Damn the children when the Devil must be found

Neal Ascherson
Sunday 13 December 1992 00:02

And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses

Itching to boil their children. Only his verses

Perhaps could stop them . . .

I THOUGHT of those lines last Monday night, as I watched Panorama's television account of the Orkney 'Satanic abuse' scandal. They come from W H Auden's poem 'Voltaire at Ferney', which is about the defence of humanity against superstitious madness. Panorama played an audiotape: a six- year-old girl screaming tearful denials to three adult interrogators. 'He did so put his dickie in your fanny]' they insisted. She screamed again.

Voltaire, why was it not you who hobbled off the ferry at Kirkwall, your pointy, foxy face carmine with fury, to put an end to this? Instead there came a regiment of Edinburgh advocates and a horde of journalists and the good Lord Clyde to hear and then report, and between them they have somehow buried the truth of the whole thing.

Yet this was your territory. Superstition, cruelty and dogma fought a rearguard action on Orkney, and nearly won. And this battle was not even between native Orcadians, who watched appalled as one group of English incomers - the families - fought it out against another (for almost all the social workers were immigrants from the South). Nobody hates a settler as much as the next settler. You, as a Frenchman who made his home at Ferney in Switzerland, knew that irony too.

By their questions shall you know them. Arthur Koestler used to say there were three sealed mental systems in the world: Communism, Catholicism and Freudianism. His definition of a sealed system was that it could explain away its critics in its own terms. Thus the patient who tells the analyst that he never fancied his mother is only displaying infantile hostility to an analyst identified with his father. The comrade who says the Party is autocratic merely reveals his hidden bourgeois origins. The woman who says that Papal doctrine on abortion is un-Christian shows that God has excluded her from grace.

It is cheering to reflect that, since Koestler spoke, all three systems have begun to leak. Communism is mostly over, apart from China; the dogmatic school of Freudianism is very tattered; the Catholic Church, since Vatican II, has become more relativist in its judgements, despite this Pope. But islets of sealed-system thinking remain and, as Orkney shows, new ones can still form.

In their approach to fact-finding, the Orkney social workers revealed three clear lines of descent from the classic witch-hunting tradition. The first was the context and methods of questioning. In spite of a decade of crescendo uproar about uncorroborated confessions, children ('survivors', as the cult calls them) were examined by panels sometimes consisting of three adults but including nobody equivalent to a legal representative for the child. And the questions, as Lord Clyde observed, were 'leading' to an absurd degree.

The second line of descent was the interpretation of denial as evidence of 'guilt' (or of assent to a proposition). The more fiercely a child-witness denied that Satanic abuse rituals had taken place, the more certain became the interrogators that the sheer fury itself was proof of deep disturbance - probably of abuse. The inquisitors took much the same attitude to the parents who protested their own innocence. The louder they cried, the more certain the hunters were that they were on the right track. Had the families remained silent, that would have been if anything less damning.

Here the Orkney affair seems to link up to particularly sinister antecedents. Taking denial as evidence of guilt was not a routine with the KGB or the SS: they were totalitarian, but not entirely irrational. The history of religious persecution, however, at once shows the importance of denial - especially under torture. For one thing, initial denial multiplies vastly the triumph of the inquisitor when the subject finally breaks down and confesses to sexual intercourse with demons. And, second, just whose voice is this - these shrill, inhuman howls and oaths coming from a previously 'normal' human being? Why, the Devil's, of course, as he is forced to reveal his hiding place.

A third connection to the past was the reaction of the Orkney social workers to public criticism. This formed only after the operation had begun to disintegrate and the children had been returned to the islands. It went like this: 'Have you noticed how rapidly the families have been able to mobilise the whole British media against us? Do you seriously suppose that ordinary folk would have those sophisticated skills? There is an underground network already in place thoughout Britain - it's staring you in the face.'

This is tragic history repeated as farce. And this time the history relates to the totalitarian period, rather than to the Salem Witches. When the press of the free world condemned the show trials or racial laws of Stalin and Hitler, their respective police states used the condemnation as evidence of conspiracy. 'World Jewry once more uses its control of the newspapers to raise anti- German howls as its agents within the Reich are taught a lesson.' Or 'It is no accident that Trotskyist circles in the capitalist world are trying to manipulate opinion as their network of saboteurs and wreckers is being rooted up by the vigilance of the Soviet people'.

There used to be a fashionable explanation of the false confessions in Communist show trials. The defendants, themselves old Bolshevik loyalists, wanted to render the Party one last service at the cost of their own lives and honour. Koestler's Darkness at Noon took that line, as did Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev. But this theory, though it produced two wonderful books, turned out to have been quite wrong. When Czech survivors of the Slansky trials were able to publish their memoirs in the West, they explained that their confessions had been extracted by nothing more subtle than beating, starvation, unheated cells in mid- winter, being made to stand upright for days and nights at a time, and injections of crude, fuddling drugs.

In the end, however, they were broken down and rehearsed until they were word-perfect. They were given better food and even wore their own suits as they told the courtroom how, for example, they had been hired as imperialist agents by Noel Coward, head of the British Secret Service.

Who believed this stuff? A great many Czechs did in the early 1950s. The interrogators who had drafted the scripts naturally did not. But they considered that the end justified the means - a world Zionist-imperialist conspiracy against socialism did exist, and the confessions, though subjectively false, would objectively render workers and peasants more vigilant.

The question is whether the Orkney social workers were believers or cynics - Grand Inquisitors or Commissars? Unless the parents of the abducted children bring their grievances to court, we cannot know.

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