Click here for Debbie Nathan's pioneering article about ritual abuse.
In addition to Michelle Remembers, two other influential “satanic” autobiographies were The Satan Seller, by Mark Warnke, and Satan’s Underground by Lauren Stratford. All three of these books have been exposed as fiction -- the incidents portrayed in these books did not happen. These tales of satanic torture -- mostly they are pornography disguised as religious tracts -- were widely regarded as reliable, authentic accounts of life in the coven. Michelle Remembers and similar books influenced thousands of lives, with disastrous and costly results. (Click here for more about Michelle Remembers).
In the Woods with a Hood: See also Repressed Memory -- a psychiatric fad that was influenced by the book Michelle Remembers.
"When Tim Robbins and the Dixie Chicks complain about a witch hunt, they should try running a nursery in Massachusetts. These were real witch hunts, utterly irrational but phenomenally destructive of many individual lives, and a disgrace to a civilized society."
The "Ritual Abuse" Panic
Much has been written about the ritual abuse panic, but in a nutshell, in the late 1980’s, dozens and then hundreds of people -- parents and grandparents, daycare operators or employees, bus drivers and teachers, were accused of sexually abusing young children in strange and horrible ways. The accusations often included animal torture, forcing children to eat feces, urine and vomit, insertion of various objects into children’s bottoms, the making of child pornography, and sometimes baby killing. Often, the sexual abuse was said to be part of satanic worship. But the types of perversions the accused were supposed to indulge in, The New Republic noted in 1999: “corresponded more.... to a toddler's notion of unspeakable transgression rather than to any known profile of adult sexual perversion.” In the Halsey case, for example, the accused was supposed to have stuck candy up his own behind and stuck fish up the children’s bottoms.
"Claims about satanic cult ritual child abuse (SRA) arise from
the convergence of two different moral panics: the child sexual abuse
scare and the satanic cult scare," sociologist Jeffrey Victor explained
in Skeptic Magazine. "Social
scientists use the term 'moral panic' to refer to a social condition
in which a great many people in a society over-react to a newly perceived
threat to their well-being from social deviants, even though the actual
threat is either non-existent or greatly exaggerated.... Examples of
past moral panics include the European witch-hunt, outbreaks of anti-Semitic
persecutions, the white slavery scare and the 1950s Red Scare in the
In 1980, a psychiatrist and his patient published a book, advertised as a true story, about her experiences as a five-year-old child in a satanic cult in the genteel seaside Canadian city of Victoria. The book, Michelle Remembers, became a bestseller. In it, Dr. Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith Pazder (for she became his wife as well as his patient) related the sexual and other tortures inflicted on the young Michelle by a secret coven of Satanists. Dr. Pazder believed that his patient, whom he had been treating for depression, had repressed all memories of these events until, with his help, she was able to recover them by going into a trance-like state.
From the safety of Dr. Pazder’s therapeutic couch, the apple-cheeked Michelle (then in her twenties) re-lived the gruesome tortures of her childhood, while handsome Dr. Pazder sat by her and held her hand. Pazder was soon spending four to six hours a day with this one patient. He explained to his then-wife that he was on the verge of a breakthrough of enormous importance for psychiatry. How right he was, but for the wrong reasons.
Why did the little girl Michelle receive so much attention from the Satanic cult? For example, she was tied up and made to watch for hours while an ugly, hook-nosed man cut several cadavers apart at the joints, then sewed a composite human being together again (p.s. it would have been impossible for someone to do all this dissection and surgery in a single session). Why did the cultists take her to the cemetery, lower her in an open grave, and throw dead cats on her? (p.s. also impossible, click here). Cult “experts” explained that young children are indoctrinated into cult life through fear and intimidation. Instead of taking Michelle to the Dairy Queen, the cultists believed that a few weeks locked naked in a cage with snakes would bind the child’s allegiance to the Dark Lord.
Yet, as the experts also explain, experiences like Michelle's are so awful that they are "repressed," only to be retrieved by skilled therapists: “To survive, the human mind dissociates itself from the event.” So if most of the children are slaughtered and eaten and the other children can’t remember, who is left over to become an adult cult member and where do they buy their robes and those nifty six-foot-tall candle holders?
Although some accusers in ritual abuse cases are ordinary people who sincerely believe a crime has occurred, in other cases, people found themselves contending with accusations from persons who were obviously mentally unstable -- although that fact was never taken in account when judging their credibility.
In two seminal cases of ritual abuse panic, Bakersfield (California, 1984) and McMartin (California, 1988), the initial accusations were brought by women with diagnosed mental illness. Their paranoid, psychotic tales were mistaken for genuine complaints by the authorities.
In another case, Bill and Kathy Swan were accused of child abuse by a daycare worker who suspected they had molested their young daughter. “Following the Swan's conviction, the defense suddenly learned much more about their primary accuser, Lisa Conradi. Mrs. Conradi.... [told reporter Dean Huber] that she had previously reported at least 20 other cases of child abuse. That she had personally been abused on an almost daily basis by 300 to 400 men, women and boys for 17 years starting at age five. That she has knocked on almost every door in her neighborhood "for miles in every direction" accusing the occupants of abusing their children.... All of this, however, was withheld from the [Swans] before the trial.”
The daycare trials couldn’t have happened without the active participation of social workers and therapists. Police authorities relied on the therapists to interpret what the child witnesses were saying, to interview the children and to counsel them about their alleged experiences.
To better understand the diabolical workings of the secret satanic cults they were working to expose, the prosecution team in the McMartin Daycare case turned to an expert in the field of ritual abuse: they consulted Dr. Pazder. His expertise, of course, was based on his experiences with his wife, as documented in Michelle Remembers, the book which we now know to be false.
The first ritual abuse-type conviction in a daycare setting was that of Bernard Baran, in 1988, in Massachusetts, who spent 22 years in prison and is still fighting to clear his name. Other defendants, the most well-known being the Buckey family of McMartin preschool, spent years in jail before being found not guilty of ritualistic child abuse. Trials and convictions followed across North America, and spread to England and Europe.
Margaret Talbot scolded reporters for their credulity in The New Republic:
The trials assumed a familiar pattern. A child makes
a remark, or a child is caught in sex play. The anxious parents contact
the authorities. The authorities alert all the parents at the
school. The parents contact each other, trading suspicions and
concerns. The parents question their children. The children
are questioned by social workers and lawyers. The children start to
make increasingly serious accusations. The defense are not allowed to
question the children before trial, because the therapists say it would
be emotionally damaging for the children. After months of "therapy,"
which solidifies the accusations in the childrens's minds, they testify
against the defendant. The jury is aghast at the horrible child abusers.
The accused are hauled away to jail.
“Clearly there is a social pattern, a larger meaning to this phenomenon....” Ellen Willis wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune after the McMartin defendants were vindicated, but others similarly accused were still trapped in the court system. “Yet for the most part the media has not only rolled over for the prosecution, but treated each trial as a unique sensation.”
“While [ritual abuse defendants] were marched off to prison, cognitive psychologists were investigating the question of young children as witnesses and if young children could be made to agree to, and eventually believe in, things that didn’t happen.
This was understandably a difficult area to investigate without harming children. Obviously it would be unethical to try to persuade preschoolers that somebody had molested them. But some ingenious experiments, most notably by Stephen Ceci of Cornell University and Maggie Bruck of McGill University in Canada, showed that children could be influenced by adult questioning. In one experiment, children came to believe that someone had licked their knees and stuck marbles in their ears during a touching game -- intimate contact without the sexual overtones -- even though it hadn’t happened. Children could even be persuaded that they had had the painful experience of catching their fingers in a mousetrap.
Children could also be brought to agree that someone else had done bad things, especially if the person they were questioned about was presented to them in a bad light. In the "Sam Stone" experiment, a man impersonating "Sam Stone," an acquaintance of the teacher, briefly visited with two groups of preschoolers. The second group was prepared for his visit by being told that he was clumsy and always breaking things. In interviews after Sam Stone’s visit, many of the children in the second group agreed that Sam Stone had ripped a book and damaged a teddy bear, even though this had never happened.
In addition to clearly showing how easily young children can be swayed, the researchers investigated the investigators. They provided erroneous information to adults who were to interview children, and proved that the children’s responses were influenced by the adults’ expectations." (excerpt from Nightmare at the Daycare)
One man likely paid for false allegations
with his life, as author Lawrence Wright reveals: "Kaare
and Judy Sortland were accused in 1989 of abusing three young boys in
the day-care center they operated in their home. The childen initially
denied that any abuse had taken place, but parents and therapists relentlessly
One might suppose that the realization that:
would have created a huge mea culpa among the professionals involved. This hasn’t happened. Some have defended their actions, if not the results, on the basis that their hearts were in the right place. Some have excused themselves on the basis that nobody knew any better -- that, by golly, nobody could have guessed that rewarding children for making accusations, and questioning them until they did make accusations, might just lead to false accusations. And they speak, in self-pitying tones, about the “backlash” -- the (presumably) undeserved and irrational criticism that is flung their way.
For example, journalist Debbie Nathan pointed out that the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, or APSAC, was founded by many of key players in the ritual abuse/daycare panic. In her book, Satan’s Silence, co-authored with lawyer Michael Snedeker, the abuses of common sense by these supposed professionals are well and chillingly documented. In response, APSAC’s Theresa Reid posted a lengthy counter-attack at the APSAC website. Nowhere is there a hint of remorse or acknowledgement that egregrious errors and wrongs were committed, that the lives of innocent people were shattered. No, Nathan and Snedeker have “exaggerated the problem.” Reid then goes on to entirely misrepresent the book and the views of Nathan and Snedeker. They don’t believe in any allegations of child abuse. Or maybe, Reid sleazily insinuates, “the authors think pedophilia isn't all bad.”
This is by no means an unusual or extreme reaction by a child care professional to charges of incompetence. Indifference and unprofessionalism this breathtakingly crass is -- the norm. Critics of the child protection system are routinely dismissed as being in denial about the extent of the problem, or of being child abusers themselves. Professionals that have the ability to judge parents and take their children away, who have the ability to provide the expert testimony that sends people to prison for life, are themselves extraordinarily sensitive to being judged.
Nathan told the PBS Frontline program that the child abuse specialists:
Dr. Lawrence Pazder is still in practice and declined requests for an interview. In 1990 he told a British newspaper: “We still leave the question open. For [Michelle] it was very real. Every case I hear I have skepticism. You have to complete a long course of therapy before you can come to conclusions. We are all eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn't matter."
The British journalists asked, “One wonders what the [falsely accused]... would have to say about that!"
[Update: Dr. Pazder passed away in the spring of 2004].