Thirty years ago the McMartin pre-school trial began in - where else? - Southern California. It lasted seven years and cost $15 million, the longest and most expensive criminal case in the history of the US legal system. And it introduced a new acronym to the world of psychiatry: SRA - Satanic Ritual Abuse.
The whole farrago can be summed up in the words of one of the children on whose testimony the whole case depended, looking back as an adult some 20 years later:
Never did anyone do anything to me, and I never saw them doing anything. I said a lot of things that didn't happen. I lied. ... Anytime I would give them an answer that they didn't like, they would ask again and encourage me to give them the answer they were looking for. ... I felt uncomfortable and a little ashamed that I was being dishonest. But at the same time, being the type of person I was, whatever my parents wanted me to do, I would do.
And there you have it.
Philip Jenkins was surprised when no one in a class he was lecturing knew what he was talking about when he mentioned the American witch-hunts of the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, as he says, it's important not to forget:
S.R.A. charges became the basis of a florid mythology, in which the nation's pre-schools had been infiltrated by Satanic cultists, who used toddlers in their dark rites. Reputedly, such evildoers were both numerous, and lethal. Cults were allegedly involved in human sacrifices, some associated with such notorious serial killers as David Berkowitz, New York City's Son of Sam. By some estimates, Satanists in the 1980s were responsible for fifty or sixty thousand murders in the US annually -- at a time when the total number of all American homicides was around 25,000 a year.
But how could such vastly powerful cults have established themselves overnight? A deep-rooted history was soon forthcoming, in the form of alleged memories of cult abuse originally depicted in the 1980 book Michelle Remembers. (Probably, the Michelle story helped shape the original McMartin allegations). With startling unanimity, baby boom-aged women in therapy sessions nationwide were reporting McMartin-style abuse dating back to the 1950s and beyond. Some told of bearing babies for cults to sacrifice.
By the early 1990s, "recovered memory" was a flourishing and highly profitable subfield of the therapeutic profession. Patients had a near-guarantee that they would recall hideous acts of violence and molestation at the hands of Satan's henchmen, who usually happened to be their own parents.
And it was all bogus, from start to finish.
There's some irony in the current "forgetting", given the whole business was manufactured from the implanting of false memories: originally, as in the McMasters case, from the encouragement of young vulnerable children to come up with the "required" answers, and then in the whole "recovered memory" movement where supposedly forgotten repressed memories were manufactured to order on the couch. There are certainly no lack of those who'd like to see it all disappear down the memory hole; most notably perhaps psychotherapists, so many of whom, encouraged by their commitment to a dodgy Freudian methodology of reconstructing supposed childhood sexual memories, were among the most enthusiastic endorsers of the whole farce - at not inconsiderable financial benefit to themselves.
The whole ghastly story is still relevant today, of course, casting its shadow over current abuse scares.
Jessa Crispin at Blog of a Bookslut provides a short reading list of Satanic Panic books for those interested.