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Speak, Memory

Speak, Memory

Editorial Note: In light of the responses we have received regarding this article by Richard Noll, PhD, that was posted on our website on December 6, 2013, the article has been reposted with a modification. Additionally, we are posting responses from certain of the individuals mentioned in the article and from Dr Noll in order to leave analysis of the article up to our readers.


Some mass cultural phenomena are so emotionally charged, so febrile, and in retrospect so causally incomprehensible, that we feel compelled to move on silently and feign forgetfulness.

Historian Alfred Crosby noted these “peculiarities of human memory” in the 1976 first edition of his book America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918.1 “Why have (Americans) so thoroughly forgotten it since?” he asked.1(p319) Until Crosby’s book appeared, even historians had avoided the painful subject for 50 years. Without resorting to psychiatric or psychoanalytic explanations, Crosby speculated that any mass event that had “enormous influence” but that “utterly evades logical analysis” might justify our ignorance of it “because the alternative would be to sink into the quicksand of speculation without any limits.”1(p322)

Just 25 years ago, American psychiatry was infected by a psychic pandemic that originated outside the profession. In 1983 it broke out of a reservoir of religious, legal, psychotherapeutic, and mass media mixing bowls. Children in US day-care centers and adults in psychotherapy told 2 distinct versions of their malady. By 1988, some elite members of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) were making it worse. They had become its vectors. Then other elite psychiatrists stepped in to quarantine the profession. Eventually, just like the last wave of the influenza pandemic, after 1994 it ended as suddenly and incomprehensibly as it had started.

As our medical schools and graduate programs fill with students who were born after 1989, we meet young mental health professionals-in-training who have no knowledge or living memory of the Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) moral panic of the 1980s and early 1990s. But perhaps they should. Cautionary tales may prevent the recurrence of pyrogenic cultural fantasies and the devastating clinical mistakes they inspire.

But who should tell this tale? To those of us who are old enough to have been there, that era already seems like a curious relic of the past, bracketed in our memory palaces behind a door we are loathe to open again.

In the 1980s thousands of patients insisted that they were recovering childhood memories of physical and sexual abuse during Satanic cult rituals. In addition to the red or black robes of the abusers and other paraphernalia of devil worship familiar to any horror film devotee, these memories often included the ritual sacrificial murder of children, blood-drinking, cannibalism, bestiality, and incest. Famous believers in SRA ranged from Gloria Steinem to Pat Robertson. A prominent historian of religion has argued that “the emergence of SRA motifs” served as “a kind of feminist and evangelical Christian pornography.”2(p208)

Clinicians who then believed in the factual basis of the claims (and there were many) have probably spent the last 30 years asking themselves, “How could I have been so . . . ?” (fill in the blank). Or perhaps they are still saying to themselves, as the authors of one book suggest in their title, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).3

Their silence is understandable. But even many of the most pivotal of the skeptical psychiatrists of that era have not shared their personal memories in a public forum. Why were they so immune and how did they decide that such clinical narratives had no basis in historical truth?

Might historians of psychiatry offer us something here? Unfortunately, like those generations of historians following the 1918 pandemic, they too have repeated the compulsion to dissociate themselves from an ugly cultural and medical disaster. Revulsion is a human reaction we can certainly all understand.

Despite the discomfort it brings, we owe it to the current generation of clinicians to remember that an elite minority within the American psychiatric profession played a small but ultimately decisive role in the cultural validation, and then reduction, of the Satanism moral panic between 1988 and 1994. Indeed, what can we all learn from American psychiatry’s involvement in the moral panic?


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