I know I am just one among millions of people who feels profoundly dismayed by the realization that the truth has, in our political environment, become as unstable as sand in a high surf. Where I part ways with many of my confreres is that I am acutely aware of another time in our recent cultural history when truth was tossed aside like a worn sock, with devastating consequences.
I spent much of the last decade trying to comprehend the disquieting social panic over child sex abuse that roiled communities around the country in the 1980s and into the 1990s because I have a very personal connection to those events. During that era, truth became the victim of paranoia, political ego, over-zealous child advocates and outright fiction. Dozens of innocent day care workers were charged, and many convicted, of sadistic sexual abuse of children, despite no physical evidence ever surfacing to corroborate the supposed victims’ testimonies.
The children were victims, but not of abuse. They were subjected to relentless questioning, coercive and bullying interviews, until they broke down and agreed to abandon their truth (i.e. that no abuse had occurred) for the fiction that social workers, law enforcement and assorted authority figures wanted them to believe: They were raped with butcher knives, participated in orgies and sex games, dismembered dead animals. Their reward for caving in to these lies? The badgering stopped. Their parents loved them again.
The panic also fueled a widespread belief that thousands of children were being kidnapped and tortured by members of underground satanic cults. That is how I was drawn into the panic. In 1989, my emotionally fragile niece, then 21, told her parents, two siblings and me that she had been abused by members of a satanic cult throughout her childhood.
I was dumbfounded at her disclosure. I was vaguely aware of the child care cases, but I knew nothing about the paranoia over ritual abuse that had been creeping across the country, or the growing belief in the veracity of what were called “recovered memories” of childhood abuse. I considered satanic cults a byproduct of medieval superstition; my niece considered them frighteningly real.
They took her at night, she told me, subjected her to torture and abuse, gave her something to make her forget, then brought her back home. One specific, excruciating torture she talked about, which she called “The Marionette,” was being strung up in a way that had her joints bend the opposite from how they were supposed to function.
As difficult as it was to hear my niece’s “memories,” the speed at which some of her family members accepted them as true was also disturbing. In a matter of months, my relatives came to believe an underground satanic cult was operating undetected throughout the country, kidnapping children, abusing them and programming their minds to obey the will of the cult. Sex abuse was the least of it ― young women were reportedly used as breeders to deliver infants that were cut up and used in sacrificial rituals. Sometimes the young women were allegedly made to wield the knives themselves and ingest the tiny body parts. My niece, who couldn’t tolerate the thought of any creature enduring pain, came to believe that’s what she had done.
“What made seeking the truth even more difficult was that those caught in the sway of the panic disavowed anyone who didn’t embrace their beliefs. Their prevailing creed was: If you don’t believe us, you must be in league with them.”
So devious, so sophisticated was the cult ― I was told ― that it never left behind any tracks. That’s why police couldn’t find evidence. And children never told, they said, because they were warned they would face unthinkable consequences if they did.
What made seeking the truth even more difficult was that those caught in the sway of the panic disavowed anyone who didn’t embrace their beliefs. Their prevailing creed was: If you don’t believe us, you must be in league with them.
For two years, I was suspended in an agonizing limbo between incredulity and possibility. Turning to the media, which had tossed truth to the wind, was also no help. It had grabbed on to the sensational sizzle and didn’t let go.
None of us knew it at the time, but we were all caught in the grip of a social panic. The term “false memories” hadn’t yet been coined. My niece believed her “memories,” as did her therapist and many of the caregivers in the various hospital wards she ended up in. If she had heard the talks and workshops given by those who helped fuel the panic ― psychiatrists, therapists, social workers, law enforcement, prosecutors ― she would have found validation there, too.
Forget that no evidence, names or proof ever surfaced to support any of the hundreds of claims of ritual abuse. That was just an inconvenient truth that got in the way of the ramped-up ranting. Another worn sock, tossed to the wind.
The last year of her life, my niece ran — from her “memories,” from the demands of the multiple personalities she believed her abuse had given rise to, from the relentless fear that gripped her in its claws. One November night, she gave up. She was 23 years old.
Seven months after her death, a University of Utah professor and hypnosis expert spoke before a rapt audience in Virginia, explaining how the worldwide satanic cult operated, and its use of mind control techniques. “Basically, in the programming, the child will be placed on a gurney ... They’ll be strapped down, usually naked. There’ll be wires attached to their head to monitor electro-encephalograph patterns ...”
It took until the late 1990s for the panic to wane. It left untold numbers of devastated individuals and families in its wake. Not only the scores of individuals and families who were caught up in the child care cases, but also people who were led to believe they had suffered horrendous abuse, but hadn’t, and families torn apart by unfounded accusations of child abuse.
I don’t believe we are beset by a social panic such as the one that occurred in the 1980s. But watching the daily erosion of truth brings up in me similar feelings of powerlessness. I know too well the consequences when truth and critical thinking are outshouted by ideology, politics, paranoia or a misguided moral crusade.
We, as a society, have been here before. We should know better. Dismissing the truth serves no one. And it comes at a great cost. My niece was a tender, precocious soul and a wonderful writer. She would be turning 50 this year. I still miss her.
Alice Tallmadge is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Springfield, Oregon. Her memoir, Now I Can See the Moon—A Story of a Social Panic, False Memories and a Life Cut Short will be published in April 2018 by She Writes Press.