Waking to a Nightmare

updated 12/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1992 01:00AM

BARBARA NOËL FELT HERSELF FLOATING toward consciousness. It was Friday, Sept. 21, 1984, and she was in her psychiatrist's office in Chicago, waking from a dose of sodium amytal, a barbiturate he had been giving her in order to help her explore her subconscious. This morning, though, instead of awakening dreamily by herself, she says she felt a weight on top of her. A man was breathing heavily onto her shoulder. Still sedated, Noël moaned and stirred. The breathing stopped, and the body on top of her carefully lifted away. Pretending to sleep, Noël opened her eyes a crack. She could make out a person standing at a sink with his back to her. He was bald, with a tan back and stark white buttocks. Noël's heart stopped. The man, she says, was Dr. Jules Masserman, her psychiatrist of 18 years.

Eight years later, these charges—grippingly described in Noël's new book, You Must Be Dreaming, written with author Kathryn Watterson—have caused a furor in the psychiatric community. Dr. Masserman denies her charges, but he has signed an agreement never to practice therapy again in the U.S., and his insurance company has paid malpractice settlements not only to Noël but to three other women as well. The charges against Masserman, and in similar cases around the country, have prompted the American Psychiatric Association to ask former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to develop recommendations for the protection of patients treated unethically by psychiatrists.

One reason that Noël's allegations have proved so embarrassing for the APA is that Masserman was the organization's president from 1979 to 1980. In fact the charges, first made in 1984, pitted Noël, a Chicago jazz vocalist and big-band singer, against one of the world's most renowned psychiatrists. In addition to his APA post, Masserman, 87, is also a former president of the American Academy for Psychoanalysis and author of 16 books and 410 journal articles. "Masserman was the hardest target Barbara could have picked," says Kenneth Cunniff, the attorney who brought Noël's suit. "Who would believe Barbara Noël? But she told a very compelling story."

Noël first went to see Masserman in 1966. Her marriage to Richard Noël, a singer and musician, was shaky (they divorced in 1975), and she was suffering from headaches, hoarseness and stage fright. After eight months of traditional psychotherapy, Masserman told Noël she was blocking her feelings and suggested that an injection of sodium amytal would give her access to her subconscious. Noël claims that he told her to he on a daybed and remove any binding clothing to enable her body to relax. According to Noël, Masserman injected her with amytal every two to three weeks—sometimes two days in a row—for the next 17 years. The effects of the drug would last up to seven hours.

After one treatment, Noël recalls, she noticed bruises over her pubic bone, but Masserman assured her it was because she had flailed around on the couch while sedated. Another time, says Noël, she awoke to find the bra she had taken off spread across her breasts. When she asked the doctor what had happened, she says he called her a "spoiled brat" and threatened to stop giving her amytal.

The day Noël awoke to find Masserman on top of her, she says, she lay quiet, pretending still to be sedated, for fear that he would turn violent. After he got up, she heard coins jingling in a pocket as he put on his trousers. She claims she heard him walk over to her and felt him pull up her underpants. Carefully, he tucked the sheets around her and closed the door. Still drugged and confused, Noël says she fell back to sleep. She awoke when Masserman flipped the light on and said, "Are you ready to wake up?"

Leaving the office without revealing anything of what she had seen and felt, Noël rushed to her gynecologist, who sent her to a nearby hospital to be examined for traces of semen. (Police who subsequently examined the test results found no evidence of semen.) Finally, she went home and attempted to wash away the incident with repeated showers.

Reached at his home in Chicago, Masserman calls Noël's claims "completely false" and defends treating her with sodium amytal—which is rarely used in psychotherapy—on the grounds that she was "desperate and depressed about her marital difficulties, difficulties with her career and relationships with men. I am not condemning Barbara Noël in any way," he adds calmly. "She may have begun to think that what she had first thought was a dream and a hallucination may have actually happened."

In response to Noël's 1984 civil suit—no criminal charges were ever filed because physical evidence was lacking—Masserman's insurance company settled with her for $200,000 in October 1986. Additional settlements for more than $50,000 were reached with three other patients who had accused him of inappropriate medical treatment and sexual misconduct. Even so, Masserman continued to practice—in November 1986 the president of the World Congress of Social Psychiatry praised him as "the most prominent psychiatrist in the world" at its gathering in Rio de Janeiro. But it wasn't until a year later that, rather than face allegations of misconduct being investigated by what is now the Illinois Department of Professional Regulations, Masserman surrendered his Illinois medical license and his license to prescribe controlled substances.

But Noël wasn't satisfied. Almost a year earlier she had launched a campaign to have Masserman censured by his peers. Remarkably Masserman had remained a member in good standing of the Illinois Psychiatric Society even after surrendering his licenses. Two and a half years later—ethics investigations proceed slowly—the IPS ethics committee met to consider the matter. Another woman patient testified at the hearing that she too had once awakened from amytal to find Masserman on top of her, fondling her breasts. "I think he is a very sick man who [took] advantage of helpless women," says the woman. "The part I have difficulty dealing with today is not knowing whether I was raped."

The evidence presented at the hearing was unsubstantiated, says American Psychiatric Association President Dr. Joseph English, who adds that "the police investigation was unable to find definite evidence of sexual abuse." Thus the professional group decided to uphold Illinois's decision to suspend Masserman for five years only, based on his improper use of amytal as a medical treatment.

Noël says that after her ordeal with Masserman she turned, in 1986, to a woman therapist, who sent her to a program in South Dakota where she dealt with addictions to amytal and alcohol. Noël, who says she was sexually abused by her parents, now deceased, who were music professors at a Southern college, believes that her confusion about issues of sexuality and trust made her a prime victim for Masserman.

"The experience with Masserman hurt me so much that I had to grow up," says Noël. "When I decided to report sexual abuse by my psychiatrist, my character, mental stability and motives were questioned by the legal system and the psychiatric community. I'm a person of greater depth now. And I'm still growing."

SUSAN REED
GIOVANNA BREU in Chicago

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