OTTUMWA, IA—After months of hypnotherapy, local repressed-memory therapist Brian Marnard has helped Joan Spees, a 37-year-old farm-equipment sales consultant, recover an entire Rockford Files episode from the darkest reaches of her subconscious mind.
"Joan, who had suffered from seemingly inexplicable anxiety attacks her entire adult life, was the perfect candidate for repressed-memory therapy," Marnard said Monday. "Under my care, she began recovering vivid memory flashes from what seemed to be a single, distinct episode from her past. The images included an old-fashioned answering machine turning on in an empty room, a gold Firebird experiencing a sudden, violent change in direction, and a dark-haired man walking on the beach. In spite of the memory's persistent nature, Joan could not see how the fragments were related."
Spees said that, although the flashbacks would intrude upon her waking hours accompanied by the same "catchy snippet" of music, they did little to disrupt her personal life. Nonetheless, Marnard was concerned about what the memories might signify.
"Repressed memories, which are stored outside the awareness of the conscious mind, can usually be traced back to a traumatic event," Marnard said. "What if Joan had been the victim of childhood sexual abuse by the dark-haired man she felt was named James, Jim, Garner, or Rockford? If so, she needed to bring these memories to the fore and confront them."
For two months, Marnard engaged Spees in an exhaustive, expensive course of drug-mediated interviews, hypnosis, regression therapy, and literal dream interpretation.
"Brian said my scraps of recollection were probably part of something bigger, an incident at least 44 minutes long—one that might be part of a larger chain of similar events from my adolescence," Spees said. "Brian kept encouraging me to pursue my vague feeling that the man I was seeing was a criminal, even though I felt even more strongly that the mysterious figure could be trusted."
According to Marnard, Spees' first few sessions progressed little beyond her strong memory of lying on her family's living room floor.
"I'm 8... I'm wearing my Pooh pajamas... wrapped in an olive-green blanket..." a transcript of Spees' first session read. "A phone's ringing, but it's not mine... I'm waiting for someone to answer the phone... There's a message.... An important message about someone picking up the car from the garage? No, it's a woman saying she's lonely... no, it's a pizza shop. I'm not sure..."
At that point in the session, Spees would usually whistle a distinctive melody.
"It was a long time before I got any more out of her," Marnard said. "But finally, Joan was able to recover some very strong memories, like the image of a murder suspect who supposedly died in a car accident. And something about an angel trying to get his money back from a swindler who was on the run from the mob. And then, there was a garbage disposal jammed by a missing bullet."
"Still," Marnard added. "She was never able to fully understand what was going on."
Finally, near the end of a one-hour 'deep therapy' session, Spees had a breakthrough.
"I was about to bring Joan out of it, when she started talking in a deep voice, like that of a father figure," Marnard said. "I could feel we were reaching a climax. That's when she said, 'Honey, we're all scared to death. I guess that's the price we pay for living in a world where we sell cemetery plots on billboards by the freeway and all the prices end in 99 cents. What you gotta do is just keep laughing.'"
Marnard said it wasn't until Spees paused and said, "Later tonight on NBC..." that he recognized the quote as coming from Jim Rockford, the laid-back ex-con-turned-detective played by James Garner on the popular '70s TV show, The Rockford Files.
In spite of the breakthrough, Dr. Klaus Stenner of the Iowa Psychological Association criticized Marnard's methods, and those of all repressed-memory therapists, calling them unprofessional.
"There is no real evidence that childhood memories are ever unconsciously repressed," Stenner said. "In addition, recovering these supposedly repressed memories, whether of sexual abuse or the plots of popular television series, has never led to significant improvement in a patient's psychological health and stability. Luckily, Spees was spared any lasting harm—probably because her memories were innocuous and generally positive, thanks to The Rockford Files' high production values and taut writing."
Immediately after the breakthrough, Spees discontinued her twice-weekly visits and refused to pay her outstanding bill, calling Marnard "a quack." Marnard, however, adamantly insists that Spees should return to therapy.
"Joan can run from her problems all she wants, but the haunting, sinister image of the gun in the cookie jar will be with her forever," Marnard said. "And even if she has discovered the source of the mysterious answering-machine messages, it doesn't explain Joan's recurring memories of a shadowy, mustachioed figure known only as 'Higgins.'"