Editor’s Note: It is the policy of the Hampton Union not to name alleged victims of sexual abuse. In the hope of helping others in her situation, the woman in this story consented to being identified.
EXETER – She’s just 18, but the fate of a state law and of her biological father rests on her shoulders.
Rhianna Bourgelais says her father sexually abused her as a child, but she pushed the memories of the abuse out of her mind, a psychological phenomenon called memory repression. But 10 years later, in 2001, those memories came back. Rhianna told a therapist, who in turn told the police.
Her father, Philip Bourgelais, of Exeter, was charged with 18 related counts and indicted by a grand jury.
Bourgelais’ defense attorney, Andrew Cotrupi, declined to discuss the specifics of the case.
“If the purported victim wants to litigate this in the press, people should wonder why,” said Cotrupi.
When Rhianna decided to press charges against her father, Assistant Rockingham County Attorney Brad Bolton told her he believed in her case but that prosecuting it might be difficult since there was a catch.
As a result of a New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling in 1996 – known as the Hungerford Law – state courts must consider repressed memories unreliable. In order for Rhianna’s memories to be admissible in court, several specific criteria would need to be met.
Essentially, Rhianna’s mind would be put on trial.
Last week a Rockingham County Superior Court judge heard testimony that may shape the way some sexual abuse cases are tried.
At a hearing that began last Tuesday and is scheduled to continue next month, the prosecution hopes to prove not only that Rhianna’s case sufficiently meets the criteria of the law to allow the Bourgelais trial to go forward, but that the science of memory recovery has changed enough since 1996 to merit modifying the Hungerford Law.
“That’s a lot of responsibility for a young woman,” said Bolton. “She’s very courageous, and I have a lot of respect for her.”
For Rhianna, there was never any doubt.
“If I didn’t do it, who would?”
Rhianna Bourgelais will go to court next month to change her last name to Light. That’s her mother Stacey’s name.
Her parents split when she was 2, and for the next few years Rhianna spent time with each of them.
Even before Rhianna began recovering what she believes are memories of sexual abuse, she learned about physical abuse at the hands of her father.
In 2001, when 14-year-old Rhianna was staying with her father in Exeter, a school nurse called Stacey and said her daughter had come to school with bruises.
Rhianna said her father had physically assaulted her at a Water Street business, and at home and in the car. She said the physical abuse was ongoing.
Bourgelais was convicted on three counts of simple assault against his daughter. After that, Rhianna stopped staying with him.
“She loved her father,” Stacey said. “He violated that.”
Later that year, Rhianna started remembering what she said was repeated sexual abuse by her father when she was 6 and 7 years old.
It came first as fragments, as unaccountable feelings of anxiety. Later, she was able to flesh out the details into full-blown memories.
Dan Brown, a Massachusetts psychologist and a pioneer in the science of memory recovery, testified last week in the prosecution’s attempt to modify the Hungerford Law.
“Just because a memory has been repressed doesn’t mean it’s not accurate,” Brown told the court.
Rhianna said that though the memories frightened her when they first began resurfacing, she never doubted they were real.
“It was more denial,” she said. “I didn’t want to believe they happened to me.”
For Rhianna’s mom, as for much of her family, last week’s court hearing was the first time she heard any of the details about the alleged sexual abuse.
“I didn’t really get into specifics with anybody,” said Rhianna. “Everybody is incredibly supportive, but it’s scary having them there in court, too. It was painful for me to hear those things again.”
It’s likely to get worse. Bolton said that when the hearing resumes, Rhianna will take the witness stand to spell out the details of her memories to the court.
The defense will have the opportunity to cross-examine her.
“I suspect it will be difficult for her,” said Bolton. “That wouldn’t be an easy thing for anyone, but especially for a young woman who’s been through what she has.”
There were times when she wanted to give up, she said. In those instances, Bolton and her family gave their assent.
“They said it was OK,” Rhianna explained, “that I didn’t have to do this.
“But every victim of sexual abuse thinks they’re alone,” she said. “It’s not just a surface scratch – it runs deep, and stays with you your whole life; and no matter what you do, therapy or anything, it doesn’t go away. You can’t make it go away.
“I’m not just doing this for me. I’m doing it for all the victims like me.”
To that end, she and her mother hope that victims of similar abuse, and their family members, will turn out at the courthouse wearing teal ribbons when the hearing resumes on Sept. 7, 8 and 10.
“The ribbons show support for victims of sexual abuse, and for the Hungerford Law to be overturned,” Stacey said. “I would love to see people sitting behind my little girl, showing their support.”
Bourgelais’ defense attorney, Andrew Cotrupi, said he’s optimistic about his client’s chances.
“It’s a lot,” he said. “No one understands how the human mind works – and we have the foremost experts in the field.”
He chose not to comment on the specifics of the Bourgelais case other than to say, “We’re not done yet.”
When the hearing resumes, Cotrupi will present his own expert witnesses to refute Brown’s claims and methodologies.
“People should reserve their judgment until they hear both sides,” he said. “So far, they’ve only heard one.”
If the prosecution is successful in proving that Rhianna’s memories meet the Hungerford criteria, Bourgelais can appeal.
Rhianna knows she may turn up empty in her bid. But she’s OK with that, she said, because she’s going through with the trial for more than one reason.
Although she’d like to see Bourgelais punished, she’d also like to help other victims by paving the way for their cases to be heard, she said.
But, mostly, she said, it’s for herself.
“I’d like validation for what I remembered, for what I feel,” she said. “When I first started remembering, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was all I thought about 24 hours a day.”
Her mother said if one good thing has come of all this, it’s that she and Rhianna have grown closer.
“We have a very close relationship,” she said. “We work very hard at it.”
Her fear is that the Hungerford challenge will fail, and Rhianna won’t be given a voice.
“I’m hoping my daughter, who is a victim already, doesn’t become victimized again,” Stacey said. “She had her childhood taken away from her, but she’s voluntarily giving up her teenage years for this.
“I’m so proud of her. I’m proud she’s my daughter.”
It wasn’t always such a close relationship, she said. The custody battle and other obstacles came between them early in Rhianna’s life.
Stacey said she stuck with a lesson her own mother had taught her.
“Never give up on a child,” she said.
But to her surprise, Stacey also learned something from Rhianna.
“She never gave up on me, either.”
The Bourgelais Hungerford hearing will resume Sept. 7 at the Rockingham County Courthouse.
8 criteria for ‘repressed memories’
The genesis of the state’s legal view of repressed memories, known as the Hungerford Law, is a sexual abuse case tried in New Hampshire Superior Court in 1996.
The victim in that case was a woman named Laura who suffered from depression and experienced sexual problems in her marriage. Laura began seeing a therapist in 1992, in her late 20s, when her sister claimed to have recovered memories of being sexually abused by their father, Joel Hungerford.
According to court documents, Laura told her therapist that one of her motivations in seeking therapy was to “explore the possibility that she was sexually abused.” In addition to psychotherapy, Laura began therapy specifically designed to retrieve repressed memories.
Over the course of about 100 sessions, Laura said she remembered several episodes of abuse. Some of her memories returned outside therapy, but many were examined within the confines of her relationship with her therapist.
The details of her memories as outlined in the court documents are graphic.
The therapist told the court at the time she believed that dreams “often are the first signs of emerging memory,” that flashbacks are a “sudden reliving of … sexual abuse,” and that “nightmares are a red flag for the existence of sexual abuse.”
The trial court ruled that a preliminary hearing was required to address the issue of whether such memories were admissible, and that the state would bear the burden of demonstrating that the phenomena of memory repression and recovery are reliable and have gained general acceptance in the psychological community.
The court held a two-week hearing, during which seven experts on both sides of the issue testified.
After the hearing, the trial court defined a repressed memory as “the complete absence of awareness or memory of a traumatic event from the time of its occurrence until a period of years thereafter.”
It also ruled that the state had failed to meet its burden of proving that there was general acceptance of the phenomenon of repressed memories in the psychological community, and that the state had failed to demonstrate that the phenomenon was reliable.
The court ruled that the study of repressed memories should be taken on a case-by-case basis, and established eight criteria for admissibility.
Four concern the reliability of the science.
The other four are specific to the individual whose memories are in question. They cover the age at which the alleged abuse happened, the amount of time lapsed before the memories were recovered and the circumstances around the recovery.
The Hungerford ruling was appealed to the state Supreme Court, and the decision withheld in 1997.
Under the Hungerford law, in order for any case involving repressed memories to be tried, those eight criteria must first be met in a pre-trial hearing.
The Hungerford hearing for the Rhianna Bourgelais case began last Tuesday, and is expected to resume Sept. 7.