Satan’s Silence, by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker

Satan's Silence

Satan’s Silence is a scary book, because it functions as a reminder just how evil and irrational people can be (delusional, dogmatic, and with almost no limits on the dishonest and inhumane means they’re willing to use to achieve their ends). It fits nicely with the kind of thing Carl Sagan warned about in The Demon-Haunted World.

This book concerns the mania that swept the country primarily in the 1980s that convinced massive numbers of people—including in law enforcement and therapy and other areas where such beliefs could have the most consequences—that children were being sexually abused in wildly implausible numbers and in bizarre and unlikely ways that bordered on the supernatural.

The authors—a journalist who was one of the very, very few people to write against the mania at the time, and an attorney who defended some of the people accused of these crimes during that period—are clearly and unapologetically on the side of debunking the hysteria. They do not write in the phony “objective” style (which is decidedly not objective, but I don’t feel like expending the time and effort explaining why) of adopting an attitude of neutrality while presenting equal amounts of the polemics from both sides of any matter of controversy as if they were of equal merit.

As the authors point out, by the time this book was published in the 1990s, the mania had already peaked and a backlash had become fairly strong. So when they were putting this together it may have seemed like it would take a lot of guts to release a book like this (as it certainly did to write the kind of articles Nathan did years earlier), but by the time it was finished the situation had changed substantially. Maybe not to the point where their “side” had clearly won and they were now just piling on, but certainly to the point where it was no longer such a heroically unpopular underdog stance to write what they wrote.

There are many aspects of the mania that could be addressed. One is the theory of “recovered memories” that took the already dubious therapy strategy of encouraging people—mostly women—to attribute their problems as adults to childhood sexual abuse that they had somehow forgotten, and treated it as a source of incriminating facts suitable for use in the criminal justice system. The authors touch on this, but do not make it the focus of the book. (An excellent book on that topic is The Myth of Recovered Memories by Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham.)

Nor are they addressing primarily garden variety cases of one-on-one child abuse. Certainly the mania affected those cases as well, and made it enormously easier to get convictions, no doubt resulting in a lot of guilty people going to prison who otherwise would have gotten away with their crimes, and a lot of innocent people going to prison who otherwise would never have faced such a nightmare (and people will have different opinions about whether that tradeoff is an improvement or not), but it’s really not those cases that are the subject of this book.

Satan’s Silence is about specifically the alleged phenomenon of group sexual abuse of children of a ritual—often Satanic—nature. The notable thing about these cases is that in not a single one of them has any evidence ever been produced to render the allegations even slightly believable.

Yet convictions were obtained in many such cases (and even in the cases that did not result in convictions, of course people were arrested, jailed, bankrupted, temporarily had their children taken away from them, had their careers ruined, were subject to unimaginable abuse and vitriol in their communities, etc.). And even after the mania subsided, only some of those convictions were reversed, so it’s not like sanity prevailed and “it all worked out in the end.”

It’s something of a cliché to compare social phenomena you disapprove of to a “witch hunt” or to the Salem witchcraft trials specifically—much like comparing your opponents to Nazis—but it’s a much more justified analogy than usual here. In all likelihood there were the same number of people in the 1980s putting on hooded robes and meeting in the dozens in day care centers to drink the blood of dead babies and film hours of pornographic movies with preschoolers, as there were people in the 1690s genuinely using supernatural powers of black magic they’d obtained from the Devil.

One thing that is worthwhile about this book is that the authors spend a great deal of time trying to understand the motives, the influences that caused the people they disagree with to do what they did. It’s not that they don’t bother to refute the substance of what these people claimed—they do, but most of it’s so ludicrous that that can be done quite quickly and in a much shorter book—but that they also approach the subject like sociologists trying to understand and explain some bizarre social phenomenon.

So how could so many people so firmly believe something for which there was no evidence to speak of?

One, fundamentalist Christians already live in a world populated by Satan, demons, massive numbers of devil worshippers, etc. There is no presumption of implausibility to overcome for them when they’re presented with the hypothesis that maximally evil non-believers are regularly meeting in large groups to ritualistically rape and slaughter children. They’d be a lot more surprised if that wasn’t happening all around them. And if some of the specifics of the allegations have the disadvantage of being physically impossible, no big deal. After all, these Satanists aren’t just deluded folks who think they’re in league with the Devil; they really are. Hence if supernatural powers are needed to explain some of their nefarious doings, well, they have access to such powers of black magic.

Two, feminists and other leftists aghast (justifiably) at the ill treatment of women and children throughout history are predisposed to believe the worst about current allegations of ill treatment, however implausible on other grounds.

They have little patience for “rights of the accused” arguments, because they know through experience that even the most legitimate abuse cases involve events that often no one except those present—the perpetrator and the victim (or “survivor,” to use the currently favored euphemism)—can ever know about, and so cannot be proven if the standard of proof is very high.

They have little patience for arguments based on the unreliability of heavily coached testimony from very young children, because they’re reacting against past claims that the testimony of children, and even adult women, deserves little weight or none at all.

In some cases they know they can only garner sufficient public support and government funding for their clearly meritorious causes if they combine them with this dubious one, since this is the one that brings them allies (after all, who’s pro-child rape?). So they pretend to go along with this mania for strategic reasons, or more often they convince themselves that it’s justified after all.

Three, politicians and law enforcement already operate with a strong prosecutorial bias, and this fad presented a golden opportunity to show that they were “tough on crime,” and particularly heinous crimes at that.

Indeed, one of the things that’s most chilling about the book isn’t even about the ritual child abuse cases specifically. It’s the more general phenomenon of how cops, prosecutors, judges, etc. blatantly lie and cheat to get convictions.

And we’re not talking here about honest mistakes, or people not aware of what they’re doing. For example, there was the whole ugly scandal in Los Angeles when it was exposed that the cops systematically used jailhouse snitches for testimony that they knew was false. They’d have different inmates literally audition—“I’ll say he told me this, and then I’ll say I asked him this…”—and they’d pick whichever one they thought would be most convincing to a jury. Everyone involved knew it was dishonest through and through.

Now I’m not saying they did this to nail people they knew were innocent (though I’m sure that happens too). No, more often the reasoning was: “Once someone’s accused of a serious crime and gets this far into the system, they’re nearly always guilty. Now if we play by all the rules, and we take too seriously that old saw about ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ it’s hit or miss if we’ll get a conviction, meaning there’s a good chance the guilty will walk free. Whereas if we cheat, we can pretty much guarantee the guilty will get what they deserve.”

So, delusional people, combined with a popular cause, combined with people willing to cheat to be on the right side of that popular cause, combined with people fed up with what they perceive to be a system that favors criminals, etc., etc.

But still, how could all these people, including plenty of journalists, jury members, even friends and relatives of the accused, etc., come to believe allegations that often were wildly implausible on their face?

Probably as important as anything is they accepted the dogma that it’s simply impossible for children to inaccurately claim such abuse happened. Under any circumstances.

The child denied it fifty times before once stating it happened? They were wrong the fifty times (probably lying because they were threatened by the abuser), and right the one time.

The child stated it happened and then recanted the accusation in full? They were telling the truth when they made the accusation and lying when they recanted it.

The child refused to make any accusations until they were browbeaten for hours in conditions that would violate the Geneva Conventions for adult prisoners of war, and then finally did? Doesn’t matter. If they said it, it must be true.

The child was bribed with endless praise, candy, promises to be allowed to go home, etc., etc. before finally agreeing to make an accusation? Doesn’t matter. If they said it, it must be true.

The child was questioned in a way that went beyond being “leading” and basically spelled out all the desired allegations before finally reluctantly agreeing that that’s what happened? Doesn’t matter. If they said it—or even nodded or ambiguously murmured in affirmation of it when their interrogators said it—it must be true.

And of course if they said it, and it must be true, then not only can all the times they denied it be disregarded, but so can all other evidence. Doesn’t matter what the accused says. Doesn’t matter that there’s zero physical evidence. Doesn’t even matter that some of the allegations are impossible.

Who you gonna believe, the children (the tiny percentage of the time they’re saying what the prosecution wants them to say, that is) or a bunch of Satanist kiddie rapists?

Once people get caught up in a crusade like that, and feel righteous about it, they’re out of control.

It was certainly poetic justice when some of the terrified children guessed that since the only let up in their ordeal seemed to come when they made more accusations, that they should just accuse anyone and everyone, including various of the social workers and cops and such who’d been interrogating them. (Unfortunately, those accusations were usually just ignored. The authorities decided that that’s another of the many things about which children—who “never lie about this stuff”—lie.)

The authors make an intriguing claim that there was an important class element to the whole thing, and that it was actually the recovered memory malarkey that hastened the end of the hysteria. In their view, the recovered memory-based accusations were indiscriminate classwise—or actually were biased a bit toward wealthier families, the people of the class more likely to do things like have adult daughters willing and able to pay for therapy—whereas the earlier outlandish ritualistic abuse accusations concerning day care centers and such were generally poor and middle class folks accusing poor and middle class folks. Once it started happening more to people who had some clout in the community, people who had some influence with the police, people who could afford top end attorneys, the backlash kicked in.

They also make an interesting point that just as the mania itself was often motivated by various other religious and political factors, the backlash initially brought out some odd characters and created some strange bedfellows as well. For a time, just about the only people raising the alarm and denouncing the runaway prosecutions were fundamentalist Christians. Unlike those obsessed with devil worshippers—who of course were in the believer camp—these skeptics were more of the anti-government sort of fundamentalists, the kind who see children as basically the property of their Christian parents, and are convinced the state would go to any means necessary, including bogus criminal charges, to defeat that philosophy and break up families.

Good book. Terrible subject.

The most obvious victims of the insanity are of course the accused. As I mentioned, their lives were ruined or severely damaged.

But it’s important to take note of all the other victims. Ironically, the children themselves were severely victimized. Even though their tormentors were convinced it was all for the children’s own good, they interrogated them in ways that would shame North Korean jailers. The children were sometimes forcibly removed from the custody of their loved ones. They were pressured into actually believing the accusations themselves and thoroughly traumatized by fictitious events in ways that will scar them for life, or if they were old enough and strong enough to not be brainwashed they were put in a position of carrying with them for the rest of their lives the guilt of knowing the false accusations squeezed out of them destroyed the lives of people who had cared for them and been kind to them.

The families of the children are victims. They—many of whom were very slow to accept the accusations and had to be brainwashed almost as aggressively by authority figures as the children to do so—now live their lives with a vicious hatred at their core over things that never happened.

Of course it wreaked havoc on the day care industry, driving people out of business, raising insurance rates through the roof, placing burdens on parents who would have been better off all things considered using day care but were scared to, etc.

But another very important harm of it all was a more indirect one. It created an atmosphere where people couldn’t comfortably be close to children, be loving toward children, work with children. Because always hanging over your head was this possibility that you’ll be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and someone will accuse you of one of these guilty-until-proven-innocent, no-evidence-needed crimes, and then you’re screwed.

I speak from personal experience. I lived through this time, and you better believe I didn’t want to get within ten feet of a child. I’ve been scared to death of the little buggers most of my life. I very early ruled out any possibility of a career involving children. I was even more reluctant than the average guy to date a woman who already had children. I certainly was careful never to be in a room alone with a child. I just made sure they weren’t a part of my life.

And it’s a terrible thing, because who’s to say I—and other wary people affected the way I was—couldn’t have contributed a great deal to the lives of children in some way if we hadn’t been driven away from them. Maybe some of us could have been terrific teachers or stepparents or coaches or whatever, but it just wasn’t worth the risk.

It especially hits home with me, because in recent years I’ve established some extraordinary, extraordinary relationships with a small number of children, and gained a greater appreciation for what I was missing. There are children in my life now that I love in a way I would never have thought possible.

I finally just had to say fuck it, I can’t be scared anymore, I need this in my life. I mean, I haven’t loosened up completely; I’m still wary around strangers’ kids and such. But it’s a huge difference. Children are a part of my emotional life now in a way they never were before.

I figure if someone finds a way to spin that into my being a horrible person and wanting to have sex with kids and all the rest, and I get caught up in something like what’s described in this book, then I’ll just kill myself or do whatever I need to do when that time comes. But I won’t any longer impose the extreme limits on myself that I did before and just close myself off from that whole wonderful area of life.


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