Satanists Infiltrate a Ritual Abuse Conference in Oakland: Your Guide to What Happened and Why

A month before the Oakland action, the Grey Faction held a protest in San Francisco at a conference of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD).

In April, a group of Satanists infiltrated a conference for people who believe they’re the victims of a Satanic conspiracy.

RD contributor Joseph Laycock has answers to all of your burning questions.

Wait, enough people believe that they’re victims of a Satanic conspiracy to fill an entire conference?

Yes. In May, the Ritual Abuse and Child Abuse 2016 Conference was held in Oakland. The theme was overcoming mind control and subliminal programming.

Who goes to an event like this?

Some people believe they have suffered abuse they cannot remember, have alternate personalities of which they are unaware, or have even committed crimes they cannot recall, all because of sadistic rituals inflicted on them as a form of mind control. Who do they think is responsible for this psychological abuse? The usual suspects include unnamed “cults,” the CIA, and an alleged conspiracy of organized criminal Satanists.

These techniques of mind control are believed to be so insidious that conference attendees were apparently forbidden from touching their faces, for fear that any subtle hand gesture could be a cue that triggers a victim’s subliminal programming.

And then actual Satanists showed up?

They did. Amidst all this paranoia, Satanists actually had infiltrated the conference, and they recently went public with the reason why. In a twist worthy of a bad M. Night Shyamalan film, the Satanists claim that they are the ones exposing a dangerous cabal and that it is the conference organizers who are abusing their patients.

Who are these Satanists?

The Grey Faction of The Satanic Temple (TST). TST are atheists, and they do not believe in the supernatural. But they insist that they are an actual religion because they are a community with a shared body of symbols, rituals, and ethics. The group’s first tenet is to “act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.”

The Grey Faction is a division of TST that seeks to raise awareness about medical professionals who continue to promote conspiracy theories about Satanism. The Grey Faction protested a similar conference in April.

So they don’t draw pentagrams and slaughter chickens?

Like the French Situationists of the 1960s, TST believes that shock value can be a useful tool for reframing the political conversation. In April, for example, the Detroit chapter countered a Christian protest of an abortion clinic by dressing as sado-masochistic babies and accusing the protestors of “fetal idolatry.” While many find their antics offensive, their group has never performed sacrifices or physically harmed anyone.

Do Satanists really brainwash people?

No. Nobody brainwashes people, actually, because brainwashing isn’t real.

It’s not?

Psychological manipulation is real, and takes many forms, but “brainwashing” is a made up concept that originated in American propaganda during the Korean War. In 1950, Edward Hunter, a journalist with ties to the CIA, ran a story with the headline, “Brain-Washing Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party” in the Miami News. That article introduced “brainwashing” to the American vocabulary.

During the Cold War “brainwashing” became a way to acknowledge the loyalty of communist soldiers while simultaneously discrediting it as a kind of false consciousness. It also helped to explain American POWs who appeared to cooperate with their communist captors.

How did the concept jump from Communist soldiers to Americans?

Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate and its 1962 film adaption introduced the idea that ordinary people could be brainwashed assassins and not even know it. Even the CIA believed in the possibility of mind control during this era, leading to the nefarious MKULTRA experiments. In turn, revelations about this program provided even more fodder for conspiracy theorists.

In the 1970s, brainwashing became less associated with evil governments and more associated with evil religions. During the “cult wars” of the 1970s an anti-cult movement alleged that minority religions use brainwashing to gain converts. An industry of “deprogrammers” emerged, promising to “rescue” people from religions they only thought they had chosen to join.

In the 1980s, this cultural fear of cults mutated into a fear of Satanic conspiracies. Brainwashing melded with the language of therapy and recovery, resulting in a panic over “Satanic Ritual Abuse” (SRA). SRA was inspired by the 1980 bestseller Michelle Remembers, an account of “repressed memories” that Michelle Smith recovered through hours of hypnosis therapy with her psychiatrist (and eventual husband) Lawrence Padzer. Smith “remembered” that her mother had been a Satanist who had tortured her for months in bizarre Satanic rituals intended to convert her to Satanism.

Michelle Remembers was immediately discredited, but fear of SRA continued. By the late 1980s a small group of therapists claimed that highly organized Satanic cults were conspiring to abuse countless children each year. The purpose of these rituals, they claimed, was to traumatize the victim so badly that victims would be unable to remember the abuse ever occurred. Furthermore, they claimed that this abuse fragments the victim’s mind, creating multiple personalities or “alters.” Like Major Ben Marco in The Manchurian Candidate, these repressed personalities can be activated at any time to do the bidding of the cult. An unaware SRA victim could supposedly have their body taken over to torture and program their own children. Talks show hosts Geraldo and Oprah interviewed alleged survivors of SRA and did much to disseminate this mythology to the public.

Oprah was wrong?!

It was a manufactured panic. In the 1990s SRA was debunked by some prominent experts: FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, retired police officer Robert Hicks, and journalist Debbie Nathan, to name a few. Cognitive scientists such as Elizabeth Loftus have largely discredited the idea of repressed memories.

In 1995 even Geraldo recanted his support for SRA, announcing, “I am convinced that I was terribly wrong . . . and many innocent people were convicted and went to prison as a result . . . And I am equally positive [that the] repressed memory therapy movement is also a bunch of crap.” Despite all this, these ideas are still advanced on the fringes of the mental health community.

Are these conspiracy theories dangerous?

Yes. In many cases, patients being treated for SRA have survived actual abuse, or suffer from other mental health issues. These conspiracy theories divert attention from actual abusers and cognitive disorders. At worst, the paranoid worldview promoted by these theories can escalate into dangerous situations.

Take, for example, Mary S. and Pat Burgess, two women who initially sought treatment for depression from psychiatrist Bennett Braun and therapist Roberta G. Sachs. Shortly before treating the pair, Braun and Sachs had attended a workshop on SRA by Dr. Corydon Hammond, a self-described expert in brainwashing and cult phenomena. (Dr. Hammond has also spoken about Nazi scientists, cabala, “psychic assassins,” and other conspiracy threads). Braun and Sachs convinced their patients that they had multiple-personality disorder (MPD) caused by SRA.

Mary was told that she was “cult royalty” and that her family had practiced cult abuse for generations. She allegedly possessed dozens of “alters” who had engaged in murder, cannibalism, and other activities without her knowledge. Mary was institutionalized for two years on the grounds that her violent programming could be triggered at any moment, endangering her family. Her husband divorced her, her son became frightened of her, and her symptoms did not end until her therapy finally ceased.

Most recently, the Grey Faction has brought attention to the case of Gigi Jordan, who killed her autistic child believing this was the only way to stop Satanists from abusing him. Jordan had been treated by Ellen Lacter, a psychologist who has advanced conspiracy theories about witches and Satanists. The Grey Faction has filed a complaint about Dr. Lacter’s advocacy for conspiracy theories with the California Board of Psychology.

All right, SRA conspiracies are dangerous. But is the Grey Faction justified in infiltrating conferences and targeting specific individuals?

TST spokesperson Doug Mesner frames this work as investigative journalism, while organizers of these conferences see it as a violation of the safe environment they are trying to create for the victims of abuse. Critics have called The Grey Faction “witch hunters.”

The fight over the reality of SRA and repressed memories is old, but the Grey Faction’s tactics are definitely new. Many academics and medical professionals agree that anti-Satanist conspiracy theorists are dangerous, but few would go so far as to single out individuals or file complaints with medical boards. Instead of debunking conspiracy theories, the Grey Faction is directly challenging the legitimacy of the people promoting these ideas.

In many ways, the fight between the Grey Faction and the remaining SRA advocates is a continuation of the “cult wars” that began in the 1970s when prejudice against minority religions were framed in medical terms. Fights over the reality of brainwashing and evil conspiracies never died, they just moved to the periphery. Time will tell whether the Grey Faction’s aggressive tactics will discredit SRA once and for all or drive this culture of conspiracy even deeper underground.