[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

Photograph by Paul Myers

Trust Busted: One of the female patients who says sex was part of Dr.Ian Wickram's 'treatment' now says, 'He violated us in every way.'

A Touch Too Much

Stanford's world-renowned Dr. Ian Wickram had a reputation for excellence in alternative medical treatments using biofeedback. But there was more to his treatments of young, female clients than meets the eye.

By Allie Gottlieb

* Note to reader: To protect the privacy of the victims, the story does not use their real names.

Many people who have stress-related pain aren't even aware of what they're fearful or angry about.

--Ian Wickramasekera, Ph.D., as quoted earlier this year in Shape Magazine.

WHEN JEN, a 25-year-old concert pianist, signed on for biofeedback treatments at Stanford in October 1999, it was because she felt she had nothing to lose. She had already tried doctor-prescribed drugs, reike, hypnosis, rolfing and other treatments to quell the crippling pain and numbness in her hands and arms, and nothing had worked.

"The problem that I had was sort of bizarre," recalls Jen, now 28, who started playing piano at the age of 4. "My hands and arms would go from being totally numb to feeling so much pain that I just couldn't ... I mean, I literally couldn't feel the [piano] keys. Or else it was just so painful to touch anything. I felt like I had knives going through my body."

She researched treatments on the web and found San Francisco's Saybrook Graduate School & Research Center, an accredited distance-learning school focused on humanistic psychology, a sprawling umbrella of integrative therapies that includes biofeedback. She called the school for advice, and professors directed her to one of the star players in the now 3-decade-old biofeedback field, Dr. Ian E. Wickramasekera.

"My first impression was good," says Jen, recalling her meeting with Dr. Wickram, as he is usually called, who was teaching at both Saybrook and Stanford at the time, in addition to seeing patients through Stanford both on-and off-campus. "I thought he seemed like a very respectable person. He seemed like he knew what he was doing."

Wickram's method incorporated biofeedback, which meant hooking Jen up to a machine that reads physiological signals through sensors placed on her, and identifying what Jen's body had to say about its stress and when and how it was triggered. Biofeedback also includes more common operations like temperature and pulse taking.

But from the beginning, Jen says, Wickram's treatment took on puzzling and unorthodox overtones--late-night sessions, hugging, stroking her hands, confessing that he was horny, reading to her from the book Lusty Limericks.

He diagnosed Jen as sexually repressed, something he set about treating with a combination of psychotherapy modes. "I didn't really know what to think," she says. "I'd never had a boyfriend. I'd never even been on a single date at the time I went to see him. So, I was extremely inexperienced in that realm.

"I don't think that [sexual repression] was contributing to my symptoms," she says, upon reflection. "But I feel that in terms of the mind and body, a lot of things are connected. So, I thought that it was possible that it could be a contributing factor."

Gradually, Jen says, Wickram touched her more and more, even though she told him it made her feel sick to the point of throwing up. Between October and late November 1999, "things had really started to escalate," she says. At one point, he directed her to take off her shirt. She says she told him she didn't want to. "Don't you want to get better," he pressed, Jen recalls. "Don't you want to play the piano? You have to keep pushing the envelope. ... Don't be a baby."

She says, "I felt incredibly uncomfortable, and if I hadn't been getting better, I probably would have walked out the door. But the problem was he convinced me that he was the only person that could help me."


I am committed to the integration of the mind-body and spirit perspective in the domain of health care. ... I am further committed to the goal of making psychology the primary health care science and profession for all chronic stress-related diseases in the 21st century.

--Wickram, quoted in Saybrook literature

Wickram, 64, pleaded no contest in August to felony charges of sexually exploiting his patients. A name well known to most alternative-psychology practitioners, Wickram is a frequent lecturer and speaker, giving addresses at conferences like the 1999 fall meeting of the Biofeedback Society of Illinois at Loyola Medical Center, the 1998 Biofeedback Society of California's 24th-annual convention "The Heart and Mind of Biofeedback," and "Brain and Behavior: Allies in Health," the 17th-annual Biofeedback Society of California's Conference in 1991.

Widely published in academic and trade journals, and interviewed as an expert in mainstream publications such as the glossy health-store magazine Shape, he has also sat on many association boards, including stints as president of the Biofeedback Society of Illinois board of directors from 1976 to 1977, as president of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback and as president of the Society of Psychological Hypnosis, a division of the American Psychological Association, from 1995 to 1996.

He's been licensed to practice psychology in Indiana, Illinois, Virginia and California, and he has taught at medical schools in Virginia, Illinois and California, where he has helped shaped many a doctoral dissertation. A Saybrook list of doctoral research in progress that was updated in May shows Wickram as the professor working with one student on her research about driving under the influence, with another on hers about biofeedback and with a third, who's male, about sex offenders.

According to Saybrook's catalog, Wickram has a B.A. from London University, an M.A. from Roosevelt University and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, which he earned in 1969. He also has Diplomates (specialized certifications) in Experimental Hypnosis and Clinical Psychology. He describes himself in his faculty literature as an expert in "hypnosis, biofeedback, the unconscious mind, mind-body medicine, clinical and experimental parapsychology and spirituality as a coping skill and its effects on morbidity and mortality."

In addition to his full professor position at Saybrook, at the time the school's catalog was printed his credentials included being a consulting professor at the Stanford Medical School, an attending clinical psychophysiologist also at Stanford and a professor of family and community medicine at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va.

A client who did not wish to be named said that Wickram is married to a former graduate student, whom he has worked into his practice, where she hooks patients up to the biofeedback machine, schedules appointment and sometimes drives patients home. Wickram lives in Tracy and has practiced in Pinole and from his apartments in Mountain View and Palo Alto.

Wickram could not be reached for comment, as his home phone number was disconnected. His lawyer, John Casenave, refused to return a reporters' phone calls.

One former doctoral student, who asked not to be identified, says he got to know Wickram pretty well while working under him on his dissertation and describes Wickram as "despotic," "brilliant" and "one of the most popular, dynamic, energetic lecturers [such] that all the other professors were jealous."

He also says he witnessed Wickram's strange interaction with female students. "If a woman would let her guard down and reveal problems in her life, it would basically be a signal for him to approach her on a different level," he says. "It was almost like he was testing her to see if he would submit to his come-ons."

Dr.Ian Wickram

Arm Twisting

Jen emphasizes how important it was to her for her hands to get better. A cure certainly would have been worth the $22,000 she wound up paying Wickram for his services. And, after seeing Wickram, she says, her hands started to feel better. But the improvement came with a major tradeoff. In April 2000, Wickram convinced Jen to have sex with him as part of her treatment, for which he charged $300 per visit.

"And then one night, he just showed up at my hotel," Jen says. This was in June 2000, eight months into her sessions. "The second I opened the door, he was just trying to get into my pants. And he was very different from how he'd been the other times in the sessions with me. When he convinced me to do sexual things, he was gentle. And this particular occasion, he wasn't at all.

"I told him that I didn't want to have sex and that we agreed we wouldn't have sex anymore, and he just wouldn't stop." Jen says he grabbed her arms, pinned them down with one hand and pulled down her pants with the other.

"He was grabbing my arms and hurting them, and I remember thinking, he's going to break the one thing he just finished fixing. I saw a side of him that just didn't make sense," she says, "until later."

Upset, she went to see him once more after that. She also ran into him at conferences, where he made sexual advances, and she refused them. He continued to counsel her over the phone until April 2002, when she found out a fact that would change her perception of him and his treatment forever.

Repression, The Sequel

It was in December 2000, six months after Jen had stopped attending sessions, that Janet, a 28-year-old health-care worker living in San Jose, sought treatment for a hand injury. Stanford Hospital referred her to Wickram, and in January she started attending sessions.

He began by telling her she was sexually repressed, gradually touching her more and more and taking off her clothing. He assigned her the task of reading a book about masturbation at home, and masturbating, and he became angry when she refused.

"This wasn't some schmuck psychologist hiding in some podunk clinic," says Janet, explaining her feelings at the time. "He's a highly published scholar, at Stanford. ... I felt honored to be treated by someone of his stature."

And yet his methods were making Janet uncomfortable. By the end of 2001, Wickram had convinced her to start coming to his apartment for sessions. On Feb. 6, Wickram convinced her that sexual stimulation would contribute to her healing.

She talks graphically about the ordeal--how he rubbed his penis around the rim of her vagina; how she said, "No, Dr. Wickram"; how he assured her he wouldn't penetrate so she'd relax; and how he then forcefully pushed himself inside her. He took her to eat at Denny's afterward and then to his other apartment in Mountain View, where they had sex again.

Like Jen, Janet was confused about the turn of events. She contacted every expert she could think of--a priest, a rape counselor and a parade of other doctors--to check on whether sex between a psychotherapist and patient should ever figure into treatment.

She was given a clear message. "He is sick," she says. "He violated us in every possible way."

On Feb. 21, Janet called the Palo Alto police to report a sex crime. She told them about the after-hour, off-campus sessions with Wickram at his apartments in Mountain View and Palo Alto. She talked about how earlier that month Wickram had sex with her. The police report spares few details.

"The victim said Wickram placed his fingers in her vagina and told her that she needed to have positive feelings in her body," states Detective Natasha Powers' police report. "Later he told her that they were soul mates and then placed his penis on her vagina. During this time, Wickram told the victim that he was her friend, her doctor and her lover. Wickram then ejaculated on her." They later had intercourse.

"During the interview, it was clear the victim was upset, scared and confused," Powers wrote. "At the time of the first interview, she was convinced that Wickram was trying to help her, and she was sure that the sex acts were a form of therapy that would eventually cure her wrist pain."

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen filed criminal charges against Wickram on April 4. Palo Alto Police arrested Wickram April 5 on a misdemeanor sexual-misconduct charge. He was booked and released on $5,000 bail.

No Longer Alone

Jen meanwhile, had never called the police, not even after the incident at her hotel. She was confused and upset and convinced that authorities would take Wickram's word over hers. She thought she was alone. And Wickram had Stanford behind him. "I couldn't go up against that kind of institution. ... All it would do would be to make him mad," she says. "Why should I destroy his career because he flipped out this once?"

But in April, a friend sent her a copy of a story in the Palo Alto Daily News: Wickram had been arrested for having sex with a patient. "Knowing that there are other people that this has happened to made a huge difference," Jen recalls. She made a report to police in Palo Alto on April 24.

The addition of Jen's case enabled the district attorney to charge Wickram with a felony rather than a misdemeanor, thus paving the way for potential jail time, license revocation and sex-predator registration.

Acting on an order of the county criminal court judge, in June the California Department of Consumer Affairs barred Wickram from seeing female patients.

"Sexual contact of any kind between a therapist and a patient is unethical and illegal in the state of California," stated a June 5 consumer-affairs department press release. The state department also publishes a 24-page pamphlet available online (www.dca.ca.gov) called Professional Therapy Never Includes Sex, the creation of which was prompted in 1990 by the Senate Task Force on Psychotherapist and Patient Sexual Relations.

Legal Maneuvering

Dr. Wickramasekera's interests include trauma, dissociation, somatization, mind/body therapy, the psychophysiology of the unconscious mind and parapsychology.

--a Saybrook catalog description of Wickram

Wickram's criminal trial sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 24. Rosen plans to ask for three months of jail time and mandatory registration as a sex offender. Rosen says he's proud of what his office has accomplished in this case.

"Here's the thing. He's a doctor that exploited his patients, and we stopped him. That's a good result," Rosen says.

But not good enough for Jen and Janet. "Three months in jail is nothing," says Janet. "He really needs to sit in jail for a while." The women filed a civil medical malpractice suit against Wickram and Stanford on Aug. 22. Their attorney, John Winer, who works out of an office in Oakland, told Metro on Monday, Oct. 7, that a third woman had come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Wickram. The third woman, a 27-year-old suffering with stomach pain, wrote a letter to Stanford in January complaining that Wickram's questioning of her about orgasms made her uncomfortable and she refused to see him again. In June, Stanford wrote back and told her Wickram no longer worked there. Winer said he's in the process of amending the civil complaint against Stanford and Wickram and expects to file it this week.

Winer estimates he's handled close to 1,000 sexual-abuse cases against health-care providers. He explains why this is one of the worst. "What makes what he did so awful is that he did it under the guise of treatment. There isn't usually a pretense that the sexual relationship is going to cure them."

He adds, "Why that's so bad is it creates tremendous confusion on the part of the patient. Intellectually, they think this is crazy. But Wickram convinces them that their problem is sexual repression. They have to have sex with him because he's a professional."

Jen reflects on her thought process. "Mainly because of his reputation at Stanford and his reputation as a clinician," she says, "I just figured somebody in his position and of his stature wouldn't be doing anything he shouldn't be doing. I mean, he wouldn't be at Stanford. He wouldn't be where he is if he had a history of this. ... I just assumed, because of his reputation, that it wasn't a problem."

Stanford Medical School, where Wickram worked on a contract basis from 1998 until he was arrested in April, sheds very little light on the situation. "We are cooperating with law enforcement authorities on this matter," Stanford spokesperson Michelle Brandt tells Metro, when asked for the results of the school's independent investigation.

She says that Stanford is "not aware of" any other sexual relationships that Wickram's had with patients. "Upon learning of the criminal charges against him," she adds, "Stanford University School of Medicine immediately suspended his voluntary clinical faculty affiliation, and he subsequently resigned his voluntary clinical faculty appointment in August."

Saybrook President Maureen O'Hara, who, along with her school, is not involved in the legal actions, says even less. Wickram taught at the grad school from 1995 until June 20, when he resigned, she says. But that's about all.

"I'm not at liberty to say" whether or not Saybrook conducted an investigation into Wickram's conduct as a teacher there, she adds, explaining, "It's really superimportant that when something like this happens, everyone's rights are protected, and I'm just not at liberty to comment."

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate