Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Sara Scott (1998) 'Here Be Dragons: Researching the Unbelievable, Hearing the Unthinkable. A Feminist Sociologist in Uncharted Territory'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 3,

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 22/7/98 Accepted: 29/9/98 Published: 30/9/98


This paper describes a number of ways in which the dominant societal response to allegations of ritual abuse as untrue - as being produced by a combination of 'moral panic' and 'false memories' - impacted on research conducted with women and men who identified themselves as survivors of such abuse. (In Britain the research conducted by Jean La Fontaine and the press coverage it received is taken to exemplify this response.)The author's research was based on life history interviews conducted with 14 adults aged between 19 and 58 (11 women and 3 men).

This is a reflexive, feminist account of knowledge production that endeavours to make visible the specific social and political context that shaped the researcher's engagement with ethical and epistemological issues, the selection of interviewees, structure of interviews, the questions and answers of the research interviews, and the interpretation of 'data'. The collision between the lived experience of the researcher, that of her informants, and the 'discourse of disbelief' surrounding the subject of ritual abuse, is understood as crucially determining of the research knowledge produced. Attention is given to the disembedding process by which research moves from specific, emotional and embodied encounters to academic articles, and the implications for belief/disbelief in this process.

Feminist Research; Moral Panic; Ritual Abuse


The reality of ritual abuse as a social phenomenon is highly contested. ('Does it really happen then?' is the question I am most often asked upon telling someone the topic of my research.) This paper explores the implications of doing feminist sociological research on a subject frequently denounced as fiction - as stories resulting from false memories and moral panic; and doing so through interviews with people who have been widely characterised as lying, manipulated, or mentally ill (Ganaway, 1991). I began this research with the intention of putting aside the discourse of disbelief within which public discussion of ritual abuse had been embedded,[1] and focussing instead on the alternative accounts provided by adults who identified themselves as survivors of childhood ritual abuse. It quickly became apparent that such a task was impossible, for private pains and public claims persistently interpenetrate each other, rendering the relationships between my interviewees, myself, and discursive representations of 'ritual abuse' a central feature of the research project. Technical, ethical and aesthetic decisions were inevitably made within a social context shot through with scepticism over the truth status of ritual abuse accounts.

While there are specific challenges to ritual abuse claims as accurate representations of lived experience, it is also more generally the case that issues of truth and the status of all accounts have been increasingly problematized within contemporary social theory. Since its inception, feminist sociology has concerned itself with the means by which knowledge is produced, and with the role of the researcher in that process. However, the possibility of developing a specifically feminist methodology in opposition to 'masculinist methods' has been superseded in recent years by concern to ground research in a feminism-friendly epistemology. To a large extent this reflects the impact of post- structuralism/post-modernism on the discipline as a whole. The traditionally dominant practices of sociological research[2] are inevitably linked with the rational project of discovering, describing and explaining what happens in society in order to improve it (Bauman, 1993) it is therefore part and parcel of the very modernity for which post-modernism tolls the bell.

The radical uncertainty that post- modernism introduced into academic feminism, arrived at a time when feminism's 'worldly' success in having the problems of gender inequality acknowledged as social problems was peaking, and a 'backlash' against feminism had begun (Faludi, 1991). Second wave feminism had been rooted in the process of bringing into the new light of feminist consciousness experiences which often had no previous discursive definition (experience Dorothy Smith describes as not having been 'preappropriated by the discourses of the relations of ruling' (Smith, 1997: p. 394). However, a widening gulf between the Women's Liberation Movement and academic Women's Studies meant that the view of experience as being foundational to the political project of mobilizing women in feminist movement was sometimes lost, or misinterpreted as naive essentialism.

The problem of ritual abuse emerged into this changed political and intellectual climate, when a specific backlash over child sexual abuse was already underway (Campbell, 1988), and much of academic feminism had taken a strongly discursive turn. Academic responses comprised variations on the moral panic theme: Jeffrey Victor compared concern over ritual abuse to the persecution of witches in the Middle Ages (Victor, 1993), and Elaine Showalter (1997) diagnosed one of the many 'hysterical disorders' she claims are epidemic in (post)modern times. Clinicians working with survivors of ritual abuse discussed the topic largely in terms of trauma and dissociation, while sociologists mainly dealt with ritual abuse claims as textual productions, with no referential relationship to lived experience, and thereby contributed intellectual credibility to the discourse of disbelief. It seems to me that while sociology can deconstruct discourses of social problems which are widely recognised as such with little political impact, when a problem appears whose very existence is in dispute, a theoretical focus on the truth status of accounts in general may well occlude other concerns.

Despite the challenges to the possibility of 'truer' and more complete knowledge, and feminists increasing awareness of the variety and complexity of women's experience, feminist research has continued. It may be more circumspect in its claims, but a fundamental link remains between listening to what people have to say about their lives, and identifying patterns and relationships which expose the operations of power and oppression.

British feminist sociologists (Stanley and Wise, 1993; Maynard, 1994) readily accept the situated nature of all accounts and the impossibility of 'raw experience'[3], without denying that behind texts are lives. The feminist project is therefore tied up with the production of unalienated knowledge: cognisant of power, difference and emotion and prepared to account for its own production. At the same time feminism provides a critical perspective on other forms of knowledge production by insisting on the relevance of the interests, identities and histories of writers and researchers, and exposing these for analysis.

This paper explores the ways in which both the discourse of disbelief concerning ritual abuse and the inter-disciplinary doubt concerning all claims to truth have shaped the research I have conducted. It therefore falls within the tradition of feminist sociology which claims that validity comes in part through 'showing the workings' - exposing for scrutiny as much of the sphere of influence within which research is conducted as is possible. However, I think it also raises some highly pertinent questions for feminist sociology generally.

This is a retrospective, reflexive account of knowledge production. I begin by situating myself in relation to the research, and go on to describe the discourse of disbelief surrounding ritual abuse. An examination of the effects of these on my epistemological and methodological choices shows how the unbelievable may be transformed into the sociologically knowable.

Situating the Researcher

I am 31 [35] years of age. I was born in Scotland and grew up in the North-East, where as a teenager I became involved in anti-fascist and feminist politics. I lived in Oxford and Lancaster before settling in Manchester in 1983, with a degree in feminist theory and a job as a youth and community worker. I joined Manchester Rape Crisis the same year and have been a volunteer counsellor there ever since.
Over the years I have been involved in various groups and campaigns and written a fair bit about sexual violence. For 7 years I worked in social action broadcasting, where I was involved in the early days of the National AIDS Helpline. In 1992 I managed a helpline following the Channel 4 transmission of Beyond Belief (on ritual abuse). A report of this was published in Valerie Sinason's (1994) Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse.
I first began supporting a young survivor of ritual abuse in 1990. I have learnt an enormous amount from her, and from other survivors I have met or worked with in recent years. I gave up my job in October 1993 in order to undertake this research. I live in Manchester with a partner, a friend and a spaniel. (Biographical note, 8/11/94)

I wrote this biographical note to introduce myself to ritual abuse survivors with whom I had made contact as potential interviewees. It is unlikely that the biography of a sociologist is entirely independent of, or irrelevant to, the subject of study, but my particular relationship with my subject matter was crucial to the possibility, viability and final shape of this research. I undertook the research for a number of reasons, not least in order to make sense of my own experience as a foster parent of a survivor of ritual abuse. I had already lived in 'the field' for three years prior to beginning my PhD. It was a 'field' that included my own home and personal relationships, as well as a network of individuals and organisations involved with the subject.

When I think back to the early 1990s, it is almost impossible to grasp the level to which my life was disrupted by coming to know about ritual abuse, or to really recall the fear, anxiety and confusion that enveloped my life. The teenage survivor of ritual abuse who was my foster daughter is now 21, she has recently graduated from college, she has friends and an independent life, she is strong and brave and funny and intelligent, and I am immensely proud of her. The nightmares and mood swings, terror and dissociation we sometimes felt would never end, fade into the past. It is impossible to recapture the 'shock of the new' I experienced on first hearing her speak of beatings and torture, of killing hens and sheep and babies, of eating maggots and vomit and human flesh, and of child prostitution and pornography. Over the course of three years intensive caring 'the field' of ritual abuse became my primary location, and there were times when I was so immersed that it was difficult to communicate with people who did not share similar knowledge and experience. Discussions of forced abortion and ritual sacrifice began to seem ordinary, while the life-world I had previously shared with friends and colleagues sometimes felt unreal and insignificant.

De-familiarization, or making strange the ordinary, is a key practice of sociological imagination. Unlikely as it may seem, ritual abuse had become part of my taken-for-granted knowledge of the world by the time I began this research. Research provided a different standpoint from counselling or parenting, it gave me a little time and a little space (in the important shapes of an ESRC award and a University office). It also provided a set of structures - 'the interview', 'the thesis' - within which to explore the experience and politics of ritual abuse, and in making me address my thinking towards people for whom ritual abuse[4] would never be 'experience-near' (Geertz, 1983), it helped me make the familiar unfamiliar once again.

Situating the Research

I came to this research as a 'believer', certain that the brutal stories that had been whispered to me in terror, or screamed at me in rage, were accounts based in my foster daughter's lived experience. I understood that my belief had arisen in the context of an intense personal relationship. When I had first encountered newspaper reports of a case involving allegations of ritual abuse my reaction had been irritation - not dissimilar to that expressed by other feminist correspondents in the national and social work press:

...what had been fairly clearly established - that child sexual abuse happens mainly at home, and is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men - is now being obscured in the public consciousness by the idea that it is carried out by some god hating weirdo devil worshippers who do it at the behest of their satanic master. (Letter to Community Care 7/3/91)

A 14 year old girl shifted my primary focus from concern about the potential challenge to a feminist analysis of child sexual abuse which stories of ritual abuse might represent, to outrage over the suffering of ritual abuse survivors and the widespread dismissal of their claims. I recognised that proximity and distance were crucial factors influencing belief/disbelief, and that the kind of knowledge that is embedded in spatial and temporal proximity, in physical and emotional experience, is not the kind which can be easily shared through academic writing. However, I believed it might be more closely approximated through some methods rather than others.

As I began this research the Department of Health had just funded a research study by anthropologist Professor Jean La Fontaine, into the nature and extent of organised and ritual abuse in England and Wales. It was to be proclaimed as prooving that ritual abuse, in the sense described by my informants, did not exist. When the brief final report of this research was published (La Fontaine, 1994) adult survivors accounts (which did not comprise any part of the research data) were dismissed as follows:

It should be recognised [...] that adults who claim to have been ritually abused, usually known as 'survivors', have been very influential. While their stories are said to confirm what children have said, in fact survivors are probably more significant in creating a climate of belief before cases involving children are discovered. Most survivors are women, though there is a male survivors group in London. (La Fontaine, 1994: p. 4)[5]

La Fontaine's research was based on questionnaires completed by police and social workers and an examination of files referred to the Official Solicitor between 1988 and 1991. Her 35 page report includes 18 tables, but no quotations or even descriptions of comments made on questionnaires or in case files. Bald lists appear of 'features mentioned' ('Hats/headgear', 'Abortion', 'Drinking urine', 'Pentagrams') along with the frequency with which they were recorded in allegations, but with no indication of the context from which they were extracted. In her later book (La Fontaine, 1998) more detailed analysis of transcripts of social work interviews feature twice, but again they are lists of ritual features (more hats and candles mentioned where corroboration between accounts from different children has been claimed). In La Fontaine's interpretation of these, any similarities suggest collusion, while discrepancies are evidence of independent invention. This is a book the conclusions of which readers must accept on the author's authority. There is no account of the research methodology, data is presented only as snippets torn from case files and conversations. There is no attempt to explore the lived experience behind the text - of either the researcher or her informants.

From Epistemology to Methodology

My task was clear: I was politically, personally and sociologically committed to listening seriously and respectfully to experiential accounts, and believed that any discussion or research on ritual abuse that failed to do so was likely to be deeply flawed. I therefore embraced a double task: the deconstruction of knowledge about ritual abuse which claimed the epistemological authority of rationality and objectivity, yet left no space to consider the accounts of people who claimed to speak from lived experience; and the construction of a reflexive account based on my own research and experience, which would give considerable space to survivors own accounts. I was happy to describe my epistemological stance as that of 'subtle realism'. I did not regard reflexivity as undermining my commitment to understanding 'real life', as it might if I assumed anything that claimed to be knowledge had to have unshakeable foundations. Rather I believed that:

[W]e can work with what 'knowledge' we have, while recognising that it may be erroneous and engaging in systematic inquiry where doubt seems justified; and in so doing we can still make the reasonable assumption that we are trying to describe phenomena as they are... (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983)

At the same time I was aware that the kind of research I was contemplating: qualitative, unstructured interviews on the basis of which I would develop an analysis, was in many ways the least authoritative in terms of the practitioners and policy makers whose belief or disbelief in the possibility of ritual abuse might make a difference. The comfortingly authoritative whiff of the white lab coat, the neutral observer, separating truth from myth with calibrated research instruments has considerable cultural power, to which neither I, nor my informants, were immune.

From my informants came clear demands for research that would be helpful to them. At the end of my preliminary questionnaire[6] I had asked: 'What would you like to see come out of this research?', and they had answered:

'A comprehensive report that validates survivors realities[...] Something accessible to survivors who have not yet spoken of their experience for fear of disbelief.'
'Serious media attention to a piece of research that could stand up to scrutiny and even to bigotry.'
'Just find a way to make it matter that we all survived.'

My informants were well aware that their unmediated accounts were often deemed inadequate, and they wanted to be spoken for by someone who could claim a different level of knowledge to that of the everyday. This did not mean my interviewees believed I had a superior ability to understand or analyse ritual abuse than they did, rather they recognised my location within the 'academic mode of production' and its role in producing what counts as knowledge and deciding what does not. Knowing that the media, legal and psychiatric systems largely characterised them as unreliable witnesses to their own experiences, they were hopeful that 'being researched' could transform their experiential knowledge into legitimate academic discourse. I felt the contradictory moral tugs between my general political and methodological commitments as a feminist sociologist, and the call to don the pragmatic white coat in this instance. In fact I regularly wanted to be two people.

There was no once and for all decision in relation to this tension, I rather found that technical and ethical decisions were bound up with one another throughout the project. One example of this was deciding upon the inclusion of my foster daughter as an interviewee. When I began the research I considered that involving Sinead in the research would be 'wrong'. Given our relationship it would be difficult for her to make a straightforward decision about participation based entirely on her own wishes. Given how much I knew about her life, it would be hard for her to edit her story as she might for a stranger, and so decide what would enter the public sphere and what remain private. However, during the course of my fieldwork it became apparent to me that there was no clean line between Sinead being involved in the research and being excluded from it. Her life story was so much part of my knowledge of ritual abuse, that it was always with me as a point of comparison and contrast with each new account I collected. I was struggling with how I could acknowledge this knowledge without bringing in Sinead's story 'by the back door', when she approached me and asked to be interviewed as part of the research. In many ways my PhD was a 'family project', Sinead and I had become students at the same time, and she was well aware that I might still be working in broadcasting if she had not arrived in my life, her analysis of the problem was straightforward: 'If you don't interview me, I'll be in there anyway as a voice without a name. I'd rather be included as myself'.

Our two day interview was an important experience. On a personal level it allowed Sinead to talk 'as an adult' of experiences she had last whispered of in terror in the aftermath of nightmares. It was an opportunity for both of us to discover how far we had travelled in the course of six years. In retrospect it is hard to see how I would have written my thesis without Sinead's participation in the research. At the same time the additional responsibility and accountability is onerous on many levels. There is the fear already discussed that mixing the personal with the academic will discredit the work in some quarters, and that in disavowing the stance of the objective scientist I will let down my informants. Second, there is the additional responsibility for the safety and privacy of someone I love. I am still sometimes unsure whether the better moral choice is to acknowledge or deny the connection between us. Each time I present my research in a public forum I remake the decision about how much of myself and herself I reveal: there is no once and for all distinction between alienated and unalienated knowledge (Rose, 1983).

The issue of speaking on behalf of others has been an issue in feminist research as it has in feminism. In rejecting the belief in privileged academic access to objective truth, different understandings compete on the same critical plane. At the same time differential access to public speech in the teaching of classes, writing of books, giving of media interviews, remains embedded in 'the relations of ruling' (Smith, 1990). Feminists have responded to this in various ways: by focussing on the analysis of texts (Owen, 1997), by centering autobiographical analysis (Steadman, 1986) or by developing participatory research as "a way for researchers and oppressed people to join in solidarity to take collective action...for radical social change" (Maguire, 1987: p. 9).

I was well aware at the outset of the likely extent of differences between the beliefs and 'truths' of survivors and my own. I was also aware that the imposition of interpretations is an aspect of all power relations; and that by undertaking research I was in the position to define the reality of people who had already suffered a great deal from other people forcing their beliefs upon them.

My concern over the exclusion of adult survivors accounts from most research and commentary on ritual abuse, combined with anxiety about speaking on behalf of my informants in terms that might conflict with their own understandings, lead me to explore models of participatory research. Although such an approach fitted well with my history as a feminist activist, survivors of ritual abuse did not constitute a pre-existing group with their own agenda and interests. They were geographically distant and extremely cautious about contact with each other.[7] I could not presume that they would have any desire to be involved in the ongoing process of my PhD, and even if they had such an interest, it would be my choice to involve them (or not) and the power to categorise and 'make sense of' their experience would still ultimately be mine.

Of course the interests and priorities of researcher and researched are often very different. However, in realising that my interviewees were quite happy for me to summarize and contextualize their lives, and that the possible price of 'coming out' into a largely incredulous world was not one many were prepared to pay, I recognised another facet of the prism of disbelief and its impact on the research. One survivor told me she had felt able to talk with such candour because it was my responsibility not hers to decide what entered the public sphere, while another said:

There are lots of things I'm not prepared to talk about in any detail. I'm probably protecting myself and you. I want you to believe what's happened in my life, and you to make other people believe kids are living like this now. But there's some things people just aren't ready for. (Dorothy: p. 2)

The differential impact of the discourse of disbelief according to how interviewees 'read' their 'political' responsibility (and mine) is clearly crucial in deciding the content and depth of accounts. In retrospect I regret not having more frequently addressed interviewees decision-making processes and the influences upon them 'in the room'. It is possible that in doing so we can extend the practice of reflexivity beyond ourselves as researchers to involve our informants in both foregrounding their own experience and reflecting on its construction as narrative.[8]


In the early 1980s, gathering women's accounts of their lives largely through interviews was often seen as the feminist research method. As Hilary Graham put it at the time:

It ['story-telling'] indicates that there are areas left in which feminist practice can take root within empirical sociology. In somewhat visionary terms, it can be seen as a methodological catalyst: something which can aid the transformation of the research process without compromising our feminism. (Graham, 1984: p. 124)

Here, and in more recent discussions of interviews (Josselson and Lieblich, 1995), there is concern over the imposition of structure, and a distinction is made between the direction of the researcher for pre-decided purposes, and the inviting of stories which are 'thick' enough in their descriptions to illuminate sociological problems (a distinction which is probably better conceptualised as a continuum). It is frequently noted that the ability of the interviewer to create relationships which facilitate this process will be crucial to the overall quality of the research. However, it has not gone unrecognised that there may be ethical issues attached to the rich data which women researchers sometimes gain in interviewing women. As Janet Finch has pointed out, she has sometimes left interviews thinking that her informants needed protection from people like her (Finch, 1984).

These issues about the structure of interviews, the ethics of the relationship and the selection of interviewees were all shaped by my awareness of the discourse of disbelief to which the research inevitably addressed itself. I selected interviewees who seemed to be well supported and coping with life (all but two were working or in full time education), and who seemed confident and coherent in their questionnaire responses. There were ethical grounds for such selection, but it was also true that such interviewees were likely to provide more convincing accounts. Interestingly I did not realise until I had finished my field work that only four of my interviewees could be readily described as having 'recovered memories'. Although I made no conscious decision to avoid the kinds of 'cases' often highlighted as examples of 'False Memory Syndrome', I actually interviewed a disproportionate number of young women who had escaped their abusive families as teenagers, sought help and support, and disclosed their abuse while it was still ongoing.

I worried about how my interviews would be: would people become too distressed to talk? Would they dissociate?. Methodology texts presume a level of communication skill in the rookie researcher so low that s/he needed to be told how to 'break the ice with a comment about the weather' (Allen and Skinner, 1991), whereas I was concerned about differentiating my 'researcher self' from my 'counsellor self', and trying to plan how I would respond to particular difficulties that might arise. I decided that I would not press for information that was not readily forthcoming, I considered politely requesting a 'uni-vocal' interview with anyone presenting multiple identities, and I worried about current abuse appearing to be a possibility and following this up 'as a counsellor' at the end of an interview. Both my general level of anxiety, and the substance of my concerns, clearly arose from the discourse of disbelief.

The decision to structure interviews as life histories was deliberate. I felt strongly that media and professional responses to ritual abuse had rarely dealt in 'whole lives', sadistic rituals were presented without reference to the everyday, familial existence in which they were embedded, and that such decontextualisation encouraged disbelief. A linear structure allowed me to prompt or move on an interview without having to 'bring in' questions about abuse. I deliberately prompted using ordinary reference points in the life course such as starting school or first menstruation. Clearly the choice was in large part self - protective, pre-empting the accusations of 'contaminating', 'leading' and 'implanting' which had dogged social workers in ritual abuse cases.

Part of what I was doing was deliberately 'normalising' the kinds of accounts I collected. Answering the fragmented, decontextualised horror stories which seemed to have fuelled the discourse of disbelief with robust, detailed accounts. However, for some interviewees a linear structure had its problems: childhood chronology was unclear, while for a couple there were years 'missing' which they could not account for. Elizabeth, who had 'repressed' all knowledge of her childhood abuse until she was in her 50s, was clear that she regarded her memories at the time of our interview as 'the tip of the iceberg'. Another interviewee replied to a question about siblings in a startlingly deep, dissociated voice: 'She is not permitted to know about her sister at this time', indicating to me that she knew, and could alert me, that her life story was radically incomplete. Erik, who had only remembered childhood abuse in his 40s, managed to tell most of his life story without any mention of ritual abuse and had to return to the relevant period late in his interview, and Beth frequently offered me extracts from her journals as an alternative to telling certain aspects of her story:

I mean I can send you photocopies of any of that lot if you want it.
Don't worry about it, we can just...
This is what you call...Talking with that [a journal] in front of me is easier than talking about being in the room, so that's why I'm doing it. And I know why I'm doing it as well! (Laughter)
And I know why you're doing it! (Pause) But if you can just give me an idea what sort of stuff...
I could read it out of the books really...Because so much of it I don't...feels like it wasn't me, it's actually very difficult to... (Beth: p. 24)

My life history format 'forced' a shape upon interviews which was not necessarily comfortable for all interviewees. At the same time:

Deeply embedded notions and expectations about the 'normal' course of a life, as well as unconscious rules about what constitutes a good story, shape a personal narrative as much as the 'brute facts' of existence do. (Personal Narratives Group,1989: p. 13)

I did not ask for narratives told in the first person singular (despite having originally considered doing so), but that was what I heard. Despite Beth's caveat that some of her experiences felt like they had happened to someone else, she spoke of them as her own. One interviewee who described herself as having 'multiple personalities' began her interview refering to herself some of the time as 'we':

[Speaking of her paternal grandparents] I don't really know much about their lives, we didn't really get told. [...] What we did the visits we were over there, um, just putting bits together...was that there was some family connection between them. [...] There were photographs from when they were babies [...] with their names underneath. [...] I mean they were married, we presumed, but whether it was a legal marriage, I don't know. (Sinead: p. 1)

Sinead ceases to refer to herself as 'we' on the second page of the transcript, and refers to herself as 'I' for the rest of the 120 pages.

One interview who identified herself as 'multiple' talked to me in 'a voice' that changed frequently, often from sentence to sentence. By the end of our day together I could identify at least four 'voices'. However, all voices spoke in the first person singular, and in the transcribed version it is impossible to tell that the oral version was many voiced (except where we are explicitly discussing 'being multiple'), for what appears on paper is a single 'I' telling a single narrative.

Interviews varied enormously in terms of the quantity and 'thickness' of description. Certainly some interviewees poured out their stories, others were more circumspect. In two interviews I recorded 7 hours of tape, while the shortest was about 2 hours. Interviewees had a wide range of emotional responses to their pasts, and to the interview experience: distress, distance, anger, hostility, trust, fear and affection were all part of the emotional truth conveyed to me. The difficulty of properly capturing or describing such things in sociological research where bodies, looks, and voices are so quickly lost in the transitions from encounter, to tape, to transcript has frequently left me frustrated.

On a number of occasions I was offered additional kinds of 'evidence' of past experience: disabilities resulting from abuse, scars from old injuries, a complete absence of back teeth. Journals, artwork, poetry and family photographs were handed to me as if their tangible presence might add substance to survivors disputed lives. I know this is not an unusual experience in life history interviewing, but the urgency with which these offerings were sometimes made spoke directly to the impact of disbelief on interviewees' lives.

On quite another level, researching ritual abuse involved dealing with some very specific issues of evidence and reality. Survivors describe mind-numbing sensory deprivation, the perceptual distortions caused by drugs and starvation, and a barrage of tricks, deceptions and deliberate confusion as being part and parcel of their abuse. In interview some survivors were eager to talk about these complexities, and unwilling to give definitive accounts of experiences whose truth status they were unclear about. The potent mixture of drugs, dissociation, violence and group 'hysteria', made rituals particularly difficult to describe, and some interviewees made clear that they felt much more confident discussing everyday, domestic abuses. However, it is impossible to assess how much reluctance to discuss memories of rituals is engendered by survivors own concerns over clarity and 'truth', and how much is an effect of widespread disbelief in such experiences.

Each interview was a personal encounter that I relived in slow replay in the course of transcription. As a counsellor and carer I had worked with such traumatic material before, but the sheer quantity of stories in the research process created a high level of stress. I had dreams about dying, and dreams in which I learned that none of my interviewees had told me the truth. Staying in an unfamiliar house after one interview I walked in my sleep for the first time in my life, and during the weeks of transcription I endured stomach cramps and nausea on a regular basis. Annecka Marshall has pointed out 'doing research can seriously damage your health' (Marshall, 1994), I would add that it can make a nasty dent in your ontological security. My research diary during this period records my own struggles with disbelief which ranged from wanting not to believe: 'Who would want to believe this stuff? Have it in their consciousness? What does this knowledge do to you?' (Research diary 3/7/96) to anxiety about the truth status of ritual abuse accounts: 'What if they're right I keep thinking, the False Memory lot, the Moral Panic's all an elaborate fantasy. I feel guilty when these thoughts accost me because for a moment they wipe out S[inead] and L[ynn] and my lived experience, but if it wasn't for them these thoughts would trouble me more.' (Research diary 28/8/96)

These anxieties arose during the period when the interviews - the 'smash and grab' of data collection - were over, and words spoken in interactions in time were being solidified into texts. The transcripts transformed lived conversation into texts that could begin to be mobilised in relation to other texts, including those that make up the discourse of disbelief.

Making Interpretations

I was aware with Dorothy Smith that: 'Our analysis of texts finds in them only what we know how to read from them' (Smith, 1990: p. 156). However, I was also determined to apply rigour to my 'reading' and push my analysis to the limits of my understanding. It seemed at first that this was the point where I might be able to jettison concerns emanating from the discourse of disbelief and begin to make sense of ritual abuse from the perspectives of my informants. Now I would be able to really get to grips with questions about how people survive and make sense of such experiences, how the dynamics of gender and generation operated in the organisation of their abuse, and whether the occult beliefs and rituals were really significant to those involved. In retrospect I can see that each of these concerns were in part actually responses to the discourse of disbelief. If, for example, the gendered patterns of life described by my informants fitted existing knowledge about gender, families and child abuse, then the plausibility of ritual abuse experiences would be increased.

At the same time my interpretative concerns were born out of my own identity as a feminist coming to this research with 15 years of feminist ideas about sexual abuse and patriarchal families behind me. This was not a background shared by my interviewees, they did not analyse their experience in feminist terms and often emphasised the equality of male and female perpetrators in ritual abuse. My awareness of this difference in perspective ensured that although I was sceptical that ritual abuse groups had equal opportunities policies, I did not set out upon my research with 'A Theory' to prove about the role of ritual abuse in the maintenance of male power. Rather I tried to tack back and forth between a self- reflexive awareness of my own history and perspectives, and the task of taking seriously the views of my interviewees with which I did not always agree.

I was committed to approaching my research with an open - but not an empty - mind. However, I was less clear about how theories or general statements might 'emerge' from my data, or whether the task was to think up possible relationships or explanations and test hypotheses against my data. In practice I realised there was no simple division between these two activities. The idea of 'pure' grounded theory denies the pre-knowledge of the researcher who has been active in the production of her data, and has a lifetime of ideas, theories and hunches which she brings to the task of 'making sense'. I was also aware that the very things which my feminism drew my attention to: issues of gender stratification, power and constraint, which I presumed would be of relevance to ritual abuse, were not well attended to in the interactionist tradition which attracted me as a researcher. As Derek Layder puts it: 'Grounded theory, and qualitative approaches in general, have tended to ignore the concept of constraint as a topic or focus of research.' (Layder, 1993: p. 162). However, my history in and with feminism teaches me that through the exploration of personal accounts structures of power and knowledge can be exposed to view: 'Both narratives of acceptance and narratives of rebellion are responses to the system in which they originate and thus reveal its dynamics.' (Personal Narratives Group, 1989: p. 11)

I wanted to examine the organisation of power, status and gender, and the ideological legitimations of ritual abuse. In doing so I tacked repeatedly back and forth between the self and situated activity, ideologies and belief systems, and structures of power and control, and was lead out into a wide range of literature which might refract light onto my puzzles, as well as deeper into the data itself. However, the primary question of my imagined audience: 'Does it really happen then?' was never external to my interpretative work.


The focus of much 1990s interest in life stories has been on the construction of accounts, their opacity and variability over time, and the social contexts of their production above the social contexts of the events referred to (Plummer, 1995). Whether debate about truth status in relation to research data can be put aside or not is inevitably a political issue. If the field of study is socially uncontentious it may be possible to do so, with a topic as contested as ritual abuse, it is not. My awareness of these issues lead me to a consideration of language and its implications in thinking about and reporting on research. In a paper written in early 1995 I wrote:

The term 'stories' inevitably incorporates the idea of fiction and leans towards locating the main event at the level of discourse. 'Narratives', as well as having the disadvantage of being merely a posh word for 'stories', pushes forward form and structure above content. Even 'accounts' are always-already 'competing accounts'.
'Life histories' take themselves more seriously as resources for knowledge. Within these 'reports' are respectful of peoples efforts to tell the truth of their lives. At the same time 'reports' and 'accounts' are always situated tellings, and the terms remind us that 'reporting' and 'accounting' are active processes of reflection and construction. (Scott, 1995: p. 8)

It was suggested to me on more than one occasion that I had to make a choice about my relationship to my data: was I going to treat it as 'topic' or 'resource'? It was evident to me that it had to be both. In survivors' accounts I sought knowledge about ritual abuse, but I could not fail to recognise that their accounts were also 'stories', socially moulded ways of telling. Odd though it may sound, it was questions of epistemological grounding rather than of infant sacrifices that kept me awake at night. I understood that this was due to the way in which questions of ethics were bound up with those of epistemology. To interview survivors of ritual abuse and then analyse their accounts purely as narrative productions struck me as immoral largely because of their highly disputed truth status.[9] My epistemological stance of 'subtle realism' (Hammersley, 1992)was formed out of the collision between a feminist ontology and the discourse of disbelief.


Ultimately we have no special sociological or feminist truth test, but must subject all accounts to what Herbert Blumer calls the 'everyday tests of practical reason: plausibility, illumination and reasonableness' (Blumer, 1939). It may sometimes seem that in being among the loudest whistle-blowers of the contingency and situatedness of all knowledge production, feminists have given away that very authority for feminist knowledge that some could claim by virtue of their (recently gained) positions in the academy. However, in insisting that all claims to knowledge are made by people with histories, identities and commitments within particular modes of production (academic, journalistic, clinical etc) there is far more to be gained than lost.

I have shown in this paper how a public dispute about the truth status of specific experiences inevitably effects the research process in all its aspects and cannot be bracketed off for the duration. Research takes place within a discursive field that impacts upon the researcher, her informants and each stage of the research process, from selection of interviewees to the selection of illustrative quotations. While ritual abuse may be an extreme case, the discourse of disbelief that has developed around it is connected to a broader denial of the scale and impact of the sexual abuse of children, and to a backlash against feminist claims to knowledge about sex, violence and gender. Feminist research in general takes place in relation to various oppositions and suspicions which affect researcher and researched but are frequently occluded in the final production of books and papers. Acknowledgement and analysis of the situatedness of research in the wider social and political environment is as important to the production of 'good' knowledge as acknowledging one's theoretical assumptions and describing the research methodology.


1 The discourse of disbelief in its media form read like this:

Satanism appears to have been imported from the Bible Belt of America. The signs of Satanism and its connection with child abuse were first reported in the US by people who had an interest in the existence of Satan. Satanism gives their religion a sort of ghostbusters glamour. Fundamentalists have always had a taste for the apocalyptic. (Sunday Correspondent 23/9/90)
The panic spread to Britain early in 1988 through several channels including the evangelical Christian movement, in books and testimonials of survivors and 'Deliverance' ministries, and through 'experts' from the US who spread the message here in newspapers and on conference circuits. Once here, the stories have been spread by Christian organisations such as the Association of Christian Psychiatrists and the Social Workers of the Christian Fellowship, by churches, anti-occult campaigners and by born-again 'survivors' of Satanic abuse. (Independent 7/10/90)

2 It could be suggested that ethnomethodological and interactionist research was post-modern before its time

3 In Dorothy Smith's terms 'experience is a method of talk,' it is in 'how people talk, the categories they use, the relations implicitly posited between them' (Smith, 1997: 394), and in what they take for granted, that we gain access to the social character of people's worlds. We do this in everyday life, feminists did it self-consciously in consciousness raising groups, feminist researchers do it systematically in the analysis of interviews. Experience may be the starting point for feminist research as for feminism, but it is in the analysis of experience that the potential for change lies.

4 Throughout this paper I use the term ritual abuse which I define as: 'systematic physical, sexual and emotional abuse perpetrated by groups using symbols and rituals and supporting their practices with claims to an occult/religious belief system.' Half of my interviewees used the term Satanism to describe the belief system of their abusers, the others described a pan-theistic occultism which they did not specifically label Satanic. However, during the course of the research I also received questionnaires from, and met with, women who identified themselves as survivors of ritual abuse but whose abusers identified themselves as Mormons, Neo-Nazis, Pagans, Hindus or belonged to 'traditional' African cults. The survivors in my sample had been abused in all white contexts in the UK and USA, and often described their abusers as extremely Right-wing and racist. (Four British women who had lived in or visited Africa during childhood also described abuse in multi-racial contexts.) I have chosen the term 'ritual abuse' in part because it leaves open the possibility of connecting experiences across race and culture, whereas a focus on Satanism or Satanists (Sinason,1994) reduces the possible phenomena for analysis to a specific cultural context.

5 La Fontaine's conclusions that there were only three substantiated cases of ritual abuse reported to the authorities between 1988 and 1991, and that these were quite unlike the 'satanic ritual abuse' reported by adults as they involved one main perpetrator who claimed 'spiritual powers' and one or two collaborators in the abuse, and: "the ritual was secondary to the sexual abuse which clearly formed the primary objective of the perpetrators" (La Fontaine, 1994: 30), was based on questionnaires sent to Chief Police Officers, Directors of Social Services and the NSPCC. The other 81 cases of alleged ritual abuse she regarded as unsubstantiated.

6 A preliminary questionnaire for ritual abuse survivors was distributed through Rape Crisis Centres and other services supporting sexual abuse survivors, it was also sent to members of RAINS (Ritual Abuse Information Network and Support). Ninety questionnaires were distributed and 36 completed and returned.

7 'Far from rushing around swapping stories, the survivors I talked to were mostly reluctant to meet others or even to read about similar experiences. There were two distinct strands to this reluctance, the first was influenced by their knowledge that they stood accused of having 'caught' ritual abuse from books, or of having memories 'implanted' by therapists and other 'believers'. The second strand was fear of meeting someone who was still involved or in contact with ritual abusers, or someone they had abused or been abused by.

8 The collective 'memory work' of Haug et al. (1987) provides one model for such research.

9 Michelle Davies does precisely this in an analysis of the memoirs of incest survivor Sylvia Frazer (Davies, 1993). I cannot help wondering if Davies would have undertaken a similar analysis on interview data she had personally collected from an unpublished survivor. Similar questions are raised by Ken Plummer's Telling Sexual Stories (Plummer, 1995) in which he discusses interviews undertaken in the 1970s with people we may assume he is no longer in contact with.


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