By Chris Lane
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In a deposition she gave earlier this year for the Schwiderskis' lawsuit, Peterson relates that some of her patients had told her how organized crime networks use masks to confuse the patients while they are drugged.
"Do you believe that there are people who use masks that have your likeness on the mask, or use stand-ins who look like you, in an effort to traumatize people?" inquired the Schwiderskis' lawyer.
"Based upon my patients' reactions to me, [at] various times I do," Peterson responded.
In the same deposition, the lawyer asked, "Dr. Peterson, do you in your mind differentiate between a patient's own reality and the truth?"
"That's a tricky question," Peterson replied.
As for the validity of recovered memories ... well, that, too, is a tricky question. The American Medical Association's position is that empirical evidence can be cited for both sides of the argument. It is well-established that a trusted person, such as a therapist, can influence an individual and that repeated questioning can lead a patient to report an event that never occurred. Nonetheless, other research indicates some survivors of abuse do not remember -- at least temporarily -- having been abused.
But the AMA has warned that such memories are often recovered under hypnosis, and while they may be accurate, they also may include confabulations and pseudomemories.
"Hypnosis-induced recollections actually appear to be less reliable than non-hypnotic recall," says an AMA policy statement.
From depositions taken for some of the suits, it's clear that a key issue that plaintiffs' lawyers intend to raise is whether therapists are obligated to ground their patients in reality.
"While there are deviant portions of society [and] isolated cases of cults, the idea that there is an international organization organized around the devil and influencing people without their knowledge is absurd," says Bill Robins, a Houston attorney who represents Alison Roome. "There is no objective evidence. They took for granted there is a network in this country manipulating hundreds of young women."
Robins and other plaintiffs' lawyers say their vulnerable clients had come to Spring Shadows Glen seeking help, but instead were made worse by being drugged and hypnotized and left in states of high suggestibility.
"The hospital bears a large part of the responsibility because they let money cloud their judgment and allowed therapists to manipulate patients," says Robins.
Adds another plaintiff's attorney: "The fact that the hospital had complaints and didn't do anything -- that is evil. There is always going to be a flaky therapist, but the hospital should provide safeguards." (The lawyer for Spring Shadows Glen declined to comment for this story because of the pending litigation; calls seeking response from Metro National Corporation, the owner of Spring Shadows at the time of the allegations in the lawsuits, were not returned. Memorial Healthcare System took over ownership of the hospital from Metro National in 1994 and changed the name of the facility to Memorial Spring Shadows Glen.)
Amy Smith left Houston in 1994 to return home to Edinburg, where she is working full-time as a veterinarian's assistant. She is saving money to return to school at the University of Texas. "I want to be a nurse -- not a psychiatric one," she says. She did not pursue legal action against Spring Shadows Glen.
Smith no longer believes she has multiple personalities, was ever in a cult or that her father abused her, but occasionally she still has nightmares about the dissociative disorders unit at Spring Shadows Glen. In retrospect, she says, her experience there was like being in a cult.
"It was like a process of gradually becoming convinced of these crazy beliefs in a closed environment. We were always discussing cults, and at the same time we were behaving like a cult. We had our own rituals and really exotic beliefs, and we were separated from our families."
Kathyrn Schwiderski is now divorced; she lives in Dallas and her ex-husband lives in Houston. One of their daughters once reported herself to the Harris County Sheriff's Department, claiming she murdered three people in a "fetus factory" in Colorado. Her whereabouts are now unknown.
Mary Shanley, according to her attorney, has lost all contact with her husband and son. They still believe she is in a satanic cult, the lawyer explains. Shanley, meanwhile, is virtually penniless and works in a department store in Chicago.
Lynn Carl's attorney says she lives in a halfway house in Baltimore and is unable to see her children because they and her husband still believe she belongs to a cult.
Alison Roome says she's back to the functioning stage -- with the help of an MHMR therapist -- and is working part-time. Roome, too, no longer believes she has multiple personalities or was ever involved with a satanic cult.
Judith Peterson, by all accounts, continues her private practice in Houston. Some of her time, however, is devoted to depositions and court appearances for the six lawsuits here in which she is a defendant.
Peterson has responded to the suits by denying the plaintiffs' allegations, and on one recent morning, walking into a hearing at the county courthouse, she stared directly into a photographer's camera and declared, "I'm innocent."