Cult of Madness

Seeking help for depression, Martha Hurt turned to therapists. That's when her insanity truly began.

In a small, nondescript room in Charter Hospital in Plano, a disheveled, glassy-eyed woman rocks in a chair as she speaks in a little girl's voice to her therapist. At this moment, 33-year-old Martha Hurt believes she is a 12-year-old girl named Mawsa, whose parents made her do unspeakable things.

In this therapy session, captured on videotape in February 1992, psychologist Stephen Ash asks Hurt to re-enact one of the times she murdered and mutilated a baby as part of a satanic cult ritual -- one of several babies she supposedly gave birth to for the cult.

"Did you love all the babies?" Ash asks.

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Mark Graham
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Therapy made Martha Hurt sicker and ultimately shattered her relationship with her husband and children, seen here in 1990.
Therapy made Martha Hurt sicker and ultimately shattered her relationship with her husband and children, seen here in 1990.

"Will my babies go to heaven?" a wide-eyed Hurt replies.

"I think so," he says.

"My babies were little bitty, and I was little. The baby came out, and I was so tired. Daddy gave me a knife. He didn't ever get to have his eyes open. Does Jesus want me to talk about this?" Hurt asks meekly.

"It's so you can forget about it," Ash reassures his patient.

Hurt wrings her hands as she describes a roomful of robed people celebrating. Ash asks her whether she has something on her hands.

"Blood is on my hands, because I killed my babies," she says, sobbing.

"How?"

"With a big knife. I stuck it in the baby's chest."

"You had to do it," Ash says.

"My daddy said I had to do it. I had to get the stuff out of the baby and give it to my daddy. I don't like to talk about it 'cause my babies was killed and they didn't let me love them for a minute."

"You have to," Ash insists, "to get over it."

As Ash holds his patient's hand, an obviously distraught Hurt talks about cutting out the baby's heart and eating it, how they cut up the baby and put it in a pot to burn it up, and how a machine sucked up the blood.

"And you can't cry, or they'll kill you," Hurt says.

"That was true," Ash says, "but it is not true anymore."

But it wasn't true. There were no babies, no satanic cult, no ritual murders. There was only Martha Poe Hurt, an Arlington wife and mother of three, who initially sought assistance from therapists for marital problems and depression only to be led on a seven-year descent into madness that she now believes was caused by the very professionals she turned to for help.

Martha Hurt's journey from depression to full-blown insanity is a case study in the damage done by specialists in multiple personality disorder and recovered memories -- widespread and widely discredited fads that swept through the mental-health profession in the last two decades. Within months of her seeking their assistance, her therapists convinced her that she had suffered satanic ritual abuse so traumatizing that it caused her to splinter into more than a dozen separate personalities.

That Hurt had no memory of the abuse and that no one detected these disparate personae before she entered therapy didn't seem to matter. In fact, when Hurt challenged the diagnosis, her therapists told her she was in denial. During the years she was in therapy, she became sicker. She was hospitalized three times, attempted suicide on numerous occasions, and mutilated her body with a cigarette lighter.

The sicker she got, the more isolated she became. Convinced her family was trying to draw her back into the murderous cult, she refused to have anything to do with them. She withdrew from her husband and children until they wanted nothing to do with her.

But slowly, painfully, Hurt came to believe that it was her therapy that had driven her mad.

"This is a cult about a cult," she says. "...It was clear these doctors did to me exactly what they said my family did. They isolated me, fed me lies, and made me crazy."

Hurt is far from alone. Thousands of people, most of them white, middle-class women from North America, sought treatment for relatively conventional psychological problems only to be convinced they had been victims of terrible abuse. Many of them, like Hurt, eventually came to understand that the lunatic fringe of the mental-health world had taken them in.

In the last five years, several hundred of these women have sued their therapists for malpractice and in the process accomplished what the mental-health field did not, or could not, do -- restrain an industry out of control.

Last year, as Hurt began to reclaim her life, she filed suit against her doctors and therapists. Last week, the parties met for their first court-ordered mediation session.

None of the defendants named in this story would comment. Lawyer Rock Grundman, the husband of counselor Mary Ellen Grundman, who treated Hurt at Charter, claims lawyers interested solely in financial gain cooked up Hurt's case. "You've seen a few cases over the years that have come down with enormous verdicts, and that leads to many lawyers trying to imitate them," says Grundman, who is representing his wife. "And that has led to testimony from people who appear to have qualifications who are willing to talk for large fees about something which they have no or little knowledge."

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