It was the spring of 1990, Alison Roome has said, when she was told that she might have been a member of a satanic cult and participated in gory rituals. The occasion was her first meeting with Judith Peterson.
A tall, striking, redheaded woman with a doctorate in clinical psychology, Peterson was considered an expert in the field of multiple personality disorder and retrieving repressed memories of childhood abuse. Roome and the other patients at Spring Shadows Glen psychiatric hospital in northwest Houston knew a situation was serious when Peterson was called into their unit.
The way Roome remembers that day in 1990, Peterson hypnotized her and then shepherded her through an abreactive session, an accepted form of therapy in which a patient is encouraged to bring forth painful, repressed feelings of childhood trauma or abuse.
Roome, a former student of social work at the University of Houston, had been sexually abused as a child, and she had come to Spring Shadows Glen for treatment of depression and bulimia. She had already been diagnosed as having multiple personalities, but she didn't believe it.
She didn't believe it, either, when after that abreactive session Peterson told Roome of her past affiliation with a satanic cult whose membership spanned generations and killed babies -- the memory of which Roome had somehow buried too deeply to recall.
"She only met me for five minutes and she said I was in a satanic cult," Roome later told Amy Smith, another patient at the unit who had befriended Roome.
So Smith was amazed when she saw Roome several months later in the psychiatric intensive care unit at Spring Shadows. Not only had Roome come to believe that she harbored multiple personalities -- and was switching in and out of them -- she also had developed the unshakable belief that she had once been in a cult whose rituals included the eating of babies.
Roome looked worn and emaciated, Smith thought, a shadow of the well-put-together and "incredibly smart" young woman Smith had first met in 1989 in the eating disorders unit at Spring Shadows.
"It was like her spirit had been broken," Smith recalls.
Today, Alison Roome has a lawsuit pending against Peterson, Spring Shadows Glen and other therapists, alleging gross negligence, conspiracy and fraud in their diagnosis. And Roome -- whose treatment cost her insurance carrier $600,000 -- isn't the only former patient of Spring Shadows Glen or Dr. Judith Peterson who believes her spirit was broken in therapy and is taking her case to court.
Peterson -- but not Spring Shadows Glen -- is also a defendant in a suit filed by the family of Kathryn Schwiderski that is scheduled to be tried this fall. Schwiderski and her three minor children were diagnosed by Peterson as having multiple personality disorder (MPD) and would eventually re-call having been members of a baby-killing satanic cult.
Mary Shanley, whose treatment for MPD and child abuse supposedly committed by one of her multiple personalities cost her insurance companies $2 million, filed a $50 million suit against Peterson, Spring Shadows and 22 other hospitals and therapists last year.
In another pending suit, Lynn Carl is asking $18 million in damages from Peterson, Spring Shadows Glen and others. Carl claims she became convinced while undergoing therapy with Peterson that she was a Satan worshiper and had been a victim of abusive satanic rituals. She says her children were later admitted to Spring Shadows and also diagnosed by Peterson and other therapists as suffering from MPD and satanic ritual abuse.
The family of Lucy Abney recently settled, for an undisclosed sum, a lawsuit they had filed in 1993 against Peterson and Spring Shadows Glen, claiming the defendants were negligent for making an inaccurate diagnosis of Abney and her two daughters as having MPD and belonging to a satanic cult. Their suit alleged the family was hospitalized to bilk $1 million in insurance payments.
Running through all of the plaintiffs' allegations is a common story -- one of already-fragile lives broken and families torn apart by "memories" of satanic ritual abuse.
If any of the lawsuits get to trial, one of the most hotly debated controversies in psychology and psychiatry -- that of the validity of recovered memories -- is likely to get a thorough airing.
A trial might also help explain to those who weren't there what exactly was going on inside the dissociative disorders unit of Spring Shadows Glen during the first three years of this decade.
Amy Smith was a sophomore at Texas A&M in December 1989 when she came to "the Glen," as the patients called it, for treatment of bulimia and depression. But eventually, after her therapist suggested that her condition might be related to childhood sexual abuse, she began to recover a memory of someone pulling on her legs when she was a young girl. That soon metamorphosed into a memory of being raped by her father when she was three years old.
Smith had been one of the first patients in Spring Shadow's new dissociative disorders unit. Judith Peterson, who previously had been a consultant to the hospital, was named clinical director of the unit in 1990.
The unit became home for patients -- almost all of them women, usually about ten at a time -- who had been severely traumatized by physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Amy Smith wasn't sure she belonged there, because at times she doubted the truthfulness of her memories of sexual abuse. "Every day I would ask the doctor [not Peterson], are you sure I'm not making this up?" she recalls. By then, she, too, had been diagnosed as having multiple personalities, and she was scared. Her depression deepened when she considered the possibility that her memories of sexual abuse were real. Soon she became self-mutilating, cutting her arms with a razor.
Alison Roome, meanwhile, was living on the psychiatric intensive care unit. In the beginning, Roome says, she tried to deny she had multiple personality disorder, but her therapists at Spring Shadows told her that her resistance to the diagnosis was simply a symptom of the disorder.
In a deposition she gave for her lawsuit, Roome claims she was isolated from family and friends for several months. As a precaution against her hurting herself, she says, she was placed in restraints several times a day. To get out, she would have to designate several of her "alters," as alternate personalities are called in MPD jargon, to sign forms attesting that she wouldn't hurt herself.
Peterson, Roome has said, had explained to her that the procedure was something like a "safety patrol" among her alters, although Roome never quite understood the concept. Once, when she was placed in restraints for five days near her birthday, it was explained to her that satanic cults consider birthdays a "trigger" day when a member might try to harm herself. On another occasion, nurses were ordered to only address Roome as "Constance" -- one of the names of her alters -- for an entire week. Another time, Roome alleges, she was left in restraints for seven days.
Her doctors believed she was a danger to herself, and Roome agrees that she was self-destructive.
But it was a vicious circle, she says.
"The more they put me in restraints, the less ability I had to control myself and the more I had to be in them. The more I engaged in the treatment, the more suicidal I became."
After several months in isolation, Roome says she began to lose her identity. She was heavily medicated, kept in a perpetual haze with Thorazine, Restoril, Ativan and other drugs, according to her deposition. "I was living and sleeping in restraints, with visions of doctors circling over my head. It was hazy -- like being in a dream. Eventually I began to give them what they wanted, and I also began to believe it."
When she left isolation and was placed in the dissociative disorders unit, Roome seemed deeply troubled and wanted to die, according to Amy Smith. Another patient on the unit recalls that Roome had regressed from a charismatic, intelligent woman to a child who, with lipstick smeared across her face, looked as if she had gotten into her mother's makeup.
Roome says she remained on suicide watch, guarded by a staff member round-the-clock, while living in a walk-in size closet with a mattress on the floor. She was only allowed out for occasional 15-minute intervals during the day. Roome now had come to believe that she had been trained to kill for a ritual-abuse cult, and that she would be killed by the cult if she left Spring Shadows Glen. Smith and another former patient say they were told not to walk within five feet of Roome because she was capable of putting them in a trance.
In October 1990, Amy Smith was still self-destructive, confused and depressed, but her insurance coverage ran out. She begged Spring Shadows to commit her to a state hospital, and, around Halloween, she boarded a bus for San Antonio State Hospital.
A few months later, Alison Roome was put in a straitjacket and flown by air ambulance to Chicago, where she would be treated by Dr. Bennett Braun, a renowned expert on multiple personality disorder who was a chief consultant to Judith Peterson of Spring Shadows Glen.
Come to Spring Shadows Glen.
During the 1980s, the private psychiatric hospital in west Houston became something of a local household name, mostly through television advertisements that beckoned the dispirited and dysfunctional to come and be healed. One commercial featured a happy couple strolling through the green grounds, looking as if they'd been cured of whatever had brought them to Spring Shadows Glen.
If you drive past Spring Shadows Glen today, it appears that, at least from the outside, the TV commercials were not that misleading. A carpet of lush grass greets visitors to the hospital, which sits about three miles north of where I-10 slices over Gessner. From a distance, its low-slung brick buildings look like an elementary school. Well-manicured begonias dot the circular drive leading to the double-glass doors through which patients enter.
It was in that sedate suburban setting that Alison Roome and others came to believe that they had repressed memories of satanic ritual abuse. Under Judith Peterson's direction, Spring Shadows' dissociative disorders unit would be become a center for the treatment of multiple personality disorder, which Peterson was once overheard calling the "disorder of the decade."
The idea that several separate personalities can exist in one person's mind has always intrigued the public and psychiatrists. Most people are familiar with the concept of MPD through the books and movies The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil -- each based on women who exhibited more than one distinct personality.
MPD is a severe psychiatric disorder, thought to be the result of a childhood trauma that causes a child to splinter her personality into fragments to cope with horrible pain. But MPD is considered just the extreme on a continuum of what are known as dissociative disorders. On the other end is normal, everyday dissociation, such as the "highway hypnosis" a driver experiences when spacing out on a familiar road, then suddenly coming to and having no memory of the drive. Somewhere in the middle are serious dissociative disorders resulting from childhood trauma that land people in treatment.
Until the last decade, a diagnosis of MPD was extremely rare. But interest in the disorder suddenly mushroomed in the 1980s, as societies, journals and newsletters devoted to its study began to appear. A core group of psychiatrists emerged as experts, with Chicago psychiatrist Bennett Braun being among the most notable.
The increase in diagnoses of MPD was met with much skepticism in psychiatric circles, and the skeptics had a few questions: Were there enough MPD cases around for the burgeoning force of experts to treat? Why were there no more than 200 possible cases of the disorder documented in the United States prior to 1980, but at least 5,000 cases diagnosed since then? And why weren't there any documented cases in Europe?
In fact, to this day most mental health professionals still consider multiple personality disorder a very, very rare disorder.
"I've been treating patients for 25 years, and maybe I've seen one case," says Houston psychologist Joan Anderson, the former chairman of the ethics committee for the Texas Psychological Association.
Judith Peterson, according to her resume, was born in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Southern California in 1966 with a bachelor of arts in psychology. She obtained her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Ohio State University in 1972.
In an interview with author Mark Pendergrast for his 1995 book Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Peterson said she had always considered herself a caring, idealistic person and had begun her career helping migrant workers and Head Start children. Her resume states that she worked with the mentally retarded in Ohio and had a practice in New York state before moving to Houston with her husband and family in the early 1980s. She established a private practice here, and by all accounts it was a successful one. Two mental health professionals who know Peterson but requested anonymity say the psychologist could be considered, in the words of one, "brilliant."
In 1987, Peterson joined a local "dissociative disorders study group" made up of social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. At the time, there was little literature available on the effects of traumas and abuse, and the group was formed to help the members educate themselves on the phenomena. It also gave them a forum to discuss their difficult, emotionally draining cases and offer one another consultation.
During the mid-'80s, according to one member of the study group, therapists across the nation had started hearing stories of satanic ritual abuse from patients. Similar stories were being told in Houston. Group members disagreed over whether the stories were real, with some believing the patients' memories were grounded in fact and others contending that they were merely metaphors the patients had constructed to deal with some terrible trauma they had suffered.
Judith Peterson shared that she had heard these stories from patients, too, according to one member of the group.
Even before Peterson arrived at Spring Shadows Glen, she was beginning to acquire a reputation as an expert on recovering memories of childhood abuse from her 1988 MPD diagnosis of Kathryn Schwiderski.
It was around the time of her diagnosis of Schwiderski that Peterson -- who had been certified in clinical hypnosis in 1988 -- began regular phone consultations with Bennett Braun on MPD. In a deposition for the Schwiderski family's lawsuit, Peterson says part of her education in MPD came from Braun's recommended readings.
In 1990, Peterson and a co-worker presented a paper about a "cult" family to the seventh International Conference on Multiple Personality/Dissociative States in Chicago. The family bore a strong resemblance to the Schwiderskis, or at least Peterson's view of them. "The mother was born into the cult and the involvement can be traced back two generations," according to the summary of Peterson's paper. "The major memories as documented nationally by other cult victims were found in this family, including details about human sacrifice, cannibalism, black hole, shock to create alters, marriage to Satan, buried alive, birth of Satan's child, internal booby traps, forced impregnation and sacrifice of own child."
A colleague from the dissociative disorder study group says Peterson, in exploring MPD and alleged satanic ritual abuse, saw herself as a pioneer on a new frontier of psychology. She wasn't motivated by money, but she "has an ego," the colleague notes.
Several months after Alison Roome flew to Chicago to be treated by Bennett Braun, Mary Shanley, an elementary school teacher and former patient of Braun's, flew to Houston to enter treatment with Judith Peterson at Spring Shadows Glen.
Shanley was initially impressed by Peterson, but later, she has said, her opinion of the psychologist would change.
In fact, Shanley once called a mental health advocacy hot line to complain about her treatment. She soon found herself accompanied 24 hours a day by a technician. "I was locked out of my room and kept in the central lobby," she told author Mark Pendergrast. "I wasn't allowed to use the telephone or to go outside .... I slept on the floor or on a couch."
In the lawsuit she has filed in federal court here, Shanley claims that during her two-year stay at Spring Shadows she was routinely over-medicated and kept in a zombie-like state by large doses of Inderal and Ativan. In abreaction sessions with Peterson, the psychologist's physician supervisor and a "psychodramatist," Shanley was asked to call up her alters and have them discuss her training by a satanic cult and her work teaching satanic doctrine to young children, including her own son. When she didn't bring forth her alters to communicate with Peterson, the psychologist would leave the session, Shanley claims.
Often, says Shanley, if she didn't perform properly, Peterson would order her left in restraints until she could tap into the alter or provide the information Peterson had requested. Shanley says Peterson's physician supervisor and the psychodramatist would attempt to encourage communication between Peterson and Shanley's alters. To prevent Peterson's departure, the two would act out the part of the alter with whom Peterson wished to speak.
Shanley claims she gradually became indoctrinated into the belief system of her therapists, and that she became convinced she had abused her own son but didn't recall it because an alter personality had committed the abuse. As part of her therapy she was encouraged to report herself to the authorities for child abuse. She did.
On file at the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists in Austin is a series of letters concerning a Houston woman who terminated her treatment with Peterson and had lodged a complaint with the board against the psychologist. It begins with a copy of a letter Peterson sent to the Harris County Children's Protective Services, dated July 29, 1991:
"The satanic cult memories include more recent experiences .... My concern is she has stopped therapy .... The alters reported that they last attended meetings in December 1990. Cult victims who have the experiences that her alters report, where they have been programmed through the use of electricity, hallucinogenic drugs and hypnosis, often report remembering that they have both abused their children and taken their children to cult meetings where further ritualistic abuse is perpetrated upon the children. I have grave concern that the children are very susceptible to both problems, given that (she) has left therapy at this time and is denying that she is either a cult victim or has been involved in cult activity here in the Houston area. She appears to be specifically programmed and needs a therapist who is able to work on the programming. An example of the level of programming in her is that an alter was programmed to knife me in my office when I got to a particular alter in her."
The file includes a letter to the board from the patient's husband, a Houston professional, denying his wife had abused their children. He noted that his wife had always carried a Swiss Army knife on her key chain, but said he found it difficult to believe she would assault anyone with it. He also admitted that he had once trusted Peterson's judgment but was now embarrassed that he had done so.
"I was convinced for a time (solely based on Dr. Peterson's statements) that my wife might escape to 'the cult' at night. Dr. Peterson had recommended putting locks on our bedroom windows and a burglar alarm on our bedroom door. Dr. Peterson sent home a leg restraint with which I was supposed to strap [his wife] to the bed at night."
Peterson had helped his wife after she began therapy with the psychologist in 1988, the husband's letter says, but then something changed.
"It was Dr. Peterson's description to me of how people could control [my wife] by transmitting sequences of phone tones to her over the telephone, of how she could be made to sneak out in the middle of the night or to take our children to the cult or to commit suicide or to kill someone. It was those claims that stretched my ability to believe Dr. Peterson. Dr. Peterson suggested I rent the movie The Manchurian Candidate to see the types of programming she was dealing with."
That 1962 thriller tells the story of an Army platoon taken prisoner and brainwashed during the Korean War, with one of its members programmed to kill fellow soldiers and assassinate the president upon the soldier's return to the United States. He is "cued" to kill by the ring of a phone.
The man's wife -- Peterson's patient -- also wrote to the board about her therapy for incest (it is unclear from the letter where she underwent the therapy):
"I also went to a group session she had with several other women, one whom she had just diagnosed as MPD ... we saw this other patient get lots of extra attention (gifts for alters, etc.). We were all a little jealous. Soon she was also said to be a 'satanic cult victim.' Our incest group was then filled with stories of killing babies and eating body parts .... Dr. Peterson began pressing me about letting her use hypnosis. I finally agreed. I got deeper and deeper into a trance. Dr. Peterson would tell me things I had said and didn't remember. I always trusted her.
"Dr. Peterson had gradually gotten to where everything related to some satanic cult. All her patients in our incest group were eventually diagnosed as cult victims and MPD .... I stopped therapy at a point because it was getting so crazy. Dr. Peterson had hospitalized me at least 12 times over the past 16 months and was doing restraint sessions. I would be on a locked unit, would be in 11-point restraints [that is, restraints at 11 points on the body] and she would insist that there were more layers that had to come out before I could leave the hospital. I would make them up, and I told her that was what was happening ... she would just say I was in denial."
In a letter Peterson wrote the board -- which was stamped "confidential" -- the psychologist complained about the ex-patient and a problem she said she understood was occurring "in other practices nationally."
"On November 4, 1991, a patient that I had seen for a year told me in detail how she had been specifically sent to my practice to slander me or kill me, and if she was not successful she was to kill herself .... The patient said she was to lie about me and say that I put ideas in her head during hypnosis to make her believe that she was in a cult or that she sexually abused people. She also said that she was to say that I sexually abused her in my office, particularly in my quiet room. She said that the people who sent her want me out of practice, in jail, and, hopefully, dead. This woman indicated that people have been and are being sent into my practice as patients with the specific purpose to slander me .... When I asked this patient how long the upper alters had known that their job was to slander me, she indicated that they knew about that job the entire year. They knew about trying to kill me for a month. They were specific about how to quietly kill me by strangling me."
The woman was informed by the examiners board in March 1992 that it had found no probable cause "to continue an investigation of this matter" and did not contemplate disciplinary action against Peterson.
Lucy Abney came to Spring Shadows in 1992, and under Peterson's care discovered that she was a breeder for a satanic cult. In the lawsuit Abney's family filed in 1993, it is alleged that Abney's two daughters were eventually hospitalized and diagnosed as having multiple personality disorder and being members of the cult.
In August 1992, L.T. Abney, an insurance salesman with American General, complained to the State Board of Examiners of Psychologists that his wife and stepdaughters had been hospitalized since that February and Peterson was making it difficult for him to visit them. At a session held shortly before he filed his complaint, Abney wrote, he himself was accused of being in a satanic cult.
Peterson wrote the board the following month on the results of psychological tests performed on L.T. Abney in Chicago.
"The report was the worst I have ever read. Mr. Abney was described as a complete sociopath with a cunning criminal mind and as extremely cruel and profoundly sado-masochistic .... They said he presented the worst profile they had ever seen (of over 200 cases) and said that what they had found was a man who could present as helpless and victimized and also as a cunning sociopath .... Mr. Abney presented as potentially a high level criminal leader ...."
In a follow-up letter in October, Abney said he was concerned because his wife was acting strangely. "At the meeting, attended by all doctors, therapists and family involved, my wife was like a robot; she was definitely not there, hypnotized possibly."
It was at that meeting, he wrote the board, that his wife told him about an experience she claimed the family had on an outing: "We all went to a field somewhere and took turns tying each other up to a tree and bullwhipping each other and then took turns sexually molesting each other." Abney told the board that when he asked a doctor present, "Why would I not feel the pain or have marks or scars from this action?" the doctor's reply was, "The cult knows how to do it without leaving any marks."
Abney also complained that he had been accused "of being MPD or having different parts because I have a speech defect that comes out when I am tired or excited.
"... I feel like this had started off as health care for my family and then went to greed ... $90,000 a month forever ... this is a scam, it must stop now!"
The board informed Peterson in September 1993 that it had found no probable cause to continue an investigation of Abney's complaint. Three complaints against Peterson are currently pending with the board but are not public record.
As time went on, some of the personnel at Spring Shadows had begun to grow uneasy with what was transpiring in the dissociative disorders unit, according to Sally McDonald, a former nurse manager on the children's unit. Nurses began to leave the hospital. So did two medical directors.
McDonald, in a deposition taken this year for the Abneys' suit, says nurses were quitting because they were unable to work with Peterson. In an article published in 1994 in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, and discussed in her deposition, McDonald wrote that nurses challenged Peterson's reliance on restraints and argued that her restrictive approaches were unnecessary.
Some of the patients, the nurses believed, had not exhibited self-destructive behavior and didn't need to be under suicide watch. One young man was placed in nine-point restraints for three days, McDonald wrote, "not because he was a threat to himself (or others) but because those three days coincided with some satanic event." The young man played cards with nurses with his one unrestrained hand.
According to McDonald's article, the main cause of attrition among the nurses was their concern about an overreliance on restraints in abreactive sessions. Some nurses felt this violated nursing and hospital policy, which stated less restrictive methods should be tried first and, according to McDonald, that "mechanical devices were used only as a last resort in assisting a patient to regain control." Although patients were told the use of restraints was voluntary, they were also told by doctors and therapists that being restrained would prevent them from hurting themselves if they became too violent in their recall.
During abreactive sessions, Amy Smith, Alison Roome and other patients say, they were strapped to a specially equipped bed with brown leather ties that were wrapped around their ankles and wrists. Roome says she once was restrained at nine points, with sheets coiled across her chest, her waist and knees and her head bound in a cervical collar. The sessions lasted from 40 minutes to two hours.
Smith describes life in the dissociative disorders unit as chaotic. One problem was that the abreactive responses didn't end in the planned sessions, according to Smith and former patient Karen N., who spoke with the Press on the condition that her real name not be used. Patients began to "spontaneously abreact" everywhere, reliving supposed traumatic memories at lunch or in a hallway.
The patients fed off one another's memories. To get attention and sympathy and to please their therapists, Smith and Karen N. say they would invent and embellish memories. An hour later, they would be one-upped by another patient. Small talk could center around memories of eating babies.
"Every day was total chaos. There was screaming and crying. We never knew what to expect. Some patients would lose control. We were all supposedly MPD and in satanic cults. You could be talking to someone and suddenly they would switch personalities. I started doing it, too. It all started to seem so normal," Smith says.
Smith recalls a therapist asking her during one group session if she could remember people standing over her and chanting when she was a child. All Smith had ever encountered that was remotely similar were her doctors standing over her during abreactive sessions. But she began to listen to other patients' cult stories and, gradually, she began to have images of being involved in cults and sacrifices, like a waking nightmare.
"A thought became a memory," Smith says. "I lost all sense of reality."
For $50, California-based Calvacade Productions will rent a training videotape for therapists in which Judith Peterson plays a patient and a Chicago psychologist plays the therapist.
In the tape, filmed in 1992, Peterson gives an eerie, excruciating performance of a woman reliving a memory of being raped by her brother and friends. Acting as if she had been placed in a hypnotic state, Peterson-as-patient recalls being tied to a bed and repeatedly assaulted when she was 13. She moans and screams out in pain. She is surrounded by fluffy pillows. She is not tied down with leather straps or sheets.
In September 1992, nurse Sally McDonald was summoned to an abreaction session to assist with an out-of-control child. McDonald says she attempted to stop the session after it appeared to her that one of the therapists on Peterson's team was holding the struggling child around the neck, with the therapist's thumbs around the girl's upper trachea.
Peterson, who was also there, would later argue that McDonald's vantage point only made it appear that way. The treatment team in the room sided with Peterson. McDonald pointed out that the four therapists were not trained in handling "assaultive behavior" by patients and requested that the session either be stopped or that the therapist holding the child be replaced with trained nursing personnel.
That episode came to the attention of the Texas Department of Health, which dispatched Dr. George T. Nicolaou to investigate. In his September 23, 1992, report on the incident, Nicolaou said he couldn't determine the validity of the allegations, then added: "There is apparently a lot of tension among the staff concerning the Multiple Personality Disorder Unit and the methods of treatment employed, particularly the application of voluntary restraints and abreaction therapy .... The nursing staff, particularly those that are not on the MPD Unit, are having a difficult time accepting some of the controversial therapy techniques utilized at this facility."
As tension continued to build between the nurses and Peterson, Medicare inspectors arrived at the hospital in February 1993 to perform a routine inspection. But they ended up requesting that the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation investigate the dissociative disorders unit. In March 1993, the state of Texas closed the unit after determining that it had violated state regulations by overusing physical restraints on patients, by censoring patients' mail and phone calls and, in one case, by making a patient's discharge contingent upon safety from a satanic cult.
In 1991, Peterson had reported suspected abuse in the Schwiderski case to Children's Protective Service. William Tabor, a detective with the Harris County Sheriff's Department, investigated the report. In a deposition taken last year for the Schwiderskis' suit, Tabor says Peterson informed him that 20 other children of locally prominent citizens were cult members and were being abused by parents and other cultists.
Peterson told Tabor the Schwiderskis had opened up to her about the inner workings of the cult, Tabor recalled in his deposition. She insisted on talking to Tabor in person. The following is Tabor's account of their meeting:
"Well, when she first got there, she sat down, and she stared at me a minute, and says, 'You're cult.'
"And I asked her, 'What are you talking about?'
"And she says, 'I want to see your identification. You're cult.'
"So I showed her my Sheriff's Department identification.
"Eventually she said, 'Okay, I'll talk to you, but I still believe you are cult.'"
Tabor says in his deposition that his investigation, which included interviews with 25 people and out-of-state travel, didn't uncover any evidence of ritualistic satanic cult activity in Houston.
That has been the typical experience of authorities who've investigated such allegations.
Special Agent Kenneth Lanning with the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit has been probing reports of ritualistic satanic activity for a decade. In 1984, he first began to hear stories of satanic ritual abuse of children. He tended to believe them at first. The number of alleged cases began to grow significantly, he wrote in a 1992 report, and he continued to investigate. "We now have hundreds of victims alleging that thousands of offenders are abusing and even murdering tens of thousands of people as part of organized satanic cults, and there is little or no corroborative evidence," Lanning reported. He noted that believers in the cults had accused him of being a "Satanist" who infiltrated the FBI to engineer a cover-up.
Susan Robbins, an associate professor in the University of Houston's school of social work who has studied and written on the topic, says that is typical of the argument mounted by true believers.
"If you try to tell believers that the transgenerational satanic ritual abuse cults don't exist, there is no evidence, they will say the fact there is no evidence is the proof they exist. Because the cult is so clever they make sure there is no evidence," she says.
Lanning says one of the oldest theories of crime is demonology, or "the devil makes you do it." For some, Lanning believes, demonology is a simple, clear-cut explanation for what in actuality is a complex problem: the sexual victimization of children.
These days, Judith Peterson views herself as a victim.
In Mark Pendergrast's book she claimed that she was only trying to help people who came to her depressed and overwhelmed. "Yet here I am so viciously attacked," she said. "Basically, these patients are sociopathic...
"Those I tried to help sadistically turned on the very person who reached out to help. The shame and guilt were then transferred to me, the therapist. Kill the messenger. Lie. This client relived the trauma by victimizing me. Suddenly the therapist is the victim."
On the advice of her attorney, Judith Peterson declined a request for an interview for this story. But in a 1993 article in the Houston Chronicle she denied responsibility for any of the violations cited in the MHMR investigation that led to the shuttering of Spring Shadows Glen's dissociative disorders unit. She also denied threatening patients with restraints or planting memories of satanic ritual abuse in them, and she disavowed any belief in mind-controlling cults.
Instead of having repressed memories of ritual abuse, Peterson told the Chronicle, her patients may have been victimized by several layers of memory implanted in them by organized crime to sidetrack therapists and law enforcement.
"I think organized crime could use people in child prostitution and drug running and then through memory layering disguise or cover it," she explained.
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.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
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."