You're Wrong About

The Satanic Panic

May 02, 2018 You're Wrong About
You're Wrong About
The Satanic Panic
Show Notes Transcript

The 1980s were real but the Satanists weren't. Sarah tells Mike about why America spent a decade worried about witches running daycare centers.

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Sarah Marshall: 

And I'll finally give my Ted Talk about Ted Bundy.


Michael Hobbes: 

That's a very, like, Sarah Marshall Ted Talk. So, Satan wise.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah.


Michael Hobbes: 

Start me off. How did all of this begin?


Sarah Marshall: 

Well, can you describe it to me? What is the satanic panic?


Michael Hobbes: 

So my understanding is that in the 80s, there was this thing where we thought that there were satanic cults that were murdering children and it was the parents that got together and they were worshiping Satan and they were sacrificing their kids. And it was all very pagan and very, I want to say, True Detective, but of course it was before True Detective, but it was this, it seemed like it was much bigger than what the actual, I guess, the [inaudible] isolated, but it kind of became this thing that the whole country was very concerned about.


Sarah Marshall: 

You're right in the overarching description of it and then wrong on two interesting points. And what hadn't struck me until you said that is that I can't think of any allegations that I've read about so far about actual child murder. There were a lot of stories about animal sacrifice, but what the accusations were mainly about were child sexual abuse. So it was sexual abuse and then overwhelmingly it wasn't parents who were being accused of it, but it was teachers and daycare workers and especially daycare employees. The case that started this all off was the McMartin Preschool case, where there was a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, where the McMartin trial started in 1983 and went until 1990 and was the most expensive criminal trial in US history. It cost $15 million. There was the end, essentially, no resolve. There was no actual evidence. Everyone got acquitted.


Michael Hobbes: 

What was the case? What was the crime?


Sarah Marshall: 

So what happened was that the mother of a four-year-old boy who was enrolled there, her son had had painful bowel movements. There are conflicting accounts that came during the trial. And in one version of the story, he accused a teacher of molesting him and then later took it back. And another version of the story, he didn't take it back. And one of the things he also said about a worker at the preschool, was named Ray, was that he flew through the air. And so the mother takes her concerns to the police, the police write a letter and send it out to parents of about 200 other children at the preschool. And I can read you some of it. What's interesting about this is that there's, from the beginning, a lot of leading.


Michael Hobbes: 

Was this before we sort of knew about false confessions?


Sarah Marshall: 

The prevailing attitude at the time and the slogan that became attached to the McMartin trial, and then to the other accusations and trials that followed was "believe the children." And you can see how that is a form of backlash against the fact that previously children were not really believed about this kind of thing. And we can take it as far back as Freud, having his patients talk about their fathers, committing father-daughter incest with them as it would be known for decades still. And just being unable to believe that his patients were really being molested by male family members. And we were coming off of decades and generations of being able to look abuse dynamics squarely in the eye, and simply not accepting them and not believing people who came forth about this kind of thing. And I think that the need to say, no, a child would never make this up, a child can't lie, was in, to some degree, reparations for all that.


Michael Hobbes: 

So the pendulum swung back, but then we didn't temperate with believe children, but don't ask them leading questions.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. The impetus to believe children folds in on itself and turns into an inability to believe children who say that they weren't abused if the adults involved in the situation believe that abuse had to have happened. And so what happens in the McMartin case is that the police send a form letter out to parents of about 200 children. And the letter says, "please question your child to see if he or she has been a witness to any crime, or if he or she has been a victim. Our investigation indicates that possible criminal acts include: oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttock or chest area and sodomy. Possibly committed under the pretense of taking the child's temperature."


Michael Hobbes: 

Oh my God. So they just send out this letter, this extremely inflammatory letter, to a bunch of parents.


Sarah Marshall:

Yeah. And imagine if you're a parent and you have a four year old enrolled in preschool, and you're told we have arrested a worker at this preschool and the accusations against him are these horrific things that every parent is terrified beyond almost anything else. How are you not going to assume that terrible things could very well have happened to your child? So what happens of course, is that parents questioning children and the parents also become suspicious because their children are exhibiting signs of what they see is of them being disturbed, following maybe some form of abuse and it's things like bedwetting and nightmares and suddenly not liking foods that they liked before and things.


Michael Hobbes: 

That's what every four year old constantly does.


Sarah Marshall: 

What every four-year-old constantly does. I was thinking also, while I was researching this about, I was babysitting for a three-year-old a few weeks ago, we were, like, in a messy, like a garage area and she was in her socks and got down and got her socks dirty, which I hadn't realized she wasn't supposed to do. And then her grandmother came back in and was like, "oh, you got your socks dirty." And I said, "oh, it wasn't, that was my bad. I didn't know. I'm sorry." And the three-year-old goes, "no, it wasn't her fault. It was someone else." Which I really loved because like, that's someone I want on my crew. Right? Like someday when I'm doing a heist, someone who knows at three not to rat out.


Michael Hobbes: 

She's like, not snitching.


Sarah Marshall:

Yeah. No, she gets it. But also I was thinking if you came in to that, if you just heard a three-year-old say that, and you had an idea, well, children can't lie, three-year-olds can't lie, three-year-olds can't conceive of lying. Who was the someone else person? And then if you are convinced as an adult and have some kind of confirmation bias, like you would if someone sent you a horrifying letter, then you can take, you know, a three-year-old, a four-year-old and sit them down and kind of poke them and prod them and say, who was someone else? Tell me about someone else. And kids tend to not immediately recant. And so if I had been, you know, four, three or four, and someone had said, "who is someone else?" I would make something up and come up with who this someone else person was. And then--


Michael Hobbes: 

Yeah, because you don't do long-term thinking as a three-year-old, you're not thinking through, "hey, if I tell a lie now I'm going to have to stick with that lie. So it's better to just rip the bandaid off and tell the truth now." You don't think in that way, you just keep telling lies and just saying, especially what somebody wants to hear too. I mean, so much of child behavior at that point is about impressing your parents or telling people something that will make them happy or make them laugh.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. And so what we see in the transcripts from some of these cases and from the questioning that these children are put through is adults saying things along the lines of, we know that your teacher did something bad to you because you got a confession or a description from one child, and then you bring it to another child who corroborates it. And then it becomes truth in the minds of the adults. So we have social workers and police officers saying things to kids like, we know that your teacher is bad and scary and she can't hurt you anymore. And you have to help us put her in jail so that she can't hurt any more kids. So just tell us, we know that, you know, X thing happened. And if you're a kid and an adult is telling you that you have to make them happy by saying that something happened, it would take an incredibly strong willed child to not do that. The McMartin case goes to trial. That becomes, attracts a lot of media attention because it's the kind of story that, you know, if it bleeds, it leads. And this is the allegations are absolutely horrifying. And then this is something that other parents across the country can look at and say, if it could happen in this perfectly nice place in California then who's to say it can't happen at this perfectly nice place where I take my child every day. So one of the police statements in the form letter is your child may have been sodomized under the pretense of taking their temperature. And so across the country in New Jersey, a mother takes her four year old son to the doctor who takes his temperature rectally. And the boy says, "oh, my teacher does that to me at school." And later clarifies that he means she takes his temperature and what the mother is extremely ready to assume is that that means that he's being sexually abused. And so that becomes the Kelly Michael's case in New Jersey, where--


Michael Hobbes: 

Kelly Michael's is the victim?


Sarah Marshall: 

She's the alleged perpetrator. And so the same thing happens in New Jersey is happening in California, where one child makes an innocuous statement to a parent. The parent interprets it as a description of abuse and then talks to the other parents. The other parents question their kids. The police get involved. And then we haven't even gotten into the satanic element of it too, because in the McMartin case, the mother who initially makes the accusations, you know, she gets the accusation that Ray flew through the air, the elected perpetrator flew through the air. And then that there are these tunnels underneath the preschool where they're taking children to do their rituals. The other interesting thing about kids is that they will say astoundingly bizarre shit. If we've created a dynamic where adults are ready to believe the, whatever they say, if it's an accusation against a teacher or an authority figure in their life, then these will become criminal accusations. And kids also are obsessed with bodily functions. And so a lot of the accusations, while they would be forced to eat shit or they would pee on each other, or they would all--there was a case in Austin about a daycare center where a couple that ran at Fran and Dan Keller were also accused of satanic ritual abuse. And one of the stories that I child told under questioning was that the Keller's, I'm quoting from a Texas monthly article on this quote, "kidnapped a baby gorilla from Zilker Park, after which Fran cut a finger off the gorilla and drain the blood in a water bucket. But there had never been a zoo at Zilker Park, much less a gorilla."


Michael Hobbes:

There's something funny about these suburban parents coming up with these outlandish accusations and then somehow convincing themselves that they're true. Of course, it's not funny at all because these people's lives are in the balance, but it's hard not to laugh at this stuff.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. It's absolutely absurd. And I mean, and the Keller's did hard time for this. Even if people were acquitted, even if they were never formally indicted, then they were publicly accused. They lost their jobs, they lost their money. It's amazing to me that no one would check up on this because it would be so easy, to like, okay, so they gotta be, they couldn't have to baby gorilla, that's legit and then cut off the finger and drain the blood into a bucket. Like, there's not that much blood and a baby gorillas finger.


Michael Hobbes: 

There's a finite number of baby gorillas in the United States. And so if one of them went missing and its finger was cut off, that in itself would be a story that could be tracked down by some enterprising reporter.


Sarah Marshall:

It's interesting too that American parents are hypervigilant about this very real and this very unreal thing. We've recently discovered that child sex abuse exists. Like, this is also something that there was very little literature on until the 70s. And so in 1983, we're still reeling from this idea that there is such a thing as quote father-daughter incest and are feeling hypervigilant about it. And the thinking at the time that received a lot of societal support and federal funding in the form of group therapy programs primarily was that it's the integrity of the family that is at fault. And there also emerged as this idea of the family romance. And that the problem is that all of these women are going and working outside of the home and not being sexually available enough to their husbands. And at the same time, their daughters are entering puberty. And who could blame a man whose wife is giving him the cold shoulder for just molesting his daughter a little. And so that's the way that we conceive of child sexual abuse in the 70s. What we see with that methodology is this extreme hesitance about pathologizing the American patriarch and saying, "well, you know, dads do this sometimes, but it's not their fault." We were confronted with the fact that sexual abuse was occurring within the home, which is, I think statistically where it's most likely to occur. We couldn't see the father as dangerous.


Michael Hobbes: 

It was seen more as like, a mistake rather than evil. Is that what you mean?


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. And the solution to this was not questioning the nuclear American family, where the father is in charge and where we have this power dynamic. You know, the horror that we now feel for the figure of the child molester in America. We couldn't quite do it. And it reminds me of the way that in the 70s, you know, Ted Bundy is arrested and there's a lot of very concrete evidence suggesting that he's killed a lot of women and the police charged with guarding him just can't--they look at him, they're like, "yeah, but you just seem like such a regular guy. You seem like a regular middle-class guy. How could you really be dangerous?" And so he escapes from police custody twice. We couldn't quite take it seriously. And so I think that we put a lot of that onto Satan. Who's good for this kind of thing. And witches who are also good for that kind of thing. One of the allegations against the woman who ran the McMartin preschool and who did serve a couple of years in custody while this case was progressing, police did a search and found a black robe among her belongings, which there had already been allegations about witchcraft and Satanism and people flying through the air and they were like, "yes, this is evidence." And the black robe turns out to be a graduation robe.


Michael Hobbes: 

So at the end of this long trial, they go to prison?


Sarah Marshall: 

They are acquitted because ultimately there's no actual evidence. And it's funny because you can see us thinking through all of these important questions about criminal and legal procedure, or we're struggling with how to deal for example, with the question of a case in which the only evidence against the accused is testimony from a small child, which is a serious thing to think about, because there are cases where the only evidence is testimony from a small child and something horrible has happened to them. And so what happens too, is that the children become mouthpieces for the parents and for the anxieties of the parents and the confirmation bias of the investigating police and the social workers, where as a society, it seems like during this time we had this lofty goal, we wanted to take our children seriously and protect them and understand the threats that were in their lives. But we also were quite sure we wanted the threat to be outside the home. The previous estimates about sexual abuse and the frequency of quote incest, put it at about one per million.


Michael Hobbes: 

That would mean in America, there would be 300 people who had been molested. Which is, I think we can all be pretty confident in saying there's more than 300 people in the United States that have been molested.


Sarah Marshall: 

Some of the, for example, the Kinsey research, there's a lot of verbiage in that when they talk about incest cases or cases where children were experiencing something sexually violent or coercive, there's a lot of description of, well, you know, but it didn't negatively affect them. There's a quote in the Kinsey paper, something to the effect of, you know, a child who has experienced, for example, someone, an adult exposing themselves to them will react only as negatively as they do if they see something like a spider, like that's a normal response to sexual predation. And there's just such an overwhelming need to believe that, okay, it doesn't happen. Or it happens very, very occasionally. And when it does, it's not traumatic. The tone that people took at the time, because the argument then is if someone is a survivor of sexual abuse and is having, you know, a difficult adulthood, then maybe that actually is a sign of the issues and problems that they had before the abuse incident.


Michael Hobbes: 

So almost the abuse is a symptom of all the other stuff that was going on in their life.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. Like you were already screwed up and that's why you got abused. And the abuse didn't have any negative effect on you. It was, yeah, a symptom of your problems that--it's a pre-existing condition.


Michael Hobbes:

It's interesting that there's also this conception that the only people that could ever do any molestation are evil to a profound extent, right? They're not just sexual predators, they're literal Satanist because there's no way that normal humans who weren't under the control of some dark Sauron could ever do this.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. The preexisting fear of Satan, which we had throughout the 70s and, you know, there's the fear of heavy metal bands putting satanic secret, backwards, satanic messages in their songs. And this idea of, you know, America becoming a less Christian country and paganism and the dark side of the hippie movement. Cause now in America, we have a similar inability to believe that the real danger is within the home, within the system that we need to be worried about mass incarceration. We need to be worried about middle what's happening within a middle class American family. We need to be worried about people who are well integrated into our communities. As humans, we exhibit the same behaviors that lead us to need to believe, you know, the problem is not within the American home. The problem is Satan.


Michael Hobbes: 

I think you can probably tell a lot about a society from what people don't need evidence to believe. And I think it's very telling that people didn't need great evidence to believe satanic abuse was going on, which is fascinating to me because you would think it's such an extreme case. It's such extreme human behavior.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. And one of the things that Kelly Michaels, I think, responded to in terms of the allegations against her, cause one of the claims that emerged was that she had 30 children in her care and she would strip all of them naked and they would have to, you know, corrals naked together basically. And one of the things she said was, do you know how long it takes to undress and then dress again, 30 children, if you were the only adult in the room, it is impossible. I mean, I think it would take about four hours.


Michael Hobbes: 

So this letter that the cops sent out to the parents, is that remotely standard procedure?


Sarah Marshall: 

I don't know what police departments best practices are around this kind of allegation today. I think it would probably vary a lot state by state, but department by department. One of the things that I think affected this as well is that when investigating allegations of abuse in the 70s, when we really started having a national conversation about this and conceiving of it as something that happened and therefore prosecuting it occasionally was that standard procedure in, I think, many departments at the time was to not have--also the phrase that you see a lot in this is the girl child, which just seems weird to me, you know, it's like, are you the key master? Are you the girl child? You know, the terminology becomes weird and dated so quickly. So the girl child who had made allegations of abuse against her father, because that was the kind that we sort of started noticing first would not be questioned by the police. And they would bring in a female social worker so that she would be unintimidated and be able to open up. And which is again, you know, these were decisions made with humanist intentions and with the desire to not further traumatize, a traumatized child.


Michael Hobbes: 

That seems like a good thing to do, like, have some of these experts speak to small children. Yeah.


Sarah Marshall: 

But the other issue with that is that if you have a social worker who's an expert on speaking with children or at least whose line of work that is then they are at the time were not trained in police procedures. They weren't trained in how to question a witness or a victim about a crime that they had witnessed or had been perpetrated against them. And so the police were farming out part of their work to people who were not part of the legal system


Michael Hobbes: 

So what are some of the things that they weren't asking that they should have? Things like, what was the date on which he molested you?


Sarah Marshall: 

You know, one thing that as a social worker, if you weren't trained as an operator within the legal system, is that you really wouldn't, you wouldn't know what kind of evidence would be admissible or not generally at trial. You wouldn't necessarily be trained in the kinds of behaviors that can lead someone to confirm something that you're suggesting might've happened to them, as opposed to having them introduce the information to begin with. And then of course, we had social workers still doing a lot of questioning of kids in the McMartin case, the Kelly Michaels case, the other cases that proliferated at this time. I think it would be so easy to have a sense, and, you know, people who were involved in these cases have written about themselves in these terms that you were a Crusader and you were saving this kid from the forces of evil. And if they were clamming up and refusing to talk and refusing to say anything bad about this person who you believed sincerely had done these terrible things, then you would do anything that you had to to get them to say something, because you would feel that you were helping them to overcome their fear of this monster in their lives.


Michael Hobbes: 

If you, especially, if you think that sexual assault against children has been under reported so long and has been this sleeping giant underneath the culture for so long, you're going to say, we're finally going to get these people. We're finally going to bring justice to this issue. And so I can see how that would become a runaway crusade for people.


Sarah Marshall: 

I think Satanism was less scary than the reality in a weird way. What we now know is that sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable members of society is something that can happen within an organized system, like a church and go on sometimes indefinitely with the soft collusion of many, many responsible adults and community members, and can be something that we just don't see. And that's scarier than the idea that it's, yeah, that we can recognize that anyone who would sexually abuse a child would be just as likely to kidnap a baby gorilla and use its blood in a ritual. And that these two things are equally unimaginable on the spectrum of human behavior and equally, equally conspicuous. And then when the tide starts to turn, one of the things that causes that is that people start very tentatively coming forward and saying, is it really possible that there is this cabal of thousands of Satanists in the United States? And they are infiltrating preschools and daycare centers primarily in order to abuse children and use them in their rituals and convert them to Satanism. You know, why children for a start, they don't have any money. Like, if you want to get someone involved in your evil cult, then ideally you target someone who can help subsidize your stuff. You know, rogues cost money. By the end of the 80s so many of these cases have actually been brought to trial and there have been so many allegations that it becomes clear that for any of this to actually be happening or, you know, for 98% of it to be happening, then a significant percentage of adults in America are members of some sort of organized satanic cult that also manages to completely avoid detection by adults. And only children are the ones who are seeing any of this happening. And it's so ornate because it involves breaking into zoos and kidnapping animals and building tunnels underneath preschools and taking children away in planes and all of this, all of these things that you would think would leave some trace of physical evidence--


Michael Hobbes: 

Right, all these logistics.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah.


Michael Hobbes:

I guess if there really was a large organized group of any kind, there'd be a magazine. There'd be a membership drive. There'd be at that point, maybe not a website, but there would be catalogs that you could send away for. There would be all the accoutrements of like, people that are really into golf have like, an annual meeting and they have a newsletter.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. If there was this big of a satanic subculture, then you would not have to [inaudible] your graduation robe into something you use for rituals. There would be something nice that you could buy from a catalog.


Michael Hobbes: 

I've always thought one thing that's really weird about Satanism is that just like racist, no one self identifies as a Satanist because Satan is a Christian deity. So to believe in Satan, to worship Satan, you sort of have to believe in the Bible. But if you believe in the Bible, why would you be rooting for the bad guy? My understanding is there are self-identified Satanists, but they're extremely small. And there's the church of Satan, which essentially only exists to bring free speech cases.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. And I, that always seemed weird to me. I remember watching Rosemary's baby when I was way too young. My impression was okay, so if Satan literally exists and you're using him to impregnate someone, then God exists. So that's kind of nice because if you know that Satan's there, then God is there. And so, and why, if you have that knowledge, like what's the payoff? I've read the Satanic Bible and essentially Anton Levey in the Satanic Bible is like, look, we do not really believe in Satan. That's not a thing. What this is about is essentially this [inaudible] objectivism and do for yourself. And don't worry about other people so much. And there's a whole chapter, he's like, here's some spells you can do. They're silly, but they're fun. Have a naked lady lie on a table and write shit on a scroll and then burn it and have some candles. And he's just saying, none of this is real, but it's neat.


Michael Hobbes: 

That's a very secular viewpoint. I mean, secular people can look at that and think it's jokey and fun. Whereas I think Christians would be totally horrified of that because if you actually believe in Satan, then you wouldn't toy around with his name. You wouldn't throw his name around and sort of jokingly cast spells. And so the entire viewpoint of the Satanist is that none of it's really real. And so that's the only way in which you can be a Satanist.


Sarah Marshall:

That's the thing, and I mean, that's what I come back to just thinking about criminology is this idea of the need to believe that there are people out there who say I'm evil and I love being evil, and this is a side I want to be on. I don't think anyone really wants that. I think there's probably, you know, there's some rogue teenagers and disturbed people out there who get some sense of control or satisfaction from the bravado of saying to themselves or other people I'm evil, I'm in league with Satan, I'm in league with human evil, whatever. But I don't think it's anything that any of us truly want. And yeah. And Anton Levey could be the godfather of Satanism because he didn't actually believe in any of it.


Michael Hobbes: 

What happened to the victims? Did the victims eventually recant?


Sarah Marshall: 

It's hard to know because a lot of them had their identities protected and weren't named publicly. I have not found anything on a case falling apart because victims came forward and said, no, this actually didn't happen. I mean, victims did, alleged victims did start to recant, you know, or attempted to recant while these cases were going to trial on the line at the time was, you know, you're saying that because you're afraid of what this person will do to you. We can't believe you if you're saying this didn't happen. And so the confirmation bias of prosecutors during cases like this, allowed them to see both silence and claims that abuse didn't happen as reinforcing their belief that there had been abuse.


Michael Hobbes: 

Which is wild in the absence of forensic evidence. It's interesting that they kept on it for that long.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. Unless there's just an undefined. But the Kelly Michael's case, one of the things that was taken as forensic evidence was a child had told the story about that, about Kelly Michael's using peanut butter as a tool for sexual abuse, that she would put it on her body and make the kids lick it off I think, which is exactly the kind of thing that a child would say under pressure, I think along with the gorilla finger. And so one of the investigators went into the kitchen of the daycare and found a jar of peanut butter. And that was like the bloody glove moment.


Michael Hobbes: 

It's like the story checks out, there's peanut butter.


Sarah Marshall: 

There's peanut butter, like, why would you have peanut butter if you weren't going to use it to abuse a child.


Michael Hobbes: 

This is like the argument that I've been having with my parents for like 50 years about whether or not the Bible is true, which is a completely pointless argument to have, but they oftentimes will bring up that there's actually very good evidence that there were floods in that part of the world at that time. And I'm always like, that is the least difficult to believe part of that story. Like, the fact that there were floods is very easy to believe. The fact that somebody took two animals of every kind and put them on a boat. That's the hard part. The fact that there were floods is not really evidence that the Noah's Ark story is true.


Sarah Marshall: 

It's interesting too, because I feel like so many of the aspects of the Bible that have always given me trouble as someone who takes things fairly literally, and, you know, made me as someone who grew up in a secular home, never particularly prone to believe Bible stories, were that they very quickly get into, you know, if you're thinking about it logistically, just think so is Noah out there catching two of every gnat to get on the ark and how does this work? And it's the same kind of logistical problems that you have with Satanism. But I guess if your religion requires you to just accept literally as gospel things that physically don't really make sense then Satanism works out well too.


Michael Hobbes: 

Do you think that we're at a point now where this wouldn't happen?


Sarah Marshall: 

I don't know. I feel like, I mean, another really interesting aspect of this is that, and I didn't really realize this until I was researching the O.J. Simpson trial a few years ago, and one of the things that happened there was that juries really didn't know what to do with DNA evidence. They didn't know what DNA was. I think that as Americans, we really didn't honestly, in general start having a basic understanding of DNA until Jurassic Park came out. And then we all kind of figured it out and we could use it in criminal trials. Marcia Clark at a certain point had to in a very painstaking, basic way, explain what DNA was and explained, like, look, our defendant cut himself and got his blood all over the crime scene. And the odds of that blood not belonging to O.J. Simpson are literally statistically impossible. And the jury at that time was able to be like, eh, I don't know. But another thing that's interesting though, is that there was an alleged form of forensic evidence in the Kelly Michael's trial and other trials where they would bring in physicians who would examine the child and say, I don't know that the hymen of, a girl was in a strange, what they took to be a strange shape, or they had a different size or shape hymen and or hymen that suggested penetration or, you know, that doctors in these cases at the time believed, suggested sodomy, which is if the anus winked, they called it winking. I don't, I'm not sure exactly what that meant. Like, if you, if you prodded it, it would move I guess, or contract or something.


Michael Hobbes:

And that's a sign that you've been molested somehow?


Sarah Marshall:

Or that you've stuck something up your butt, or maybe nothing, because what happens is, you know, after some of these people have been convicted, the science that allegedly supports it is the bind and more substantive studies are conducted on, you know, getting a decent sample size of what a child's hymen or anus will do or look like, which really had not been studied that much before apparently. And they're like, oh, actually it turns out that there's all sorts of things that children's anuses and genitals do and none of them actually correlate that directly to abuse. And the, you know, we just didn't know this before. You know, we are still vulnerable as juries to junk science, and there are still trials in America where bite mark evidence is used by prosecutors. And that's something that's notoriously unreliable. There is a lot of forensic, you know, non DNA forensic evidence that's brought in as evidence supporting someone's guilt that actually is not particularly reliable or unreliable under certain circumstances, but is presented to a jury as, you know, if this is present, then this 100% means the defendant's guilt and juries were not experts in this, believe it. So I think we are still vulnerable.


Michael Hobbes: 

How did this all end? Did it just trail off? Did it just disappear slowly from the newspapers?


Sarah Marshall: 

I think it did. I think we just got scared of other stuff. There are echoes of it. The West Memphis three.


Michael Hobbes: 

Yeah. That was Satanism, right?


Sarah Marshall: 

That was, yeah. And it was Satanism--they were Satanist because [inaudible] liked Metallica, which is also great because Metallica's music is about feelings.


Michael Hobbes: 

Yeah. They're basically eighth graders. I was really into Metallica when I was in eighth grade. And that like, music really spoke to me. That in Nine Inch Nails were like, my shit. And then looking back, like, listening to them now, I'm like, oh, wow, this is eighth grade. This is exactly how I felt in eighth grade. But it's not particularly satanic. It's not particularly ideological. I think that is just the inability of old people to be interested in what young people are doing. I think that is a fundamental and constant problem that whenever you look into anything, it's like, my parents parents being shocked that the Beatles' hair touched their collars. Every generation has a version of that. And in the 90s, it was Metallica.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah.


Michael Hobbes: 

Does this intersect with the whole recovered memories thing?


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. There was a book, a Canadian book that came out in 1980 called Michelle Remembers, which I've read and is fascinating and is--uses this repressed memory, I want to say technology, but that's not it, repressed memory therapy where basically this circumstances around it are really interesting to a young woman named Michelle was happily married. And just started, I forget what precipitated this exactly, but I think started exhibiting signs of psychological distress and didn't know why and felt like she'd had like a good childhood and had a perfectly nice marriage and started seeing a psychiatrist who started doing repressed memory therapy on her. She starts recounting memories of her mother having been abusive. And then that turns into memories of her mother having been in a coven and I think killed a baby. Or there was something involving them using a baby in, or an aborted fetus in a ritual. And her having been forced as a young child to take part in all of these, again, these elaborate satanic rituals that she then remembered with the help of the psychiatrist who then married her and helped write a book about it. And they went on the lecture tour and made, I think probably, you know, a lot of literal and cultural capital off of this. It's a very, it's a weird case. It's like a Pygmalion, a Satanist Pygmalion or something.


Michael Hobbes: 

Did she eventually recant?


Sarah Marshall: 

No, no. I mean, at least not publicly. And she just sort of disappeared. This guy disappeared. And then, and there was nothing on the scale of these accusations and these trials that was, you know, a kind of a moment of public reckoning of us saying like, oh fuck, we fucked up. And I think probably that had to do with the breath of all this, because there were relatively few people involved in investigating and prosecuting these cases, but potentially a majority of Americans were willing to believe this in some way or another. And it's just, it's hard to have a public moment of reckoning and essentially recanting with this kind of a thing. And I mean, repress memory therapy has been significantly debunked since then, but it also seems to me very possible that someone could have disassociated memories of prior abuse. And in order to say my parent, my family member, someone in my community abused me. And then if they're being guided through this by a professional, who's willing to believe certain things and is guided by a general belief in that satanic cults, for example, that it's easier to say in a way that your mother was like a satanic grand wizard, and that's why she abused you then to say that she was a human being who wasn't able to be the parent that you needed.


Michael Hobbes:

So what do you think is the legacy of these cases? What did it leave us with?


Sarah Marshall: 

I'm going to put a lot of people in prison. Something that I didn't initially think of until I had been researching this for a while, is what did this do essentially to hundreds, thousands of American children at this time who not only were led to believe that they had been abused in awful ways by members of their community and adults that they and their families trusted. Inevitably some of them, if we're talking about hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand of kids, inevitably, some of them still believe that all of these things really did take place. And if they came to not believe it, then that could lead to some kind of rift with their family. You know, I wonder about what effect this had on, you know, the relationship between children and parents. There was at least, there was a mother in the Kelly Michael's case who published a book about, you know, her crusade against her daughter's abuser. And then of course later, Kelly Michaels turned out to be a perfectly nice aspiring actress who just wanted to get a job in New Jersey. You know, it's just another horror story about Manhattan real estate really. What effect would it have on you if, as a child, your basic perception of reality was screwed with this much and the adults in your life, the authority figures, I mean, there's really a sick doubling of what allegedly took place in a way really was took place. What really was what happened because children were psychologically abused really in the end, by the adults in their lives and the authority figures, the parents and the social workers and the police officers and the attorneys who they should have been able to trust and who ultimately use them as tools and created, helped create these memories and these traumas for them that allowed them to craft a narrative about their own anxieties and their own fears. I don't know what effect that would have on you as a human being. I think it would be potentially deeply traumatic. Cause now we believe in trauma, we don't think that being sexually abused is just like seeing a spider and we can even conceive of a reality where having, you know, your sense of what happened to you or what didn't altered in such a way could be traumatic as well.


Michael Hobbes: 

So we finally found a good legacy of this, that we finally believe the sexual trauma is real, probably believe kids a little bit more. So that's a good thing. I mean, maybe every episode of the show is going to end up being about the messy process of learning things as a society that learning that sexual trauma exists is good, but it's this messy process where for a while we believe kids too much, or we believe them when they say it happened, but then we don't believe them when they say it didn't happen. And it becomes this thing where we want to redeem ourselves for the 50 years that we didn't believe them by over believing them and finding these new villains like Satanism and daycare centers when that really wasn't where the abuse was taking place. That finally absorbing these things as a society is really hard and it kicks off all these shitty unintended consequences, like, thinking that there's a huge contingent of random Satanists running daycare centers. It just seems like you're never going to get everybody all the way there. You know, 51% of the country finally believes something that's true, that's a victory in a way, but you still have 49% believing the wrong thing.


Sarah Marshall:

And also maybe that we have to be really wrong about something to be right about it eventually. The spotlight investigation happens in 2001 and I feel as if that was suddenly being able to conceive of the fact of systemic abuse within churches and within the Catholic church.


Michael Hobbes: 

Institutions are capable of this.


Sarah Marshall: 

Yeah. And then you look back at the Satanic Panic, and it's like, you can see that that's this bizarre-o version of the Catholic church that we're really talking about or of you know, church sanctified abuse and systemic abuse. We were seeing things that did actually happen and significant abuse that went on without anyone noticing and with children not being believed. It was just that, you know, you were accusing priests instead of satanic worshipers.


Michael Hobbes: 

So it all worked out in the end. Not really. Fake happy ending to all of this.