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Growing Up In Satan’s Backyard (Part 4)
It's time to talk about Canada’s dirty little secret
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There’s something you should know about the book Michelle Remembers. Well, there are a lot of things you need to know about it—but if there’s one thing I want you to take away from today’s post, it’s that Michelle Remembers is widely believed to have ignited the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Podcaster Sarah Marshall (who you met in a post a few weeks ago) believes this memoir is so important that she did a five-part series for You’re Wrong About—her podcast about moral panics and misremembered history. She strongly believes that Michelle Remembers is the patient zero of the Satanic Panic—and she’s not alone.
At one point, there were four different investigative teams looking into the book after it was published in 1980—a police detective, a sociologist, and two separate teams of investigative journalists. Their goal was to determine what exactly happened to the titular Michelle and what connection her childhood experiences had to a tidal wave of satanic abuse cases that swept across Canada, the United States, Australia, and Europe in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. (I will cover this in a future post, but here’s a good primer on Wikipedia.)
My partner Steve and I have a feature documentary about this story called Satan Wants You premiering at SXSW this March. There are so many things that never make it into a film, which is why I started writing this series on Substack. And now that we’re here, this feels like the right time to cover some basics about Michelle Remembers before we venture deeper into Satan’s backyard.
1) Canada’s Dirty Little Secret
Michelle Remembers is set in Victoria, a small city on an island in the province of British Columbia on Canada’s Pacific coast. The book begins in 1976 when a psychiatrist—Dr. Lawrence Pazder—is called to the hospital to see a former patient of his. Michelle Smith is recovering from a miscarriage and has had a disturbing dream. Dr. Pazder (who was known to friends and family as Larry) believes it’s more than a dream and they decide to return to therapy to uncover the true source of Michelle’s nightmares.
2) What exactly does Michelle remember?
At first, not very much until one day Michelle lies down on the couch in Larry’s office, sinks into a dream-like state, and screams for 25 minutes straight. This is where she begins to find her memories, which begin as fragments—her mother, a male priest named Malachi, a cult of women conducting secret ceremonies in the basement of Michelle’s childhood home—but quickly escalates into something much darker. When Michelle begins speaking in the voice of a five-year-old child, Dr. Pazder suspects that she is reliving real childhood experiences with her mother. He begins to record the sessions on reel-to-reel audio tapes so he is free to comfort and console Michelle while she is deep in her depths.
3) A ritual murder and a car accident
This first part of the book, where Michelle is struggling to remember the horrific abuse she suffered as a child, reveals that her mother is a willing member of this cult. During one of the basement ceremonies, Michelle helps the cult members murder a woman. She also helps her mother and the priest take the body up into the mountains outside Victoria and stage a car crash so it looks like the woman died in an accident.
4) Michelle is given away to Satan
This first part of the book, where Michelle is gradually remembering the horrific abuse she suffered as a child, culminates in a terrifying late-night ritual in Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery, where Michelle is buried alive, then reborn (ie. dug up) during a ceremony where the cult members light bonfires, chant, and sacrifice animals in an effort to summon Satan. Michelle’s mother—who is a member of the cult—concludes the ritual by telling Michelle: You’re not mine anymore, Michelle. You’re not mine. You belong to the devil.
5) The Catholic Church gets involved
Now that it was clear to Michelle and Larry that this was a Satanic cult, they decided to contact their local church for help and advice. Larry was a devout Catholic and shared the recordings with Father Leo and Father Guy. Father Leo was so concerned that he read the exorcism right for Michelle. But that wasn’t enough. Michelle decided to join the church. After a baptismal ceremony with Father Guy, Michelle and Larry and Father Guy discover a wooden bench with satanic symbols by the entrance to the church. They decide to burn it in the parking lot, while Father Guy recites the Lord’s prayer, and Larry captures the whole scene with a photo camera. When they develop the photos, there is a light flare in the shadows beyond the fire that resembles a woman holding a baby. Convinced that it is the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus himself, they seek the advice of the local bishop, who deemed it serious enough to petition the Vatican for an audience with the Pope in Rome.
6) What happens next?
In the interest of not spoiling the rest of the book or our documentary, let’s just say the involvement of the Catholic Church takes this story to the whole next level. The book itself is out of print, but I encourage you to find a copy—either a physical copy of the hardcover or mass market paperback or a digital copy online—so you can read Michelle’s story for yourself. But one final thing I can tell you is…
7) The book became an instant bestseller
In 1978, after 14 months of non-stop therapy, Michelle and Larry used the transcriptions from the sessions they had recorded to write their memoir. It was published by Thomas Congdon from Congdon & Lattes, a New York publisher. Congdon was the editor of Jaws, the bestselling novel by Peter Benchley that later became the 1975 Stephen Spielberg blockbuster movie, and he immediately knew that Michelle Remembers was going to be huge. Like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby huge. He hired investigators to confirm Michelle’s story was true and included supporting testimony in the book from medical doctors, the Vatican, and even a quote from Pope John Paul VI. And Congdon was right. When the book was published in 1980, it became an international bestseller. Michelle’s story was believed to be the first documented case of satanic ritual abuse—a medical term Dr. Pazder coined to describe the ritualistic abuse Michelle suffered as a child. And when similar cases started appearing in Canada and the US and the UK after the book was published, all hell broke loose.
This is the fourth installment in a series about the Satanic Panic that will jump back and forth between the 1980s and the present day. Thanks for reading and you can check out the other posts in the series here: