The Devil’s Playground

On wondering over sexual memory, and the pressure to conform to dominant narratives of violation

Ellsworth Kelly, Diagonal Lines, 1951

Excerpted from Bloodlines, a forthcoming project on incest and its relationship to the reproduction of power, in collaboration with Ripley Soprano.

We live in the shadow of Freud. Though many of his theories have been disproved, they continue to influence psychoanalytic and Western cultural thinking. In his 1896 paper “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” Freud claimed that all hysterical symptoms in women could be traced back to “one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience” (Freud’s emphasis). He rescinded this theory just a year later, explaining in a letter to his confidante, the eccentric doctor Wilhelm Fliess, his own skepticism that “in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse,” and that “such widespread perversions against children” were unlikely on the large scale necessary to account for “the unexpected frequency of hysteria.” He posited instead that repressed memories described by his patients were Oedipal fantasies rather than real events. Nonetheless, the idea that repressing memories of childhood sexual abuse leads to “hysteria” — the symptoms of which include nervousness, fainting, insomnia, loss of sexual desire, diminished appetite, or any other somatization of depression or anxiety — in adult women remained part of the cultural consciousness for a century thereafter.

In the 1980s, both children and adults began to report with alarming frequency that they were currently being, or had previously been, sexually abused by members of satanic cults. Alleged victims levied their accusations most often against their caretakers: Sometimes the accused were parents, other times day-care workers. Uncharacteristically, as allegations of sexual abuse are usually held to a prohibitively high burden of proof by both law enforcement and the peanut gallery of the general public, firm belief in the purported rise of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) swept the United States. In spite of a total lack of material evidence, parents, teachers, cops, community leaders, and lawmakers warned their peers that this new threat was not only real but indeed rampant. It was commonplace, at the time, for initial accusations of molestation against an individual family member to careen, through the coaxing of paranoid adult relatives and overzealous, undercredentialed mental-health professionals, into widespread accusations of satanic sex-abuse rings ensnaring groups of neighborhood children.

The most famous of the SRA cases were the preschool trials — particularly the McMartin preschool trial, which initially stemmed from a schizophrenic mother’s 1983 report to the police that her child had been sodomized by a preschool teacher who was also the grandson of the school’s founder. (She later made the same accusation of child sexual abuse against her estranged husband.) She claimed that witchcraft and bestiality occurred at the school, prompting what was at the time the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history, lasting 30 months and costing Los Angeles County over $15 million. Hundreds of children were interviewed using suggestive techniques, producing numerous accusations of satanic abuse: children raped, children flying, children mutilated by a power drill. Ultimately, nearly all of the charges were dropped.

While the mid-’80s preschool trials are rich and disturbing research subjects unto themselves, in particular for raising questions around the efficacy of interrogating young children, what I’m most interested in is what was arguably the foundation of the SRA frenzy: the adult recovery of repressed memories, pulled up from the deep recesses of the mind through all manner of highly manipulative therapeutic techniques, including hypnosis. I’m interested in why people “remembered” — let’s call a spade a spade — fake memories, and why law enforcement was, at the time, so eager to believe the wild claims. Almost everything could be answered for. No evidence of human sacrifice? The cultists ingested human remains. No evidence of scars on the bodies of victims claiming brutal bodily harm? The cultists magically disappeared them. Victims suddenly remembering floods of lifelong memories they had never spoken of or hinted at before? Immediate, total memory repression was the way of the cultists; victims were forced to immediately forget their experiences or else face death.

The 1980 book Michelle Remembers — cowritten by Lawrence Pazder, a psychiatrist who coined the term “ritual abuse,” and Michelle Smith, a woman who was first his patient and then his wife — details Smith’s recovered memories of her mother forcing her into a satanic cult at age 5, wherein she was repeatedly sodomized and tortured, imprisoned, and forced to participate in infanticide and the killing of kittens. The book quickly became a best seller, spawning copycat accounts and propelling Pazder’s acceptance as an expert on this form of abuse; he would go on to appear on 20/20 and consult for high-profile SRA trials. (Social workers in counties that went on to see their own series of SRA trials were allegedly taught Michelle Remembers in professional trainings.) Eight years later, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, another best seller, was published; this book encouraged women to come forward with allegations of abuse on the basis of a feeling or a suspicion, regardless of remote certainty or proof. Authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis wrote, “Often, the knowledge that you were abused starts with a tiny feeling, an intuition . . . assume your feelings are valid. So far, no one we’ve talked to thought she might have been abused, and then later discovered that she hadn’t been. The progression always goes the other way, from suspicion to confirmation. If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.” Myriad psychological disorders were linked to child sexual abuse and SRA in particular, including illnesses as commonplace as anxiety disorders and as unique as multiple personality disorder. Throughout this period, local police and the FBI were trained to take SRA allegations seriously, and to investigate them to the fullest extent of the law. In his book Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory, covering the 1988 trial of a father accused of SRA by his daughters, journalist Lawrence Wright reports, “In 1992, in reaction to the rise of charges and lawsuits, a number of accused parents formed the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, in Philadelphia. By June of 1993, more than four thousand families had come forward . . . About 17 percent of the accusations involved satanic-ritual abuse. The accusers were adult children, 90 percent of them daughters. Most of them had read The Courage to Heal . . . In almost every case, the allegations arose in therapy.”

As law enforcement tends, more often than not, to betray the victims of sexual assault, it’s worthwhile to consider when and why they choose to side with victims — to examine which “survivor”-focused movements take hold at which times, and why certain moral crusades are emboldened and funded by powerful institutions rather than stamped out. The SRA frenzy and the now discredited methods of recovering repressed memories likely shrouded certain real cases of child sexual abuse in preposterous, Satan-worshipping claims, allowing actual, rotten trees to get lost in the fantastical mirage of the devil’s forest. (Some of these kernels of possible truth were incest claims; some were not.) Survivors — adults and children alike — were believed precisely when their stories mapped onto what became accepted knowledge of the practices of satanists. In a tribute following the death of Peggy McMartin, founder of the disgraced preschool bearing her name, the New York Times wrote of her trial, “‘Believe the children’ was the sanctified slogan of the moment — but what it came to mean, all too often, was believe them unless they say they were not abused.”

Much has been written on the question of how, exactly, SRA — widely regarded today as a trumped-up fantasy — came to occupy such a place of certainty in the minds of so many people. Some believe satanic panic was a response to a perceived threat to the nuclear family: As more mothers went to work, and families who could afford to outsource childcare did, fear spread in response to who, exactly, was now caring for the children. Simultaneously, multiple political and social conditions coalesced to facilitate a rabid moral panic: a period of international political uncertainty (the fall of communism), conservative backlash (Reagan’s presidency), and religious fervor (the rise of Pentecostalism). It benefits the state for its people to have a common ideological enemy — in this case, satanism, practiced by otherwise normal-seeming neighbors, parents, and school staff — which can then be used to distract from issues that might be less sensational but more damaging, as well as to pour public money into ever expanding carceral systems. Police departments across the country funneled millions of dollars into ongoing SRA investigations, while the federal government funded conferences dedicated to identifying the devils among us.

We walk into a party together. Everyone there is already fucked up; it’s late. “It’s the incest twins!” our new friend crows, referring to our joint writing project. We laugh and pour drinks. She says we just missed a conversation about repressed memories. “She was saying she’s starting to wonder if she was ever abused, and I’m like, do not go down that road. I thought about that for years, like did my dad touch me or something?” “Oh my god totally,” I answer, sipping rosé. I think it’s a thing a lot of us have wondered, though wondered is such a weird word. The same way girls wonder if we’re gay, we wonder if we’ve been abused. Like it’s this catchall answer, this thing to discover. Of course, for some people, sexual abuse really is an experience they have repressed, and that they need to uncover. But for lots of us, idle thought that we may have been molested seems to be a way to think about our fucked-up relationship to heterosexuality, or at least to confusion about our own desires. If we’re told one in four women are raped in their lifetimes, maybe it’s easier to explain our continued participation in sexual relationships with men, or anyone for that matter, as something almost preordained. As though a touch we don’t remember could point the way forward, mapping every inexplicable twist and turn thereafter: our attraction to people who treat us badly, our acceptance of baldly dissatisfying intimacy, our periods of celibacy, our cheating, our interest in sadistic sex, our monetization of our sexuality, our saying yes when we actually mean no or maybe.

I’m obsessed with sex, obsessed with sexuality, and have been since I was a child, and I wonder, why? Maybe I wouldn’t wonder so much if I didn’t, from a young age, feel ashamed. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt hypersexual “for a girl.” I made pencil drawings of naked women when I was little, complete with huge breasts and pubic hair. I threw them in the trash. My dad found them and kept them, thinking they were an adorable representation of my precocious artistry, but I was humiliated. I wondered if it was weird to kiss my grandmother on the mouth. I wondered if I felt desire. And if you think something’s wrong with you, you might look for a reason why.

The SRA frenzy is a fascinating phenomenon not least because it is such a deep oversimplification of good and evil. This is surely one reason cops and politicians jumped onboard — it was an opportunity to position themselves as the goodest good guys prosecuting the baddest bad guys. Were it real, it would have been the most clear-cut case of abuse possible. It was a caricature of abuse, the way serial killing is a caricature of murder. Not only were there claims of child sexual abuse — in and of itself horrific — there were also claims of murdering and eating babies, forcing children to drink blood, gang raping and defecating on victims, cutting and burning. The rituals described were perverse embodiments of evil, sadistic acts performed on children, the embodiment of innocence.

Kenneth Lanning, an agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, was first introduced to SRA in a 1983 phone consultation with a police officer who wanted advice on an unusually gruesome case: a woman who was reporting abuse she suffered as a child by a group of people including her parents. The abuse, Lanning was told, involved “killing people, mutilating bodies, [and] drinking blood,” and the cop wanted to know if he had ever encountered a comparable case. Lanning received frequent similar queries in the following years; his accumulated knowledge and growing concern led to his 1985 conference, the “Day Care Center and Satanic Cult Sexual Exploitation” seminar, for an audience of police, FBI agents, social workers, lawyers, and academics, teaching these professionals how to spot the signs of ritual abuse. In spite of his initial belief in the truthfulness of SRA claims, over time even Lanning grew suspicious of the lack of evidence found, and the ease with which claims were believed regardless of these glaring omissions. In 1992, he produced a study debunking the widespread SRA claims. Of the conditions allowing this horror fantasy to take off, Lanning writes:

Society seems to especially have a problem addressing any sexual-victimization case in which the adult offender is not completely “bad” or the child victim is not completely “good.” . . . Even without the Satanic element, the sexual victimization of children remains a highly emotional issue, with simplistic stereotypes of offenders as evil predators and victims as innocent angels still prevalent and problematic.

It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that instances of sexual abuse, whether incestuous or not, committed against children or adults, do not always conform to neat, good-and-evil narratives. It is easier to imagine a world in which abusers are devils incarnate. And maybe they are in ways, or are sometimes. But it is much harder to accept a world in which an abuser may commit cruel and violent acts while also engaging in consensual, loving relationships; in which an abused person still loves their abuser; in which an abused person murders their abuser; in which an abuser was themselves abused; or other seemingly contradictory realities. And furthermore, abuse itself is a deeply gray area: A sexual relationship can have elements that are both consensual and abusive. Or, that are abusive and pleasurable. This is less relevant with respect to child sexual abuse — children cannot consent to sex with adults, let’s be absolutely clear — but just as sex is confusing, so too is abuse. Even if those outside of a situation can clearly call what occurred abuse, it was not necessarily experienced that way by the person targeted, often for reasons of self-preservation. We should be able to talk about all of these ways of experiencing without being told we’re lying or mistaken, but the consent/abuse, good/evil, pleasure/rape dichotomies are all we’re taught. Such binaries are the product of carceral logic: In a society where justice is equated with punishment, there is no room for nuance in violation. Someone’s been destroyed, or they haven’t. Someone did the destroying, or they didn’t.

The Incest Diary, published in 2017, is an anonymous account of the author’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father from ages 3 through 21, and a way of grappling with the fact that her entire experience of pleasure, desire, and sex is based on this. She writes, “My father is my secret. That he raped me is my secret. But the secret under the secret is that sometimes I liked it. Sometimes I wanted it, and sometimes I seduced him and made him fuck me.” The Incest Diary is brilliant and hard to read, in that it’s both painful and exciting. As the author grows up, her desire for her father becomes impossible for her to separate from the immense pain, physical and emotional, he’s caused her; they are one and the same. In her adult sexual relationship she role-plays sex with her father. She writes, “Maybe all of the things I do are about my father raping me before I knew how to read or write.” She reads of kidnapping, “The more a captive is raped, the more likely she is to experience pleasure,” and wonders, “Does this mean I have felt the most pleasure in the world?” When the author confronts her father at 22, a year after they have sex for the last time — sex she maintains she wanted, in that moment — he apologizes; a day later, he calls and apologizes again; a day after that, he calls and denies her “allegations,” threatening to disown her as a daughter if she continues to make such claims, clearly having spoken to a lawyer. The author doesn’t intend to bring charges against her father, and yet the law and the logic behind it intrude. In our culture, the first rule of those accused of sexual assault, rape, or abuse seems to be Don’t admit it, its mirror being the first rule of those doing the accusing: You’d better have proof. The consequences are dire, precluding us, all of us, from reckoning with both the enormous and the small ways we are harmed, the enormous and small ways we harm others.

Walking up the stairs from the subway, I felt someone lift up my skirt. I didn’t see it happen, but the feeling was unmistakable: a finger lifting the hem of the fabric, to see underneath it. I involuntarily screamed and turned, face to face with a man who wouldn’t look at me. I thought for a half second about confronting him but just rushed away, slightly shaken not out of fear but out of the feeling of violation, texting my friends and wanting more than ever to just get home. Immediately, I wondered if I had been mistaken. I didn’t see what happened, and I guess a lot of things could feel like a hand lifting up a skirt. The wind blowing an odd way? My clothes responding to the movement of my body? I don’t know. My friend reminded me of how a few months before someone groped her on the subway platform as he walked by, grabbing her inner thigh. She, too, wondered if it had actually happened. “It’s so fucked up,” we said to each other, “that men feel entitled to do shit like this and then we just sit around wondering if it was real.”

In 1988, Paul Ingram, chief civil deputy of the Thurston County sheriff’s department, was accused of satanic ritual abuse by his daughters, and stood trial. Though Ingram initially had no recollection of abusing his daughters, he insisted they wouldn’t lie, and soon recovered memories, giving extensive confessions detailing ritual sexual abuse and torture he and two friends, one of whom was a colleague in the sheriff’s department, forced upon his children. Both his memories and those of his daughters grew more alarming and frequent over time; he and his wife were accused of sacrificing a baby, among other things. An expert on cults, Dr. Richard Ofshe, was brought in by the prosecution but ended up testifying for the defense, believing Mr. Ingram to have made up every memory he recovered. Dr. Ofshe felt Mr. Ingram, a member of a fundamentalist church and a person with a unique proclivity toward pleasing authority, produced false memories in an attempt to satisfy the police and clergy urging him to remember. In spite of attempting, eventually, to withdraw his guilty plea when he began questioning the memories he’d recovered, Mr. Ingram was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Lawrence Wright’s Remembering Satan details this wild snowballing, and attempts to make sense of how, psychologically, it happened.

Wright posits, almost as an aside, “One can’t help but notice the repeated theme of abortion [in recovered memories] . . . It is only a theory, but perhaps the psychic damage done by the abortion debate is reflected in the anguished fantasies of so many young women.” Wright seems to believe that the violent imagery and language strewn across the abortion debate disturbed young women to the point of making up graphic memories that involved violence wreaked upon babies. The idea that women are more affected by violent imagery than anyone else is, given how threadbare gender divisions are anyway, laughable. However, what is arguably deeply affecting is the constant societal imperative to question the veracity of a woman’s experience. Though terming a generation of young women psychically damaged is patronizing and suspect, he might have a point — perhaps it is not the graphic and violent nature of the debate that has damaged women but the fact of debate over experience itself. This feels applicable in the case of sexual assault, as well, and the surrounding debates over a victim’s experience of trauma, or lack thereof.

We live in a culture that demands certain narratives of certain people in order to legitimize our pain. It’s a dicey thing to say, but it is no surprise, then, that the narratives we tell about our pain sometimes conform to a culturally prescribed script, true or not. This doesn’t mean that the root of pain or trauma necessarily didn’t happen; it means that making up a story about how it happened is an attempt to make otherwise illegible wounds legible. Whether it’s about abortion, assault, sex work, or other debate topics intimately tied to the bodies of people society usually perceives (often incorrectly) as women, the very subjects of these debates are not given credence regarding their own experiences, their own memories, or their own needs — if they’re not told the right way, at the right time. Because of The Incest Diary’s “pornographic” use of language, David Aaronovitch wrote in the Times, “A friend of mine, a very well-respected psychotherapist, when I told him in detail what was in the book, was skeptical.” If sexual abuse isn’t experienced in a way that the prevailing social opinion of the time is comfortable understanding, if the ruin of its aftermath isn’t performed correctly, if its impact is expressed in a way that deviates from the zeitgeist, well then it simply must not have happened. There is immense pressure for an individual’s story of their own violation to align with the dominant understanding of how violation looks at any given time. It’s not hard to understand how, then, someone might fall prey to furthering a prewritten story, forgoing the suicide mission of telling a different, but more accurate, truth.

A few years ago, I slept with someone on a first date who ID’d as genderqueer, using he/him and they/them pronouns interchangeably. We met on an app and had all the same politics, all the same never-trust-a-cop, prisons-are-obsolete, private-colleges-are-scams positions. I went back to their house really drunk and we had sex, and they choked me without asking first if it was OK. I like rough sex; I just usually like being asked first. In the morning while they got me Gatorade for my hangover I lay there wondering if I remembered what happened correctly. When they texted me later that day, saying how much fun they’d had, I said I had fun too but it seemed like they had choked me without asking which made me uncomfortable? They apologized, and even though I was down to hang out again, it never ended up happening. A year later they texted me entirely out of the blue apologizing again for that incident, asking if it had harmed me, and I was effusively kind. I said it was nothing, shit happens, don’t worry AT ALL, but thanks for checking in!! A few days after that, accusations against them flooded social media, calling them out for assault, unwanted touching and comments, preying on drunk girls, using their persona as a queer icon to take advantage of vulnerable younger people. Their band, blowing up, was suddenly erased — every streaming platform dropped them, fans disavowed them, music critics wrote of the scandal and not their new album. To my knowledge, they’ve yet to make any sort of comeback.

As this story unfolded in public, I felt their actions toward me had been manipulative. I also wondered why I had been so quick to appease them, this person I had had no relationship with and yet still felt guilty over, over the possibility that they felt guilty, or bad. I felt they had put me in a position to not come out against them, making me tell them it was totally fine days before many other people said it wasn’t. And it didn’t really matter, because I wouldn’t have come out against them anyway. I didn’t care enough. But I thought about the subjectivity of experience, and how what one person experiences as unpleasant a different person will experience as assault. This is an uncomfortable truth but a truth nonetheless. Had I been less comfortable with the idea of going home with a random person I didn’t really know, less inclined toward violent sex anyway, their choking me might have really scared me, and I might have perceived it as an attack. But I wasn’t scared, and I didn’t. This doesn’t take away from the truthfulness of the account of someone who does experience it that way. That person wouldn’t be lying, and neither am I — we just aren’t the same.

Ambiguous stories like this—of encounters that were both forgettable but tinged with mild distress—seem to come up all the time, surfacing in the minds of myself and my friends almost at random. Often they have a translucent quality: some light comes through, but salient details around what was said, felt, and done remain nebulous or opaque. The other day, I was talking to my friend about someone she had just run into, whom she knew from college. When I asked if they’d been friends, or had friends in common, she said, “Kind of. He’s best friends with [redacted], you know, that guy who in retrospect, like, basically sexually assaulted me?” She was talking about someone she’d told me about before, in a different context — a guy in her year who had come up to her at a party and jammed his tongue down her throat, feeling her up with little to no introduction. “I had a secret crush on him, so I was down, but he had no way of knowing that. We’d literally never talked before.” They had sex that night, and a few more times after, and it was fine. She thought there was a time she slept with him at a party, when he’d already slept with a different girl at that same party, but she wasn’t sure if that had really happened, or was a product of confusion or rumor. I asked if she felt weird about it — the whole situation — and she said she didn’t know, rolling her eyes. “I barely remember it now. But also, like, I definitely didn’t feel good about it. You know?”

Every girl I know who has sex — with anyone, but especially with guys — has felt uncertain of some sexual experience they have had. How bad was it? Did they want it? What signals did they give? Are they even upset? We experience the aftermath of violation through the lens of prosecution — to tell what happened, even to your friends, even in your own home, is to enter the larger realm of Accusation — the possibility that you will want to take what you are saying further, will want to seek some sort of penance and will therefore need to Prove It. And maybe because we’re so often not believed, when it gets beyond the realm of just telling our friends (and even sometimes when it’s just our friends we’re telling), it becomes easier to think we made it up. Maybe the flip side of wondering did this thing I have this memory of actually happen is wondering did this thing I have no memory of also actually happen. Maybe that’s why women in particular wonder about repressed sexual memories — because the ones we do remember are treated as completely false as well.