Sunday, August 27, 2006

Satanic Ritual Abuse: A Warning Against Mass Delusion.

Do you have vague childhood memories of drinking blood and eating human flesh? What about shadowy cloaked figures performing ritualistic sacrifices in abandoned woods and isolated cemetaries? Do you remember being forced to perform unspeakable sexual acts? If so, then you may be a victim of the most prominent 1980's anti-cult craze- the hype surrounding "Satanic Ritual Abuse".

In 1980, Michelle Remembers was unleashed on an excitable and insecure American citizenry. This book told the story of an adult woman who, through the assistance of a therapist, recovered a harrowing array of repressed memories from her childhood. Along with some of the experiences listed above, the patient recalled being forced to watch a masked man cut up a human cadaver and sew it back together into a monstrosity. The quality of her recollections were so ludicrous that it is amazing that her tale blossomed into a full-blown national panic.

Thousands of similar cases of repressed memories began to pop up across the nation
. One notable case involved the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, CA. Teachers there were accused of sexually abusing hundreds of children over a period of years. These crimes were said to have taken place in ritualistic, often foreboding settings. Claims of abuse got more and more extreme and unlikely, as if in competition to trump one another. People were charged with crimes in many of the cases, even where little physical or corroborating evidence existed. Therapists, district attorneys, police investigators, social workers, and parents all got into the act, encouraging children to relate the horrible realities from their pasts. Of course the media picked up and disseminated these stories, conspiring to spread the hysteria until the phenomena reached the status of mass delusion.

Years after the accused were convicted based upon the testimony of these children and their therapists, "Satanic Ritual Abuse" was discovered to be a hoax. One study investigated 12,000 cases, and found not a single confirmation of abuse. The purported victims, now grown into adulthood, admitted to lying about their experiences. The practice of recovering "repressed memories" was discovered to be driven by suggestive and leading questions. Children had actually been subtly rewarded for agreeing to the fantasies of the therapists and prosecutors. The mental health practitioners involved were chastised, but this did nothing to mediate the sufferings of the wrongfully accused. Their lives had been needlessly affected by these falsehoods. They were the true victims of "Satanic Ritual Abuse".

Of course, this entire phenomenon was not entirely unprecedented. The Salem Witch Trials is the archetypal example of the depths of paranoia and ignorance Americans have been capable of. Yet the SRA debacle happened not in a time of Victorian or medieval superstition, but in the modern era. Even with advances in the study of human behavior and pathology, our citizenry and media are not so sophisticated as to be able to avoid engaging in false persecutions. Why is that?

Do conventional and mainstream religions preach the decline of our society to the extent that our reality can be artificially constructed? It appears so. Not only are alternative viewpoints discouraged, but they are twisted into monstrous distortions capable of destroying our entire culture, and our children. Fundamentalist ideology contributes to a climate of misunderstanding and intolerance. Sometimes these conditions spiral into circumstances that destroy the lives of the innocent. In retrospect, society learns that the dangers it feared were overblown and sometimes even nonexistent. The belief in the reality of these fears is often encouraged by groups seeking to promote a particular political or moral agenda. We should remain vigilant and incorporate a healthy skepticism when we hear stories of widespread deviance or talk of "evil".

When we entrench ourselves in a bunker mentality, whether through religion or politics, we risk the propagation of myths and misunderstanding. When we identify ouselves in some "us vs. them" dichotomy, we endanger everyone with self-fulfilling prophecy. This is when the greatest danger threatens us all- when we manufacture victims through our beliefs.



Additional Note: I have now finished Mystics and Messiahs- Philip Jenkin's excellent survey of the history of cults in the United States. If you are at all interested in this subject, then this is an appropriate place to begin your explorations. An account of the SRA craze is included in the book. His approach is even-handed and remarkably nonjudgemental. The wealth of historical data is astonishing, and his analysis of the cyclical trends of cult and anti-cult activity is enlightening.

8 Comments:

Blogger lee said...

Childhood memories of drinking blood and eating human flesh? Of course! I was raised Catholic and we had to do it every Sunday to go to Heaven. It was called Holy Communion.

Have you ever watched the Bill Moyers interviews of Joseph Campbell called "The Power of Myth"? Not exactly about cults, at least not in the way you seem to be describing them...more about the cult of all religion and the myths they sprang from. (BTW, I have NO idea of "sprang" is a word and I apologize if it isn't.) Anyhow, I found the series enlightening and gentle.

11:30 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

This kind of gets back to the plea bargain issue. These little kids are not dumb and they pick up on the clear signals and incentives they are given. If they just tell the person what they want to hear then they will be ok.

The entire concept of plea bargains is about this kind of blackmail. Only in this case it is overt. The appointed defense attorney who is totally swamped with work just goes from accused person to accused person telling them that what is likely best for them is to just admit to the thing because all hell will fall on them if they don't.

4:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"witch hunts" have been used throughout history as a means of maintaining power through intimidation and as a convenient way to disappear figures who are perceived as threats to the maintanance and aquisition of said power - the Inquisition.

The proportion of uneducated and easily influenced humans has remained pretty constant, I would wager.

And then, in addition to the fear mongering, there is also rising consumer debt and predatory lenders, the government turning the population into a population of share croppers and mill workers that are never quite able to pay the company off.

And then there is the sorry state of our schools. Teaching for the test is, as I'm sure you know, not an effective way to encourage independant thought.

whew. that's enough for this early in the morning. I'll leave student debt and the fuck show that is healthcare for another time.

oh. yeah, and the prison - industrial complex. Another time. well, ok, 3 strikes equals over crowded prisons - more prisons are built to hold perpetrators of essentially victimless crimes - staffing and control of prisons is taken over by private companies.

the prisons are STILL overcrowded - but now there is a literally captive population that can be worked for again literally, pennies an hour.

ok, now I'm really done.

happy day!

9:17 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Lee,

I did get to watch snippets of that series on PBS. Once in awhile (like during a pledge marathon) they will run the whole thing on a Sunday. It is pretty relaxing. I like Moyers and Campbell- especially together... you can tell how much regard they had for each other.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

John,

All this talk of plea bargaining makes me wonder why you had to leave NYC. And why you don't have a driver's license.

7:15 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

anon,

Well put. We arte pretty much on the same page regarding this stuff.

7:17 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

I am actually very afraid that you have merged into some kind of a cult here.

12:49 AM  
Blogger John Morris said...

Wow, Could Merge Divide corp go into the for profit prison camp business? What an oportunity.

A for profit Prison Camp, with workers with a government contract to put armor on Hummers for the Army?? ( could we merge with IG Farben? )

1:31 AM  

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