Fells Acres -- How I became interested

Copyright © 1999 by Hugo S. Cunningham

first posted 990527
last updated 000327
trivial change y10301

This is derived from a posting to Usenet newsgroup ne.politics

demas@sunspot.tiac.net (Charles Demas) wrote:


>I am curious why you are so concerned about this particular case.
>Do you personally know any of the parties involved or what?


I did not know the Amirault family before getting involved in the case, and even today I am more a friendly acquaintance than a close family friend. I do not have a personal stake in the outcome of this case, or in any related points of law.

I came into the case indirectly, originally from longtime membership in the "Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal" (CSICOP). CSICOP put out a quarterly journal, the "Skeptical Inquirer," best known for debunking New Age silliness (UFOs, astrology, dowsing, previous lives, psycho-kinetics [aka Uri-nalysis], etc.) and its religious-right counterparts (eg "Scientific Creationism").

In 1992, I read an article by science writer Martin Gardner, a longtime CSICOP board member, on the "repressed memory" psychotherapy cult, and a new organization created to oppose it, the "False Memory Syndrome Foundation" (FMS-F). This issue aroused my political instincts: whereas most New Age fads harmed no one (apart from encouraging the believer to make a fool of him/herself), prosecutions and lawsuits based on "repressed memory" were destroying innocent lives.

I attended some meetings of a local FMS-F chapter. Most of the members were personally affected -- elderly parents accused of early-childhood molestation by middle-aged children who had "recovered" previously "repressed" (ie non-existent) memories in psychotherapy. A few, however, like me were drawn by an abstract professional or personal interest in truth and justice. Gradually, I became aware for the first time of the Fells Acres case.

In theory, its background was different from "FMS" -- not middle-aged patients "recovering" pseudo-memories many years later, but rather small children, making accusations at the time. But the investigations and "therapy" had much in common in both cases, eg (1) "Believe the children" only after they have been badgered into making an accusation; a denial that anything wrong happened indicates "repression" of horrible memories, and must be met with more badgering, and (2) "You have to get worse before you start to get better." The more that previously healthy children encountered sexual questioning from therapists and investigators, the more their mental health deteriorated. The same is true of adult psychotherapy patients who fall into the hands of "repressed memory" quacks. If and when real recovery (a return to gainful employment and normal social relations) begins, it is often because the quack had exhausted the patient's insurance money and finally left the patient alone.

It was the 1995 columns of Dorothy Rabinowitz that brought the Fells Acres case to the forefront of public attention, and encouraged many of us to check out the research by Jonathan Harris, [now] available at

Even now, I have not studied the trial transcripts in detail, the way Jonathan Harris, Dorothy Rabinowitz, the attorneys, and the trial judges have. My expertise is as a student of history, recognizing recurring patterns of hysteria (and contempt for hard physical evidence) that recur again and again through human history.

It often frightens me how little we have grown in the centuries since the Salem Witch Trials; indeed, today's media have a far greater power to instill panic. We should, each year, commemorate the anniversary of the Reichstag Fire (27 February 1933), as a warning against emotionalism and haste.

Return to index of Fells Acres articles.

Return to Bob Chatelle's Fells Acres report (most up-to-date coverage)

Return to index of "Fells Acres and the Boston Press."