Yesterday in our brief critique of the work of Australian criminology lecturer Dr Michael Salter, we touched upon the fact that neither he nor his students were alive during the most recent Satanic panic, which spanned the last two decades of the 20th century. This, perhaps, is what makes it easy for Dr Salter and his ilk to deny the importance, or even the existence, of that psychiatric/social epidemic—and what allows him to continue spreading the SRA myth amongst a new crop of professionals.
For those who were alive at the time, though, the picture looks quite different. Yesterday we happened upon an article by psychologist Dr Richard Noll, whose account of the last Satanic panic was published in the Psychiatry Times in December 2013, under the title “When Psychiatry Battled the Devil”.
Then it was un-published; and a few months later re-published inunder a different title, with the inclusion of statements by some of the prominent psychiatrists whose behaviour Dr Noll had described in his article.
For all that the SRA-pushers howl about the “powers that be” suppressing the “truth”, it seems passing strange that Psychiatry Times, a journal which is not known to shy away from controversy, would have suppressed Dr Noll’s essay, albeit temporarily. It demonstrates the fact that there are still people who cling to their belief in SRA, to the point where they are prepared to threaten legal action against a journal which adopts a critical stance on the issue.
‘When Psychiatry Battled the Devil’
Dr Allen Frances, another veteran of the end-of-the-century Satanic panic, sets the scene:
The time was between 20 and 25 years ago. The outrage that needed exposing was the sudden epidemic of prosecutions of daycare workers for the alleged sexual and satanic ritual abuse of the children under their care. The place was all over the U.S. — this was a nationwide craze that focused suspicion on more than 100 daycare centers. The victims were the completely innocent daycare workers who were indicted and often convicted of ridiculous charges that could not possibly have any foundation in reality. Many were pressured, threatened, and/or tortured into false confessions, and some, under great duress, were forced into making false charges implicating co-workers. Dozens have served prison sentences, and some are still in jail — an injustice of shocking proportions.
The initial accusers were usually mentally unbalanced parents harboring weird imaginings or an ax to grind, or both. The first-responder enablers were gullible police detectives who spread panic from household to household. Next came ambitious prosecutors who used the cases to make a name for themselves (one became Attorney General of the United States; another governor of North Carolina). Most inexcusable were the self-appointed “expert” therapists with their anatomically correct dolls and their leading and bullying suggestions. The children were seduced and brow beaten into confirming wild stories of horrible but totally implausible,sexual and/or satanic experiences. Parents, police, prosecutors, and therapists who theoretically were there to protect the kids from abuse instead themselves became their abusers.
The charges were farce, but the impact on those involved was tragedy. Never was there a single shred of physical evidence that any of the crimes had ever occurred. It was a modern witch hunt, no better than the Salem trials occurring 300 years before, or the Spanish Inquisition 400 years ago. In the interim, modern man has acquired remarkable knowledge but is still capable of remarkably primitive thinking and cruel action.
Dr Noll describes it as an “ugly cultural and medical disaster”, which many in his profession would prefer to forget or ignore—and which those in the current generation of mental health professionals cannot remember, or can hardly believe.
The rise of ‘dissociative disorders’
To understand how “dissociative identity disorder” (DID), previously known as “multiple personality disorder” (MPD), gained a foothold in the psychiatric lexicon, it’s important to remember that during the 1980s, formal Freudian psychoanalysis had fallen out of favour, and biological psychiatry was in the ascendant.
The advent of more sophisticated medications for various psychiatric disorders—such as Prozac, the first SSRI anti-depressant, heralded as a breakthrough in 1987—meant that those who practised psychoanalytically based therapies were looking at a rather glum future.
Coincidentally, at the same time the concept of “dissociation” was gaining ground among psychoanalytically oriented psychiatrists as a “double-duty metaphor for both a causal (defense) mechanism and a descriptive term for the splitting apart of consciousness, complexes within memory systems, and the subjective sense of a unitary self”.
(In other words, “Huzzah! There’s still something we can do! Put away that prescription pad, lads, we’re off to the races!”)
The dissociative disorders, which were presumed to originate as reactions to trauma, began to gain real traction, helped along by the revision of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III)—basically the “bible” of the mental health care professions.
Three prominent psychiatrists were invited onto the Advisory Committee for the Dissociative Disorders section of the DSM-III-R:
- Richard P. Kluft of the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia
- Frank W. Putnam of the National Institute of Mental Health
- Bennett G. Braun of Chicago’s Rush Medical College
They were joined by committee chair Robert Spitzer, and psychiatrists Philip M. Coons and Marlene Steinberg as well as social worker Janet B.W. Williams.
According to Dr Noll,
The DSM-III-R revisions for the dissociative disorders were extensive. The sequence of the disorders in the chapter was changed, with MPD placed first because it “is in many ways both the paradigm and the most pervasive expression of the spectrum of dissociative phenomenology.” Severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in childhood were its predisposing factors. Described as “apparently extremely rare” in DSM-III, in the years 1984 to 1987 large numbers of cases were reported in the literature by Kluft (200 cases), Putnam (100), Coons (20), and Braun and co-authors (355).
Drs Kluft, Putnam, and Braun also founded the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation (ISSMP&D), which held its first conference in 1983. By 1986, some presenters at the ISSMP&D conference were telling tales of abuse within cults, and childhood Satanic ritual abuse.
The DSM-III-R Advisory Committee on Dissociative Disorders understood the historical implications of the MPD diagnosis: MPD was basically the secularised version of Judeo-Christian “possession” by demons. In this sense, psychiatry was moving from any pretense of scientific rigour into dealing with the supernatural—and claiming diagnostic expertise in areas which would previously have been the province of exorcists.
In blurring the boundaries between mental health care and religious belief, psychiatry was being sucked into the “rip tide of Satanic panic”.
Dr Noll writes,
Bennett Braun was the first and most fervent DSM-III-R Advisory Committee member to join the crusade against Satan. His public expression of interest in cults and MPD dates at least to 1986.
But at an ISSMP&D conference in Chicago in 1988, Braun presented a workshop in which he directly linked the MPD epidemic to the abuse committed against children by devil-worshipping cults. He argued that these Satanic cults were everywhere in the U.S., internationally organized with a structure similar to communist cells, with local regional, district, national, and international councils. Braun also argued that Satanic cults were transgenerational family traditions that had been going on in secret for at least 2,000 years.
At that same conference, Sally Hill, a social worker in private practice in Chicago, and Jean Goodwin, a psychiatrist and professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, presented a paper which attempted to validate Braun’s claims by citing historical accounts of allegations of “the Satanic black mass” and other obscene cult behaviors going back to at least A.D. 100. Reproducing these accounts without regard to context, these clinicians read them as fundamentally true reports of actual events. Professional historians who specialize in those eras tend to interpret such material as a discourse of propaganda aimed at undesirable minority groups, whether real or imagined.
A few months later, in March 1989, this conference paper was published in Kluft and Braun’s journal, Dissociation. It quickly became a citation success in the SRA literature as evidence in favor of the historical continuity of Satanic cults and their rituals.
The message to the public and the mental health professions was clear: elite members of the American psychiatric profession seemed to be sanctioning the SRA moral panic. Satanic cults were probably real, had probably been around for almost two millennia, and were abusing children and creating the MPD epidemic. As for the other members of the DSM-III-R Advisory Committee and the leadership of the ISSMP&D, there was only one response: public silence.
Dr Noll says that the silence of the leadership within the psychiatric community could be viewed in three possible ways by those in the trenches:
- Satanic cults were real, despite the complete lack of corroborating physical or forensic evidence;
- The experts weren’t sure whether the cults were real, but didn’t want to risk offending their patients; or
- Those in leadership positions had abdicated their responsibility to lead the profession, and retreated into abject cowardice.
Throughout most of 1990 no American psychiatrist, and certainly no other member of the DSM-III-R Advisory Committee for the Dissociative Disorders, made any formal public or published statement explicitly rejecting Braun’s Satanic cult conspiracy. No one objected to Kluft’s “hidden holocaust” analogy. These were the true plague years as the moral panic continued to rage in day care centers and the courts, destroying reputations and lives.
Dr Noll describes his own experience at the seventh annual ISSMP&D conference, at which Dr Frank Putnam “decided to break his skeptical silence”, arranging a special plenary panel which would present “alternative” views of the interpretation of SRA claims.
The plenary session was held in a large hotel ballroom filled with most of the more than 700 conference attendees. Television crews were on hand to witness the event. So was Gloria Steinem. So was I.
The four members of the plenary session panel were Putnam, George Ganaway, anthropologist Sherrill Mulhern, and me. Putnam had read my Dissociation critique and wanted me to present my argument in person. Putnam and Ganaway presented carefully balanced arguments that did not directly reject the reality of SRA. Instead they expressed concerns about the linkage of MPD to such controversial claims, noting it would hurt future research on child abuse and trauma.
Mulhern and I were strident in our outright rejection of the veracity of SRA claims. She cited anthropological and sociological research while I hammered home the view of historians that ancient accounts of bizarre cult practices had to be read in context.
Along with my fellow panelists, I too mentioned the October 1989 preliminary report of an investigation by Supervisory Special Agent Ken Lanning from the FBI Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico which found no corroborating evidence of the existence of Satanic cults engaged in any criminal activity, let alone kidnapping and ritually sacrificing thousands of American babies. Lanning’s findings had emboldened Putnam to organize the special plenary session and go public with his private skepticism. The full FBI report appeared three years later.
Dr Noll describes the reaction to his presentation:
Several persons—all licensed mental health professionals—approached me and let me know I wasn’t fooling them. They knew I was a witch or a member of a Satanic cult who was there to spread disinformation.
Yes. Licensed mental health professionals, whose clientele relied upon them for psychiatric care, accused a fellow professional of being a witch or Satanic cult member—because he dared to contradict their firmly held belief in SRA.
Dr Noll writes that as people like Dr Putnam and Dr Ganaway distanced themselves from SRA, Dr Braun “and others who shared his beliefs continued to exploit the medical literature to bolster the construct validity of SRA”.
In the years that followed, the pages of Dissociation kept possession and exorcism alive as relevant psychiatric issues in diagnosis and treatment. Psychiatry could not abandon its jurisdictional claim on the supernatural.
When working groups were formed to create the DSM-IV, which was released in 1994, none of those who’d worked on the DSM-III-R were invited to participate.
Renamed and revised as dissociative identity disorder (DID), [MPD] also had been dethroned from first place in the sequence of dissociative disorders. “I don’t want it to be seen as some sort of circus sideshow,” said the chair of the new DSM-IV work group. DSM-IV reinstated the order of DSM-III. The new guards at the APA were doing their best to quarantine the profession from not only the men who had enabled the MPD epidemic but also from any lingering connection to the moral panic.
While Dr Noll notes that after about 1994, both MPD/DID and the Satanic panic had essentially died down, we think it’s safe to say that while the epidemic was quelled, the disease itself never really disappeared, but only went underground. As we’ve discussed on this blog, belief in SRA and DID has persisted among certain practitioners, who continue to pass it along to their naïve and unsuspecting patients without a second thought.
The belief remains essentially unchanged, despite decades of debunking, and the Hampstead SRA hoax is only one of its many manifestations. The question remains: what are we going to do about it?