Saturday, May 26, 2012

Waging Ghostly War on a National Level: The Question of Experience, Part IV

A number of professionals criticized the relevance of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus’ Lost in a Shopping Mall Study to the false memory debate, often citing research that indicated a difference between traumatic and ordinary memory.  They also raised questions about the ethics of the study, asking whether or not introducing a “mild trauma” is still trauma.  Then again, if it isn’t trauma that’s being induced by false memory, then what’s the relevance to people who report having solid memories of trauma, and continue to do so.  In a 2000 paper titled “‘Lost in a Shopping Mall’–A Breach of Professional Ethics,” Lynn Crook and Martha Dean point out that in the initial study of twenty-four subjects, only seven indicated a “full-or partial” recollection of the memory, one of whom changed her mind later–not an especially high batting average; especially when you talk about such things as “partial recollection” (on a range of one to eleven), or take into account the accuracy of the corroborating family member’s memory.*

Drs. Nicholas Spanos, Kenneth Pope and Laura Brown posed the additional question of whether The Lost in a Shopping Mall inaccurately characterized social compliance as false memory.   In her account of the genesis of the project, Dr. Loftus gave an ironic example of this.  While conversing with a colleague at a party about the possibility of memory implantation, he called over his eight-year old daughter to see if they could convince her that she had been lost in a shopping mall when no such incident occurred.  After hearing a “third set of corroborating details,” she affirmed her father’s story.  This led Loftus to conclude:
I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed.  In five minutes, with a few suggestions and minor prods from her father, Jenny had accepted a false memory and embellished it with details of her own.  She remembered being lost, she remembered looking all over for her father, and she remembered being scared.  In less time than it took to cook a hard-boiled egg, we had created a false memory.
In this example, one has to note the context of this conversation between Loftus, the colleague, and his daughter.  It’s a party.  It’s a social event.  Jenny might not understand the reason for her father’s insistence in perpetuating a story they both know to be false.  But like most children, she would have understood that affirming his version of events would please him–just like McMartin witnesses Bradly Brunon and Kyle Zirpolo knew that their knowingly false statements would please their parents, the prosecutors and other professionals.  After three attempts to convince the child to accept her father’s story, she might even have finally caught on that by maintaining her original claim, she might make her dad look foolish or dishonest in front of a co-worker.

In other words, we have far more compelling explanation of Jenny’s response than instantaneous false memory implantation.  Even if we come to accept that Jenny came to believe her father’s tale, we would have had little proof that she actually remembered it.  On the other hand, we have an abundance of evidence to suggest that she was reacting to social demands, chief of which her parent’s expectations.

In his 1997 paper “Lost in a Shopping Mall: An Experience with Controversial Research,” Dr. Loftus’ former student and research assistant Jim Coan described the aftermath of his association to the Lost in a Shopping Mall study.  He went into some detail about the negative reactions of peers and colleagues.  The criticism against Coan stemmed from the fact that he used his brother Chris as an experimental subject in the Lost in a Shopping Mall study, before such a study was given the greenlight by the University of Washington’s Human Subjects Committee.:
Though I did not know that several of my supervisors [at the Kings County Crisis Clinic in Seattle] were full or part time therapists either in private practice or at local agencies, it never occurred to me that any of them might feel any hostility toward what I had done with my brother, or what I was currently doing for my honors work.  With this perspective, I went ahead and told people I had gotten to know on my regular shift about the New York Times article, and in doing so enraged my supervisor. Almost immediately, my supervisor began to grill me with questions about how I could possibly assert that a memory for being lost in a shopping mall could be anything like a memory for being sexually abused and beaten all one’s life.  I agreed they would be very different!  He went on to ask me what I thought of the fact that what I was doing would eventually hurt and damage so many people. Not knowing how to respond, I tried to assure him that I didn’t want to hurt anybody, and that I wasn’t saying anything except memories could be implanted.
Later in the paper, Coan stated that a negative reputation followed him to graduate school at the University of Arizona, saying, “I was not treated with gushing affection.”   

If we take Coan at his word–and we have no reason not to–then we realize that he saw himself as a victim of intellectual prejudice, and professional scorn.  And so, it makes sense that one defense that he offered in this paper consisted of his brother Chris’ affirmation that the false memory not only seemed real to him at the time, but also years later:                   
While writing this article, I asked my brother once again whether the memory still seemed real, and whether he felt badly about being the first participant [discounting the aforementioned Jenny].   Chris reports that the memory does indeed still seem real, and that he has never felt badly about participating in the study.
Chris, undoubtedly older by this time, could very well have understood the criticisms against his brother regarding this research.  Confirming both (1) the conclusions and (2) the ethics of the study could very well have given assurance to his elder sibling, whether his statements were accurate or not.  Moreover, by giving information repeated in this paper, Chris offered a defense of the activities leading to James Coan’s pariah status. 

If you have siblings, you can probably empathize with the need to come to their defense.  I obviously cannot say that Chris Coan’s assertion that the memory seems real is inaccurate, nor would I try.  None of us can know what goes on in the head of another person.  At the same time, I cannot see this as proof of false memory implantation, knowing that compliance to social demands (i.e., the protection of a brother) could also explain this response.  In other words, we cannot use anecdotal evidence of this type to claim that one definitely had a memory implanted, no matter how vehemently the subject asserts.

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*Crook, Lynn S. and Martha C. Dean.  1999.  “‘Lost in a Shopping Mall’–A Breach of Ethics.”  Ethics and Behavior, v. 9 (1): 39-50.

**Coan, James A.  1997.  “Lost in a Shopping Mall: An Experience with Controversial Research.” Ethics and Behavior, 7 (3): 271-284.

To read later posts in this series, click here.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Waging Ghostly War on a National Level: The Question of Experience, Pt. III

Joan Acocella began her 1999 book, Creating Hysteria:  Women and Multiple Personality Disorders, by reviewing the legal and professional proceedings against Dr. Diane Humenansky, a former-psychiatrist practicing in St. Paul, MN.*  In 1989, as the McMartin Preschool case wound down, with its legacy of occult child rape, Dr. Humenansky led a patient named Elizabeth Carlson to believe that she suffered from Multiple-Personality-Disorder because of past Satanic Ritual Abuse.

Dr. Humenansky had become more sensitive to MPD diagnoses after attending a number of professional conferences dealing with the subject, and after consulting with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, the psychiatrist at the center of the famous Sybil case. Humenansky felt that she could readily spot a patient with multiple personalities.  She not only diagnosed Carlson with the disorder, but nearly all of her other patients as well.

These patients took the diagnosis seriously, and followed through with the psychiatrist’s treatment protocol, which included group therapy.  At some point during these processions, a particularly obnoxious patient began to dominate discussion.  The others felt put out by this, and asked Dr. Humenansky to either reign her in, or throw her out.  When Humenansky refused to take any action, they simply started their own therapy group.

It was this second group, away from Dr. Humenansky’s ability to monitor them, that soon realized some disturbing things that had to do with the treatment itself.  Not only were they all diagnosed with the same illness, but their professed experiences were nearly identical.  Moreover, their narratives echoed the plotlines of popular movies and television shows.  They then agreed that what they thought were memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse or whatever else had little in common with all of their other memories.  Many said that these ideas “seemed unreal” to them, although they truly believed them at one time.

Once they reached this point, some confessed that these confabulations resulted from the compliance to social demands made by both Dr. Humenansky and the group itself.  As Carlson herself noted, “One woman said, ‘I have a confession to make.  I made up an alter named Nikki because everybody else in the group had a Nikki and I felt left out.’”

I’d hope most people can see the problematic nature of Dr. Humenansky’s diagnoses and treatments without much comment.  After all, MPD isn’t contagious.  It doesn’t break out in epidemics; and that’s assuming that it even exists outside of iatrogenesis.  Most of us would scratch our heads wondering how a trained professional could see such a rare condition occurring in such numbers without good reason or corroborating evidence.   

Obviously, the diagnoses had no basis in fact.  Just as obvious, Dr. Humenansky did her patients a tremendous disservice, which required years of additional therapy just to get over the previous therapy.  In 1996, a jury officially thought this obvious, and awarded Carlson $2.3 million in a malpractice suit.  A year later, a second jury awarded another former Humenansky patient, Vynnette Hamanne, $2.6 million.  Shortly afterward, Minnesota’s medical board suspended Dr. Humenansky’s license for an indefinite period.

Acocella and other FMS proponets came to cite Dr. Humenansky as a case of psychiatry gone wrong.   Opponents of the FMS diagnosis would probably agree.  Just about any professional and layperson can see the harm done to patients under those conditions.

The problem is this instance might not prove that these patients actually had false memories so much as they had false beliefs that were very strong.  These beliefs were reinforced through the social dynamics of group therapy.  And as “Nikki” indicated, there were social pressures in group therapy to conform to these beliefs, and present them as memories. 

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*The link goes to an Amazon.com page listing the book.  You might find the reader comments especially interesting in that many of them dovetail nicely with the content here.


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Friday, May 18, 2012

Waging Ghostly War on a National Level: The Question of Experience, Pt. II

In their book The Science of False Memory, Drs. Charles Brainerd and Valerie Reyna offered a number of anecdotes and case studies demonstrating false memory. Among the items they offered was this exchange, taken from an actual court transcript:
Court Officer:  Where’d you guys eat lunch on Saturday?

Witness:  Don’t remember.

Officer:  Really?

Witness:  Just can’t recall.

Officer: Well, I talked to your brother’s wife, and she said that you guys ate a lunch at Burger King.

Witness:  She said that?

Officer:  Yeah.

Witness:  Yup, I remember now. It was Burger King.

Officer:  You certain of that?

Witness:  Absolutely.
The authors added, "The indicated conversation with the brother’s wife, which led this witness to ‘remember’ with absolute certainty that he and his brother ate at Burger King, never occurred."

The witness here changes his or her position during this examination, or cross-examination, after the questioning attorney prods him or her with a prompt. The context of the passage would lead us to believe that because of the lawyer’s authority, the witness remembered something that did not happen. In fact, it could not have happened, because, as the authors stated, the attorney lied about the detail that led to the response of affirmative memory. But in this instance, because the witness states two different positions (the first, I don’t recall being at Burger King on Saturday, the second I distinctly remember eating at Burger King on Saturday), and because we have no context for this exchange, we can’t tell if he recalled eating at BK on Saturday, or whether or not he actually ate there. We do not know, for example, if this was a direct examination or a cross-examination. We don’t know if the witness is a material witness, an innocent bystander, a plaintiff, or the defendant.

We can therefore see his/her response in a number of different ways that have nothing to do with false memory. For example, say the defendant actually was at Burger King when he should have been somewhere else. Maybe his family has him on a strict diet, so getting caught going there would have embarrassed him. Maybe he can see the implications in the question (if he was there at time X, how could he have witnessed event Y?)" Then again, he might have actually been at Burger King that Saturday. He could have just as easily responded affirmatively to the question so as to not implicate his sister-in-law (the falsely attributed source of the information), or make her seem less culpable (if she’s the defendant).

As to what the witness remembers, that could be either accurate or inaccurate. It’s possible he could have gone to BK so often, he forgot which days he was there. In other words, he could have simply been agreeing with the questioner, who seemed to have much more knowledge of the situation than he.

Simply put, this example gives us no indication that the witness’ memory, or experience had changed, although his statement did. We can just as easily see this as a case of double deception. The witness could be lying to either protect (or maybe even implicate) a family member. At worst, we could say that he suffered from memory distortion–he could have eaten at the restaurant on Friday, and remembered that experience believing it occurred Saturday–prompted by the deception of an authority figure.

As Drs. Kenneth Pope, Laura Brown and Nicholas Spanos would infer, this response illustrates not the introduction of a foreign experience into the witness’ head so that it would be incorporated just as if it were any other memory. It represents a "compliance with social demand conditions." Still, Drs. Brainerd and Reyna offer more evidence along these lines in the form of case studies of false confessions:
The investigators then proceeded to Mr. K’s house to interview his wife, who also reported no knowledge of the events complained of by Mrs. L’s son. They did learn, however, that Mr. K was a heavy drinker, who was in a state of moderate intoxication during most evenings, who had been encouraged to seek medical treatment for his drinking problem, and who had been drinking on the previous evening.
.....further investigation revealed that a parent had filed a complaint four years earlier that another woman complained that Mr. K fondled the buttocks of her son. Police asked him to come to the station a second time. After grilling, and noting his alcoholic tendencies, he said ‘Well, I suppose I can’t be 100% sure that it didn’t happen….I was so blotto that maybe I can’t rule it out completely, but I sure don’t think anything like that could happen….Yeah, the boy hadn’t been drinking and I had been, so I suppose his memory of Sunday night would have to be clearer than mine.’
In this case, the police are not planting a memory into Mr. K.. Mr. K. nevertheless confesses to a crime that he didn’t commit, based on his past behavior and his acknowledgment of a drinking problem that causes him to black out. He isn’t "100% sure that it didn’t happen," which is hardly the same as same as saying "I remember it happening," or "I’m sure it didn’t happen." In other words, his compliance to a false allegation sprang from belief. That belief was made more plausible once articulated by an authority figure, namely the investigating detective. Yet, Mr. K. makes it clear that this belief is not a memory, false or otherwise.

Another case offered by Brainerd and Reyna concerns the false confession of a Mr. E., a "slightly retarded" man who accidentally tripped while carrying his infant son. The mishap caused the boy’s death. Police would later prove this forensically, but not before eliciting a false confession from the father:
Mr. E stated in response to the researcher’s questioning that although he was sure that he could not have done such terrible things, some of the events seemed quite real to him, both at the time of the police interrogation and at the time of the forensic interview. This was particularly true of the alleged motive for the crime: being very angry toward his wife for leaving him alone with the infant when he was in a state of sleep deprivation. He further stated that at the time of the interrogation, he thought that the police interviewer’s knowledge of events must be far more accurate than his own memory and that, even now, he would be inclined to believe that some of the acts of brutality happened if it were not for the fact that he knew himself to be incapable of such savagery. 
After his arrest, Brainerd and Reyna note, "As he was taken to his cell, he complained to the attendant that the interviewer had put words into his mouth and that he had not harmed his son, which the attendant duly noted." Again this false confession had nothing to do with false memory, but with social compliance. It’s clear that Mr. E. knows that he did not attack his son. But as the authors conceded, "He further stated that at the time of the interrogation, he thought that the police interviewer’s knowledge of events must be far more accurate than his own memory." So in this case, Mr. E. clearly remembers the event, and forensic evidence proves that his memory was correct. Here, he disregarded his memory in deference to the supposedly superior analysis of an authority figure. Afterwards, he still realized that his memory had not been influenced, as the attendant noted.

Other evidence of disregarding one’s memory in deference to social compliance to a group belief or an authority figure often comes from those championing the FMS diagnosis, and, along with other research that clearly establishes the capacity for memory distortion, this makes up the bulk of evidence on behalf of False Memory Syndrome.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Waging Ghostly War on a National Level: The Question of Experience

In Recovered Memories of Abuse, Drs. Kenneth Pope and Laura Brown examined some of the premises and assumptions underlying the False Memory Syndrome (FMS). In a previous post in this series, I highlighted two of their four major concerns. The first deals with the nature of traumatic memory as opposed to ordinary memory. In a previously mentioned experiment, subjects had to keep a diary of daily events and include false items. They then had to identify, at a future date, which entries where true, and which were false. Because the memories were mundane, plausible events, the subjects had difficulty in recalling which items were true, and which were false. But if the subject had included a sufficiently traumatic experience (e.g., my sibling died, or I got fired) as the falsity, he or she would have considerably less difficulty in seeing it as untrue, for a number of reasons.* Thus, when examining the relevance of research offered to prove the existence of FMS, they noted that it either lacked a component of trauma, or, such as with the Lost in a Shopping Mall experiment, failed to establish the adequacy of the trauma. As noted, from her previously cited Scientific American article, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, one of the most forefront pro-FMS researchers, conceded that getting lost in a shopping mall did not engender nearly the type of trauma experience by those victimized by childhood sexual abuse.

The second issue raised by Drs. Pope and Brown dealt with the relevance of the methodology used by pro-FMS researchers to the actual therapeutic process. Again, the authors indicate a number of factors that demonstrate clear differences between the procedures, goals and ethics of therapy and those of the Lost in a Shopping Mall (LitM) study. As stated earlier, the goals of these two endeavors is clearly different. Therapy, on the one hand, tries to heal the patient. Experimentation, on the other, represents an attempt to gain information that supports or negates the hypothesis. That deception would be the main goal of the LitM study, no one can deny. While one can imagine that competent and scrupulous therapists sometimes deceive their patients, or attempt to, the deception itself is not the goal of treatment; at least, it shouldn’t be.

Pope and Brown’s third major point is, in my mind, perhaps the most critical:
3.  Has this line of research assumed that verbal reports provided to researchers are the equivalent of actual memories. [Dr. Nicholas] Spanos suggested that changes in report in suggestibility research may represent compliance with social demand conditions of the research design rather than actual changes in what is recalled.
One thing about narrative: with respect to validity, memory trumps belief. Borrowing from an early post on this blog, imagine that you have knowledge that your married friend has just checked into the Motel Amore with person X, and out of concern, you alerted his/her spouse. Compare the impact of the statement "I think your spouse might have checked into the Motel Amore with person X," to the impact of the statement "I was driving by the Motel Amore when I saw your spouse entering a room with person X."

According to the first statement, you have a belief that the event occurred, but no memory of it, since you did not witness it. It really doesn’t matter if your belief is based on compelling evidence (e.g., person X told you about the planned tryst, or you discovered their names in the motel register while out on your own romantic rendezvous, etc.), the cuckolded spouse can easily dismiss the claim as a mistake, or the result of an overactive imagination, or a practical joke, or just about anything else. But in the second statement, you have asserted the authority of memory. In that case, there’s much less to dispute other than sensory perception (e.g., "You just thought you saw someone who looked like...."), or out-and-out truthfulness (e.g., "You’re lying").

In other words, telling someone that we witnessed, and thus remember something carries far more credibility than saying that we have a strong belief in something. At the same time, we can bolster the believability of our statements by claiming that we distinctly remember them as true events. Thus, to an outside observer, our statements of belief could very well come across as statements of experience. Yet internally, we can understand that what we know, what we believe, and what we actually remember could be three separate things. And in such a case, the version that often comes out is guided by social demands often related to power inequities.

In fact, one can prove this has been the case, especially with respect to the recanting child witnesses of the McMartin Preschool trial. Bradley Brunon, one of the children testifying for the prosecution, knew that his statements on the witness stand did not match his own memory of events. His false testimony resulted from his desire to please his parents, the prosecutor and his therapists, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times dated 25 January 1985. In 2005, Kyle Zirpolo, another McMartin child witness (then an adult), also admitted lying on the stand. And like Brunon twenty years earlier, Zirpolo stressed that what he related as memory was not his actual recollection of events:
I felt uncomfortable and a little ashamed that I was being dishonest....But at the same time, being the type of person I was, whatever my parents wanted me to do, I would do. And I thought they wanted me to help protect my little brother and sister who went to McMartin.
Here, Zirpolo knew that he had not witnessed anything untoward at McMartin, but understood that the charges against Ray Buckey were serious, and if true could pose a danger, especially to his younger siblings. It’s clear that he believed that Buckey was dangerous. At the same time, he remembered everything as normal, despite what he said on the stand.

Of course, perjury against anyone is a serious injustice to all of us. And we (hopefully) can sympathize with the plight of those falsely accused, especially when emotions run high, and the pressures to convict are enormous. But while some would portray Zirpolo as the poster child for False Memory Syndrome, his case resembles nothing of the kind. There was no false--or in his case even distorted--memory. In fact, the falsity of his statements came about by dismissing his memory in deference to authority. Thus, there were only false statements that complied with pressing social demands.

In other research done to offer evidence of FMS, we can see similar compliance with social demands as a very plausible explanation. And in the next post, I’ll demonstrate this by re-examining some of the pro-FMS studies presented earlier.

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*For example, in a study by Drs. Kathy Pezdek (Claremont Graduate University), Iris Blandon-Gitlin (Cal State, Fullerton), Shirley Lam (Claremont Graduate University), Rhiannon Ellis Hart (Hampshire College), and Jonathan Schooler (University of British Columbia) titled "Is Knowing Believing? The Role of Plausibility and Background Knowledge in Planting False Beliefs about the Personal Past," the authors find that the likelihood of implanting a false memory or belief decreases as the implausibility of the event increases.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Picking Up the Pieces

As this project winds down, I’ve got a little more time to write. So, now I’m gearing up to continue and finish the series I began last fall on the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF).

Continuing the threads after so much time isn’t easy, of course. It’s an emotionally difficult subject area, for starters. Then too, there’s the interruption to my concentration and yours. It’s kinda hard to remember all that’s been discussed so far.

So here’s a recap:

(1) A woman, Dr. Pamela Freyd, formed and incorporated an organization called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation after her daughter accused her husband of childhood sexual abuse.

(2) The FMSF received support from an impressive list of psychiatric and psychological professionals, among them Rev. Dr. Ralph Underwager. They also received financial support that allowed them to embark on substantial public relations efforts on behalf of parents whom they believed were falsely accused of childhood sexual abuse by offspring who recovered the memories later in life. They insisted that unscrupulous or incompetent psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals were implanting memories into their patients, perhaps even accidentally. These memories, according to them, had nothing to do with reality.

(3) A number of professionals offered evidence of false memory implantation by citing a number of studies that dealt with memory distortion. These studies indicated that ordinary memory was hardly as infallible as the general public believes. Such studies included the keeping of a diary with the subject instructed to intermittently insert false data, and then having the subject attempt to identify the inaccurate information after some time had lapsed. Other research delved into case studies of such things as false confessions. A classic example of memory distortion offered to support the concept of false memory is Sir Frederic Bartlett’s "War of the Ghosts" experiment, first conducted in during the late-1910s.

(4) Arguably the most prominent research offered to support the validity of False Memory Syndrome was the Lost in a Shopping Mall study, originating in the work of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus. In this study, a number of subjects were told that they had once gotten lost in a shopping mall, despite the fact that the subjects’ family members denied such an event taking place. Some of the subjects agreed, sometimes after prodding by some of the investigators, that they remembered the event. This led Loftus and others to the conclusion that it was in fact possible to implant false memories on a subject.

(5) American Psychological Association Ethics Chair Dr. Kenneth Pope, along with Dr. Laura Brown, took a closer look at the claims of both sides of the recovered memory/false memory debate. While they had some criticism for both viewpoints, they saw more faulty assumptions, research methodology and conclusions among those championing the pro-FMS side.

That about summarizes where we are. For the most part, I began this series talking about the origins and rise of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and discussing the evidence supporting that conclusion. From here, we’ll finish up with Drs. Pope and Brown’s observations, and then move on to what critics have to say about both the FMS diagnosis, and the organization behind it.

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Monday, May 07, 2012

Sounding Off

Thanks for your input on the last post. I appreciated your comments very much, for they saved me from putting a lot of time, effort and expense into something that nobody wanted. As I worked on them, the recordings didn’t come out exactly as I had hoped. But I thought I might have a jaundiced ear or something. I was to close to them to really know how bad, or perhaps good, they were. Since your response was overwhelmingly negative, I have a better idea of their quality.

Back to the drawing board. As to your suggestion that I read them myself, I have my reasons for keeping my voice off the Internet whenever I can. Nevertheless, I’m considering taking you up on it at some future date, perhaps for a new site.

As this project draws to a close, I’ve gotten a little time for writing, but more time for future research. I’ll be taking up where I last left off from the FMSF series soon. I had a series planned after that, but I thought it might be wise to break up the Assailing the Tender Age thread with something else, for awhile at least. Lately, I’ve been looking at the following:
1. The murder of Vickie Lynn Morgan

2. The Son of Sam murders  
3. The mystery surrounding a blog titled Wit of the Staircase  
4. The death of Pope John Paul I  
5. The Zodiac murders
I think I’m going to get around to all five of these stories before I end this blog, especially since topics number two, three and five are somewhat interconnected. But if you have a preference, let me know.

Meanwhile, I’ll be getting back to being a blogger fairly soon. Thanks for staying with me.

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