Lauren Stratford might be called the woman who never was, or rather the woman whose existence we dare not admit.  Even the soberest retelling of her fantastic story makes nonsense of so many contemporary assumptions and pieties.

Over the last generation, ideas about child abuse have grown to the status of social orthodoxy in the United States and across most of the West.  Among the unchallengeable dogmas of this faith are the belief that children never lie about abuse they have suffered—although an unassailable body of evidence now shows how skillful questioning can draw forth virtually any statements from them, however fantastic.  And then there are the adult “survivors” of abuse, those women and men who surface to report horrendous evils allegedly suffered many decades ago.

England, currently, is riven by charges about alleged sexual misdeeds by conservative politicians who supposedly constituted a homicidal “pedophile ring” in the 1970’s and 80’s.  Police have stated firmly that they now work from the assumption that adult “survivors” are telling the truth, no matter how bizarre or even ludicrous their claims may sound.  To assert otherwise is to become an accomplice to child abuse, to commit the sin of failing to “believe the children.”  Hence the investigations that have dragged on for years and ruined reputations, all without a shred of corroborating evidence.

That brings us, neatly, to Laurel Rose Willson, born in Washington state in 1941.  As “Lauren Stratford,” she came to public attention in the 1980’s telling appalling stories of her early life.  Reputedly, she had borne three children, two of whom were sacrificed by the satanic cult of which she was a member, while the other was murdered in a child-pornography snuff film.  After so much horror, she had seen the light and become a born-again Christian, determined to speak out against the menace of satanic cults.  Did I mention that she was associated with the satanic ritual-abuse gang supposedly involved in the McMartin Preschool Trials?

“Lauren” became a fixture of tabloid media shows, including a legendary Geraldo Rivera special broadcast near Halloween 1988.  Her life story was presented in book form as Satan’s Underground: The Extraordinary Story of One Woman’s Escape.  High-profile evangelicals endorsed her work, which joined the growing canon of texts exposing SRA—Satanic Ritual Abuse.

Murderous devil cults, child-porn snuff films—that’s really quite extreme, and you might be thinking that media outlets would be expecting some kind of substantiation for these claims.  But there had been no evidence of any serious fact-checking, until evangelical writers Bob and Gretchen Passantino began a superb piece of investigative journalism that appeared in 1989 as Satan’s Sideshow. The Passantinos utterly destroyed Willson’s stories from beginning to end.  They showed beyond doubt that she had a lengthy history of mental illness, that proclaiming crazy fantasies about abuse had long been her trademark, and that there was no evidence that she had ever given birth to children.  Not a word of any of her stories could be substantiated.  The physical scars she bore were not the product of cult rituals but of repeated failed suicide attempts.

Not surprisingly, Willson dropped out of sight for some years.  But then she reappeared in another guise.  Whereas the Willson of the 1980’s had described events that never occurred, the new-model version told stories that assuredly had taken place, but lied about making herself a character in them.  Lauren Stratford, satanic-cult survivor, was now Laura Grabowski, holocaust survivor.  She died in 2002.

Even though every tale she told about her life was false and fictitious, I honestly wonder whether we can legitimately call her a liar.  When, for instance, she was telling Geraldo Rivera about her nonexistent cult activities, did she really believe them in her own delusional mind?  Or was she sitting there concealing her amused contempt for anyone dumb enough to believe her?  If, for instance, someone had ever given her—either the cult victim and “breeder” or the holocaust survivor— a polygraph, might she actually have passed?

Whether or not she was actually lying, nothing she said about child abuse or cults was factually accurate.  This was no case of “if there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  This was not a damaged, confused victim trying sincerely to tell her story in the best way she could, regardless of factual errors and misstatements.  She was delusional, a narcissist and a fantasist.  Every word she said was bogus, and any law-enforcement agency that acted on her claims would have been committing a dreadful error that might have inflicted massive injustice on the innocent.

Might other adult “survivors” of child abuse be telling the literal truth?  Certainly.  But the case of Lauren Stratford should be a ringing reminder that, absent evidence to the contrary, any one of them could be making up every word.