Hysterical 'memory' creates evil reality

April 21, 1994|By David Mehegan | David Mehegan,Boston Globe

"Remembering Satan," most of which appeared in the New Yorker, may prove to be one of those real landmarks in journalism. The story itself is almost unutterably weird and would be fascinating no matter how it was told. But in the JTC thoroughness of his reporting, and in his thoughtful treatment of the many issues the story touches, Lawrence Wright has painted a perfect miniature of our time.

In 1988, in Olympia, Wash., sisters Erica and Julie Ingram accused their father, a local deputy sheriff, of sexually molesting them when they were children. When Paul Ingram was confronted with the accusations, his reaction was bizarre. He admitted the abuses, but said he could not actually remember them.

During interrogations he strained to imagine the events, to recover the memories of what he seemed to feel must have happened. Over the next several months, the local detectives, roused to a fury over the accusations, pressured Ingram and his daughters for details.

Their memories were fragmentary and maddeningly contradictory, but eventually Ingram began to "recover" lurid memories of sexual abuse. He implicated two other police officers in a sex-abuse ring. Ingram and the two other officers were charged with sexual abuse. One of the officers behaved like Ingram, admitting to abuses, but unable to give a coherent account of them.

The case grew and grew. The sisters began to tell tales of a satanic sex-abuse cult that included infant sacrifice and witchcraft.

When their mother was told of the charges, she was shocked, but when the girls and their father implicated her, she, too, began to have "memories" of abuse.

The Olympia sheriff's department was convinced that the allegations were true, though there was no evidence and the girls' and their father's "memories" were rife with contradictions and preposterous details. The detectives obsessively interrogated the accusers and accused, pressuring them for information with which to build a court case. The more they did so, the crazier the stories became and the more determined the police became to expose the satanic cult.

"Remembering Satan" is an edge-of-your-seat tale that builds right up to the climactic trial. As he tells the story, Mr. Wright skillfully discusses the current phenomenon of so-called recovered memory, in which experiences of sexual abuse -- often at the hands of parents -- are recalled by adults. He also explains Sigmund Freud's abandonment of his early seduction theory -- the idea that hysterical patients' repressed/recovered memories of sexual abuse were based on actual experiences -- and the theory's reappearance in today's pop-psych recovery movement.

Mr. Wright discusses the recent hysteria about alleged SRA (satanic ritual abuse) in parts of this country, comparing it to the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692, and suggests that it may be related to the collapse of communism as a feared and hidden evil-in-our-midst. In one short section, he describes the 1992 appearance of the Ingrams on Sally Jessy Raphael's TV show, a hair-raising scene straight out of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."

Lawrence Wright integrates all these complex elements superbly into his short book, while never straying too far from the onrushing narrative of Paul Ingram and his pathetic family. He draws characters like a fine fiction writer. The subsidiary digressions never slow the central tale of morally and intellectually weak people who do not seem bad in themselves (with the possible exception of Erica Ingram), but who stray into something that is not only evil, but insane. We see how thin a veneer our modern, enlightened, skeptical outlook apparently is.

One dimension that Mr. Wright does not analyze overtly, but which the reader cannot miss, is the appalling abuse of police power. These doltish cops, assisted by quack psychologists and counselors, refuse to consider that the accused might be innocent. The total lack of corroborating evidence, even the easily disprovable details of the accusations, do not dampen their conviction. The result is tragic. Every detective and prosecutor should read this book as a lesson in the hazards of zeal.

A story like this reminds you how horrors like the Holocaust could happen. The recipe calls for a few malevolent people and a plentiful supply of moral and emotional Gumbies -- people with no capacity for, and no interest in, distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from lies. They don't ever seem to ask themselves, "Did this really happen or am I imagining it?" For them, imagining is the same as remembering. What can happen when that distinction is lost has fearful implications for simple justice and civil society.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Remembering Satan: A Case of Recovered Memory and the Shattering of an American Family"

Author: Lawrence Wright

Publisher: Knopf

-! Length, price: 205 pages, $22

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