NOTE TO THE READER:
This diary contains mentions of child sexual abuse and the repressed memories controversy. It may be triggering for certain readers, and I apologize in advance if this offends, upsets, or triggers anyone. I am lucky enough to have gotten through childhood unscathed by abuse of any kind (that came much, much later and was relatively mild) but I know people who have suffered greatly due to such atrocities. My ire is directed at those who lied for attention and caused others to suffer, and by doing so diminished the credibility of those who were genuinely harmed by those who should have cherished them.
My first apartment after college was in Malden, Massachusetts.
Malden is, and was, a working/lower middle class suburb north of Boston. The former home of the legendary Lord Timothy Dexter, of whom I’ve written while detailing my failures as a Girl Scout, Malden was the perfect place for an impecunious girl just out of college: cheap rents, reasonably safe streets, excellent rapid transit, and an old, gorgeous Universalist church that soon became my spiritual home. Best of all, my friends Walter and Lisa lived a few blocks away, which meant that I didn’t have to start from scratch when it came to something approaching a social life.
That it was near Route 1 in Saugus, home to legendary weirdness like Kowloon, the Hilltop Steakhouse, and a miniature golf course with a big orange dinosaur, only added to Malden’s manifest charms. There was even a convenience store on the corner with a big plastic cow on the roof, and who could ask for more than that?
All in all, life in Malden was pretty sweet.
I only lived there for a few years, but they were momentous years indeed. This was the place that saw my first feeble attempts at writing a novel (do not ask), my first successful attempts to get something into print (do ask), the early years of my marriage, my first contacts with the Society for Creative Anachronism, my first cat, and a whole bleepload of fantasy role-playing in the tiny living room of the apartment I shared first with a college buddy, then with my husband Wingding. Not much happened in Malden while I lived there, and from time to time I wish we'd stayed, at least for a couple more years.
And then I think of the Fells Acres Day Care case, and suddenly I'm very, very glad I moved.
The 1980s were a decade of panics: panic about Satanism, panic about food, panic about punk rock, panic about the descendants of Jesus, panic about Iran-Contra,
panic in the disco - you name it, someone found a way to spark a wave of otherwise sane people running around like the proverbial guillotined domestic fowl. Three decades later it's easy to shake one's head and say, "Mm mm mm" like the First Lady of an AME Zion church, but at the time no one was laughing; I remember being engrossed, and thoroughly convinced, by Maury Terry's fascinating, well-written, and oddly unsourced book The Ultimate Evil, which argues that the Son of Sam was actually part of a Satanic cult with connections to several other famous crimes, including the Tate-Labianca murders a decade earlier.
One of the most important, and most destructive panics, concerned child sexual abuse at day care centers. Kern County...the McMartin Preschool...Little Rascals...Glendale Montessori...the list went on and on. Between the 1980s and the mid-1990s, facility after facility was closed and their employees thrown in jail because they had allegedly raped their charges, or beaten their charges, or used their charges in Satanic rituals. Never mind that there was usually little or no physical evidence of abuse, or that the witnesses were clearly being coached, or that the accused were often pillars of the community who'd never even heard of Satanism, let alone practiced it. It wasn't until a prosecutor in Wenatchee, Washington, asked a jury to believe that 43 law abiding citizens had committed nearly 30,000 separate acts of child abuse without anyone noticing that a jury finally said "no more."
One of the earliest and most explosive such scandals was the aforementioned Fells Acres case, which took place only a few blocks from where I lived. The parents of a child who'd wet himself at a local daycare center came to believe that the worker who'd changed his wet clothes, Gerald "Tookey" Amirault, had actually molested him. Soon other parents were convinced that their children were victims, the Middlesex County DA's office got involved, and videotapes taken by a nurse named Susan Kelley were used as justification for arresting Amirault and his family.
It was one of those juicy, racy, horrifying stories that had every element that attracts the press, the public, and the smear sheets: abused children, unsavory hints of dark deeds in a "magic room," an evil clown, the consumption of bodily fluids, and so on and so on. It didn't matter that the majority of the children involved denied that anything had happened, or that the day care center's building didn't contain anything remotely resembling a "magic room," or that Gerald Amirault had never owned a clown costume. One police officer even said that interviewing the children was "like getting blood from a stone," but it was far too late for one man to stop the tidal wave of hysteria that swept over Malden, and Middlesex County, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Clearly something had happened, and that meant that someone had pay the price.
The resulting mess has dragged on for nearly thirty years as the Amiraults fought to clear their names, the local police and the Middlsex County DA's office fought to defend their investigation, and child after child grew up and recanted. One of the reasons why so many people in Massachusetts voted for Scott Brown over Martha Coakley was because Coakley, who had been first a prosecutor and then the DA of Middlesex County before she became state attorney general, successfully talked Acting Governor Jane Swift out of granting a clemency petition to Gerald Amirault. Malden has never been the same, and I am convinced that one of the reasons Wingding, who has a degree in elementary education, was never able to get a teaching job was because of the aftershocks of the Fells Acres case.
As awful and destructive as the daycare panic was, it pales in comparison with another panic that began around the same time, spread throughout the therapeutic community, and wrought untold damage upon untold numbers of families. A combination of misunderstood feminism, religious fanaticism, bad science, attention-seeking liars, and therapists who were both credulous and greedy, it has to rank as one of the worst examples of therapeutic abuse in psychiatric history.
I refer, of course, to the recovered memories movement.
Recovered memories purported to be exactly that: horrifying memories of brutal, unrelenting sexual and physical abuse directed at innocent children (almost always girls). These memories, which frequently resulted in the victims creating multiple personalities as a defense/coping mechanism, would surface years or decades later, resulting in the victims needing to have their personalities reintegrated so that they could become healthy, whole, functioning individuals.
Now, multiple personality disorder is a real, albeit rare, psychiatric condition that is believed to afflict between one and three percent of the population, almost always women. In its truest form it is a response to severe trauma and abuse, usually sexual; I know someone who suffers from it, and the initial trauma, her alternate personalities, and her struggle to reclaim herself are very real indeed. However, thanks to a combination of hysteria, unscrupulous therapists, inadequate training, and religious leaders with a giant-size axe to grind, the incidence of multiple personality disorders skyrocketed in the 1980s and 1990.
Part of this was fueled bySybil, the best selling account of a woman who supposedly had developed sixteen personalities in response to horrendous abuse that she had consciously suppressed as a defense mechanism, and the heroic psychiatrist who had reintegrated her. Few knew that other psychiatrists who had treated Sybil were convinced that the sixteen personalities were the result of bad practice on the part of her primary caregiver, or that subsequent research has shown that much of Sybil's account was either fictionalized or badly misrepresented. Worse, the idea that memories of terrible things can be repressed for years or decades has spread far beyond the psychiatric community to become received wisdom. Memoir after memoir purporting to chronicle formerly repressed memories has appeared in the last twenty years, including supposed accounts of a child murder(debunked), a Holocaust survivor raised by wolves (debunked), anda woman with over seventy personalities
(never debunked but seriously questioned). Add in the impact of books like The Courage to Heal, a manual for sex abuse survivors written by people with no clinical training and a tendency to see incest behind every psychiatric symptom, and the result was an atmosphere ripe for exploitation of the well meaning, the suffering, and the innocent.
Tonight I bring you two Books So Bad They're Destructive. One was a root cause of the fundamentalist obsession with Satanism and child abuse in the 1980s and 1990s, while the other was an award-winning Holocaust memoir that was about as authentically Jewish as a pastrami on Wonder Bread and a couple slices of processed American cheese:
Michelle Remembers, by Michelle Smith - Lawrence Pazder was a psychiatrist in private practice in Victoria, British Columbia in 1976 when a woman named Michelle Smith appeared at his office seeking treatment. She was depressed, and little wonder; she'd recently lost a baby, and her marriage was on shaky ground. Dr. Pazder agreed to take her on as a patient, little knowing that his life would soon be changed beyond recognition.
Smith's diagnosis quickly went beyond depression. She was convinced that she had some great secret to tell but couldn't remember it, and after a session where she spent nearly half an hour screaming hysterically and then started speaking in a child's voice, Dr. Pazder decided to try hypnosis to see if that might help Smith remember her hidden secret. Fourteen months and over 600 hours of taped hypnotic sessions later, both patient and doctor were certain that they'd discovered the root of Smith's problems: she'd been systematically abused twenty years earlier by her mother and other seemingly upright citizens who belonged to a Satanic cult.
The memories that Smith recovered were almost beyond belief. Beginning in 1954 when she was only five years old, she claimed that her mother, a member of a worldwide "Church of Satan" that predated Christianity, used her as a living focus for rituals involving murder of adults and children, bathing in their blood, imprisonment, sexual assault, and a 1955 ritual that lasted eighty-one days. This last only ended after Michelle, who somehow managed to outwit the adults imprisoning/raping/abusing/bathing her in blood, was rescued by the Virgin Mary, St. Michael the Archangel, and Jesus himself. They healed her wounds, banished any and all physical evidence of her ordeal, and repressed her memories "until the time was right" for her to share her dreadful knowledge with the world, just as one might expect from God, His Mother, and the general of the Heavenly Host.
And then, for reasons best known only to themselves, they left this innocent child in the care and custody of the very same Satan-worshipping mother who'd abused her in the first place. Just why Jesus and pals did this isn't entirely clear, but Smith's harrowing account was persuasive enough that Dr. Pazder consulted with various church authorities in search of corroboration. Eventually doctor and patient (who were becoming very, very close despite being married to other people) traveled to the Vatican itself in search of clues.
Evidently the authorities at the Vatican were also convinced, at least enough that the Church raised no objections to Dr. Pazder and his star patient turning her story into a book, promotional articles in respectable publications like People (and less respectable publications like The National Enquirer), and a promotional tour of the United States. The media, already primed after the horrors of the 1970s to accept just about anything that sounded vaguely plausible, fell upon their story with unseemly delight, and soon Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist were the beneficiaries of over $400,000 in book advances and royalties, a potential movie deal, and plenty of sympathetic attention from the media and the Christian community.
That both their marriages had failed was regrettable, but the intrepid pair soon found consolation in each other's arms. Even better, Dr. Pazder, who was after all a board-certified psychiatrist, found himself much in demand as an expert on Satanic ritual abuse; he was engaged as an expert witness by the prosecutors in the notorious McMartin Preschool trial, appeared on 20/20 in 1985 and Oprah in 1989, and was part of the Cult Crime Impact Network. By 1990 he was spending almost a third of his time as a consultant to local prosecutors and police departments, and estimated that he had been involved in nearly 1,000 cases.
The road to success, fame, and a boatload of money was not entirely smooth; soon after Michelle Remembers was published, Anton LaVey and the actual Church of Satan (founded in the 1960s) threatened to sue for libel. There was also a most inconvenient article in the Canadian newsmagazine McLean's in 1980 that did what Dr. Pazder had not and interviewed Michelle Smith's father and childhood friends. If they were to be believed, Michelle's mother, far from being a blood-soaked Satanist, was a kind, loving woman who had raised three children, two of whom hadn't seen anything amiss during their sister's year long ordeal.
Further investigations between 1990 and 2002 found the following problems with Smith's story:
- Not one neighbor heard, saw, or noticed anything strange at the family house or at the cemetery where the rituals supposedly took place. Neither did the family doctor.
- Smith's first husband never noticed anything unusual about his wife, and was never once told about her ordeal (possibly due to Jesus and Pals repressing his wife's memories, not that this should have mattered in an allegedly lifelong Catholic marriage).
- Smith's father, Jack Proby, not only identified three blatant lies in the book, he filed a Notice of Intent with the publisher of intent to sue should the rights to Michelle Remembers be sold to a movie studio.
- Despite Smith's claim that her abusers were part of a millenia-long, well established cult, the police in Victoria had never received a single complaint of Satanic abuse, either before or after the release of Michelle Remembers.“
- School records revealed that Smith had never been absent from kindergarten or first grade for any length of time, let alone nearly three months.
- Not one adult involved, except for Michelle Smith's mother (who died in 1964 and thus could not comment on her daughter's allegations), was ever publicly identified, even though many of the cult members supposedly amputated their middle fingers as a sign of loyalty.
Despite all of the above, Michelle Remembers is still in print, still regarded as an authentic account of Satanic ritual abuse, and still popular in the conservative evangelical community. It's been used as a source for uncounted prosecutions of non-Christians and childcare workers, and was even cited as a possible contributing factor to the prosecution of the West Memphis Three
Perhaps the last word on the case of Michelle Remembers should be left to the indefatigable Dr. Pazder. When asked if it truly mattered whether his wife's account was true, or only whether she personally believed in what she said, he responded:
Yes, that's right. It is a real experience. If you talk to Michelle today, she will say, 'That's what I remember'. We still leave the question open. For her it was very real. Every case I hear I have skepticism. You have to complete a long course of therapy before you can come to conclusions. We are all eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn't matter.One doubts that those whose lives had been destroyed by accusations of Satanic abuse would agree.
Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski (aka Bruno Dössekker, born Bruno Grosjean) - one of the most shocking events of the twentieth century was the Holocaust. Adolf Hitler and his merry band of psychopaths were scarcely the first government to engage in the deliberate destruction of a single ethnic group, but they were arguably the first to go about it in a systematic, bureaucratic, and official manner instead of simply inciting widespread riots. Not until the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge was there anything that approached the Holocaust for sheer destruction and waste, and it's little wonder that survivors and liberators continue to tell stories of that awful time.
Among those survivors was a German-speaking citizen of Switzerland named Binjamin Wilkomirski. Born in Latvia to a Jewish family, he was only a child when the Nazis descended upon his home in 1939, sent his family to the death camps, and killed both his parents. He had somehow survived the horrors of the war and the Holocaust before landing in an orphanage in Krakow and then being adopted by a Swiss family shortly after the war. His young mind had suppressed much of this knowledge as a survival mechanism, and it wasn't until the 1990s that he was able to reconstruct his past in sufficient detail to write it down.
Wilkomirski's memoir, Bruchstücke. Aus einer Kindheit 1939–1948, came out in 1995. The book, a harrowing, lushly written account of war and destruction from the point of view of a very young boy, was initially published in German by Jüdischer Verlag. Critics compared it to the works of luminaries such as Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, and Primo Levi. It was quickly translated into nine languages (including English, where it was known as Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood), and earned a slew of awards that included the National Jewish Book Award in the United States and the French Prix Memoire de la Shoah. Wilkomirski, who had hitherto made his living as a clarinetist and instrument maker, was soon appearing on television, giving oral histories, and providing further details about his life in the camps. These included the revelation that not only had he somehow survived Majdanek and Auschwitz, he'd undergone horrific medical experiments as well.
It wasn't until 1998 that the first questions arose. A Swiss journalist named Daniel Ganzfried revealed that Wilkomirski, far from being a Latvian Jew born in the mid-1930s, was actually born Bruno Grosjean in Biel to an unwed Swiss woman named Yvonne Grosjean in 1941. He had been raised in an orphanage in Adelboden (also in Switzerland) and eventually adopted by a wealthy family in Zurich. Not only was he not Jewish, not only had he never been in a concentration camp, he'd never even left Switzerland during the war.
Naturally all hell broke loose. Wilkomirski, insisting that he had been secretly switched with the real Bruno Grosjean/Dösseker upon his arrival in Switzerland, defended himself in articles in Granta and The New Yorker, and on the BBC and CBS. His supporters, many of them sympathetic writers and artists who'd been bowled over by Fragments, attacked Ganzfried, who responded by providing more evidence that Binjamin Wilkomirski, Latvian Holocaust survivor, was a Swiss adoptee.
Matters came to a head in 1999 when Wilkomirski's literary agency, determined to get to the truth, commissioned historian Stefan Maechler to investigate Ganzfried's claims. His report, presented in the fall of 1999, revealed the following:
- Binjamin Wilkomirski and Bruno Grosjean/Dösseker were one and the same person, and always had been.
- Binjamin/Bruno had spent decades consciously developing his narrative, which ultimately bore a greater resemblance to his own childhood in Switzerland than anything that had taken place in a concentration camp.
- One of the people Wilkomirski/Grosjean/Dösseker claimed to have known in the camps, a woman named Laura Grabowski, was actually an American known asLaurel Rose Wilson (or Lauren Stratford) who'd earlier claimed (you knew this was coming) to have been a survivor of Satanic ritual abuse.
- There was no evidence that any memories had been suppressed, of anything, anywhere, at any time.
If this weren't enough evidence to bury Binjamin/Bruno Wilkomirski/Grosjean/Dösseker two miles beneath Mont Blanc, writer Elena Lappin, former editor of The Jewish Quarterly, published her own, independently researched, and thoroughly devastating expose in 1999. It seemed that not only was the multi-named author's entire life story riddled with contradictions, he had not even been properly adopted by the wealthy, well-connected Dössekers; they had originally taken him in under a Swiss program whereby orphaned children would earn their keep working for families as Verdingkinder ("earning children"), a form of indentured servitude that verged on outright slavery.
All hell broke loose when all this came to light. Fragments was withdrawn from publication (and now is a rare collector's item), while both Maecher and Ganzfried published accounts of their respective investigations, which varied on some points. American journalist Blake Eskin, whom Wilkomirski had claimed to be related to, chimed in with a story on NPR's This American Life detailing his family's alleged connection to Fragments and its author. The capper came in 2002 when the public prosecutor of the canton of Zurich investigated Wilkomirski/Grosjean/Dösseker for criminal fraud. She found no evidence that Wilkomirski/Grosjean/Dösseker had deliberately set out to create a hoax, but a DNA analysis she'd ordered confirmed that Ganzfried had been right all along: Binjamin Wilkomirski and Bruno Grosjean/Dösseker were one and the same
Needless to say, Fragments and its author were no longer uttered in the same breath as Diary of Anne Frank or Night. Some critics still see the book as having literary merit as a piece of fiction, but as Stefan Maechler put it, “Once the professed interrelationship between the first-person narrator, the death-camp story he narrates, and historical reality are proved palpably false, what was a masterpiece becomes kitsch.” Worse, the exposure of Fragments as a hoax was seized upon with great glee by anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers as "proof" that the Holocaust never happened at all.
As for Binjamin/Bruno Wilkomirski/Grosjean/Dösseker...ironically enough, a Jewish writer named Benjamin Stein has written a novel partially based on his life and hoax. Beyond that, I've been able to discover nothing about his subsequent career save the fact that the greatest Holocaust hoaxer of the twentieth century is alive, well, and still in Switzerland. Whether he's resumed his former career as a clarinetist is unknown.
So, gentle readers...have you ever encountered these books? Another fake memoir or account of non-existent Satanic abuse? Is there a copy of The Ultimate Evil or The Satanic Underground in your house? Come share....
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||Susan from 29|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||10:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|Thu (first each month)||11:00 AM||Monthly Bookpost||AdmiralNaismith|
|Thu (third each month)||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||4:00 PM||Daily Kos Political Book Club||Freshly Squeezed Cynic|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|
Mon Oct 21, 2013 at 7:29 PM PT: Two the photos in this diary (of restaurants on Route 1 in Saugus, specifically the Ship and the Leaning Tower of Pizza) were originally taken by Larry Cultrera, who has asked for attribution. I am happy to do so and meant no harm.
Wed Nov 06, 2013 at 6:54 PM PT: The pictures in question have been removed at the request of Larry Cultrera. They will not reappear.