Monday, June 30, 2014

Cultural Contexts, Developmental Capacities, and the Meta-Narratives of Ritual Abuse Survivors


I have not seen any good and comprehensive work on this topic, so I want the throw out some ideas and see what sticks. You can view this as me thinking out loud - I have no investment in being "right," I simply seek a framework within which to conceptualize cases.

Few clients we see as therapists are as challenging in their insistence on the meta-narratives of their abuse as survivors of ritual abuse. We can always work with them "as if" their stories are true and accurate, but we then run the risk of validating harmful and often pre-rational beliefs (especially with satanic abuse narratives).

In my work as a sexual trauma counselor, and as one who specializes in clients manifesting dissociative and "psychotic" symptoms, I see more claims of ritual abuse than most therapists I know. I have read Colin Ross's controversial book, Satanic Ritual Abuse: Principles of Treatment, which keeps an open mind to the possibility of organized ritual abuse. Ross recommends that, in treatment, the therapist adopt "an attitude hovering between disbelief and credulous entrapment" (from the publisher's blurb).

I'm not interested in proving or disproving the existence of vast networks of satanic ritual abuse - in part, because I see other meta-narratives in the clients with whom I work, not just the satanic ritual aspect. There is also the issue of the client experiencing a rejection of the details of their narrative as a rejection of their experience, as well. That can only be destructive and does not serve the client.

What I am interested in understanding is the etiology of the various meta-narratives and why some clients present one type over another.

Meta-Narratives of Ritual Abuse

In the time I have been doing this work, I have seen three basic meta-narratives to the ritual abuse "memories."
  • The first one is the one most people have heard of, satanic sexual abuse, and includes blood rituals, sacrifice of animals and infants, offerings of children as sexual objects to members of the "circle," and marriage of female children to satan or other demons.
  • The second one is a little less common, but shows up as having a Nazi or racist theme and structure, including child pornography, child prostitution, and child "breeding."
  • The third one involves a conspiracy by the United States government (MK-Ultra and its derivatives) to conduct secret mind control and manipulation experiments on American citizens (usually children), including induced dissociative identity disorder and the creation of super spies..  
Let's begin with the first and most common meta-narrative, satanic abuse.

The last eruption of this phenomenon into the larger society occurred in the 1980s and into the 1990s and focused on allegations of widespread satanic worship and ritual abuse of animals and children.

Many innocent people were charged with and convicted of crimes that had never happened. Many of the "recovered memories" the children presented were implanted into very suggestible minds by therapists who were ignorant of iatrogenic symptoms or had an emotional investment in "saving" these children from the hordes of satan.

According to Wikipedia's entry on Satanic Ritual Abuse, "Astrophysicist and astrobiologist Carl Sagan devoted an entire chapter of his last book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996) to a critique of claims of recovered memories of UFO abductions and satanic ritual abuse and cited material from the newsletter of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation with approval.[62]"

The iatrogenic nature of the recovered memories used in court did more disservice to the subject of trauma memories than any other single event in the history of psychology. Survivors who, as children, naturally dissociated highly traumatic memories of abuse are now not believed when those memories return due to some form of trigger.

These recovered memories become problematic for the therapist, however, when they include satanic ritual abuse. [Please note, I have no doubt that ritual abuse exists, but the contexts in which it exists are open to discussion.] When these memories are recalled, some clients want to report to police, adding another layer of complexity to this issue.

Researchers have traditionally identified four forms of satanic ritual abuse:
  1. Cult-based ritualism in which the abuse had a spiritual or social goal for the perpetrators
  2. Pseudo-ritualism in which the goal was sexual gratification and the rituals were used to frighten or intimidate victims
  3. Psychopathological ritualism in which the rituals were due to mental disorders
  4. Crimes with ambiguous meaning (such as graffiti or vandalism) generally committed by teenagers but attributed to Satanic cults
The only ones of these I have any experience with (in my opinion) are numbers 2 and 4. Of these, number 2, "pseudo-ritualism," seems likely to be one of the more coherent explanations.

Satanic abuse is easily the oldest of the three major themes, with government and technology only becoming a theme following the Enlightenment (see A Visionary Madness for the history of the first "influencing machine" and its association with mental illness - likely PTSD with psychotic features). I would assume that racial meta-narrative is also quite old, but in the US it may not have been as prominent until the post-Reconstruction Era when the Ku Klux Klan emerged, and more likely until the Nazi holocaust against the Jews.

Embodiment of Evil

What all three of these meta-narratives have in common is the embodiment of "evil." Whether it's satan, Hitler, or the secret branches of government, each of these presents powerful evil as an explanatory factor for the sexual and physical abuse of children.

The Christian mythology of satan (the devil) is the easiest one to grasp because our society is based on Christian religious values. We might trace the fear of satanic cults back to the witch hunts in Europe during the Inquisition (witch trials began in the late 1400s).

[As an aside, there is also a tradition of Jewish cults centered around Kabbalah rituals that engage in child sexual abuse and sacrifice.]  

Despite the history, there has never been any real proof of witches or of organized satanic abuse (according to the FBI). This is from Wikipedia:
Kenneth Lanning, an FBI expert in the investigation of child sexual abuse,[150] has stated that pseudo-satanism may exist but there is "little or no evidence for ... large-scale baby breeding, human sacrifice, and organized satanic conspiracies".[46]
There are many possible alternative answers to the question of why victims are alleging things that don't seem to be true....I believe that there is a middle ground — a continuum of possible activity. Some of what the victims allege may be true and accurate, some may be misperceived or distorted, some may be screened or symbolic, and some may be "contaminated" or false. The problem and challenge, especially for law enforcement, is to determine which is which. This can only be done through active investigation. I believe that the majority of victims alleging "ritual" abuse are in fact victims of some form of abuse or trauma.[46]
Lanning produced a monograph in 1994 on SRA aimed at child protection authorities, which contained his opinion that despite hundreds of investigations no corroboration of SRA had been found. Following this report, several convictions based on SRA allegations were overturned and the defendants released.[54]
I suspect that even prior to the Christian era one tribe would fear another tribe and accuse them of molesting children (among other taboo violations). One of the dominant taboos in most, if not all, agricultural and post-agricultural societies is the one against adults having sex with children (incest and/or pedophilia). Granted, this taboo has never prevented such molestation.

With the rise of KKK influence in the 1920s, and then the Nazi racist agenda and the 1930s and 1940s, there was a "new" (racism and ethnocentrism are not new) embodiment of evil, a violent, racist, hate-based model of evil. An important aspect of this meta-narrative is racial purity, which plays out in some "recovered memories" of children being bred to produce more Aryans.

The history of technology/government conspiracy in mental illness goes back to shortly after the Enlightenment, as mentioned above (A Visionary Madness).

Following World War II, the Cold War and the rapid increase in psychopharmacology opened new doors of research and led to new efforts at bioengineering human beings. Beginning with Project Bluebird and Project Artichoke, MKUltra became the primary "special ops" program of the military and CIA.

Via Wikipedia:
Project MKUltra — sometimes referred to as the CIA's mind control program — is the code name of a U.S. government human research operation experimenting in the behavioral engineering of humans. Organized through the Scientific Intelligence Division of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the project coordinated with the Special Operations Division of the U.S. Army's Chemical Corps.[1] The program began in the early 1950s, was officially sanctioned in 1953, was reduced in scope in 1964, further curtailed in 1967 and officially halted in 1973.[2] The program engaged in many illegal activities;[3][4][5] in particular it used unwitting U.S. and Canadian citizens as its test subjects, which led to controversy regarding its legitimacy.[3](p74)[6][7][8] MKUltra used numerous methodologies to manipulate people's mental states and alter brain functions, including the surreptitious administration of drugs (especially LSD) and other chemicals, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse, as well as various forms of torture.[9]
One challenge with this meta-narrative is that the government actually DID many of the things with which they have been charged and has either admitted to it or paid off accusers to keep them quiet. Moreover, their actions were supported by more than 80 institutions, including 44 colleges and universities, as well as hospitals, prisons and pharmaceutical companies.{Horrock, Nicholas M. (4 Aug 1977). 80 Institutions Used in C.I.A. Mind Studies: Admiral Turner Tells Senators of Behavior Control Research Bars Drug Testing Now. New York Times.}

Another issue is that the U.S. government was instrumental in the trials of Nazi doctors for their experimentation on human subjects, but then that same government experimented on its own citizens. Citizens in the U.S. have learned not to trust the government, and those prone to conspiracy thinking believe the government is still conducting experiments on human subjects, with theories ranging from "chemtrails" to HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) to water flouridation.

In those who subscribe to any of these meta-narratives, the identified groups, whether satanists, white supremacists, or the government, are all embodiments of evil.

Developmental Stages and Conceptions of Evil

Using the framework developed by Clare Graves and expanded by Beck and Cowan (1996), we might attribute each of the three meta-narratives to a specific worldview developmental stage.

The four stages of use are the magical/animistic (BO), the impulsive/egocentric (CP), the power/authoritarian (DQ), and the rational/strategic (ER).

[The first letter stands for the life conditions of a given stage, while the second letter stands for the biopsychosocial capacities developed to cope with those life conditions. When two stages are presented together, one is usually lower-case and one is upper-case. The stage that is dominant gets the upper-case listing. The combining of two stages indicates a transitional space between stages, and since stages are not concrete, there can be three stages listed. As an example, if you see BO/cp, the subject is transitioning from BO into cp, but more of the life conditions and/or coping skills remain in BO than have emerged as cp.]

Satanic ritual abuse

The superstition and magical beliefs of satanic abuse place its worldview in the magical/animistic stage, but there is some element of personal gain (egocentric drives) involved. In the Spiral Dynamics (SD) nomenclature, this would be defined as BO/cp - representing an early transitional period between magical and egocentric.

Nazi and Aryan themes

In addition to the egocentric and power-drive elements of the impulsive/egocentric stage, there is also a strong ethnocentric character to this stage. Within that ethnocentric drive is the belief that we (whoever is defined as "we") are God's people and anyone who is not like us is inferior and to be controlled, used, or slaughtered. In the SD nomenclature, this would be defined as CP/dq due to the underlying belief that race is a divinely given characteristic that defines one's value and role.

Technological and governmental conspiracies

Part of the worldview beneath this meta-narrative of sexual abuse is the belief in an all-powerful government that seeks control of its citizens through authoritarian power and technological manipulation. Again, this is a worldview that straddles two stages, the power/authoritarian (DQ) and the rational/strategic (ER), but the technology aspect is more prevalent, so the SD nomenclature would be dq/ER.

How this is useful

Being able to identify the subject's worldview allows us to better understand their ego development as well as, potentially, their cognitive, moral, and social development. Here is a graphic that makes correlations (not absolute in any way):

One of the things we notice here is that the magical stage correlates with symbolic thinking (preoperational) [Piaget] and with impulsive ego structures [Loevinger]. The egocentric stage correlates with conceptual cognitive skills (preoperational) and self-protective ego development. The power/authoritarian stage correlates with concrete operational cognitive skills and a conformist ego structure. Finally, the rational/strategic stage correlates with formal operational thinking, allowing for more complexity to their meta-narratives, and a self aware/conscientious ego stage, which is defined as demonstrating "an increase in self-awareness and the capacity to imagine multiple possibilities in situations" [Witherell, S., & Erickson, V.,(2001). "Teacher Education as Adult Development," Theory into Practice, 17(3), p.231].

While I hesitate to ever equate ontology with phylogeny, Jean Piaget favored a weaker version of the recapitulation theory, according to which ontogeny parallels phylogeny because the two are subject to similar external constraints, but they are not equivalent. Developmental psychology has been shown to fit within this framework - a child's cognitive development runs parallel to the cognitive development of the species through evolution [1].

Using this framework, it may be possible to use the meta-narrative of the abuse to help determine the age at which it was experienced. For example, early childhood abuse (prior to age 5) might be more likely to have a satanic theme because the child at this age still engages in magical and symbolic thinking and lacks the logic to "see through" efforts by the perpetrators to impose silence with demonic imagery and contexts.

Likewise, a child of 5-9 might be more likely to have a meta-narrative of Nazism or racism. These ages are defined by children forming peer-group cliques, often around interests or traits (segregation by race on many playgrounds).

A meta-narrative of MKUltra as the source of abuse is not likely to come from early childhood abuse - the ideas are too complicated and rational.


All of this is just me thinking out loud and trying to create a framework by which to better understand the narratives I hear from clients. It's always about understanding where the client is coming from and if this does not serve that purpose, then it is useless. That said, case conceptualization with survivors of ritual abuse is challenging at best, so any kind of framework that can help us make sense of their narratives is important.

I know there are many people who will reject the use of the Spiral Dynamics and integral frameworks in this conceptualization. So be it. I find the framework useful for this discussion. We need some kind of developmental system to help us make sense of clients' cognitive skills (Piaget, Commons), ego development (Loevinger, Cook-Greuter, Kegan), and values/worldviews (Graves/Beck and Cowan), among other lines of development. No other models are as inclusive as SD and integral theory.

I am very open to being wrong - so I welcome comments and criticisms.


1. Foster, Mary LeCron (1994). "Symbolism: the foundation of culture". In Tim Ingold. Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology. pp. p.387. Quotation:
While ontogeny does not generally recapitulate phylogeny in any direct sense (Gould 1977), both biological evolution and the stages in the child’s cognitive development follow much the same progression of evolutionary stages as that suggested in the archaeological record (Borchert and Zihlman 1990, Bates 1979, Wynn 1979) ... Thus, one child, having been shown the moon, applied the word ‘moon’ to a variety of objects with similar shapes as well as to the moon itself (Bowerman 1980). This spatial globality of reference is consistent with the archaeological appearance of graphic abstraction before graphic realism.

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