Divided memories


Ann Norris first went to see Laguna Beach psychologist Doug Sawin in 1988. She had recently graduated from college with a degree in music and suffered from insomnia and drank alcohol to sleep. But it was her relationship with her mother, Judy, that troubled her most. After Ann's triumphant college graduation vocal recital, Judy hadn't even congratulated her. Two days later, Judy had called and angrily attacked Ann over the phone until Ann cried.

It was the kind of issue that a good family or individual therapist might have addressed by building on Ann's obvious strengths, teaching her to contain and manage her feelings, and coaching her to develop a better relationship with her mother. But Sawin instead focussed intensely on the past. Ann soon had memories of her father sexually abusing her, and later of elaborate cultic abuse, which her three siblings didn't come close to corroborating. She was hospitalized after attempting suicide, and Sawin bluntly told her father, Al, over the phone, of Ann's charges Al collapsed in tears.

Over the years, Ann drew closer to Sawin while her relations with her family and her own mental state grew more troubled. She was diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder and, with Sawin's support, sued her parents and grandparents for $20 million. She spent six years in therapy with Sawin She now describes psychiatric hospitals where she still stays periodically because she cuts and burns herself as her "institutional mothers." She has not spoken to her true mother in six years. And she no longer sings.

It doesn't take a PhD in psychology or a seat on a state licensing board to see that Ann is worse off than when she entered therapy. Millions of nontherapists undoubtedly made just such an assessment when Ann, her therapist and her family told their stories before millions of prime-time viewers on "Divided Memories," a four-hour PBS Frontline documentary screened in early May.

In her wide-ranging investigation of therapy, sexual abuse and memory, producer Ofra Bikel used as her primary subject families divided by recovered memories of abuse. She also managed to persuade nearly half a dozen therapists to do therapy while her camera was running. It was a remarkable event, in which all of America was invited behind the one-way mirror to see therapy in action in the midst of its most divisive controversy and to judge it for themselves.






Katy Butler

Original Work Citation

Butler, K. (1995, July-August). Divided memories. Family Therapy Networker, 19(4), 1



“Divided memories,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed January 22, 2021, https://emdria.omeka.net/items/show/16364.

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