Recovered Memory on National Trial
Moira Johnston’s attitude toward “recovered memory” is telegraphed in the very title of her book, “Spectral Evidence,” a phrase that harks back to the Salem witchcraft trials of the early 17th century and refers to the testimony of a few delusional adolescent girls who sent innocent men, women and children to their deaths on the strength of a “poisoned cloud of fantasy.”
“Spectral Evidence” is an intimate, exhaustive and wholly absorbing account of the 1994 lawsuit brought by Gary Ramona against the psychotherapists who treated his grown daughter, Holly, and assisted her in “recovering” memories of rape and sexual abuse during her early childhood. Gary denied that he had ever molested his daughter and insisted that her vivid flashbacks were the result of false memories that were planted in his daughter’s mind and cultivated by her therapists.
The Ramona case is noteworthy as the first lawsuit in which a plaintiff was given the right to sue someone else’s therapist for malpractice--”a chilling warning to the entire profession of psychotherapy,” as Johnston points out. Not incidentally, the case tested the limits of what science can tell us about the workings of human memory.
But Johnston achieves something more compelling than merely another account of a long and complicated trial, and something more troubling, too. She tells the tale of a doomed family whose badges of success--Gary Ramona’s career in the upper management of the Robert Mondavi winery, the beautiful Napa Valley home that Stephanie Ramona kept, the three lovely daughters that they raised together--concealed a cluster of profoundly dysfunctional relationships that collapsed under the weight of the secrets that they tried to keep from each other and the world around them.
The crux of the Ramona trial was whether Gary had sexually abused his daughter or whether she had simply imagined it all at the prodding of her therapists. But Johnston makes a convincing argument that the lawsuit itself became a kind of lightning rod that drew down all the charged particles of the American family in crisis in the late 20th century.
“So many women had been touched by the issues raised in ‘Ramona’--child abuse, therapy, eating disorders, depression, feminism--in a friend, in a child, in their own lives,” Johnston muses.
To her credit, Johnston allows us to see the strange and troubling story of the Ramona family through the eyes of both Gary and his accusers. For example, we hear Stephanie Ramona’s perfectly credible recollections of odd behavior that seems so sinister in retrospect, and then we hear Gary’s equally credible denial of his ex-wife’s allegations as he insists that her memories, too, are false.
But the book is not entirely neutral, and the author gives the unmistakable impression that she is unpersuaded by the accusations of sexual abuse that prompted Gary’s crusade for vindication.
Still, Johnston concedes that we cannot know with certainty what actually happened behind the facade of the Ramona family home so many years ago. “The great recovered memory debate,” as Johnston characterizes the central issue of the trial, cannot be resolved by a majority vote of a jury. Indeed, the single most telling sentence in the book is buried in an appendix: “It is a story of lives destroyed by allegations based on memories that cannot, by our best scientists today, be definitively proven true or false.”
The tragedy that befell the Ramonas is a dark and even diabolical twist on the American Dream, the saga of an ostensibly perfect family that was brought to utter devastation by the sexual excesses of an abusive and controlling father, to hear Holly tell it, or by the false memories of a daughter who fell into the hands of manipulative psychotherapists, as Gary insists. Ultimately, the secret of Holly’s childhood memories, whether real but repressed, or false and fabricated, remains impenetrable, and all that we can see with clarity are ruined lives.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.