January 15, 2013

Satanic Ritual Abuse

Sacrifice of a Christian Child
Sacrifice of a Christian Child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The flyers were all over the psychology building. Dr. Richard Ofshe, a renowned professor at the University of California at Berkeley who had won a Pulitzer years earlier, was delivering a lecture on the use of recovered memories in psychotherapy. It was the mid-1990s, and I was in graduate school at the time. I knew that Ofshe had become a controversial figure due to his evidence-based criticism of attempts by therapists to recover client's memories of childhood sexual abuse during therapy. I rearranged my schedule so I could attend his lecture. I had no idea just how controversial it was going to be.

I assume that my readers are generally familiar with the term moral panic. Notorious examples of moral panics in the U.S. include the Red Scare, Salem witch trials, and the so-called "Satanic panic" that emerged during the 1980s over fears of Satanic ritual abuse. The idea that there were Satanic cults operating in nearly every town throughout the U.S. caught on in a big way and would not really begin to fade away until the late 1990s. It was a fascinating period to have lived through, and I sometimes have a difficult time believing that it happened at all.

The connection between fears of Satanic ritual abuse and efforts by therapists to recover repressed memories of child sexual abuse was critical to understanding the phenomena. Some of the key developments included the following:
  • The publication of self-help books that told readers "If you ever suspect that you might have been abused as a child, you were abused as a child." The most notorious example of such a book and one with which I am unfortunately quite familiar was The Courage to Heal.
  • The reliance on outdated, unsupported, and even thoroughly discredited theories of human memory by many therapist-training programs.
  • Widespread use of hypnosis and other methods known to distort memory and even create false memories among suggestible individuals by poorly trained therapists.
Efforts by well-intentioned but misguided therapists during this time ruined many families, sent innocent people to prison, and fueled the panic over Satanic ritual abuse. Dr. Ofshe was one of the leading skeptics in psychology, and his research helped to end some of the worst abuses by therapists. His influential book at the time, and one still occupying a place on my bookshelf, was Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria.

Dr. Ofshe's lecture was held in one of the larger rooms on campus, but it was overflowing with attendees. The campus community was well-represented, but there seemed to be even more people there from the surrounding community. Clearly, someone had done an excellent job of publicizing the event. I listened eagerly to one of the most interesting presentations I had heard in some time.

Nothing could have prepared me for the hecklers. Person after person in the audience stood up and angrily yelled at Dr. Ofshe. Many identified themselves as therapists from the community, people who were still using some of the methods he was advising against. But the most heartbreaking part of the spectacle were those who were in therapy at the time or who had already been convinced by their therapists that they had been sexually abused. They screamed, they cried, and they called Dr. Ofshe every name in the book. How he remained so composed is beyond me.

Critics of recovered memory therapy and Satanic ritual abuse never claim that child sexual abuse is not real. It is very real, and part of the problem with the recovered memory stuff is that it ends up harming those who were really abused by convincing countless more who were never abused that they were abused. Scariest of all, the memories created in the process are indistinguishable from the real thing.

When I think of Dr. Ofshe and those like him who have had the courage to use science and skepticism to take on some of the "sacred cows" of the psychotherapy profession and a destructive moral panic, I am deeply grateful for their presence. They have saved many people from unimaginable harm, and they should be celebrated.

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