The serial killer that wasn’t

In mid to late 90’s I read about the case of the Swedish serial killer Thomas Quick. The source memory for it is forever dissolved. Most likely I had surfed in on a Swedish newspaper site in some fit of either nostalgia or procrastination. There I read how he had been brought to some place of a murder that he had confessed to during therapy in order to maybe locate remains. What I do recall is that I immediately thought that he had murdered exactly nobody, and that this was a case of therapist-induced false memories. I wondered, how could Sweden be so behind the curve? This was late ‘90’s, and the recovered memory craze had swept over the US during the 80’s and then deflated under the research of Elizabeth Loftus.

Thomas Quick was eventually convicted of 8 murders – real, disappeared people. He was already in a mental hospital when he started to recall all these, and he kept remaining there, as far as I know. (I think this site can give you the gist of all this).

I then move back to Sweden, and some years back, the case started to unravel. Lawyers for Thomas Quick – who has now changed his name to Sture Bergwall – asked to have the cases retried to exonerate him. As of this year, he has been exonerated of all eight murders. I was right.

It is considered one of the largest legal travesties in Sweden. The prosecutor has maintained that there were good evidence to prosecute him throughout the trials that eventually exonerated Bergwall/Quick. Today, in the newspaper, two days after the program I’ll summarize was sent, the Judge for the original trials still maintain that the evidence was good, and he did nothing wrong. He claims he “corpse-dog” marked the spot – in rough translation. (It is a dog trained to find corpses). No body was found there, though.

Yesterday, that is November 27 2013, Swedish Television sent a program examining the psychological travesty. I watched it today, the 28th, and it makes me both depressed and shocked and sometimes angry. But, it is hard to be blindingly angry. People are so fallible.

It is mostly in Swedish (apart from the interviews with Elizabeth Loftus), I link it for completeness, but don’t bother clicking if you are not Swedish in Sweden. I think they also limit the zones in which you can watch it – which doesn’t make sense considering that the language itself limits who can watch it.

It is called “The woman behind Thomas Quick” by Swedish investigative journalist Dan Josefsson. (And, I am summarizing here what I learned from this program, along with my own observations).

Quick/Bergwall grew up in a small place in Dalarna (in fact, as I found out, the same small place my grandparents lived in until I was nine). At some points he got into drugs, and was misbehaving in the way that addicts are. There were probably other problems (looking at Wikipedia). He had spent time in a mental hospital in the 70’s. Then he got clean. Life seemed fine. He was involved in a small business with his siblings. He got into drugs again, and robbed a bank. His siblings turned their back on him. He was convicted and sentenced to a mental institution – Säter. So, they must have deemed that he needed treatment rather than imprisonment.

Säter has had a mental hospital for a long time. It is a small town in the same province where I grew up – smaller than my own hometown Ludvika, but it was well known for its mental hospital. In fact, you would say someone was “på säter” to mean that they are kind of crazy. Way for a city to get known. I actually went on a school visit there, my next-to-last year of high-school. Went through, looking at the patients. (From my perspective now, it seems absurd that a school would arrange an educational visit to a Mental Hospital, and to actually have them move through some of the patient areas).

For a long time they had a special wing for the “criminally insane”. Or, as my husband suggested (when I was at a loss for words) “psycho-killers”. (Ques-que-c’est). It was closed down, and a new facility was opened – one where they would not rely on restraints and medication and keeping their wards away from the rest of the population, but to cure them with talk therapy!

Head of this effort was a woman, Margit Norell, a trained psychoanalyst with very clear theories, it appears (she died 2005, in her 90’s). The other therapists and doctors were also supervised by her in their therapy work, and were also her clients! The few people who actually are willing to talk on this program talks of her as charismatic, as having the answers, as being the best advisor and therapist that there is. They felt especially selected. One of the men seems on the verge of tears telling this in a way suggesting that he realizes how problematic this is now. Another seems more incredulous, although honest about what it was like.

The theories Margit Norell were advancing rested on the notion that the problems that people had were rooted in trauma during childhood, especially sexual trauma. These had then been repressed. The cure would be to recall these repressed memories.

I can almost yawn at these ideas. I heard and read of them in the 80’s – the repressed memory stories. How recalling them would heal you. It was LA, of course, but I think there was a zeit-geist. The documentary talks about this as a cult around her, but, of course, she was not alone in believeing this. I have met too many other people – therapist, therapees, articles in LA times. Elizabeth Loftus got her ideas from somewhere.

Sture Bergwall is doing therapy with this group. In 1992, the hospital figures he is ready to get out into the real world again, getting into his own apartment and reintegrate in society. Bank-robbery and drug addiction only get you so long in the hospital. But, it seems in the interview with him that this is scaring him. He is lonely, he is afraid of relapse, he wants to stay. And, possibly from his addict days, he is used to lying to get what he needs. So he does. He starts hinting that perhaps he has some memories of having killed someone emerging.

As one of the interviewed therapists said, they were starved for facts. They had this beautiful theory of repressed memory – here they seemed to have some evidence that they were right! Finally. A theory starved for facts. That was such a beautiful, and frightening notion I wrote it down.

And, some of the writings to Quick/Bergwall, shown in the program, from the doctors and/or therapists suggested that they are so appreciative of this. It is shocking to see. In rough translation (from memory) one of the doctors wrote that, although he thought that the acts of Bergwall were grotesque he was deeply admiring him for bringing them up and being willing to face them. (Just a doctor writing that to his patient seems so boundary crossing to me it is shocking. )

No wonder he was willing to recall more and more murders. I think he confessed to 20 or 30. He got so much attention. Was so much of this group.

The journalist pulls a stunt that has psychologist me cringing (because IRB) – he arranges with people to interview them under the guise that he is writing a book about Margit Norell, and then secretly filming them. He first interviews Birgitta Ståhle that was the main therapist of Bergwall, but who also have been trained by and in therapy with Norell. She is rather gushing about her. Later, he inteviews another woman, who was also a therapist of Bergwall. She was, in a sense Norell’s granddaughter, as she has been in therapy under Ståhle. I think. (God, I don’t want to go back and view it again. Maybe I should just call it woman x woman y). This second woman is disguised to protect others who are named. In the program she has been in therapy for 30 years, as well as being a therapist. She sounds convinced that she is recovering memories of molestation from when she is one. One of them – I don’t recall which – claims that they are helping people recall things, and says “if it feels true, it probably is true”. I had to note that one down too. There’s too much actual research out there suggesting that this is a really crappy heuristic. But, I remember this one too from the 80’s. An uncritical thinking that if it feels… something it must be.

Göran Fransson is one of the people willing to be interviewed in this. In deep hindsight, of course, and he is aware of this. At the start, when they are going to cure the patients with talk therapy, the feeling was heady. A new start. They were going to fix this! (Oh, how this reminds me about that paradigm shift evidently suggested in the British system). But, he also is incredulous. Like he knows that once he believed all this, but he no longer does, and how do you get into that frame? In hind sight?

At one point, the journalist is asking him about what happened after a fall-out where he left the hospital. He had now read the other research and realized that the theories of Margit were wrong. The evidence pointed in the complete opposite direction. Specifically he asks, why did Fransson not do anything? Why didn’t he step forward. (By now the police were involved, taking Bergwall to places where the alleged murders took place, looking for remains that never turned up). And Fransson replies, yes, sure, of course I in some way had a responsibility to do that, but I didn’t do it and why should I? There was someone else now involved, someone who really should know the research.

This someone else is Sven Åke Christianson. I came across him in the early 90’s. I was interested in emotion, which made me weird at that time, but I had a partner in crime, Charles, and there was other people at UCLA who also were interested in emotions, and we met every once in a while at the Neuro Psychiatric Institute. I was by far the junior person being an undergraduate. The other people were therapists and psychiatrists. At one point, Daniel, the psychiatrist that started the group, kind of casually mentioned that there really was no independent corrobating evidence that people could repress and later recall memories of early sexual abuse. Specifically, he said that one potentially could look at hospital admissions for molestation, and then check if that fit with the recalled memory. None of that was there. It was all done in the therapists room.

This was rather stunning to me, because I had had the impression (from numerous articles in the LA times, and other sources) that this was well supported with research. I’m still stunned!

There wasn’t much literature on emotion then, so I came across Loftus and Christianson’s work where they showed slides of events to participants, where a critical slide was either awful (bike accident), neutral (nothing happens) or weird (protagonist carrying the bike), and showing increased recall for the emotionally upsetting picture. There were a few other studies they did in the same vein – one with erotic contents. All showing similar effects. I have taught that paper in my emotion class. We also reference that work in the paper that just now went in press – work on recall in forensic situations.

Christianson got involved with the case, but instead of pointing out what the research said about how easy it is to create false memories of even really horrid events, he becomes expert witness for the prosecution. He says that, yes, people can repress memories of horrid crimes they have committed. He even goes with the team when Bergwall is brought to crime scenes in order to dredge up memories – there are filmclips of this. In one Christianson is suggesting that Bergwall do something with his posture, because body movement can help with the recall! (Oh, embodied cognition – but I knew that the therapy peeps had thought of the body containing memories from waaaaay before, like the 50’s. I think that guy who started a school that eventuall became just nakedness and sex. I have completely forgotten the name, because, well, prudish me, shudder).

When Loftus is interviewed about this she says I have no idea what happened. The journalist, on a hunch, e-mails Christianson with the same mild lure – that he is interested in writing a book about Margit Norell. And, he gets a response and invitation. He brings his secret filming device. On this hidden camera, we see Christianson stating that this woman was, aside from his children, the most important person in his life. She became his therapist (up until her death). He feels like she was like the mother he didn’t have, and how wonderfully warm and affirming she was.

Note that he has the title Professor these days, in psychology, which is not something you automatically get as soon as you start your tenure track in Sweden (I’m a lowly lecturer, even though my employment is secure. I may never make professor, the way the structure is set up, no matter how much I end up publishing eventually). He has also been expert witness for the prosecution in most of the cases where Bergwall was convicted. Saying that you can repress memories. Despite his own research. In fact, in other instances of murder, newspapers have called on him as an expert about the motivation behind murders – and he has written a book about what supposedly is in the mind of a serial killer.

Time and again, the notion of “sect” is brought up. That it was a sect. This warm, strong woman who had the answers, who was the Best Therapist, and if you worked with her you were Chosen, and why would you then question it? Göran Fransson brings it up. That it all seems so weird and unbelieveable from this side of history. And, possibly, that anyone could fall into this.

In the story, they also talk about this as isolated. A sect with a sect leader. But, the ideas of repressed memories was not something that this woman was alone in believing. Like I said, it was ubiquitous in the 80’s, at least in the mildly depressed/distressed circles I was running in in LA.

I kept seeing the allure of the all knowing, warm, accepting and acknowledging person that seems to have swayed Christianson. I mildly thank my paranoid, mistrusting personality, because, of course, I can so see how wonderful this would be, but I always expect the other shoe to drop. It is a crappy shelter against it, because I rarely feel safe and warm-fuzzy.

I also think of prospective and retrospective thinking. All of this is in retrospect. But, it is different when you don’t have the outcome in hand. When you don’t know. Should you really have known better? Really, honestly, up until that meeting at the Neuro Psychiatric Institute, I thought that repressed and then recalled memories were possible, because so much of what I read, in books on psychology, and in newspapers, stated that this was uncontroversial. (I always stopped, though, when they brought up the satanic sacrifices of babies, because I thought surely that should have some independent evidence suggesting it had happened, and there were none).

As the journalist points out, so far what the score is from this is that 8 murderers are still out there, and Sture Bergwall was kept behind bars for more than 20 years longer than originally planned. Did any of the doctors and therapists pay a price? Yet? How many other clients are also victims of these warm convictions?

Just yesterday and today I have seen tweeted an account of a couple who are finally freed from prison, 20 years later, because the accusation of molestation was not believeable. This in Arizona (if I remember right).
Who else?

When you are wrong, but dedicatedly so, in therapy, there may be a lot of suffering.

And how? How? Mere exposure was one I brought up, and which my colleague Michael concurs with (he has done research on it). The more you see something stated, the more true it seems. I know that was the case with Bargh’s elderly research. I have written about my attempt at priming earlier. But, I know that once I saw it cited by two people who had been skeptical, but who I trusted (my advisor, Danny Kahneman), I figured it meant it really had been well established enough that it could be cited. This is more an embarrassment for the field. Nobody went to jail and no murderers went free.

But, eternal vigilance is necessary. It is so easy to go completely wrong. And, I worry that psychology – especially clinical right now – is falling back into that trap again.

I don’t know what the repercussions will be from this Documentary. I suspect that the meeting where I provided background materials (which ended up being my “too many” post) was really prompted by this. How can we protect the reputation of psychology, when it is so intensely identified with the clinical aspects (even today I fielded questions about being a not that kind of psychologist) when things go this horrifically, scandalously wrong. My discussion was in another direction, of course, but still.

About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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One Response to The serial killer that wasn’t

  1. Pingback: Marketing Psychology? | …not that kind of psychologist

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