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'Sisters' Brings Controversial Issue to Light : Television: The much-debated topic is suppressed memory of sexual abuse, and the role therapists play in sudden recollections.

October 29, 1994|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than 20 years after the event, an adult woman remembers that her father sexually molested her when she was a child--an experience so traumatic that she apparently erased it from her memory, until, while in therapy for help with a bad self-image, it all comes roaring back.

Recovered memory of sexual abuse is probably the most sensitive issue in the world of psychiatry today, having spawned a bitter controversy between those who strongly believe in the veracity of such memories and those who believe that most of these recollections are made up, implanted by manipulative or incompetent therapists.

The issue had its day in court earlier this spring in a sensational Northern California trial in which a man who claimed he was falsely accused of raping his daughter years earlier won a judgment against his daughter's therapist.

Now it is grist for "Sisters," NBC's Saturday-night melodrama about four grown-up sisters and the sometimes tragic, often farcical days of their lives.

"The first notion of doing an incest story came from a friend of ours in Ohio, who was telling us that his wife had been molested by her stepfather," said Ron Cowen, who, with Daniel Lipman, created and executive produces the series. "And when she told her mother, her mother threw her out of the house and her brothers and sisters called her a liar and a troublemaker and stopped speaking to her."

So it wasn't "headline-grabbing" that motivated them, Cowen said. "We thought it would be a good story for our characters because it was shocking to us that the mother would side with the husband and (that) the siblings would turn on her. And since our show is based on family and memories of the past and how with family we live in the past as much as the present, since this was a memory, it made sense too to play with the idea of 'Is it real? Is it true or false?' "

But playing with that idea is like playing catch with a hand grenade. After the first episode this season, the producers received two letters. One was from a member of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation--a group of families that have been torn apart because of what they claim were false accusations of past abuse--thanking them for showing the public that at least some of these memories are fabricated. The other came from a woman who said she was abused by her father and accused "Sisters" of belittling everyone who was ever molested by casting doubt on their recollections.

In an interview in their Burbank office, the producers refused to take sides in the debate, nor would they reveal how the story line--one of many going on simultaneously in the series--would ultimately turn out.

Through five episodes so far, the character of Georgie (played by Patricia Kalember) has, with the help of a heavy-handed and unscrupulous therapist (Daniel Gerroll), recalled a memory of her long-dead father molesting her as a child. When she confides the memory--one she herself doubts at the outset--to her disbelieving mother and sisters, hostility erupts.

Ultimately, as the relationship between Georgie and her therapist plays out, the show will take a strong point of view, the producers said. And, from the look of things, the therapist is primed to be the fall guy: He suggested that patients struggling with similar issues of low self-esteem and inability to express big emotions were usually "beaten or molested as children"; he is cloying--often calling Georgie "kiddo" rather than by name--and, in tonight's episode, he has sex with her.

"Are we out to say that these kinds of memories are bunk? No," Cowen said. "In certain instances they might be true and very helpful, and in others it might be a false memory and wreck all kinds of relationships. It's individual every time. We're not making any blanket condemnation of repressed memory and saying it's baloney. It's just something that is interesting within the context of our television family and how it ripples through them and causes conflict."

The conflict extends beyond the screen, however. Michael Yapko, a San Diego psychologist who wrote a recent controversial book indicting many mental health professionals for leading patients to mistakenly believe they are victims of abuse, was horrified at the description of the therapist's behavior in "Sisters." He said the therapist's suggestion that Georgie's problems of self-esteem usually indicates some past abuse "represents gross incompetence--precisely the kind of therapy that I have railed against. It's offensive."

It does happen, Yapko admitted. But even if the producers are mirroring an actual bad therapist, he deplored such a "crappy Hollywood script that has the therapist sleeping with his client," because that tells some viewers that therapy is dangerous and could discourage those who really do need help for depression or anxiety from seeking it. "That is a tragedy," he said.

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