Moral Manias #001: Michelle Remembers

Welcome to my new series of articles “Moral Manias” where I will be discussing how moral manias of the past reflect our present cultural battle with delusionary reactionaries.

DISCLAIMER: There will be discussion of false allegations of child s*xual abuse throughout this article and subsequent moral mania articles. While I absolutely believe that more children than we know about suffer at the hands of monsters–even organized monsters a la the thankfully dead Jeffrey Epstein–I do not believe that it is for Satanic purposes; rather it’s unfortunately just because some people are disgusting.

And with that we proceed. 

On December 4, 2016, twenty-eight year old Edgar Maddison Welch entered Washington, D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong armed with an assault rifle and a conspiracy theory. A Satanic cabal lead by former Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex ring out the (non-existent) basement of the pizza parlor. These fictional children were supposedly used for the purpose of Satanic ritual abuse led by Clinton, her aides Abedin and Podesta, and famous performance and spatial artist Marina Abramovic.

Luckily, Welch only shot the lock off of a freezer door in the dogged pursuit of his truth. As he was led away, despondent, we as a culture had to wonder: how could this happen?

Simply enough: It’s happened before.

Little did we know then how fully it would happen again. But I digress on that point for now.

To truly understand the origins of the North American “Satanic Panic” that swept the United States and (to a lesser degree) Canada, during the 1980s and early 1990s, we must start with a concept and a book.

The concept? Recovered memory therapy. The book? Michelle Remembers.

But what is recovered memory therapy?

“Recovered Memory Therapy is a loosely defined cluster of clinical methodologies where a therapist would help adult survivors recall repressed, traumatic memories of childhood abuse, allowing a path to personality reintegration….its historical notoriety renders it today broadly considered both unscrupulous and unprofessional by the mainstream medical profession (Heller-Nicholas, 2015).”

Published in 1980, Michelle Remembers is considered the origin of the Satanic Panic and the moral crackdowns on supposed cases of Satanic ritual abuse. It’s also considered one of the most influential media hoaxes of the 20th century. Written by Dr. Lawrence Panzer and his eventual wife Michelle Smith, Michelle Remembers chronicles the supposed Satanic ritual abuse of Michelle as a young child in 1950s Victoria, Canada. 

In 1976, Smith came to Dr. Pazder to undergo treatment for depression after a miscarriage. After describing feelings of lost time, Pazder insisted Smith undergo hypnosis. While a more responsible therapist likely would have concluded C-PTSD or postpartum depression from the findings, Pazder…wasn’t responsible. Michelle Remembers is based upon the 600 hours of recorded sessions that Smith underwent with Pazder.

Smith’s parents’ marriage was a toxic one, filled with alcoholism and violence. According to the book, during one of her father’s many absences, Michelle’s mother became involved with a mysterious man named Malachi and his other Satanic associates. Smith’s mother allegedly gave her daughter over to the Satanic cult, only for young Michelle to witness murder, cannibalism, and other dark acts. She is abused throughout the book in a multitude of ways. 

Apparently, at one point, she has a tail and two horns surgically attached to her body, stretching the already thin credulity to the breaking point.

Michelle warned of the advent of a new Holocaust to come in 1982, in which Satan would once again be summoned to Earth to enact horror upon horror on the population. This comparison is especially awful, given that Michelle Remembers is so obviously a hoax.

Despite being so fantastic as to beggar belief, the book became a phenomenal success, making its authors celebrities. Smith and Pazder became enamored both with success and each other, leaving their respective partners at the time to wed one another. They toured the country together, making ridiculous amounts of money, and even appeared on Oprah, where the famous host unquestioningly took them at their word. Pazder and Smith always pointed back at the recorded tapes as proof of authenticity, despite the capabilities of technology even then to manipulate audio or just have acted their way through the hypnosis process.

As the story of Michelle Remembers continued, it nearly made it to theaters as a feature film. The Pazders were civilly sued by Anton LeVey, the Church of Satan, and Michelle’s father to prevent this from happening. LeVey and the church, for all their abuses under the notorious LeVey, were horrified by the accusations of the books, proclaiming they would have nothing to do with such crimes against humanity. This beggars the question: if the book heralded such horrific damage in the cultural landscape as it did, how much worse would the film have wrought?

It can be theorized that both the Satanic Panic and the recent resurgence of it come from an inherent hatred of women and queer people of all genders. While men are certainly involved in the stories of ritual abuse, both in Michelle Remembers, the Comet Ping Pong case, and others that would follow, women and queer people are primarily to blame. Michelle’s mother hands her over to the cult. Hillary Clinton supposedly leads the cabal, with Abramovic and Abedin at her right hand, an army of LGBTQ+ supporters following their whims. While men insistently give validation to these stories based on their pre-supposed authority as men, it is the image of women and the queer community who continually suffer over it.

In the book, the cause of Michelle’s suffering isn’t blamed upon the male priest Malachi, but rather her mother and the cloaked priestesses that surround her. By their rejection of the traditional feminine–eschewing motherhood for monstrosity–they place the idea of the monstrous feminine at the forefront of Satanic Panic discourse. Blaming the betrayals of her mother and mother figures in her life, Smith-Pazder repudiates the idea of female liberation and replaces it with the conservative ideal-hood of women–women as subservient, loving mothers. This is hammered home by her claim that Jesus Christ himself sent a vision of the Holy Mother to guide Michelle away from the horrors of Satanic ritual abuse. Much like the figure of Christ Himself, Pazder is put forward at the end as Savior, father, and husband figure in the end Smith-Pazder’s narrative. 

It would also be remiss to avoid discussing the inherent racism and anti-Semitism of Michelle Remembers. Villainous Satanic priests are often described having either Semitic or West African features or ancestry, and many symbols from both ethnic groups are littered throughout the text in scenes of graphic, sensationalized abuse. Pazder relied heavily on independent research into West African religious cultures to emphasize the “cult-like nature of the people.” Good in the book is described as “blonde, blue-eyed, and tan” giving Jesus more of a Malibu Ken appearance than that of the Aramaic speaking figure of Biblical times. While this is already unfortunate enough in outdated fiction like the works of Lovecraft, Michelle Remembers was billed as true and became a cornerstone for the Satanic Panic movement.

Soon enough, the Pazders’ claims began to unravel. Two sisters, not mentioned in the book at all–in fact, whose existences were repudiated by the book–came forward to deny the salacious claims made towards their mother. Starting the 1990–the same year as the infamous McMartin Preschool Trial–the claims began to come undone in earnest. Not one corroborator to Michelle’s story was able to be found. But it was Pazder’s own words that became their undoing.

“It is a real experience. If you talk to Michelle today, she will say ‘That’s what I remember.” We still leave the question open. For her, it was very real. Every case I hear I have skepticism. You have to complete a long course of therapy before you can come to conclusions. We are eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn’t matter.”

Despite his loose relationship with fact and fiction, one cannot help that the distinction mattered a great deal to those whose lives were ruined by the results of the Satanic Panic. The Pazders’ involvement didn’t just kick off a cultural phenomenon: it would result in loss of jobs and families, as well as end in the most dramatic, expensive trial in United States history.

As we continue on, we’ll go to the past, zoom back to the present, and theorize on the future.

Feel free to comment and share, but just know that I AM moderating comments!

CITATION: “REMEMBERING MICHELLE REMEMBERS By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas” Janisse, Kier-La, and Paul Corupe, eds. Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. FAB Press, 2016.

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