctions.

For one thing, it just isn't so: most men never engage in sexual aggression. Neutrality is a terrible guide for political action. For another, litigation often has a detrimental impact on the protagonists themselves. My own reading in the literature of qualified clinicians who treat victims of incest indicates that a majority eschew these confrontation/litigation tactics as a poor treatment modality.2 And my personal experience as a litigator on behalf of discrimination victims over the past two decades has almost uniformly been that participation in the legal process, even if vindicated at trial, is more likely to inflict further trauma than to heal.

In Spectral Evidence, Moira Johnston quotes Holly Ramona, now finished her master's degree in psychology, as stating that she intends to practice as a specialist in eating disorders and sexual abuse: "The best judge of a false memory is another abuse victim because they know. . . . If I turn out to be half the clinician my therapists are, I'll be very happy." One cannot but worry about the quality of the countertransference future young women clients will experience in such "therapeutic" encounters.3


1 "Truth, Community and the Politics of Memory: Narratives of Child Sexual Abuse," in Jan Bauer Maglin and Donna Perry (eds.), "Bad Girls/Good Girls": Women, Sex and Power in the Nineties (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).

2 See, for example, Judith Alpert (ed.), Sexual Abuse Recalled: Treating Trauma in the Era of the Recovered Memory Debate (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995).

3 On the current status of thinking about the clinical import of the countertransference, see Darlene Ehrenberg, The Intimate Edge: Extending the Reach of Psychoanalytic Interaction (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).

Originally published in the October/November 1998 issue of Boston Review

 



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