Okay, so awhile back I blogged, as part of my series about William Cooper, the conspiracy theorist who popularized the word “sheeple,” about QAnon, who claims Cooper as an inspiration. In that post, I specifically talked about how QAnon, with its horrible SaveTheChildren hashtag, was poisoning the well and distracting from genuine cases of sex trafficking. Well, this week I plan to build on that work and connect it to a similar movement I’ve been seeing with people who are trying to claim that people’s fragmented memories of childhood abuse must never be true because of the excesses that came with the “Satanic Panic” part of our history.
Sadly, this topic is extremely relevant, as just this week an opinion piece popped up in the New York Times, of all places, claiming that the whole idea of people ever repressing and later recovering traumatic memories was bunk.. I won’t link to this piece here because I don’t want to draw traffic to it, but in it, Ethan Watters a journalist, writes about all recovered memories as though they must be false because of the Satanic panic fiasco back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Not That Kind of Doctor…and Yet….
I won’t even pretend to thoroughly treat this topic in this blog post, and I’m neither a mental health practitioner nor a cognitive scientist. What I do have, though, is specific specialized training in rhetoric to the tune of a PhD—and since my training in rhetoric is reading this matter in the same way a lot of other experts in different fields do read it, I hope you’ll give that weight.
From my specific expertise, Ethan Watters’ rhetoric reads like a much more subtle but real attempt to poison the well of society toward the idea of believing abuse survivors whose abuse memories may bubble up after the fact. His argument may SOUND very different from QAnon’s, but as you’ll see, in essence it’s not that different from its own kind of conspiracy rhetoric.
To put it bluntly, this guy’s rhetoric seems subtly pro-abuser in nature, and I distrust it greatly.
Stick with me and I’ll unwrap this a bit more.
My Standpoint and Background
Okay, so as always, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate denomination who went on to get a doctorate in communication. I also grew up in Christian schools and through Christian pop culture and some educational venues had some mild exposure to Satanic panic stuff at the time it was a big deal.
Let’s Talk about the Satanic Panic and Repressed Memories (Or Whatever We’re Calling Them These Days)
If you’re not aware of the Satanic Panic, this was a cultural phenomenon that from what I’ve learned, the Wikipedia page here actually does a great job in overviewing.
The related Wikipedia page for repressed memories also does a pretty good job of overviewing what’s become known in the study of psychology and trauma as the “memory wars,” in which clinicians and cognitive scientists have spent much time debating the nature of memory and especially of traumatic memory.
All of this has a ton of weight when it comes to what is and isn’t believed by people who have experienced childhood abuse and had memories of that abuse hover to the surface years later.
In short, even more effectively than and long before QAnon’s SaveTheChildren hashtag poisoned the well of public opinion about sex trafficking, it seems pretty certain that the Satanic Panic was and causing extreme effects on debates in both mental health treatment and legal cases around what can and can’t be trusted regarding memories of abuse.
In Which the Question of Substantiation Raises Its Ugly Head
There is so much I could say about all of this. But here’s what I know to be true from my PhD class in the rhetoric of conspiracy and other research: the Satanic Panic is a great example of a largely or completely unsubstantiated, unhealthy rhetoric of conspiracy-driven moral panic.
The fact that the Satanic Panic existed (and, again, please click one of the links above if you need more details on what happened there) absolutely ought never be taken to mean that there might not be legitimate substantiated cases of traumatic memories of childhood abuse that pop up later in life, often that come up with physical trauma symptoms alongside various types of memories and other cues that abuse likely occurred.
I’ve seen and researched enough of the latter, and read enough from experts on the subject of trauma and memory (I’m not done with it yet, but I point you to Trauma and Memory by Peter Levine along with important related works like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk), to distrust people like this dude who was writing in the New York Times opinion section this week.
And here’s the difference: the word substantiation.
Let’s Talk about Evidence!
See, in my rhetoric of conspiracy class, it was made clear from the beginning of the class, that we needed to understand that conspiracies were sometimes true. The difference between proving conspiracies that were actually true and the confabulated kind was sometimes razor thin, mind you, but the difference was sooooo important.
As I’ve discussed before, one of the key differences had to do with the fact that unhealthy conspiracy theory STARTS WITH PARANOIA and distrust of observable evidence in order to assert its conclusions. I wrote about this previously here.
Healthy conspiracy theory, on the other hand, looks carefully at the evidence and grounds itself in observable reality and expert evidence wherever possible to make its assertions.
Let’s Talk about The Keepers
To look at an example of a healthy approach to recovered memories, one need look no further than a Netflix original documentary, The Keepers. This documentary is about a case of a murdered nun in the 1960s. This nun, who worked at a Catholic girls’ school, was found dead just before evidence shows she was about to whistleblow on abuse by priests at the school where she worked.
The documentary follows two of that nun’s students, who at the time of filming were continuing a decades-long attempt to doggedly perform ongoing amateur detection surrounding the questions around her death.
It also highlights how their ongoing attempts to look at the evidence were helping abuse survivors from that same school—their classmates—to feel grounded and supported as their own traumatic memories started to independently hover up decades after the fact.
Evidence: Bulwarks Against Gaslighting
So yeah, as the Satanic Panic Wikipedia page and other sources point out, there have been very few–possibly no–cases where satanic ritual abuse of children has been substantiated outside of individual cases where Satanic ritual was used as an excuse to abuse children.
As for the classic unhealthy rhetoric of conspiracy form in which there’s rumored to be some sort of underground network of powerful people doing this stuff as an explicitly satanic enterprise, there is definitely no substantiation that any of that is the case AT ALL.
And yet, as the case of The Keepers and lots of other situations have shown, to say that that means there are never evidence-based cases in which childhood abuse has occurred and people realize it years and decades later, is to succumb to a different kind of unhealthy conspiracy theory-type paradigm.
Analyzing This Week’s New York Times Opinion Piece
And interestingly, this kind of seemingly almost opposite but at its heart eerily similar paradigm can be seen in this week’s opinion piece by Ethan Watters in the New York Times.
I don’t want to go too far down this rabbit hole of analyzing his piece, but here are a few key marks of his bias in this piece that fits with other things he seems to have written. They also match up with other biases I’ve seen in those who pooh pooh the idea of any sort of abuse memories and signs coming up after the fact.
It boils down to this: he harmfully overgeneralizes tremendously when he mocks the whole idea of traumatic memories coming back after the fact. In fact, he subtly scapegoats feminists for the Satanic Panic.
Oops, Unhealthy Conspiracy Logic Again????
This is such terrible logic that ends up creating its own kind of equal encouragement to overlook actually substantiated cases like that raised in Netflix’s The Keepers. Note that this actually becomes a sort of unhealthy conspiracy theory itself, fitting the parameters I described above: it STARTS WITH paranoia about the idea of the Satanic Panic having created unsubstantiated cases and then goes on to presume that ALL recovered memory cases, especially those related to abuse, are bunk.
But, tellingly, that’s not where he starts. The Satanic Panic, in fact, only gets a short few sentences further down the piece.
And even when he DOES get to the Satanic Panic, I find it crucial, based on my past, that he doesn’t start his tale of who believed the Satanic Panic as white Evangelicals and the Religious Right.
Waitttttt….The Religious Right was a HUGE Factor in the Satanic Panic
Because yeahhhhh, based on the evidence, white Evangelicals and the Religious Right were a HUGE driving force in the Satanic Panic. Ask any exvangelical you might find handy to you, and I suspect they would agree.
As I said above, I was mildly introduced to the Satanic Panic through Christian artists like Carman, fiction authors like Frank Peretti, talks at school about the evils of backmasking in music, and the later-discredited Christian comedian Mike Warnke, who claimed to have come from a Satan-worshipping past before his conversion to Christianity.
And that was just me living on the fringes of the Religious Right. My friends who grew up in even more fundamentalist spaces have much more intense stories to tell about the fears engendered in those conservative Christian spaces about Satanism during that time.
Granted, the Religious Right wasn’t the ONLY factor in the Satanic Panic, as Watters notes, but they were a bigger one than he makes them out to be.
Ummmm, Wait, Gloria Steinem Is Somehow the Person Most at Fault for the Satanic Panic???
And so, in light of that, it’s extremely telling that Ethan Watters in his NYT piece is trying to brand any idea of traumatic memory recall in abuse situations as mockable, starts with…wait for it…Gloria Steinem as the poster child for “falling for” the Satanic Panic.
Lest we think that was an accident, right up at the top of the piece, he begins by blaming feminism in the 1970s for having created this problem in the first place.
And yeahhhhhh having been raised in right-leaning white Evangelicalism, let me insert ALLLLLL the eyeroll emojis here.
Let’s Talk about the Conservative (Christian) Demonization of Feminism, Shall We???
See, I grew up SO strongly with the demonization of feminism in those white Evangelical spaces. And as I’ve written about several times, I went through high school—ironically, the same time I was going to concerts by Carman, fascinated by my Mike Warnke tapes, and listening to lectures on the evils of backmasking—being forced to listen to Rush Limbaugh’s poisonous rhetoric against “feminazis.”
As Opposed to the Evidence for the Damage Unhealthy Evangelicalism Causes
As I’ve previously discussed in this space, I’ve more recently read the strongly evidence-based research in books like Linda Kay Klein’s Pure and Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne to show how unhealthy and anti-woman and children and survivor right-wing white Evangelical rhetoric has been.
And I’ve seen the theobros, as they’re often called, in white Evangelicalism rise up to try to attack this real evidence of the unhealthy and abusive effects of white Evangelical rhetoric as well as cover up church abuse cases left and right. (Check out the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent sexual abuse report for examples of that, as an example!)
So Yeah, Let’s Not Gaslight Survivors Based on the Satanic Panic, Please!
And I can tell you this: anyone who tells you that the Satanic Panic means the at least somewhat substantiated experiences of the abuse survivors in the Keepers documentary weren’t true is using unhealthy conspiracy logic.
I don’t know anything about Ethan Watters and his history with women beyond what I see in his rhetoric, but I can see his rhetoric seems strongly to be scapegoating genuinely abused women and children.
And yeah, the results of his rhetoric are likely to be extremely unhealthy. It’s also really narrow, as it only holds up if you ignore all other relevant research outside of the narrow field of how memory works. And even there, you’d have to exclude a lot of the research to get there….
Sooooo Wait, He’s Not Actually an Expert Himself?
And let’s be clear: Ethan Watters is not a clinician or a cognitive scientist himself. He is a journalist. It is itself a red flag that the first time I read through the piece when a friend sent it to me that I read through the piece thinking surely this must have been written by a psychological clinician or cognitive scientist based on the tone he took.
I actually needed to scroll back up to the top of the piece and read his bio to figure out that he was actually a journalist.
And let me be clear: I honor journalists and their work. I have an undergrad minor in journalism myself. I also don’t think that anyone, especially specialists in the field, who might be cautious about the idea of recovered or repressed memories, are necessarily off base.
Important to Take Rhetorical Analyses and Other Expertise into Account
See, I think it’s extremely important when considering cases like these to look at the evidence carefully. And that includes the evidence about healthy vs. unhealthy forms of the rhetoric of conspiracy, as well as the history of demonizing marginalized people groups and their allies.
If you’re not taking those things into account, or other research such as that on the somatic effects of trauma and how that ties into traumatic memories (see the kinds of books I mentioned above), or the rhetoric that abusers use to gaslight others, you’re likely to fall into an unjust pattern of reinforcing trauma for actual survivors. And that’s not remotely okay.
See, those who mock the idea that people got abused and don’t remember the experience usually discount pretty much all of those other aspects surrounding these questions, ONLY focusing on the questions of memories.
To be clear, that’s the only way they can usually make their points in a persuasive way. Which itself should be a danger sign.
Yup, the Satanic Panic Really Has Had a Well Poisoning Effect In an Unhealthy Way
So yes, I’m running out of steam here for today, but here’s what I think we need to do in light of all of this.
We need to acknowledge that the Satanic Panic poisoned the well in society toward trusting abuse survivor stories in much the same way that QAnon sought to poison the well toward believing in real and unhealthy sex trafficking problems.
That, in fact, these two things are fairly analogically equivalent in an awful lot of ways.
What Can We Do to Help Survivors?
Rather than fall prey to this unhealthy logic, what we can do best to help survivors who may find themselves recovering memory fragments or having somatic symptoms that trauma therapy helps with years later is to help them honestly sort through the evidence around those experiences.
And yes, let’s be clear: the same people who have been putting forth QAnon as the absolute truth are the same people that have been poisoning the well toward people believing that January 6 was an organized event to overthrow the democratic process in the US.
It shouldn’t be surprising that these are some of the same bad actors who themselves have a ton of abuse allegations against them, in many cases.
Ah Yes, Good Old DARVO (Sigh—So Much Unhealthy Projection!)
The truth is this: authoritarian personalities abuse extremist conspiracy rhetoric as a form of DARVO. As I’ve written many times before, this initialism from the study of domestic violence cases stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.
See, it’s in the best interest of unhealthy demagogues, both big and small, to reverse the victim and the offender when it comes to things like this. See, blaming some force out there in the world for running sex trafficking rings or some shadowy Deep State operation for trying to overthrow the government recruits people to “their side” and to get people to believe their word implicitly.
AT THE SAME TIME, their rhetoric demonizes the people who are actually trying to sort through the evidence and finding out that said bad actors are actually perpetrating remarkably similar things for which they are blaming others.
Time to Ground Ourselves in the Evidence and Expertise So We Can Suss It All Out
Anyway, how we can tell the difference between these things is to look at the evidence, and to do so combined with the rhetoric and all the expertise that can help us prise these kinds of narrative apart to understand where blame actually lies.
The truth is this: many trauma narratives may never reach a legal standard of proof in cases of recovered memories (or whatever technical term we’re using these days to distance ourselves from the Satanic Panic and its flawed therapy methodologies). But I know this much is true: people who start the discussion by blaming feminists for the Satanic panic are pretty far from the world of reason.
SO Important Not to Ignore the Real and Abiding Problems of Childhood Abuse
Because I know this much is true: there’s PLENTY of good reason and some solid statistics to show that many many more children get abused than we like to admit in our society. And most often they get abused by people they know. Often that means people in their family.
And often, again for whatever reason and how we want to classify it from a clinical perspective, those memories can sometimes come back to roost years and decades later for some.
And sex trafficking is also a legitimately much bigger problem, and a much more domestic one, than our society likes to admit.
Time for Us All to Look at the Evidence!
Let’s not let the unhealthy conspiracy theories that drove the Satanic Panic and QAnon poison the well against ALL of us looking carefully at the evidence around the reality of those problems.
May we all educate ourselves about those realities so that when people around us do find themselves contending with the fallout of abuse they may or may not remember, that we can help confirm the reality of those possibilities for those survivors, and help them sort through the evidence, and support and advocate for them in any way we find feasible for us.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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