Globe and Mail

"Man recants repressed 'memories'"

Saturday, November 3, 2001 Print Edition, Page A12
The Globe and Mail

When Rowland Mak mounts a podium today to retract accusations that his father sexually assaulted him as an infant, he will do more than simply conclude a long and poignant family drama.

The 35-year-old man's recantation at a Toronto conference will put a symbolic nail in the coffin of a controversial psychological phenomenon: repressed memory syndrome.

"It takes a lot of courage to come to the realization that someone abused you when you were young," Mr. Mak said. "It also takes a lot of courage to admit it wasn't true; that for all the years I was separated from my dad, I was wrong. It is very liberating."

It was back in 1991 that Mr. Mak first confronted his father -- Adriaan Mak -- with his allegation of being raped at the age of 2 or 3.

"He told me in a monotonous, almost trance-like voice," the 70-year-old man said in an interview. "He said his therapist had led him to expect that I would be 'in denial,' and that my denial confirmed my guilt. With that, he left me standing in the street. I was in total shock."

His family was devastated. Rowland -- a bright youth who had enjoyed the usual privileges of a middle-class home -- had been spiralling into an aimless world of LSD, drug-peddling, dead-end jobs and welfare payments. Depressed and confused, he had been undergoing regular therapy for a year.

Yesterday, he described himself as a sensitive youth whose psychological moorings were damaged in his teens by two separate incidents in which older men took advantage of him sexually.

He recalled being struck during one session when his therapist said she had been a victim of ritual abuse herself and knew a great deal about repressed memories.

"I remember her saying: 'I wouldn't close the door on sexual abuse -- there has got to be some reason you're afraid of your father,' " he recalled. "Suddenly, it rang true for me -- I believed my father had raped me."

Several months after levelling his accusations, Rowland's therapist floated the idea that his abuse could have been part of an elaborate cult ritual. He immediately seized upon the idea, and commenced patching together "memories" of his father and other men abusing him and other children.

"I came to believe they were connected to a secret society that controls all of society," he recalled.

How can a person actually create memories without realizing the falsity of what they are doing? Rowland Mak said it is not particularly difficult if one is both psychologically vulnerable and being aided by a sympathetic therapist who believes in what she is doing.

"When you are exploring your subconscious and deep emotions that you are unaware of, you give a therapist a tremendous amount of power," he said.

He said his convictions were continually reinforced by other "survivors," who clustered together at meetings and described the abuse they felt they had suffered.

While all this was going on, Adriaan Mak was attempting to fight his growing depression by immersing himself in the task of exposing repressed memory therapy as a fad that had destroyed thousands of families.

As successful as the campaign was, what the retired high school teacher wanted most was to get his disaffected son back.

In the late 1990s, Rowland Mak quit drugs, left therapy, settled down with a woman and took up the study of positive thinking. Then, a year ago, he was struck by a startling revelation as he changed his daughter's diapers.

The child was the same age Rowland had been when he was anally raped -- at least, according to his reconstructed memories. He suddenly realized that the offence he had accused his father of perpetrating was improbable in the extreme -- and that a child of such tender years simply couldn't carry that sort of coherent memories.

"It just hit me that this didn't happen," he said yesterday. "I called my father, and said: 'Dad, you were right. It didn't happen.' "

Rowland Mak intends to tell his story today to the group his father has worked with so tirelessly: the False Memory Foundation.

"I have problems when I think about my therapist, because she crossed lines she shouldn't have," he said yesterday. "But I don't have anger to the recovered memory therapy community itself. It was all just a colossal, well-intentioned mistake."

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.