Faked or real animal sacrifice... electric shock... abusive religious and political systems... medical experimentation... forced prostitution... attempted brainwashing... forcing victims to consume urine and feces... programming... burying victims alive... drugging... destroying or perverting family bonds... forcing children to abuse others.... These are some of the hallmarks of ritual abuse.
"Ritual abuse" is defined and used in many different ways. It first rose into the public awareness as satanic ritual abuse in the 1980s. Even now people often associate all ritual abuse with Satanism, even though any system of belief can be (and has been) perverted to justify and create abuse.
"I used to refer to this as "Systematic Repetitive Abuse" in SRA contexts, just to hammer home the point that it wasn't all due to some bizarre conspiracy.... It's a human thing to make rituals, we do it all the time. Abusive people make abusive rituals." - Bob King
Ritual abuse should be distinguished from ritualized abuse. Ritualized abuse does not require a "systematic" component and is merely abuse that takes place in a repeated, formalized manner. It is the difference between the religious rituals associated with Easter, and the mundane ritual of brushing one's teeth and going to bed. As well as including a political or religious justification, ritual abuse is generally characterized by extreme physical and sexual abuse, and often by taking place within a group of adults, whether it's a family or a social organization of some kind.
Ritual abuse can be tricky; it often contains the seeds of its own invisibility. That is, a lot of ritual abuse seems designed to make sure the survivors will not be believed. An abuser may don a Mickey Mouse or alien mask because if their young victim ever tries to tell someone that Mickey abused them, they will sound delusional. There has been speculation that at least some of the alien abduction stories out there, especially with the bright lights and the probing, are connected to experiences of ritual abuse. As the Dominion Conquest puts it,
The purpose of ritual elements of the abuse seems threefold: 1.) rituals in some groups are part of a shared belief or worship system. 2.) rituals are used to intimidate victims into silence. 3.) ritual elements (devil worship, animal or human sacrifice) seem so unbelievable to those unfamiliar with these crimes that these elements detract from the credibility of the victims and make prosecution of the crimes very difficult."6
Definitions of Ritual Abuse
It might be more apropos to call this section "Descriptions of Ritual Abuse," because this kind of abuse consists of a group of characteristics which might not all be present in any given ritually abusive situation. For example:
According to Safeline, "One definition of ritual abuse is when one or more children are abused in a highly organized way, by a group of people who have come together and subscribe to a belief system which, for them, justifies their actions towards that child. This usually extends into family involvement and may have been practiced as a religion or a way of life for years." 1
The Ritual Abuse Task Force of the L.A. County Commission For Women (1989 report) takes a more extreme view, saying that "Ritual abuse usually involves repeated abuse over an extended period of time. The physical abuse is severe, sometimes including torture and killing. The sexual abuse is usually painful, humiliating, intended as a means of gaining dominance over the victim. The psychological abuse is devastating and involves the use of ritual indoctrination. It includes mind control techniques which convey to the victim a profound terror of the cult members...most victims are in a state of terror, mind control and dissociation."2
By contrast, a similar project taken on in 1995 by The Canberra Women's Health Centre focused on the purpose of the abuse as well as some political aspects: "Ritual abuse is organized abuse carried out by a group for the purpose of achieving power or making money. The abuse aims to break a person's spirit and to gain the ultimate in power - absolute control over another human being. Religious or pseudo-religious beliefs are used as part of controlling others. It encompasses deliberate human and biological experimentation, technological mind control conditioning and criminal activity (eg prostitution, drug trafficking, arms dealing)."3
Healing Roads looks at the elements involved in cases of ritual abuse and compares them to similar situations on a larger scale: "In a broad sense, many of our overtly or covertly socially sanctioned actions can be seen as ritual abuse, such as army boot military basic training, hazing, racism, spanking children, and partner-battering.... The term ritual abuse is generally used to mean prolonged, extreme, sadistic abuse, especially of children, within a group setting. The group's ideology is used to justify the abuse, and abuse is used to teach the group's ideology. The activities are kept secret from society at large, as they violate norms and laws."4
And Sanctuary Unlimited helpfully isolates some of the basic emotional elements of ritual abuse affecting children:
Ritual abuse is extremely controversial, at least in much of the United States, at the time of this writing. Partly, this is because "ritual abuse" is often assumed to be synonymous with Satanic ritual abuse, and Satanic ritual abuse is often assumed to mean one large, connected cult working across the world to abuse children.
The natural response to this, from a population conditioned toward cynicism, is scorn and disbelief. However, when viewed on a smaller scale - the Sunday school teacher or priest, the already-abusive family with a fanatically fundamental religion to draw from, the extremely similar experiences of many people ritually abused in the same town - it does not always seem so difficult to believe that ritual abuse can take place, if not on the same large scale.
As far as the disbelief goes that there are groups out there with religious beliefs and actions that seem reprehensibly abusive to most people, the tables may be turning. Despite many people's knee-jerk denial on the subject, ritual abuse was suggested as a serious possibility in the Lori Peterson murder case in California recently. An NBC article on the case even, surprisingly, referred twice to "several Satanic cults known to operate in Modesto." One reader commented, "When I was living in the San Bernardino area everyone knew about the 20 to 30 dead cats and dogs pulled out of the culverts every year, all carved up. I figured that every major and middling city has its own little cult of perverts."
Beyond the Family:
Institutionalized Ritual Abuse
Most discussion of ritual abuse limits itself to parent-child abuse, and occasionally includes intragenerational ritual abuse -- abuse that has been passed down in a family through the generations, and, often, abuse connected to an organization or belief system which the family members share.
However, there are many forms of abuse which share the characteristics described above, and not all of them are commonly recognized as ritual abuse even among their survivors. Let's look at a few of them, and see what they have in common.
One anti-circumcision/anti-genital-mutilation newsletter in Japan quoted a 1993 Ms. Magazine article on ritual abuse:
"I am a survivor of cult ritual abuse.... I personally witnessed the removal of a boy's testicle as part of a ritual ceremony. Nothing was used to numb the pain. He was instructed to tell anyone who asked that he had been born with only one testicle. Many cult rituals focus on sexual themes. My mother and my best friend were both raped as part of fertility rituals. the victim was strapped to the altar table in front of a ritual gathering and systematically gang-raped while the fertility rites were chanted."The newsletter editor continued by quoting the author's byline:
"'Elizabeth S. Rose is the pseudonym of a free-lance writer currently working on a novel about ritual abuse. She lives with her husband in the southeastern U.S. They have two children who have never been exposed to cult activities.' GOOD! I guess that means her children have never been circumcised. Seriously, do you see any correlation between the above passages and circumcision?"8
They are not the only ones who have drawn this connection. Many survivors of intersex genital mutilation also identify as ritual abuse survivors. Apparently this may have originated with Emi Koyama, an activist who worked this idea out with her mentor, who was a survivor of one of the "big five" death camps in Nazi Germany.
I am not intersexed, so all I can share is what I've learned from others while trying to educate myself on intersex issues. But this is how I've heard it explained:
You're strapped down on a bed and a bunch of men in masks are wielding knives at you. There are bright lights shining in your eyes. This happens over and over throughout your childhood. Their behavior is part of a ritualized belief system, but they won't admit it. You're being medically experimented on (in the words of the people doing the experiments), except that, unlike with government ritual abuse survivors or survivors of Nazi medical experimentation, nobody is taking notes, doing studies or following up on long-term physical effects. (Fascinated and largely exploitative sociologists don't count.) You know that you have a horrible shameful and traumatic secret, but you don't know what happened to you and nobody will talk about it.
(As Emi Koyama has written, "Many intersex adults report that it was not necessarily the surgery that was most devastating for their self-esteem: For many, it is the repeated exposure to what we call 'medical display' or the rampant practice where a child is stripped down to nude and placed on the bed while many doctors, nurses, medical students and others come in and out of the room, touching and prodding and laughing to each other. Children who experience this get the distinct sense that there is something terribly wrong with who they are and are deeply traumatized."9)
Your parents are in on it too. They routinely raped you with medical-issue phalluses and vibrators, but you probably don't remember that yet. Or you do, and it's even worse because everyone acts like nothing's wrong and won't talk about it. Or because the doctors ordered them to and gave them the equipment. Besides being raped and having your genitals mutilated, you're probably being physically and sexually abused in more everyday ways as well, by the doctors or your family or both. Your sense of reality is certainly being mutilated as thoroughly as your genitals were. And ideally (from the doctor's point of view) they've done their job so well that there's no visible evidence that your body was ever "abnormal," only the medical records which are frequently worded in a way that obscures what happened to you and why, if you can even get them. And your perpetrators are pillars of the community whose abuse of you in that community is totally legitimized even though nobody talks about it openly.
Not only is it their job, but they are lauded for being your savior; they are seen as benevolent and generous for performing your torture.
Which brings us to....
Government Ritual Abuse
Ritual abuse often involves torture and programming, often using techniques also used by the CIA in projects like Project Artichoke, MKULTRA, and Project Monarch.
The latter two in particular have been at the center of a great deal of controversy and even conspiracy theory as more and more survivors of CIA experimentation come forward. They often identify as ritual abuse survivors; many of them also experienced familial, even multigenerational abuse. Within the survivor community, moreover, this kind of abuse is generally accepted as either the same as or very similar to ritual abuse.
The CIA has been torturing and programming people in more ways than should be imaginable since even before they existed. However, their work is not the only form of government ritual abuse.
Most specifically, your friendly local indoctrination program, whether it is called boot camp, basic training, or something else entirely. This program generally includes sleep deprivation, depersonalization, and isolation. These are the same tools that serve more ordinary cults so well. There are variations, depending largely upon the individuals in charge, the location, and the political climate. Some people return with "Beetle Bailey" stories; others return in a permanent, subtle state of shell-shock.
A friend of mine has a younger brother who just completed basic training. They are very close, possibly closer than anyone else in their family. While he still tries to be very open with her, she has spoken of seeing him slowly shut down emotionally. There are things he doesn't tell her now, in an attempt to protect her.
On a recent visit home, they were in the car together when he hit a deer. It was an accident, in the middle of the woods. The deer did not survive. Her brother told her later how effective the military training had been: he did not have any reaction to hitting the deer, then or later. He no longer felt any emotional response to gory, traumatic events.
Others who have experienced time in literal cults like the Sedona Institute have spoken about similar techniques: training designed to let people witness terrible violence without feeling a thing. It's the perfect training for perpetrating ritual abuse. And, of course, were her brother in combat, this would be (from a military perspective) desirable. But no one spends their entire lives in combat. And unfortunately, shutting down people's emotions and sending them into combat is at best a divine recipe for post-traumatic stress disorder - and at worst, for perpetuating that kind of trauma on others in their civilian lives.
Most studies on the effects of basic training in the United States have limited themselves to the purely physical or the criminal: does it improve cardiovascular health, does it instill obedience, is it a good model for the "justice system," how long do the physical effects of basic training last, et cetera. I am currently reviewing studies on the psychological effects of basic training around the world. I will expand this writeup soon in that respect, but for the moment I'll leave you with this quote on basic training in South Africa.
"During basic training, conscripts’ attitudes underwent a rapid change; many who began with a liberal point of view or who were against apartheid, soon changed as they were exposed to severe discipline, propaganda and peer pressure (Cawthra et al, 1994).
"Some of the psychological effects of conscription were considered, and mention was made of the high rate of suicide among conscripts. Conscription was seen as a dehumanizing, alienating and generally frightening experience. Many conscripts were straight out of school, they were away from their families and friends for the first time, and entered a hostile environment in which the main aim was to eradicate any of their own individual identity and consequently make them obedient soldiers. (ibid)"18
"In China, the 'Reeducation Through Labor' camps are a sterling example. RTL camps are basically barbed wire manual labor camps for 'enemies of the state', any person in China can be summarily sent there for up to three years without a formal trial. Also, currently in use in the Caucusus region (Chechnya in particular), are what the Russians call, 'Filtration Camps', and from the few stories that have managed to leak out, rape, torture, mass-burials and more human rights violations then you can shake a stick at, are like a picnic in comparison to these 'Filtration Camps'."21Another author documents the concentration camps that were created at the turn of the twentieth century in South Africa:
"There were 31 camps for Boer women and children and 65 for black workers and their families. Conditions in the camps were appalling -- especially so for those whose husbands and fathers were known still to be fighting, who were put on half rations. Overcrowding, malnutrition and inadequate medical care eventually killed many thousands of people: up to 27,000 Boer women and children and 20,000 black people, 80% of them children."20One major proponent of these kind of camps is often overlooked: the United States.
The difference between a concentration and an internment camp is largely one of imagination. We Americans are often taught to imagine that while concentration camps are places of horror and torture, internment camps are clean little places where the citizens we're scared of are held until political madness has passed -- of course reprehensibly, of course traumatically, but certainly not on the level of concentration camps!
In fact, what goes on in a concentration camp varies entirely from location to location. Most of them can be characterized very generally as places where people are held, tortured in some way, and die in great numbers. The United States has had many such camps over the last century, as has Canada. In fact, some histories of Japanese-American Internment Camps explicitly call them concentration camps. And as described in German Internment Camps in World War II, the U.S. had fifty camps for citizens of German and Italian descent. Many of all these also served as forced labor camps.19
As legal specialist Elise Hendrick writes, "The association of the term 'concentration camp' with Auschwitz and other Nazi horrors (often more accurately called 'extermination camps') is actually a perversion of the original meaning of the term. The reason "concentration" is in the term is that the idea was to 'concentrate' as many potentially subversive people together into a small area to be able to ferret out the ones who would be real trouble while keeping everyone else contained. A concentration camp true to the meaning of the word is something more like the camps in the Boer war, the camps for Japanese Americans, the 'strategic hamlets' of Vietnam and Japanese-occupied Manchukuo, and Camp Delta."22
This category also includes the treatment of political prisoners around the globe. Perhaps Amnesty International should be considered an anti-ritual-abuse organization -- or notified that they are one.
"It could be said that we as colonizers and oppressors of the Americas are at least in part responsible for the Holocaust as our example facilitated it."23
It is a very short hop from recognizing things like concentration camps
and the myriad events of the Holocaust as ritual abuse to recognizing the
link between ritual abuse and genocide. Most concentration camps and the
reasons for them are acts of genocide, of course. The United
Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defines
genocide as "any of the following acts committed to destroy, in whole or
part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
1. Killing members of the group;
2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."24
Almost any ritual abuse survivor will recognize part or all of that list as describing, on a numerically smaller scale, their own experiences. Of course, many acts of genocide -- or of other ritual abuse -- go much farther than that.
The Abu Ghraib Prison abuse scandal15 is a case in point. Like other cases of governmental abuse, it shares many characteristics and acts with cases of familial and religious ritual abuse. Nor is this the only place where this connection has been made.13,14 Given the techniques used to condition soldiers to be numb to (and dissociate from) all kinds of violence, this kind of abuse is not surprising. It is a vivid example of the rapid way that abuse becomes self-perpetuating.
The photos which have been broadcast bear a striking similarity to images of "traditional" ritual abuse,10,11 particularly those in which prisoners are forced to kneel in a pyramid, naked except for hoods over their heads... not to mention the extensive sexual abuse - that is, rape - of prisoners. Human rights groups including the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Christian Peacemaker Teams have been reporting much more widespread abuse since the war began, and have largely been ignored by the United States media and government. According to Al-Jazeerah news,
In hundreds of interviews with former detainees over the past nine months, rights groups say a clear pattern of abuse has emerged, with the vast majority of prisoners saying they were beaten, hooded, deprived of sleep and often stripped.
In some isolated cases the abuse was much worse, they say, with detainees I am a rape survivor|sodomised or sexually assaulted in ways similar to the pictures of abuse that have emerged over the past week.
One international rights group, Christian Peacemaker Teams, which has been operating in Iraq on and off since late 2002, estimated that around 80 percent of former detainees it interviewed had rape committed by women|suffered abuse of one form or another.... Stewart Vriesinga, a coordinator for Christian Peacemakers... said his organization had taken depositions from Iraqis who said they had been stripped, made to pull their buttocks apart and been kicked in the rectum.16
Even early reports of the abuse12 spoke of naked, hooded prisoners forced to undergo electric shocks to the fingers, toes, and penis. Anyone familiar with the Central Intelligence Agency|CIA's own disclosures about Project Monarch will recognize this technique.
This abuse has already been compared by many to what happened in the Stanford Prison experiment. All of these examples can teach us a lot about the different circumstances and experiences that cause people to ritually abuse others.
How Can These Things Happen?
There is, May 9, 2004|at the time of this writing, much oblique discussion of this issue in the news. That is, there are many journalists focusing on the question "How did this happen in Abu Ghraib?" instead of "How does this happen, all over, all the time?" Many of them simply repeat the government's own justifications: there was bad training, there was inadequate leadership, it was an isolated incident.
In comparing it with the Stanford experiment, however, some news sources have come up with useful ideas. One story in particular, in the Seattle Times17, came up with a few ideas. They interviewed the director of Northeastern University's Brudnick Center on Violence and the head of West Point's department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, speaking with them about both the Stanford prison experiment and the current situation, and offered the following ideas.
First, that in the Stanford experiment, part of the problem lay in the "guards" viewing the "prisoners" as subhuman, and that in war, "people are forced to see the enemy as sub-human."
Second, that Herd mentality and you, a node on the wonders of conformity|mob mentality plays a big part in these events: that is much easier to overlook the apparent amorality of violent acts, or to justify them, when there are many others doing it too. It ceases to be your problem, and becomes the problem of the nameless group, in much the same way that corporation|corporations are treated as individuals and take the legal penalties for immoral acts by their officers.
This is also where the alleged lack of leadership comes into the Abu Ghraib situation: whether the leaders condoned these actions or were absent (or both), the people involved were not being watched by anyone who might tell them to stop. There was, according to the Seattle article, "a sense that no one (was) really watching," an environment without any boundaries.
Third, absolute power corrupts absolutely|power corrupts. According to the West Point behavioral scientist, "the literature of social psychology shows ordinary people can become cruel and abusive when given absolute power and authority over others."
Fourth, and in my opinion most important, this kind of abuse generally stems from violent, abusive experiences. As the article's (apparently anonymous) author writes, "A personal history of maltreatment or violence tends to make someone more prone to buckle." And of course, war creates the kind of horrific violence which gives rise to PTSD, dissociation, and more violence in spades.
In short, as one United States|American survivor of ritual abuse has said,
"I feel like a political history of the United States would show anyone, we have a history, this is what we do here -- why would it stop? Genocide against First Nations people, slavery, The Transcontinental Railroad|indentured servitude of Chinese and other laborers on the railroads, forcing certain kinds of family structures and whatever, breaking other kinds of family structures -- a hallmark of ritual abuse is to break people's bonds, break people's sense of family bonding. That's what they did in slavery and with the Chinese Immigration and the United States|Chinese indentured laborers. Internment camps, concentration camps, that's all happened here. Political prisoners, just the way prisons are run here, that totally violates international law. Different medical oppressions of people of color, women, queers, disabled people, mentally ill people, et cetera. In context... ritual abuse is just what happens in that kind of culture. Why are people surprised?"7
Not all abuse is an intentional act of physical or emotional harm. In mainstream United States society, we tend to embrace binaries: male/female, black/white, abuser/survivor|victim. One effect of these dichotomies is the demonization of abusers.
Many people prefer to see abuse as simple. It seems safer o them to think of abusers as mean, angry, violent, and bad on a very deep level. This kind of dehumanization|dehumanizing belief gives people the illusion that they would know an abuser if they saw one - the illusion of safety.
In fact, many people commit abusive acts because they love someone or want to help them:
These situations still involve abuse, not to mention a crucial disconnection from - a lack of awareness of - the effects of these actions. That does not mean that those people have not committed abuse. It just means that we need to broaden our ideas of what it means to abuse someone.
Furthermore, if we imagine that abusers are only bad people who abuse others intentionally, we make it very difficult for people to take responsibility for acts that they realize were or are abusive. That dichotomy can wreak havoc and keep people from seeking help. If we do not have compassion and understanding even for abusers, we are helping to perpetuate abuse.
Resources related to ritual abuse:
7. Personal interview, March 10, 2004.
22. Personal communication online, 2004.
Originally written for everything2.com. comment on this piece. (c) 2005 catherine h.