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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 23.2 > The Last One Forgotten

The Last One Forgotten

Bruce Perkins and Another Terrible Tragedy of the Recovered Memory Movement

ON OCTOBER 6, 2017, BRUCE PERKINS CELEBRATED his 73rd birthday in the Louis Powledge prison unit near Palestine, Texas. His fellow inmates at Powledge include Warren Jeffs, the convicted pedophile, former head of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints, and Eddie Ray Routh, who was convicted in 2015 of murdering Christopher Kyle, the military sniper featured in Clint Eastwood’s film American Sniper. Unlike Jeffs and Routh, Perkins does his time in anonymity rather than in infamy, his case having been completely ignored by the press for a quartercentury. In 1993, Perkins was sentenced to four 30- year terms for aggravated sexual assault, based on testimony from what were almost certainly false memories. He is the longest-serving, and last-remaining prisoner in the U.S. whose conviction was facilitated by therapists during the moral panic of the 1990s, when the American mental health industry seemed to have lost its mind.

The panic was part of a broader aberration in clinical psychology, a discipline that in the 1980s and 1990s still lingered in a Freudian cloud. Those were also the years of alien abductions, multiple personality disorders, and satanic cults. All of those strange ideas obsessed over unconscious and repressed/recovered memories. And they all disappeared astonishingly fast. By the 2000s, extraterrestrials had stopped abducting people, devil cults had disbanded, the American Psychiatric Association had downgraded Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) to “dissociative identity disorder,” and psychologists had quit recovered memory therapy. Bruce Perkins, on the other hand, has never quit prison. He’s a reminder that the abuse of a pseudoscience often outlives the pseudoscience itself.

Texas v. Perkins

Bruce Perkins’ ordeal began in 1990, when his daughter-in-law Trish Perkins started seeing a therapist for treatment of a mood disorder. According to Perkins’ first attorney, during her therapy Trish claimed to have recovered memories of abuse from when she was younger. She was also distressed about her children’s preoccupation with what a second therapist called “normal exploratory curiosity” with other children. Five therapists would get involved in the Perkins case before it was over.1

Eventually, Bruce’s two daughters-in-law, Trish and Patty Perkins, became convinced their children had been molested. Suspicion initially fell on the children’s playmates. At least six were singled out. The reasons why suspicions shifted to adults are unclear. Patty recalls it was Therapist #2, Carolyn Kammholz, who first insisted that an adult male was responsible. Trish, and Kammholz herself, did not remember that. Either way, the list of suspects grew. Detective Don Bynum of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office later noted that “it seems as if every male in the family must have been considered (a suspect) at one time or another.” There is no record in the trial testimony of Kammholz or Bynum having urged the parents to arrange a pediatric examination of the children.2

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About Skeptic

THE RISE OF THE NONES Imagining No Heaven — The Rise of the Nones and the Decline of Religion; Never Doubting God — Surveys on Belief in God’s Existence; Persistence of Belief in a Purposeful Universe; Honor, Dignity, Victim — A review of The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars; The SkepDoc — Premature Ejaculation in the News: How Headlines Influence Our Thinking; Is the Earth Flat? Flat Earthers Are Back — How do You Best Make the Argument for a Round Earth?; Conspiracy Theorists and the Harm They Do; Bruce Perkins and Another Terrible Tragedy of the Recovered Memory Movement; Deterrence and Its Discontents: Now That Nuclear War Seems to Be Getting More Likely Again, It’s Time to Turn a Skeptical Eye on Deterrence; Reality Need Not Diminish Our Concept of Our Place in the Cosmos; Junior Skeptic — Perpetual Motion; and more…