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Who Was Richard Gardner, The Controversial Doctor Behind The Parental Alienation Syndrome Theory?

Woody Allen’s claim Mia Farrow brainwashed their children was in sync with the deeply controversial ideas of Richard Gardner and his disputed theory as they went to court in 1993.

By Kevin Dolak
Allen Farrow Family Hbo

A fresh chapter in the now decades-long public battle between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow opened in the spring of 1993 when they headed to a New York court for a bitter custody case. Allen had filed a lawsuit against the actor to gain custody of the three kids the former couple had or both adopted while together. Central to Allen's case was his assertion that Farrow, who had been his partner for nine years, had brainwashed their children into believing that he had sexually molested their adopted daughter, Dylan, during an afternoon visit to Farrow’s home the previous year. 

Allen’s counterclaim of brainwashing was in sync with the deeply controversial ideas of Dr. Richard Gardner, the American child psychologist who years earlier had introduced the term and theory of “parental alienation syndrome” to his field.

Gardner was the author of more than 40 books and hundreds of academic papers on many child psychology topics, from how children can cope with divorce to atypical sexuality. A clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University beginning in 1963, he became known for developing child play therapy and even invented the first therapeutic board game — today a common tool among child therapists; he’s considered to have been a pioneer on this front. But his career is perhaps now most associated with his advocacy for fathers in custody battles as divorce became more normalized in the 1970s. 

In the 1980s, Gardner had become increasingly interested in false sexual abuse claims. This was amid the implementation of mandatory reporting laws and after the release of the widely disputed but successful 1980 book “Michelle Remembers,” which deals with recovered memory and which played a notable role in the subsequent “satanic panic” phenomenon. In 1987, Gardner published his book, “The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse,” which introduced the controversial term. His theory of PAS was entirely based on his experience, and not clinical research. 

PAS typically comes in the context of child custody disputes, as Gardner wrote. In his words, it manifests “in the child's campaign of denigration against the parent, a campaign that has no justification.” The preferred parent can do no wrong; the non-preferred parent can do no right, according to his theory. He believed that this involved conscious, subconscious, and unconscious factors from the closer parent and that years later, the child may justify the alienation with memories of minor altercations with the targeted parent: a raised voice, a years-old slight, or a disagreement. The child typically becomes obsessed with hating that parent. 

At the time of his book’s publication, this idea was deeply controversial in the psychology community. While the idea of alienation processes has been accepted and understood as a behavior, Gardner was criticized for his theory being incomplete, simplistic, and erroneous. When alienation processes occur, as was discussed in the American Journal of Family Law in 1996, family members take on a role as it unfolds; this mostly happens well before the divorce event. Meanwhile, the use of the term “syndrome” was widely rejected as it leads only to confusion and mistaken comparisons to battered child syndrome, it was argued. In 2013, PAS was rejected from the fifth edition of the Physicians’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. However, DSM-V does contain diagnoses that reflect the mental illness of this phenomenon within families.

Since its introduction by Gardner, PAS has been used as a legal justification and admitted in courts in some instances, but hasn’t been widely accepted by the legal world, psychologists or child abuse experts. Akin to its inclusion in some DSM-V diagnoses, the derivative term of “parental alienation” has gained wider acceptance and is seen as a potential family dynamic element — and one not just occurring during divorce; its potential to be initiated by the mother or father is understood — which is in contrast to Gardner’s original framing, as he indicated mothers as primarily the alienating parent. In the years after he introduced his PAS theory and testified in many court cases, Gardner became a villain and hero to women’s and men’s rights groups, respectively. He defended what he said were misconceptions about himself and his work in a 2002 American Journal of Family Therapy article.

When the sensational Allen v. Farrow custody case was heard over several months in 1993, Gardner’s perspective was frequently sought by members of the media. Given the psychologist’s body of work and how closely the couple’s battle lined up with his theorizing, he naturally came down on Allen’s side — at one point telling Newsweek that “screaming sex abuse is a very effective way to wreak vengeance on a hated spouse.” Though he didn’t testify in this court case, he did take the stand in more than 400 cases over his career, frequently on behalf of fathers accused of child molestation. Notably, Gardner also worked on the appeal of Kelly Michaels, a teacher at the Wee Care Day Nursery in New Jersey who was accused of child abuse; his testimony helped overturn her earlier guilty verdict in 1993 after she spent five years in prison.

As is briefly alluded to on a title card in the “Allen v Farrow” docuseries, Gardner had some extreme views of pedophilia. This first appeared in his 1992 book, ''True and False Accusations of Child Sex Abuse,'' where he wrote that pedophilia is an “accepted practice among literally billions of people.'' He also lumped pedophilia in with other forms of human sexual behavior like sadism, necrophilia, and zoophilia as having “species survival value” and therefore should not be excluded from so-called "natural forms of human sexual behavior.'" He clarified this in his 2002 American Journal of Family Therapy article, writing that his belief is that humans have the potential to develop any of the forms of atypical sexuality.

“This does not mean I sanction these abominations,” he wrote.

Gardner remained at Columbia University until he died on May 25, 2003 by suicide at his home in New Jersey. His son said that he had advancing symptoms of reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a painful neurological syndrome. He was 72.

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