What the Heck is Satanic Ritual Abuse?
Leonard Holmes, Ph.D.
Towson, Maryland: The Sidran Institute, 2000
I don’t know. That’s the short answer. Some abuse survivors, often survivors with severe Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), have memories of being abused in Satanic ceremonies. These memories are usually “recovered memories”—memories that emerge later in life, although some abuse survivors report continuous memories of Satanic ritual abuse—memories which they have always had.
What do these memories mean? Does having a memory mean that the events actually happened the way that we remember them? The answer to this question is certainly “no.” Research has shown that memory is fallible. We do not record the events in our life on a recorder and play them back later. We have all experienced times when our memory of an event conflicted with someone else’s. The brain sorts and filters a huge amount of incoming sensory material. It then decides which very small percentage should be stored for later retrieval, and only portions of this material are stored.
Abuse survivors who have these ritual abuse memories often remember very similar things. They remember adult figures dressed in certain clothes performing ceremonies, for example. I will not go into further detail about the common threads in these memories. Most of us are familiar with some of that these survivors report to have happened to them. They are typically hideous and gruesome memories that involve some of the worst kinds of torture and abuse imaginable.
Can these memories possibly be real? Again, I don’t know. In the past therapists tended to divide themselves into camps on this issue. There was a camp of true believers who believed in the literal truth of these memories. There was another camp, represented most strongly by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which believed that all of these memories were false, and that they were probably implanted by therapists.
I have worked with a very small number of patients who have had such memories. The first time I heard of these memories from a patient I had no idea what was happening. I did know that I had not “implanted” the memories. They were completely alien to my experience and to anything we had talked about in therapy. I saw the need to get some training in this area and I sought it out.
The advice that I received at the time was that I should believe my patient and believe in the literal truth of her memories. (I have since come to believe that this is not the best approach—that it is best to acknowledge that we just don’t know what these memories mean.) I was confronted with evidence that many other abuse survivors were telling similar stories, and I was told about “generational” Satanic cults which were networked and which coordinated the rituals around the world. I even heard whispers of an international organization called the Illuminati which coordinated these cults and which intended to take over the world in the year 1999 by taking advantage of these “programmed” Manchurian candidates which they created in these cults.
Whew. Was any of this remotely possible? I began networking with other professionals to see what they thought.
Several years later I was asked to be on a Task Force formed by the Virginia Crime Commission to study “ritual crime.” Reports of these cults had reached law enforcement officials, and they were divided on whether these groups really existed. The Task Force did not reach any firm conclusions regarding this, but found no evidence of widespread ritual crimes. We heard from many therapists who treated patients with these memories, and we heard from law enforcement officials who had discovered evidence of Satanic cults which did practice. We also heard from FBI experts (Ken Lanning was one) who were very skeptical of the existence of these groups. Where were the bodies?
Some of the therapists who spoke about their practices reported that a substantial percentage of their patients had such memories. How was this possible? Could this have more to do with the therapist than the patient?
As I discussed these issues with colleagues in the mental health community I heard some very different opinions. Some therapists were certain that the FBI agents investigating cults were themselves cult members. I was warned that the Task Force itself had been infiltrated by the cult. Other therapists genuinely did not know what to think, while others were extremely skeptical.
One very interesting group that helped the Task Force was the Wiccan community. The members that I had contact with tended to believe that Satanic cults were indeed active, and they provided information to the State Police and testified about what they knew. They took great pains to distinguish their own peaceful “white witchcraft” from the hideous practices attributed to Satanic cults.
At this point there are several possible explanations for Satanic Ritual Abuse Memories. It is important not to see these as mutually exclusive explanations, because it may be that more than one of them are at least partially true:
1. Memories of Satanic ritual abuse may be at least partially true. We do know that destructive cults exist. Nazi Germany and the KKK have taught us that people can be extremely cruel to each other. The fact that some survivors have continuous memories of these rituals lends some credence to this possibility. Even if some memories are true, some details may be distorted, or some rituals may have been staged for effect.
2. Memories of Satanic ritual abuse may be at least partially unconsciously created “screen memories.” A screen memory is a memory that we create—as a screen—to protect us from the horror of a real memory. This theory suggests that patients may be protecting themselves from horrors that take place inside their family. It may be easier to believe that a cult tortured and abused you than to believe that your own parents did these things.
3. Memories of Satanic ritual abuse may be at least partially “screen memories” intentionally created by others. Some therapists and attorneys point to mind-control projects performed by the CIA and other groups in the 1950s and 60s. MK-ULTRA and Bluebird were two of the best known projects. Documents obtained by Alan Shefflin and others under the freedom-of-information act confirm that the U.S. government put some effort into creating “Manchurian candidates” who would perform dangerous missions for the U.S. government after they had been programmed through hypnosis and mind control. It is hypothesized that stories of Satanic rituals were implanted as screen memories in case these subjects began to remember being programmed.
The idea behind this theory is that the ritual abuse memories are so far-fetched that nobody would believe them. They may have been created using staged rituals, Hollywood makeup, and props in order to plant a memory that would “emerge” later.
4. Memories of Satanic ritual abuse may represent children’s fantasies. While these memories usually emerge in adulthood, they almost always involve events remembered from childhood or adolescence. A child’s point-of-view is very different than an adult’s. The world is full of magic and monsters. The literature includes examples of memories which could not possibly be true. I have read accounts of a woman who remembered herself being decapitated during a ritual. She recounted the memory complete with an intense emotional reaction, and her head was still firmly attached.
Why such gruesome fantasies? Might it be that some abuse did occur and that the mind began adding other stuff?
5. Therapists who ask too many leading questions may indeed contribute to these memories in some patients. This does not account for the whole phenomenon, however.
None of these explanations are completely satisfying to me. As a clinical psychologist I have worked with a fairly large number of abuse survivors. As I began to get a local reputation for working with this population I began to get referrals of patients that other therapists felt uncomfortable continuing to work with.
Partly through this mechanism I have worked intensely with four patients who had ritual abuse memories. Some of this work was successful, some was not, and some is ongoing. I still don’t pretend to understand what is happening here, but I have some ideas.
I believe that some of these memories—in some of these patients—are relatively accurate memories of severe abuse in a group setting. I’m pretty sure that the details are not all accurate, and the childlike point-of-view has undoubtedly distorted things further. I do not believe that there is a world-wide conspiracy that links Satanic groups together, although I suppose that this is possible.
It doesn’t really matter whether you agree with me or not. The most therapeutic way for mental health professionals to approach the memories of these patients is with careful, caring neutrality. Work with them toward healing. Consider taping sessions—with the client’s written permission—in order to document that you are not in the business of implanting memories. Encourage patients to find corroboration for their memories if possible, but avoid the temptation to become a detective. Seek supervision, education, and/or consultation; and be sure that you are taking care of yourself too.