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Will Self: the Orkney case prefigured our acknowledgement of abuse today

The idea we might be the repositories of buried traumatic memories is integral to psychoanalysis – so the SRA panic had a ready-made audience in people primed to accept notions of repression.

St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, 1910. Photo: Getty
St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, 1910. Photo: Getty

I’m in Orkney again: it’s a micro-society up here off the north coast of Scotland, where the preoccupations are farming, fishing and the sort of intense human interactions that often occur when folk are compelled to rub along together a little too vigorously. True, there is the annual “Ba”, or town football game, wherein a benighted bit of leather is fought the length of Kirkwall’s main street by snorting, roiling gangs of islanders, but overall these sparsely populated islands are not where you would expect to find evidence of the odd delusions that grip humanity en masse.

Except that when I first came here in the early 1990s, Orkney was at the centre of a particularly virulent example of just this. For younger readers, the satanic ritual abuse (SRA) panic of the early 1990s may seem bizarre: over a period of two or three years large numbers of people – mostly here and in the US, although also worldwide – became convinced that there was a network of satanist cults operating among us. In many cases the leaders of these evil organisations were local worthies – priests, doctors, teachers – who put on horned headdresses in order to conduct unspeakable rites. When described by victims, these rites proved remarkably similar: nude dancing in a circle around bonfires, accompanied by ceremonies involving “broodmares”, young girls and women who had been impregnated by the cult leaders and forced to bear babies that were then sacrificed horribly.

The evidence for SRA was threefold: the direct testimony of children who had been abused; the “recovered memories” of adult victims who had been subjected to hypno- or regression therapy; and – in Britain at least – the application of something called the “reflex anal dilatation” test, a method of establishing that a child had been anally penetrated that I don’t need to describe here in detail because it’s all in the name. The SRA panic spoke to deep-seated anxieties that we all possess: the idea that society as it appears to be constituted is in fact a grotesque sham, and that power of a sinister sort is being wielded behind the scenes, is the staple fare of every conspiracy theorist. The specifics of SRA – the child abuse, the devil-worshipping – in my view, articulated very real disjunctions between what we can think of, synthesising Freudian and Jungian terminology, as the latent and the manifest content of the collective unconscious.

In Orkney social workers took 15 children of the “W” family off the island and into care; nine children from four other families were later removed from their homes. Tests were done, statements taken. The picture emerged of a cult operating on South Ronaldsay that held ceremonies in an abandoned quarry. These allegations got out and became grist to the panicky rumour mill, catalysing with the unsettling tales of adults throughout the land who, on the couch, realised that the parents they had thought of as loving had in fact subjected them to grotesque abuse when they were small.

The idea that we might be the repositories of buried traumatic memories is integral to psychoanalysis – so the SRA panic had a ready-made audience in people primed to accept notions of repression and catharsis. For a while, we all were wandering around wondering whether our own histories of abuse were about to bob up from the murky depths of our psyches; it became quite common to have conversations of the form: “I think I might’ve been abused as a child . . .” as a background explanation for whichever current neurotic behaviour was plaguing us.

The bromides that calmed the whole frenzy down were, when they came, quite prosaic: the reflex anal dilatation test was discredited (most anuses dilate when a speculum is pressed against them); both professionals and abuse victims came forward to nix the idea that such memories were repressed – they recalled every element of their suffering; and in the particular case of Orkney, it was pointed out that certain critical elements of the children’s testimony were impossibilities. South Ronaldsay is a notably exposed island; there really isn’t anywhere you could hold a Walpurgisnacht-style gig without it being noticeable from everywhere else.

A local woman told me that some of the children of the “W” family had indeed been abused physically. But any satanic components of most stories by victims of child abuse in general are very obviously confabulated from horror movies they’ve seen. This tallies with something that the person at the NSPCC responsible for investigating child sex abuse tells me: it is, he says, far more widespread than we fear, but the ritual component is always vanishingly small.

So, with the curse of hindsight, it is now possible to view the whole SRA panic as part of the first tentative steps society was taking towards acknowledgement of two distinct but not unrelated phenomena: widespread sexual abuse being perpetrated on children both in institutional settings and in the home by allegedly responsible adults; and a burgeoning culture of febrile emotional lability, stimulated by cod-psychotherapy and hyperreal depictions of sex and violence in film.

In a world in which the old verities are ever crumbling before our eyes, it’s nice to be able to validate an old adage: there is indeed no smoke without fire.