Originally posted late yesterday afternoon.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, a strange wave swept the nation. The phenomenon became known as "satanic ritual abuse," and while the whole episode may seem ludicrous from the vantage of history, with the rise of the internet and social media, conditions are ripe for something like it to happen again.
By most accounts, it all began with the publication of Michelle Remembers, a 1980 memoir written by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist-turned-husband Lawrence Padzer. The book detailed memories that Smith “recovered” while under Padzer’s care in Victoria, BC, in the 1970s. Smith had initially gone to Padzer for treatment for depression after a miscarriage, but over the course of treatment, which included over 600 hours of hypnosis, Smith began recalling what she thought were repressed memories from her childhood. She said that she had been tortured and raped, made to drink blood, had witnessed murders, and that she was forced into a car with a human corpse—a car that was intentionally crashed. Smith said her torturers, which included her mother, were members of a satanic cult that performed rituals to summon the devil himself. The cover of Michelle Remembers shows a young girl in a blue dress, holding a baby doll and surrounded by candles. Above her, a devilish face with pointed ears looks down, cackling. The book, which was used in social work training programs, became a best-seller.
After publication, Padzer became famous. He was considered the expert in the phenomenon of “recovered memories," and he appeared on 20/20, where he talked about satanic cults that he said where infiltrating previously quiet communities all over. He lectured to law enforcement, took part in seminars on satanic ritual abuse, testified in court, and, by the end of the decade, claimed to have consulted in over 1,000 cases involving recovered memories of ritual abuse.
The concept of repressed and recovered memories was further popularized by the 1988 self-help book The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, which was written by Ellen Bass, a poet and creative writing teacher, along with her student Laura Davis, an incest survivor. While neither Bass nor Davis had any medical, psychological, or law enforcement training, they became convinced that child abuse and incest was far more widespread than commonly thought, and their book included a checklist for people who suspected they may have been victims, whether they remembered it or not. The checklist included feeling bad, dirty, ashamed, or powerless; feeling like there is something wrong with you deep inside; feeling like you are unable to protect yourself; and having trouble staying motivated. But, as Carol Taris wrote in a New York Times review, “The trouble is that the same list could be used to identify oneself as someone who loves too much, someone who suffers from self-defeating personality disorder, or a mere human being in the late 20th century.” Regardless, the book, which sold over a million copies, brought more people into the recovered memories movement.
All over the country, and then the world, people reported stories of just-recalled abuse. Some said they were kidnapped, tortured, and raped by cult members who stole into their childhood bedrooms at night and whisked them away to secret locations. Others claimed their parents and teachers were involved. In one case, documented in the recently published memoir Now I Can See the Moon: A Story of a Social Panic, False Memories and a Life Cut Short by Alice Tallmadge, Tallmadge’s niece—a troubled teenage girl also named Michelle from Logan, Utah—claimed she had been raped, impregnated, given birth, and forced to eat her own child. A counselor at the Utah State Hospital where Michelle was a patient believed that a satanic cult was clandestinely operating throughout the country, and that Michelle had developed multiple personality disorder as a result of her trauma. The counselor helped Michelle access her “alters,” or other personalities, through hypnosis. Increasingly tortured by the memories of her abuse, Michelle killed herself. Afterward, her mother, who believed her daughter entirely, began to think that it wasn’t suicide at all—the cult finally got to her.
But, as Tallmadge would eventually conclude, it was all false.
In both Michelles’ cases and in hundreds of other ritual abuse cases around the globe, the allegations of abuse were eventually debunked. There were no cults terrorizing American suburbs at night. There was no widespread abuse. There were no murdered babies fed to their teenage moms. But there were victims: In 1995, 43 adults in Wenatchee, Washington, were arrested on 29,726 charges of child sexual abuse involving 60 children. Parents and Sunday school teachers were accused of participating in an organized sex abuse ring called The Circle, where they passed children around at sex parties and church events. Still, not everyone believed it: After a pastor criticized the investigation, he was accused of running a sex abuse ring out of his church. In all, 18 people went to prison. Children were taken from their families and placed into foster care. Later, after law students and faculty at the University of Washington Innocence Project Northwest took up the case, all the verdicts were overturned or the charges reduced. This saga is now remembered as the “Wenatchee witch hunt.”
It wasn’t the first case of alleged ritual abuse in Washington state. In 1988, Paul Ingram, a deputy in the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department and chair of the county Republican Party, was accused by his daughters of molestation. The family were members of a Pentecostal church that preached the idea that Satan could take over peoples’ mind, force them to commit unspeakable crimes, and then wipe all traces from their memories. After a woman told one of Ingram’s daughters at a church retreat that God had told her that Ingram had molested his daughter, the girl believed it. Ingram’s daughters and their friends subsequently accused a number of Ingram’s colleagues in the Sheriff’s Department of partaking in hundreds of satanic rituals and of murdering 25 babies. One of Ingram’s daughters said she’d gotten pregnant and caught an STD from her dad—claims later disproved by a physician. All the accused were eventually cleared of charges except for Ingram, who quickly admitted his guilt when questioned by law enforcement. He couldn’t remember abusing his daughters or anyone else, so, he thought, he must have repressed it. Ingram, who later recanted his confession, spent 10 years in prison.
In the years after the ritual abuse scare, the concept of recovered memories was widely exposed as false. In 1992, the Department of Justice concluded that widespread ritualistic satanic sex abuse cults were a myth, and accusations largely faded away by the mid-'90s. Now, evidence suggests that people tend to remember traumatic, life-changing events, and we know that the human mind is highly susceptible to suggestion and revision, especially when prompted by therapists and other people perceived as authorities. In 2005, Dr. Richard J. McNally, then the Director of Clinical Training in the Department of Psychology at Harvard and an expert in memory, wrote a letter to the Supreme Court, which was hearing a case that stemmed from recovered memories. “The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry,” he wrote. “It has provided the theoretical basis for ‘recovered memory therapy’—the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”
McNally’s conviction, however, isn’t universally shared: In 2008, a 20th anniversary edition of The Courage to Heal was published. Today, some therapists and counselors still specialize in recovered memories.
There are many forces to blame for the recovered memory and ritual abuse craze: therapists who encouraged their clients’ delusions, police and prosecutors who relied on recovered memories rather than hard evidence, religious groups that were all too eager to see Satan’s work above ground, and the media, which pushed these fantastic narratives into the public eye.
“There were several avenues through which the media spread the false narrative of satanic ritual abuse,” says Lawrence Wright, a New Yorker staff writer and the author of Remembering Satan, a book about the Paul Ingram scandal. “One was through compelling personal narratives of multiple personality disorder. ... These prepared the way for popular acceptance of a previously exotic diagnosis of MPD and the often florid traumatic memories that had supposedly been repressed but resurfaced in therapy. Satanic rituals were a feature of such cases. The second broad avenue through the media was daytime talk shows, which picked up on the sensational nature of such stories, amplified them, and spread the meme.”
Daytime talk shows had endless segments on the phenomenon, including a two-hour special from former daytime TV host and current Fox News pundit Geraldo Rivera called Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground that aired in 1998. At the time, it was the high-rated documentary to air on nightly TV.
Print media got in on it as well, and not just the National Enquirer. In 1991, People magazine published a cover story about Roseanne Barr, who said that she recovered memories of her mother abusing her from the time she was an infant. Like Alice Tallmadge's niece, Barr also claimed had multiple personalities.
While not all media coverage of satanic ritual abuse and recovered memories was blindly accepting, much of it was, according Tallmadge. "In that era, journalism helped the panic to spread," she says. “Journalists initially abandoned objectivity and wrote as if the accusations—particularly of grievous child abuse in daycare centers—were based on truth, and they weren’t.”
In total, the recovered memories and satanic ritual abuse phenomenon lasted for about 15 years. At the time, Tallmadge says, questioning the dominant narrative was akin to heresy. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence backing up these claims; everyone believed, and those who didn’t largely kept quiet.
Looking back on it now, it seems almost impossible that millions of Americans would blindly believe that satanic cults were stealing away with kids during the night, but this was not the first strange wave to hit the U.S., nor will it be the last. From the Salem witch trials to the Red Scare, moral panics, as they are frequently called, pop up. And now, with the rise of the internet, unfounded gossip and innuendo are easier than ever to stumble upon and to believe without question. Daytime television and nightly news shows are no longer required for these stories to spread—all you need is Facebook. Just look at PizzaGate, when online rumors led a North Carolina man named Edgar Welch to drive to Washington, DC, and open fire on a pizzeria because he was convinced that Hillary Clinton was leading a child sex-trafficking ring in tunnels underneath the business. Mainstream media debunked the myth, but that didn’t matter. To Edgar Welch, the fact that the mainstream media denied its existence was only more proof that it was real.
This happens on a smaller scale daily, and not just on the political right. In Seattle, unsubstantiated rumors of racism have lead to boycotts of local businesses including the Punk Rock Flea Market, and, currently, the sex toy store Babeland, which is being boycotted after an ex employee alleged on Facebook that she was fired because of her race. Babeland denies the allegations, but their denial only made people more irate. Is Babeland racist? Perhaps. But without a thorough investigation, all it takes is one accusation for alleged racism to become fact.
So what do we do to combat this? It is the media’s job to report on things that are happening in the world, even unfounded allegations of satanic cults, but research tells us that media coverage of some phenomena only spreads that phenomena further. This is true of mass shootings, of suicide, of eating disorders, and maybe even of white nationalism and the alt-right. Few people outside Trump and his fan base would argue that reporters are bad for the republic, but the satanic ritual abuse scare should remind us all—both media makers and those who consume it—that there are consequences to the stories we elevate, including those we refute. This unfortunate history should also remind us to be skeptical of the unsubstantiated rumors that roll across our social media networks. The satanic abuse scare may have ended, but something, inevitably, will take its place.