1994 Jun 26
By Katy Butler
SHE SAYS HE MOLESTED Her, He Says He Didn’t. There Was a Lot Was Riding on the Ramona Trial, But In the End, No One Got What They Wanted.
This much is known about Gary Ramona. All through a cool and cloudy spring, in Courtroom B of the old county courthouse in Napa, he would rise each morning from his chair at the end of the long counsel table, closer to the jury box than any other seat in the high-ceilinged room.
His glossy black hair was thinning on top and carefully brushed. He wore a dark, conservative suit and shoes of fine leather. As the jurors entered, he would stand at the railing and meet their eyes, his hands clasped behind his back and the hint of an imploring smile on his pouchy face. To persuade the jury, his family and the world that he was a wronged and loving father, he was spending the bulk of his assets and what little remained of his family’s privacy and his own. Ramona was suing counselor Marche Isabella, psychiatrist Richard Rose and Western Medical Center of Anaheim for malpractice for $8 million, charging they had implanted false memories of sexual abuse in his daughter Holly.
During breaks, he would stand in the hallway and speak of their “quackery” and “incompetence” to reporters ranging from the Napa Register and the New York Times to ABC’s “Hard Copy” and the London Daily Mail. It was a groundbreaking case-the first time a non-patient had been allowed to sue a therapist for anything other than a suicide or wrongful death.
That much was clear. Most of what followed was ambiguity. All spring, the jury, onlookers and reporters who packed the chandeliered room were faced with two versions of reality as improbable and mutually contradictory as the conflicting tales of rape and murder recounted in the film “Rashomon.” Ramona and his daughter Holly seemed to inhabit parallel universes, each with its convincing internal logic and its reigning demon. The struggle between them was not only over who was to blame but also about who would control the telling of the story.
The way Ramona told it, he was a loving and bewildered father whose daughter’s therapists had implanted false memories of incest. But to his wife, Stephanie, his daughter Holly, 24, and his two other daughters, Keli, 23, and Shawna, 17, this sober and well-dressed businessman was the demon: He had molested his daughter, and now he was humiliating her in court, attacking the therapists who had kept her from suicide and giving family videotapes to tabloid TV.
Ramona’s version of the story was a father’s nightmare. His daughter, then a student at UC Irvine, had gone to Isabella in the fall of 1989 for treatment of depression and bulimia. Isabella, Ramona contended, had suggested a link between bulimia and sexual abuse and had interpreted her fleeting images as memories of incest. Dr. Rose then gave Holly a false sense of certainty about her memories by dosing her with sodium amytal, a drug popularly and inaccurately considered a truth serum. On March 15, 1990, in a small windowless room at Western Medical Center, his wife, his daughter and her therapist had all accused him of molesting his daughter.
Nobody would listen to his protestations of innocence, and afterward, he lost everything. His beautiful, well-dressed wife divorced him. His three teen-age daughters refused to speak to him. And he was put on leave and later fired from his $500,000-a-year job as sales and marketing vice president of the Robert Mondavi winery in St. Helena. Mike and Tim Mondavi, who run the winery, later testified to years of irritation and said that Ramona’s department was over budget and that he spent much of his time out of the office.
That spring, Ramona lost 15 pounds. As part of the divorce settlement, he had to sell the $3-million “dream house” he was building on a ridge outside town. The next Christmas, his daughter filed a $500,000 suit against him charging sexual abuse. In the spring of 1991, Ramona, still protesting his innocence, responded by suing his wife for slander-a portion of the suit he later dropped-and Holly’s therapists for malpractice. He traced all of his troubles to March 15, 1990.
“Everything was gone within an hour. My career within three months, lost, everything gone. You can’t imagine the loneliness,” Ramona said a week after the trial began, at his modest townhouse in Napa. “We were a warm, loving family,” he said, as a tear ran down his cheek. “There was absolutely nothing wrong until Marche Isabella and Dr. Rose and Western Medical Center blew us up with their truth-serum quackery.”
On May 13, Ramona won the public war but lost his most important private battle. The jury, in a complex 10-to-2 decision, ruled that Holly’s memories were probably false. Her therapists, they said, had not implanted them but had reinforced them. But they awarded Ramona only $475,000-far less than the $8 million he had sought, less than the $1 million he had spent on the trial.
“Money was never the issue,” Ramona told reporters after the verdict. “I am grateful that I finally had an opportunity to show my family and the world that I never did any of the unspeakable things I have been falsely accused of. Holly’s supposed memories are the results of drugs and quackery, not anything I did.”
But the jury verdict was ambiguous. Said jury foreman Thomas Dudum: “We all got rather disturbed when Mr. Ramona captured the headlines by claiming a victory of sorts, when we knew the case did not prove that he did not do it. I want to make it clear that we did not believe, as Gary indicates, that these therapists gave Holly a wonder drug and implanted these memories. It was an uneasy decision and there were a lot of unanswered questions.” On one point, Dudum was unequivocal: “It was apparent from the beginning that Mr. Ramona was a wonderful salesman for Mondavi, and he was selling us a story,” he said, referring to the improbably idyllic life Ramona had described. “A lot of it was very difficult to swallow, and we were not fooled for a minute by his convenient act of tearing up.”
As for the people who Ramona said mattered most-his ex-wife and three daughters-the verdict convinced them of nothing but the injustice of the legal system. “I don’t think he should have gotten a penny for raping his own daughter,” said Stephanie, weeping, outside the courtroom after the verdict. “You don’t know what I know. You don’t know what my children know. Nobody gets it.”
THE SPLIT IN THE RAMONA FAMILY REFLECTED A NATIONAL IDEOLOGICAL war of genders and generations. Father-daughter incest, once believed a rarity, is now said to occur in one family in 20. In the 1980s, for the first time in history, thousands of these daughters, once invisible and mute, told their stories and were believed.
Many broke off contact with their families, a few even sued. In a handful of cases, skilled therapists presided over family reconciliations. By 1992, there were enough agonized fathers protesting their innocence to spawn a support group-the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. By the time of the Ramona trial, the foundation-which has 2,300 members-had catalyzed a national debate about therapeutic accountability and the reliability of memory. Therapists, they say, are sponsoring an epidemic of false charges and shattering families like the Ramonas by using hypnosis, guided imagery and sodium amytal to suggest childhood sexual abuse to vulnerable clients. More was riding on the Ramona case than a single family’s agony-especially for therapists, who found their methods under unprecedented national scrutiny.
In April, while the hills in Napa were turning green and the tendrils grew on the vines, a San Luis Obispo woman filed a lawsuit against five therapists and Laura Davis, author of “The Courage to Heal Workbook,” arguing they had erroneously convinced her she’d been sexually abused. The San Francisco Chronicle ran Doonesbury cartoon strips in which Mark the DJ was subjected to “on-air-repressed-memory-hypnosis therapy.” And Knopf published Lawrence Wright’s “Remembering Satan,” the account of a sheriff’s deputy in Olympia, Wash., accused in 1988 of sexually abusing his daughters, who confessed under suggestive interrogation to bizarre and unlikely satanic crimes.
April was also National Child Abuse Awareness Month, and in Napa, even in the courtroom, a scattering of people wore testimonial blue ribbons. That same month, a San Jose man went on trial for raping a 4-year-old girl, and the Children’s Intake Unit of Napa County Health and Human Services received reports of sex abuse involving 17 children.
In Courtroom B, women who said they were incest survivors clustered behind Stephanie Ramona, her mother and her friends from St. Helena.
On the left, behind Gary Ramona, there were often angry gray-haired men, members of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, who said they, too, had been falsely accused. It felt as though the high Victorian room could barely contain the anger, pain and doubt held in the bodies of the observers, much less within the Ramona family.
TWENTY-TWO MILES FROM THE OPPRESSIVE HOSTILITY OF THE COURTROOM, on the outskirts of St. Helena, Stephanie Ramona lives on a a cul-de-sac called Pinot Way. She is 49, slim, blond and nervous. Her voice quavers. She corrects herself frequently. She is as hesitant as her husband is sure-all qualities that diminished her credibility as a witness. The way she tells her story, a perfectly happy life had not shattered, as it had for her husband, on a single March day. In fact, her life had not been perfectly happy at all.
In court, she talked about “violence” and didn’t stop until her husband’s attorney, Richard Harrington, rose to his feet in a fury. Although Ramona had been permitted to show happy family videotapes, her claims of violence had been ruled inadmissible-irrelevant. Stephanie had said even more in pretrial depositions. In the early years of her marriage, she said, her husband had hit her several times and shoved her up against the wall. Her husband, she was allowed to say in court, wanted the family to look perfect and act perfect. He critiqued her “cellulite” thighs, her small breasts, her clothes, her hair. “Gary called the shots,” she said. “I learned not to cross him.” (Outside the courtroom, Gary admitted striking Stephanie only once, lightly, and punching a hole in one wall. He had never criticized his wife, he said; she dressed beautifully, and she did as she pleased.)
Stephanie said she had lived a largely unexamined life until an August night in 1989 when her daughter’s body began to tell a story Holly herself could not. Holly was 19, working at the winery for the summer washing wineglasses. In her eighth-grade class in St. Helena, she’d been voted “most honest” and had gone on to be a cheerleader and a member of the tennis team. But she was shy and terrified of boys; she’d only been on one date in her life; she was overweight and hid her body. She even wore a sweat shirt over her bathing suit in the family pool. A neighbor who remembers those days said it was as though Holly lived behind a glass wall.
Late in August, Holly secretly drove her BMW to a mall an hour to the south and spent the day eating doughnuts, cake and candy as though she were in a dream. That evening, when Stephanie came home after dinner, she discovered her daughter throwing up. The next day Stephanie asked her if she had been forcing herself to vomit. “She cried and said yes,” Stephanie testified. “She wanted help, she wanted therapy.”
Just before Holly returned to college, her mother flew to Irvine and was referred by a cousin to Marche Isabella, a former vocational nurse who had been licensed as a marriage, family and child counselor two years before. She had been bulimic herself as a teen-ager, and she was helping set up eating-disorder programs in several hospitals.
Stephanie spent an hour with Isabella. She was terrified that she had caused her daughter’s bulimia-perhaps through her own perfectionism, her willowy figure and her over-controlling nature. She asked Isabella what caused bulimia. “She gave me a lot of reasons,” Stephanie testified. “A controlling mother or father was one reason. She went through a list of possibilities, and in that list, she said in 70% to 80% of eating disorders there’s abuse involved, sexual molestation.”
That statistic, which became a crucial part of Gary Ramona’s suit, was an exaggeration; most existing small-scale studies of bulimics show sexual-abuse histories ranging from 28% to 60%, and Gary’s experts disputed that there was any connection at all. But Stephanie did not know that when she flew back to Northern California. The next day, she asked Holly if she had ever been molested. “She became very red in the face, pushed the chair out and was crying. She said, `I don’t know. I think so. Maybe,’ and then `Yes.’ ”
Later that night, in her bedroom, Stephanie told her husband that Holly might have been molested. She was mystified by his response. “The TV was going. He was sitting on the bed. He looked at me and didn’t say anything,” she testified. “He went back to the TV. He heard me. He gave me the shut-up look.”
Holly returned to UC Irvine. She began to see Isabella and joined an eating-disorder support group. In St. Helena, Stephanie thought that Gary seemed depressed. He slept a lot and seemed moody and explosive.
Stephanie continued to worry about her daughter. That fall, Holly hinted she’d been sexually touched in some way by a neighbor girl when they lived in Diamond Bar, near Fullerton. But that was nothing compared with what Holly told her in mid-February when Stephanie flew south and joined a therapy session with Isabella. Holly wouldn’t look at her mother; she kept kicking her foot back and forth under her chair. She said that her father had looked at her in a disturbing, sexual way over Christmas, and that she’d had a brief shard of memory from long ago: her father’s hand rubbing her inner thigh. Stephanie, as her daughter had requested, told her husband nothing. In late February, Holly called home again in tears. She was having more flashbacks, she said. “Will you still be my mom?” she cried, over and over. “Will you still love me? Do you think I did anything to cause it?” Finally, Stephanie got tired of being reassuring and said, “Holly, spit it out.”
“My father put his penis in my vagina,” Holly said.
Stephanie said to her daughter, “I have to get off the phone.”
She hung up, got in her blue Mercedes and took a drive. She came home, sat down in the kitchen with a yellow pad and drew a line down the middle of the page. On the right, under the letter G, she wrote down all the reasons she should believe her husband would not do such a thing, and on the left, under the letter H, all the reasons she believed her daughter. On Gary’s side she wrote: “1. Wouldn’t rape our daughter-wouldn’t do something like that. 2. Father.” Then she moved to Holly’s side: “1. Wouldn’t lie about something like that.”
Her hand kept writing until she had 28 items. She thought about how Gary had objected to Holly’s therapy-because of the expense, he said, and because “therapists talk.” She thought about how her daughter avoided being hugged or touched by her father. She remembered, when Holly was a high school senior, that a gynecologist had been unable to give her an exam because she kept snapping her legs shut.
She thought back to the days when the family had lived in Diamond Bar, a period she had always considered a happy time. Gary had worked out of the house for Mondavi and was always eager to baby-sit the children so she could play tennis and go to the beach. He took the two older girls to Indian Princesses, a father-and-daughter scouting group, and sometimes at sundown took Holly to watch rabbits feeding in the undeveloped land beyond the tract. Now she remembered more about Diamond Bar.
She remembered how agitated Gary had been when she didn’t want to go out and leave him baby-sitting. She remembered forgetting her towel once, coming home early, and finding the door locked and her daughter Kelli wandering outside in a thin nightgown. Stephanie had left her keys in the car, and she rang and rang until Gary finally answered-naked, except for his underpants, and Holly nowhere to be seen.
She remembered Holly complaining frequently that her “bottom” hurt and later having repeated childhood urinary tract infections. She remembered hearing her daughter cry out at night, going into the bedroom Holly shared with Kelli and finding her husband standing or lying next to Holly wearing only his underpants, saying she had had a nightmare. And Stephanie remembered how, before they were married, her husband had talked oddly and obsessively about how he believed women could not be raped against their will. Item 8 on Stephanie’s list was “Gary knows I know. Acting odd-I’m scared.”
They were all small things, and none of them could stand on their own, but there were so many of them. At the end of the page, she wrote, “God Help Me.”
She called her best friend, told her she was getting a divorce and asked her if she would look after Kelli and Shawna if need be. That night, when Gary came home, she said nothing. She lay next to him, sleepless, always touching some part of his body, terrified that he would get up and molest her two younger daughters.
The next day, she remembered coming home one time and finding Holly, then 4 or 5, in a sun dress, wearing no underwear, and Gary washing the sheets from their bed. “This is a first,” she had said sarcastically, and they had fought. Later, when she took the sheets out of the dryer, she found her daughter’s underpants in with them.
Inside and outside the courtroom, Gary Ramona dismissed item after item on Stephanie’s list. Certainly he had done housework and baby-sat, he said, but none of it had the dark meaning his wife had ascribed. Stephanie had never mentioned her fears of Holly’s sexual abuse to him, he said, and he had never opposed Holly’s therapy. Those items, and all the others, were “blatantly not true.” In interviews, he repeatedly said he had no criticism of his wife or his daughter; he blamed only the therapists. “My wife went ballistic after the sodium amytal interview,” he said. “She is extremely angry, and her stories have had an opportunity to develop over time.”
THE WAY HOLLY RAMONA TOLD IT, THE SIGNIFICANT DATE WAS NOT March 15, 1990, but the previous January, in the back of her mother’s Mercedes on a drive to Palm Springs. Holly had been in therapy for four months, at one point telling Isabella that she felt her parents wanted her to “get a new personality.” Her mother and father had always pretended that things in the family were perfect. Now she could say they weren’t.
That afternoon in Palm Springs, Holly’s mother and grandmother Betty were talking about how much Gary loved his daughters, how, according to Stephanie, he used to go into Holly and Kelli’s bedroom and sob when she threatened to leave him. Suddenly Holly saw an image of her father’s hand on her stomach-a flash of memory lasting three to five seconds, she said. “I wanted to cry or run away and hide,” she added in an interview during the trial. “And that’s pretty much how I felt throughout the next three months.”
Three weeks after that, another image appeared as she lay in bed. “I was in my room in Diamond Bar,” she said in an interview. “There was a sheet up over me. My father was sitting by the side of the bed. I remember the pink lamp, and the light in the room. His hand was rubbing my inner thigh and I was feeling frozen and couldn’t move. I felt that I was chained to my bed. I felt really dirty. I just wanted to keep taking showers. I just wanted to wash it away.”
A week later, she had another memory. “It is nighttime. I’m lying down. I’m pushing my father away, and his head is somewhere between my legs, and my face is scared and wants him away.” Within the week, as she stood at the sink to brush her teeth, she had another flash-struggling while her father held her wrists. Over the next three weeks, more images came, and she descended into a circle of hell.
She thought she was making up the images, or lying or going crazy. The images lay in bits and pieces, like shards of a shattered mosaic-a flash of sheets flying, a struggle, pain in her vagina, her father grunting, him calling her “his special little girl,” his smell, his back, his hand over her mouth, her sun dress, the bunk bed above her, her hair pulled back in a half-ponytail, her own frightened face. She had sensations and pictures, but no story. She had no idea what had come before or what had came after.
She had trouble falling asleep, and once she slept, she would wake, afraid that someone was on top of her or that her father was standing in the doorway. She skipped classes and slept late. She’d get up vowing not to binge and then head straight to the doughnut shop. “I was spiraling down,” she said in an interview. “I can remember being in the bathroom staring at the razor blade and thinking, `Why not?’ I would call my therapist’s pager in the middle of the night. I’d just say I was having a rough time, and hearing her voice was enough to make me stop and think.”
What Holly Ramona described lay on the scientific frontier of the believable and the known. Could moments of horror like Holly’s really be completely forgotten for decades and suddenly emerge in fragments? Wasn’t it more likely that these were not memories at all? Scientists on both sides of the issue concede that memory is not a pristine videotape but subject to distortion from suggestion, trauma and normal forgetting. Both sides admit to the possibility of true memories with false details and false memories with true details. They concede that much remains unknown even to neuroscientists about the mechanisms of memory.
But there the consensus ends. To cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, of the University of Washington, an expert in memory distortion and a member of the Professional and Scientific Advisory Board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, repressed memory defies common sense. An expert witness hired by Ramona, she testified that Holly had been subjected to “an outrageous degree of suggestion.”
In the laboratory, Loftus testified, she had easily led people to “remember” nonexistent tape recorders or barns in videotapes of accident scenes. In a small-scale experiment, she had manipulated more than 9% of 24 volunteers into “remembering” being lost in a shopping mall by presenting them with a scenario, supported by an older sibling, that mixed true details with false events.
Something similar had probably happened to Holly in the course of therapy, Loftus suggested. Holly’s memories were confabulations, suggested Ramona’s attorney, Richard Harrington-a false but coherent story spliced together from true events-remembrances of childhood enemas, normal fatherly good-nights, a traumatic childhood urethral exam and the disturbing sexual play of a neighbor child.
On the other side of the psychological divide was Dr. Lenore Terr, a San Francisco psychiatrist and researcher who has worked for 30 years with battered and traumatized children. Terr testified in defense of Richard Rose. Unlike Loftus, who conducted most of her experiments with adult volunteers, Terr had had experience treating the distortions of memory produced by childhood traumas such as kidnapings, beatings and sexual abuse.
“Trauma is a psychological karate chop,” she testified. “It’s not like getting lost in a mall.” Such instances of overwhelming terror, she argued, can disrupt the normal process of memory encoding. In such cases, sensations and images, like those Holly says she experienced, can be recorded without a story, in far-flung and discrete parts of the brain.
According to Terr, children who survive repeated and secret abuse often learn to put themselves in trance states during the rapes or the beatings. Afterward, they tell no one, not even themselves, what has happened, and some of their memories may never get transferred to the part of the brain where stories dwell.
But such traumas leave other traces, Terr theorized. After a three-hour interview with Holly and reading depositions, therapy notes and other psychological exams, Terr concluded that Holly showed signs of sexual abuse: her terror of men, her habit of sleeping with her knees tight against her chest, her high school nightmares of snakes entering her vagina, her terror of gynecological exams, her avoidance of dates and even kissing scenes in movies, her sense of doom about her future, her conviction that she would never marry.
Such correlations were virtually unknown to the public until four years ago, when a handful of cases began straining the boundaries of what scientists knew about traumatic amnesia. In 1990, a former fireman named George Franklin was convicted of the 1969 murder of 8-year-old Susan Nason largely on the testimony of his daughter, Eileen Franklin. She told a San Mateo courtroom that she had been in her father’s van when he raped her friend and then crushed her skull with a rock. She had put it out of her mind for 20 years, she testified, until she was reminded of her friend by a look from her own young daughter. The jury believed her.
And in 1991, Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, Miss America of 1958, disclosed that her late father, a pillar of Denver society, had “violated” her from the time she was 5 until she left for college. She said she had lost all memory of her ordeals until she was 24. Her eldest sister, Gwen V. Mitchell, who had never forgotten similar abuse, corroborated her story.
But perhaps the strongest scientific support for the proposition came in 1992 from a study done by sociologist Linda Meyer Williams at the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. She found that 38% of a group of 129 women who had been brought as children to an emergency room in documented cases of sexual abuse apparently did not recall the abuse 20 years later.
In the end, all that these and similar cases prove is that some instances of recovered memory are credible. And almost a month after the Ramona trial opened, the opposite was also confirmed when Steven Cook withdrew charges, based on memories recovered in therapy, that he had been abused years earlier by Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. In doing so, he joined dozens of recent recanters, most of them women who say therapists led them into elaborate and fictitious memories of abuse.
The Cook case was a disturbing indicator that some therapists were naive about the fallibility of memory and too quick to export the uncertainty and rage of their clients out of their offices into the media and the courtroom. And so, in the Ramona case, 12 jurors were being asked to decide issues that even the most prominent neuroscientists haven’t resolved.
GARY WOULD LATER CONTEND that Isabella “had sex on her mind” and had suggested sexual abuse to Holly. But Isabella’s notes are full of garden-variety conflict; they do not mention sex throughout the fall.
When Holly began to be disturbed by her memories of her father, she withheld the information from Isabella for weeks. In late January, she told her therapist about the “sexual” look she felt her father had given her a month earlier, at Christmas. In mid-February, she first told Isabella about her flashback the previous month in Palm Springs.
Then on Feb. 27, Holly came in after a sleepless night. “She started talking about remembering physical pain, a feeling of fullness in her bladder, and the image of her father moving above her and groaning,” Isabella says. “Then I knew it was sexual abuse. I had no reason not to believe her.”
Holly became more bulimic and more depressed. She came to see Isabella whenever she had an opening. She felt guilty and unsure about her memories. Could the father who had gardened with her and played tennis with her really have done these things? Was she lying, or crazy? But at the same time, she worried about her sisters-feisty, rebellious Kelli and especially Shawna, a shy and delicate 13-year-old.
Isabella, who says she has worked with several patients recovering repressed memories, sent Holly on a hunt for the certainty she hungered for. She referred her to a gynecologist. She suggested Holly get her childhood medical records. She sent her to a psychiatrist who tried to get her to take Prozac, but Holly refused. A month later she filed a legally mandated report on Gary Ramona to Child Protective Services.
When Holly told her mother about her memories, Stephanie said she was going to confront her husband and get a divorce. Holly pleaded with her to wait. She had hoped that her mother would take her sisters somewhere safe and divorce her father without making any accusations.
“She didn’t want the family to end. I told her it had already ended,” Stephanie remembers. “She said, `No, don’t, maybe I’m crazy, maybe I’m lying.’ I said, ‘You’re not crazy and I’m out of here.’ ”
Holly pleaded with her mother to allow her to do the confronting. “He raped me, not you,” she said. “At least give me this.” Her mother agreed, and plans were made to confront Gary two weeks later.
In this atmosphere of accelerating panic and desire for certainty, Isabella brought in a drug: sodium amytal, a fast-acting, intoxicating barbiturate that releases inhibitions. It can make people more voluble, but is far from the infallible “truth serum” that Isabella seemed to consider it. “I want to verify this is completely accurate,” Isabella testified in depositions that she told her co-defendant Richard Rose when she asked him to administer the amytal. “The whole family is going to blow up. ”
David Calof, a Seattle therapist who trains other therapists to work with abuse survivors but was not a witness at the Ramona trial, says he opposes the use of sodium amytal because it can unnervingly echo the original violation. “We’re asking clients to tell us their secrets, and if they don’t we invade their boundaries, tie them down and extract them,” he says. “What’s the rush?”
But Isabella seemed to be pulled into a family drama that had a logic of its own. “I knew that things were moving fast, but as a clinician, I did not have the power to slow this family down,” she said. On March 12, Stephanie Ramona filed for divorce and Holly Ramona was admitted to Western Medical Center. Two days later, her father, still in the dark, flew south. In Anaheim the same morning, Rose and Isabella watched as the amytal entered Holly’s bloodstream and she descended to the edge of sleep.
Rose and Isabella say they suggested nothing but asked Holly to talk about the memories she’d previously discussed. “I was not grilling a witness. I was allowing a patient to speak,” Rose said in a deposition. “She could not see his face. She described a shadowy image of a person whom she thought was her father. She was afraid. She was believable. She felt some physical weight on top of her. She cried.”
Isabella testified that Holly repeated what she’d said before. “She was clear on who had abused her and where it had occurred,” she said. “It was consistent with what she told me and what I have in my case notes.”
Isabella said that Holly had described only one puzzling new incident. She said she remembered her father sitting at the end of her bed, after having raped her, and crying. He confessed to having an affair and said that his mother Garnet had been raped by her brothers-something Garnet later vehemently denied.
After the interview was over, Holly fell into a deep sleep. When she woke, she remembered very little of the interview. She had hoped that it would give her certainty-that it would either exonerate her father or remove her ambivalence. She still wondered if she was crazy, or lying. Rose and the hospital staff reassured her: She was not lying about what she remembered.
Isabella called Stephanie and told her it was all as Holly had remembered. Stephanie caught a flight south and drove to Anaheim the next morning. As Gary waited in a reception area, she and Holly entered the small office. Holly says she hoped for something totally at odds with what occurred. “I was going to tell him what he did, he was going to say `I’m sorry ‘ and tell me why it happened, and he was going to get treatment,” Holly said in court. “Things were going to be somehow repaired.”
What Holly wished for rarely happens. Mary Jo Barrett, a Chicago family therapist with two decades of experience with families in which accusations of incest are made, says there is rarely immediate agreement that abuse has occurred-even from fathers who, months later, acknowledge it and reconcile with their daughters.
Many experienced therapists who have worked for years with incest survivors recommend going gently and keeping a client stable, even if it means putting off confirming the memories. Psychiatrist Judith Herman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of “Father-Daughter Incest,” would not comment on the Ramona trial, but she recommends such meetings be delayed for months or years-until daughters come to terms with their memories, their ambivalent feelings of love and rage for their fathers, and their doubts. The Ramona family confrontation took place three weeks after Holly, sobbing, had first told her mother.
ACCORDING TO ALL THREE stories, Gary Ramona flew to Anaheim for what he thought was a meeting to discuss his daughter’s bulimia. When he walked into the Western Medical Center office, he found not only Holly but also his wife, whom he had kissed goodby just the day before. Holly confronted him. He was self-centered, Holly said, and only cared about his job, and she doubted he knew anything about bulimia. Then she said, “Why did you rape me?”
Ramona says he said, “Holly, what the hell is going on? What are you talking about?” After that, Ramona testified, Isabella did most of the talking. But all three women say it was Holly who spoke. She said in an interview that she told her father it had happened when she was somewhere between 5 and 8 and the family lived in Diamond Bar. Her father, she said, had called her into his bedroom, laid her on the bed, put his hand over her mouth and raped her. And there had been other equally secret and painful molestations.
“Where was Stephanie when all this was supposedly going on? Where was your sister Kelli?” Ramona said he demanded. According to the women, he then added, “This is not true. Marche Isabella put these ideas in your head.” Gary denies saying this.
The women offered what Isabella later called “documentation”: records of repeated childhood urinary infections; a recent gynecologist’s report showing a torn hymen. And Holly, they said, had confirmed her memories only the previous day, under the influence of sodium amytal. “It’s an anesthesia that will get you to say things you wouldn’t readily say,” Isabella says she told Gary. “It’s kind of like truth serum, like in the movies.”
Charges and denials flew back and forth, and finally Holly and Isabella left the room. Gary and Stephanie sat for a moment alone. Stephanie told him he was not to come home. He flew north in tears, he said in an interview, picked up some clothes and learned that Stephanie had filed for divorce a week before.
Holly says she left the meeting feeling guilty, mourning the loss of what she now felt had been an illusory childhood. Depressed and confused, she was hospitalized for much of the next two weeks at Western Medical Center. She filed a child-abuse report against her father with Napa County. That spring, after she was released, she slowly got better. In July, she finally agreed to take Prozac. She continued to see Rose and Isabella in therapy. She went back to school and made up her courses. Her mood improved.
Gary kept trying to convince his family that he was innocent. He sent Holly roses, met with her twice more in therapy sessions, offered to undergo sodium amytal and then retracted on the grounds that it was quackery. He tried to get her to meet with psychiatrists who, she said, were convinced she was lying. Finally, he said, he realized, “Gary, you can’t prove a negative”-there was no way anyone could prove not having done something.
Holly and Stephanie kept trying to convince Gary to “get help,” and Stephanie says she offered to give up alimony and child support if he did. “I said, `Look, Gary, the family will be there in therapy for as long as it takes.’ ”
Then, over her mother’s vehement opposition and against the advice of Isabella and Rose, Holly decided to sue her father. “Sometimes I wonder how someone who I looked up to and loved so deeply could hurt and betray me so much,” she wrote that spring to a lawyer she found through the local bar association. “I need to break all ties with him, and this is the only way I know how.” Her suit is still pending in Orange County.
Before her first deposition in 1991, she remembered being forced to orally copulate the family dog, Prince. Later she had more memory flashes, of a cluster of molestations in St. Helena. By the time the case came to trial, this memory of bestiality was a key point in the attack on Holly’s credibility. Ramona’s attorney, Richard Harrington, repeatedly referred to it incredulously and also to another disputed recollection-that Gary had told her that her grandmother had been raped by her brothers. If these two memories were false, Harrington implied, so must they all be.
BY THE TIME HOLLY TOLD her story in court, five psychological experts with impressive credentials, hired by Gary, had described his daughter as full of delusions.
Park Dietz, a well-known forensic psychiatrist, testified that Holly “is reporting, sincerely, false memories caused by the treatment she received. She started with obsessional intrusions and dreams and through the magic of truth serum, she was led to believe that she was sexually abused by her father.”
Holly came to court in a slim black wool outfit topped by a short, tailored red jacket piped in black. Her long brown hair was lightly curled and pulled away from her face. She bore little resemblance to the depressed, shy and overweight teen-ager seen wolfing a doughnut in the videotape her father had shown in court and on “Hard Copy.” She talked in a firm, high-pitched, rapid voice.
She was on the stand for two days, and she recited her memories flatly, as though she were talking about an accident that had befallen somebody else. During the lengthy cross-examination, Harrington handed her a Father’s Day card she had sent and said, “And this is the man you said you never wanted to hug?”
“There are times now I would give anything to have a regular hug from my father, just a regular father-daughter hug,” she said and broke down in tears.
“My father doesn’t seem to get the point across,” she said a little later, looking directly at Gary and speaking with unusual force. “I’m the one telling him he abused me. He insists that it’s everybody else talking. No matter how much I say it, he still insists that I’m not reporting these events to him. I wouldn’t be here if there was a question in my mind. I know my father molested me.”
According to jury foreman Dudum, many jurors were puzzled by her flat recitation of such horrifying events and doubted her story.
“There were biases we couldn’t get past,” said Edward R. Leonard, the Orange County attorney who represented Western Medical Center. “The jury couldn’t believe that someone they had sat with for 35 days who wore a coat and tie could be a sex abuser.”
AFTER THE VERDICT, GARY Ramona felt vindicated. He says he’s ready to turn his attention to his new business, which imports wines from Chile and is a marketing consultant for small wineries. He says he hopes that someday his daughters will understand that he never did what he was accused of.
Marche Isabella says that she no longer participates in sodium amytal interviews-not because she doesn’t consider it valid, but because she doesn’t want to be sued. But she continues to believe her patients when they come to her with memories of childhood sexual abuse. “I can’t pretend I don’t believe them or don’t support them. How do I protect myself from being sued? I don’t have a clue.”
When the verdict was read, Stephanie called her daughter and said she was sorry. Then she flew south to be with her. At dinner, Holly said to her once again, “Mom, do you still believe me? Do you love me?” And once again, Stephanie said yes.
Before the trial had begun, Stephanie had kept a photograph under her bed of her former husband when he was a child. When she woke up at night too angry to sleep, she had stared at the picture as a kind of antidote, seeing a purity in her husband’s child-face, wondering what damage had possibly been done to him. After the trial began, she stopped and saw her husband simply as a demon again.
Her daughter is still frightened of men and doesn’t date. In July, Holly will complete work on her MA in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University; she wants to work with abused children. She says she doesn’t get so depressed now, although she still sometimes cries and feels responsible for destroying her family. She says she feels “like I’m out of prison, that I’m finally free.”
“I’ve become a stronger person,” she says. “Before, if somebody looked at me wrong, I would just crumble. But that doesn’t compare with cross-examination.” Her memories have never cohered. They still lie like beads from a broken necklace locked in a drawer.
Early this month, lawyers for the malpractice-insurance carriers had not yet decided whether to appeal. And so the Ramona case stood not as a final resolution but as a case history that set nothing and nobody to rest. Those who watched the trial unfold wanted absolutes-to prove that child abuse is always, or never, an illusion; that victims should always, or never, be believed; that memories are always false if they’re not clear or always true if they’re bad enough; that the legal system can persuade a family at war to see the same truth again. In the end, it proved none of those things. In fact, it will not even enlarge the ability of non-patients to sue therapists, unless it is appealed and upheld. And, in the larger ideological war over repressed memory, it stands as another case study.
As for Holly Ramona, she wishes for an emotional clarity she may never have. She says she remembers a time in high school when she was sick, and her father came in and put his hand on her forehead. “It wasn’t a sexual thing, it was a regular thing, very regular, very normal,” she says. “That’s the thing I can’t make sense of. One moment it was normal father-daughter things, and the next minute it was the middle of night and he was doing things. The only conclusion I’ve come to is that it doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t make any sense, and I will probably never understand him.”
©1994 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.