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Being Rational About "Ritual Abuse"

Dear Harvey,

Thank you for sending me the articles from the New Yorker on ritual abuse and related issues last spring. I found those articles very interesting, easily the most intelligent pieces I've seen come out of the media on this topic. It prompted me to try to put my own thoughts down on this topic, which began as a letter to you and turned into the article that I am enclosing for possible publication in Present Time. I'd be very interested to hear your response to these thoughts.

I was also very glad to see your recent article in Present Time that took on the issue of suggestibility and the sort of obsession with being a victim that has been tricky for a number of people. I thought that that article cleared the air and laid some groundwork for us to use to push ourselves and each other beyond identifications as victims of this or that. Regarding satanic ritual abuse, I've noticed for awhile that suggestibility on this subject is very intense for many people.

In terms of my own re-emergence from hurts and confusion acquired during my early childhood experiences with a satanic cult, I think that overall I've made a lot of progress. I started unoccluding these incidents around 1986, and had numerous memories unocclude over the following three years. At that point, I was planning to go back to school and made a decision to not spend as much attention on unoccluding memories. That decision worked fairly well, although a few major incidents surfaced after that. Over the past five years I have gradually taken on bigger challenges in my RC leadership and in my work in the wide world. It's been a very productive and growthfull period for me, and I'm proud of myself for continuing to push against the limits that my distresses try to set for me.

It seems like working on reemergence brings unexpected rewards. One of the best and most unexpected results from my counseling on the early material is that now I occasionally have deep feelings of love for all the people that I have in my life. This comes to me sometimes at quiet moments in RC gatherings or at odd times, such as driving to work. It's really a lovely kind of awareness of present time, and I think it's a good indication that my fears about groups of people are diminishing.

I have actually talked about this history to only a few counselors, since most people seem to not think about this type of experience very well. My opportunities to have sessions directly on this material are limited, which makes progress slower and more difficult. However, I can have as many sessions as I want with my attention focused on the countless contradictions I find in present time, and that's often how I use my session time. In the past year, my life has been full of a variety of activities, and in order to keep up with the pace I have set for myself I have simply tried not to think much about the early abuse. It's tricky since, after my contact with the satanic cult ended at age five or so, I made a rigid decision to never let myself think about those experiences. I was very afraid that I would be institutionalized if anyone knew how bad I felt, so I became extremely careful to not let my feelings show. I'm never sure how much my current decision to not think about the early abuse relies on that early rigid decision, but it's the best decision I've been able to come up with so far.

Recently there have been some new efforts in the wide world to discuss and understand "satanic ritual abuse." Part of this discussion has involved a fair amount of questioning whether satanic ritual abuse even exists, as well as questioning the accuracy of human memory in general. As someone who was abused by a satanic cult as a child, I have a few things to say about the nature of human memory, the context in which this discussion is occurring, and the opportunity we have to understand this experience in light of the broader issue of human liberation.


How accurate is human memory? It's quite hard to say. I think there is nothing more personal or subjective than memory. A mother once vividly illustrated this for me when she told me that after spending a day with her four-year old son, she listened to him relate to his father his memory of the day. All of his recollections were tangential to what she thought of as the core events. Child's version: We saw a police car and a big dog who barked, then we ate ice cream. Mother's version: We went to the park and then we had lunch. Both individuals remembered the time they had shared together differently, and each person's memory reflected their own values, their self-image, and their understanding of the world. While the degree of variation between these individuals' memories partly reflects the different perspectives of adults and children, it is generally true for all of us that memories are subjective by nature.

In RC we often spend session time sifting through our memories to find points where we can apply effective contradictions to each other's undischarged distresses. This process has proven, time and again, to be a useful route to reemergence. But given the current questioning of the nature and reliability of human memory, I think it could be helpful to take another look at memory and how it relates to literal recordings of undischarged hurts. To begin with, I propose that we think of memory and literal recordings as related but different functions of humans.

We know that during an experience of hurt, every detail of the incident is literally recorded. This means that every sight, sound, smell, feeling, etc. is recorded. As we client (either awarely or not), we often find ourselves replaying literal recordings -- sometimes a spoken phrase or an unspoken thought, a tone of voice or a facial expression. Contradicting these literal recordings -- that is, showing that the literal recording is a relic from a past experience and is different from our present experience -- is a powerful and effective method of reemergence.

Memory, on the other hand, is a kind of storytelling about our lives, and comes wrapped in layers of meaning and interpretation. Literal recordings of experiences are embedded in our recall and combine with other very human, benign elements. In fact, who we think we are and what we think our lives mean has much to do with how we remember our past experiences.

As we work to unocclude early hurtful incidents, our efforts to make sense of these are simply a function of our human intelligence. For me, some early incidents of severely hurtful experiences unocclude quickly as an entire incident. Yet others come up as fragments -- an image, a phrase, a remembered thought. I notice that as I unocclude all these incidents, I am drawn toward linking them together and adding in other information or speculations to create a coherent story.

This seems to me to be a benign process. I find that connecting literal recordings together or adding in information I have gained as an adult does not seem to diminish my discharge of hurts from the actual experiences. I think of this as part of the upward trend -- that our minds are eager to make connections between pieces of information, that we search to create deeper meaning in everything we focus on. In fact, this is the kind of interpretation and storytelling about our lives that I think makes up what we generally call memory.

Of course, the interpretative nature of memory means that patterns -- often chronic patterns -- get blended into the mix, and that is why it works for us to "play" with memories in counseling sessions. In particular, many of us have found it useful in session to work on key early incidents in which we felt victimized or powerless by retelling the memory from the perspective that we were then (as now and always) completely, inherently powerful.

For example, an early memory of mine involves being abused and nearly killed by someone close to me. In a recent session it occurred to me to retell the story from the perspective of taking full credit for the fact that I wasn't killed. In my session, I claimed that since I am inherently powerful at any given moment, during this early incident I was able to powerfully reach the person behind the life-threatening pattern and interrupt their patterned behavior. By taking that perspective, I had a useful, productive session.

Is that really what happened? Perhaps. I think it is as good an explanation of the turning point in that incident as my earlier explanation -- that for some mysterious reason, the perpetrator suddenly ceased to abuse me. Since my reworking of this memory was done in the context of a co-counseling session and the session successfully produced discharge and reevaluation, the literal accuracy of this memory was less important to me than the goal of reclaiming power.

A key point here is that in playing with this memory, I worked to see myself and the perpetrator more clearly in light of reality: I was powerful, the perpetrator was reachable. I think that this must be the guiding principle: When we alter our memories in our sessions, it must be in the direction of uncovering reality or of making the memories more accurately line up with reality. Thus it would not be helpful for me to take the perspective that I was less powerful or less effective than I remember being during this or any other incident of hurt. It also would not be helpful for me to imagine that I was more victimized than I actually was.

But what about the reliability of memory as it relates to childhood experiences in satanic cults? Self-proclaimed survivors of satanic cults have given the public detailed descriptions of bizarre events that seem aimed to break every taboo and every line on the social contract -- human sacrifice, cannibalism, mind control, etc. In the wide world, many people reject these experiences as even possible, and there are charges that these self-proclaimed victims are, basically, faking it. In response, there are countercharges by the victims that not only were they victimized in satanic cults, but that this questioning of their memories is part of a conspiracy of satanists to discredit the testimony of the survivors. In addition, many people question whether memories that have been unoccluded 20 or 30 years after the event can be literally accurate.

It is possible to gain clarity on this issue. I think it could be useful now to begin to systematically think through the different strands of what is going on in the debate over satanic ritual abuse, examining each strand for its connection to -- or disconnection from -- reality.

Fortunately, we RCers are in a very good position for examining this question. RC has developed a truly exceptional framework for thinking through issues, a framework that is based on a profound understanding of reality. In fact, one of the most striking and demanding characteristics of RC theory is our insistence that all our assumptions, thoughts and decisions be examined for patterned thinking and behavior. In the largest sense, we have speculated on the nature of reality, positing that it is objective and benign, among other things. And in contrast, we have identified pseudo-reality as a dull, grey coating of patterns and unawareness that clouds our perception of the benign reality. This distinction between reality and pseudo-reality has been vital to our ability to move forward on many fronts, and it is important in understanding the issue of satanic cult experiences as well.


While the focus of the debate on satanic ritual abuse has been on the conflicting claims of the "truth," I think it's time we looked at the controversy itself -- or, more accurately, at the forces and systems behind this controversy. It is just common sense that concern about the validity of memories of satanic abuse will vary based on the context in which these claims are made. Obviously, it's one thing to bring this up in a co-counseling session, and it's another thing to bring it up in a court of law or on national television. Since context is a key issue here, let's look at the issue of memories of satanic ritual abuse in the context of sectors of the wide world that have been involved in efforts to determine the validity of these claims: the media, the "mental health" system, the legal system, and some religious groups. The important question here is, has the effort to understand satanic ritual abuse by these sectors been based in reality?


Predictably, the media has played a major role in the current controversy surrounding satanic cults. In fact, the media has been actively engaged in creating controversy around this issue, bringing together spokespersons from each side of the debate to proclaim their views, often in highly dramatic and emotional ways. In addition, over the last several years media coverage on this issue has aimed to fuel people's restimulations on the subject of satanic cults by focusing on detailed descriptions of the most dramatic and bizarre events imaginable. Occasionally a thoughtful piece on this subject is produced, but most of the coverage has been at a very low level of intelligence. In reality, the media has both promoted and profited from this issue, and it is in this industry's own interest that the current level of confusion on this topic continue indefinitely.


The "mental health" system has also played a major role in defining this issue, and has been seen as a potential source of help by many survivors. My first encounter with the psychotherapeutic profession's handling of ritual abuse survivors came about two years after I began unoccluding memories of being abused by a satanic cult, when I attended a conference for people who had survived such experiences. Although roughly half of the attendees were "ritual abuse survivors," I was surprised to find that the other half was composed of professional psychotherapists. (The media was banned from the conference by policy of the organizers; otherwise I'm sure they would have been there in droves.)

While the conference produced two moving and sincere speeches by survivors, a large amount of the time was spent in presentations by psychotherapists who discussed the so-called characteristic symptoms of ritual abuse survivors -- such as post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple personality disorder -- and the general need for survivors to "heal" through extensive psychotherapy. I watched as a new psychotherapeutic market was born.

In fact, "mental health" practitioners have eagerly marketed their services to ritual abuse survivors and to those who are susceptible to fantasized memories of satanic ritual abuse. And while there are certainly good intentions on the part of many "mental health" practitioners, I've noticed a general trend to treat survivors as if they are permanently damaged and perhaps not very intelligent. As just one example, at the conference for survivors that I attended I was quite surprised to see many adults clutching teddy bears and other stuffed animals. Later a psychotherapist making a presentation commended these people for "nurturing your inner child" by carrying a teddy bear around, and explained that this stuffed animal would give the survivor a sense of safety and security.

While I'm sure that the issue of safety is an area of intense confusion for most survivors (myself included), I am much more interested in knowing the reality of my own safety than in constructing an illusory feeling of safety. And, of course, I am interested in discharging old feelings of terror and frozen needs for safety, not just coping with them.

The development of the identity of ritual abuse survivors and the almost simultaneous marketing of psychotherapeutic services to these new consumers is important to understand. In addition, the limitations of this self-serving interest by the psychotherapeutic profession are equally important to grasp. Psychotherapy for ritual abuse survivors offers solutions that are based on treating the individual with extensive and expensive psychotherapy while leaving the social structures that allow this type of abuse to happen unchanged. Tremendous amounts of attention are paid to the syndromes and disorders that are said to plague the survivors, and survivors are urged to "heal" and "recover." There is some hand-wringing and pious words about protecting children from these terrible experiences and prosecuting alleged perpetrators, yet there is no real expectation that we can and will remake society so that it is rational and flexible, based on human intelligence and human caring.


The legal system has also been involved in the controversy around satanic cults, as individuals have brought cases to court against alleged perpetrators. In many ways, this litigation has forced the question of memory validity and made it appear to be the key issue involved in satanic ritual abuse. However, the adversarial nature of the legal system makes it almost impossible for any kind of intelligent decision to be made in this context. Generally the opposing attorneys in any given court case are necessarily focused on winning the case for their client (thereby collecting their fees), and not primarily on seeking justice or uncovering reality.


Finally, some religious groups are also involved in the issue of satanism. While I have limited familiarity with these groups, I am aware that some are engaged in promoting generalized fear and suspicion by proclaiming that Satan is real and is among us. Others spread misinformation as a means to actively promote the oppression of specific groups, such as Jews (through the message that all Jews are satanists), or women (with messages such as abortion clinics are part of Satan's plan).

I think it's quite clear that the media, the legal system, the "mental health" system, and some religious groups function on the basis of pseudo-reality, with numerous patterned, unexamined assumptions that limit or prohibit their ability to contribute clarity to the issue of satanic cults. In addition, these sectors have an economic motivation involved in their investigation, analysis and judgments about satanic cult activity. I think it's wise for those of us who are trying to better understand this issue to be careful and selective about accepting any of the conclusions promoted by these professions.


It is also important that we as RCers look at our issues related to counseling on memories of satanic ritual abuse. In a co-counseling session, our concern generally centers on how well the client is discharging and reevaluating a hurtful experience. Yet some special care and thinking needs to be done with RCers who work on memories of satanic abuse. As with the issue of incest, there is also a tremendous amount of suggestibility surrounding the issue of satanic activity.

Regarding the suggestibility of satanism, I can speak from personal experience. Early in my process of unoccluding memories of satanic abuse, I counseled on one incident that I am now fairly confident did not happen. I think that, as an adult looking back on my childhood experiences in the cult, this fantasized experience embodied some of my adult fears about what could have happened. I talked about this fantasy in a session or two but I never discharged much about it, and after a brief time it seemed natural to stop bringing it up.

In a similar way, a few years after I started unoccluding satanic cult incidents I began seeing paperback books with detailed, horrific stories of what happened to this or that victim of a satanic cult. I remember leafing through one book, glancing at some of the incidents described and asking myself: Did that happen to me too? I could quickly create vivid mental images of the incidents in the book, and felt confused about this. I decided that it didn't make sense for me to read any of this literature since it seemed that these highly dramatic stories would distort my own memories. I think that that was a very useful decision for me.

Finally, I have had the difficult experience of counseling other RCers who have not unoccluded memories of experiences in satanic cults but want to claim the "ritual abuse survivor" identity. Again, suggestibility is involved here. One client counseled on nightmares containing possible satanic symbols, and felt that this was enough to identify as a "ritual abuse survivor." Another client wanted to claim this identity from feeling (as near as I could tell) spiritually betrayed by Christianity. Another simply felt deeply hurt and identified as a "ritual abuse survivor" based on the possibility that this was an occluded experience. (I think it's worth mentioning here that I had not told these co-counselors about my own experiences of satanic abuse, nor is this something I generally tell many people.) Of course, there is a difference between having memories of experiences in a satanic cult and having feelings about satanic cults. It seems to me more honest and straightforward for people who have feelings about satanism without memories of incidents to simply work on those feelings rather than claim to be "ritual abuse survivors."

Even more to the point, I don't see a real need for anyone to identify as a ritual abuse survivor. Taking on this identity seems part of the tendency to get mired in memories or fantasies of victimization, and usually involves taking on all the symptoms supposedly attached to this identity to prove that it really happened. For those of us who have had this type of experience, it makes sense to find ways to thoroughly discharge the hurts acquired during those experiences. But these experiences don't define us, and identifying ourselves with these particular experiences of hurt are likely to simply function as a new way to isolate us and enshrine our feelings of victimization.

In general, we are now moving toward holding a higher standard for ourselves in rejecting internalized identifications as victims of this or that, and many of us are enthusiastically welcoming this challenge. But at the same time, we need to remember that when someone is mistreated, they internalize both the victim and victimizer roles. For myself and I suspect many others, the victim identity is deeply entrenched because as young people we deliberately chose to strengthen and reinforce this identity in order not to act out the perpetrator patterns we were acquiring. While we work to clean up and throw out victim identities, let's not criticize the tough choices some of us have had to make.

Finally, to return to my initial discussion of the validity of memory, it seems that proving beyond doubt that a memory literally corresponds to an actual historical event is often not possible, nor need it be. In fact, the point is not to prove that horrible things have happened to people; the point is to use our attention to discharge old hurts in order to fully reclaim our power and intelligence. In the end, it doesn't really matter how accurate my memories are. What matters is that I create situations for myself to discharge early hurts so that I can live more fully in the present.


There have been many claims put forward about ritual abuse survivors about the existence of an international conspiracy of satanists. Supposedly, the purpose of this alleged conspiracy is to maintain secrecy and control over cult members and victims. From my perspective, I can thoroughly understand how individuals who witnessed, participated in or were the subject of extreme violence in satanic cults could feel that cult members will always have unlimited power over them. And, in a way, there is a grain of truth in this feeling that a conspiracy exists.

This grain of truth is that there is an international, worldwide conspiracy of patterns. These patterns use exploitation, degradation, and mind control tactics to subjugate humans. They work systematically and persistently to make people feel worthless, intimidated and alone. If we weren't so numbed by the daily onslaught of these patterns, we would find it shocking that humans are treated this way.

This conspiracy of patterns forms the basis of a variety of human oppressions, and is promoted by those who are perpetrating the latest (and hopefully the last) form of classism in human history. Since classism and its current form, capitalism, are based on the premise that it is acceptable to exploit other humans, we have therefore seen many forms of exploitation, including the exploitation of children. This exploitation has included child labor (sometimes under the most dangerous of conditions), child pornography and child prostitution. Abuse of children in satanic cults also takes its place in this context of human exploitation.

As a survivor of satanic abuse, it's important to me that we keep the bigger picture in mind here. Perspectives that dwell on the bizarre and brutal nature of satanic practices miss the point. We need to set our sights on ending all forms of humans harming humans. And we need to reach for an analysis of oppression from which we can organize for change.

As a child, I held on tight to my sense that it was possible for humans to love each other and treat each other with respect. As it turns out, my vision of human liberation then was not that much different than it is now. And so, I'd like to encourage us all: Let's be tough in our thinking about oppression, fierce in our commitment to the liberation of all humans, and tender in our caring for each other. And when we focus our attention on cleaning up each others' hurts, let's not get bogged down in painful details from the past. Let's keep our vision clear and our eyes on the prize. Reality is benign.

Determined Re-emerger


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00