Believe the Children: Re-Reading the Satanic Panic Through Michelle Remembers

Brown, Charles, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Von Eschen, Penny, History, University of Virginia

In 1991 in Austin, Texas, Dan and Frances Keller, who ran a daycare center, stood trial for multiple counts of child abuse. They were each sentenced to forty-eight years in prison. The accusations levied against them? Satanic ritual abuse. This paper explores the making of the Satanic Panic in the United States, a decade-long obsession with the fantasy that Satanic cults had infiltrated all aspects of American society, especially America’s daycares, and were ritually abusing young children. The spark that lit the flame of the Satanic Panic was an "autobiography" published in 1980, written by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist, Dr Lawrence Pazder, detailing her experience in therapy "uncovering" her memories of being ritually abused by a Satanic cult as a child. This paper employs a method of close reading the autobiography, titled Michelle Remembers, as well as Michelle and Pazder’s media appearances promoting the book, in arguing that the Satanic Panic was a critical juncture in the long 1980s of a pernicious re-formulation of patriarchal power, couched in the language of “protecting the innocent child.” Critical to why and how this re-articulation manifested itself partly in the Satanic Panic is an understanding of the woman at the center of it all—Michelle Smith, and the various layers of meaning that were ascribed to Michelle. This paper further argues that what happened to Michelle Smith at the hands of Dr Lawrence Pazder and American media culture was fundamentally at the core of why and how accusations of Satanic ritual abuse came to be taken seriously in a court of law.

MA (Master of Arts)
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