Satan’s Silence is critical for understanding current debates over issues as diverse as feminism, the social position of children, the growth of therapeutic values and beliefs, and the status of American civil liberties. This might seem hyperbolic, but only to those who have escaped the recent clamor over the supposed epidemic of ritual and Satanic abuse and violence to which American children are said to be subjected. According to these tales, countless thousands of children have from their earliest years been repeatedly raped and violated by Satanic cults, in appalling rituals that often involve the consumption of blood, urine, and feces, and the murder of humans and animals. Though seemingly outré, notions of “Satanic Ritual Abuse” have become widespread among groups as disparate as feminist theorists, child protection advocates, psychotherapists, and Christian fundamentalists. Indeed, the acceptance of SRA has for some years been an ideological touchstone in such circles; proof that one takes sides with the victims—with women and children —against the incessant terrorism waged by the diabolical hosts inspired by an oppressive patriarchal society. To express skepticism is tacitly to acquiesce in the crimes, even to become a vicarious participant. If we suggest that children are lying or mistaken in their claims, we are seeking to reverse a generation of progress in the direction of “believing the victim,” of taking children’s rights seriously. We are also rejecting a cardinal precept of modern therapy. The current equivalent of the 17th-century phrase, “No bishop, no king,” seems to be “No satanist, no therapist”; or, “No satanic abuse, no child protection.”

Nathan and Snedeker have proved beyond any doubt that the whole ritual abuse scenario is utterly fictitious, founded on a sickening mixture of gullibility, avarice, self-promotion, and personal malice. It is often tempting to pursue a moderate course, to argue that while most such charges might be false, there is obviously a core of fact: surely there could not be such abundant smoke without a little fire? But as with the anti- Jewish blood libel of past years, from which the legend partly derives, ritual abuse offers a classic example of a slander cut from whole cloth. In reality, the number of children victimized by satanic gangs is equal to the number of Christian infants butchered by Jews at Passover: zero. Reciting either myth as factual should earn the culprit public ostracism.

Satan’s Silence shows brilliantly and persuasively how the SRA theory originated in the 1970’s with speculations by the “anti-cult” movement, notions that were focused and magnified by Michelle Remembers, published in 1980, in which a woman purported to recall abuse by her mother’s cult many years previously. The book initiated a boom in the therapeutic recollection of early trauma that has made fortunes for snake-oil psychiatrists with the ethical standards of Ted Bundy. Incidentally, the authors fail to note that the Michelle story apparently derived from tales of the doings of West African leopard cults in the colonial era, an exotic mythology lovingly transplanted to North America, where it has blossomed splendidly: as in ancient times, ex Africa semper aliquid novi. The various strands of the legend merged in 1984-85 with the case of the McMartin preschool in Southern California, in which a group of seven innocent teachers were subjected to years of hell at the sadistic pleasure of the Los Angeles media and prosecutor’s office on charges of inflicting bizarre sexual rituals on hundreds of toddlers. The McMartin affair was the model for hundreds of later incidents, in which teachers and caregivers were identified as the Special Forces in Satan’s endless horde.

Case by case, Nathan and Snedeker show painstakingly how such witch hunts are generated: how minor physical oddities in a child patient are taken as proof of the “witch’s mark” of abuse; how child “victims” are subsequently interrogated at terrifying length until they seek escape by accusing anyone put forward by the inquisitors; and how unscrupulous prosecutors drive home these charges by the use of jailhouse snitches and media leaks. The chief problem is what might be called the “overkill” phenomenon; ever-willing child witnesses seeking their elders’ approval by constant embroidery of their tales, which expand into wondrous realms of sacrifices and massacres, hidden tunnels, Nazi mind-control, satanically mobilized killer bees, and CIA atrocities (every item in this list derives from an authentic SRA case, including the bees and the tunnels). Such rococo fabrications, though usually excluded from court, still fuel the fantasies of conspiracy theorists, among whom the creators of quirky television series like The X-Files are presumably viewed as skeptics.

When SRA theory originated in the early 1980’s, critics were remarkably scarce, few people being willing to express their doubts in print for fear of attracting public obloquy. Worse, the therapists and prosecutors who nurtured this monstrous creation were swift to allege that the defenders of accused ritual abusers were themselves clandestine diabolists, so that to be seen as a member of “the backlash” was an unenviable position. While I am proud to say that my first contribution to the literature of dissent dates from 1985, I claim no merit comparable to the authors of Satan’s Silence. Michael Snedeker belongs to that elite corps of attorneys who had the courage to defend parents and teachers accused in such cases, despite the risk of being stigmatized for “defending the Devil.” And Debbie Nathan is the sort of investigative journalist one would not dare invent in fiction, at a time when so few people believe in the image of the heroic crusading press. She has written on the most outrageous witch hunts, incidents deemed untouchable by local media hacks, and has fought tirelessly to free the thousands of falsely accused and imprisoned. Knowing the power and lack of scruple of those she is denouncing, she provides meticulous documentation of her charges against therapists and SRA true believers; charges of malfeasance and obscene greed that would be incredible were they not buttressed by irrefutable evidence.

The present book is exactly what one might expect from the collaboration of a brilliant lawyer and a courageous journalist, both of them motivated by outrage at the atrocities inflicted on innocent people by crooked and/or deranged therapists and prosecutors and their cheerleaders from the unhappy alliance of radical feminists and fundamentalists. (Why am I not surprised to find that one of the worst false convictions outlined in this book was secured by a Florida prosecutor named Janet Reno?) President Clinton, who is so keen on having a war crimes trial root out the collective sins of a community and its leaders, could find work enough in Southern California without venturing into the Balkans.

There is blame enough here, and to spare; blame for thousands of individuals and groups; for the true believers, for the pressure groups who permitted the scandal, and—perhaps even more—for the media who consistently failed to stand up for the truth. The authors end with a powerful but presumably futile appeal for reparations and redress: “The involvement of women’s activists in this effort would also help feminism’s sullied reputation among people who have suffered from false charges. Child protectionists and feminists who refuse to help make these amends will ultimately be remembered as the deluded commanders of a crusade whose enemies were phantoms, but whose casualties were all too real.” Put another way, they will go down in history as the people who gave Devil worship and human sacrifice a bad name.


[Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker (New York: Basic Books) 317 pp., $25.00]