"You'll be dead in two weeks," Carla had shouted at him as he'd walked away from their home in Ridgeway, Missouri. Maybe she was right.
Four years earlier, when they'd lived in Oregon, John and Carla had gone to a social worker, seeking an explanation for his nightmares. Nearly every night, John woke up screaming and soaked with sweat. He dreamed that he was suffocating in the trunk of a car. He waded through black cesspools and fell through trapdoors into dark rooms. He stood paralyzed with fear before the door of a run-down house. In some of the dreams, a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire towered above his head.
The social worker had listened carefully and then asked to speak with Carla alone. Eventually, Carla emerged from her office with a stack of books. She and John would figure out his problems on their own.
Over the next few weeks, Carla was immersed in the books. By the time she finished reading, she was certain that John's symptoms pointed to extensive abuse he had suffered as a child. The more traumatic the abuse, the more likely John had repressed it. The authors wrote that in severe cases of trauma, such as sexual abuse, entire decades of abuse could be hidden away in a person's subconscious mind, only to be unleashed when the adult was prepared to face it.
The more she marked off symptoms from the books' checklists -- panic attacks, wandering off for unexplained spans of time, graphic nightmares -- the more convinced Carla became that John's symptoms hinted at the worst.
Some days, at his job as a car salesman, John was suddenly overcome with inexplicable dread. The only way he could calm himself was to curl up in the back seat of an empty car. When Carla suggested that he showed the symptoms described by survivors of satanic ritual abuse, he didn't believe it. But he didn't rule it out, either.
A psychiatrist had once diagnosed John with Dependent Personality Disorder, which meant that he easily substituted other people's opinions and judgments for his own. No one had ever been able to explain the source of his panic and nightmares. Now Carla seemed to know.
According to the books she had read, the only way John could work through his pain was to unearth the awful memories that lay buried within his mind. Using the books' grisly examples of other people's "recovered" memories as a guide -- stories of children dangled over snake pits and young women forced to murder their own babies -- John wrote "memories" he thought Carla wanted to hear. He halfway believed she might be right.
For confirmation that satanic ritual abuse was real, John needed only to look at the growing media coverage. As far back as 1988, Geraldo Rivera had claimed on one of his television specials to have exposed a satanic underground. Numerous books had been published by self-proclaimed survivors of satanic ritual abuse, all of whom had recovered once-repressed memories of horrific childhoods. In 1993, the cover of Ms. magazine portrayed an infant clutched in the coils of a demon serpent, with the proclamation "BELIEVE IT! Cult Ritual Abuse Exists."
According to experts who gave workshops to therapists all around the country, satanic cults programmed their members as children to commit heinous acts as adults. The adults could then be "triggered" by particular words in a newspaper or by a cult member posing as a pedestrian, asking directions, or simply nodding toward them on the street.
Eventually, John's and Carla's lives revolved around keeping John away from anything that could trigger his cult programming. By the time they moved to Missouri in 1994, John was depressed and suicidal. He didn't know what to believe -- but he had never trusted himself, and the only person he trusted was telling him something so crazy that he couldn't quite accept it. By December of 1995, John was ready to find out for sure.
He and Carla consulted the stack of ritual-abuse books. In the back of one they found the name of Two Rivers Psychiatric Hospital, an 80-bed private hospital on Raytown Road.
John picked up the phone and made an appointment with Michael Sturm, a licensed clinical social worker in the hospital's Masters and Johnson Trauma Unit. (The Masters and Johnson name has long been associated with William Masters and Virginia Johnson, whose clinical research on human sexuality shocked and intrigued the American public in the '60s. Universal Health Services, the Pennsylvania-based company that owns Two Rivers, has an agreement with William Masters that allows the hospital to use the Masters and Johnson name for its trauma treatment program.)
By the time Carla threw John out of the house that afternoon in February -- tired of his cult bullshit, as she'd called it -- John had already seen Sturm for five sessions. If the things Carla had said about him -- that he had multiple personalities and that his mind was controlled by a nefarious cult -- were true, surely his therapist would know. John hoped that Sturm would tell him he'd been reading too many books. Then again, perhaps he would tell John that the demons he feared were real.
By the time John had walked -- and occasionally mustered the nerve to hitchhike -- the 100 miles to Kansas City, the winter night was almost over. His pace quickened as he neared Two Rivers Psychiatric Hospital. John admitted himself into Two Rivers in the early morning hours of February 19, 1996. Two weeks would pass before he walked out the front door.
Years would pass before he felt safe again.
Widespread acceptance that a person could recover accurate memories of repressed sexual abuse had been partly fueled by the 1988 publication of The Courage to Heal, a self-help book written by Ellen Bass, a creative writing instructor, and her student, Laura Davis. The authors, who had no training as psychotherapists, assured readers: "If you are unable to remember any specific instances ... but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did.... If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were."
Across the country, new experts on sexual abuse insisted that the only way people could heal was by remembering as much of the abuse as possible -- and then reliving the emotions associated with the trauma. However, in the hands of inept or untrained therapists, these clients grew progressively worse. Thousands of them deteriorated into extreme states of anxiety as their lives became a series of flashbacks and increasingly violent memories, the most bizarre centering on satanic ritual abuse. This often led the therapists to conclude that the clients could harbor as many as several dozen "alter" personalities, of which the "host" personality was completely unaware.
Many therapists believed that the only way their clients could heal was to somehow integrate their fragmented selves into one healthy system. According to John, Sturm was one such therapist: From the beginning, Sturm agreed with Carla that John showed signs of having been ritually abused and harboring multiple personalities.
"I wasn't discounting it as being wrong, because I was really troubled emotionally," says John. "I honestly thought there might be some reality to it. I was looking for an explanation." Sturm seemed to be encouraged by the fact that John had checked himself into the hospital.
"He told me that the reason I was so upset was because I was frustrated and torn, that part of me wanted to get out of the cult and part of me didn't."
John spent his nights at Two Rivers attempting to map out the hierarchy of the cult of which he supposedly was a member. When he told other patients that he was there because his wife thought that he was part of a satanic cult, they laughed. The only time John ever heard anyone talking about cults was when he was with Sturm, he says. Eventually, John sought the advice of a counselor who worked the night shift.
"When I started telling her that Mike thought I was involved with a cult, she got real quiet," says John. "I felt like I had touched an area that she just didn't want to get involved in." But, says John, "She didn't do anything, either."
John checked out of Two Rivers the first week of March and returned to Carla. They continued to see Sturm for three more months. Throughout the six months of therapy, John says, Sturm hypnotized him at least three times in an attempt to communicate with his hidden alter personalities.
"He would ask me, 'Who are you today?' And I would say, 'I'm me.' Then he would say, 'I know you're me, but who is "me" today?'" Sturm would ask him to associate the personality he was that day with a color, says John. Eventually, each personality had a color as its name. "He would ask me a question and I would answer it, and then he would say, 'No, I want you to close your eyes and I want "Blue" to answer,' or 'Black,' or whatever personality he wanted to speak with.
"He told me that I should write whatever I could remember about the cult and that I should record my dreams because those were in fact real-life experiences that one of my hidden personalities was revealing to me," says John.
John wasn't feeling any better. "I was more miserable, more depressed, and more suicidal than I was when I started," he says. One morning, as he lay in bed anticipating that day's therapy session, John knew that to continue with the sessions would be pointless.
However, John still wanted to find help. He soon began to see a psychiatrist, who quickly assured John that he didn't have multiple personalities. He was appalled, says John, "but I still thought he might be wrong."
Only after his therapy with the psychiatrist, and later with a psychologist, did John begin to question Sturm's expertise. They helped him learn to cope and feel safe in the world. By contrast, says John, his therapy with Sturm had taken him down a path of delusion and anxiety that had only worsened his condition.
On May 29, 1998, John filed a lawsuit against Sturm and Two Rivers. He alleged that Sturm had suggested to John that he and his alter ego had engaged in satanic cult activities. The lawsuit also alleged that Sturm failed to make a proper and timely diagnosis of John's condition and that Sturm, as a licensed clinical social worker, did not secure proper and timely consultation with a psychologist (to administer psychological tests) and a competent psychiatrist to provide therapy and appropriate medication.
Michael Sturm, who is still a therapist on the Masters and Johnson unit at Two Rivers, declined to comment for this story, citing reasons of personal and professional confidentiality.
On the same day that John filed his lawsuit, troubles were beginning for someone else at Two Rivers. She was not a psychiatric patient -- instead, she was to be the new program director for the Masters and Johnson Trauma Unit -- the same unit where John had received his therapy with Sturm.
Dr. Delany Dean's telephone interview with Mark Schwartz and Lori Galperin went well. Schwartz, who had earned his doctorate in psychology and mental health from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, had done his postgraduate training at the Masters & Johnson Institute in St. Louis. He and his wife, Lori Galperin, a licensed clinical social worker, had set up the Masters and Johnson Trauma Unit at Two Rivers in 1991 and currently act as its clinical codirectors.
Schwartz and Galperin live in St. Louis, where they run the Masters and Johnson clinic for relational and sex therapy, trauma-based disorders, and eating disorders.
In an earlier interview with the trauma unit treatment team, Dean, a psychologist, had expressed her views concerning the controversial areas of hypnosis and recovered memories of satanic ritual abuse. She did not approve of hypnosis used for memory recovery or abreaction (reliving intense emotions associated with past trauma). Dean also believed that group discussion of gruesome cult-abuse memories was countertherapeutic and risked spreading the idea to other patients. Patients who believed their lives were being influenced by satanic cults should be encouraged to examine whether anything in their lives actually supported that belief, Dean explained.
The staff of the trauma-unit treatment team -- a psychiatrist, head nurse, and three psychotherapists -- seemed comfortable, even relieved, with her treatment methods, Dean says. However, the views of the treatment team were not necessarily the views of Schwartz and Galperin.
"They (the staff) told me they were not in agreement with Mark and Lori and had covertly made changes in the treatment of patients in the trauma unit," Dean says. "They told me they were careful what they said around Mark and Lori. They told me that I should be careful too."
However, during her job interview with Schwartz and Galperin, Dean again expressed her skepticism regarding satanic ritual abuse and hypnosis. But, she says, Schwartz and Galperin believed they could show Dean some helpful ways to use hypnosis. They seemed to have a positive approach, says Dean. Within a matter of weeks, she assumed the role of program director for the Masters and Johnson Trauma Unit.
Schwartz and Galperin immediately sent her to New Orleans for orientation and training at the Masters and Johnson Trauma Unit at River Oaks Hospital, where they also acted as clinical codirectors. She soon found that the staff at River Oaks had little in common with the treatment team at Two Rivers.
As with most trauma units, River Oaks had a process group in which patients shared their feelings. Some of the patients in the group were women with eating disorders, many of whom had been patients for several months. As part of her training, Dean was invited to sit in on the group. Once the group session began, she could only watch in disbelief.
Woman after woman began to recount horrific "memories" of cannibalism and murder at the hands of satanic cult members. As these women related the graphic details, the eating-disorder patients grew visibly upset. A couple of them jumped up and ran out of the room shrieking uncontrollably.
By the time Dean was hired at Two Rivers, four major studies had concluded that there was no credible or tangible evidence of multigenerational satanic cults anywhere in the United States. One of the studies, published in 1993 for the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, had surveyed more than 11,000 psychiatric workers and police officials. Of the 12,000 allegations of group satanic ritual abuse reported in the study, not even one could be substantiated by investigators.
By 1998, the majority of the psychiatric community had realized that encouraging patients to relive such memories led not to their recovery but, instead, to their deterioration. Yet such a group was encouraged in the Masters and Johnson Trauma Unit at River Oaks. Dean continued to watch in silence.
"A woman would say, 'I need to talk about what happened to me.' Then she would say something like, 'My parents took me out into the woods at night. Our preacher and the police chief were there. They were all wearing hoods and standing around an altar with candles. Suddenly my grandfather was pulled from the crowd. They murdered him in front of me, and then they ripped open his chest and forced me to eat his heart.'"
Each time a woman would speak, no matter how bizarre her memories, the program director leaned forward and gazed into her eyes.
"I hear your truth," he assured her. "I believe your truth."
"He just offered them empty words," says Dean. "Deep down inside, they wanted so much for the therapist to say, 'Come on, you're only 25 years old and you couldn't have already had 15 babies.' They wanted somebody in authority to say, 'This is crazy,' to tell them to stop saying these things."
Each day, on the drive back to their hotel, Galperin asked Dean what she had learned. Dean wasn't sure how to respond. She believed patients in the River Oaks trauma unit were being mistreated. She also questioned whether she would be expected to apply those same treatment techniques to the trauma unit at Two Rivers.
Eventually, Dean told Galperin about her discomfort with the treatment team's handling of satanic ritual abuse patients. Galperin assured her that she was confident in Dean's ability to do the job anyway, Dean says. But that wasn't what Dean heard when she returned to Two Rivers.
"One of the first things I learned when I got back was that Mark had called and demanded that I be fired," says Dean. Over the next three months, Dean continued to hear rumors that Schwartz wanted her gone. Still, she had little contact with Schwartz or Galperin and enjoyed working with her staff.
The therapists on the trauma-unit treatment team were not talking about satanic ritual abuse in group sessions, but Dean had no way of knowing what they were doing behind closed doors. Meanwhile, a handful of therapists from Kansas City and surrounding Midwestern states -- who still believed in the reality of an organized, intergenerational, satanic cult -- continued to refer their clients to the Masters and Johnson Trauma Unit at Two Rivers.
One of those patients, who was alienated from her parents, claimed they were members of a satanic cult. She had even cut off contact with her adult son because he had visited them (the separation had gone on for so long that the patient had a 3-year-old granddaughter she had never seen). The patient -- and her therapist -- were convinced that the child was being raised as a cult member, though they had no proof that the girl was being mistreated. One of Dean's first suggestions to the patient was that she should consider meeting with her son and granddaughter to assess the situation firsthand.
"The patient was horrified," says Dean, "and her referring therapist was outraged that the program director at the trauma unit at Two Rivers would suggest such a thing." Another therapist told Dean that one of her client's alter personalities secretly left home every night to be raped by the client's cousin, who was also in the cult. If the woman was in fact being raped every night, Dean told the therapist, she should call the police.
"She told me I was crazy if I didn't know that the chief of police and everyone else was involved," says Dean, who found herself in a professional dilemma. If she refused to validate what she considered to be the delusions of troubled patients, she risked alienating Two Rivers' referral sources. If she allowed the patients to continue with their beliefs, they wouldn't receive proper treatment.
"I felt a strong obligation to have the treatment standards be within appropriate guidelines," says Dean. At the end of her third month as program director, she scheduled a meeting with her staff to discuss liability issues surrounding the treatment of patients who claimed to be ritual-abuse survivors.
The previous year, a jury had ordered Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's in Chicago to pay $10.6 million to a former patient who said that doctors there had convinced her that she had cannibalized people while she'd been a member of a satanic cult. And in 1996, a minister in Springfield, Missouri, had won $1 million in a defamation lawsuit against a church counselor. The counselor had encouraged the man's 19-year-old daughter to recover memories of, among other things, being raped by her father with a curling iron and having him give her a clothes-hanger abortion. After the daughter retracted her accusations, a gynecological exam revealed that she was still a virgin.
"I felt that we should familiarize ourselves with treatment that was within the mainstream and the issues being raised in lawsuits," says Dean. "I felt it was my obligation to educate my staff."
As Dean conducted the meeting, however, she glimpsed Schwartz and Galperin -- who had not visited Two Rivers since Dean had returned from her training in New Orleans -- waiting outside in the main lobby. The pair sat side by side and stared straight ahead without speaking; afterward, they asked to meet with her. Dean insisted that her staff be present because she wanted them to witness any complaints that Schwartz might have about her competence. Schwartz refused.
Instead, Dean returned to her office while Schwartz and Galperin conducted interviews with individual staff members. After 45 minutes, she called the receptionist to find out if they were still in the hospital. They'd already left. Richard Failla, CEO of Two Rivers, needed to see her in his office right away.
Schwartz had demanded that Dean be fired. Although Failla had previously assured her that only he could hire and fire for Two Rivers, Schwartz actually exerted maximum control over the sexual trauma unit. Because Schwartz travels the United States with Two Rivers' marketing team giving presentations on the Masters and Johnson program, the national referrals are a major source of income for Two Rivers. In fact, Two Rivers has no other program that generates national referrals.
Failla, who is now CEO of Centennial Peaks Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, says he refused to fire Dean, because she had done nothing wrong. "Delany was very competent, very trustworthy, and very honest," he says. Schwartz's dissatisfaction centered solely on Dean's unwillingness to accept his views on satanic ritual abuse, Failla says.
"Mark is the type of individual who demands a total buy-in to his orientation," says Failla. "He did not feel that she was clinically appropriate to do the work there because she did not take the correct approach. They had philosophical differences because he believed in the satanic cult abuse stuff and she didn't."
Dean submitted her resignation on August 27, 1998, and got permission from Failla to come in the next day to say goodbye to her staff and her patients, who were even further traumatized by her sudden departure. She now works as a forensic psychologist. Soon after her departure, Dean wrote a letter to Alan Miller at Universal Health Services, the company that owns Two Rivers Psychiatric Hospital.
She informed Miller that the trauma treatment field had moved away from the days when patients were encouraged to engage in group discussions of purported memories of satanic ritual abuse based on flashbacks, hypnotherapy, and nightmares.
"Schwartz and Galperin rigidly cling to the types of procedures I have just described," Dean wrote. "(B)ut they are not providing the actual clinical services to patients, so they are not exposed to legal liability for any damages and malpractice resulting from the practices they promote. Who will get sued? You and your clinicians who have agreed to Schwartz and Galperin's 'model' of treatment."
Tom Bender, vice president of Universal Health Services, quickly responded. "As stated several times in your letter to Mr. Miller, you were unsatisfied with the program's clinical use of hypnosis and the program's approach to cult ritual abuse," Bender wrote. "I am very sorry your therapeutic beliefs and practices were not compatible with Two Rivers' and Masters and Johnson's requirements."
What are the Masters and Johnson "requirements" at Two Rivers today? Schwartz, Galperin, and Dr. Laura Hunsucker, the current program director of Two Rivers' Masters and Johnson Trauma Unit, referred all of Pitch Weekly's questions to a media consultant, who forwarded questions back to Linda Berridge, CEO of Two Rivers.
Berridge says that fewer than 4 percent of the trauma unit's estimated 200 patients per year report a history of satanic ritual abuse. "If a potential patient were to call for treatment for satanic ritual abuse," she says, "we would take the initial clinical information for review."
Berridge adds that "the global psychiatric community's position regarding treatment of abuse memories has transitioned in recent years from detailed memory explorations to one of symptom alleviation, compulsive behavior containment, and improvement of daily functioning, all of which are consistent with acute psychiatric treatment. Two Rivers' program has evolved to reflect these changes." Two Rivers does not use hypnosis for regressive therapy, she says. "Our psychotherapists are not investigators, nor do they try to determine whether what the patient tells us is true or untrue. Rather, we focus on stabilization and increased life function."
And Berridge pointed out that in August, Two Rivers underwent an unannounced recertification from the Health Care Financing Administration. The government team was scheduled to be there for three days but left after two days since it found everything in order. Two Rivers is one of only two free-standing private psychiatric hospitals left in Kansas City.
Unlike Dean, Hunsucker has never been sent to River Oaks Hospital for any kind of trauma treatment training. Sturm went only once, 10 years ago, for an unspecified workshop; though he declined to discuss John Neal's case, Sturm told Pitch Weekly that Berridge's statements reflect his treatment philosophy and approach as well as that of the sexual trauma team at Two Rivers.
Neal and Two Rivers Psychiatric Hospital reached an out-of-court settlement in December 1998. John's claims against Sturm, which were part of the same lawsuit, were resolved in a separate agreement a year ago this month. Neither agreement allows disclosure of the amount or terms of the settlement.
Two Rivers remains listed -- along with River Oaks -- on Internet resource lists devoted to satanic ritual abuse survivors.
And as Dean predicted in her letter to Universal Health Services two years ago, Schwartz and Galperin were not the ones who faced litigation. They continue to act as clinical codirectors of the Masters and Johnson Trauma Unit while traveling the country gathering referrals.
On the first day of a two-day Masters and Johnson workshop at the Plaza Marriott Hotel in August, Schwartz and Galperin took turns addressing more than 60 therapists seeking expertise on trauma treatment.
Both were sincere about their work with patients who are often suicidal, self-injuring, and suffering from eating disorders. Galperin and Schwartz focused their presentations on credible advances in the treatment of trauma-based disorders, such as methods of restoring a sense of safety and control in the lives of sexual abuse and other trauma survivors. Schwartz is known for exploring the "trauma bond" formed between the perpetrator and the victim, which often leads to the survivor's compulsive re-enactment of the event as an adult.
Although they made no mention of patients with multiple personalities (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder; now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder), they spoke of accessing "ego states" split off from the self, and traumatic circumstances that can cause a person to "split off into different parts."
And during her presentation on resolving trauma and building self-capacities, Galperin extolled the benefits of hypnosis in retrieving memories of sexual abuse. "You can do the retrieving work through hypnosis if you're trained," Galperin told the roomful of therapists. "The American Society for Clinical Hypnosis could train you." The accompanying handout, "Factors that Make Hypnosis Useful," states that "the repressed material is recovered in the full context of what was happening to the patient at the time of repression, so the explanation for the repressed action or feeling is more readily apparent." Other handouts concerned the benefits of abreaction in the treatment of sexual abuse survivors. (And one of Schwartz's handouts refers to the work of Corydon Hammond, a psychologist who once told audiences that, by listening to the recovered memories of his patients, he had cracked a code based on the Greek alphabet that a cult had used to program its members; he also claimed to have traced the origin of the cult to the Nazi doctors of Hitler's death camps.)
The therapists at the Marriott leaned forward in their chairs and took meticulous notes.
John Neal sits on his patio, drinking a cup of coffee. Carla divorced him (she declined to comment for this article). He has since remarried and says that nothing could be worse than what he has already endured. Lawyers used the journals containing his grisly "cult memories" to prove that he should not be allowed visitation with his six children; he has lost hope that his kids will ever speak to him again.
It's hard for him to talk about a time in his life that embarrasses him. It must seem pathetic, he says, for a person to be so easily influenced by the opinions of other people. He has, however, managed to get through his depression, and these days he's more sure of himself. John says the two years of therapy he received after his Two Rivers experience taught him how to deal with life.
"I don't believe it at all now," he says. Therapy that addressed the issues of cult abuse and multiple personalities only put him in a make-believe situation that kept him from taking responsibility for himself, he says. The idea that repressed memories of satanic ritual abuse contained an explanation for his problems seemed plausible when it was reinforced by a therapist. "If you take someone who has an emotional problem even as simple as insecurity," he says, "believing something like that can literally destroy them."