The above is Johanna Michaelsen’s introduction to her bestselling 1989 book, Like Lambs to the Slaughter, a classic of the “fundamentalist moral panic” genre. That’s a bit like calling an inguinal hernia a classic groin injury, but never mind–if you’re in the mood for Reagan-era anti-educational hand-wringing or gruesome tales of babies getting scarfed down by Satanic daycare workers, this is the book for you!
It’s hard to know if Michaelsen is insane or extremely credulous: in all likelihood, she’s both. A former New Ager, she saw the light and became a born-again Christian some time in the late 1970’s. Unlike other lapsed fundies, however, Michaelsen has never straight-up repudiated her old beliefs. Ouija, spirit guides, ESP, numerology, ghosts, parapsychology–according to her, that stuff’s all real. And it’s all the work of Satan.
Michaelsen’s first book, The Beautiful Side of Evil, was a memoir of her time as a spiritualist and was fairly well-read at the time. But her influence exploded when she became one of the loudest voices in the fight against Satanic ritual abuse. If you’re old enough, you probably remember SRA. Its legacy includes Michelle Remembers, the concept of false memories, and the realization that kids will say just about anything to win the approval of authority figures. At her height, Michaelsen was traveling the country, waxing hysterical about sex cults and babies being butchered in basements. She even got involved with Laurel Rose Wilson, alias Lauren Stratford, a con artist whose three alleged children were victims of snuff films and ritual sacrifice. Laurel Rose lived with Michaelsen until her claims were debunked, then skipped town and re-emerged as Laura Grabowski, a Holocaust survivor. Michaelsen doesn’t seem to have had much to say about this–she was probably too busy throwing up after touching cold spaghetti.
I promise that statement will make sense in due time.
The Beautiful Side of Evil
Our children are being groomed for a Satanic world takeover. So says Michaelsen in the first chapter of Like Lambs to the Slaughter. Exactly whom they’re being groomed by is unclear. New Agers? Satanists? Humanists? Teachers? In Michaelsen’s mind, they’re all essentially the same thing. Religion is a complicated issue, so Michaelsen simplifies matters by breaking it down into two separate categories: 1) right-wing evangelical Christianity, and 2) literally everything else.
She also believes the world is ending.
What evidence does she have of the impending rapture? Well, for one thing, E.T.
For another, Humanism. Specifically, that philosophy’s encroachment into America’s schools. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read on, and prepare to have your moral outrage ignited!
The Humanist Conspiracy
If you, like me, went to school in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, you’ll remember this scenario: you and your classmates are sitting criss-cross-applesauce on a rug, listening to a story about a chameleon’s journey toward self-acceptance while Raffi coos affirmations in the background. At the end of the story, you are encouraged to think about what makes you special. “Remember,” you’re told, “there’s nobody in the world exactly like you.” You and your fellow students disperse to your work stations to color ditto sheets depicting anthropomorphic hearts shrieking: “I LOVE MYSELF!” Later, you receive a list of every student in your class and write down three positive traits for each name. The teacher takes the lists home and uses them to create a personalized acrostic for each child. It’s the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years, and self-esteem is the watchword of the day.
Humanism, as it applied to education, was basically the idea that we could rid the world of pain and strife by raising more confident, introspective, and self-possessed kids. In practical terms, this meant my generation was inundated with a lot of touchy-feely, hippie-dippie messages about loving ourselves and staying true to our values. It’s a well-meaning philosophy, and I do think it created more open-minded and emotionally articulate adults. If it also paradoxically crippled our self-esteem and made us approval junkies, well…I guess no ideology is perfect.
Ok, so. We can all agree that humanism-in-education was a movement that actually happened. Michaelsen describes it this way:
Have they? Call my memories repressed and hire me a hypnotherapist, but I don’t remember doing any of that. The most macabre shenanigans we ever got up to in school was watching a pumpkin rot. I mean, suicide notes? Can I get a source on that?
No, I cannot. Michaelsen has loads of footnotes tied to an index of sources, but most of those sources are either newsletters of right-wing fundamentalist groups, Bible quotes, or articles that at least partially contradict the impression she’s trying to give. Also, when the sources really count–when they’re needed to back up a claim that sounds absolutely insane–they’re not there.
Apart from tossing out random, insufficiently sourced nonsense, Michaelsen’s favorite technique is getting her jimmies rustled by educational jargon. Here, for example, she decides that a book about gifted-talented children is actually about Eastern mysticism.
Look, I don’t know what the hell Suggestology is, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have anything to do with tapping into latent psychic abilities. Nor, as Michaelsen later contends, do gifted-talented programs use palm reading and D&D as educational tools. I say this as someone who was in a gifted-talented program in the 90’s. The craziest thing we did was play chess for an hour every Tuesday morning.
For good measure, Michaelsen also invokes the still-extant specter of Culture War, complaining that Christianity is essentially outlawed in American classrooms.
I looked up that Christmas card lawsuit, by the way. The little girl won. She won. She’s allowed to pass out her cards with stickers of Jesus. So, you know, let’s calm down about that.
Michaelsen drones on and on about the educational system for several more chapters, and though she ostensibly touches on different topics, it’s really all the same premise: Un-Christian Thing X is being widely used in schools (i.e. was used in a single school Michaelsen half-remembers hearing about during her Sunday Christ-gasm), some people think Un-Christian Thing X is harmless, Un-Christian Thing X is actually dangerous because Eastern mysticism, Un-Christian Thing X is being used to indoctrinate our children as part of some vague worldwide conspiracy. So yeah. It got boring after a while.
Fortunately, the best is yet to come. Michaelsen really hits her stride in the back half of the book.
Nothing to Toy With
Michaelsen hates the Smurfs. Hates them. She includes them in a chapter that begins with the words: “The ancient demon gods still live.” She takes special exception to Gargamel, the sorcerer who makes potions and draws pentagrams in an attempt at capturing the little blue sprites. It doesn’t matter that Gargamel is the antagonist of the show–Michaelsen contends that children might imitate his behavior anyway. And since, as you’ll recall, potions and pentagrams and sorcery are all things that actually work, said children could be putting themselves at grave risk. You know–from demons and stuff.
She also dislikes She-Ra. Can you guess why? I guarantee it’s even crazier than you’re anticipating.
By the way, did you know that She-Ra rides a pegasus? I didn’t, because I was more of a David the Gnome kind of girl, but Michaelsen assures me that it’s true.
Speaking of myths, George Lucas’ stated aim in creating Star Wars was to give a generation of children a modern-day mythology to enjoy. His true agenda, however, was far darker. According to Michaelsen…
Honestly, this chapter might be the most entertainingly surreal section of the book. Because her readers were presumably the kind of hard-core evangelical parents who forced their children to read Chick Tracks instead of watching TV, Michaelsen has to explain every show she mentions. Her attempts are comical at best.
This is a great chapter. Not because it contains anything of substance or value, but because it’s full of ridiculous stories that almost certainly didn’t happen. For example, here’s how Michaelsen kicks off the section:
Here’s another fabulous yarn:
Awesome. But it’s not all pointless lies on the Halloween front. Michaelsen also spends plenty of time “exposing” Halloween’s Satanic connection.
Oh, here we go again. Michaelsen isn’t the only one to have fallen for the bizarre fundamentalist myth that there was a Celtic Death God called Samhain/Samana–our old friend Halloween and Satanism made the same claim. What Like Lambs to the Slaughter has going for it, though, that Halloween and Satanism didn’t, is graphic information about how this Celtic “Death Festival” has survived into modern times.
Wake up, people! Satanists are planting kids in schools! Michaelsen goes on to say that these sleeper-cell Satanists like to obtain compromising photos of recruitees, which they will threaten to release if said recruitees don’t do everything they’re ordered to do. Most of what they’re ordered to do is animal sacrifice. Michaelsen goes on at such length about mutilated animal carcasses that the theme starts to feel strangely masturbatory. She cites an area in California where dozens of skinned dogs, cats, and birds are found every Halloween night.
It actually happens. This is the unsubstantiated refrain you hear over and over again in the last third of Michaelsen’s book, which delves into her subject of expertise: Satanic ritual abuse.
The Hideous Side of Evil
Warning: even though none of this stuff actually happened, the descriptions are a bit gnarly. Proceed at your own risk.
Satanism is in–or at least, it was in 1989, when Like Lambs to the Slaughter was published. As proof, consider the words of this unnamed teacher at an unnamed school in San Antonio.
Teens these days, getting all caught up in their One Direction and their wheely shoes and their Satanism. It ain’t like it was back in our day, when the greatest threats to our country were thermonuclear annihilation and the thought of brown people voting. Still, it’s mostly posturing–black metal, goth fashion, that kind of thing. It’s not like Satanism is a genuine threat to our children.
Psych! I was being ironic! Did you catch it? Actually, since I’m making fun of Michaelsen, I guess I’m being double ironic. And if you think my condescending use of rhetorical device is mind-blowing, just wait till you hear about all the hell (get it?) Satanism is wreaking on today’s youth.
It’s seems outlandish now, but at one point in history people actually believed this stuff. Some estimated that up to one million children had been missing, confined, and/or sacrificed by secret Satanists. There were movies about it. TV specials. Geraldo Rivera shat himself over it on a weekly basis. It was a watershed moment for both sociology (there exists no finer modern example of mass hysteria) and psychology (therapists learned the hard way how easy it is to lead a child into making all kinds of horrific claims). And right at the center of the kerfuffle were absurd beliefs like this:
Nothing was ever proved. No kidnapped or sacrificed babies were ever found. What we got instead was a lot of delusional or attention-starved women claiming their babies were taken from them. In the case of Laurel Rose Wilson, whom I mentioned above, doctors determined she had never even been pregnant. That all seems pretty damning, doesn’t it? And yet, and yet…
Hell, why can’t that be the explanation for everything? Where are the chupacabras? Secret crematoriums! Where are the werewolves? Secret crematoriums! Where are the ghosts? Secret ghost crematoriums! It may not be implausible, in Michaelsen’s view, but it’s also not falsifiable, which, as anyone with a basic scientific education can tell you, makes it a garbage theory.
What if it’s true that Hitler is alive in Peru? What if it’s true that Kim Jong Eun is five muskrats in a long coat? What if it’s true that all of my inadequacies are attributable to the vestigial twin that lives in my frontal lobe and craps doomed alien souls? What if?
And what if you’re convinced by all this, and you’re worried that your child might be dabbling in Satanism? Well, firstly, you’re an idiot. Secondly, this calls for an NSA-scale invasion of privacy.
So there you have it, the grand result of all Michaelsen’s struggles and strivings: another excuse for helicopter parents to get overly involved. It sucked being a kid (or a public school employee!) in the 80’s and 90’s. Johanna Michaelsen is part of the reason why.