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Here, publishes Mark Pendergrast's letter to the editor of the New Yorker in response to the article "The Memory Thief" by Philip Gourevitch. This letter is a exclusive, never before published elsewhere! © 1999 Mark Pendergrast


Letter to the Editor

Letters to Editor
The New Yorker
20 W. 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036

Dear Editor:

I was fascinated by "The Memory Thief," by Philip Gourevitch (June 14), because it filled in some details about Fragments, the fake Holocaust memoir, and its author, Binjamin Wilkomirksi/Bruno Doessekker, which I had not known. But I was disappointed that Gourevitch failed to focus on perhaps the most important aspect of this odd case -- pseudo-memories fabricated with the help of misguided therapy. Indeed, Gourevitch never even named Doessekker's primary Swiss therapist, Monika Matta. I wrote a lengthy article about this aspect of the case, which is posted on the web site under "What's New." Gourevitch referred to it, though he said it was "posted for a time" there, implying it was no longer there, when it is. As the author of Victims of Memory, a critique of recovered memory therapy, I recognize many similarities between the Wilkomirski/Doessekker case and those of people (mostly women) who came to believe that they were childhood survivors of horrendous sexual abuse, when they were not.

One of the most striking parallels is the desire to dwell on their supposed past trauma. One retractor I interviewed (someone who has taken back her "memories") told me that she founded a survivor group that soon split into two groups. The real survivors - - those who had always remembered being sexually abused -- were very disturbed by the lurid, graphic tales that the recovered memory survivors insisted on telling at great length. The real survivors didn't want to talk about it much, nor did they cry and scream and roll on the floor. Similarly, Gourevitch quoted Wilkomirski's American publisher, Arthur Samuelson: "He [Wilkomirski] cried everywhere we brought him.... I know a lot of survivors -- and one thing they have in common is they don't cry. This guy couldn't stop."

Fragments itself is similar to books of false sex abuse memoirs and stories, based on recovered memories. The stories are grotesque and disturbing in the extreme. The victims undergo sadistic cruelty that defies belief -- except that people are so horrified and moved that they do believe. Real survivor stories tend to be more muted, poignant, and coherent, with horrors and torture, all right, but not the gratuitous violence of horror film and nightmare. The false reports feed what Daniel Ganzfried accurately calls "the pornography of violence."

When Wilkomirksi/Doessekker told Gourevitch, "To disbelieve me is to participate in my further victimization," I recognized the statement from innumerable recovered memory sex abuse survivor handbooks. It is playing the victim role to the hilt. Like many of the sex abuse "survivors" I interviewed, Wilkomirksi/Doessekker is not really interested in ascertaining the truth through research or science. He refuses to submit to a DNA test. "I know I can trust my memory," he says, and that is enough, just as one woman whose case I documented was examined by doctors and found to be a virgin, but that did not sway her from her accusations of childhood rape. Also, as Gourevitch points out fleetingly, the actual truth of the memories is, incredibly, irrelevant to this subset of therapists. The truth doesn't matter -- it's the emotion.

Gourevitch hinted at the methodology employed by those who come to believe in their false memories. First comes a belief that you might have been a survivor, encouraged by survivor groups, sympathetic friends, and therapists. Then comes to obsessive research into the subject, whether it be the Holocaust or sex abuse testimonials. When you react strongly to something, this is taken as proof that it happened to you, too. If something seems familiar -- aha! If you go back to the bedroom where you slept when you were five, and you feel something -- aha! Then you picture scenes over and over again, in your head, like a movie. Often, this takes place in a kind of trance state during therapy sessions. With rehearsal, the "memories" become clearer and clearer, though they can change over time. "I remember things like a film," Wilkomirksi/Doessekker says -- and in some cases, it is quite likely he has lifted his memories straight from Holocaust films, just as self-described multiple personality "survivors" watch Sybil and incorporate scenes into their memories. As one observer told Gourevitch, Wilkomirksi/Doessekker was "building his memory," piece by piece.

Once you adopt an identity as a survivor, it explains everything. Wilkomirksi/Doessekker had health problems as an adult. Why? His time in the camps! He is a restless sleeper, kicking frequently. Why? Because he had to kick away rats as a child! Similarly, some women explain their failed relationships or dislike of pickles through false memories of sex abuse.

Wilkomirksi/Doessekker and his friend, therapist Elitsur Bernstein, speak the jargon of the sex abuse survivor, referring to "body memories" and "preverbal" images. There is no scientific basis for so-called body memories, and the period of infantile amnesia is just that -- most people can't recall events from before the age of three. Yes, there is such a thing as "implicit memory," as Gourevitch writes, but it is not a "somatic trigger" for conscious memories. By definition, it is not explicit.

All too many therapists believe that they can tell whether someone is truly a survivor by their intuition and experience. Similarly, "I can immediately tell if it's right," Leah Balint told Gourevitch. Many observers, including therapists, believe these "memories" because of the obviously sincere misery they produce. "His anguish was so genuine," wrote Elena Lappin, another journalist who interviewed Wilkomirksi/Doessekker. "It was impossible that someone could fabricate such suffering." But of course, it isn't a matter of fabricating deliberately. It is a matter of belief. Genuine emotion does not necessarily translate to genuine memory.

Wilkomirksi/Doessekker claims that he has always remembered his purported Holocaust experience, even though he allowed the publisher to state that they were based on recovered memories on the back of the book. I imagine he has really come to believe that, too, though he told Elena Lappin that therapy helped "clarify certain details of my memories." Wilkomirksi/Doessekker is probably one of the 10% of the population who are highly fantasy prone and easily hypnotizable. Like most of the women who recovered false sex abuse memories, he is also a child of privilege. It is an irony that the self-proclaimed "survivors" in fact had relatively pampered childhoods. "He doesn't need to make a living," Daniel Ganzfried said of Wilkomirksi/Doessekker. "The issue is boredom." I think that is too pat and judgmental, and it ignores the very real suffering of those who come to believe they endured hellish childhoods, even when they didn't.

In the end, I agree with Gourevitch that the unqualified praise heaped on Fragments tells us more about our society as it nears the 21st century than it does about one troubled and deluded man in need of a great deal of attention and sympathy. And the same thing is true of the millions of people who came to believe they were sex abuse survivors based on recovered memories. Why did we unquestionably accept such unlikely tales? We wanted to. The truth didn't matter -- sensation and the thrill of a kind of voyeuristic sympathy did.


Mark Pendergrast
Author, Victims of Memory

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