Memory Trail

IT WAS A "rather sordid and checkered past" Elizabeth Jane Carlson had, as one of the attorneys put it on her first day in court. Growing up in north Minneapolis as one of eight kids, Carlson would testify later that day, she was sexually molested a few times during childhood and ran away from home at 14.

By age 21 she had survived a suicide attempt and plenty of drugs, and had a baby with the man she'd marry and divorce in the next five years. At one point she got into topless dancing--for the money and the chance at maybe making a career in "real dance" out of her childhood ballet lessons. She didn't see much of her parents, who ended up divorcing; her mother went into reparenting therapy and was adopted by her shrink.

Carlson, too, saw her share of shrinks. By 1989 she'd been in psychiatric hospitals several times for what she called "breakdowns." Finally she was referred to a psychiatrist named Dr. Diane Humenansky. That was the beginning of a two-year period during which Carlson came to think of herself as a multiple personality, a survivor of severe and repeated sexual abuse, and a onetime member/victim of a satanic cult.

Carlson left therapy in 1991. In 1993 she sued Humenansky for medical malpractice, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and fraud. Testimony began last week before Ramsey County District Court Judge Alan Poritsky--the same judge who presided over another case against Humenansky in July ("Spellbound," CP 8/23). That case brought the largest damage award so far in a growing series of lawsuits in which patients accuse therapists of helping them recover false memories.

Carlson is represented by a team of attorneys from the Minneapolis firm Lindquist & Vennum, which represents a total of six women suing Humenansky. At least three more are suing through another attorney, and several former clients have also filed complaints with the state Board of Medical Practice. Humenansky continues to practice in St. Paul and is appealing the verdict against her.

When she was called as the first witness, Carlson told the court Humenansky had diagnosed her as a possible multiple-personality disorder patient the first time she saw her. Now called Dissociative Identity Disorder, MPD was a popular diagnosis in the 1980s; many therapists saw it as the result of unbearable sexual and sometimes ritual abuse endured by large numbers of people during childhood. To cope with the horrors, the theory went, children would split off "alters," separate personalities that took the abuse while the "firstborn child" retreated. By adulthood, MPD patients--who, by one author's estimate, made up perhaps five percent of the population--would have refined their system of alters to the point where only a skilled therapist could recognize the clues.

Much of Carlson's description of her therapy mirrored the account of Vynnette Hamanne, the woman whose case was tried in July. Humenansky, she told the court, would urge her to find a "safe place" in her mind and dredge up memories. Sometimes she'd suggest books to read or videos to watch, including "snuff" movies made by cults that tortured children. Whatever gave her "a bad feeling or an ishy feeling," Carlson said, was assumed to be a repressed memory. At one point, Humenansky treated her with sodium amytal, a drug considered a "truth serum" during World War II.

Humenansky, Carlson testified, told her that her husband and daughter were also multiples. Late in her therapy, Carlson said, Humenansky--who often expressed mistrust of the Catholic church--became convinced that her patient had a "demon personality," and that it might leave if confronted with communion hosts.

But if Carlson rolled out some pretty powerful accusations, Humenansky didn't seem about to take them lying down. She sat at the defense table on the opening day, dressed in a blue suit as stern as her expression; occasionally she'd make notes and whisper to the attorneys. It was a marked contrast to the first trial, in which Humenansky was represented by a team of lawyers she tried to fire, and whose leader dropped out halfway through due to illness. The defense ended up truncated, calling few witnesses and suggesting in closing argument that the doctor had made some mistakes.

This case, Humenansky's new attorney promised, would be different. "You will hear about [Humenansky's] vast training, her care of thousands of patients," David Patton told the courtroom in a booming voice. "One of the consequences of practicing for 30 years was that Dr. Humenansky cared for people, and sometimes she may have cared too much." But, he added, the doctor hadn't caused her patient's troubles. Experts bolstering that contention, Patton said, would include Harvard psychiatrist and depression expert Douglas Jacobs; Tufts cult expert Stanley Cath; and Jean Goodwin, who teaches at the University of Texas and is the author of Sexual Abuse, Incest Victims and Their Families. Topping off the list was Bennett Braun, perhaps the country's most often-quoted medical exponent of the multiple-personality/ incest/cult abuse theory and the subject of a blistering Frontline profile last week. Carlson's lawyers have promised an equally famous lineup of expert witnesses.

One thing Humenansky's experts won't be able to talk about is the notion that people can repress traumatic memories and recover them years later. Like several other judges around the country, Poritsky has already ruled that the theory doesn't have scientific validity. Instead, Humenansky's defense will apparently focus on Carlson's history, psychiatric and otherwise, creating a picture of a troubled woman in search of a scapegoat. Patton promised much testimony about "what may be the most despicable of all sexual abuses, incest," and its "devastating" consequences.

"The evidence will show," he concluded, "that there is virtually nothing [the plaintiff's and defendant's sides] can agree upon except that there is personal responsibility of a patient to take care of her own well-being, and also a responsibility of the doctor to take care of her patient." Which of the two went awry is a question the jury will have to answer in a month or more.

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