In the 1950s, members of a transgenerational, Satan-worshiping, child-torturing cult devoted most of their time and attention to one child, who, thanks to supernatural intervention, lived to tell her tale. Despite claims that would necessarily leave corroborative evidence, none was ever found. And while the adult survivor has no shortage of brutal, pornographic details about the cult, she stopped short of supplying information that might help bring these apparent monsters to justice.
Published as non-fiction in 1977, Michelle Remembers became an international sensation, achieving bestseller status and arguably doing more than any other publication to incite the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s, a twentieth-century witchhunt in which a great many people faced trial and even imprisonment for crimes they did not commit: in many cases, for crimes that did not even happen. The popularity of the book was such that the Vatican launched an official investigation, and Hollywood studios approached the authors about movie rights. Those authors-- Michelle Smith, the self-proclaimed former object of the cult's attention, and Lawrence Pazder, her therapist-- responded enthusiastically.
The story, in fact, prompted multiple investigations. The various findings should have calmed concerns that her claims were anything but the product of imagination. Sadly, however, many years passed before people stopped taking the book seriously. In some circles, people still regard the authors as brave mavericks in the fight against an imagined international satanic conspiracy.
Smith claims that the cult met in Ross Bay cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia. The problem is that this old graveyard faces the bay, with houses surrounding it on the remaining three sides. Much of the grounds, including the mausoleum where key events took place, are clearly visible from the neighborhood; it would make a very poor place to hold secret, illegal rituals-- particularly in the conformist, law-abiding 1950s. Other events simply could not have occurred. Smith claims a woman lifted the plaque covering one of the graves so that she could be placed within. None of these plaques work as lids, and all are too heavy for even a very strong person to lift unassisted.
She gives details of a complex car crash staged by the cult; a thorough check by reporters Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker failed to find any record of an accident resembling the one described within the given time-frame.
She claims the Satanists cut off the middle fingers of their left hands, and that despite this conspicuous mark, they remained unidentified in their community, and remain at large, even now.
Several of the rituals resemble distorted versions of certain traditional African rituals-- rituals which therapist Pazder had earlier studied.
The Roman Catholic Church concluded that Michelle believed in the reality of her claims, but that they most likely originated in her mind.
Jack Proby, Michelle's father, describes an emotional distance within the family which resulted in part from his own alcohol abuse. However, both he and Michelle's sisters deny her claims of family cult involvement and horrendous abuse. Proby (Michelle's mother died in 1963) felt a lawsuit would be prohibitively expensive, but he took a Notice of Intent against the publisher, which has prevented movies or other spin-offs from the original book. He and his neighbours confirm that Michelle once witnessed a gruesome automobile accident, and that she was treated for poisoning after eating turpentine and shoe polish; these may be the origin of some of her stories, which include a staged car crash and deliberate poisonings. Journalists have also confirmed that the Proby family were church-going Catholics. In fact, Michelle and her siblings were all confirmed. Michelle Remembers claims the family had no religious instruction outside of the cult.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, survivors, whose therapists claimed they not only repressed their memories, but invented entirely alternate ones of relatively normal childhood experiences, retold stories which more than passingly resembled Michelle Smith's accounts. Mike Warnke, an evangelical charlatan who has long profited from the belief in Satanism demonstrates her influence on the Satanic Panic. In his first edition of The Satan Seller, published in 1972, he claims to be a former Satanic cult leader, and details their operations. He makes no mention of the kind of ritual abuse that forms the basis of Michelle Remembers. After her stories became widespread, he began discussing the ritual abuse and murder of children by the cult.
Her story varies from those which followed only in the means of her deliverance; in her account, the Virgin Mary ultimately intervenes to help young Michelle. I mention this detail because it caused a great deal of grief for Michelle's supporters. Those within the evangelical Protestant Christian churches and the feminist movements who embraced the belief in Ritual Satanic Abuse had to conclude that Michelle had only imagined this Marian intervention, while swallowing the rest of her far-fetched tale.
Michelle Smith is now Michelle Pazder; she has married the therapist. He himself has suggested that her stories may not all be literally true, but that her belief in them is important. Perhaps, but this does not excuse publishing them as non-fiction and profiting from a witchhunt which damaged the lives of a great many people.
Michelle has long ceased giving interviews.
David Alexander. "Giving the Devil More than His Do." The Humanist, March/April 1990:
Denna Allen and Janet Midwinter. "The Debunking of a Myth." The Mail on Sunday London, England, September 30, 1990, 41. http://users.cybercity.dk/~ccc44406/smwane/Michelle.htm
Robert Todd Carroll. "Satanic Ritual Abuse." The Skeptic's Dictionary. http://skepdic.com/satanrit.html
"The Great Satanism Scare of the 80's: This is Happening in Your Town." http://www-personal.si.umich.edu/~wmwines/WASP/essays/satan.html
Michelle Remembers: Fiction, Not Fact. Imaginary Crimes. http://members.shaw.ca/imaginarycrimes/michelleremembers.htm
Debbie Nathan. "The Ritual Sex Abuse Hoax." The Village Voice January 12, 1990. http://www.ncrj.org/Nathan/index.html
Ofshe, Richard and Ethan Watters. Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria. California: University of California P, 1996.
B.A. Robinson. "Does Satanic/Sadistic Ritual Abuse Exist?" Religious Tolerance. http://www.religioustolerance.org/ra_none.htm