Part 2 in a three-part series
Good memories from childhood are often recalled fondly. Bad memories, not so much. But what if the memories are so terrible, so horrible, it’s unbearable to live with them?
What if the brain could push them somewhere deep, where they would allow the child to grow and experience, as much as possible, what life is supposed to offer an innocent, curious young mind?
Or, could there somehow be such psychological damage to a person’s mind that terrible fictional events could play out like a movie before their mind’s eye, and to them they appear as real memories, no matter how false they were?
These are the questions that confronted Robert — a pseudonym used to protect his identity — after he went to the RCMP in December 2011 with an amazing story: he had witnessed the murder of 14-year-old Dana Bradley in 1981.
His claims detailed the murder, sexual assault and the placing of the body in the wooded area off Maddox Cove Road, where Dana’s remains were found four days after the murder.
The man who committed the murder, Robert alleged, had also sexually abused him as a young boy.
Robert claims he was in the back seat of the car when Dana was picked up hitchhiking in the west end of St. John’s about a week before Christmas 1981.
He says he saw her murderer sexually assault and kill her by hitting her in the head with a tire iron and that he was there, crying, when the killer laid her out in burial fashion among the trees off an old dirt road just outside the city.
Robert’s relates these memories in spine-tingling detail — how he screamed and begged the man, a close friend of his family, not to leave the body in the winter cold overnight, and of being forced to hold a lamp in the dark as the killer later cleaned out the car trunk.
His throat closes and his chest hurts at times when he recalls his own abuse at the hands of the same man — a man who was convicted in the 1990s of sexually abusing other children, and served time in prison.
Robert would have gone to the police long ago if he had remembered any of what he had seen and experienced.
Now a successful businessman, husband and father, Robert describes always looking back on his childhood fondly, though he admits he had always had a hole, a big blank spot, in his memory.
He drank from the time he was 13 until he was 35, when, he says, the booze caught up with him.
After quitting drinking, he was driving home one day in 2011 when he suddenly began drowning in a wave of memories, which rushed in, bubbling and swirling, to fill the hole.
“I was all alone, and the first memory of the sexual abuse came back, and it came back like a punch in the stomach,” Robert said.
“The feeling was probably more profound than the memory. That was in August; I think the memories of the Dana Bradley murder started coming back in October.”
Robert went to the RCMP with his memories that December, a couple days before the 30th anniversary of the murder. It’s a time when police commonly receive an influx of new tips.
The RCMP investigated Robert’s information for 16 months, then informed him none of the avenues related to his tip had turned up any new evidence. As part of their investigation, police had asked Robert to meet with Dr. Peter Collins, an expert in forensic psychiatry.
According to a police document, Collins advised Robert he was not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but was experiencing false memory syndrome.
Not a recognized psychiatric disorder, false memory syndrome is used to describe a condition in which a person is affected by memories which aren’t true, but which they strongly believe. The term was developed in the United States by Peter and Pamela Freyd, who also founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in 1992. Pamela has published a first-person account of her daughter’s accusations of sexual abuse by Peter.
The only true determination if a memory is real or false is external corroboration, Pamela told The Telegram. When determining whether or not a person is experiencing false memory syndrome, she said, the foundation members look for specific patterns; they have received thousands of calls and letters from families who fit into these patterns.
“In almost every case, the person had entered therapy for some kind of reason that had nothing to do with searching for memories. I’m going back to the early ’90s, and things have changed somewhat over time,” Freyd said.
“Almost always, several things happened: in the therapy there was a deliberate search for memories through various techniques, such as a hypnosis or guided imagery, or being part of a support group, or reading a book like ‘The Courage to Heal.’ Those things took place. The other thing that happened was a complete cutting off of the person who is accused, so there is never any dialogue or talk in terms of trying to hear different sides of the story.”
Hypnosis, Freyd said, is particularly problematic when it comes to recovering memories.
“If a person has had hypnosis in the beginning of a recovery of a memory, that presents a big problem. It doesn’t mean the memory is necessarily false, but it means that it’s become so contaminated with suggestion and a suggestive experience that you may never be able to disentangle what is the truth and what is not,” she said.
“It is known that if anybody has had hypnosis or any kind of hypnotic experience with their memories, that they become particularly sure that these really happened.
“Research experiments, some of them in Canada, have shown that just because somebody feels especially confident about a memory or just because somebody feels they can bring up a great deal of detail, does not necessarily mean (the memories) are historically true.”
Robert says he has never had any counselling to search for memories, or gone through any memory-recovering techniques, including hypnosis. The RCMP, in investigating the Bradley murder in the past, has used hypnosis on other potential witnesses to try to gain better descriptions of the suspect and vehicle.
Dr. Hugh Mirolo is the province’s only neuropsychiatrist and has been declared an expert witness in the courts in the area of neuropsychiatry. The Telegram asked him to meet with Robert, and the doctor believes he is telling the truth, especially since Robert experienced a panic attack and flashback while telling him his story.
“It would be pretty damn difficult for a guy to make that up, and for me to buy it,” said Mirolo, who had Robert’s permission to share his opinions with The Telegram.
“If he is an actor, he is a very, very good actor. He deserves an Oscar.”
Robert’s reaction was consistent with experiences Mirolo has witnessed in the past as a doctor in the United States, working with war veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder can cause flashbacks that bring them right back to the time and place of a memory so they are reliving it instead of simply recalling it, Mirolo said.
He had never heard of false memory syndrome before now, and doesn’t agree with Collins’ diagnosis.
“I wouldn’t say something like false memories, not in a thousand years,” Mirolo said.
There is a tendency for the brain to repress things that are traumatic, the doctor explained, and it’s as basic as the pleasure principle: we go towards things that are pleasurable and avoid things that aren’t.
“When you have PTSD or (have witnessed) gory events, things like that, those things can be blocked,” Mirolo explained.
“The blockage is not foolproof; things can trigger it. The same goes for regular childhood memories. When I go to my office in the summer and they’re mowing the lawn outside, I remember the house in the country where my dad used to mow the lawn. That smell brings me back in time. This is the same sort of thing.”
According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, a number of experiences can trigger memory recall, including reading stories about trauma, watching TV programs that depict similar events, or experiencing a disturbing event in the present. False memories can develop, the society says, when memory is influenced by other people and situations; people make up stories to fill in memory gaps, and can be persuaded to believe things that didn’t really happen.
The reason Robert didn’t recover his memories earlier, Mirolo says, is likely because he was self-medicating with alcohol. Alcohol impedes the brain’s capacity to heal, and it wasn’t able to do so until he gave up the booze.
“The PTSD was being treated by him. When that stopped, neuroplasticity kicked in and in a couple of years, when he has a healthier life, all of a sudden the intrusive recollection comes in. That intrusive recollection is from PTSD,” Mirolo said.
Mirolo doesn’t mince words when asked if he feels Robert was dismissed unfairly by the police, when it comes to false memory syndrome.
“Yes. Unfairly and too fast,” he said. “This guy is the real thing. He has been a victim more than once.
“I think they’re being unfair to this guy, because he’s the victim of all of this … and they are being unfair to the community.”
Sgt. Kent Osmond of the RCMP, the lead investigator in the Bradley case, would not speak to The Telegram about specific tips, but said every tip is thoroughly examined, based on police resources. He acknowledged he is not too familiar with false memory syndrome and isn’t aware of any other local case involving it, but said such a diagnosis alone wouldn’t result in a tip being discounted.
“I would never accept a diagnosis as a means to dismiss a tip. I would use a diagnosis in conjunction with other knowledge that I have that would leave me to a conclusion, based on totality,” he said. “I would have to be very, very comfortable with my own knowledge of the file and the specific knowledge of the facts before me, being brought forward by any kind of witness.”
TOMORROW: What’s next for Robert?