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Recurring Pain : An Anaheim woman says for years she repressed memories that her father killed the Black Dahlia and, she says, it was only one of his unspeakable crimes.

July 21, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANAHEIM — Normal life goes on at the other booths in this Norm's restaurant. At the table next to Jan Knowlton, a suntanned blonde is complaining to the waiter about how there usually isn't enough brownie in her ice cream brownie.

Meanwhile, Knowlton is sifting through a sheaf of little-seen autopsy photos. Like the famous published photos from the crime scene, but in greater stark horrific detail, they show a nude body in two parts, severed at the abdomen, and cruelly, insanely mutilated, so that the woman's mouth had been slashed into a terrifying clown's grin. It is Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia.

As sickening as these photos are to behold, they are but the mere dust jacket for the story Knowlton claims as her childhood. In the past three years, she says, repressed childhood memories have returned to her, memories of watching her father, George Knowlton, murder and dismember Short in 1947. Knowlton said she was herself raped and abused from infancy by her father, whom she recalls also murdering several other women.

As she now recollects him, her father--who died with a young son in 1962 in a car wreck that Knowlton believes was a suicide--was an unspeakable monster: a serial killer, a baby-murderer, a pedophile, a necrophiliac, a satanist, a sadist who tortured pets to death and mutilated his victims.

Knowlton's story has its supporters, including her Tustin-based therapist Jim Frey and writer Michael Newton, author of "Hunting Humans" and other books on serial killers. Newton and Knowlton are collaborating on a book about the case that is slated to be published by the Pocketbooks division of Simon & Schuster next year.

She also claims support from some family members, though other relatives dispute her memories. The police in both Los Angeles and Westminster, where she claims the Dahlia murder and other horrors occurred, have placed little credence in her story. Knowlton did get the police to dig up her old Westminster yard two years ago. They found, buried two feet deep, a knife, costume jewelry, farm tools and the skeleton of a dog. The police said they didn't find sufficient evidence to support a criminal investigation.

Knowlton, who lives in Anaheim, has made an admitted obsession of proving her case. Two years ago she made the talk-show rounds, going on "Larry King," "Hard Copy" and other programs, on which psychiatrists and experts on post-traumatic stress disorder said they found her story plausible.

She looks far more at ease and happier now than she did then, when her face bore the anxious, almost spiteful look common to the victims who haunt tabloid TV. Still, she walks with a cane because when she gets a memory flash, it temporarily disables her, she says.

As we spoke this past Thursday at Norm's, our corner booth turned into a cluttered museum of items supporting her story. From her bags she pulled old newspaper clippings on unsolved murders, a photo of her father posed with a dead deer's head resting on his thigh, a $125 medical text on the function of the brain, color slides, an autopsy report, and Post-it notes she affixed to the booth's vinyl seat-back, with points she wanted to remember to make.

There was a time, she said, when the last person she would have been able to convince of her story was herself.

"When I began to have the flashbacks, I didn't want to believe them. An old friend of mine saw the agony I was going through and asked, 'Do you think your father ever could have molested you?' I said, 'Oh, no. He'd never do that!'

"I had what I thought was a pretty normal life, although I had an awful lot of tension and stress, but I didn't know any other way but that. I was really good at repressing, because my father started (molesting) me when I was an infant. All I remembered before four years ago was that my father beat me up once and emotionally abused me, but I adored him. I loved him. After my mother divorced him, I went to live with him and my stepmother by my choice. So it was devastating for me to try to separate all this.

"Have you ever tried to tear off the adhesive-backing on something, and finally you go, 'Where the hell is the separation here?' and throw it out? It's like that trying to sever yourself--I hate using words like sever --from the love you have for your parent," she said.

*

Knowlton had worked as a professional singer, including five years for Disneyland, and had run her own public relations firm. After she had a hysterectomy in 1986 she began having anxiety attacks. She believes the procedure upset her hormonal balance, creating an excess of adrenaline.

In studies of those with post-traumatic stress disorder, it has been found that replicating the adrenalized state a person was in when first traumatized can trigger emotional responses or memories of the event, Frey said.

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