Twenty Years Ago Today: Satanic Ritual Abuse Book Published

The only thing in this entry that's even slightly amusing. Everything else is just horrible. Twenty years ago today, the British psychotherapist Valerie Sinason published a book with the intention of addressing a desperately pressing crisis in modern psychotherapy: the wave of satanic ritual abuse that she and others had uncovered in the UK. Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse would, she hoped, make people aware of the problem within the next six years. After all, the public never used to think that the sexual abuse of children was a serious problem, but they'd come around to the idea once the truth became impossible to ignore. So surely the evidence from the case histories in the book would help people realise that satanist cults were just as real a threat? That the terrible orgies of abuse and cannibalism that destroyed lives were something that needed to be dealt with? That the stories of these troubled people should be listened to, and believed?

There's just one problem: none of it ever happened.

While child abuse is real and organised child abuse is a very definite problem, satanic ritual abuse is something else altogether. The stories told by its alleged victims are harrowing, but so shocking that some kind of evidence should have come to light by now - and yet it has not. Even if we put aside the accusations which are simply physically impossible, the absence of any corpses resulting from the alleged killing of both humans and animals described by victims is a serious problem. Those who defend the diagnosis state that this must be a consequence of the cannibalism that followed; but this does not explain the lack of missing persons, nor the lack of witnesses - save for those who have been 'treated' by therapists who believe in satanic ritual abuse.

Instead, what seems most likely is that this is a manifestation of False Memory Syndrome. In simply suspecting that ritual abuse took place, therapists - who, it must be said, seem to have had the best of intentions - helped to create memories in their patients by asking them repeatedly about the abuse, supplying details that slowly accreted in the mind until the patients believed it really happened.

(Human memory is a vague and unreliable mechanism at the best of times, and we're all capable of creating or distorting memories. For example, you've almost certainly experienced the troubling but harmless revelation that scenes you recall from the films & television of your childhood turn out to be very different when you see them again as adults. See the work of Elizabeth Loftus for more details on how fallible memory is).

Just to make things worse, some of the patients in question are likely to have been mentally ill to begin with, and delusional enough without any help from their therapists. This presents a recipe for misguided and harmful treatment resulting in sensational revelations that, sadly, make certain journalists wet themselves with excitement. And soon enough you begin to see news stories which spark off a moral panic and make the situation even worse.

It all ends up with a perversion of the honest desire to help abused children. Adults around them are accused of the most terrible crimes and punished for no reason. Troubled victims come to believe in horrible abuse that never happened, making it difficult or impossible to treat their real problems. Other children suspected of being at risk are taken away from their families. A brief idea of the toll can be seen at the excellent What's The Harm? website. Today, the concept of ritual satanic abuse is very much not accepted in mainstream psychotherapy - but only after a good many people had to suffer a great deal.

I would show you a video about this, but the YouTube videos on this subject seem mostly to be made by people who are willing to believe anything - just as long as it's a conspiracy. Instead, here's a Guardian article on one particular harrowing case.