In a world that agonises over perennial betrayal, cruelty, war, mass slaughter, and other failures of humanity, we passionately long for exemplars of unadulterated goodness — and the child, like some sacred icon, has been traditionally placed upon an imaginary altar so that we might revere virtues lacking in ourselves. This is the benchmark of romanticism: to seek virtue and beauty in groups, places, and times which are remote and relatively unknown. Such lack of knowledge preserves the impeccability of the icon.
Alas, “the innocence of the little ones” is a phrase of dubious veracity, since historical events suggest otherwise. Nowhere has this optimism stumbled over more obstinate obstacles than during the witch hunts of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries. During those not-so-distant years, vast numbers of children gave free rein to the imagination and played back the image of the witch with such zeal that they substantially contributed to the persecution. Without any compunction did they denounce and bring to the stake uncounted thousands of innocent persons. Their victims were old and young, men and women, playmates, and even members of their immediate families.
Many Americans, when hearing of witch trials, only visualise the Salem incidence. Yet compared to the European extent of the witch-hunt, Salem was a minor episode, limited to a panic raging merely one year (1692) and costing the lives of about two dozen victims. Immediately afterwards, the Salem authorities sobered up, realised their lapse into hysteria, admitted to a miscarriage of justice, openly apologised, and tried as much as possible to make amends to the victimised families. The defaming children, however, were never punished for their lethal role.
In Europe, where no one country was spared the scourge of the witch-hunt, no official retraction has ever come forth. No church has ever officially admitted that the witch-hunts were a mistake.
Researchers have just recently become more fully aware that in the majority of witch panics children were responsible for starting the hysteria, fueling it with the wildest of allegations, and completing it with lethal accusations. Children played a pivotal role, linking the power of the inquisitor or the judge to the fates of a variety of people. It is this nexus that is overdue for scientific examination. The question arises whether this type of child behaviour was merely an expression of an aberrant Zeitgeist, of an era of theological fanaticism, or whether it was an expression of a timeless condition found in the child’s psyche.
Evidently, the children’s destructive behaviour cannot be put aside as a neatly encapsulated phenomenon of an erring era, because the classical Salem syndrome is anything bat past history: It is an ongoing process. Children again are the masters of the nexus between the prosecutor and the defendant. This time the accused are not called witches, but molesters or abusers, and a new panic of epidemic proportion is underway.
There are, of course, significant differences between the two maniacal hunts. Most importantly, child molestation is an unfortunate fact of life. It is not fictional, it happens. On the other hand, witchcraft — certainly in the form of its assumed effectuality — was a figment of the theological imagination. Remarkably few of the accused had ever tried their wits in the black arts, and yet the persecutions proceeded with the utmost certainty that they had — a prejudged certainty as we see it again emerge in the persecution of presumed child molesters today. Persons eager to persecute frequently seem to forget that such claims can be true or false. Hence the excellent art today is to learn to distinguish between false and true accusations. Perhaps a better understanding of child psychology can help in this matter.
Modern situations in which children can wreak tragedy include court proceedings where children are stimulated to tune into a theme and harmonise with it. They often pick up cues how to harmonise with leading questions — questions that are not meant to be leading but cannot withstand the intuitive exploitation by perceptive children. Fertile ground for abusing the abuse-accusation are court situations dealing with divorce and the custody of minor children, and the molestation-accusation of teachers, especially of preschool teachers. Children are well endowed with intuitive acuity to figure out what is to their advantage and how to cater to intriguing questions. Moreover, some children are veritable virtuosi in doing so.
This is where the concept of “mythomania” comes into play. This mania to make up myths is also known by the technical term “pseudologia phantastica” and refers to a person’s compulsive lying and making up fantastic stories. This phrase originated with experts in forensic medicine who had the opportunity to observe children giving false testimony. Psychiatrists discovered that a mythomane may initially lie deliberately and consciously, but gradually come to believe in what he or she is saying. The vast majority of persons engaging in such confabulation were children or the mentally disabled.
Interestingly, experts have found that lying by children does not necessarily indicate a chronic pathology and is not classified as mental illness, whereas it is if it persists in adults. Children have an incomplete grasp of the contours of the real world and often resort to making up stories if they are under pressure or if they sense that such stories are expected. When they do make up stories they can be motivated by a variety of reasons. Many engage in mythomania to gain attention and praise, some use it to satisfy precocious sexual appetites, some revel in the power it affords them, and some use it as a vehicle of pure malice. In situations where mythomanes are motivated by attention-seeking, they are particularly susceptible to suggestion. With a flair for figuring out what is expected, they set out on their mythomaniacal journey, during which compelling autosuggestion evolves, with the storytellers programming their brains to confer reality status to the stories. Ultimately it is no longer a question of the child lying; the child starts to believe in the reality of the story.
The material children use to build imaginative structures frequently consists of what they glean from adult conversations. Mythomaniacal children seek suggestions; their radar, as it were, is constantly scanning the social horizon for cues to spin stories rewarding them recognition. Theirs is the skill to quickly evaluate what they overhear and use it to advantage-and sometimes to the detriment of others, innocent or guilty.
This skill, in addition to verbal expressivity, enables mythomanes to tune into a theme with persuasive loquacity. Through confabulation and strategic gossiping, they can humour people’s biases and expectations with such effectiveness that their utterances are accepted as true revelations.
Countless archival documents reflect children’s accusations or children’s confessions as they were brought before the Inquisition or voluntarily came to the authorities to accuse themselves or others of witchcraft. A classic example is the case of a nine-year-old boy from Bamberg in southern Germany. Let us call him Witchboy. This street urchin stood trial for witchcraft in 1629, after he had lingered in prison for more than a year. His confession glittered with all the splendour of mythomania, and he knew which sort of exotic story would net him credulity and reward. Couched in the rich imagery of what the contemporary mind understood as witchery, he skillfully interweaved fantastic details into a supernatural tapestry, including the description of familiars (demons in disguise of domestic animals, usually the stereotypical black cat or dog); the raiding of wine cellars by magical means; the minute depiction of the witches’ night flight; the ointments needed to accomplish such; and the bonus illustration of an accident while in flight: his companion riding with him on the pitchfork fell off, plunged into the River Main, magically metamorphosed into a mouse and scurried on the water to shore, where he, Witchboy, made an emergency landing to pick him up and resume the flight to the witches’ sabbath. Other stories by the boy described additional events of magical quality — for example, the metamorphosis of his playmates into various creatures; a variety of witchery crimes, such as poisoning, conjuring up bad weather, and attending the witches’ sabbath; and finally denunciations of scores of persons.
People at the turn into the 21st-century, steeped as they are in present-day empirical science, might think that such childish prattle must have been absolutely incredible to the inquisitors. Let me assure you, however, that they believed every word of it. There is evidence for that: They acted on it! At least one of the persons denounced by the boy was consequently burned as a witch.
The ultimate escalation of mythomania is not only telling stories and believing them, but acting them out. There are innumerable historical episodes exemplifying this type of mythomaniacal enactment, with the classic case being “possession.” The state of being “possessed” signifies the escalation from being a mythomane to being a “demonopath,” a person claiming to be suffering from demonic torments. The demon path is far from being a passive victim of his or her affliction and was often the active initiator of witch panics, playing an aggressive role in the prosecution of witches.
Also, the demonopath is far from being a historical relic. The case of Anneliese Michel deserves mention, if for no other reason than to demonstrate historical continuity of religious-cultural images. This 22-year-old woman was a student at the University of Würzburg and in the late 1970s exhibited symptoms — including spasms, writhing, speaking in devilish tongues — construed by her devout Catholic family as diabolic possession. The archbishop of Würzburg concurred with their diagnosis and entrusted two priests to perform the Exorcism from the 17th-century Rituale Romanum. To the embarrassment of the church, the victim died of starvation during the procedures, for the exorcists had added the discipline of fasting to the other means of driving out the demons. Insult was added to embarrassment when the district attorney’s investigation and a trial found the two priests guilty of negligent manslaughter.
There are at least two conditions that intensify the aggressiveness of mythomanes in general and demonopaths in specific: Group reinforcement (they often enact their roles collectively) and an accepting audience. In fact, there are no such things as private demonopaths; they perform only when they are able to captivate an audience. The case of Anneliese Michel revealed the full complement of a performance of possession: Star (herself), manager (priests), and audience (family, relatives, neighbours).
Intense collective reinforcement was observed among the Salem girls. A crescendo performance took place when they attended the hearing of Goody Cory whom they accused of having bewitched them. When Martha Cory tried to defend her innocence and assured the court that she was a Godfearing “Gospel woman,” one of the girls yelled “Gospel witch,” a cry that was immediately taken up by the rest of the girls. At the same time they imitated every move the woman made. The significance of the two behaviour forms, echolalia (compulsively repeating sounds in an echolike fashion) and echomania (compulsively imitating bodily movements or gestures), was the collective method reinforcing the individual girl’s behaviour — in fact, one should not refer to individual behaviour; it was group behaviour. The girls behaved identically; they all had regressed to a common emotional-visceral denominator.
The basic ingredients of such role enactments are taken from three sources: the cultural context (beliefs, traditions), the social context (direct involvement in social Interaction), and the personal motives. What that means in regard to children is that they take the concerns of the day, interweave them with cultural images, and then mould stories from which they can derive personal benefit. In the process, they take advantage of the credibility accorded them and pursue personal goals, such as prestige, praise, rebellion, revenge. This does not mean that the children themselves recognise their own motives, they act on the basis of a variety of emotional needs unexamined by the rational mind.
The Salem girls Abigail and Betty, members of a Puritan preacher’s family, for example, got away with insulting what probably constituted the most sacred item in the home, the Holy Bible, by scornfully flinging it across the room. Here is a convergence of the cultural, social, and personal elements: the Bible as a sacred item in the culture of the Puritans, the family context with parental authority, and personal feelings of resentment against authority, sacred and parental. The result was the eruption of that resentment with impunity under the protection of enacting “the role of the afflicted.” Betty Parris, brought up by the strictest of Puritans, finally found a way to strike back. Her skilful acting granted her celebrity status by the very people she abused.
The key element in mythomania and demonopathy is suggestibility. Observers on the modern scene have witnessed the creation of mythomaniacal profusion during numerous court hearings dealing with claims of child molestation. They noticed how a biased and one-sided climate was created through the unconscious collaboration of the questioner and the child, whereby the child emerged as if a proven victim of perverse crime.
In the majority of cases, concerned adults, particularly parents, showed anxiousness to know all about the assault — its nature, time, place, motive, and so on. The child may initially have been bewildered and embarrassed by all the questions — a reaction interpreted by the questioner, or the court, as a sign of shame. Right away the child would be inundated by encouraging words and leading questions. The child would follow the lead and answer in a way to meet the more or less obvious expectations of the questioners. The hearing would turn into a rehearsal of a story that the child now learned by heart. In future rehearings, the child stuck to the version now imprinted in his or her mind. The only changes the child might make consisted of adding new material conforming to this version.
The majority of the cases included claims of sexual abuse. Research by psychologists David Raskin and Phillip Esplin found that children involved in parental abuse cases often took advantage of their power in court proceedings to fabricate sexual abuse in order to punish one parent or side with the other. The researchers noted that such distortion was a strong tendency when divorce, custody, or visitation disputes were involved.
After so many rehearsals, children become unable to recognise their stories as fabulations, and only through evidence from other sources can it become clear that they made up stories. Such evidence emerged at the end of a trial in Bjugn, Norway, in 1993, when six accused persons had to be set free and financially compensated. Also, the accusing children were financially compensated, since it was recognised that they had been, almost systematically, led astray by suggestive questioning. Consequently, the Norwegian Ministry of Justice made an effort to establish binding rules for hearing testimony by minors.
While research into the actual forensic problems proved to be extremely difficult, a number of psychologists have chosen laboratory situations in an attempt to identify the principles underlying children’s vulnerability to influence and manipulation. While the findings are far from complete, several insights have been gained.
Suggestibility varies with age. Psychologist Maria Zaragoza found that young children (under eight) have greater difficulty than older children and adults in distinguishing between imagined events and those they actually experienced. “Given the greater tendency to confuse imagination with perception, young children might also be more likely to confuse items I that were merely suggested to them with those they had actually perceived.”
If, however, an intrusion of extraneous information and the posing of leading questions are avoided — thus creating a sort of cognitively sterile environment for the child — children’s recall of factual material has been found to be amazingly accurate, approaching in quality that of adults. Research data show that “children are capable of being good eyewitnesses, but that their recall appears to be more vulnerable to various distorting influences in the interview situation than does adult recall.”
Once a child begins a course of confabulation, a process of self-brainwashing snaps into action. Self-brainwashing differs from brainwashing, as the former starts with voluntary confabulation and gradually assumes truth value in the mind of the narrator. The latter starts with external pressure to persuade a person to change his or her mind and ends with a new orientation.
Studies on the truth value of children’s verbalisations have been conducted at the Institute for the Study of Child Development at the University of Medicine of New Jersey. It was discovered that already at age three a majority of children will lie in certain situations. When the liars were challenged, only 38% of them admitted to having lied, with boys more likely than girls admitting their dishonesty. Another study found that deception can often be detected by unconscious body movements that differ from the person’s normal movements. However, such differentiating body language was missing in “pathological liars or those who simply feel no remorse about lying.” Findings of this nature bear on the credibility of children’s testimony and accusations in more than one way. First, they remind us that children may lie; second, they proffer the disturbing fact that liars and truth-tellers cannot easily be told apart.
A revealing study identified some of the dangers that may arise from children’s reports. Psychologists Karen Saywitz and Gail Goodman interviewed 72 girls, ages five and seven, about routine medical procedures they had received. Half were given full examination, including vaginal and anal checks; the rest were given just general physicals. When the first group was asked broad and nonspecific questions about the procedure, only eight mentioned the vaginal checks, and when the children were shown anatomically correct dolls, six-pointed to the vaginal area. However, of the girls who had undergone a merely general checkup, three claimed they also had had vaginal or anal examinations; one child even said that “a doctor did it with a stick.”
Most of the claims of abuse and the resulting trials involve daycare centres, preschools, and divorce/custody disputes. The most frequent charges of sexual abuse occur as a part of custody quarrels. According to estimates, the charge is raised in about 5% of child-custody cases. A 1988 study by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts concluded the charges probably are false 30-40% of the time. Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager researched the psychological profile of the accusers (mostly parents using their children’s testimony) and discovered that 74% of the falsely accusing parents were afflicted with personality disorders. Regardless of their problems, they usually are successful in using sex-molestation charges as a strategy to obtain custody and to achieve revenge against former spouses. The children become pawns in the process, and the opponents vie for their cooperation. The party winning is usually the one that is more successful in manipulating the children.
This brings to mind a disturbing parallelism between patterns of the past witch-hunt and patterns of the present court proceedings. In both scenarios, children were often asked to report on their family life, especially whether it incorporated elements deviating from acceptable standards. And in both situations, children catered to the inquisitiveness of the authority figures in order to be appreciated and made to feel significant.
Increasing numbers of preschools have become the target of child molestation charges. One dealt with a San Diego Sunday school teacher, Dale Akiki, whom nine children accused of rape, sodomy, and torture. The drawn-out court hearings heard the children’s claims that the teacher had killed a baby, sacrificed rabbits, and slaughtered an elephant and a giraffe. The jury in the Superior Court concluded that the children were not credible and acquitted Akiki — after he had spent two and a half years behind bars.
Another case dealt with a teacher at a New Jersey day-care centre. Kelly Michaels, 25, was convicted on 115 counts of sexually assaulting 20 pupils at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood during the 1984-85 school year. The children ranged in age from three to five at the time of the alleged abuse and were six to eight when they testified. Michaels was convicted despite her lawyer’s demonstration that the children’s stories were fantasies that had been created through intriguing questions asked by overzealous investigators, and that there was no medical evidence of abuse. The jury, however, believed the parents who said “they observed marked changes in their children’s behaviour while they were in Michaels’ care. They reported that some children experienced nightmares, developed a fear of the dark, showed aversion to peanut butter, and exhibited increased interest in sex play.” The convictions were ultimately overturned on appeal after Michaels spent five years in prison; she had received a sentence amounting to hundreds of years in prison.
A most destructive version of the genre took its fateful course in 1983 at a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. Two teachers at the McMartin preschool, Peggy Buckey, 63, and her son Raymond, 31, were accused by Judy Johnson, the mother of a two-and-one-half-year-old boy, of having molested her son. Thereupon a public hysteria spread, resembling old Salem, and soon 41 children were involved and 208 counts filed against seven individuals.
Johnson’s complaints against the teachers grew bizarre. Later, as the investigation was still underway, Johnson was diagnosed an acute paranoid schizophrenic and died of alcohol-related liver disease. However, by then the prosecution had stirred up enough other witnesses and felt no need to revise the initial witness’s testimony. The police had written to 200 parents announcing their investigation of sexual abuse at the preschool, thereby fanning the hysteria and encouraging more children to come forth with lurid tales of abuse.
An administrator-turned-therapist soon established that 369 of the 400 children she interviewed had been abused. Her technique was blatantly suggestive — she gave emotional rewards to the children who accused the teachers, and rebuffs to those who did not. “What good are you? You must be dumb,” she said to one child who knew nothing about the game Naked Movie Star.” The collection of stories she presented to the authorities as being credible included children digging up dead bodies at cemeteries; being taken for rides in airplanes; killing animals (including a horse) with bats; observing devil worship; being buried alive; seeing naked priests cavorting in a secret cellar below the school; seeing a teacher fly; having been given red or pink liquids to make them sleepy. Reminiscent of the denunciations made by children at witch trials during past centuries, the preschool children identified a number of members of the community as they were driven around town and asked to point out molesters. The children pointed out community leaders, store clerks, gas-station attendants; one child picked out photos of actor Chuck Norris and Los Angeles City Attorney James Hahn.
Rather than discrediting the testimony of the children, the district attorney in Los Angeles pressed ahead with the prosecution and presented 18 children to the grand jury, which in March 1985 returned indictments against Raymond Buckey, his mother, sister, grandmother, and three preschool teachers. They were arrested with full (national and international) publicity. In January 1986, charges against five of those jailed were unexpectedly dropped as a new district attorney took over and declared a complete absence of evidence. However, Peggy Buckey and her son Raymond remained incarcerated and suffered the longest criminal trial in American history. It was not until 1990 that they were acquitted — after they had spent two years and five years, respectively, in jail.
There is a frightening story to be told about the power of the mass media. The California episode was exploited by the media and produced a tremendous repercussion across the nation — not one of caution, as one might have expected, but one of ever larger numbers of children imitating similar claims. “Nationally, the attention generated by the case set off an explosion of reports claiming sexual abuse of children, increasing such reports from 6,000 in 1976 to an estimated 350,000 in 1988.” The main responsibility for the explosion must be placed on the mass media which wallowed in lurid detail. The perils created by the media’s suggestive force include increasing numbers of parents and authorities using the malleable power of children to bring about testimonies serving biases and schemes of partisan adults. As someone warned: “Some parents, determined to damage each other in a divorce, are throwing abuse charges around. Those bent on destroying a reputation have a surefire weapon.” This modern “surefire weapon” is the equivalent of the witch accusation of past times; again it is based on the testimony of children, a testimony whose truth value is hard to prove or disprove, but still a testimony too often credulously accepted.
The claim of repressed memories plays an increasing role in court cases against alleged child molesters. Stephen Ceci’s experiments at Cornell University showed, however, that children filter their memories and, depending on the direction of the manipulation, will reassemble the extract to form a variety of pictures. Elizabeth Loftus conducted a series of experiments that showed that memories can be radically altered through suggestive questions. Taking a person’s traumatic experience (such as having been the victim of a crime) as the starting point, Loftus registered remarkable distortions over time in the memory of the victim.
Loftus then tested the possibility of creating memories of events that never took place. Here is the example of a young boy, Chris, whose older brother was one of her students. Chris’s older brother asked him to tell what he recalled of an incident ten years ago in which he was separated from his parents and lost in a large shopping mall. Chris was finally found by an older man and returned to his parents. However, in reality, this incident was imaginary. However, Chris was repeatedly asked to tell and retell the episode along with other incidents that were real. It became evident that Chris gradually came to believe that the imaginary incident had taken place in reality. He described the older man and filled in details, which in the original story had not been mentioned at all.
In the light of these research findings a new genre of “experts” must be regarded with scepticism: counsellors and therapists claiming to be able to unearth “repressed memories.” They are the new inquisitors of postmodern civilisation and, for hefty fees, will belabour the suggestibility of troubled personalities. What these “memory therapists” try to unearth are such traumas as incest, satanic ritual, and witnessing human sacrifice — and what, at times, they accomplish is illustrated by this case: A 39-year-old woman sought respite from a prolonged depression and an explanation of its cause. During several weeks of treatment, a family counsellor guided her awareness back to incest during her childhood, though the patient initially had no recall of such abuse. However, the therapist kept prodding, and lurid details finally emerged, assumed to be the content of repressed memories about incestuous abuse when she was a baby. Thereupon she confronted her father, broke off her relationship with him, moved away, and founded an incest-survivors group. Later, after taking eye-opening psychology courses in college, she reexamined her “memories” and recognised them as artefacts created with the cooperation of the therapist. She asked her father’s forgiveness and filed a lawsuit against the psychiatric hospital.
It goes without saying that if an adult’s suggestibility can suffer such misguidance, what about children’s? Misguidance at a young age may result in an impression that no counsellor or college course can ever correct. But, as mentioned earlier, it would be wrong to assume that all accusations made by children are false. Preferably, the problem is to distinguish the false from the true.