Oct 5, 2011

Amanda Knox: Another Witch Trial?

I will be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about the Amanda Knox murder trial. I didn't follow it when it was going on and most of the hysterical coverage here in the states was little more than background noise to me. I will also freely admit that I should have been paying more attention. In the wake of her exoneration on appeal, the coverage has been most interesting. I don't know if she and her boyfriend Raffaelle Sollecito were guilty or innocent. I haven't read enough about the case to have a fully formed opinion. But it seems evident at this point that whatever else it may have been, this was another case of a woman being put on trial for her sexuality. There are also disturbing elements of a Satanic Panic similar to that that robbed the West Memphis Three of eighteen years of their lives. The Wild Hunt gives a little overview.

Now that Amanda Knox has been acquitted of the murder of Meredith Kercher on appeal, more than a few have been noting the ties to “Satanic panic” that marred the original conviction. However, a bizarre editorial from Brendan O’Neill in The Telegraph says that the Satanic panics were started by feminists, not Christians, using one whole data point (and Oprah) to feed his narrative. In truth, this moral panic incubated, at least in the United States, in Christian churches, not feminist gatherings. The textual evidence for this is so pervasive that I can only think that O’Neill has an ax to grind.

The Brendan O'Neill piece is nothing short of bizarre and his animus towards feminism is glaringly apparent.

This idea that the modern-day obsession with Satanism and crazy sexual degradation springs from somewhere within the Vatican is completely mad. It wasn’t Catholic officials or men of the cloth who in recent years rehabilitated the Middle Ages view that there are evil people out there who worship the devil and have sex while they’re doing it – no, it was radical feminists and social workers, in fact some of the same kind of people currently shedding tears over the witch-hunting of Knox. Across Western Europe and America in the 1980s and 90s, it was implacably atheistic, supposedly “Left-wing” activists who spread the idea that Satanism was making a comeback and that children were being raped and killed as a result. It was writers like Beatrix Campbell, a feminist and contributor to the Guardian, who argued in 1990 in Marxism Today, the then bible of the chattering Left, that Satanists were “organising rituals to penetrate any available orifice in troops of little children; to cut open rabbits or cats or people and drink their blood; to shit on silver trays and make the children eat it”. It was feministic social workers who, with the help of police, kidnapped working-class children from their families on the bizarre basis that they were being ritualistically abused. It was people like Oprah Winfrey, echoing academic feminists, who hosted TV shows claiming that some families in America were involved in "human sacrifice rituals and cannibalism" – watch the clip here.

He's not entirely wrong as to how, in part, the Satanic Panic was disseminated, but has ripped these elements from their proper context and transparently used them to bash feminism. In his version of events the sex abuse of children is a fictional element of a feminist obsession with Satanism. This is about exactly backwards. There were definitely erroneous reports of Satanic ritual abuse; some that ruined people's lives unfairly. This was part of a larger belief in the recovery of repressed memory that dominated discussions of sex abuse more generally. Much of the repressed memory theory has been discredited. That far more sex abuse of children occurs than society had previously wanted to admit has not. And the repressed memory theory was one part of bringing the horrors of this crime out into the open, in part because it allowed for legal avenues where the statute of limitations would otherwise have made prosecution impossible.

Repressed memory theory remains controversial. The American Psychiatric Association considers its occurrence as possible but unproven.

First, it's important to state that there is a consensus among memory researchers and clinicians that most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them although they may not fully understand or disclose it. Concerning the issue of a recovered versus a pseudomemory, like many questions in science, the final answer is yet to be known. But most leaders in the field agree that although it is a rare occurrence, a memory of early childhood abuse that has been forgotten can be remembered later. However, these leaders also agree that it is possible to construct convincing pseudomemories for events that never occurred.

The mechanism(s) by which both of these phenomena happen are not well understood and, at this point it is impossible, without other corroborative evidence, to distinguish a true memory from a false one.

In The Myth of Repressed Memory, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus effectively challenged the theoretical framework of repressed memory therapy. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I wrote the press release for the book when it was originally released.) It was a fascinating book and while I would not say that Loftus entirely disproved the phenomenon of repressed and recovered memory, she demonstrated quite conclusively that memory is a creative and mutable function. We rescript memories all the time, which is why two people can remember the same events very differently. And under guidance we can completely fabricate false memories. I think there is little question that there are cases of people fabricating memories under hypnosis and other forms of therapy that are partly or, in some instances, entirely false.

I think in many cases it was accidental and with the best of intentions that therapists guided people through a process of memory recovery that created false memories. And in some of those cases, the memories that arose involved Satanic ritual abuse and some people saw things that looked like horror movies complete with supernatural phenomena. These memories were treated as real by therapists and talk show hosts and formed one tributary that fed the Satanic Panic of the '80s and '90s. I would never be so arrogant as to say that no instance of Satanic ritual abuse ever occurred. I will say that there has never been documented evidence of it and point out that the FBI was never able to corroborate the instances of Satanic ritual murders and the like.

To chalk this up to some kind feminist conspiracy, however, is ludicrous. Women, some self-described feminists and some not, have been at the forefront of a movement to bring the horrors of childhood sexual abuse into the open and to provide avenues for effective therapy. Some of it has been disastrous. Some of it has been life-saving for survivors of sex abuse.

A social worker friend of mine explained to me, some years ago, his theory of why Satanic ritual abuse has come up repeatedly in the therapy of sex abuse survivors and I consider his reasoning quite sound. It was his supposition that people who'd been sexually abused as children found themselves in an experience of unfathomable evil and a total sense of powerlessness. That they would augment those memories with imaginings of the archetype of ultimate evil, Satan, made perfect sense.

All that said, I think O'Neill's supposition that the prosecutor in Italy was led astray by feminists in his Satanic theory of Amanda Knox's criminal proclivities is the height of absurdity. His case against Knox was the antithesis of feminism but, more to the point, he seems to have something of an obsession with Satanism.

The story begins almost a decade ago, long before Meredith Kercher's murder, when the pubblico ministero (public prosecutor) of Perugia, Giuliano Mignini, opened an investigation into the mysterious death of a doctor whose body was found floating in Lake Trasimeno in 1985.

Mignini believed the doctor was connected to a satanic sect, which had murdered him because he was about to go to the police and reveal its many crimes. Mignini believed this shadowy cult was connected to infamous murders committed by a serial killer known as the Monster of Florence.

. . .

Mignini theorised that this satanic cult consisted of powerful people – noblemen, pharmacists, journalists and freemasons – who ordered the Monster killings because they needed female body parts to use as the blasphemous wafer in their black masses. Putting himself in charge of the investigation, Mignini became so obsessed that he crossed the line of legality, wiretapping journalists and conducting illegal investigations of newspapers.

He was indicted for these and other crimes, including abuso d'ufficio, abuse of office, in 2006. One prosecutor said he was a man "prey to a kind of delirium".

Far from a feminist inspired sex abuse theory, Mignini's case took as its departure point the mere fact that Amanda Knox was a young woman very much in possession of her sex drive. This, to his way of thinking, made her "'a diabolical, satanic, demonic she-devil' who 'likes alcohol, drugs and hot, wild sex'. "

As Hugo Schwyzer explained in a recent column, the prosecution put her perfectly normal, nonviolent sexuality on trial.

That mixture of prurience and contempt was on full display in Perugia, where Knox was tried.  The prosecutor devoted extensive time to discussing the defendant’s sex life and her clothing, including her taste in (or lack of) underwear. He was positively obsessed with her vibrator, as if female masturbation  was indicative of a propensity for homicide.  Her diary, replete with the personal details one would expect in a private journal, was read repeatedly in court.

Sadly, there is nothing new about the demonization of female sexuality. It's quite ancient, really.

There is also nothing new about accusations of Satanism, heresy, and evil Masonic plots. And despite Brendon O'Neill's protestations, far more of that falls to the history of the Catholic church than to modern feminism. And Giulliano Mignini looks like an old-school inquisitor, pursuing specters of witchery and other enemies of the Church.

Mignini got encouragement and theoretical assistance in the esoteric aspects of previous investigations from an unusual source: Gabriella Carlizzi, a wealthy Roman woman and courthouse gadfly whose day job consisted of running a Catholic charity that worked with prisoners. Carlizzi, who died of cancer in 2010, was, like Mignini, a serious practicing Catholic herself who had dedicated her life to exposing and fighting satanic sects.

. . .

One of Carlizzi’s primary obsessions were the Masons.

There are 24 Masonic lodges in Perugia, making it Italy’s per-capita center of Masonic activity. Perugians believe that members of those lodges secretly control most aspects of banking, business and administration in their community.

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