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Mary Knight asks: 'Am I Crazy?'
Editor's Note: The following article contains descriptions of child sexual and emotional abuse that some readers may find distressing.
Mary Knight knows she isn't crazy.
But the local filmmaker did have to interact with people who thought she misremembered her own childhood when shooting her recently released documentary, "Am I Crazy? My Journey to Determine if My Memories are True."
"Am I Crazy?" dives into an issue that is both stomach-churning and controversial. Knight's premise is that as a child, her parents subjected her to ritual sexual and emotional abuse, and the production of child pornography.
But she didn't remember it all until 1993 — when she was in her late 30s — with the help of a counselor who used hypnosis to help her uncover the painful memories.
"I feel like this is my life's purpose," Knight said about making the film. "Anytime you're rescued and you know the building's still burning, what is worth everything to you is to get in and save the other people."
With her film, Knight explores the concept of "recovered memories," a term for painful memories that are not remembered by the survivors until years or decades later, often with the help of a therapist. The general theory is that children will protect themselves from trauma by disassociating as it is happening, but that the memory remains in their subconscious mind.
Recovered memories — sometimes called "false memory syndrome," or FMS, by critics — first became relevant in the '90s, when people began using them as the basis to sue family members, day care teachers and other acquaintances in civil or criminal court.
In 1992, a group of academics, therapists and those accused of abuse formed the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a nonprofit that exists to "seek the reasons for the spread of FMS that is so devastating for families, to work for ways to prevent it, (and) to aid those who were affected by it and to bring their families into reconciliation," according to its website.
The foundation's core argument is that memories must be corroborated by evidence, and that leading questions and idea-planting from therapists are often to blame for what they call false memories.
Today, an article on American Phycological Association's website comes to the conclusion that "clearly more study and research are needed" on the issue.
That is the environment in which Knight made "Am I Crazy?" in 2014, two decades after she sought counseling with the worry that she might have been abused as a child.
Eight years before Knight recovered her own memories, her cousin came forward with her own allegations. The cousin claimed her own father — Knight's uncle — had sexually abused her.
"I believed her, because it didn't affect me," Knight said. "But then she started talking about other family members, and I broke contact with her, because it was just too close to home then."
Eventually, more of Knight's relatives spoke out about their own experiences with abuse, and she decided to explore the issue for herself. Knight's counselor used hypnosis to help her recover the memories, a practice that is controversial among professional therapists.
"She was a very good hypnotist," Knight said. "I was skeptical of hypnosis, and I brought a tape recorder in. ... The hypnosis that I had, it's not like what you see on TV or something. It's just a really deep relaxation, and then I could remember things in that supporting situation with a counselor."
Knight's hypnosis revealed that she had been routinely sexually abused as a child, and made to watch and take part in gruesome activities. That, combined with her relatives' own recollections, and her memory of her father telling her he found her attractive at a young age, were enough to convince her that the memories were true — though coming to grips with it was a process.
"I questioned my memories as I had them, but I had to function," Knight said.
In fact, the inner turmoil of not knowing whether she could trust her own recovered memories grew so distressing that she would only allow herself to think about it two days per week, so that she could be functional during the other five days.
Knight eventually came to accept her memories as true — but she wanted the documentary to serve as the ultimate test, so she interviewed several members of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Those interviewees included Elizabeth Loftus, a recognized expert in eyewitness memory who recently served as a defense witness in the Bill Cosby sexual assault trial.
"I thought that she would ask some question that I had never thought about," Knight said about being interviewed by Loftus and other skeptics. "But I thought of every question that she asked me ... every question I'd already asked myself."
Knight acknowledges that it's likely not all recovered memories are true, and that poorly trained counselors can produce false memories through the technique of "leading questions." That is: questions designed to lead the subject to a specific answer.
Knight also said this was likely more of a problem in the '90s than it is now, because people now know to be wary of leading questions.
But she also takes issue with skeptics trying to prove her wrong, as they did during the filmmaking process, because it discourages other survivors from coming forward.
"It's so horrendous that they don't believe me," Knight said. "And then they say, 'If it really happened, why didn't you tell someone when you were a little kid?' Well, I'm telling you now and you don't believe me."
When asked whether she wishes she had remembered the abuse and come forward sooner, Knight paused to think for a moment before answering.
"I'm really at peace with it now," she said. "I think I remembered it at exactly the right time. It was the right time for me. I don't think I could've done it earlier. I needed to have certain things in place. People who remember when they're younger generally don't have very stable adult lives. I was able to get my education."
Knight will screen her film at Joy Cinema this weekend, and she plans to continue screening it for different survivors' advocacy groups and law enforcement agencies. She said she hopes to help as many survivors as possible, whether their memories are recovered or have been with them since childhood.
The road to happiness and acceptance for Knight included counseling, yoga, massage therapy, meditation and a strong spiritual belief. She wants survivors to know that healing is possible, but that it includes a painful process.
"I would have to give God credit, and I think in many ways God has saved me," Knight said. "I don't know why I've been able to have as good a life as I do. ... But also, I had to go through hell, and I don't want that to be left out."
"Am I Crazy? My Journey to Determine if My Memories are True," screens at 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24, at Joy Cinema, 11959 S.W. Pacific Highway, Tigard. Tickets will be on sale at the door for $10, and a Q&A will follow.