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The dissociation circuit

Sloppy thinkers whose dangerous psychological theories resonate in naive circles


by Joost Niemöller

De Groene Amsterdammer
Independent Weekly since 1877
Volume 127, Number 16, 16 - 24 April

You will find the article in Dutch on:

Dr. H.F.M. Crombag, co-author of Recovered Memories and other misconceptions, refuses to stand idly by watching the invasion of MPD therapists in the Netherlands.

"BUYER BEWARE !'' next time you visit a friendly neighbourhood psychotherapist. You may end up leaving with an entirely new past. Increasingly - especially in the U.S, but now also in the Netherlands - the reliability of so-called "recovered memories' is being debated. After clients are put under hypnosis, many become convinced of having been abused
as a child. Painful courtcases have been the result, where older parents were accused of incest, ritual abuse and worse, never to see again their adult offspring.

Professor Dr Hans Crombag, forensic psychologist at Maastricht University along with Dr Willem Wagenaar, memory researcher and rector magnificus at Leyden University, author of Dubious Cases, cannot find a single scientific basis for the possibility of "recovered memories'. Nor do they give any credence to the closely linked fad diagnosis of Multiple Personality
Disorder (MPD), where clients begin exhibit many separate identities. The cause of this disorder is thought to be an incest past of which the patient
is unaware, but which will come back with the help of therapy. Crombag, together with research psychologist Dr Harald Merckelbach, also of Maastricht University write about this in a recently published book:

Recovered Memories and other Nonsense.

GA: 'You are a scientist, yet your book is directed to the general public?'

Crombag: 'Our subject has direct implications for a wider audience than scientists. Many people are faced with this sort of problem. A few days ago an older married couple came to me who, interrupting each other frequently, told me that their daughter, who had been diagnosed with MPD, now believes that her father for many years had raped her atrociously.

As an in-patient at the Amstelland clinic, she had already acquired thirty alter personalities, with other new personalities emerging daily. You have no idea, what grief this brings to such parents. Those are the people I want to reach.

Not just the victims, but also the judges, who eventually have to deal with the cases - the police officer who arrested this father in the middle of the
night and kept him in custody for three days - the prosecutor - the defense attorneys who need to understand such cases.

Our country has a multitude of caregivers, many of whom have made it their mission life to fight child abuse and might therefore headlong fall for the ideas propagated by MPD and recovered memory enthusiasts. For such caregivers, who need simple practical advice to help their troubled clients and who may have no time to keep in touch with the scientific literature my book was written.

Merckelbach and I explain to them how memory really works and compare it to the outrageous claims made by recovered memory devotees. We explain that this is not just another one of the many disagreements in the field of psychology.

Once someone has been diagnosed with MPD their condition goes from bad to worse. In the U.S the situation is grotesque - tens of thousands of cases. A
societal problem of the first order."

GA: In short, MPD is imagination.

Crombag: Yes, but that does not mean that people said to have MPD are healthy. They most likely have some other disorder, they may be bipolar, what used to be called: manic-depressive or what is called borderline
personality, patients whose psychiatric symptoms are on the border between neurotic and psychotic disorders"

GA: One psychiatrist might see a personality disorder where another notes a mood disorder in that patient?

Crombag: Well the latest American diagnostic manual (DSM IV) some time ago, as a result of much criticism, tried to weaken the notion of MPD, renaming it Dissociative Identity Disorder, describing it as: "The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states".

GA: But what is a "personality state"? I haven't the foggiest notion as to what that means

Crombag: Neither do I, or anyone I know. That people's moods vary and that some people fall victim to that more so than others, is old news. The good thing is that for people who have real problems, such as bipolarity, good therapy is available using medication. Manics need to take medication to keep their problem under control. You are just not going to try a talking cure with such people for years on end.

You better also not tell such people: " You have MPD which is often caused by childhood sexual abuse" "Oh no!, abuse .... who could that have been?"

"How about your father? Before you know it your whole world collapses." Of course your mother was the enabler, or she would have deserted him." "The only thing is to break with your family of origin." That advice usually given. "Seek a new family of choice" - such as an incest survivor support group. Your new father and mother will be the group-therapist

In the Netherlands it has recently been formulated somewhat milder than in the above, older and extreme U.S. model, but that has made it no less dangerous. It only has the appearance of making sense. The leading figures in the Dutch MPD-world, Onno van der Hart and Suzette Boon, got their training in, or their ideas came from the U.S. and they are part of the network. If you know where the network operates you know where the MPD cases begin to surface. In many countries not a single case has been seen by psychiatrists

I consider the Van der Hart and Boon clique dangerous. I tried not to say it like that in the book, that would be a personal attack. But really, look, here is a pamphlet outlining a course in diagnosing MPD. Suzette Boon is the instructor. But also one Liz Bijnsdorp who has MPD herself and has written a book about that. And now, dammit, she is teaching that stuff! Training caregivers, no less! How serious should I now take Suzette Boon?

There is such tragedy right here, just this one little sentence in the book - her dying father did not want her to come near his deathbed!

Elizabeth Loftus - the U.S. psychologist - a good acquaintance - is fighting this nonsense. She wrote also wrote a book meant for the general public: The Myth of Repressed Memory.

She tells how the parents of an adult daughter got two messages from her in one week: one informs the parents that she has terminal cancer, the other one accuses the parents of abusing her in infancy in Satanic rituals. After receiving the first message the parents of course want to visit the daughter. Next they hear from a therapist that they can see her on condition that they first admit to the abuse. Imagine the awful dilemma of
those parents!

Well, the reaction did set in. In the Netherlands, following the example of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation we now also have an action group, the
Workgroup Fictive Memories, which soon had fifty families as members.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, MPD got out of hand. My co-author, professor Harald Merckelbach, was visited by two young ladies, television producers, who announced that they wanted to do a six program series in the fall on Ritual Abuse and MPD. It was already impossible to get through to these women. Broadcasting such stuff is a direct attack on the national mental health.

GA: Was MPD invented to cover a variety of symptoms?

Patients diagnosed with MPD may have a host of problems, some of which can be treated and others about which too little is known to help them. A
disturbing phenomenon with so-called MPD patients is self-mutilation, such as cutting themselves in the arms with razors. That points again towards borderline disorder. We do not know how to stop them. It usually goes away after a while. Borderline reaches a peak after adolescence, laying itself to rest as people mature.

GA: Such people must be deeply unhappy

Crombag: Most certainly, at the height of a clinical depression, such patients want nothing else but stay in bed. You only get them moving with heavy anti-depressants. Much neurotransmitter theory on this os still in the hypothesis stage. No one wants to say out loud: "Go away, we can't help you!" One can't do much more than console, sympathise and show that you
care. Listening attentively and remaining available helps somewhat, but not much.

GA: Have you ever met anyone who could have had MPD?

Crombag: Never. That is of course the reproach we get: "You have to see such a case, then you will believe for sure" I have asked many psychiatrists:" Have you ever seen a case?" and they all say: "Never". The vast majority of psychiatrists never saw cause to make the diagnosis. Now the counterargument is that it takes time to recognize the symptoms of MPD - if you don't
suspect it, you will never see it. Our answer is there is evidence that MPD is an artifact of therapy that is looking for it.

GA: Some psychiatrists diagnose it?

Crombag: A tiny minority. Some with serious training, but with something odd about them do it. That happens now and then in psychiatry. Some for instance
later have a conversion experience and become pious devotees of psychoanalysis. You might compare that to an astronomer who looses his mind and starts consulting an astrologer.

Where do all those MPD patients end up? They just disappear. I assume that many eventually drop out and with some difficulty find a way to somehow survive. Unfortunately, it has been impossible to find former MPD patients to do independent research.

GA: Are they kept away from sceptics.

Crombag: It seems that way. As far as MPD research goes; the handlers are also the investigators. In real science there are various types of double blind experiments and colleagues work in collaboration. There is a requirement to work with large samples in order to detect patterns of behaviour. This is done to prevent drawing unwarranted conclusions from chance and coincidence. Such careful skeptical research has never been done with MPD. Those who should do such research do not seem to want to do it.

GA: That looks like a conspiracy.

Crombag: I say 'amen' to that. It is a circuit based on belief. An inbred organization, a club with its own periodicals, and its own conferences. There is going to be a conference in France about trauma, memory and
treatment. Both parties - (the traumatologists and the dissociationists) will be there together for the first time. I think I will go. For once I want to see those folk. I have never met Onno van der Hart. Suzette Boon I know by name and from TV.

GA: Strange.

Crombag: In our small country where all psychologists know each other, you mean? Sure, all the ones who teach psychology I know. But not Van der Hart. He teaches in Utrecht. I asked Piet Vroon who teaches, Theoretical Psychology as well as, Philosophy and History of Psychology, " How was that possible?" Apparently in a weak moment someone must have seen something in Van der Hart and he got job as special docent, a kind of part-time job. Anyway we don't move in the same circles.

Take someone like Ellert Nijenhuis, clinical psychologist in Assen. He appeared on the Sonja Barend Show, when she had Yolanda [a woman who had recovered bizarre false memories of sadistic abuse by many perpetrators] on the programme. Here was Yolanda, exaggerating and Sonja going; "O, how
awful". Then they talk about the recovery of hidden memories and Sonja says: "Mr Nijenhuis, you work with abused people, how does that go? And he
answers: "I will give you a striking example about one of my clients. She could not stand brushing her teeth, because she just was unable to keep toothpaste in her mouth. Subsequently during psychotherapy it emerged that long ago she had been forced to give her father blowjobs and always got sperm in her mouth. Once we knew that, we had the problem. licked"

I had the text printed verbatim and forwarded it to the board of directors of the Netherlands Institute of Psychologists, with the remark: "Please observe, there are limits to what is possible. Here a man is telling a story of which I am convinced that it is a lie. This man has be taken to task. Either he proves to the disciplinary commission that the story is true or he admits in public: "I invented that tale". The board's response was; what do you want? The rules clearly state that third party complaints will not be heard. The case died there.

Such stuff coming from an expert sinks in like the gospel into a church elder. "O, that's how it goes? Now I see why I hate tapioca pudding" concludes a not too stable eighteen year old girl. "That's what must have
happened to me too!"

GA: MPD blew over from the U.S. to the Netherlands. It's hardly known in France?

Crombag: Let me give you an example to show that certain diagnoses have their networks. In the late fifties, early sixties we had at Nijmegen a notorious psychiatrist, Dr Anna Teruwe. She created a new disorder: Frustrationneurosis. The disorder fortunately never spread far beyond Nijmegen and surroundings where it was diagnosed only by Teruwe's students. She died, no one reads her books and the disease disappeared.

It is only human, that some psychiatrist, in a weak moment tries to augment his ignorance by intuitively clutching thin air. If you often have to admit your lack of knowledge you become very frustrated. Especially when you see that the average lay person has access to a bag of anecdotes that explain all kinds of behaviours in others. Unfortunately in psychiatry we have only
fragmentary knowledge as to how the brain directs human behaviour.


This clutching of thin air leads to ludicrous language. In a scientific article on MPD called , " Dissociation: a phenomenon under a new light" I read the following: "Dissociative entities after they arise and develop may behave themselves intentionally. Some for instance are able to exert defined control over consciousness and direct behaviour or react as such when
requested," That to me is an animistic way of thinking?


Exactly, this sounds as if there are several little men at work in one's brain who control behaviour, and who each have their own purpose in mind. Now, who wrote that nonsense? Don't tell me, it wasn't Ellert
Nijenhuis - it was? Of all people.

GA: Getting caught in a sentence.

Crombag: True. Lets hope, it wont keep him awake nights. That somecan get away with that. Animistic, is the correct word when psychological functions
begin to behave like independent actors. The man obviously did not realize what he was saying. A sloppy thinker. If he really means it, he must be disturbed. We again caught Ellert Nijenhuis spouting other nonsense. I really do not know the man, saw him once on TV. I never had any truck with him, we never argued. But now you read me this nonsense . . . 

I begin to believe that the western world is getting more and more superstitious. In my naivety I once leaned towards the belief that the course of history is one where credulity was gradually replaced by knowledge and rationality. Now I get the impression that the opposite is at work towards a general dumbing

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