I first read this in the Weekend Australian Magazine last year and in the context of the current debate on the Kavanaugh/Ford allegations this totally bizarre set of circumstances comes into finer focus.
Repressed memory syndrome? Is this is what’s going on with Blasey Ford.
The woman in this Dr Cathy Kezelman is well to do and we’ll connected Eastern suburbs person who alleges (again with no evidence or witnesses) that her father (and mother) was a paedophile and she was a victim. Her own sister with whom she shared a bedroom and her own brother and mother say none of what she alleges ever happened. Interesting thing is that she advises government on childhood trauma mental health issues.
READ ON —— Those Events Never Happened
She’s a highly influential activist for childhood trauma survivors. But questions are being asked about Cathy Kezelman’s own shocking story of abuse.
For Dr Cathy Kezelman, the past two decades have been tumultuous indeed. In late 1998, at the age of 44, she abandoned her demanding career as a Sydney GP after suffering a shattering breakdown following the death of her 18-year-old niece in a car accident. In the years that followed, her mental state seesawed wildly between bedridden clinical depression, terrifying panic attacks and flights of mania so severe that she once frenziedly hacked her garden to pieces with a saw and secateurs. At her lowest ebb, Kezelman would drive repeatedly from her home in the city’s affluent eastern suburbs to the nearby sandstone clifftops of The Gap, a notorious suicide spot that looms high above the Tasman Sea, where she would stand for hours at the safety rail “pondering my demise”.
In 2010, Kezelman revealed the source of her anguish: in a memoir entitled Innocence Revisited she wrote that she had been violently sexually abused from early childhood by her father, a former Brisbane schoolteacher, and by a group of sadistic paedophiles led by her paternal grandmother. The abuse was so traumatic, she wrote, that her mind had fragmented into multiple personalities, a condition that had been cured with the help of a gifted and patient psychologist. In numerous interviews to promote Innocence Revisited, and in her role as head of the advocacy organisation Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA), Kezelman emerged as a compelling figurehead for survivors of childhood trauma. The NSW prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC hailed her courage, and the noted child development expert Professor Freda Briggs lauded her book as “a testament to human resilience”.
Today Kezelman is the most influential child abuse activist in the country. Her organisation, now called the Blue Knot Foundation, is regarded as the peak body representing adult abuse victims, and her work there has earned her an Order of Australia. Justice Peter McClellan, head of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, calls her an “old friend”, and the commission has strongly endorsed Blue Knot’s work. In her roles as a director of the Mental Health Co-ordinating Council of NSW and president of Blue Knot, she co-wrote the counselling guidelines that are being used to train thousands of staff in sexual assault clinics, mental health wards and counselling centres around the country. Most recently she was appointed to the panel that will administer the proposed $4 billion redress scheme to compensate victims of institutional abuse.
It’s an extraordinary personal transformation and one of which Kezelman is justifiably proud, yet her own story of abuse is today a subject largely off-limits. In an interview at the Blue Knot office, inside a converted scout hall in northern Sydney, Kezelman makes it clear she will discuss her work but not the contents of her book or the shocking allegations she has made against her own family. “I’m not wanting to talk about personal experience in this context,” she says, avowing that she wants to protect her family from media attention. Pressed on the matter, she threatens to end the meeting.
It’s a surprising stance from someone who published a 300-page book that laid out in harrowing detail her recollections of her father and grandmother’s extraordinary sadism, and the callous indifference of her mother. Kezelman has spoken publicly about that history for many years and often cites it as a driving force, most notably when she appeared for a second time at the royal commission in March this year. But there is an untold chapter to her story that may explain her current reticence; it’s told by more sceptical voices that question the veracity of her book and harbour misgivings about her growing influence. Among them is Dr Claude Imhoff, an emergency physician from northern NSW, who happens to be Cathy Kezelman’s brother.
In the seven years since his sister first revealed her extraordinary survivor’s story, Imhoff has never been approached by the media for his account. Neither has his 94-year-old mother, a Holocaust survivor who still lives in her home of nearly 50 years in Sydney. It’s a situation that left 66-year-old Imhoff deeply angry but torn by a dilemma, because to speak out in defence of his family’s name risked exposing his mother, his sister and other relatives to even greater emotional havoc than they have already suffered. Reluctantly, he has now chosen to take that risk.
I utterly refute everything Catherine states in her book about our father and grandmother,” Imhoff says. “It’s not that I don’t remember those things, I can categorically state that those events never happened.” What has tipped him toward speaking out, he says, is not just a desire to set the record straight but a concern that his sister’s growing influence on the royal commission and the counselling of abuse victims could cause many more people to suffer the anguish his family has endured. It’s a concern shared by senior figures in the field of trauma treatment and psychology.
The upstairs room at Gleebooks in Sydney was filled to capacity when Cathy Kezelman launched her memoir Innocence Revisited there on a Saturday afternoon in February 2010. Her husband Dan and their four children were there, as was Mark Tedeschi QC, who urged people not to doubt the extreme cruelty detailed in the book’s pages. Audience members wept as Kezelman spoke about the “insanity” of the abuse she suffered as a child, describing the launch as a celebration for her family after years of grief. Notably absent from the gathering were her elderly mother, Lusia Puterman, and her brother Claude, who had not spoken to Kezelman for several years and had no idea the book was being published. Tedeschi alluded to their absence when he remarked that close relatives often refuse to believe allegations of incest, resulting in “a double betrayal … the first betrayal by the perpetrator, and the second betrayal by the person who has wantonly dismissed the complaint without making the slightest attempt to seek out the truth”.
Innocence Revisited recounts the story of how Kezelman began consulting a psychologist in mid-1998, seeking treatment for the terrible depression that followed the sudden death of Claude’s daughter Angela. Once a self-described “superwoman” who juggled a busy GP practice and motherhood, she began suffering terrifying nightmares of being trapped or violently assaulted, and became disturbed when she came across an old photograph of a doctor who had treated her when she was 14. The doctor was long dead, but Kezelman was consumed by a feeling he had raped her, despite having no memory of such an incident. Finally she asked her psychologist to interpret one of her nightmares, and the therapist replied that it could indeed mean the doctor had raped her, “either with his penis or with his fingers”. Kezelman’s reaction was: “Oh my God, I knew it. I just knew it.”
Within days she began remembering sexual assaults at the hands of the doctor, memories that became progressively more violent and involved torture. “The process of recovering these memories made me more fragile than ever,” she writes, recalling that she was soon visiting her psychologist daily as the abuse came to occupy all her waking and dreaming hours. When her psychologist explained that she was experiencing “flashbacks”, Kezelman read on the internet about how repressed memories of childhood trauma can remain hidden from conscious memory for years. Soon she was being deluged by such memories and withdrew into “depressed isolation” for two years. Abandoning her work, she became so suicidal that she began visiting The Gap daily.
Kezelman’s brother remembers this period vividly, not just because of his sister’s alarming mental decline but because he initially believed her rape allegation and was enraged. Claude Imhoff and his sister came from a family intimately acquainted with the effects of trauma: their mother Lusia had fled the Warsaw Ghetto as a 19-year-old, leaving behind a brother, mother and father who died in the Nazi death camps. After settling in Australia in 1947, she married a Brisbane schoolteacher, Cecil Imhoff, who tragically succumbed to paranoid psychosis in his 40s and died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1968. Claude was 17 at the time and recalls that his father’s final years were spent in a haze of antipsychotic sedation. Claude himself was 47 when his daughter Angela was killed, a loss that precipitated his own breakdown and decision to quit his GP practice and become an emergency hospital physician.
“At first, I accepted Cathy’s memories at face value,” he recalls. “My mother remembered that as a teenager Cathy had complained that this particular doctor touched her breast. He was a family friend, but he had a reputation as a womaniser, and we had no reason to doubt Cathy. But then her memories became more and more bizarre.”
Shortly after her breakdown Kezelman had joined a writers’ group, and three years into her therapy she gave her mother and brother a 95-page manuscript entitled Daddy Please. In it she revealed that she now remembered being raped by her father from the age of nine in her bedroom in the family home in outer Brisbane. The assaults, she recalled, had stopped after several years when her mother caught her father undressing in her room and admonished them both.
For Claude Imhoff, it was too much. He had been researching repressed memories and discovered that their reliability had fallen into deep disrepute because of bizarre cases in which therapy patients recalled murders, satanic abuse and other extraordinary crimes for which no evidence could be found. Major psychiatric and psychology bodies had issued guidelines warning therapists that vulnerable people can be highly suggestible and may retrieve false memories that seem vividly real to them. Some therapy patients had recanted their stories and sued their therapists.
But Imhoff had a more practical reason to doubt his sister’s story: they had shared a bedroom until she was 10, and he had never observed anything untoward. The father she described — a manic figure who prowled the house and beat his sister “black and blue” — bore little resemblance to the sad, sedated figure he remembered from his late teens. His mother was similarly nonplussed, and told her daughter she had no recollection of these events. “I was there,” says Imhoff, “and I know that these allegations against my father could not have happened. But Cathy clearly believed these memories; her explanation for the fact that my mother and I had no recollection was that I was dissociating like her, and my mother’s emotions had been blunted by her war experiences.”
In 2002, Kezelman attended a “healing week” at Mayumarri, a group-therapy retreat for sexual abuse victims run by former casting agent Liz Mullinar. Like Kezelman, Mullinar had suffered a nervous breakdown in her 40s and recovered memories of sexual abuse by a doctor and her father while undergoing psychotherapy, abandoning her career to set up the original Adults Surviving Child Abuse organisation. ASCA was riven by infighting at the time, centred around Mullinar’s counselling practices and belief in satanic abuse cults. Kezelman joined as a director in late 2002 and became chairperson two years later, by which time Mullinar had left to run Mayumarri separately.
Under Kezelman’s leadership the organisation “rebranded” itself with the help of Susan Leith-Miller, an experienced marketer, launching a telephone counselling service and devising counselling courses that attracted government funding. In one year alone ASCA’s government grants jumped from $12,859 to $405,355. As a medical doctor and a self-described survivor of paedophilia, Kezelman brought both professional and personal gravitas to her role. She enlisted Labor Senator Mark Arbib to launch ASCA’s inaugural Forget Me Knot Day in 2009, and joined the board of the Mental Health Coordinating Council of NSW, an influential body that trains public and private mental health workers. Along the way, however, her own psychotherapy treatment took another calamitous turn.
Still consulting the same psychologist seven years after her breakdown, Kezelman suffered a distressing mental fragmentation in which she would regress and cry out in the terrified voices of different childlike “personalities” whose identities she came to label with names such as Growly, Sensible and Little-Cathy. “My mouth would switch between different voices,” she later recalled. “I never knew what to expect until the words came out … These child parts which appeared to be different personalities were now making themselves and their experiences known to me.” In the process, her memories had become even more disturbing.
No psychiatric illness has caused more heated dispute than Dissociative Identity Disorder, a condition once more accurately known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Until the late 20th century it was relatively little known, but its diagnosis exploded in the 1980s as child sexual abuse became a focus of psychotherapy. Patients succumbing to this illness would speak in multiple childlike voices as they recalled terrifying incidents from their early lives, often reliving the trauma. The 1957 film The Three Faces of Eve depicted the condition in a melodramatic style that would be repeated in Sybil (1976) and the more recent TV series United States of Tara. Many senior psychiatrists have argued that DID has all the hallmarks of a pseudo-illness induced by therapy itself; they argue that the horrific childhood “memories” these patients retrieve — of witnessing murderous satanic cults run by politicians and judges, for instance — are fictitious, and that their “alter-personalities” are the product of hypnotic autosuggestion.
That argument still rages today, with some psychiatrists calling for DID to be removed from the official diagnostic manual, while others staunchly defend their work in helping dissociating patients to “integrate” their multiple personalities. In Australia, the most high-profile member of this latter group is the Brisbane psychiatrist Dr Warwick Middleton, who runs a dissociative disorders clinic at Belmont Private Hospital and sits on the board of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Middleton believes half of all patients diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder actually suffer from DID, and that one in a thousand people fit the “general dynamic” of the Austrian sexual psychopath Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter in a basement for 24 years.
In August last year a former DID patient from Middleton’s unit gave evidence to the child abuse royal commission. A former state ward now in his early 60s, the man told the commission that in 2010 he learnt about paedophilia accusations being levelled against an Anglican priest from his childhood, Father Peter Rushton, who had died in 2007. He said he initially contacted the church to defend Rushton, who he regarded as his godfather, but shortly afterwards his mother suggested to him that a “flashback” he had experienced of a green wall might be a memory of Rushton’s home. This caused him to collapse and experience a flood of repressed memories of being raped by the priest, prompting him to seek help at the Mayumarri counselling centre run by Mullinar and at Dr Middleton’s dissociation unit. Now diagnosed with DID, he broke down while telling the royal commission that he now remembered Father Rushton repeatedly raping him over several years, often while cutting his back with a knife, and of other men joining in the abuse.
That account was widely reported and joins a growing number of DID cases that have recently surfaced in the media and the courts. In October 2015, a former DID sufferer named Fiona Barnett held a press conference outside the royal commission in Sydney, claiming to have evidence that three former prime ministers were paedophiles. Barnett has previously stated she remembers being raped as a child by an Australian governor-general and prime minister, the Reverend Billy Graham and US president Richard Nixon, among many others.
In her book and public appearances, Cathy Kezelman described the dramatic impact of her own dissociative disorder. In 2007 she sent her brother a new manuscript, Innocence Revisited, which was dramatically different to Daddy Please. Kezelman now remembered that her father’s sexual assaults began when she was four and included violent rapes at gunpoint; she recalled her father driving her to his mother’s house in inner Brisbane, where she remembered being ritualistically abused by a “sadistic mob” wearing hoods. In other memories, she was taken to a cave where the hooded figures dismembered a young girl on a rough stone altar. Imhoff was so appalled by the manuscript that he could not show it to his mother. After a protracted email exchange in which Kezelman told her brother he must be suffering “traumatic amnesia” and needed psychotherapy, their relationship broke down irretrievably.
Kezelman acknowledges in her book that some of her memories may be distorted, and that she never found any concrete proof of the incidents she described, but says she is confident that the core of them is true because her psychologist “validated” them. “I’m aware of how hard it is to imagine that such things can and do happen in our community and especially our homes,” she writes. “However, I want to make the point that victims such as myself have not only heard about such acts, but withstood them; as young innocent children.” In one of her final emails to her brother she said she was passionate about bringing this horror into the light, sharing her story to help others.
Following the publication of Innocence Revisited, Kezelman promoted the story of her “personal holocaust” on radio, television and in magazines, telling interviewers she had been sexually abused for a decade by multiple family members. Her brother had also been abused, she said, but he was suffering amnesia; her mother “didn’t do anything to stop it”. Claude Imhoff was affronted by his sister’s claims and her book’s negative depiction of him. Their mother Lusia was deeply wounded by Professor Freda Briggs’s preface, which stated that Kezelman’s story demonstrated “the typical refusal of the mother to protect her child”. Lusia had already been forced to threaten legal action after Kezelman published an online biography that described herself as “the daughter of two mentally ill parents”. But Imhoff and his mother remained publicly silent until November 2012, when Kezelman named her father as a paedophile in a page one story in The Sydney Morning Herald, a week after prime minister Julia Gillard announced a royal commission into child sexual abuse.
“I was incensed that such incendiary claims would be published on the front page of a newspaper in my mother’s home town, without any attempt at verification,” says Imhoff. The Herald subsequently published his brief letter repudiating his sister’s claims, but Imhoff remains incredulous that no media outlet has ever approached him or his mother for comment before airing his sister’s claims. In late 2012, he lodged a formal complaint against Kezelman’s psychologist with the Psychology Council of NSW, arguing that his sister’s book showed that her memories had been induced by suggestive therapy that had caused immeasurable harm to Kezelman, her mother and himself. The Psychology Council subsequently advised Imhoff it had provided the psychologist with advice and literature on the professional guidelines about the nature of memory, which might provide a “valuable lesson” to her.
Kezelman argues that nine years of psychotherapy were crucial to her recovery and exemplify the “trauma-informed care” she is actively working to introduce across the country. Her pursuit of this goal has been highly successful — she is co-writer of the two most widely distributed professional guides to trauma-informed care in Australia, one published by the Blue Knot Foundation, the other by the Mental Health Co-ordinating Council of NSW. The fundamental idea behind these guides is that adults who have been abused in childhood have suffered a unique form of “complex trauma” that current counselling models fail to address. They argue that counsellors should avoid focusing on symptoms such as depression, personality disorders or anorexia, and instead try to identify the underlying trauma, asking “What happened?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” It’s a philosophy developed in the US and now being introduced in many Australian sexual assault clinics, mental health units and welfare services, where Blue Knot and the MHCC have conducted regular training workshops.
Kezelman’s ideas were first embraced by the Labor government of Julia Gillard, which funded the Blue Knot guidelines and launched them at Parliament House in 2012. The royal commission has rapidly accelerated her influence: Justice McClellan praised Kezelman’s work when he launched Blue Knot Day in 2014, and she chaired his appearance at a trauma and dissociation conference a year later. The royal commission adopted a trauma-informed approach to interviewing alleged victims, and when Kezelman last appeared before it in March, Justice McClellan called her an “old friend” whose knowledge went beyond that of most judges and government bureaucrats. More than 17,000 copies of the Blue Knot guidelines have been downloaded, and the royal commission quoted them in its recent report on a redress scheme for victims, recommending that Kezelman’s organisation be one of the key advisers to develop the scheme. Since 2012, Blue Knot’s annual government funding has quadrupled to $1.337 million, much of it directed to training counsellors who have been treating some of the 5000 people who went to the commission with allegations of abuse.
Kezelman’s counselling guidelines are endorsed by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, but several prominent experts in trauma and memory told this magazine they regarded them as scientifically dubious and potentially harmful. Professor Richard Bryant, a psychologist who is director of the Traumatic Stress Clinic at Westmead Hospital, Sydney, says the guidelines offer the potentially dangerous advice that counsellors should help patients retrieve “implicit memories” of trauma that are hidden from consciousness, a suggestion that is entirely at odds with trauma counselling guidelines endorsed by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Psychological Society.
More broadly, Bryant says a counselling approach that focuses on “what happened” to the client would contravene international best-practice guidelines, which urge counsellors to focus on symptoms rather than search for possible underlying causes. “People’s reactions to childhood trauma vary widely,” he says. “Some people are resilient and don’t need treatment, some people have depression, some people have eating disorders, some people have post-traumatic stress disorder. We have excellent treatments for those disorders, but in these guidelines those treatments don’t even get a look-in. I find that clinically and ethically dubious.”
Professor Elizabeth Loftus, a leading international memory researcher at University of California Irvine, described elements of the guidelines as “brain babble” with no scientific basis. Emeritus Professor Don Thomson of Deakin University, a former forensic psychologist who is chair of the Australian Psychological Society’s ethical guidelines panel, said he shared Richard Bryant’s concerns and was surprised the Blue Knot guidelines failed to mention anything about the dangers of false or distorted childhood memories. Professor Thomson said he could not understand why major health organisations were endorsing trauma counselling practices devised by authors with no formal qualifications in psychology or psychiatry. (Kezelman’s co-authors on the MHCC guide hold nursing and social work qualifications, and her co-author on the Blue Knot guidelines was Pam Stavropoulos, a psychotherapist with a two-year diploma from a private college.)
Dr Michael Daubney, chair of the Faculty of Psychotherapy at the RANZCP, defends the guidelines, saying survivors of childhood trauma have complex needs that may not be met by current NHMRC guidelines for post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr Louise Newman, Professor of Women’s Health and Psychiatry at Melbourne University, says people who have suffered abuse in childhood, particularly within a family or institutional context and over a prolonged period, are more likely to have long-term problems that current counselling approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy don’t adequately address. The Blue Knot guidelines fill that gap, she says.
Kezelman says her work is supported by the latest international research, including brain-imaging studies that suggest childhood trauma physically alters neural pathways, offering a possible explanation for amnesia of certain events. Asked why the guidelines make no mention of the dangers of false memory, she says they are aimed at supporting survivors rather than “getting into any particular controversies or substantiating any arguments”.
Claude Imhoff has a different interpretation of his sister’s motives. “Cathy needs the illusion of certainty about her own story,” he says. “She has been surrounded by people, including psychiatrists and psychologists, who have expressed no scepticism about her claims and supported her conviction about the validity of her memories. So she has simply ignored the professional guidelines and not mentioned anything about the dangers of false memories.”
Imhoff says one of the things that spurred him to speak out was a story published in this magazine in July about a young NSW woman who accused her parents of sadistic abuse extending over 15 years. The young woman had undergone more than 1000 hours of counselling while retrieving dissociative flashbacks of the abuse, and was diagnosed with DID by a psychiatrist who identifies herself as a “staunch advocate” of trauma-informed care. Her parents are serving lengthy jail terms. “This is what I was afraid might happen — that the ideas Cathy is spreading might lead to prosecutions of this nature. If Catherine’s credibility is not scrutinised, there is potential for this to affect the lives of many, many people. That’s strongly what I believe.”
Told that her brother has decided to speak out, Kezelman replies by email that it is not unusual for family members to deny painful events. “Especially in situations of incest, it is common for siblings to either be unaware of the abuse of their sibling, not acknowledge it and/or be supportive of the abuser,” she says. “We can all turn a blind eye or shut off to information and events we don’t want to know about, and see only what we want to see e.g. intimate partners who dismiss clear signs of infidelity, alcoholics who won’t recognise their addiction, mothers who don’t notice that their husband is abusing their child.” She says the royal commission has demonstrated how this denial operates at a societal level, giving a voice to victims whose stories were “dismissed, denied or minimised”, causing further trauma. But Kezelman declines to say more about her own story, saying The Sydney Morning Herald article of 2012 caused a backlash from her extended family that was “highly traumatic” for her family.
In her latest role, Kezelman is one of 15 members of an advisory panel helping the Turnbull Government devise the $4 billion compensation and counselling scheme for victims of institutional abuse. The royal commission quoted Kezelman’s guidelines in its report proposing the scheme and recommended her organisation be involved. In her final email to this magazine she notes with pride that Blue Knot last year trained 5000 “practitioners and diverse personnel” around the country. “Blue Knot Foundation will continue to advocate for survivors, provide informed support and facilitate pathways to recovery,” she says. “My own journey is but one of many.”