In March 1988, residents of the small town of Stuart, Florida, were gripped by what can only be described as mass hysteria. Law enforcement officers had discovered a secret satanic cult being run out of the local Montessori preschool. There were tales of dark hooded figures, bizarre blood ceremonies, and the ritualistic rape of children.
Evidence for this secret cult of child molesters came from none other than the children themselves—a decade later. Many of these remembered acts were so hideous, so barbaric, that the victims had buried the memories deep within their psyche, uncovering them only under intensive hypnosis. After hours of these sessions, psychologists and law enforcement officers were able to retrieve long-buried memories of bizarre ceremonies, torture, and the worst sexual violations imaginable. Psychologists flooded into town to uncover more debauchery and interview and save these innocent children.
“It got to be the kind of thing where every other storefront in the town had a new child psychologist,” said resident Carol MacMillan. “I mean, it was a cottage industry for recovered memories.”
The more psychologists and law enforcement dug down, the more instances of ritual abuse they turned up. Pretty soon, they had collected more than 60 testimonies of horrendous torture and sexual deviance. The community went ballistic. Some residents attended town meetings armed with handguns, hunting for satanists, while others planted listening devices in classrooms and searched for mass graves on the school grounds. “It was like Salem all over again,” one parent recalled.
As a result of the children’s testimony, police arrested James Toward, the owner of the preschool, and his office manager. Then they investigated Toward’s wife, who also worked at the school. The case against her was weaker than the case against her husband, so the lawyers and psychologists reached out to a new round of kids to find new details that might implicate her. Among them was Carol MacMillan’s daughter, an anxious little blond girl named Kristin Grace Erickson. Erickson was 12 years old at the time she was hypnotized. She understood from the doctors and other adults in town that her preschool teacher and his colleagues had done some terrible things—and could do more if people didn’t do something to help. She trusted the doctors who brought her into an interview room, put her under hypnosis, and began asking questions.
You can’t make people do something against their will under hypnosis, but a subject can become highly suggestible. Erickson recalls that a psychologist started asking probing questions about her experience at the preschool when she was a toddler. Initially, she had pleasant memories of the place, with its caring staff and occasional campfire sleepover. But after a few sessions, she began remembering bizarre rituals and being placed on a table where she was probed by cult members.
“I said that I saw a snake get killed and sliced down the side and that we had to drink its blood. And that there were people in hoods around a fire,” she says.
The psychologist seemed pleased and pushed for more details, especially about Toward’s wife. After the session was over, Erickson felt odd. She knew that by telling these people what had happened she was protecting other children who might be in danger. But she wasn’t sure that what she had said was completely true. The memory felt funny, like a lie. So she timidly suggested to the psychologist that she might have made the whole thing up. “No,” she remembers him saying, “that’s just what it feels like. It really happened.”
For the next 15 years or so, Erickson lived with the knowledge that she had been molested by a satanic cult masquerading as a Montessori preschool. Then, while living in San Francisco in her 20s, she decided to experiment with a sensory-deprivation tank—a chamber half filled with tepid water and impervious to sound or light. Crawl into one and you feel as if you are floating silently in the blackest space. For decades, people have used this extreme sort of quiet blackness as a sort of forced meditation.
At first she felt nothing but silence and boredom. But in the last few minutes, Erickson had an epiphany. She realized that something from her childhood hypnosis therapy was haunting her, and that she needed to come to terms with it. Soon afterward, she looked up Alan Tesson, one of the psychologists involved in the case, and was shocked to learn that 10 years after the investigations, he had been sued for implanting false memories in one of his patients.
What the hell is a false memory, she wondered? A memory that’s not true is called a lie.
What Erickson didn’t know was that her case had occurred in the middle of the so-called Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ’90s. A 1992 FBI report noted during this period, “hundreds of victims alleging that thousands of offenders are abusing and even murdering tens of thousands of people as part of organized satanic cults—and there is little or no corroborative evidence.”
Today, scientists understand that what caused a nationwide panic and the imprisonment of dozens of people wasn’t a conspiracy of pedophiles but an interesting glitch in the human mind: specifically, how we create memories