The sleep of reason produces monsters
Somewhere between delusional neurotic and self-aggrandizing charlatan we find the late Laurel Rose Willson aka Lauren Stratford aka Laura Grabowski (August 18, 1941-April 8, 2002). We also find some troubling lessons about the most widely-educated culture in human history.
Marrian Disbrow, an unwed mother, gave birth to Laurel Rose Willson in 1941 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma, Washington. She was adopted within days by Dr. Frank Cole Willson and Rose Gray Willson, the latter a child of Polish Catholic immigrants, the Grabowskis-- a name which will resonate later in this tale. The Willsons had one other daughter, Willow, five years older than Laurel. The Willsons were strict Christians, according to those who knew the family, members of the Bible Presbyterian Church in Tacoma.
The sisters had an apparently typical middle-class upbringing, well-documented with photographs of the inevitable vacations and childhood events (Passantino, Passantino, Trott). Her mother had an explosive temper, however and their home life often became unstable. Her parents separated in 1950. She remained in touch with both parents, however; friends recall her being distraught when, after a minor car accident at sixteen, her father was unable to visit. Her school record shows regular attendance in class, and heavy involvement with extra-curricular activities, particularly those of a musical bend.
She ran away, however, at seventeen, and moved in with her sister, who by then was married with two children. Shortly thereafter, she claimed Willow's husband molested her. The charge was dismissed, and a psychiatrist treating Laurel suggested she leave the house.
In the years that follow, a pattern of self-mutilation and attempted suicides-- all well-documented-- would emerge. Whatever the cause, Laurel Rose Willson was clearly a disturbed individual. She also made sporadic claims of sexual abuse, citing at various times staff at the college she attended (King's Garden in Seattle, then called Seattle-Pacific), her father, and men she met through her mother.
In 1962 she stayed with a Pentecostal couple. During this time she feigned blindness to get attention, and told variations of her family history, including one in which Dr. Willson was her biological father, and Rose, his second wife, a pedophile who physically and sexually abused her. In her early twenties, she told a friend that two women at her church had seduced her into lesbianism, and told another she had a drug problem. The first story remains unconfirmed; she admitted the second was false.
She was living with her father when he died of a heart attack in 1965. In 1966, she married the son of a local minister; their marriage was annulled later that year on the grounds of non-consummation. At that time, she was apparently still a virgin. In the years that followed, Laurel taught music, attended various churches, and claimed to work for the California Penal System-- though no record exists of such a job. She later joined the Christian musical group, Delpha and the Witnesses, for whom she wrote some songs.
In her late twenties, she once again claimed to be a survivor of sexual abuse by her mother and various men from her church, and that the abuse was always perpetrated, perversely, in the name of Jesus. She began reading books such as Sybil, and often repeated stories of past abuse that were identical to those found in these books.
In the mid-1980s, pivotal events of the Satanic Panic occurred, and began the process that made Laurel Willson, under the identity of Lauren Stratford, a grim celebrity. Ritual abuse allegations caught the media's attention, making the cases of the McMartin Preschool Trial and Kern County Ritual Abuse Case major international news. Suddenly, Lauren Stratford began claiming a life-long involvement with Satanism and pornography. Her descriptions of abuse matched those reported in the news. She contacted a foster-mother caring for some of the children in the Bakersfield case, claiming to have special knowledge of both that case and the McMartin situation. She also claims to have been a love-slave to a cult leader named Victor who had branded her forehead as a mark of ownership-- a mark apparently invisible to everyone else. The marks from years of self-mutilations and suicide attempts became the scars of lifelong satanic abuse. Indeed, she claimed the cult to which her parents belonged continued to force her to watch their rituals.
She received a hearing from investigators working the McMartin case. Despite their now-documented disrespect for the basic rules of evidence, they dismissed her testimony, as she knew nothing beyond what was reported in the media. Her claim to have had a lesbian relationship with Virginia McMartin, a key defendant, could not be substantiated. Her allegations of having observed the alleged Bakersfield abuse were similarly discounted.
Nevertheless, in 1988 Harvest House published Lauren Stratford's Satan's Underground, which became a bestseller. She became a darling of the Satanic Panic, the late-twentieth century witchhunt that developed because of the myth of Satanic Ritual Abuse. She appeared on Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jessy Raphael, Larry King Live, and Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground, an influential two-hour special for which host Geraldo Rivera later apologized ("Geraldo Rivera's Influence...."). Evangelical author Hal Lindsey claimed he had "the goods" on the cult, and would turn them over to the police if they harmed Stratford further (Passantino, Passantino, Trott). Apparently, he was willing to tolerate their supposed ongoing child-abuse and baby-eating. Stratford's extraordinary claims should have demanded at least some measure of proof. One would think that the changing number of babies she bore for ritual sacrifice-- from one to four, depending on the talk show-- should have had Oprah or Sally Jessy questioning her reliability. Had anyone bothered to investigate, they surely would have wondered how a girl could have been pregnant multiple times during her teens and early twenties, while attending school, participating in church, and performing at concerts, without a single person noticing her condition.
In fact, when the Christian Cornerstone Magazine finally investigated Stratford, they found that no one else had yet bothered to learn anything about her, despite her implausible, conflicting claims of atrocities and her lucrative appearances on the evangelical lecture circuit. And her satanic claims do not merely contradict her documented life; they contradict each other. The stories she told investigators of the Bakersfield and McMartin incidents do not match those which appear in Satan's Underground. Furthermore, that book alters publicly-known details. She states, for example, that her father moved out when she was four, and that she did not see him again until she was eleven. She says she escaped the occult abuse orchestrated by her mother, only to have it resume at her new home, with the knowledge of her father. She makes no mention of her sister existing at all.
Meanwhile, "Lauren Stratford" collected royalties, spoke to religious groups, and counseled other women. She also published two more books, I Know You're Hurting and Stripped Away.
Despite her exposure, a handful of fringe therapists and Christians continue to regard her work as authentic. A few published heartfelt eulogies when she passed away in 2002.
And this is odd, because-- unable to get an audience anymore as Lauren Stratford-- she had taken on a new identity in her final years. In the 1990s, she became Laura Grabowski, and passed herself off as a child survivor of the Holocaust. Despite a well-documented, very gentile life in the United States, she claimed to have been a Polish-born child survivor of Auschwitz and a subject of Dr. Joseph Mengele's experiments. In this new guise, she exploited the very real genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany, and addressed groups of Holocaust Survivors. Her writings, "We Are One" and "Ode to the Little Ones" have appeared at sites dedicated to such people. Her scars were now the results of Mengele's experiments. Instead of having bred an indefinite number of children for ritual sacrifice, she claims she was sterilized as an infant. This claim, at least, is consistent with the fact that she has apparently never been pregnant.
This is not merely the curious story of a disturbed charlatan, someone with psychiatric problems who did not receive proper help, and whom figures in the media and organized religion were too willing to exploit. Though largely forgotten now, the Satanic Panic resulted in expensive trials. Needless investigations traumatized children, broke up families, and imprisoned innocent people. Some of the accused, such as those convicted in the Bakersfield case, remained incarcerated for more than a decade before being exonerated, despite convictions born of faulty process and dubious evidence, and later retractions by most of their alleged victims. Some people remain in prison for crimes that they do not appear to have committed and, in some cases, never happened. The very real problem of sexual abuse suffers, too, when so many obviously fraudulent cases receive exposure. As FBI agent Ken Lanning said, "the controversy will continue to cast a shadow over and fuel the backlash against the validity and reality of child sexual abuse." In addition, millions were spent that could have gone towards legitimate law enforcement. We cannot hang these matters on the troubled Laurel/Lauren/Laura, but she fed on and fed the zeitgeist that made the Panic possible.
It says much about humanity that, at the end of the twentieth century, in countries which pride themselves on their level of development and education, the statements of this woman, and so many more like her, could have been taken seriously. Inquisitions and witch-hunts have not disappeared-- and we would be fools to believe they cannot happen again.
David Alexander. "Giving the Devil More Than his Due." The Humanist March/April 1990.
Arthur Butz. "Wilomirski and What it Means." http://www.heretical.com/miscella/butz2.html
"Critic's Charge: Bestseller Satan's Underground a Fraud." The Watchman Expositor. http://www.watchman.org/occult/satan2.htm
Ken V. Lanning. FBI 1992 Study of Childhood Ritual Abuse. http://www.religioustolerance.org/ra_rep03.htm
James J. Lippard. "Lauren Stratford's Satan's Underground." http://www.skepticfiles.org/rumor/undergnd.htm
Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters. Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria. University of California P, 1996.
"Geraldo Rivera's Influence on the Satanic Ritual Abuse and Recovered Memory Hoaxes." Satanic Mediawatch and News Exchange. http://users.cybercity.dk/~ccc44406/smwane/geraldo.htm
Bob and Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott. "Lauren Stratford: From Satanic Ritual Abuse to Jewish Holocaust Survivor." Cornerstone Magazine. http://www.cornerstonemag.com/features/iss117/lauren.htm
Bob and Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott. "Satan's Sideshow: the True Lauren Stratford Story." Cornerstone Magazine.
Gregory Reid. "Lauren Stratford: A Hero Goes Home." Educate Yourself. http://educate-yourself.org/mc/laurenstafford13may02.shtml
"Ritual Abuse." ReligiousTolerance.org http://www.religioustolerance.org/sra.htm
"The Satanic Abuse Moral Panic That Never Happened." ReligiousTolerance.org http://www.religioustolerance.org/sra.htm
"This is Happening in Your Town: the Great Satanism Scare of the '80s." http://www-personal.si.umich.edu/~wmwines/WASP/essays/satan.html