Activists with The Satanic Temple say a now-former therapist in Canada has been pushing conspiracies about globe-spanning, mind-controlling cults for years. And after they exposed some of her professional talks to her licensing board, she voluntarily gave up her psychology license.
In June, a representative of The Satanic Temple sent a complaint about retired therapist Alison Miller to the College of Psychologists of British Columbia, the organisation responsible for licensing psychologists in the province. Though Miller retired from practising therapy in 2018, the complaint accused her of causing harm by spreading “the dangerous notion that satanic cults engage in ritual abuse of children” in her public speeches and published books.
The presentations highlighted in the complaint – including one titled “Working Through Your Traumatic Memories and Destroying the Mind Control” – were given by Miller at a 2017 conference hosted by Survivorship, an organisation billed as a support group for victims of ritual abuse. The president of Survivorship, a Massachusetts-based licensed mental health counsellor named Neil Brick, claims he is a ritual abuse survivor who was “programmed” by the Illuminati into becoming a killer and spy.
In Miller’s presentations, she passes along tales of her patients being abused by cult members who dressed up as Satan, red tail and all. At another point, she describes trying to steer a patient away from her belief that she had been abducted by aliens; instead, she said, it was more likely that a cult had implanted the memory of aliens in the patient in order to make her seem “crazy.” Miller also claims that repressed memories can be stored in the body and can periodically emerge as physical convulsions akin to “electroshock memory flashbacks,” and that victims of ritual abuse often cope with their trauma by dissociating and forming multiple personalities, though she refers to these personalities as “parts.”
“It can be hard to undo the damage of false memories.”
Miller detailed many of these ideas in her 2011 book, Healing the Unimaginable: Treating Ritual Abuse and Mind Control. And though it’s unclear how many patients Miller may have worked with during her career, her LinkedIn page indicates she had been practicing in British Columbia since 1990 – more than 25 years.
While still a matter of great controversy, some mental health professionals do believe that people can develop multiple personalities as a result of severe trauma – a condition called dissociative identity disorder, or DID, in the DSM. But according to Steven Lynn, director of the Laboratory of Consciousness, Cognition, and Psychopathology at Binghamton University in New York, most of Miller’s claims about how our memory functions, let alone the existence of these cults, are dubious.
“There is no scientific support that can be claimed for the validity of these statements; in fact, they are at the fringes of pseudoscience, much less grounded in evidence that would be accepted in any corner of the scientific community,” he told Gizmodo via email, referencing the stories Miller told of patients with repressed memories of cults and aliens that could cause seizure-like flashbacks.
Founded in 2013 by Lucien Greaves (a pseudonym), The Satanic Temple is most known for its political activism – the group’s name in tongue-in-cheek, as its members don’t literally worship the devil. They’ve protested against lawmakers who are openly influenced by their conservative religious beliefs, in defiance of the separation between church and state. In several states, they’ve even sued the government for restricting residents’ access to abortion, arguing that such laws threaten the religious freedom and beliefs of their members, who worship an unabashedly pro-choice “Satan,” meant as a symbol for the need to rebel against “arbitrary authority.” Though envisioned as a high-minded satire of right-wing Christianity, The Satanic Temple has evolved into a genuine movement – warts and all – with chapters throughout the U.S. and non-profit status.
But Greaves has said that the inspiration for The Satanic Temple came from a very specific period during the 1980s and 1990s, when law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and the media stoked a moral frenzy over Satanic cults supposedly kidnapping, murdering, and wiping out the memories of people across the world. The Satanic Panic, as it came to be known, was aided by a small but influential group of mental health and self-help professionals who claimed they could dredge up the repressed memories of their patients, often said to be caused by ritualistic cult abuse. Ultimately, however, no objective evidence ever emerged of these cults existing, and at least some patients retracted their claims of repressed memories, saying it was the therapists who had victimised them with manipulative techniques meant to elicit false recollections.
Though the Satanic Panic is no longer dominating headlines, The Satanic Temple says remnants of the Panic are still around today, in the form of therapists and others who espouse discredited theories about repressed memories and fearmonger about clandestine cults. To that end, they’ve established a dedicated off-shoot to investigate and bring attention to these therapists, called Grey Faction.
“The heyday of this was the 1980s and 1990s, sure. But it never really totally went away, and there hasn’t been much of a reckoning in the mental health field.”
“There are a couple of different groups and organisations with individuals who continue to promote the idea that there are roving gangs of Satanists abducting and abusing people so severely that they block it from their memory – and that these memories can only be recovered with the aid of a therapist at some point in the future,” Grey Faction director Evan Anderson told Gizmodo by phone. Grey Faction claims that Miller was one of these individuals.
On October 22, the College of Psychologists of British Columbia (CPBC) responded to Anderson’s complaint, having conducted its own review. In response to the CPBC’s investigation, Miller defended her statements, citing some research and arguing that she was voicing the stories of her patients and had no reason to doubt their authenticity (attempts to reach Miller by Gizmodo have so far been unsuccessful).
“The respondent stated that her views regarding diagnostic and treatment issues related to survivors of ritual abuse have been taken out of context or misinterpreted,” the CPBC wrote in its reply to Anderson.
Though the CPBC declined to investigate the allegations of patient mistreatment, in part due to Miller’s retirement status, the organisation nonetheless concluded that: “On their face, many of the Respondent’s statements are unusual and do not reflect mainstream beliefs about abuse, trauma, and mental health.” They were also concerned that Miller “expressed a degree of certainty about the activities of cults that may not be warranted, yet she did not limit her statement with a caution about the sources of her information.”
Ordinarily, the CPBC’s findings might have prompted further action, up to and including professional censure. But according to the response, Miller told the CPBC during the investigation that she thought she needed to retain a non-practicing license in order to have access to her practice’s records. After being told that wasn’t the case, Miller sent a letter in late August stating that she was giving up her license. As a result, the investigation would be officially closed, the CPBC told Anderson.
While the CPBC’s findings aren’t as emphatic as Grey Faction would have liked, Anderson nonetheless considers it a victory, as the decision will prevent Miller from offering continuing education units, which are collected by therapists and social workers to maintain their license, through her presentations. Nor will she, the CPBC noted, be able to call herself a psychologist.
It’s fair to say that we’re no longer at the peak of the Satanic Panic. And, as Lynn notes, the more outlandish beliefs expressed during the Panic by therapists and others are not widely accepted in the mental health field. But there are still many people who believe that repressed memories exist and that anyone can successfully dig them out with the right methods, despite decades of research suggesting that these techniques are more likely to create false memories.
As many as 8 percent of therapy patients in the U.S., according to a 2018 study, have seen a therapist who floated the possibility of them having repressed abuse, while 5 percent have actually undergone therapy to recover these memories. Just last year, Gizmodo reported on Teal Swan, an “internet spiritual guru” who encourages her followers on YouTube to do processes that uncover so-called repressed memories – and Swan herself was likely influenced by a therapist who played a key role in the Satanic Panic.
“Unfortunately, research shows that a minority of therapists and counsellors around the world still believe damaging memory myths,” Julia Shaw, a UK-based psychological scientist who has studied and written about the phenomenon of false memory, told Gizmodo in an email. “I have worked on legal cases myself in which impossible memories of abuse are described – impossible for logistic reasons (like the defendant not being in the country at the time) or because their brains could not have remembered the event (they were too young to be able to form memories). Unfortunately, such cases are not as rare as they might seem, and even for impossible cases it can be hard to undo the damage of false memories.”
According to Anderson, many of Miller’s ideas enjoy legitimacy in certain pockets of the therapy world. Prior to her retirement, Miller was closely associated with the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD), an organization in existence since the early 1980s said to promote “clinically-effective and empirically-based” resources on how to treat trauma (previously, it was known as the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation). The ISSTD and its members are routinely presented as credible expert sources for understanding dissociative disorders, such as when ISSTD co-founder and former president Richard Kluft served as a consultant on a TV show about a woman with DID, “The United States of Tara.”
As recently as 2017, Miller was chair of the ISSTD’s Ritual Abuse and Mind Control and Organized Abuse special interest group. Other past ISSTD members, including founder Bennett Braun, have been sued by their former patients for allegedly encouraging them to develop false memories. Gizmodo reached out to ISSTD for comment but did not receive a reply.
“Cases similar to the Miller case illustrate how a range of psychiatric folklore mixed with conspiracy theories can persist for decades after sufficient disconfirming evidence and argument has been presented,” Lawrence Patihis, a memory researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi and lead author of the 2018 study on repressed memory therapy in the U.S., told Gizmodo by email. “In the same way no medical clinicians should be allowed to practice pseudoscience, neither should psychology clinicians.”
So long as these organisations and therapists who still earnestly believe in the Satanic Panic exist, Anderson said, Grey Faction’s work isn’t done.
“The heyday of this was the 1980s and 1990s, sure. But it never really totally went away, and there hasn’t been much of a reckoning in the mental health field. We would really like to see an end to all this, particularly for the public’s safety,” he said.