When Marj Snyder tells the story of her life, she returns again and again to the same horrifying tableau -- a satanic cult run by her father that victimized her hundreds of times, inflicting sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
With its details of devil worship, sexual orgies, torture and even human sacrifice, her story of "ritual" abuse -- which she only gained conscious memory of as an adult in therapy -- is similar to other tales that have surfaced in recent years around the country.
In their wake, however, a chorus of doubt has arisen: Are these memories accurate? How could such widespread abuse have existed without attracting police attention or leaving physical evidence? And is it possible that therapists are influencing the content of their patients' revelations?
Ms. Snyder -- who now lives in Pennsylvania but grew up in northern Baltimore County -- tells of being raped and sexually abused in other ways from the time she was an infant; becoming pregnant as a teen-ager and giving birth to three babies she says were sacrificed in satanic rituals; developing a fragmented personality that shattered over the years into dozens of different parts to deal with or block out the horrors.
"The damage started so early that the real Marj is just a core," said Ms. Snyder, 37, who has been in and out of psychiatric wards for the past 15 years. Over the years she has held a number of jobs related to horticulture, but currently supports herself with Social Security disability payments.
Now in twice-weekly therapy with a psychologist she has been seeing for eight years, Ms. Snyder tries to convey what she endured: "Think of the most horrible thing a person can do and then magnify that many, many times."
Ms. Snyder was one of about 50 people who attended a recent conference on ritual abuse. The program, which was sponsored by the Baltimore Sexual Assault Recovery Center, attracted psychologists, social workers, educators, abuse survivors and others, some from as far away as Texas.
Similar conferences have been held around the country in the past year or two, as more and more people are going public with stories about ritual abuse.
Often these stories -- which have been featured on "Geraldo" and other TV shows -- are uncovered only after years of therapy, which allows the patient to peel back layers of repression covering the memories of abuse.
And often the stories are met with disbelief.
Among law enforcers, mental health professionals and the public in general, two camps have formed: those who accept the stories of ritual abuse, believing that the horror behind them is adequate explanation for years of repression; and those who compare ritual abuse tales to stories of UFO sightings, voicing skepticism that such horrible activities could have occurred without leaving behind verifiable clues.
Ritual abuse is considered the extreme end of a continuum of satanic and cult activity, which ranges from dabbling in occult literature and gleaning satanic messages from hard rock lyrics, to conducting ceremonies that involve no abuse, to carrying out the kinds of incidents described by Ms. Snyder.
"Sexual assault centers in the area all report seeing victims of ritual abuse, usually adults who were abused in childhood and are now seeking treatment," said Cecilia L. Carroll, executive director of SARC. "The numbers are small, but they are increasing."
Bonnie Ariano, director of the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center in Towson, confirmed that a small percentage of her agency's clients report ritual abuse. "My guess is that it's not increasing, but it's certainly being talked about more."
But others who have looked for evidence of ritual abuse doubt that it even exists.
"We now have 400 or 500 of these stories being told and we're unable to find the least bit of corroborating evidence," said J. Gordon Melton, a Methodist minister who directs the Institute for the Study of AmericanReligion at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
"If you put the stories together you would have had hundreds of covens around the country that existed without anyone knowing about them, without the rumor mill picking it up," Dr. Melton said. "Nobody ever talked about these things until about 1980, then we started hearing stories. How do we explain this?"
The recent surfacing of such charges, some say, may mean only that ritual abuse stories have achieved the status of urban legend. "The child abuse community is particularly susceptible to such a rumor process," said Dr. Frank W. Putnam, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health.
One of the leading debunkers of ritual abuse stories, FBI Academy instructor Kenneth V. Lanning, warns law enforcers about believing such charges without critical investigation.