The Corner

Culture

Oprah, Subjective Truth and Salem 2.0

Over on the homepage Philip Devoe rightly laments Oprah Winfrey’s fondness for pseudoscience and New Age ‘thinking’. It would only be fair to also mention the role she played in the 1980s Satanic ritual abuse panic. Writing in the Houston Press in 2015, Chris Lane recalls the contribution made to this disgrace by the book Michelle Remembers (my emphasis added):

Michelle Remembers describes the therapy sessions that a Canadian psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder conducted on a patient. The book is the first written on Satanic ritual abuse, which his patient, Michelle, “remembered” through lengthy hypnosis sessions. It’s one of the first books popularizing the idea of repressed memories of victims of Satanic abuses, and largely influenced the ensuing panic. Michelle Remembers was hugely profitable for both Pazder, who co-authored the book, and Michelle Smith, but the stories of abuse seem to have been largely or entirely false, with many contradictions and factual errors cropping up. Michelle’s recovered memories were horrific, involving rituals she was forced to take part in at the age of five. According to Michelle, these included being locked in a cage, being sexually abused and tortured, and being covered in the blood and body parts of victims who were murdered as part of the rituals conducted by a satanic cult.

The book sold well, and was heavily promoted by the media, including talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey, and propelled the idea of widespread Satanic ritual abuse into the mainstream. Michelle Remembers also created a template that many other subsequent cases would use, and was instrumental in shaping how law enforcement agencies responded to allegations of occult crimes. The book’s influence was huge, and it seemed to withstand criticism of its accuracy until it was thoroughly debunked many years later, sadly after much damage was already done.

Indeed it was.

Writing in the Weekly Standard last year, Philip Terzian turned his attention to one of the most notorious cases of that era, the McMartin preschool trial (again, my emphasis added):

The police were quickly persuaded that ritual satanic sexual abuse—a popular preoccupation of the era—was a regular feature of life at the McMartin preschool, and social workers prompted and (in many cases) badgered their 3- and 4-year-old witnesses to affirm and repeat increasingly fantastic accounts. This was the pre-social-media era, to be sure; but the national press and assorted TV personalities—including future Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, and newsman Geraldo Rivera, among many others—seized on the story with particular relish, and a nationwide hunt began. In the subsequent decade, the McMartin case was followed by many more spectacles—featuring comparably outlandish, and curiously identical, tales—involving dozens of nursery schools across America and hundreds of day-care employees, mass arrests, prosecutions, and deliberately long prison sentences.

A quick glance at some old YouTube footage of Winfrey on that topic (some of it, appallingly, seemingly still being used by conspiracy theorists) will show that her interest in ‘your truth’ rather than the truth is nothing new.

It’s worth remembering how that worked out for those imprisoned on what would, in saner times, have been literally incredible grounds.  

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