Archive for ‘Religion’

February 24, 2011

Satan’s Day Care

by djtafoya

I’m just endlessly fascinated by the way pseudoscience, hysteria and fears about the breakdown of society and the loss of innocence periodically come together in a kind of perfect storm of insanity. Anyone remember crack babies? How about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon? Lately I’ve been reading about the Ritual Abuse Panic of the 1980’s and 90’s.

One day in 1983, a three-year-old named Matthew Johnson told his mother that Ray, a worker at the day care he attended, could fly.  He went on to say Ray had thrown another child to lions, that he chopped off a baby’s head and set it on fire, molested a goat, conducted rituals with elephants and witches, taken the children on trains and planes and made Matthew drink blood. Rather than being treated as a fanciful tale or a bizarre or even alarming fantasy, Matthew’s story became testimony at the longest, most expensive trial in California history.

The McMartin Preschool investigation and trial, which lasted from 1983 until 1990, is a fascinating exemplar of a whole class of so-called ‘ritual abuse’ cases of the 1980’s. All over the country, police, prosecutors and child-welfare advocates investigated, charged and convicted dozens of day care and preschool workers, teachers and parents of molesting hundreds of children. The abuse supposedly involved Satanic ceremonies by ‘sex rings,’  and the daily sexual and physical torture of children that went on for months or years, all without parents suspecting that their kids had become the sex slaves of Satan’s minions.

In 1983 the police, acting on the suspicion of a mentally-ill woman named Judy Johnson, panicked the entire town of Manhattan Beach with phone calls and letters suggesting that their kids might have been molested by the McMartins and their relatives and employees. The calls triggered an avalanche of accusations and prosecutions in which children were badgered, coerced, bribed and threatened into making false accusations against their caregivers, teachers and parents. That the ‘testimony’ was largely the sort of ridiculous fantasy characterized by Matthew’s tales of planes, trains, submarines and elephants was rarely an issue for the authorities, who urged doubters to ‘believe the children.’

A 1995 book by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker called Satan’s Silence gives an excellent survey of the panic, its victims and the precursors and likely causes of the episode, which found leftist feminists like Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin in league with reactionary Christians who believed Satan was trying to turn children away from God, citing evidence like the “’Wicca Letters,’ a document whose origin and content were remarkably like the rabidly anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and which purported a Satanic plot to corrupt America’s preschoolers.

The ritual abuse panic had it all –false memories, rumored suburban sex cults, anatomically-correct dolls, multiple personality disorder, even fraudulent ‘facilitated communication’ that allowed profoundly disabled people to join in the craziness. The parallels to Salem’s witch hunts of the 1600’s are almost too perfect, right down to the search for ‘Satan’s marks’ on the bodies of victims, echoed in the disturbing, scientifically-faulty examination of children’s genitalia for signs of abuse.

The fallout went on for years, with lives and careers ruined and falsely accused people languishing in prison for ten or fifteen years before the authorities finally freed most of them. Janet Reno, who participated in two ritual abuse cases as a Florida prosecutor, went on to order the attack on the Waco, Texas compound of David Koresh because she thought child abuse was going on inside.

I was reminded of all of this the other day after reading about the reconsideration of people sentenced to long prison terms based on medical testimony about ‘shaken baby syndrome,’ which may turn out to be false. I think the impulse to believe deeply in things that are sketchy, unlikely or even demonstrably untrue is deeply ingrained in our psyches, and that impulse comes out most strongly when we feel frightened, marginalized or under siege by forces beyond our control. I’m just an armchair psychologist, but I don’t think you have to look too far to find a lot of examples of people reaching farthest for the most ridiculous explanations when they feel wronged by dark forces.

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February 20, 2011

playing cards

by Sara Gran
Reversible tarot card

Image by Wm Jas via Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot about cards this week. Cards occupy this weird liminal (I know I use that word too much) position that I love. Playing cards care used for gambling, but also for stage magic–which when you think about it isn’t really a given, although it’s so common as to seem so. Why cards, for either or both? Is it coincidence, or do cards contain a natural trickster-ish element that makes this inevitable? Gambling and legerdemain (possibly my favorite word) are combined in card cheats and in three card monte, which always seemed a little magic to me.  When I was a kid I would watch the three card monte dealers on Broadway, hypnotized into trying to find “the lady” (I remember them hiding a red Queen and calling it “the lady”). Their slight of hand skills were amazing–most of them cheated, but I think some of them didn’t need to. They just couldn’t be beat. Even if they were “cheating,” what a skill! Gifted men, dealt a bad hand in life.

People also tell fortunes with playing cards: I don’t know how to do that, but I do read tarot cards. Even if you don’t believe in any metaphysical ability of the cards, they’re useful as little Rorschach ink-blots to bounce your subconscious off of.  Or you could think of them as little paper dolls that you can use to tell yourself a story and see what happens. I bet you’ll be surprised. And I bet you won’t doubt their metaphysical ability for long.

There’s also business cards, those little bits that seem like a piece of themselves someone left behind, and in the old days people had calling cards, which they would leave so you’d know they’d been there. When you read old novels it’s easy to get confused by the elaborate rituals of dropping off calling cards here and there and the heavy significance of each one. In a magic spell, you can sometimes use someone’s business card as a substitute for the person themselves, and do to the card (the microcosm) what you’d like done to its owner (the macrocosm). There’s also credit cards and ATM cards and ID cards, each of which has magical properties of its own–credit and ATM cards can be turned into money and ID cards can tell a story (Illinois, 25 years old, blue eyes…). Credit cards can also tell a story, which is why American Express cards come in green, gold, and the coveted black.

Not only do cards themselves seem to hold a trickster-ish position but in playing cards, the trickster is built-in in the form of jokers. Jokers can be assigned a variable meaning or left “wild,” i.e. undefined, unformed, chaotic, pure potential. There isn’t much that’s left wild these days, so if you get a wild card, in cards or in life, appreciate it. These days were taught to fear the unknown–the wild–but remember: that’s where all the best stuff comes from. Including us.

A cautionary tale comes from what used to be my favorite short story, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, although I haven’t reread it in years. I do remember though, that the story agrees with me: cards are strange little things.  Read it yourself, play some cards, and see what happens.

January 9, 2011

PseudoHistory & Ancient Aliens

by Sara Gran

So I now get this channel called History International with my cable plan. This is best channel EVER. It should be called the PseudoHistory Conspiracy Theory Channel. Almost nothing on it is true, but it’s really fun to watch and they have strange long commercials like I used to watch when I was a teenager and stayed up watching tv until sign-off.

On a show about the Hitler/Ancient Alien connection (please tell me you knew about this! Don’t they teach anything is schools these days?), I saw something that fascinated me–a mention of the mysterious Vril Society and one of its members, Maria Orsic. (That’s her in the photo, which I think is fascinating in it’s own right.) To explain what this is, I’m going to take a step back and introduce the Thule Society, an occult group in Berlin that, through some twists and turns, turned into the Nazi party. That’s how the Nazi party ended up appropriating the swastika, which is a beautiful symbol of ancient origins that crosses many cultures–the Thule Society folks studied the occult intensely, and, in fact, shared many of the obsessions of modern occultism: aliens, Tibetan Buddhism, and ancient Hinduism. In fact, I’ve read in a number of places that a handful of Tibetan lamas actually came to Berlin to help Hitler with his cause–obviously, they’d been entirely misled as to what his true cause was, but Jeez, can’t these lamas, like see shit? That’s a big bubble burst. The whole Nazi thing actually makes a lot more sense as you look at is a case of religious fanaticism, rather than a political movement, and it also helps explain why so many otherwise intelligent people were taken in by them–the whole occult, pseudo-mystical thing is very appealing. It’s also useful to keep in mind that these occult groups were all the rage across Europe and the US from the Victorian Era through the thirties–the Golden Dawn is the best known example. But while the Golden Dawn was seriously devoted to spiritual study (and in-house bickering), many just took the form and forgot about the religious stuff: the pseudo-freemasonic trappings of the Ku Klux Klan (calling themselves Grand Dragons and the like) were influenced by this mystical trend, as were the masked, point-hatted costumes of Mardi Gras krewes. (As an aside, many Nazis also believed the earth was hollow, an old theory that has waxed in waned in popularity over the years.)

Anyway, I hadn’t known (and am still not entirely sure, given my sources) that the Thule Society had a kind of ladies auxiliary in the Vril Society, led by Maria, a medium and psychic. According the always-factual internet, the women of the Vril Society channelled  Sumerian entities and never cut their hair (like some Sikhs, they may have believed the hair can serve as an antennae for otherworldly news).  They worked towards channelling alien technology to create a flying saucer for their Nazi brothers. Apparently it all relates back to a Victorian-Era work of science fiction called Vril: The Power of the Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton–the inspiration-by-fiction bit reminds me of the current hoopla around the Anastasia books.  According to this deleted wikipedia page (how massively insane does something have to be to actually get deleted from wikipedia?), Maria and her Nazi-ettes disappeared in 1945.  So who knows if there was a Maria and if there was, what became of her and her long-haired sisters?

Of course, one reason why all this fascinates me so is because I, too, study the occult, Tibetan Buddhism, and yoga. And I find the alien thing pretty interesting too. But the conclusions I’ve reached–that all sentient beings are truly one, subject to the illusion of time, space, and separation, and if I cause another harm that is literally indistinguishable from harming myself (not that I always practice that, of course)–are pretty different from those the Thule Society reached: kill everyone.

Incidentally, someone recently spray-painted some swastikas on a road sign near my house. I don’t think it was personal– HALF-JEW LIVES HERE, ATTACK! I think it was likely just some bored kids who figured the one and only thing they could do to get in trouble in our little hippie town. But when I saw those swastikas I realized, after over ten years of studying yoga, I couldn’t see Hitler’s swastika anymore. The real symbol is so much stronger and older than that. Instead I enjoyed those swastikas as a reminder of the divine Self inside, every day, until, the country sandblasted them away, and I missed them when they were gone.

 

December 29, 2010

The Gods Of New York City

by Sara Gran
Santeria Temple_Cuba 173

Image by hoyasmeg via Flickr

I recently saw The Gods of Times Square, a surprisingly cheerful documentary about days gone by–when street preachers, people who thought

they were Jesus and religious white-, black-, and probably other supremacists tried to convert the confused in Times Square. This as central a feature of the area as the pornography and the prostitution, although far less documented. Filmed in the eighties, what makes this movie wonderful is that the filmmaker himself lived in Time Square, was a part of this community, and has a deep and honest respect for and curiosity about the people he speaks to. Although he sometimes questions and prods, he doesn’t invalidate anyone’s idea of reality and gives everyone’s ideas a fair shake.

New York City back then was kind of a spiritual wonderland. Growing up, it seemed perfectly normal to me that corner stores sold religious candles to folk saints and half the people on the bus crossed themselves when we passed a church. Within walking distance spiritual supply stores catered to practitioners of Santeria and Haitian Voudun (Voodoo), where I overcame my initial fears to ask a few timid questions; a short subway ride away you could find yourself in a Hasidic or otherwise-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood; a Rastafarian enclave; a Wiccan witchcraft shop.

Of course,t his wasn’t the New York City my atheist parents and rationalist private school thought they were raising me in, but luckily, it’s the one I grew up in. In every city there are dozens, hundreds of cities, all occupying the same space and time but entirely different. I’m lucky I found the one I needed, and not the one I was given.