Jean La Fontaine on Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic
It is over 20 years since the rash of allegation that rituals of devil worship, including the sexual abuse of children, the sacrifice, and (sometimes) eating, of animals, children and even babies as well as other extreme acts of depravity were being conducted across the U.K. In 1994 I reported to the Department of Health that in the 84 cases in England and Wales that were the basis of my research, I could find no supporting evidence for the existence of such a satanic cult. The allegations have not stopped however, although they no longer get the publicity they used to have as, officially, satanic or ritual abuse no longer exists. It is not mentioned in guidance to social workers on the subject of abuse of children. However, a particularly unpleasant case that occurred in Hampstead in 2014 has recently been widely reported in the press (reported in the BFMS newsletter in Sept.2015). The persistence of these allegations into the twenty-first century repeats the questions that I thought I had answered at the end of the twentieth! This is, first: how is it that ‘victims’ can tell stories of gruesome experiences that they never had? Secondly: how is it that adults, many of them sensible, educated people, believe these stories? These two questions are also raised by the cases of so-called ‘historic abuse’. The answers are interrelated though I shall try and deal with them separately.
One of the best- known organisations promoting the allegation that children were being abused by worshippers of the devil in the late twentieth century was Believe the Children. For a while it was very successful. The title referred to the myth that it was young children who had told of the satanic abuse. It was supported by the firm belief, almost dogma, that such children do not lie and therefor that what they disclosed about the existence of satanic or ritual abuse was indubitably the truth. However, the stories that were publicised as what young victims told social workers, foster parents and other sympathetic adults were actually nothing of the sort. They were what adults said the children told them and, as I was able to show1, there were various reasons why this was not what the children said.
Most children are quite quick to pick up what adults want from them, although a four year old boy in one case suffered 33 questions about ghosts before he began to talk about the ghosts at his home. Some children were particularly adept at this and it was noticeable that in any case that involved several children, there were only one or two who were the main source of the authorities’ alleged information. In some cases, these children told the others or ‘explained’ to the less sensitive what had allegedly happened. Others used bits of films and other television material that they had seen and remembered and one slightly older girl, when pressed for details said in astonishment: “But I was in my dream”, clearly indicating what she was using as an account of what had happened to her.
In most cases there was pressure on the children to respond to requests to “tell”. When they did not, it was generally thought that the devil-worshippers had prevented them from doing so, using magical procedures such as spiders on the wall or “trigger words” which, when spoken, silenced the children. I need only refer briefly to the effect of mistakes in transcriptions of interviews that altered what was said. In one case they were carefully elucidated by a consultant who checked their accuracy, finding over and over again that mistakes altered what the children actually said. The report might record ‘No’ as an answer when a video recording showed a child responding ‘Yes’ or vice versa. Using leading questions, the alleged stories of other children’s alleged stories and promises of rewards were other means by which responses were obtained. The results usually reflected and confirmed the adults’ views.
There are some recognisable parallels with cases of recovered memories. First, note the parallel with the popular dogma that ‘victims’ should always be believed. The investigator of allegations of ‘historic’ child abuse in Dolphin Square, an experienced police officer, recently pronounced the alleged victim’s claims as credible and true BEFORE any investigations had been made. Well-known therapists such as Valerie Sinason, have insisted that therapists must discard the previous understanding that a patient’s story is true for the teller, though not necessarily for the hearer, and convince themselves of the reality of the patient’s account. This approach, while no doubt easing the strain for victims who try to recount what happened, risks serious miscarriages of justice. Belief in sincerity is not the same as a conclusion, based on good evidence, that the truth has been uncovered.
A second parallel can be drawn between the vulnerable children who were pressured by the authorities to ‘tell’ everything they had suffered and the vulnerable men and woman, sometimes disturbed, often depressed, who felt pressure from the counsellor, psychotherapist or analyst to search their memories for what the questioner ‘knew’ must be there. The silence of the children and the blankness of patients’ memories were both taken to mean the existence of serious trauma and/or the ability of the perpetrators to control what their victims were able to say. Very few of those who believed in the existence of satanic cults were prepared to believe that silence meant that there was nothing to say.
However not all children were young and vulnerable in this way. The teenagers who figured in some cases resembled the adults in some cases of historic abuse in that they were active participants in the creation of the stories of what they had suffered. Here again it was pressure to tell that encouraged the expounding of horrific stories of what they had seen and had suffered themselves. As one near-teenager explained: “ You lot are into these things and the police and social workers wanted to hear them so I thought I had to say something and I went from there”. Teenagers, like ‘survivors’ of ritual abuse, have many opportunities to learn from each other and from printed materials what is expected. Some of them chose the people to listen who showed a disposition to believe everything that was said. The lengthy sessions with these confidants, with social workers or therapists were occasions when the ‘story’, whether of ‘satanic’ or ‘historic’ abuse was put together.
Apart from the dogma that victims must be believed where did the pressure to ‘tell’ come from? There are several elements that make up the deep convictions which caused it. In half the cases I studied the children had suffered sexual abuse, usually in their homes, and in many of those cases and in some others they had been badly mistreated as well. As one campaigner put it: ‘It was hard to believe that people could be capable of such evil’. For evangelical Christians an explanation was provided by the perpetrators’ allegiance to the devil and this explanation was accepted by the unreligious who did not themselves believe in Satan. The argument that the cult members believed in him was seen to be sufficient. Equally, it is important to stress that the alleged sexual abuse of the teenagers concerned was far less well established. For example when one of them had an abortion, the identity of the father was never mentioned and in other cases the girls’ accounts were clearly fabrications.
Another idea, drawn from what has been said to be a misreading of Freud, asserted that most, if not all psychological illness or damage, came from earlier traumas caused by sexual abuse. ‘Experts’ in the diagnosis of trauma in children circulated lists of the ‘indicators’ that pointed to the greatest trauma: ritual abuse. Many of the symptoms, such as bed-wetting were common symptoms of psychological disturbance and therefore, not surprisingly, occurred in the children taken into care. These were used to ‘prove’ the validity of the ‘indicators’. The use of indicators to identify the children who had suffered ritual abuse made lengthy, unproductive and distressing interviews with the children themselves less necessary and they rapidly became commonplace.
A very important part played in causing the pressure to tell was the conviction that only by ‘recovering’ the memory or recounting the experience could healing from the trauma begin. This belief, embedded in a long-standing folk belief that is encapsulated in the common saying : Better out than in” may refer to eating something bad as well as keeping a terrifying experience to oneself. A foster-mother recorded in her notes when the children she fostered “really needed to talk”. The pressure put on ‘victims’ was justified as it was for their own good. Of course it also contributed to the chances of identifying the perpetrator but what was largely concentrated on was not the identity of the guilty but the detail of what happened.
The authority of experts who spoke at conferences and on television, and who constructed lists of ‘indicators’ of satanic abuse were taken as guaranteeing the validity of their views. Such people claimed knowledge of which those who listened were ignorant. They reminded their listeners that when it was discovered that children might be abused and even killed by their parents many people refused to believe that it was so. But time showed that they were wrong not to accept what was shown to be the truth; similarly they said, time would show the existence of satanic abuse.
It is the presence of crusaders advocating belief rather than argument that finally underlies this comparison between satanic abuse and false memories. Listeners were asked to believe what they were told, not to accept conclusions based on evidence. The cases, whether of recent satanic abuse or recovered memories of it, figure vulnerable victims under pressure to construct stories that will both authenticate their status as victims and heal them in the telling.
Jean La Fontaine is emerita Professor of Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, and a past President of the Royal Anthropological Institute. She is the author of a report to the Department of Health, The Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse: Research Findings, and Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in contemporary England (Cambridge University Press: 1998).