Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker. New York: Basic Books, 1995. $25.00. 288 pp.
Reviewed by Theresa Reid
The American media seem to be bipolar when confronted with sexual abuse. If, as many claim, in the 1980s virtually all allegations of sexual abuse in day care were immediately believed, the 1990s have brought an equal and opposite reaction, in which such allegations are regarded--with outrage and relief--as obviously false. It is now widely accepted as a matter of fact that the 1980s saw a widespread sexual abuse "witch hunt" in which nothing more than the words of young children destroyed dozens of innocent defendants' lives.
Neither of these extreme positions represents the truth, and both of them endanger children--the "all allegations are true" position by permitting destructive interventions in children's lives, the "all allegations are false" position by giving free rein to child molesters.
The latest book-length entrant in the "witch hunt" genre is Satan's silence: Ritual abuse and the making of a modern American witch-hunt (Basic Books, 1995). The authors are crusading journalist Debbie Nathan, and Michael Snedeker, a criminal defense attorney. Like several other contemporary journalists, Nathan sees herself as a warrior for those she believes to be falsely accused, a one-woman replacement for the adversarial system of criminal justice, which she sees as having failed utterly in day care sexual abuse cases. With defense attorney Snedeker, Nathan has produced a book exhibiting all of the worst of the "witch hunt" arguments, exaggerating the problem, distorting and omitting evidence, and indulging in fantastically complex rationalizations to explain indefensible theories. In these excesses, the authors paradoxically replicate the errors of the zealous believers in satanic conspiracies whom they so vigorously--and rightly--oppose.
Backed by a prestigious publisher (Basic Books), Satan's silence is important primarily for the opportunity it provides to examine the strangely parallel rhetoric of extremists on both sides of the "ritual abuse" controversy. Publication of this book also invites us to consider the forces at work in the media and in the culture that have focused on these extreme voices to the exclusion of those that are rational, tempered, and serious, making the extreme appear to represent the whole discourse.
Exaggeration. Zealous believers in a widespread satanic conspiracy maintain that thousands of babies are murdered every year in horrific satanic rituals, and that these and other unimaginable crimes are perpetrated by a covert network of Satanists who hold positions of authority in police departments, the judiciary, schools, churches, and all of the other strongholds of civil society. Like these believers, Nathan and Snedeker exaggerate their subject, inflating the number of cases in which ritual abuse allegations occur, overstating the number of professionals who believe in a widespread satanic conspiracy, and demonizing professionals in the field of child abuse and neglect.
Nathan and Snedeker never even attempt a definition of "ritual abuse," a term that elicits so many conflicting interpretations and strong emotions that many experts recommend that it be abandoned (e.g., Bottoms, Shaver, an d Goodman, in press; Lanning, 1992). This failure to define the term bedevils the entire book, so that when the authors use the phrase "ritual abuse allegations" the reader has no clear idea what they really mean. The authors use this imprecision to milk the strong affect associated with their topic. They clearly assume that virtually all allegations of sexual abuse in day care qualify as "ritual abuse," expressing the same contemptuous incredulity for reports of ritual murder as for the much more pedestrian reports of day care personnel "accused of threatening to kill parents" as they molest preschoolers (e.g., 108). The authors' use of definitional imprecision to exaggerate the problem and heighten emotionality is characteristic of the book.
In a striking parallel to the claims of zealous believers, Nathan and Snedeker assert that a widespread network of professionals--including "preachers, police, prosecutors, psychotherapists, child-protection workers, and anti-pornography activists"--have been promoting for more than a decade the theory that there exists in America "a massive conspiracy of secret Satanist cults that have infiltrated everywhere into society." They never say exactly how many professionals are involved in perpetrating this fraud, but they must believe it is huge: such a "massive moral panic," they assert, can result only from "concerted efforts at institutionalizing it" (5). Nathan and Snedeker state that the chances are "good" that someone seeking psychotherapy will find herself engaged with a professional who believes in the satanic conspiracy (2). In fact, in the most extensive nationwide study to date of mental health professionals' encounters wit h "ritual abuse," only 11% said they had ever even encountered a child patient who alleged ritual abuse (Bottoms, Shaver, and Goodman, in press), let alone believed in a satanic conspiracy. A very small percentage of professionals (1.4%), this study finds, accounts for a large majority of allegations of ritual abuse.
Just as ritual abuse zealots demonize alleged perpetrators, Nathan and Snedeker demonize professionals who have had anything to do with child sexual abuse in day care, charging that they have terrorized and intimidated children, ruin ed countless lives, put hundreds of innocent people behind bars, and made "concerted efforts" to "institutionalize" beliefs that in fact most of them have never held.
Disregard for evidence. Zealous believers in a widespread satanic conspiracy are unfazed by the lack of evidence for their fantastic beliefs. The lack of evidence is explained away within the belief system being defended: dead bodies are not found because Satanists pulverize them or police are involved in the satanic conspiracy; charges aren't filed or convictions returned because prosecutors and judges are Satanists. Nathan and Snedeker don't pause to consider the evidence seriously, either. They ignore, distort, or dispute all evidence that has ever convinced juries that sexual abuse in day care occurs.
Nathan and Snedeker dismiss out of hand all inculpatory statements made by children. The authors maintain that they know what children have really meant to say, and their aim in the book is to share this privileged knowledge (7). T hey assert that at the beginning of every case of sexual abuse in day care, the children denied being abused: "Indeed, it was only after an investigation started, after intense and relentless insistence by adults, that youngsters produced criminal charges" (3). As proof of their claim that adults make up these stories, the authors point out that "almost all" day care cases "begin with reports from parents or caregivers instead of from the purported victims" (1 11), as if children who have been sexually abused should bypass their parents and take their case directly to the sheriff.
But even if children did go directly to the sheriff, these authors would not be satisfied; for children's statements made after professional intervention are obviously the fabrication of adults. "Those who purport to be helping victims speak are actually the ones doing all the talking," the authors maintain. "The victims, meanwhile, remain virtually mute" (140). The statements made by children after professional involvement have "nothing to do with their own feelings or experiences" (3), because professionals have brainwashed and browbeaten them into an entirely alien set of beliefs.
Not surprisingly, the authors maintain that symptomatic behavior displayed by children --including "anxiety, insecurity, insomnia, nightmares, terror of strangers, depression, rages, recurrent fears about dying, and suicidal impulses" (123)--is the result of their coming to believe in their own abuse, not in having experienced such abuse. The authors simply deny that any of these behaviors occurred before the investigation had begun, dismissing parents' testimony to the contrary with the explanation that parents, themselves deluded, misinterpret normal behavior seen in hindsight.
Just as these authors don't believe what children, parents, or professionals say, they don't believe what alleged offenders say--unless they say they're innocent. The authors begin their chapter on offender confessions with descript ions of medieval torture of "witches" and Jews, describing in graphic detail instruments of torture used during the Inquisition. Then they equate torture-induced confessions of "witches" and those of today's offenders, writing, " Confessions were integral to witch trials, and today they remain the lifeblood of the criminal justice system in the U.S." (162).
Their treatment of medical evidence is similarly unprincipled. This grotesque description of the medical exam sets the tone: "In case after case, physicians bared, stretched, and measured anuses and vaginas, took high-magnification photographs, [and] projected the images onto giant courtroom screens" (178). They argue that today's medical evidence is equivalent to the fictional "devil's marks"--the unusual folds of skin, scars, and other meaningless anomalies t hat condemned innocent women to death as witches in the seventeenth century. They write, "In the early 1980s, another search for Satan's signs began. Now, though, it was not the demonic perpetrators who were scrutinized. Instead, it was the bodies o f their innocent, silent child victims" (179).
Having dismissed all the evidence that sexual abuse in day care occurs, the authors face the difficult challenge of explaining such thorny issues as why these allegations are made, how otherwise rational-seeming parents can come to believe these allegations, and what motivates professionals to perpetrate a sustained fraud. This is a challenge nearly as great as that faced by zealous believers in a satanic conspiracy--who must explain, for instance, the lack of evidence for the crime s they allege and the means by which highly-placed Satanists escape detection. Nathan and Snedeker are as ingenious as their counterparts in devising tortured arguments to support their point of view.
The authors are perhaps at their most offensive as they try to explain the motivation of parents who believe that their children were abused. Acknowledging that the suffering of these parents is comparable to that of parents who lose children to cancer (120), the authors maintain that parents believe their children because they so enjoy the satisfying social role they have constructed for themselves "as the shell-shocked parents of ritual-abuse victims" (123). This role b rings sympathy and publicity, powerful secondary gains, the authors maintain. Mothers gain the most, however, because they can use this trauma as an excuse for withdrawing affection and sex from their husbands:
[Withdrawing affection] is not the kind of thing they could do in ordinary times, for such behavior usually evokes humiliating social disapproval. In the context of a ritual abuse case, however, women could rebuke their husbands' masculinity without seeming cold or vicious. They could rationalize their anger with the thoroughly acceptable excuse that they were too emotionally depleted to attend to their mates and too busy comforting their children . . . . Amid this reordering of affection, conjugal sex suffered. Again, though, no one--least of all their husbands--could criticize the mothers' lack of libido, because it was expressed dramatically and painfully. There were, for example, paralyzing episodes in the marriage bed. . . . During sex, [many women reported,] they would "flash" on their children being violated and have to stop. Not surprisingly, many couples eventually separated or divorced. Ritual abuse thus helped women disengage from unsatisfactory marriages without feeling guilty about being bad wives or mothers. After all, the reason they weren't getting along with their husbands was because they cared so much about their children (122).
Beginning with the deeply sexist and retrograde assumption that women fundamentally desire to avoid sex (and clear hostility toward women for this "lack of libido") the authors turn painful sequelae of traumatic experience into motivation to fabricate the experience.
The authors' explanation of the source of reports of sexual abuse in day care is just as tortured--and just as outrageous. Our refusal to accept pedophilia and other "outlawed" sexual impulses helped spawn the ritual abuse "craze," the authors maintain: Allegations of sexual abuse in day care stem from the "growing animus toward portrayal or even discussion of the panoply of minority and outlawed impulses, from homosexuality to fetishism, bestiality, sadomasochism, and the ultimate evil: attraction between adults and children" (249). That sounds as if the authors think pedophilia isn't all bad, and in fact that appears to be the case: Oddly, Nathan and Snedeker criticize Ralph Underwager and Holida Wakefield for allegedly embracing "the political theory that cross-generational sex can never be a positive experience for the younger party . . . even though scientific data note otherwise" (232, emphasis added). In fact, Underwager and Wakefield have been widely criticized for appearing to state in an interview (1993) that pedophilia can be positive for youngsters, though U.S. culture makes a positive outcome unlikely. Neither Nathan and Snedeker nor Underwager and Wakefield, o f course, are able to produce any legitimate scientific data to support the contention that pedophilia is good for kids.
But how, exactly, does repression of pedophilic urges lead to charges of sexual abuse? Overwrought from the pressure of "forcing fantasies underground," Nathan and Snedeker maintain, "clinicians and even investigators demand sexual material and abuse 'memories' from their patients and interviewees" (249). After demanding that children and adults in therapy spit back the fantasies that society has disowned, "therapists and their allies in child protection an d criminal justice" then interpret these sexual fantasies literally. Nathan and Snedeker maintain that professionals have been motivated and rewarded in this behavior by having "won public sympathy and nominal funding for many feminist-inspired efforts, from battered women's shelters to programs to discourage child beating" (249)--one of the many places in which the authors advance the hilarious (but at least comprehensible) argument that child abuse professionals are in it for the money.
Pointing to the normalization of homosexuality, the authors hold out limited hope for change in our repressive sexual mores, and thus in the roots of sexual abuse allegations: "Ideas about deviancy and normality are subject to change--although pedophilia will likely always be condemned" (249). That's too bad, these authors imply, because if Americans only loosened up about pedophilia, our motivation for extracting and believing all this fantasy material about it from children would evaporate.
Extreme solutions. Zealous believers in a widespread satanic conspiracy advance draconian proposals for the investigation and prosecution of the demonically clever perpetrators of these imagined c rimes. Nathan and Snedeker are at the other extreme, maintaining that we should cease efforts to prosecute the sexual abuse of children: "Ignoring actual abuse is unacceptable," the authors acknowledge.
Yet how can the police and courts be the right response, when sex, whether egalitarian or exploitive, legal or illegal, is almost always a private, physically nonviolent event between two people? And if there are no wounds or witnesses, how can we adjudicate the competing claims of accused and accusers in criminal courts without guaranteeing widespread miscarriages of justice . . . ? (251)
Thus late in their work, Nathan and Snedeker seem to begin to understand the great difficulties involved in intervening in child sexual abuse cases. But rather than attempting to solve these intricate problems, the authors conclude that, paradoxically, "To restore the order and authority of the courts, we need to look beyond them" (251). That is, we need to stop responding to child sexual abuse after it happens, and devote all our energies to preventing it.
We also need to stop fetishizing child protection authorities as the solution to sexual abuse, for even if they mend their investigative ways, the most careful workers will frequently encounter a dearth of evidence and child victims who are too immature or compromised by family ties to testify convincingly. The only real answer to these dilemmas is to cease thinking obsessively about what to do after sexual abuse has occurred, and take real steps to prevent it in the first place (25 1).
Nathan and Snedeker maintain that rather than prosecute sexual abuse, we should rely on broad-based prevention efforts that promote the society-wide equality of men, women, and children. Children who are sexually abused before, during, and after the implementation of this utopian ideal are simply out of luck.
In its utter impossibility, this proposed "solution" exempts the authors from having to deal seriously with the reality of child sexual abuse. This abdication of meaningful responsibility for child victims makes more offensive their claim throughout the book that, by exposing the system's flaws, they, not child protection professionals, are the real protectors of children.
Overall. Like zealous believers in a satanic conspiracy, Nathan and Snedeker create a belief system that once you are inside, is hard to escape. In arguments from either perspective, every glimmer of fact or reason undergoes a metamorphosis, through some strange logical twist or the interpolation of suspect data, consistently returning the reader to the funhouse, in an endless loop. Nathan and Snedeker inundate readers with case details in which one can have no confidence given their context within this thoroughly solipsistic book. While one of the authors' main arguments is that the criminal justice system has failed defendants in child sexual abuse cases, their book paradoxically supports the conclusion that, with all its flaws, the criminal justice system is our only hope for sorting out these highly emotional and complex claims and counter-claims.
The social context
More important and lasting than this book itself are the questions it raises about our culture's discourse about child sexual abuse. How can a book as flawed in its arguments and premises and as extreme in its conclusions as Satan's silence secure a major publisher and attract enthusiastic endorsements from distinguished academics? What forces are at work in the media and in the culture that cause us to focus on these extreme and sensationalistic voices? How worried should we be about the current pendulum swing toward hysterical skepticism?
The most important fuel for Satan's silence and other work purportedly exposing the "ritual abuse hoax" is the indefensible professional practice associated with beliefs in a widespread satanic conspiracy. Evidence has been available for at least a decade that some professionals motivated by such beliefs have engaged in "professional" practice that, at the very least, is not supported in the empirical research literature and, at the worst, is highly destructive. The failure of licensing boards, professional peers, professional society ethical committees, insurance companies, and the courts to protect individuals from extreme instances of bad professional practice has opened the door for critics from outside the field. There is a glaring need for reforms that effectively protect consumers, particularly of mental health services; if those reforms do not come from within the professions, they will be imposed from without, and might be as ill-informed and ill-motivated as the proposals set forth in Satan's silence.
From the kernels of truth on both sides--the occurrence of sexual abuse in day care that does involve "ritual elements," on the one hand, and indefensible professional practice, on the other--has sprung the impassioned rhetoric under examination. The complex cultural and human forces drawing us to these rhetorical extremes underlie our reduction of other social problems to symbols and soundbites as well: among these forces are the love of sensationalism and drama, impatience with factual and moral complexity, inability to devote sustained attention to much besides the demands of work and family, and the profit motive on the part of writers and producers. Certainly the outrage and consternation produced by excesses of the "ritual abuse believers," professionals who practiced in their wake, and reporters who pushed their story inspired equally inflammatory tracts from the other side. Driving the culture's fascination with, alternately, "ritual abuse" an d "the ritual abuse hoax" might also be a deeper fear, involving the same actors, but in different roles: a fear that trusted social agents--social workers, police officers, judges, psychologists, clergy--will elude our control, fear rooted in our vulnerability to individuals in these roles.
The good news is that the news runs in cycles. In the 1980's, the damage caused by "ritual abuse" was news; in the 1990's, the damage caused by the "ritual abuse hoax" is news. Surely once more the "issue-attention cycle" (Downs, 1972), whereby a social issue gains quick adherents and a flurry of media attention only to fade from view as its complexity and intractability become evident, is about to run its course. Reporters have spoken to me recently of their sense that the story has nearly been played out, and have questioned the extremism of Debbie Nathan and other reporters for whom fact doesn't stand a chance in the face of ideology.
Given that another flood of credulous stories about alleged "ritual abuse" is unlikely in the foreseeable future, we might be approaching a window of opportunity for somewhat more reasoned and well-informed discussion of the complex issues of sexual abuse in day care and "ritual" elements in sexual abuse. Even better, as Bette Bottoms and her colleagues suggest, would be a shift in focus of both media and professional attention away from the rarity of "ritual abuse" to the more common and well-documented phenomenon of religion-related child abuse (Bottoms, Shaver, Goodman, and Qin, in press). This shift is certainly warranted if our ultimate aim is to help the greatest number of child victims.
Cultural discourse about child abuse and neglect
will likely always be characterized by a certain amount of sensationalism
and extremism. The subject is too fraught with emotion for consideration
of it always to be the model of reason. Professionals in the field of
child maltreatment can ensure that less of the sensationalism is dedicated
to exposing their alleged malpractice if they develop effective methods
for rigorous self-policing. Establishing and maintaining high standards
for professional practice will not only disarm legitimate critics, it will
help us ensure that everyone affected by child maltreatment does in fact
receive the best possible professional response.
APSAC Fact Sheet on Ritual Abuse (1995). Chicago, IL: American Professional Society on the
Abuse of Children.
Bottoms, B.L., Shaver, P.R., Goodman, G.S., and Qin, J. (in press). In the name of God: A profile of religion-related child abuse. Journal of Social Issues.
Bottoms, B.L., Shaver, P.R., & Goodman, G.S. (in press). An analysis of ritualistic and religion- related child abuse allegations. Law and Human Behavior.
Downs, A. (1972). Up and down with ecology--the "issue-attention cycle." Public Interest, 28, 38-50.
Finkelhor, D. & Williams (1988), L.M.. Nursery crimes: Sexual abuse in day care. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Lanning, K.V. (1992). Investigator's guide to allegations of "ritual" child abuse. Quantico, VA:
Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.
Underwager, R. & Wakefield, H. (1993). Interview with Ralph Underwager and Holida
Wakefield. Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia, 3, 1 (Winter), pp. 2-12.
Theresa Reid is Executive Director of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), in Chicago, Illinois.