Gustav Jönsson | 18 June 2018
Lawrence Wright’s Remembering Satan is the “most powerful and disturbing true crime narrative to appear since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood,” according to Time in 1994. “Remembering Satan catapults Wright to the front rank of American journalists” wrote Newsweek. It did, and he has since stayed in the journalistic vanguard. This is a look back on Wright’s book, thirty years after its central events took place.
Paul Ingram thought he was an upstanding American citizen, doing his duty to country as a police officer, and to God as a Christian. He was the Republican Party Chairman of Thurston County and a respected deputy sheriff in Olympia, Washington. Husband of Sandy, and father of five children, Ingram was an all-American family man. But on November 28, 1988, Ingram began recounting “repressed memories” of incestual sexual assaults he had made on his two daughters, Ericka and Julie. His cop colleagues were shocked – some even developed mental health problems – due to the stories he told them. What began as accusations of abuse ended up as fantastic recollections of infanticide, rape, murder, satanic rituals, and secret cults involving other members of the local sheriff’s department.
The Ingrams were primed to believe in satanic rituals. They belonged to a Christian fundamentalist church that taught that the Devil was walking the earth. The Church of Living Water, a Pentecostalist congregation, would assume a central role in the tragedy that unfolded. It was at a church sponsored annual retreat for teenage girls, called “Heart to Heart,” that a prophetic preacher told Ericka that she had been sexually abused as a child. The preacher, a woman named Karla Franko, acting on a divine prompting and declared, “You have been abused as a child, sexually abused.” “It’s by her father, and it’s been happening for years,” she continued.
So far as Paul Ingram could remember he had never molested either of his daughters. But when his colleagues arrested him and presented Ericka and Julie’s witnesses he began doubting his own memory. Perhaps he had done it after all – could it be as the interviewing psychologist told him – that he had repressed the memories of abuse? Ingram began confessing despite not recalling any violations. Asked why he would admit his guilt if he could not remember the offenses Ingram replied, “Well, number one, my girls know me. They would not lie about something like this.”
As the investigators prodded Ingram he began issuing a bizarre series of “retrieved memories.” Under the pressure of police and psychologist he entered a trance-like state and through vigorous prayer confessed to anything he was accused of – he even appeared to take pleasure in “retrieving” lost memories of his assaults. It would appear that Ingram’s latent eagerness to please authority emerged in these confessions. When he remembered a new assault he would lighten up, beaming with satisfaction at assisting the police. These proceedings were resolutely supported by John Bratun, pastor at the Church of Living Water, who told Ingram that not only God would allow him to remember the truth, but He would also gave him an exorcism. At crucial moments psychologist Richard Peterson impressed Ingram that “repression” of memories and their eventual re-emergence was indeed a psychological reality. Years of “recovered memories” now surfaced in Ingram’s impressionable mind. He then started implicating other people in the abuse. The situation was so unthinkable that he could not truly believe it himself, “Boy, it’s almost like I’m making it up, but I’m not”.
Initially the accusations against Paul Ingram were confined to molestations committed years ago. But before long, his daughters claimed that he had raped them mere months prior. What was more, Ingram had begun telling stories of satanic rituals involving other officers from Thurston County Sheriff’s department. Jim Rabie and Ray Risch, friends of Ingram, were arrested, detained, and questioned. Risch was a mechanic working for Washington State Patrol. Rabie had been a sex-crime detective before retiring (he had previously concluded that accusations of sexual abuse levelled by Ericka Ingram against an erstwhile neighbour were unfounded).
Now Rabie and Risch faced charges that threatened to ruin their lives. Surprisingly, despite Rabie being unable to recollect any violations, he too, became doubtful about his memory. Could it be that he had repressed memories of abuse because he could not bear to face his inner darkness? The detectives told him that there was overwhelming evidence against him. Photographs and witnesses placed his guilt beyond question – they said, although no such photographs existed.
“Individual people, separately, have corroborated that you masturbated in front of and on Julie. Julie tells us that; so does Paul Ingram tell us that,” Schoening continued, selecting one of various conflicting stories. “Don’t you think you’re in a denial state?”
“I must be, because I honestly do not have any recollection of that happening, and I do not believe that I could’ve done it and blocked it out.”
Meanwhile Risch was in a nearby room also being interviewed. He too equivocated on his guilt. “I wasn’t present that I know of, unless I blocked it out of my head,” Risch said. Peterson, the psychologist, went from room to room, working both Rabie and Risch. His belief that “repressed memories” could be accurately extracted from the unconscious formed a central part of the detectives’ case. The authority of Peterson as a professional psychologist and the insistent lies that the men were fed by the detectives caused Rabie and Risch to break down. Lawrence Wright has Jim Rabie say the following, “Give me the responsibility, because I’ve blocked it out enough – I must be the worst one.” And continuing, “The only option is to lock me up, because if I can’t remember this, then I am so damn dangerous I do not deserve to be loose.”
Repressed memories, then, is perhaps the main issue in a story full of dynamite topics. The Satanist panic that spread through America in the 1980s is interesting; the religious superstition is intriguing; the consequences of absolute conviction in the victims’ account without any supporting physical evidence is cautionary; but Remembering Satan is most captivating when it deals with the vagaries of memory. That is where we see naïve psychoanalysis backed by authoritative professionalism combine with moral panic. It was through suggestibility, police pressure, attention desire, authority ingratiation, and other psychological forces that innocent people got caught up in accusations of cannibalistic ritual murder and mutilation of infants, such is where the story ends up.
The accusations grew both in detail and scope. Ericka claimed that more than twenty babies had been slaughtered by a satanic conspiracy gripping most of the state government. She said her father had given her a sexually transmitted disease and forced her to have an abortion. Blood orgies and dismemberment of corpses were conducted as cultic members chanted in unison. The prosecutor tried unsuccessfully to reign in the narrative. Babies had been buried behind the Ingram house, Ericka said. Someone had aborted a baby of hers using a coat hanger and then dislimbed it and smeared it all over her. The improbability of the stories grew like cosmological inflation – endlessly expanding.
Memory of violations was proof positive of guilt – regardless whether the memory was credible. Inability to remember violations only made the police surer of the guilt because repression of such memories was typical for abusers. The same was held true for the victims. Absence of memories was seen as evidence of abuse. There was a popular survivor self-help book called The Courage to Heal, it came to have outsize effects on cases of “recovered memories.” It stated:
Often, the knowledge that you were abused starts with a tiny feeling, an intuition. It’s important to trust that inner voice and work from there. Assume your feelings are valid. So far, no one we’ve talked to thought she might have been abused, and then later discovered that she hadn’t been. The progression always goes the other way, from suspicion to confirmation. If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.
Using arguments akin those in The Courage to Heal, Dr Peterson and Detective Schoening attempted to “retrieve” repressed memories of the other Ingram children. Chad, son of Sandy and Paul Ingram, at one point in an interview went from denying having been sexually assaulted to providing testimony of witches swooping into his room whilst he was raped by cultist members. Chad called them “dreams.” Peterson promptly interpreted their unconscious meaning and declared that there was truth in them, “Chad, these things happened to you,” he said. The difficulty Chad had in believing what he was now “remembering” was because he had been conditioned to forget. “They assaulted your ability to know what was real,” Peterson explained. Trying to ease young Chad’s trouble in producing clear and lucid memories, Peterson gave him every incentive to recollect:
“By God, those who’ve done this to you ought to pay for what they’ve done, Peterson said. “And I’ll tell you something – you have the right to sue those fuckers and get as much as you want from them.”
“That’d be nice,” Chad said.
“You’re damn right it’d be nice. Pay for a college education.”
“Pay for a nice car. Get you started in life.”
“Well, I’ve already got a nice car.”
“Yeah, but do you have a BMW?”
Following this Peterson asked Chad, “Wouldn’t it feel great to say this was real – it’s not a dream?” Throughout the interview, Schoening’s notes tells us, Chad had been in a trance-like state. “Sometimes he would go for 5-10 minutes without saying anything and at one point, drool came out of his mouth and onto the floor.” Chad later retracted his testimony, but the episode demonstrates how the power of circumstances can affect the human psyche.
The satanic craze had gripped the public’s imagination. No one found any physical evidence, but attempts were made. The governor approved a $50’000 grant to continue the investigation. A former FBI agent styling himself as a satanic-cult investigator had private aircraft, equipped with heat-seeking devices, scan the land.
All were not convinced, however. Dr Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist from University of California at Berkeley, and expert on brainwashing, cults, and mind control, had the opportunity to interview several of the concerned parties. He was brought in by the prosecutor to explain how it could be that suspects and victims all showed signs of mind-controlled behaviour. Why was it that none of the suspects could at first remember the crimes and only confessed later, in a trance-like state, when they retrieved their memories? But Ofshe was not just an expert on cultic brainwashing, he was also well read on coercive police interrogations. In fact, the professor had published a paper on false confessions where innocent suspects came to believe in their guilt and confessed.
It did not take long for Ofshe to suspect that Ingram’s confessions were off. Mind-control or not, he did not think that seventeen years of abuse could be completely blocked out while memories of everyday life remained intact. Ofshe asked Ingram to tell him how he went about recalling the memories of abuse.
He told Ofshe he had been practicing a relaxation technique he had read about in a magazine, in which he would imagine going into a warm white fog. Minutes would pass and then more images would come, he said, and felt confident that they were real memories because Pastor Bratun had assured him that God would bring him only the truth. After a while, he would write his memories down. Ofshe wondered if Ingram was possibly taking a daydream and recording it as a memory.
Ofshe decided to perform a “little experiment” on Ingram. He deliberately implanted a fictitious story of abuse where Ingram had forced his children to have sex. No such thing had ever happened. His children denied it and at first Ingram did too. But after being (falsely) told that his children had alleged it and instructed by Ofshe to pray on it for the night, he diligently produced a detailed written report.
I tell Ericka to knell [sic] and to caress Paul’s genitals. When erect I tell her to put the penis into her mouth and to orally stimulate him. I also tell her to continue using her fingers. I have her also run her tongue along his penis. When Paul has his orgasm I have Ericka hold his penis in her mouth and continue stimulation. I tell her to swallow the sperm, but she runs to the bathroom and spits. I tell her to get back to the room & tell her the sperm is protein and won’t hurt her.
This grisly account continues for three pages. It was completely fabricated by Paul Ingram at the prompting of Professor Ofshe. When Ofshe tried to make him admit he had made it up, however, Ingram replied, “It’s just as real to me as anything else.” Next to no pressure was needed to get him to fabricate false memories. The willingness to please authority and the weakness of suggestibility combined to make Ingram ready to admit to anything. Ofshe’s conclusion was that the confessions were false, the accusations incoherent and contradictory. In short, Salem 2.0 was underway.