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Of all the memories she once believed so fiercely—growing up in a satanic cult, slaughtering babies, molesting children—what seems most ludicrous today is the memory of eating meat loaf that her father had made out of human flesh.
In 1986, Patricia Burgus, a 29-year-old mother from Des Moines, checked into the psychiatric unit at Rush–Presbyterian–St. Luke’s Medical Center, one of Chicago’s most prestigious hospitals. For six years, she was under the care of Dr. Bennett G. Braun, a nationally recognized authority on multiple personality disorder (MPD), a mental illness in which the sufferer veers between two or more distinct personalities. The existence of the condition has bitterly divided psychiatry for 25 years, but Braun and some others believe MPD is the result of repeated childhood trauma, often sexual abuse.
When she met Braun, Pat Burgus already thought she had 20 personalities, including “Garbage” (who lacked self-esteem) and “Super Kathy” (who seized control in crises). But in daily therapy sessions with Braun, Pat—often under hypnosis and sedated with medication—began to recall experiences she had supposedly had in a satanic cult, bizarre and violent incidents that became increasingly frightening until she finally thought she remembered that her parents, as members of the cult, had practiced cannibalism. She claimed that her father, the manager of a Coca-Cola plant and a devout Roman Catholic, would grind human remains into hamburger for meat loaf. Once, Braun actually sent hamburger meat from Pat’s family’s picnic to be tested for human proteins at Rush’s lab. The results were negative. Years later, the psychiatrist said in a sworn statement that those results didn’t conclusively prove Pat and her parents weren’t cannibals. “[Y]ou don’t have evidence one way or the other because this may be the sample that didn’t have [human remains],” he explained. (Braun would not comment for this article.)
Today, the notion that she participated in cannibalism strikes Pat as ridiculous, as does the story of belonging to a “cult” that plotted to kill her four- and five-year-old sons. But 12 years ago, she accepted the memories. “It fit in with everything else [Braun] told me I was saying in therapy,” Pat says. “Once you get over the initial horror of what you’re talking about, it loses shock value. Once they can get you to think that something terrible has happened, they can get you to believe anything.”
Before her ordeal was over, Pat would develop 300 personalities, attempt suicide twice, cut ties with her family in Iowa, and go to court to regain custody of her children. She would spend more than two years in the hospital; her children would spend three. And her insurance company would pay $3 million for a treatment regimen that today seems utterly fantastic.
As an outpatient in 1992—no longer on high doses of medication, no longer under hypnosis, no longer locked in leather restraints—Pat decided Braun’s unorthodox treatment had itself spawned her false memories. In 1993 she sued Braun for malpractice; last October, after an arduous legal battle, she accepted a $10.6-million settlement from the insurance companies that represented Braun, Rush, and Rush’s chief of child psychiatry, Dr. Elva Poznanski, whom she sued in a separate complaint.
As part of the settlement, none of the parties admitted to any wrongdoing. Braun called the settlement a “travesty” and said it was reached over his objections. “[Pat Burgus] comes into the hospital doing so bad that she belongs in the hospital and after several serious events in the hospital which I can’t disclose because of patient confidentiality, she was discharged and is doing much better,” he told The New York Times after the settlement was revealed. “Where’s the damage?”
But Skip Simpson, a Dallas attorney now suing Braun on behalf of another patient, thinks he knows why the defendants settled: “They didn’t want to get hammered by a jury. The American public understands that a satanic cult is not out there boiling babies and eating them.”
The Burgus settlement is said to be the largest sum ever awarded in a psychiatric malpractice suit. But the case itself is not particularly unusual.
Since 1993, more than 100 patients nationwide have sued therapists over treatment for MPD, which was diagnosed in explosive numbers throughout the eighties. “In many of these cases, we see a situation in which the poor training and instability of the therapist, coupled with the vulnerability of the patient, creates a situation fraught with the potential for a folie à deux”—that is, a delusion shared by therapist and patient, says R. Christopher Barden, a lawyer and psychologist who served on the Burgus legal team.
In January, citing “business reasons,” Rush North Shore Medical Center in Skokie shut down Braun’s ten-bed dissociative disorders unit. But he remains on the staff of both Rush North Shore and Rush–Presbyterian–St. Luke’s, where, for the past 14 years, he has treated hundreds of patients.
Five months after the settlement, Dr. Jan Fawcett, chairman of Rush’s department of psychiatry, hailed Braun as a “very dedicated” physician, but he spoke only guardedly about Braun’s seeming belief in the existence of a bizarre and violent satanic cult that ravaged the lives of many of his patients. “I’ve encouraged Bennett to be more critical of [patients’ assertions],” Fawcett said. But he added, “I don’t think [doctors] should be censored for having an idea that offends other peoples’ sensibilities.”
For many of the people who have heard Pat Burgus’s story, though, the reaction of August Piper, a Seattle psychiatrist who was on her legal team, captures the general feeling. “The Burgus case,” he said, “was one of the most outlandish examples of psychiatric maltreatment that I’ve ever seen.”
At 42, Pat Burgus is a full-figured woman who looks every inch the suburban soccer mom in baggy jeans, sweatshirt, and sneakers. She has pale skin, sharp brown eyes, and a wide smile. Recently, she sat down for more than ten hours of interviews at her lawyer’s Loop office and her new house in Glen Ellyn. Though no subjects were off limits, she set three conditions for her participation in this story: Citing privacy concerns, she declined to allow Chicago to review her medical records, read her deposition in the case, or meet her sons, John, now 17, and Mikey, 16. (Because a limited confidentiality agreement was part of the settlement, she is not allowed to mention Braun’s name in discussing her case.)
Nonetheless, her account provides a rare glimpse into life in a psychiatric ward and into a belief system that is both emotionally torturous and seemingly preposterous. “It is painful and embarrassing to go public with my story, but I need to think of others first,” says Pat, who was inspired by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s courage in facing the media in 1993 after he was falsely accused of child molestation. “My family is blessed to have pulled through this ordeal, but we know others who weren’t so fortunate. Some lost their lives, others their marriages and children. Some have lost their minds. I care that vulnerable people are in a dangerous situation and need help. If it takes media attention to clean up this mess, then fine. I will not go away until psychiatry patients are treated like medical patients and their rights are honored.” Throughout the interviews she was articulate, analytical, and angry when describing her psychiatric treatment and her sons’ lost childhood.
Today, Pat suffers from depression, the condition that drove her into counseling and launched her on a trajectory to Braun. She remains in therapy but no longer takes medication. “One thing went wrong in one place, and it was never corrected,” she says. “So they kept charting the path ahead based on a wrong turn—and they never did straighten it out. It wasn’t until I got away from [Braun] that I realized it was wrong all the way back [in Iowa].”