Shalom, Salem

Carol Reid

Salem, Massachusetts, site of the infamous "witch trials" of 1692, became the remorseful reckoning place, five years afterwards, for an official "Day of Contrition," on which the citizens of Salem gathered to fast and pray, and to try and learn the lessons of that great injustice.  Three centuries later, on January 13th and 14th, a hundred and seventy people assembled at the Hawthorne Hotel (named for the writer who soul-searchingly counted his own ancestors among the village vilifiers) for a convocation called "A Day of Contrition- Revisited."  Sponsored by the San Diego-based Justice Committee, it was an opportunity for those who have been variously afflicted by what one of the speakers, Harvard professor Richard Gardner, has deemed the third great wave of hysteria "and by far the worst" in our country's history, to meet one another and speak openly about their ordeals.

These included parents accused of "satanic ritual abuse" or just years of "regular" incest by grown daughters in "recovered memory" therapy.  What would normally be a stunning revelation quickly became commonplace, over coffee at the bed and breakfast, out of seat mates during lunch and dinner, from the woman who gave me a ride back to the Boston bus depot.  One person told me a relatively happy variation on the theme: His daughter is the "Christian retractor" who was interviewed in my recent acquaintance and former librarian's groundbreaking tome, Victims of Memory (Paperback).  Mark Pendergrast was rebuffed by every mainstream publisher he approached, despite his prize-winning reputation, due to the supposedly dicey fact of his having been accused by his own daughters.  Fortunately, a small press in Vermont finally agreed to publish this plucky and prodigious study.  (Unable to be at the conference, Pendergrast sent along a video he had made in his stead.)

Nor was there any shortage of unwilling celebrities in attendance.  I met Kelly Michaels, the notorious New Jersey daycare worker, incarcerated for five years until her verdict was overturned, for impossibly bizarre crimes against children.  I talked to Ray Buckey (one of the martyrs of the McMartin Preschool case, the longest and most expensive trial in U.S. history, which set the stage for scores of satanic daycare center hysterias to follow).  Bobby Fijnje and Noel Fuster (now young men) were surprisingly sweet and decorous and equably spoke with me about their trials in Miami, in which Janet Reno played an awful role, as described in detail by Alexander Cockburn in The Nation (March 8 and April 5, 1993).  Noel's father Frank is still in prison, with time running out for his final appeal, and where he is reportedly attacked by inmates whenever the movie shamelessly claiming to depict his story, "Unspeakable Acts," is shown on TV.

The belatedly exonerated Fells Acres defendants were there, though the still-jailed Gerald "Tooky" Amirault continues to serve as a token for Massachusetts governor William "Not Soft on Child Molesters" Weld.  Twelve-year-old P.J. poignantly snapped a picture of his dad, whom he has never known outside prison, on one of the posters set up around the room to draw attention to the many falsely accused who remain behind bars.  On the first night, we were given a tour of the Witch Museum, where the trials are reenacted through dioramas; this was followed by a candlelight (and Fox News floodlight) vigil.  I spotted a freshly familiar-looking face and asked the owner of it if I had seen her on a talk show recently.  She was Jenny Wilcox, the 34-year-old Ohio woman who had just been released from prison after eleven years, during which time her baby grew to adolescence.  It was hardly possible, but she seemed even more gracious and forbearing in person than she had on the "Maury Povich" show where she tearfully embraced the stricken boys (and their mother) who had been living with the guilt of the trumped-up charges they were so unremittingly pumped for.

Carol Hopkins, of the Justice Committee, told us how Jennie had kept a copy of The Crucible (Hardcover Reissue edition)(Library Binding)(Paperback)(Audio Cassette (Abridged))(Audio Cassette (Unabridged))(Audio CD (Unabridged))(Audio Download) in her jail cell, hoping to someday get Arthur Miller's autograph.  Donald Connery (author of Convicting the Innocent (Paperback), about a physically and mentally challenged Connecticut man, Richard LaPointe, who falsely confessed to a 1989 murder charge) brought a videotape of Arthur Miller and William Styron, both of whom wanted but were unable to attend the conference, along with Miller's autograph for Jenny, who purely glowed at this revelation.  Miller was instrumental in freeing another Connecticut man, Peter Reilly, who falsely confessed to a murder in the 1970s.  William Styron (whose "old stamping ground" is Edenton, N.C., subject of no less than three PBS "Frontline" documentaries about another daycare debacle) wrote the introduction to Connery's book, which discusses numerous other cases of false confessions, and the reasons why they occur.  Although most innocent people taken into custody do not confess to the police, a rather surprising number do.  And that number is disproportionately high among the developmentally disabled.

In the case currently unwinding in Wenatchee, Washington, the majority of those accused are mentally impaired or illiterate.  Dale Akiki, the first defendant to come to the attention of Carol Hopkins, was a retarded daycare worker.  The uneducated slave Tituba, the first to be fingered in Salem, confessed to being a "witch," and the immediate few to follow were all deemed "feeble-minded."  But such admissions of guilt are not limited to the uncommonly naive.  In a fascinating case written about by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker, a police officer wrongly confessed to the ritual abuse of his daughters, despite having had no memory of it.  Though difficult to understand, perhaps it stands to reason that if therapists can convince patients, and social workers children, then cops whose brainwashing techniques are rather more heavy-handed can convince suspects to believe that a horrible crime has occurred, even in the absence of any actual recall or evidence.  Especially by means of the third degree and outright lying, which the Supreme Court has ruled to be legal.  Whether police-induced or otherwise, the Justice Committee estimates that there are 1500 cases of innocent people currently taking up space in American prisons.

The problem is that this is a "politically incorrect" issue of the highest order.  Too many of us are simply unable to bear the insinuation that any people have been falsely accused of sexual abuse, much less many people.  Outraged indignation from groups like the International Society for the Study of Dissociation ("This conference is a platform for continued indiscriminate attacks on abuse survivors and those who are dedicated to healing them") and the American Coalition for Abuse Awareness ("We hope that the public, journalists, and responsible people everywhere will recognize this highly staged event for the defense strategy it is") appeared on the Internet and persuaded the Peabody Museum to publicly rue their plans to host the second day of the conference; it was more of an insult than an inconvenience, though, as the Hawthorne was thoroughly accommodating.

Despite such diversionary guilt tripping, this widespread delusion is wrecking lives in unexpected ways.  A full forty percent of those accused are women (something almost entirely unheard of previously in the annals of sexual abuse and assault), according to Village Voice reporter Debbie Nathan, one of the many authors and journalists who spoke at the conference.  The thousands of families who have contacted groups like the Justice Committee or the False Memory Syndrome Foundation are probably the tip of the iceberg.  And the attendant denial of reality and due process surrounding these cases may be the most damaging influence of all on the long-term credibility of genuine "survivors."  That said, it is not an easy phenomenon to explain.  Just as the Salem witch trials suggest competing theories and sprang from a confluence of factors, so the sex abuse madness of the 1980s thrived on an unholy alliance of Christians, feminists, and "helping" professionals.

Once incest had come out of the closet with a vengeance during the late 1970s, well-meaning legislation like the "Mondale Act" set the wheels in motion for the "child abuse industry" to assume monstrous proportions.  (Hopkins caustically refers to its sinister spin-off as the "satanic industrial complex.")  Such laws mandated the reporting of any sign, suspicion, or statement of abuse no matter what one's personal opinion of it might be and also provided absolute immunity for anyone making a charge.  Leaving still more room for "abuse abuse," one might say, was the fact that state agency budgets were tied to the number of cases they could produce.  Careerists in the social sciences began carving out comfortable and comforting niches for themselves, and started specializing in things like "repression," "regression," and "ritual abuse."  The Courage to Heal (Paperback)(Audio Cassette) became the "bible" of these therapists, and assured readers that if they had no memory of abuse, that just proved how horrendous it all must have been.  The absurdity of this eventually began to give rise to comic cultural references, such as the "Absolutely Fabulous" Edina informing her mother: "I've started false repressed memory therapy!  I'm picturing you in a wood with a hood!  I'll get something on you yet!"

The origins of the so-called "international satanic conspiracy" may seem hard to surmise.  But the rise of the religious Right clearly had a lot to do with the willingness of some to believe that the Devil had taken a human form and very likely a job in their neighborhood daycare center, a relatively demonized place to begin with for those who think a mother-and-child's place is in the home.  (On the other hand, feminists or the "second wave" of anti-satanists preferred to see evil in traditional-family, multi-generational cults.  "Believe It!" Ms. magazine once exhorted its readers.  "Cult Ritual Abuse Exists!"  Gloria Steinem seems to have bought into this concept completely, along with a growing number of therapists, appearing publicly with one of the most hell-bent of the lot, Dr. Bennett Braun.

The discussion on the first day of the conference turned at one point to the question of just how marginal this belief in SRA (satanic ritual abuse) currently was among psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers.  As a librarian, I offered, I've gotten into the habit of perusing incoming book trucks for titles concerning sexual or child abuse.  I check the indexes to see if there are any entries under "satanic" or "ritual" and I would estimate that in at least of third of them there are, and the references are mostly credulous.  Coincidentally, I had just run across one the day before the conference.  Amazingly, I discovered three more the following week.  One of them, however, thankfully was decrying the notion.

Although the tide has basically turned and the media are starting to recognize the reality of what many of them had a significant part in creating (I was heartened to hear Geraldo recently, in a segment on the Wenatchee mass molestation case, feelingly repent his reportage on "satanism" over the years), false accusations continue to accrue; convicts languish in stir and may, in fact, never get a chance at vindication, due in part to President Clinton's gutting of habeas corpus; and needed changes in the system (such as the required videotaping of police interrogations and children's interviews by social workers) have yet to be implemented.

This "convocation" reminded me of a big family reunion.  Although I journeyed there alone (gamely negotiating the Boston subway system solo), I felt at last as though I were finally among those who understood me.  For ten years now, I've been telling people about this terrible thing, and I generally sense their misapprehensions, their slight misgivings about me as I do.  (You may have noticed my failure to supply the seemingly de rigueur disclaimer about how heinous child sex abuse is.  I have heard it so many times, and feel the tacit pressure to comply and thereby gain credence.  And yet a lawyer, attempting to liberate an innocent Death Row prisoner, is not expected to declaim weepily first about how bad "real" murder is.)  Each person I met in Salem wanted to know, in turn, what my story was.  I don't have one, I said.  I haven't accused anyone and no one has accused me.  I am an unaffiliated do-gooder, who reads a lot (I might note, perhaps not irrelevantly, that one of the most formative literary experiences of my adolescence was with Franz Kafka), and who occasionally takes up causes rather obsessively, especially when they seem misunderstood and underpublicized.  They seemed satisfied with that answer and sort of proud of me, and for the moment I felt almost, in an alchemical kind of way, like the daughter so many of them had had and then lost, in this cruel and crusading crucible.

January, 1997.

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