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Katha’s Silence

by Alexander Cockburn

The last time I saw Katha Pollitt was on a Nation cruise in the Caribbean just under a year ago. By the second day Katha was making it clear that all was not well between us. Soon it came out that by quoting some of her off-the-cuff remarks in the New York Press I’d transgressed propriety and decorum. An apology was due, Katha told me testily, before normal social intercourse could resume. I hauled out appropriate expressions of contrition and Katha resumed the wary palaver that has always been the currency of our relationship.

So, Katha, here’s the sequel. This time you owe an apology, and it’s not a matter of some few mumbled words of contrition. You’ve got some serious explaining to do, and among the audience measuring your words are people who are doing hard prison time because influential feminists such as yourself kept your mouths shut when you could have made a difference, possibly even a vital one.

Let me take you back to l990. At that time the poisonous hysteria about Satanic ritual abuse was still at full tilt. Even though, on January l8 of that year, after the longest trial in US legal history, a jury in Los Angeles acquitted Ray Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey on 52 counts of molestation, plenty of people had already had their lives destroyed on demented charges of having forced children into having had oral sex with a goat (Wilkes-Barre, Pa); eating a boiled baby (Chicago); committing “repulsively bizarre acts” such as assaulting children with tampons and playing the piano naked (Maplewood, N.J.).

The first time I wrote about these persecutions was early in l990, in The Nation and also in the Wall Street Journal, and I returned to the topic from time to time, particularly in l993, when Bill Clinton nominated Janet Reno to be his attorney general. In The Nation I wrote about two cases where Reno had put young people, Bobby Fijne and Ileana Fuster, through terrible torments in an effort to win convictions on satanic abuse charges. I should say that as a journalist I was by no means a pioneer in trying to draw attention to this Salem-like eruption in our society. That credit would go most particularly to Debbie Nathan, who by l986 was already covering a satanic abuse case in El Paso, where she was living at the time, and about to write for the Village Voice about the Kelley Michaels case in New Jersey. But I do remember very well in the early l990s how you, Katha, went about The Nation deprecating my articles, suggesting that I was being cavalier and anti-feminist in my posture. You also made dismissive remarks about Debbie Nathan.

Katha, these were the years when a column by you in The Nation could have been enormously influential. Why? You know the answer perfectly well, though even today you cannot really bring yourself to admit it. In the coalition powering the satanic abuse persecutions feminists constituted a powerful component, most conspicuously in the form of Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine. How did feminism, a movement that grew out of the radical passions of the l960s, navigate itself into this demonic alliance? Charges of perverse abuse of children seemed an inviting line of attack in the larger onslaught on patriarchy, sexual violence and harassment. Social workers and therapists–many of them feminists — became the investigators and effective prosecutors.

Since you had belittled her work, Katha, perhaps you didn’t bother, back in l995, to read Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker’s definitive book Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. You would have found some very acute analysis of feminism’s crucial involvement in the hysteria, plus some well merited condemnation. “It is difficult to explain to justifiably indignant and frightened people that feminist theory and practice are not monolithic, and that many women’s advocates abhor that part of the movement that demonizes masculinity, forges alliances with the anti-feminist right, and communicates such profound fear and loathing of sexuality that — as the ritual abuse cases demonstrate — it is even willing to cast women as demons… It is …obvious that the antipornographers and victimologists are feminism’s main contributors to the ritual-abuse panic. Catharine MacKinnon, for instance, has publicly proclaimed her belief in the existence of widespread ritual sex abuse. So have Gloria Steinem and countless psychotherapists, social workers, doctors, lawyers, and writers who call themselves feminists. Indeed, during the past decade, belief in ritual abuse has become so ensconced in this wing of feminism that the arrest, trial by ordeal, and lifelong incarceration of accused women have occasioned hardly a blink from its proponents. They have remained silent as convicted mothers and teachers are sent to prison.”

Katha, even if you managed to avoid reading those words, back then, do you remember Bruce Heitman’s letter? He sent it to you on April 2,l996. Bruce was a researcher at the Justice Committee in San Diego, founded by Carol Hopkins, and campaigning for the wretched people whose lives had been destroyed by the hysteria over satanic ritual abuse and its later transmutation into recovered memory syndrome. It was a good letter. Bruce had sweated over it for a week or so, and after he’d posted it to you at The Nation he sent copies to me and a few other people. He told you truthfully he was a fan of your work and then drew your attention to “one of the strangest alliances in modern political history: the l980s confluence of victimology feminists and Christian fundamentalists, who promoted the national hysteria about Satanic conspiracies that resulted in the infamous ritual abuse prosecutions.”

Bruce reminded you that some prominent feminists had spoken out against the cult of victimology that had helped give rise to the witch hunt. “Carol Tavris in a controversial New York Times Book Review article decried the ‘incest-survivor machine.’ Wendy Kaminer’s I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctiuonal lamented “the growth of the memory-retrieval industry during a period of hysteria about child abuse, ritual abuse, Satanism and pornography…. But … women like Tavris, Kaminer and Nathan have been vilified as part of the ‘backlash’ against the women’s movement.”

Then Bruce, near the end of his six-page letter, made his appeal to you: “Fairly or unfairly, feminists are already being blamed for the ritual abuse panic even though police, prosecutors, and judges actually exercised the power…” Such discrediting of feminism could be avoided, Bruce wrote, “if prominent feminist writers, like yourself, were to speak out forcefully and persistently against the injustices of the ritual abuse persecutions…. You could be very helpful in getting the message through to the left and to other Americans of conscience that the wounds inflicted on our society by these misguided social engineers have festered long enough… I look forward to hearing from you.”

Would it have made a difference in l996 if you had taken up Bruce’s invitation? Some, but not a lot.The insurance companies had already done more than liberals like you simply by cutting back on pay-outs for therapists to concoct their fantasies. The crucial time was back at the end of the l980s, when Debbie Nathan was trying to explain to the Nation’s editor, Victor Navasky, the need to combat the witch hunt, and getting a brush off. If people like you and Navasky had taken up the issue, if Debbie had been able to find a book publisher back then , Satan’s Silence would have come out in the early instead of the middle l990s and the tide perhaps turned much earlier. As it was, the woman who was able to sieze the issue and make the running was Dorothy Rabinowitz, a right-winger.

And now, Katha, in early October, l999, you’ve finally caught up with the issue in your Nation column, “‘Finality’ or Justice”, about the Amirault case in Boston, where Violet and her two children, Cheryl and Gerald, drew twenty and thirty year sentences back in l984 on the usual mad accusations. It’s a well-known case and your rendition of it was fairly humdrum. I made my way through with a slight sense of surprise, thinking, “Why now?” Then, right near the end, came these distinctly furtive sentences: “… it would still be embarassing for those involved in the prosecution to admit that a terrible injustice was committed. The forces arrayed against the Amiraults are ‘good guys,’ after all — liberal Democrats, child welfare and victims’ rights advocates, feminists. Across the justice system, ‘finality’ is the watchword now. A lot of people may think, ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’: the Amiraults may not have sodomized toddlers with knives, but something happened. I used to think that myself about the day care cases, but now it’s clear they’re really about smoke and mirrors, and the entrapment of innocent people…”

Katha, do you really think it’s enough just to tuck in the word “feminists” at the end of a sentence, then scurry on without further ado? And why is it, for you, only “now” in late l999, clear that it’s all “smoke and mirrors”, which is a pretty sedate way of describing an Inquisition that shattered many lives?

After thinking about your column off and on for a couple of weeks, I called Debbie Nathan to ask her what she thought. Here’s what she wrote back a day later. “It’s very unfortunate that Katha Pollitt waited so long to educate herself about false allegations of child sex abuse and about the phenomenon’s more bizarre manifestations, such as ‘ritual abuse.’ If she’d come into this issue on time, she could have made a political and practical difference.

“Back in the late 1980s, at the height of the ritual abuse hysteria, the only feminist journalist with national clout who showed any critical guts on the issue was Ellen Willis — who got me started on the topic in 1986 when she assigned me my first piece for the Village Voice. In subsequent years, Ellen assigned me more Voice space for related stories, and herself wrote occasional pieces commenting on updates,e.g. the Buckey acquittal/hung jury I believe. But by the early 1990s, Ellen was not a Voice senior editor anymore or was gone from the staff altogether. She had no regular venue, much less national space, as Katha did. Although Pollitt says in her recent column that there have been no cases ‘in a decade,’ cases DID continue to surface as late as the early 1990s.

Wenatchee is the most notorious example: dozens of people were accused and some are still in prison. Plus, I remember in about 1992 or 1993, Judith Herman, the feminist psychiatrist and author of the very influential book Father-Daughter Incest, published a piece in the Nieman newsletter (the journalistic ethics thing out of Harvard) dismissing female journalists such as myself, who took false child sex abuse accusations and false memory seriously, as no more than obedient ‘daddies’ girls’ of male editors.

“In the early 1990s, someone with Pollitt’s progressive-feminist stature and steady national venue could have helped feminists and leftists claim a critical stance on this issue rather than yielding it to the right, who embraced it mainly because they don’t like public child care, because they think children are parents’ private property, and because they saw a very easy way to discredit feminism (a theoretical and political contributor to the hysteria).Pollitt could definitely have influenced MS. magazine and Gloria Steinem. She might also have saved some children and their caretakers — many of them public school and childcare workers — from hard time in bad therapy and behind bars.”

It took me longer to find Bruce Heitman and though I remembered his letter it was buried too deeply in one of my file boxes. Snedeker sent me a copy and via Carol Hopkins, living outside Cuernavaca, I got Bruce’s number, who told me the Justice Committee is defunct and that he, pro tem, is working for the post office. Yes, he said, he had seen your column:

“I wanted to get prominent feminist writers to do something about this — the left. What we at the Justice Committee found was that most of our allies tended to be on the right — the libertarians, the Christians, even some outfits like the Rutherford Institute. Here we had people being railroaded in show trials and you’d think the left would have taken an interest. I knew you had written about it. And I thought Katha Pollitt would, since she had an important feminist audience and could make a difference. I also wanted her to look at other cases. I thought she could have at least replied to my letter. But she didn’t.

“When we had the Republican convention here in San Diego in l996, there was an alternative left convention, set up in a downtown warehouse — I tried to hand out fliers on satanic abuse cases and the injustices being done — but there was no interest from so-called progressives.

“Back to Katha. It’s curious to see her jumping on the bandwaggon after it’s left the parade ground. She gives the impression it’s all okay now. She says interviewing techniques of supposed victims have improved and that video-taping is mandatory. I think that in only two states, Minnesota and Alaska is it required to videotape. It’s still a big issue.

“And then, at end of her article — she put in ‘feminists’ almost as an afterthought. But prominent believers in satanic ritual abuse were Gloria Steinem, Ms and feminists,. They weren’t part of a larger group. They were central.”

But I guess, Katha, you know that now, because you’ve obviously got around to reading Satan’s Silence. At the start of October you posted an enthusiastic review of it on not so long after, so the authors tell me, it’s finally gone out of print. CP


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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