Last week at The Satanic Temple Headquarters Grey Faction director Sarah Ponto Rivera gave a talk about the continuing efforts of quacks promoting dangerous Satanic Panic era pseudoscience in the mental health industry. We’ve talked about Grey Faction’s efforts here on the blog before so I’m not going to exhaustively cover the video, you can and should settle in and watch it here:
Recovered Memory Therapy
The key points that are real takeaways are that during the outbreak of Satanic Panic accusations in the 80s and 90s it was predominantly women who were victims of their therapists; their families and close associates became the accused. The collection of mental health providers, many of whom still practice, built a narrative by convincing patients that their problems stemmed from repressed memories of ritual abuse at the hands of a powerful secret cult. It’s reminiscent of the ‘deep state’ narrative we see propagated in far-right circles today. In the 80’s it was daycare centers, today it’s pizza joints. From my perspective, much of the deep state narrative that lead to they hysteria about the Podesta emails and the Comet Ping-Pong shooting is a direct extension of the governing bodies of the mental health profession never truly acknowledging the grievous errors that allowed the panic to flourish in the first place.
This is because of a narrative in the recovered memory therapy community that claims made under hypnosis, no matter how outlandish, are to be believed even if they are clearly impossible. This is why there are entire conventions are held for UFO abductees, Illuminati conspiracy theorists, and of course those who believe in a global Satanic black magic globalist cabal. Sarah illustrated the justification for treating such claims as true and persecuting innocent people saying:
“There are some who feel that this hysteria that leads innocent people to have their lives ruined is actually satisfactory because there is this belief that abuse hurts more than being falsely accused. Such as in the case of an organization called Survivorship … It really panders to a lot of tin foil hat narrative and is run by licensed mental health professionals.”
That is to say, in the logic of some people any accusation based on recovered memory testimony should be believed, because seeking justice for the claimant is more important than any injustice done to the falsely accused. Many have pointed out that the number of convictions based on such accusations are a small fraction of the accusations that were made. Their claim, such as it is, is that the moral panic that lead to slews of unsubstantiated allegations are justified because it’s better to bear the inconvenience of a false allegation than allow any perpetrator to escape prosecution.
The Witch-hunt Narrative
This brings me to the book I’ve been reading that I promised to review called The Witch-hunt Narrative by Ross E. Cheit. Cheit sent me the book after an exchange Lucien Greaves and I had with him on twitter in which he challenged me to read his review of the McMartin Preschool trial court records. Cheit’s claim is that the Satanic Panic (which he calls the Witch-hunt Narrative but is really the same thing viewed through a different lens) was not really a moral panic at all because during that time some claims of abuse were true, and some people who were accused of abuse were found not guilty despite evidence to the contrary.
I don’t disparage Cheit’s scholarship, he definitely did his research. But overall his argument seems to be that the clearly false allegations don’t matter because a few people who might have been convicted of a crime used the panic to avoid prosecution.
I don’t think that’s really what happened though.
It’s true that there may well have been instances of people avoid conviction. But is it fair to put the blame for that on the falsely accused? No. I would argue that the moral panic driven by coerced testimony of children is by far the larger problem. It’s akin to saying people shouldn’t be upset about being falsely accused of murder because OJ Simpson wasn’t found guilty. The far bigger issue in these cases is prosecutors and investigators getting so caught up in a national hysteria of the Satanic Panic that they screwed up their own cases with bad arguments and the legal system did was it is designed to do, err on the side of caution in the face of questionable evidence.
Not That Far Apart
In the letter Cheit included when he sent me his book he wrote
“I doubt we are far apart on McMartin. And I doubt you disagree with my argument that there has been a lot of “Satanic Exaggeration,” calming that cases that had nothing to do with Satanism (which is pretty much all cases save a few very strange ones that I doubt were card-carrying members or anything).”
It’s true that having read his book that I really don’t think we’re that far apart on McMartin or other Satanic Panic era cases, but it’s a small difference with huge implications. Cheit and I agree that if prosecutors did their jobs properly and presented their best evidence while ignoring all the questionable testimony and made up nonsense they would likely have presented a more compelling case in some instances. But, he seems to discount the role all the false or at least highly suspect evidence that a lead to such acquittals. Ultimately, Cheit’s work seems to agree that moral panics are bad, but instead of focusing on protecting the rights of the falsely accused he seems to think we should instead concern ourselves with the instances in which a perpetrator may have escaped conviction.
Essentially then, my issue with Cheit’s narrative is one of priority in which he seems to feel that the prosecution’s failure to secure a conviction in some cases outweighs the fear of Satanism (or rather more accurately, the masses perception of what Satanism is) that lead to community outrage and the ruining of many innocent lives. We agree that hysteria and over-zealousness of accusations were bad, but we agree from very different perspectives.
In his book, Cheit asks ‘What kind of whitch-hunt or “justice denied” results in no charges whatsoever?” Which seems to entirely ignore the social costs for those falsely accused who remain subject to being ostracized and mob stigmatization. Yes, prosecutors who didn’t bring charges against obviously ludicrous claims should be applauded for doing their jobs, but the cultural narrative that lead to the rash of false accusations in the first place is what needs to be fought to avoid such circumstance in the first place.