Untying the Gordian Knot: A Return to Reason

Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield*

ABSTRACT: The Country Walk case in Miami, Florida, in which Ileana Fuster confessed, is often used as an example of a day care case where the bizarre, ritualistic abuse was, in fact, corroborated.  Recently however, Ileana Fuster gave a sworn statement in which she described extremely questionable behaviors on the part of her defense attorney, two psychologists, and the state's attorney, Janet Reno. Ileana's statement suggests that her confession was most likely false and was elicited by highly coercive procedures over the two years she was in solitary confinement prior to the trial.  This introduction is followed by the transcript of Ileana's deposition.

In the Fourth Century, B. C., Alexander the Great solved the problem of untying the Gordian knot with one swift slash of his sword.  With this solution to loosening the knot that artfully concealed the ends, Alexander fulfilled the oracle that predicted the person who solved the knot would rule Asia.  Ever since, his swift choice of a reasonable alternative to an intractable problem has served as a paradigm of the exercise of reason to cut quickly through a difficult morass of foolishness.

The transcript of a statement by Ileana Fuster that follows this introductory essay may show how a modern Gordian knot may be cut with a swift, decisive stroke.  At the least this transcript points to how it is beginning to unravel.  It may well lead to an appellate reversal of the conviction of Frank Fuster in the 1986 Country Walk child sexual abuse case in Miami.  It may also result in an opportunity for courageous leaders to remind the entire justice system that there can be no tolerance of malfeasance or misconduct by any prosecutor, including Janet Reno, the Attorney General of the United States.

The unfounded dogmas, theories, assertions of fact, guesses, policies, procedures, early flawed research, techniques, laws, networks of professionals, bureaucracies, politicians, and rhetoric that form the current sexual abuse system, like the Gordian knot, is a huge, tangled mass with no easy way to pick out an end to start untying it.  There may be no sharp blade available to cut through the tightly bundled strands.  But untie it we must.  Scientific analysis of the level of error of the decisions made in accusations of sexual abuse suggests this knotted up system may be doing more harm to more people, children and adults, than it benefits or protects (Wakefield & Underwager, 1994a, 1994b).  It must be changed.

It is important to understand that the development of this flawed contemporary approach to child abuse is an anomaly when the history of psychological investigation of child witnesses is understood (Ceci & Bruck, 1993).  It is an aberrant eruption of irrationality in a situation with few facts.  It may serve as a corrective to past oversights, but the cost is far too high.  The damage done to individuals, to children, to parents, to our nation, and to our culture by this mistaken rush to reach the goal of reducing the abuse done to children is beyond calculation.  Nevertheless, the cost of this folly is beginning to be apparent to more and more people (Armbrister, 1994).

The two cases that alerted the national consciousness to accusations of sexual abuse were the 1984 Jordan, Minnesota sexual abuse allegations and the McMartin case in California, which came to trial several years later although both began at the same time.  In those two instances, there were no convictions but rather sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that adult influence on children produced mistaken accounts.

However, there have also been highly publicized, controversial cases in which there were convictions.  A number of these cases have been used to support and validate the dogmas and speculations that make up and maintain the massive knot we face.  The Miami Country Walk case is one of them.  If these cases, which are cited to prove claims otherwise quite vulnerable to a reasoned skepticism, are overturned or reversed, it helps us return to rational efforts to improve the accuracy of decisions.

There are two processes going on that are loosening the strands and opening up the possibility of a return to a more reasoned and accurate way to make decisions about accusations of child sexual abuse.  The first is in the science of psychology where continuing research is producing more clarity and more accurate knowledge of the factors involved.  This development is carefully described by Ceci (1994).  The growing body of more ecologically valid research with greater specificity leads him to conclude that, on balance, the weight is on the side of the defense concern about false allegations and adult behaviors toward children that increase the likelihood of false positives.  In addition to the growing body of more adequate research in memory; suggestibility, and social influence, we are also beginning to understand at least a little bit more about how to increase the accuracy of the decisions made.

The second process that is beginning to unravel the knot is in the justice system where, after several years, appellate reviews are recognizing some of the errors that have been made and are moving to correct them.  While there are many appellate decisions involving lesser known cases, some of the high visibility and highly controversial convictions are being overturned as well.  The possibility of false accusations and wrongful convictions is evident in many cases that have been overturned on appeal.  The most recent highly visible instance has been the decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court in the Kelly Michaels case (State v. Michaels, 136 NJ 299, Supreme Court of New Jersey, 642 Atlantic Reporter, 2d, 1372).  We were witnesses in the defense case in that trial and find it heartening that the New Jersey Supreme Court validates and affirms the testimony we gave in that case.  The decision also establishes a procedure for a "taint hearing."  If the defense can demonstrate a reasonable cause to believe adult influence on children in the course of disclosure, investigation, or therapy, has tainted or contaminated their statements, then the state has the burden of proof in a pretrial hearing to demonstrate that the statements are reliable enough to be admissible in a trial.  A summary of other review decisions is Mason (1991) who reviews 122 appellate decisions involving child sexual abuse cases.  There have been many more since then, of course.

The Country Walk case in Miami, 1986, in which Frank Fuster was convicted primarily on the basis of a purported confession by his young wife, Ileana, has been cited frequently by the proponents of a prosecutorial view.  There were incriminating statements by a number of children but it is also the case that there is ample evidence of extremely leading, coercive, and suggestive interviewing and investigation of the children.

The conviction and Ileana's purported confession are claimed to demonstrate that children's accounts can be reliable even when they have been subjected to coercive, leading, and repeated interviews (Goodman, Aman, & Hirschman, 1987).  Crewdson (1988) asserts that this case proves the allegations of satanic, ritualistic abuse are true even when accounts by children seem bizarre and impossible.  Finkelhor, Williams, and Burns (1988) use it to show that individuals establish day care centers for the express purpose of abusing children, that abuse occurs in family day care settings, that women procure children for men to abuse, that it corroborates ritualistic abuse, that it proves criminal record checks must be required of day care employees, that children in day care are at high risk for molestation, that attractive children are abused more frequently and systematically, that children are forced to sexually abuse other children, that children are drugged, that parents miss obvious signs that abuse is going on, that fantastic accounts by children can be believed because this case corroborated them, that parental pressure to pursue an investigation is desirable, that parents and investigators should be partners in the investigation, that strong cases can pressure perpetrators to confess, that media coverage can aid a prosecution, and, finally, that angry parents who organize can accomplish desired changes in policy and law.  Summit (1993) maintains the Country Walk case refutes the defense claim that children can be indoctrinated by adults to produce accounts of abuse.

The conviction of Frank Fuster in the Country Walk trial is now in the first stages of an appeal seeking review by higher courts.  The appeal is based on the claim of new evidence emerging after the conviction.  The new evidence includes the recent scientific research mentioned as the first unraveling factor.  The second is the development of evidence strongly suggesting that Ileana's confession was coerced and that it is the product of improper, unethical, and possibly even illegal acts by attorneys, mental health professionals, and the then Dade County District Attorney, Janet Reno.

The first public indication of evidence that the confession cannot be seen simply as full and reliable corroboration of all the accusations was in the article by Debbie Nathan (1993), "Revisiting Country Walk," published in this journal.  Nathan carefully and responsibly investigated the facts available, interviewed many of the persons involved, and presents hard data demonstrating that Ileana's defense attorney had strong motivation to get out of the case and cooperate with the prosecution, even to the extent of proffering a confession before she had confessed.  He brought in two psychologists who engaged in intense, highly coercive procedures to elicit a confession.  During this effort, the psychologist reported that Janet Reno visited Ileana in her cell at least 30 times.  Nathan shows that, even in what is supposed to be the corroborating confession given in court, Ileana denied any guilt and claimed she was innocent.

Following the appearance of that article, during the time when Janet Reno was nominated and subsequently confirmed as Attorney General of the United States, several other print media raised the question of Reno's involvement in this coercive effort and suggested the possibility of a forced false confession.  Now we have a statement, under oath, by Ileana Fuster that substantiates and affirms Nathan's account.  She describes her experience from her arrest to the trial and her forced testimony.

Ileana's statement, if accurate, presents an astonishing portrayal of coercive, inhumane, unjust, and emotional and psychological torture, perpetrated by a justice system that has abandoned any pretense of seeking justice for all, but is concerned only with winning cases.  To be sure, the District Attorney's office did not use thumb screws, the rack, or electric shock.  But psychological and emotional techniques devised to reduce a human being to an obedient, compliant, and cooperative slave were inflicted upon a 17-year-old woman who came to this country to seek a better life but found horror.

We do not believe that this young woman could have the sophistication, knowledge, or imagination to fabricate her account given in the transcript.  We believe the details and the description she gives could only come from having gone through the experiences she relates.  When she says that she remembers other things from that period but then says she has no memory of any abuse, this is the way human memory actually works.

When you read Ileana's statement you will find a high level of correspondence between what was done to her and the descriptions of the coercive techniques used with captive Americans analyzed by Lifton (1961) and Schein (1961) following the Korean war.  Lifton describes twelve psychological steps in the process of coercing a confession.  First is the assault upon identity in which a person is placed "in the position of an infant or sub-human animal, helplessly manipulated by larger and stronger adults."  Second is the establishment of guilt by the infallible environment, "You are guilty," and the psychologically demanding, "You must learn to feel guilty."  Third is self-betrayal in denouncing friends and colleagues and accepting "help" and in turn helping others.  Fourth is the breaking point when the total environment is understood to be inflexible and the "stubborn criminal" has to change.  Then follows leniency and kindness where the total environment does not budge but lets up on the pressure sufficiently for the prisoner to absorb its values and adapt to them.  The next step is the compulsion to confess because only those who confess will survive.  Once this is begun, then the guilt is channeled into reinterpretation of events.  Next comes re-education during which the prisoner is faced with endless repetition of the required "truths" until he thinks and feels in terms of the new reality.  When the no longer strange total environment is accepted, a sense of harmony is nurtured by receiving positive reinforcements.  The final confession and summing up is the delivery of a correct and acceptable version (pp. 67-85).

Schein's (1961) analysis of the reports and descriptions he studied as an Army research psychologist includes three successive stages labeled "unfreezing," "changing," and "refreezing."  He provides detailed analysis of each of these three steps and discusses the factors needed to bring about the change.  Unfreezing is overcoming the resistance of the prisoner to confessing something that is not true.  This is accomplished by the influence agent strengthening the forces toward confession and weakening the forces against confession.  Almost all of the ways Schein describes how this is done are evident in the account of Ileana.  Once unfrozen, the influence agent provides guidance for altering beliefs.  This is changing.  Then come refreezing or fixing the prisoner in the changed beliefs.

The steps to accomplish this are set forth.  First is precipitation of an identity crisis.  Then comes the induction of a motive to find acceptable beliefs about the self within the total environment.  The third step is providing information helpful to the prisoner in finding acceptable beliefs.  Fourth is presentation of another person whose identity is acceptable to the total environment.  This is followed by identification with the other person.  Finally, what the other person says is accepted as credible information (Schein, 1961, pp. 117-139)

This brief summary of these two reports cannot do full justice to the close parallels between their description of the coercive process that produced false confessions and the experience described by this young woman.  We urge you to read carefully through the statement, then obtain Lifton's and Schein's reports and study them in light of what you have learned about the things done to Ileana in Dade County, Florida.

Another documented instance where coercive persuasion led to false confessions of child sexual abuse, including bizarre and impossible ritualistic and satanic behaviors, is the Paul Ingram case in Washington.  The procedures and techniques used in eliciting erroneous confessions that led to subjective belief by Ingram are similar to those evident in the statement by Ileana and Nathan's 1993 article.  What was done to Paul Ingram is described by Ofshe (1992), Ofshe and Watters (1994), and Wright (1993).  Although there are many similarities, Ileana's experience includes even more severe and unconscionable acts by the authorities than are found in the Ingram record.  In the Ingram case, for example, there is no indication of two years of solitary confinement, enforced nakedness, freezing cold, special evenings at restaurants, or multiple visits by the District Attorney.

The psychologists, sent by the defense attorney, also used hypnotic procedures, fantasy inductions, memory work as the recovered memory therapists do it, interminably repeated questions, anger, pressure, mockery, affection, rewards, and reinforcements.  Ileana was kept in solitary confinement, often naked and cold, for over two years.  She had no contact with people other than those who created a total environment of pressure and conformity.  At least twice she was taken out to a restaurant for dinner by investigators from the District Attorney's office.  Often, while the psychologists applied their coercive techniques, Janet Reno sat next to her holding her hand.  Such close cooperation, if not collusion, between prosecutor and defense attorney is quite unusual, to say the least.  If outlined in a human rights report to Amnesty International or the United States Congress, the methods endorsed, approved, and practiced by Ms. Reno would "justly be called brainwashing" (Cockburn, 1993).

The article by Nathan and the statement by Ileana Fuster present a picture that suggests Janet Reno suborned perjury.  At the very least, it indicates that Reno either approved or allowed procedures and techniques that are so coercive that the best comparison is the techniques and approaches used by the Chinese with American prisoners of war.

If this were the only time Janet Reno directed a questionable child sexual abuse prosecution, it might be seen as an isolated instance of poor judgment.  However, Reader's Digest, hardly an extremist publication, carefully examined the case of Bobby Fijnje, a 14-year-old lad prosecuted by Reno in 1991 (Armbrister, 1994).  This report shows that Reno, once again, presided over an inept, coercive investigation in which little children were led to produce accounts of events that clearly could not have happened.  The Reader's Digest description of this includes a closing comment: "Then you had an ambitious State Attorney who wanted to make a name for herself.  The result was a tragic miscarriage of justice" (Armbrister, 1994, p. 40).

When it was first announced that Ms. Reno was being considered for nomination for the Attorney General's office, the article by Nathan (1993), published in this journal was faxed to the White House.  Assuming it was read by someone, the administration of President Clinton proceeded with her nomination with knowledge of the likelihood that Reno may have behaved very badly in coercing the confession from Ileana.  In addition to this, Bob Fijnje, who had a distinguished career in the Dutch Foreign Service, father of Bobby, "sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee; in it he charged that Reno had 'abused my son by her actions and robbed him of one year, eight months and one week of his life' (Armbrister, 1994, p. 40).  Nothing happened.  Nobody talked to the Fijnjes.  No senator even questioned her about the case or the Country Walk case.  She was confirmed by the Senate without a dissenting vote.

No one pursued any inquiry then.  Even with the addition of the statement from Ileana, an investigation of this case may well never occur.  Janet Reno is now the chief law enforcement official in the country, a fact which should cause considerable alarm.  It may also mean that no one will dare attend to the credible evidence of at least strikingly poor judgment if not wrongdoing.  Established power does not deal with perceived threats to its position with empathy, understanding, or admission of error.  In his nomination of Reno, President Clinton cited her record in prosecuting child abuse and said it shows "She has truly put people first" (Armbrister, 1994, p. 40).  This may be another instance of the ambiguous attitude toward truth that many American citizens believe characterizes this administration.

In her first press conference Reno said she was personally opposed to the death penalty but that, as prosecutor, when she believed the evidence and the law justified it, she consistently asked for it.  At least since the days of Thomas More and Henry VIII there has been a strong tradition in our culture that when desires of the sovereign, laws, or policies are morally and intellectually repugnant to you, you do not take jobs or responsibilities that require you to act against your conscience.  This principle was clearly enforced in the Nuremberg trials following World War II.  Cockburn (1993) observes that Reno's position is no different than Adolf Eichmann who said he, too, was opposed to the Final Solution but went ahead with the calculations of how many Jews could be forced into a cattle car on their way to the gas chambers.

Reno's readiness to respond with poor judgment when there is an allegation of child sexual abuse and her willingness to put the requirements of the job ahead of her own moral persuasions may well have come to fruition in the conflagration at Waco where 87 American citizens, including 17 children, died under the treads of American battle tanks.  She said that night, after the nation had watched the killing flames all day, that her decision to invade the compound was prompted by the report of sexual abuse of children in the community in Waco (Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b).  The official FBI report on the tragedy acknowledges that the report of sexual abuse was false.

While it is troublesome that ambitious individuals with records of disastrous errors in judgment can rise to positions of high authority and considerable influence, both in mental health professions and the justice system, it is more common than most realize.  Yet there is also hope that the continued shared search for factual knowledge in both areas can ultimately prevail.  Science has a built in corrective that, while there may be a delay until sufficient facts are known, uncovers errors.  The justice system, when wrongdoing is known and acknowledged to have produced error, seeks exposure of the wrongdoing and righting the injustice.  However, this requires strong and courageous leadership by someone with sufficient position to run the risks.

Surely, we all understand that it is good to protect children from abuse.  But in order to do this, we must strive for the most accurate decisions possible.  In this manner the confusing and puzzling Gordian knot can be untied and we can pursue true justice and good lives for our children together.

If the appeal in the Country Walk case is successful and the admission of the coerced confession is recognized as a reversible error, there will be a powerful precedent that may well permit the review of other cases where the presence of similar factors can be shown.  Justice may finally be granted to innocent persons who have been victims of error in a justice system gone crazy.  Such a shift in the direction of more attention to accuracy will be beneficial to adults and children alike.  It is essential for the well being of the nation as well. No nation can long endure such institutionalized and systematic error in the justice system to which citizens look for fairness and protection of their liberties (Tyler, 1984; 1990).


Armbrister, T. (1994, January). Justice gone crazy. Reader's Digest, pp. 33-40.

Ceci, S. (1994). Cognitive and social factors in children's testimony. In B. Sales & G. R. Vandenbos (Eds.), Psychology in Litigation and Legislation (Paperback) (pp. 13-54). Washington, D. C. American Psychological Association.

Ceci, S. J., & Bruck, M. (1993). The suggestibility of the child witness: A historical review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 403-439.

Cockburn, A. (1993, March 8). Beat the devil, Janet Reno's coerced confession. The Nation, pp.296-297.

Crewdson, J. (1988). By Silence Betrayed: Sexual Abuse of children in America (Out of Print)(Out of Print). Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Finkelhor, D., Williams, L. M., & Burns, N. (1988). Nursery Crimes (Paperback). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Goodman, G. S., Aman, C., & Hirschman, J. (1987). Child sexual and physical abuse: Children's testimony. In S. J. Ceci, M. P. Toglia, & D. F. Ross (Eds.), Children's Eyewitness Memory (Hardcover) (pp.1-24), New York: Springer-Verlag. p. 1-23.

Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought Reform and the Psychology of totalism. A Study of "Brainwashing" in China (Paperback Reprint edition). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Mason, M. A. (1991). A judicial dilemma: Expert witness testimony in child sex abuse cases. Journal of Psychiatry and Law, Fall-Winter, 185-219.

Nathan, D. (1993). Revisiting Country Walk. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 5(1), 1-11.

Ofshe, R. J. (1992). Inadvertent hypnosis during interrogation: False confession due to dissociative state; mis-identified multiple personality and the satanic cult hypothesis. The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 40(3), 125-156.

Ofshe, R., & Watters, E. (1994). Making monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria (Paperback Reprint). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Schein, E. H. (1961). Coercive Persuasion (Out of Print). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Summit, R. (1993). Uses and abuses of research. In J. Waterman, R. Kelly, M. K. Oliveri, & J. McCord, Behind the Playground Walls (Hardcover) (pp. 261-277). New York: Guilford Press.

Tyler, T. R. (1984). The role of perceived injustice in defendant's evaluations of their courtroom experience. Law and Society Review, 18(1), 51-74.

Tyler, T. R. (1990). Why People Obey the Law (Out of Print). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wakefield, H. & Underwager, R. (1994a). The alleged child victim and real victims of sexual abuse. In J. J. Krivacska & J. Money (Eds.), The Handbook of Forensic Sexology (Hardcover) (pp.223-264). Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Wakefield, H., & Underwager. R. (1994b). Return of the Furies (Paperback). Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing.

Wright, L. (1993, May 17 & 24). Remembering Satan: Part I & Part II. New Yorker, pp. 60-83, & pp.54-76.

* Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield are psychologists at the Institute for Psychological Therapies, 5263 130th Street East, Northfield, MN 55057-4880[Back]


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