Beyond Belief

The Creation of a Contemporary Legend
By Jeffrey S. Victor
Open Court Publishing, 408 pp.

What It Is, Why It Happens and How to Help
By Margaret Smith
HarperCollins, 213 pp.

If Margaret Smith is to be believed, North America is infested with extensive clandestine organizations of such unutterable evil as to make serial killers Clifford Olson, Ted Bundy and their ilk pale by comparison. If, on the other hand, Jeffrey Victor is correct, Margaret Smith is not only monumentally deluded but dangerously so, because she is part of a growing movement of zealots perpetrating the worst witch hunt since the McCarthyite Red Scare of the 1950s.

They can’t both be right, and it’s not a pretty choice: either monsters in our midst or rampant paranoia. Take your pick.

At issue is the latest spin on one of society’s darkest fears, the sexual abuse of children. For more than a decade now, stories have been surfacing that go beyond isolated incidents of incest and pedophilia. Across the continent, children as young as 3 and 4 have told tales of being repeatedly and systematically violated at their daycare centres; of being tortured by their parents in occult rituals; of being forced to participate in cannibalism and human sacrifice.

Under therapy, adults diagnosed as having multiple personality disorder – a condition in which different characters ostensibly inhabit the same psyche – claim to be able to recall long-repressed memories on the same macabre order: of being raped and sodomized by figures in hoods and robes; of being forced to bear children who were then slaughtered in front of them; of having snakes sewn into their vaginas; of being forced to drink blood and eat feces.

The stories are so outlandish that the immediate impulse is to dismiss them as fictions of hyperactive or unhinged imaginations, or to view them as refracted symptoms of some other disquieting trauma. But from California to Ontario to the United Kingdom, the same allegations have been made with such frequency and consistency that an increasing number of activists have come to accept them not only at face value, but as evidence that beneath the surface of everyday life there lurks a conspiracy of sadism. Against all reason, we are urged to believe that there is a covert network of Satanists, black magicians and anti-Christians stalking the land, preying upon the innocent with brainwashing, pain and atrocity.

Smith’s Ritual Abuse is one such impassioned plea. Smith (a pseudonym, and uninspired one at that) claims to be a survivor of this abuse herself, and her book is based on the testimony of 52 others, out of the thousands of adults she insists have suffered at the hands of the covens and the cults. Scoffing at them, she suggests, is like laughing at rape victims. Decency demands that we bracket our skepticism and believe them, since only then can they be helped and only then can we confront the evil that walks among us.

Victor, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Jamestown, begs to differ. It’s precisely this sort of credulity, he argues, that gives credence to the misguided and fuels the mounting hysteria. Satanic Panic is his attempt to debunk the entire scaremongering myth.

He does not deny that, sadly, kidnapping and child molestation do occur. And yes, a few mischievous or delinquent teenagers, spurred on by the playacting of rock groups such as Judas Priest and slasher movies such as Friday the 13th, pretend to dabble in diabolism. But he stresses that there is not a scintilla of physical evidence to support the allegations of a widespread Satanic conspiracy or of group, ritualized abuse.

Instead, what he sees is something even more frightening, if only because it’s manifestly real: a loose confederation of opportunists (such as Geraldo Rivera and the other purveyors of junk journalism, eager to exploit the anxieties of the gullible for shock value and ratings), moral crusaders (fundamentalist Christians, blinkered child-care activists and ill-educated psychotherapists, all ideologically predisposed to believe the literal worst) and the victimized (the children themselves and genuinely tormented adults). Together, they’ve conspired to construct a scapegoat, a bogeyman for their terrors.

It would be sad were it not dangerous, and it’s dangerous for two reasons. First, no victim of any such hallucination, whether a child or adult, is properly served by telling them that their nightmares are true. What’s required is treatment to discover where the nightmares are actually coming from.

Second, in the court actions that these accusations have prompted – and apparently there have been a score of them – innocent lives can be trampled. Victor points out that the first such charges were laid in 1983 against five child-care workers at the McMartin school in Manhattan Beach, Calif., who were accused of Satanically-inspired sexual assaults of 360 children. It took a seven-year trial at a cost of $15 million – the longest and most expensive in U.S. history – for the defendants to be found not guilty and for the remaining charges to be dropped. Even if there is sexual foul play involved, Victor argues, there is no call to muddy the waters with talk of Satanism.

But never underestimate the resilience of the true believer. Smith is herself a member of Believe the Children, an activist group that sprang out of the McMartin trial, and what Victor cites with horror, she cites approvingly. While Victor points to these various court cases as evidence of a judicial system run amok, Smith takes them as a welcome sign that the state is finally beginning to act. Victor invokes the history of accusations of devil worship and Satanic infanticide against Jews, the Knights Templar, various Christian heretic sects, to show that humans have always unjustly demonized others. Smith recites the same history to remind us that Satanism has been with us for a millennium.

This is not to say that Satanic Panic drives a stake through the heart of the claims made in Ritual Abuse. Alas, the book is not sufficiently well executed to be truly satisfying. It’s repetitive, inelegant and heavy handed. Also, Victor does not know, how to put commas in, the right place. For all her glassy-eyed credulity, Smith’s volume is far better written. But perhaps that’s because she had the benefit of the professional editors at HarperCollins, while Victor could only find a small-time publisher. Apparently, there’s more money in hyping the outrageous than deflating it.

But lest one have lingering doubts, consider this: the claims made by supposed victims of ritual abuse are almost identical to those made by people who believe they’ve been regularly abducted by aliens. If we accept bald-faced the testimony of Smith, we’re duty bound to believe that little green men are up to the same nasty work.

From the Holocaust to Jeffrey Dahmer to David Koresh, there’s enough evil afoot in the world without having to invoke either Satanists or flying

  • Montreal Gazette September 4, 1993