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All the babies you can eat.

One of the more encouraging signs of a revitalized feminist movement was the rebirth of Ms. magazine. Shunning advertising and trying to draw upon a wider and more varied approach to feminism, Ms. promised to provide a good mix of solid reporting, artistic expression, and spiritual and moral support. By and large, it's kept that promise.

But when the cover of the January 1993 issue instructs me to "Believe It! - Child Ritual Abuse Exists!," I'm not just disappointed - I'm angry. (Imagine how you'd feel if Geraldo Rivera was voted Humanist of the Year. That's how I'm feeling about Ms. right now.)

"Surviving the Unbelievable" is the first-person account of one Elizabeth Rose, who describes herself as the survivor of satanic ritual abuse. Rose claims that, starting when she was four or five, her mother would drag her off to be a participant in horrifying occult rituals. She claims to have been physically and psychologically abused, raped repeatedly (both by adult men and by women using such objects as branches and crucifixes), and forced to consume flesh and blood from human sacrifices. She also claims that her infant sister was decapitated and eaten in one of these sacrifices, leaving behind not so much as a birth certificate, soiled diaper, or teething ring. Her father, on the other hand, was away in Vietnam during all of this and, like most doubters, has gone into "denial" when confronted with these facts.

Perhaps because she felt the article needed a feminist angle, Rose links ritual abuse with male domination and claims, "A woman's role in the cult was based solely on her sexuality.... The men in the cult dominated the women, physically and emotionally." But her own account describes a female-dominated cult, in which

My mother's otherwise ordinary

middle-class family participated.

...I can trace the family's involvement

back to my grandmother's

generation at the very

least, although it probably goes

back further.... My mother's

sister was the first person to perform

acts of ritual abuse on me.

My aunt told me I was being punished

because I was a wicked little

girl. In the months following, I

witnessed my aunt commit many

acts of ritual abuse.

(I'm sure this is a great comfort to those readers of Ms. who are exploring neo-paganism and other forms of feminist spirituality.)

Another interesting shift - perhaps in reaction to objections raised by the Church of Satan and the Temple of Set, or more likely to separate her article from Geraldo-style Satan-mongering - is that Rose goes to some pains to drop the usual references to satanism. But she nonetheless describes rituals that fit the classic "satanic" stereotypes - complete with robes, chanting, violation with crucifixes, and prayers to Satan and evil.

In keeping with most other such accounts, at no point does Rose present any evidence that these events actually occurred. She doesn't say whether she's filed charges against any of these satanists, many of whom are probably still alive today. She doesn't say whether she's provided the police with any information leading to their acquiring solid forensic evidence of ritual infanticide and child abuse - both felony crimes she claims to have seen first-hand. She claims to have witnessed the removal of a boy's testicle in a ceremony - couldn't this kid be located today? (It would be an interesting phone call to make, at the least.) And with all these babies being sacrificed, where are the bodies? Where are the bones? What physical evidence exists that would make her story some, what more believable than a Weekly World News headline? None. Even the name "Elizabeth Rose" is phony; the credit line on the article says that "Rose" is the pseudonym of a writer currently working on a novel about ritual abuse.

In little more than a decade, the "satanic panic" has followed the same course that UFOlogy took some 40 years to travel. The hard physical evidence for either flying saucers or a nationwide conspiracy of child-slaughtering satanists never really turned up. But the basic myth-model became known to everyone thanks to years of fringe-culture circulation and media sensationalism; after a while, hundreds of people were turning up with stories that "confirmed" these mythologies.

Lately, both claims have gained new life through the same method: the use of hypnosis and trance-induced states to elicit "hidden" or "repressed" memories of abduction, ritualized abuse, and personal violation. A recent "Prime Time Live" segment demonstrated how strong these memories can seem: regressed patients were shown in convulsions, strangling their teddy bears and screaming about how they hated their parents for being satanists. There has also been a confluence of satanic ritual abuse (SRA) claims with similar therapies designed to uncover hidden memories of childhood abuse - thereby giving SRA claims a legitimacy among many therapists that even the lack of actual forensic evidence can't shake.

The issues regarding hypnosis and memory are far more complex than the "uncovered repressed memory" model most people are told about. For example, most SRA therapists claim that the events described are so horrible that children have no choice but to blot out all conscious memory. The problem is, this requires believing that these particular events cause every child to react in an extreme and uniform manner.

And hypnotic regression is more likely to create false memories than it is to uncover any hidden or repressed truths. The patient is in a dependent, suggestible state, and a variety of motivations (desire to please the therapist, the need to make sense of one's problems, leading questions from the therapist, and so on) contribute to the creation of a shared fantasy. George Ganaway, director of the Ridgeview Center for Dissociative Disorders in Atlanta, Georgia, says:

Many of the clinicians in my field

began to attend seminars held by

authorities around the country,

who were reporting that their patients

seemed to be telling similar

stories about transgenerational

mega-cults involved in human sacrifices.

The people who attended

these seminars would go back to

their practices with fists of questions

for their patients in the

trance state, and began to report

stories from their own patients.

This samizdat of conferences and photocopied papers has led to ever-more-elaborate claims, mainly to explain away the lack of forensic evidence. One therapist I spoke to - who, friends assured me, does otherwise admirable work with support groups for sexual minorities - maintained, in all seriousness, that judges, doctors, and police departments were part of the cult, thus making prosecutions impossible. She also fed me some figures that, when extrapolated, outlined a death toll of nearly two million babies sacrificed every year. These babies were provided by "breeders," women who conceive children secretly and specifically for sacrifice. (Hearing this, I began to wonder whether her clients were papering their walls with tinfoil to keep out the mind-reading microwaves of the Chewy Bubble Gum People.)

Perhaps most infuriating is the insistence of SRA therapists and their devotees that doubters are "in denial" over the issue. "The horror and grotesqueness of these details are too much to accept. People would rather believe that survivors - particularly women survivors - are crazy," Rose writes. This "I'm not crazy, you're in denial" dodge is pretty standard among the Satan-mongers.

Somehow, other horrifying crimes (for argument's sake, let's imagine the mass slaughter of 11 million Jews, Gypsies, gays, dissidents, and their children) haven't created this widespread psychological block; but a few unsubstantiated accounts of ritualized baby-eating are enough to send legions of experts into psychotic states of "denial." And, yes, I have heard one SRA therapist compare her critics to Holocaust revisionists.

It might have been worth it for the editors of Ms. to have contacted Pamela Freyd at the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (215-387-1865). At the very least, they would have acquired a nice thick packet of information regarding why such stories are coming out of therapy groups. They would also have found that a number of critics have raised serious, substantial questions as to the truthfulness of such claims as Rose's. In fact, the foundation has collected at least 2,300 accounts of families destroyed and individual lives ruined by such claims.

One of the many worthy efforts of the feminist movement has been its successful attempts to bring about an increased public awareness of sexual violence; issues such as rape, incest, and child abuse are now issues of national concern, and rightly so. But with a greater recognition of real problems comes the danger that false and irresponsible charges will be taken just as seriously.

This is why Ms.' embrace of the satanic panic is so infuriating. For one thing, when people come to realize what a sham the satanic panic is - and how many innocent lives it has ruined - they will be tempted to dismiss a lot of other, more credible charges of sexual abuse. (And Elizabeth Rose's specific citation of day-care centers as hotbeds of child abuse is going to be a great comfort to working mothers. I can just see the story on "Hard Copy": "Her children were slaughtered because Mommy wanted a career.")

Even more disturbing, the satanic panic has already proved a trusty weap-on in the cultural-warfare arsenal of the religious right. It's only a single step from Elizabeth Rose's lurid accounts of hidden diabolic covens, mutilation, and infanticide to Pat Robertsons ravings about how feminism encourages women to become lesbians, kill their children, and practice witchcraft. It's bad enough when the Andrea Dworkins find common cause with the Jerry Falwells over pornography; but when Ms. starts siding with crackpots on the evils of the occult, they might as well start accepting ads for Virginia Slims and the Dalkon Shield. Believing the children, after all, was the basis of the Salem witchhunts.

Brian Siano is a freelance writer and researcher in Philadeiphia. He can be contacted via E-mail@revpk at
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Title Annotation:Ms. magazine's reporting of unsubstantiated satanic rituals
Author:Siano, Brian
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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