By Bill Hewitt
Updated May 16, 1994 12:00 PM
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AS GARY RAMONA RECALLS IT, NOTHING could have prepared him for the shock he received al the Western Medical Center in Anaheim, Calif., on March 15, 1990. Ramona had gone there to meet his 19-year-old daughter, Holly, and Marche Isabella, a therapist who had been treating Holly for bulimia. To his surprise, his wife, Stephanie, was also there. Once everyone was settled, Holly got right to the point. “Why did you rape me?” she asked her father.

The day before, Isabella and colleague Dr. Richard Rose had questioned Holly while she was under the influence of sodium amytal, a drug that induces a hypnotic stale. Holly had apparently remembered that her father had sexually abused her as a child. “Isabella said that I was guilty and would have to confess,” says Ramona, now 50.

The four years since that awful day have been a long nightmare for the Ramona family. Stephanie, now 49, filed for divorce the next day. Since then, Gary, who vehemently denies the allegations, has had no contact with her, Holly or his other two daughters, Kelli, 22, and Shauna, 17. By 1991, in the wake of the divorce proceedings and the allegations, Ramona had lost his $300,000-a-year job as a vice president at the Robert Mondavi Winery. In Ramona’s view, blame for all this lies not with Holly—and certainly not with himself—but with Isabella and Dr. Rose, who, he maintains, planted the idea of sexual abuse in his daughter’s mind. “They destroyed my beautiful family,” he says.

So, three years ago, Ramona filed an $8 million malpractice suit against the two therapists and Western Medical Center, the first time a nonpatient has ever initiated such legal action. The civil trial, now under way in Napa, Calif., is being closely watched for the verdict it may render on one of the most controversial areas of modern psychiatry—recovered memory, in which traumatic events long suppressed can supposedly be brought to light. Embraced by supporters as a vital new therapeutic tool, recovered memory has lately come under increased attack as an especially pernicious form of quackery, with the potential for being dangerously abused.

In the case of Holly Ramona, separating fact from fantasy has proved especially difficult. In court testimony, Gary depicted his daughter as enjoying a mostly happy, utterly normal childhood. By contrast, Holly told the court that her father often yelled at the children and was distant. In any event, by the time she reached her mid-teens, Holly was secretly suffering from bulimia. Not until her freshman year at the University of California at Irvine did she seek help. On her mother’s recommendation, she began seeing Isabella, a specialist in eating disorders, in September 1989.

Not long afterward, Holly testified, she started to have brief flashbacks, lasting roughly two to five seconds. “I felt like I was going crazy,” she told the court. In one, she saw what appeared to be her father’s hand on her stomach when she was between 5 and 8 years old. Over a period of months, the random flashbacks became more graphic and repellent, until Holly had visions of a man—again apparently her father—having sex with her and even forcing her to perform sexual acts on her dog. A distraught Holly told Isabella and her mother of the images that she was seeing. “[The] memories,” she told the hushed courtroom, “made me feel dirty and disgusting.

Holly said she wanted to confront her father. But first, just to be sure, she wanted to be interviewed while under the influence of sodium amytal, a procedure she had heard about in a group-therapy session. Isabella testified she was at first reluctant to use the treatment because of doubts about its reliability, but finally decided to refer Holly to Dr. Rose, who was licensed to administer the drug. On March 14, 1990, Rose and Isabella conducted the interview with Holly. When she awoke several hours later, Isabella told her that she had indeed repeated her earlier descriptions of sexual abuse. Now Holly was firmly convinced of her father’s guilt. “I knew the abuse had occurred and my father was the one who molested me,” she said in court. “I’m telling you…it happened!”

Holly’s mother, for one, needed no further convincing. On the stand, Stephanie stated that over the years she had harbored vague suspicions about Gary. She recalled that one time when the girls were young she had returned home unexpectedly to find Kelli wandering in the yard, locked out of the house. Gary came to the door in his underpants, and she found Holly upstairs in their bedroom. Hearing Holly’s accusations of abuse years later, everything clicked. “It was like putting together a puzzle,” she told the court. “I would have given my life if the pieces didn’t fit, but they did.”

Ramona and his legal team maintain that Holly has succumbed to the use of the power of suggestion by manipulative therapists. “The only time [Holly] had memories of her father abusing her was when the doctors told her after the amytal,” said Dr. Park Dietz, an expert witness for the plaintiff. “Before the amytal she couldn’t remember for sure who it was in those images she was having.” Ramona speculates that Holly’s flashbacks of abuse may actually be memories of the time she had to be catheterized for a urinary-tract infection when she was a little girl. As for the wider issue of recovered memory, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, another expert witness called on Gary’s behalf, heaped scorn on the concept. “There is no support for the idea that you can be raped…over a period of years and totally forget about it,” she testified. Says Loftus: “There are a lot of parallels between what’s going on today and the witch craze of the 17th and 18th centuries.”

Yet many researchers believe that some people can bury memories of traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse. “It sort of flies in the face of common sense,” admits Dr. David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and a leading authority on hypnosis and post-traumatic stress. “But I don’t find it incredible.” But Spiegel does caution that clumsy or misguided therapists can easily plant the seed of a false memory.

Gary Ramona is confident that the jury, which is expected to begin deliberating in mid-May, will find in his favor. He says he feels no ill will toward Holly and that his only goal is to clear his name and restore his family. “This has nothing lo do with Holly.” he says. “I love her.” Holly’s sentiments are much more mixed. On the one hand, she says, “I still feel love for my father.” Yet Holly, now a graduate student in psychology at Pepperdine University, sees little chance of a reconciliation, regardless of what the jury may find. At this point she is certain about what happened. “In my heart,” she says, “I’ll always know the verdict.”

BILL HEWITT

LIZ MULLEN in San Francisco