Training Session on Ritual Abuse
for Crisis Counselors and Hot-Line Workers
Many thanks to J. and D., who compiled this information, and to the organization that anonymously donated it to the Ritual Abuse Home Page. (The generosity of the organization helped keep this typist going through the first five years of healing.)
Please feel free to copy and distribute this material.
The term "ritual abuse" is used to mean different things: it can mean "ritualistic" abuse: repetitive, planned out, compulsive abuse by an isolated perpetrator. More frequently, it describes abuse by an organized group of people, most often by a satanic cult. This presentation is about abuse in satanic cults.
The abuse is used to gain ultimate control over another human being, control by torture of the mind, body, and spirit. The abuse happens as part of a ritual. It can happen at any time but is especially likely to happen on a child's birthday and on satanic holidays, which include May 1, Halloween, Easter, the solstices, and Christmas. The cult tries to destroy any kind of life-affirming connections based on caring, replacing them with connections based on torture and death.
Because the abuse begins when the individual is a young child, the effects are deeply ingrained. The child is not developmentally sophisticated enough to understand what is happening to her/him. Both girls and boys are victimized, and both men and women are perpetrators. In this presentation we will be talking about women, though most of these issues can be generalized to men.
Programming (a form of mind control) is the key to ritual abuse: it is an intrinsic element in forcing people to participate and later to be afraid to leave the cult or come forward. The abuse is systematic and designed to bind the child to the cult. Members of satanic cults try to create a new reality for the child based on fear. They may set out to create multiple personalities which they can control. This is achieved by:
Torture of the Body
Survivors have been gang raped, electroshocked, buried alive, hung from ceilings by their hands/feet, and drugged to increase their sense of helplessness.
Torture of the Spirit
Survivors are forced to choose in no-win moral dilemmas: "You can watch this cat be slowly tortured to death, or you can kill it." (Purpose: to get her to believe she is part of the cult, an evil person). It's not unusual for a girl to be forcibly impregnated, labor induced, and the baby killed. Children have been forced to sexually abuse another child for pornographic pictures. The cult will later use the pornography for blackmail.
Torture of the Mind
Some cults set out to program (brainwash): for example: "When you hear the phone ring, you will jump out the window;" "when you receive a rose you will return to the cult;" "if you tell, I'll kill you, your friend, your dog." Cult members will say, "I love you" or "I'm helping you" while torturing (later, outside the cult, these words will evoke terror).
A child could be anesthetized, wake up with blood on her stomach and be told a thought-detector was inserted in her or a bomb that will explode if she tells anyone. A girl is raped, told it was by satan and she will have satan's child; she becomes terrified because in the world the cult has created for her, it seem that this could be true.
Cult members further distort her sense of reality by dressing up as priests, policemen, Big Bird, Mickey Mouse - so she learns that anyone could be a cult member and therefore no one is safe to talk to.
Who is Involved?
Anyone can be involved. Often at least one parent is involved, and it can be a whole extended family. It can be pretty unorganized (a bunch of local guys), or very organized with networks that span the country. Some cults even have international connections.
Authority figures are often perpetrators. The child is in the untenable position of being expected to respect and obey adults who torture her. Doctors are sometimes associated with cults, to give medication, to keep someone alive while bringing her to the brink of death, to perform "magick" (e.g. fake) surgery. People who work for the FBI, lawyers, police, people high up in government, have been said to be satanic cult members.
The abuse occurs in many different settings, including homes, day care centers, churches and outdoors. In day care centers, the child is told that her parents know this is happening and want it to happen but "don't you ever tell them about it." In churches, children are forced to participate in satanic rituals by cult members who also worship God.
How and Why it Continues
Children don't tell because of fear of being killed and guilt about the acts they have been forced to commit. The child does not understand that she really had no choice and feels a terrible respon-sibility for the decisions she was forced to make.
Parents who are not involved in cults don't imagine that such a thing could be happening because ritual abuse is so far from their experience and their view of the world. Some warning signs in children are: problems going to the bathroom, problems eating certain foods, fear of certain colors, nightmares, and not wanting to be separated from parents. But the fact is that any of these warning signs can look like "normal" problems of development.
Many mental health professionals question if it really happens or believe some survivors but think most are making it up. Ritual abuse is a terrifying subject and it is often easier for people to deny that it occurs than to deal with it.
Many survivors do not remember until years after the abuse occurred because one of the defenses for dealing with such overwhelming trauma is to forget that it ever happened. When they do remember, they think they must be crazy -- because how could such an insane thing really happen?
Symptoms of Previous Ritual Abuse
The credibility of every ritual abuse survivor is on trial. That is why it is so important for us as listeners to be supportive and open-minded. A survivor may seem crazy to someone who has never been involved with a satanic cult because of the defense mechanisms she has developed to survive:
- She may have flashbacks (including body memories), and can go into physical shock.
- She may experience incredible culture shock outside the cult and have great difficulty trusting or relating to people.
- She may be confused about what happened, and sound incoherent when questioned.
- She may have multiple personalities.
- She may cut or injure herself to try to drive away the memories or punish herself for what she's been through..
If you think about it, these reactions make a lot of sense. The mind deals with the trauma by creating defenses in order to cope. The important thing to remember is that, although some ritual abuse survivors have severe reactions, they will not always manifest these symptoms. We should not distance ourselves from survivors; most survivors cannot be differentiated from anyone else. You probably already know someone who has survived ritual abuse!
Societal structures also have a vested interest in disbelieving survivors. The idea of ritual abuse is so terrifying that society reacts by denying that it could happen. The same thing happened with the idea of battering and incest; because people didn't believe it happened, for them, it didn't exist. Acknowledging that ritual abuse is a problem is the first step towards dealing with it.
Differences Between Incest and Ritual Abuse Survivors
It takes an extremely long time...
for someone to accept that she is a ritual abuse survivor. A ritual abuse survivor is often aware that she is a survivor of incest or that she has multiple personalities long before she realizes that she is a survivor of ritual abuse.
will be a big issue. She may feel that the cult is omnipotent. Who can she trust? Her therapist, a friend, us? She will be very scared that anyone she speaks to may be a part of the cult or that the cult will find out that she is revealing what happened to her. She may not want to tell her name and may ask if you are in a cult. It's a good idea to acknowledge her fear: "I can understand that you are very scared. It makes sense; it will go away in time."
Do not try to convince her you are not in a cult. (There are therapists who are in cults, and many survivors have experienced "fake therapy," so it is sensible for a survivor to be cautious.)
If we are not ourselves survivors of ritual abuse, then we must remember that her language and our language, though they use the same words, do not always mean the same things. In many cases words mean their opposite in the cult; Love = Hate, Comfort = Pain. It is important to understand this if we are to form a connection with the survivor. To a survivor, "I want to help you" may mean "I am going to hurt you."
There is more isolation and less support...
for the survivor of ritual abuse. Because this issue has only recently begun to be talked about as a phenomenon that impacts significant numbers of people, there are very few support systems in place. And because the survivors feel that they are in danger, it is very difficult for them to reach out to anyone for fear of retribution from the cult.
Contending with programming
Programming is when people are conditioned to respond in a certain way to a specific stimulus (a trigger). For example: someone hanging up the phone when you answer it, someone saying "I love you," or wearing the color black will provoke a set response such as "I've got to call the cult," "I'm going to kill myself," etc. Some people will seemingly react calmly, thinking, "Well, I just have to do it," while others will feel very anxious and may go into shock.
Resisting the message feels like "fighting for my life" while simultaneously feeling tremendously isolated, alienated, and powerless. The impulses come very suddenly, with a sense of urgency -- "I have to do this right now." They also go away abruptly. (This is very different from women who are suicidal, whose feelings develop over time).
There are "call-back" years (at 27, 30, 33, etc.) when the survivor feels she must go back or kill herself. Cults will develop multiple personalities to manipulate, to call back to the cult. Resisting the programming brings up extreme panic, terror, and fear of dying. But we cannot stress enough that people are strong enough to resist programming and can heal. If survivors call here for help, they are resisting their programming.
Survivors are plagued by it. She may say, "Why do I have the right to survive? I've seen others die." She may feel she chose to kill someone or chose to kill rather than be killed. This guilt is made worse by the cultural myth that you are a weak person if you succumb to torture. The truth is that any child will choose life over death and that most adults would succumb to the intensity of torture experienced in these cults. Feeling guilt is also a defense against grief; focusing on how bad you were instead of how helpless you were.
A Survivor May Also Feel She was a Perpetrator
This is not true. She did not choose to initiate any of the acts. She was not in a situation in which she could have refused to participate. This is important for us to keep in mind if she reveals anything awful that she did. She was fighting for her life.
It's good to know when a holiday is coming up because you will be prepared for more calls. Just asking a caller if they are aware of the holiday can be very helpful; even survivors with many years of healing often "dissociate" (e.g. forget) holidays.
The ceremonies usually take place the eve of the holiday and sometimes last for three days or a week. When holidays cluster together, as they do in the spring and late December, survivor reactions are especially strong.
Different cults observe different holidays or stress one more than another, depending on their traditions. Here is a list of the most common ones.
Ancient pagan holidays based on the sun. (These are also celebrated by modern pagans in loving and non-abusive ways.) There is one holiday every 6 1/2 weeks.
February 2. Candlemas. (lives on as Ground-hog day!)
March 21 or 22. Spring Equinox
May 1. Beltane. (lives on as May Day)
June 21 or 22. Summer Solstice
August 2. Lammas
September 21 or 22. Fall Equinox
October 31. Samhain (lives on as Halloween)
December 21 or 22. Winter Solstice
The full moon is often observed, and sometimes the new moon as well.
All major Christian holidays.
Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras, Palm Sunday, Easter. Sometimes a particular saint's day (St. Valentine's day is common), or the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
All major secular holidays.
including (in the United States): Valentines Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Mothers' Day, Fathers' Day, and Thanksgiving. Any three-day weekend can be observed.
Cult members' birthdays, marriage anniversaries, and death anniversaries.
Sometimes arrangements are made to have these events occur on a holiday.
Some cults also observe the Jewish holidays, an ancient Roman Halloween-type holiday on August 24, Hispanic holidays like the Day of the Dead, and a tradition of "Marriage to the Beast" in early September.
Handling Crisis Calls
The ritual abuse survivor knows what's best for herself at any given time!
- Try to establish safety and support... but don't try to get her to dwell on remembering, especially if she is feeling like killing herself -- there may be more triggers in the memory. Do not encourage her to talk about specifics, such as people and places, on the phone. Talking in depth about her experiences may be too much for her to handle. Our role should be to offer support in a non-threatening way. We should be aware that a satanic holiday, her birthday, or a call-back year may be behind a ritual abuse survivor's freaking out, even if she does not realize this.
- Build a connection… She will feel very isolated, because to build connections with people may bring back memories of what relationships mean in the cult. Isolating herself may be her way of keeping safe. If she is able to reach out to us, she is taking a step toward breaking away from that isolation.
- Counteract programming… She may be aware of the concept and remember her programming, or she may not. Be careful and delicate about what you say, and leave interpretations to her. "Sometimes people have reactions on days they were abused; does that seem true for you?" If she is aware of programming, you can remind her that the feelings will pass.
- Encourage her to outsmart… her programming. If she knows something will trigger her, she can plan what she will do instead. For instance, she can plan to be with someone during a satanic holiday. Or she can prepare herself for being triggered and take steps to prevent doing harm to herself.
- Reprogramming/deprogramming… The goal is to not be programmed. There is no quick fix. She will not be able to go to a therapist and just get "reprogrammed." Even if this were possible, what would be the point? She still would not be her own person. The healing process is very gradual, and takes place tiny triumph by tiny triumph. Some examples of actions that counter programming:
Saying, "I'm a good person. I did not deserve ritual abuse."
Making a friend
Getting some support
Telling someone, "I am a ritual abuse survivor" Realizing, "I am still alive" (The more times I don't kill myself, the weaker the programming gets.)
- Accept mistrust… She may say, "How do I know you are not in the cult?" thinking that you are a cult member. You can't prove to her that you aren't, and her fear is reasonable, given her experience. It's better to say something like, "I can't convince you; trust me as much as you feel comfortable. Or "It's good that you are cautious about who you trust at first." Trying to convince her that you are okay will not be helpful.
- Counteract survivor guilt… Affirm her goodness. Assert that she didn't really have a choice. She was a tool used by the cult, not the initiator of any harm she was involved in. Don't get into "yes, but..." with her. If she argues, say, "I believe you are a good person, I believe you were used, but you need to decide for yourself."
- Don't expect her to feel all better after the call… Hopefully, she will have made a connection and not feel quite so isolated. But she may feel even worse. It is absolutely exhausting to work through these feelings and thoughts.
- Validate feelings, not programming… "Yes, that is what they told you, but I don't believe they put a bomb in your stomach." "Naturally you'd be terrified if they lied to you like that."
- Share feelings… "I really feel sad that these things have happened to you. They never should have happened." "I'm angry that children get treated like that. It's more than not fair, it's outrageous."
- If you say something that seems to trigger her... follow with something like, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you." or "Maybe I used a word that upsets you." Don't feel too bad, because there is no way you can know exactly what her triggers are. If you stumble onto one, try to figure out what the trigger was and help her deal with her feelings.
- Set limits… It is not helpful to encourage her to go on and on. If she is spilling, telling her whole history, bring it to some focus. Tell her that other survivors find that, in the long run, it is helpful to talk for short, frequent periods, or to focus on one subject. If you end the call, leave her with a message of trust, such as "I know you have the power to take charge of your life and live with dignity."
It's so important that we make connection, person to person,
to undo what ritual abuse is all about.
Until now, we have used 'she' instead of 'he/she.' Yet 50% of the children abused in cults are male. Except for impregnation, abortion, and birth, boys are abused in all the same ways that girls are.
Male survivors, because of our culture, have even more problems remembering their abuse and asking for help. Men are supposed to be strong and self-sufficient, aggressive enough to fight off any attack. Our mythology says that men and boys are never raped, especially not by women. And yet there are fewer resources for men -- fewer shelters, fewer books on healing from abuse, even fewer knowledgeable therapists.
Male callers tend to be more isolated, more afraid of being blamed or scapegoated (even to being presumed to be perpetrators), and have more authority problems than women callers. And we have less experience dealing with male survivors, and therefore haven't had the chance to work through our own feelings about wounded men.
It's often helpful to acknowledge these facts and to validate men's unique burdens as survivors.
Personal Safety and Competence
You will undoubtedly pick up some of your caller's feelings, just as you do in other situations. Fear is especially contagious.
To our knowledge, no telephone crisis counselor has been physically hurt by a cult. The cult is more apt to harass the former member or her immediate family. If you can handle somebody with a partner on crack, PCP, or alcohol, you have more than enough skills to protect yourself from cult harassment.
Your fear is normal, though. It comes from your ability to empathize -- the very trait that makes you effective in your work! Your fear is also stronger if you are just beginning to talk to ritual abuse survivors and the whole concept is still foreign, frightening, and exotic. You don't know what to believe, or whether you can trust your own instincts.
In the beginning, you may also feel totally incompetent. It helps to remind yourself that ritual abuse survivors are just people, badly hurting people, but just people like yourself. All your skills, everything you already know, will be helpful. You do not realize it, but just listening is a precious gift to a ritual abuse survivor.
As always, support, further training, and making sure you take good care of yourself and have a rich life will help you overcome fear and insecurity.
If you are lucky, resources will be there for you in your community. More likely, you will have to create them yourself. Here are some suggestions:
- Survey local therapists to locate people who have worked with ritual abuse survivors or who are willing to learn about ritual abuse.
- If you have a drop-in center, make a notebook for ritual abuse survivors. Collect articles on ritual abuse as you come across them. Leave blank pages for people's feedback on books and resources.
- If you have access to the Internet, copy anything you want from the Ritual Abuse, Ritual Crime, and Healing Home Page. (http://www.ra-info.org).
- Join Survivorship to educate yourself and keep current on issues and events. (Survivorship. PMB 139, 3181 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94110 or http://www.survivorship.org).
Thank you for being on the front lines and doing this life-saving work