Can memory be a devilish inventor?

May 16, 1994 Volume 143, No. 20

CAN MEMORY BE A DEVILISH INVENTOR? The case of a father accused of satanic sexual abuse who "remembers" and is jailed


Lawrence Wright's Remembering Satan (Knopf; 205 pages; $22) seems likely to be considered the most powerful and disturbing true crime narrative to appear since Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. But what was the crime? Certainly it was not satanic abuse, says Wright, a New Yorker reporter, although a man sits in jail for confessing to just that.

A few years ago in Olympia, Washington, two sisters, 18 and 20, began to talk, separately, about gross sexual abuse each said she had experienced as a child and had only recently begun to remember. Charges were filed against the girls' father, Paul Ingram, who seemed dazed and confused, but who denied them.

Ingram was the chief civil deputy of the county sheriff's department and chairman of the local Republican Party. He was also a religious Fundamentalist. With great earnestness he told investigators - his fellow officers - that although he knew his children did not lie, he couldn't remember any episodes of abuse. The associate pastor of his small religious sect urged him to let go, to remember what he was repressing. God wouldn't let him remember falsely, the pastor said.

Eventually, Ingram developed a technique for recovering memories. He took each fresh, unfamiliar accusation and prayed over it until he went into a trancelike haze. Two or three days later he would offer his interrogators a detailed script of the scene, complete with dialogue and a cast list.

Lists were needed because the sisters' denunciations came to include their mother and two adult brothers; two of their father's male friends (against whom charges were brought); a sister of one of these men; assorted other children and adults; additional members of the sheriff's department, including the most convinced of the investigators; and a couple of police dogs used by the department. Quite late in the process the notion of satanic rituals was introduced by an investigator and enthusiastically agreed to by the sisters, who had recently seen a Geraldo Rivera TV show on the subject. One sister said that over several years she had been forced to witness the ritual murders of 25 people and that an aborted fetus from her own pregnancy had been ritually dismembered.

No dead babies were ever found, nor any evidence of pregnancy or abortion. Nor did the sisters turn out to have the scars they claimed to have received from ritual burnings and knifings. There was no physical evidence of any kind. Further, the stories told separately by the sisters did not agree. As the membership of the supposed satanic cult began to take on the size of an amateur theatrical troupe and as the other Ingram family members began to sound doubtful about their confessions, charges against Ingram's two male friends were dropped and the investigation collapsed. Its premise, Wright reflects, "was that something must have happened. At no time did the detectives ever consider the possibility that the source of the memories was the investigation itself - there was no other reality."

Paul Ingram, however, had already confessed. Appeals have failed, and he is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

The author of this well-reported and clearly argued book is no polemicist, but he does quote with approval a troubling question asked a couple of years ago by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus: "Is it fair to compare the current growth of cases of repressed memory of child abuse to the witch crazes of several centuries ago?"

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