Pagan framing: Responding to news stories of alleged satanic murders

A young woman in Pennsylvania has admitted knifing one man and now claims that this is only the latest in a string of 22 murders which she committed because she was in a “satanic cult.”

Pagans, please think before you respond to questions about this. Please, for the love of all you value, think before you reflexively start any comment with, “Well, we’re not Satanists.” That’s true, but it’s usually missing the point. When people ask you about your practices and beliefs, lead with what you actually believe:

“I recognize the divine spirit in everything and value life and nature.”

Then, if you absolutely must, continue with: “So obviously a string of vicious murders – if it actually happened – is completely antithetical to anything I’m involved in.”

Now, you may actually be involved in conversations about this that don’t have anything to do with your religion. If it’s office scuttlebutt, and no one confronts you, then the above advice is irrelevant. But – and this is a big but – you should still think about framing. If no one asks you about your religion in the context of this issue, don’t reinforce the connection in people’s minds between the spurious Satanic Panics of the 90s and any form of alternative religion.

With that said, here are more details. Basically, I’m withholding judgment on whether or not the additional killings – or how many of them, if any – took place. The woman involved is only in her teens, and she is undergoing court-ordered psychiatric evaluation. Her confession included several statements about how she doesn’t ever want to get out of jail and that she doesn’t care if anyone believes her (so she knows her story is difficult to believe).

Those statements combined with a story with all the hallmarks of the recycled Satanic Panic narrative, increase my level of doubt. The hallmarks include claiming to be a leader of her “cult” (apparently the imaginary Satanic movement is composed entirely of 19-year-old high-ranking officials), a possible connection with child abuse and molestation, and medically unsubstantiated claims of a secret abortion. She also admits that her memory is distorted. From the local paper that got the interview:

“I feel it is time to get all of this out,” she said. “I don’t care if people believe me. I just want to get it out.”

Suspect: I joined satanic cult

Miranda said when she was 4, she was sexually molested by a relative.

Elizabeth Dean, Miranda’s mother, confirmed Saturday that her sister’s husband was later arrested and charged with sexual abuse of a minor and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

“It was bad,” Dean said. “I never let (her) stay anywhere except for my sister’s house, and I was devastated when I found out.”

Nine years later, Miranda joined a satanic cult in Alaska. Soon after, Miranda said, she had her first experience in murder.

Barbour said she went with the leader of the satanic cult to meet a man who owed the cult leader money.

“It was in an alley and he (the cult leader) shot him,” she said, declining to identify the cult leader.

“Then he said to me that it was my turn to shoot him. I hate guns. I don’t use guns. I couldn’t do it, so he came behind me and he took his hands and put them on top of mine and we pulled the trigger. And then from there I just continued to kill.”

While in the satanic cult, Miranda became pregnant. The cult did not want her to have the baby, so, she said, members tied her to a bed, gave her drugs and she had an “in-house abortion.”

However, her mother on Saturday said that when Miranda told her about the abortion, she took her daughter to a doctor who said there were no signs of an ended pregnancy.

Miranda said she spent the next three years in Alaska, continuing in the satanic cult and participating in several murders.

“I wasn’t always there (mentally),” she said, adding that she had begun to use drugs. “I knew something was bad inside me and the satanic beliefs brought it out. I embraced it.”

During those three years, Miranda said she became pregnant again.

“And I moved to North Carolina,” she said. “I wanted to start over and forget everything I did.”

She left Alaska as a high-ranking official in the satanic world, leaving the father of her second pregnancy, a man named Forest, the No. 2 leader in their cult, who was murdered.

Please, people, let’s keep our history in mind and stay calm about this until more evidence emerges. If there is a secret underground network of vicious child abusers and murderers, the authorities will find them. I’m more concerned about what will happen if – once again – people are convinced of the existence of vicious child abusers and murderers and end up playing a sort of bizarre live-action role-playing game against the figments of their imagination while real, live, innocent people get hurt.

At the very least, it doesn’t look like this particular young woman will be hurting anyone else anytime soon; if she is fundamentally ill as well, let’s hope she gets the help she needs. I pray that everyone affected can find healing.

Wiccans in British Columbia, and an example of mediocre framing

I’ve been quiet lately because I was trying to get ready for an exciting trip with family, but I’ve come down with an annoying infection and am not allowed to travel. It’s proving pretty stubborn, so I’m resting a lot. I hope to be back to my usual hijinks in a week or so.

In the meantime, here’s an interesting story about how corrections officials in British Columbia initially arranged to try to hire a Wiccan chaplain, but the decision was reversed by a higher official – or at least it is on hold pending further review. The government official’s office insists he supports freedom of religion, but that “the government is not convinced all services offered through the chaplaincy program reflect an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”

The article’s coverage isn’t too bad – although one of the Wiccans quoted makes the cardinal mistake of bad framing by saying that people have an unfairly “negative image” of Wicca. We don’t know whether or not she was prompted, but denying that we are “devil worshippers” is generally the wrong tack to take. The counter-characterization as “tree-huggers,” is only marginally better, but it’s at least more neutral and vaguely true, even if commonly used as an insult.

Remember, if you’re going to speak to the media, be prepared. Think about your framing. Don’t bring up ridiculous ideas and prejudices. If you’re confronted with them, downplay them and return to your positive message.

The Pagan Blood Libel and the Bad Jackie test

Trigger Warning: imagined threats of kidnap, abuse, and murder involving both adults and children

In the course of my interview with her, Vanessa asked me more than once why I think Pagan oppression occurs. I gave answers that I think are pretty common: ignorance, fear of the unknown, fear of the other. But I also felt it was vital to point out that people aren’t just misinformed about Paganism because they haven’t had reason to look it up, people are ill informed about Paganism because of campaigns of active mis-information, dis-information, and outright defamation.

I try to be hopeful about these things. I want to think that the Satanic Panics of the ’80s and ’90s won’t recur; I want to think that the freeing of the West Memphis 3 shows that our society is starting to recognize what went wrong and move to correct it; I want to think that if Pagans continue to present themselves to the world as reasonable people, these outrageous, ridiculous, and deeply insulting myths will fade away.

But they don’t. I was reminded of this by a couple of things that popped up in my social media. Jason at the Wild Hunt carefully explained that he has no plans to kidnap your man, and Star found yet another list of dangerous “holy days” promulgated by people who are still talking about Satanic Ritual Abuse as if it was more than an imagined boogeyman. Let’s face it: these things keep having currency in part because there are still people who are profiting from peddling this defamatory nonsense. But the peddlers are only a small part of the problem.

Fred Clark explained part of the phenomenon as the Bad Jackie problem: basically, when confronted with evidence or testimony that such-and-such fantastical weird or evil thing doesn’t exist, some people somehow choose to go on believing in it. So we don’t just have the people who are peddling hateful lies for profit – although they’re enough of a problem – we have the people who actively partake of those lies in the face of the truth and by so doing propagate them.

For Pagans, the fact that the world has so very many Bad Jackies who continue to cling to the blood libel of Paganism has very real consequences. Many of these urban myths don’t: if a thousand Jackies want to check the gas pump handle for HIV-tainted needles before filling up their car, fine; they waste 10 seconds of their own time. Usually, the consequences rebound upon themselves or will make no noticeable difference in the overall state of things.

But believing that a certain group of people are actively dangerous leads others to treat those people – me! – differently.

I’m glad Fred is talking about this. I think I disagree with him about the extent to which these kinds of choices are conscious, but it’s important to identify them as choices. A lot of this conversation comes out of his subculture, and he can address that better than I can, and he has more interesting posts about how people prefer to believe in a world with such monsters in it. Sometimes sitting back and analyzing these things, especially arguing about it over a beverage, can be fascinating.

But I don’t always have the luxury of simply trying to understand the phenomenon because I have to live with the results. Part of processing how I have experienced and coped with anti-Pagan prejudice – whether it results directly from the Pagan blood libel or not – has made me want to translate some of those feelings into action.

On a personal level, no more jokes. It’s not funny to joke about whether I use my ritual knife for such-and-such a nefarious purpose, or whether my Sabbat will endanger any animals. I’m not going to pretend that it is any more. Social considerations of politeness will no longer stop me from calling people on that kind of crap, because it’s outrageous, and hurtful, and it needs to stop. If that makes me the kind of humorless bore who doesn’t want to be the butt of offensive jokes about horrific crimes, well, then I’m that kind of humorless bore.

On a broader level, it means things like pushing back against the “demonic possession narrative” as Jason points out. It may mean pushing back against misperceptions about divination, about symbols, about wearing black and going to the woods at night.

But I don’t know very much about how to do that well. This is a place where I would really like to get more advice from people who have experience countering this kind of defamation.

What I do know is that if you pay attention to Hecate’s rules on framing, this is the one time you should talk about what Pagans are not. But it still means you shouldn’t pile on other examples in an attempt to debunk as much as possible at one time; Pagans get so little media exposure that we need to counter the specific problem at hand and make a positive statement. In speaking to the public, the point is to challenge the frame and try to reframe, rather than accepting the frame and debating around it.

This is where I think the Bad Jackie idea comes in. When you work to counter the frame, put it in terms that highlight exactly how ridiculous and contrived the libel or defamation is. “You believe what?” Make it dismissible: how can you believe that in the face of an official FBI debunking? In the face of common sense? In the face of reality?

If you can’t change the minds of the Bad Jackies, at least make it obvious that they’re the ones who are out of touch with reality and at some level choose to stay there.

What do you think? Is that a helpful way to think about this? Is it a good place to start? And how else should we do anti-defamation work well?

Murders in Mexico: News Awareness for Pagans

Recent murders in Mexico are tragic enough on their own, but they have the potential to cause repercussions for us, too: you should know about them if you ever talk about Paganism to non-Pagans.

Three murders in Mexico have resulted in the arrest of eight members of one family. There is suspicion that the murders may have been human sacrifices to Santa Muerte, a non-traditional saint revered by some Catholics, particularly the extremely poor and people in drug culture.

Pagans need to know about this because there’s a tendency to lump together all non-mainstream religions: people hear “Wicca” and think “Santeria,” or more likely, “voodoo,” with all of the associated misconceptions and fears. Since the idea of “human sacrifice” echoes back to the Satanic Panic in the US not too many decades ago, some people are likely to draw that mis-connection. And let’s face it, human sacrifice is the stuff urban legends are made of.

So you need to know about this. If you’re ever talking to non-Pagans about Paganism, this is the sort of thing that can totally define the conversation. Whether it’s the vague fears of your Aunt Tillie who heard about this one thing one time, or whether it’s a “gotcha” question being popped by the latest reporter trying to get a juicy quote for the “Halloween! Witches!” story this year, you need to have a response when someone brings this up.

Here are three things you do not say in response:

* That never happened.

If you say this, and the people do their research, they’ll be convinced that you’re at best misinformed and at worst lying. Anything else you say that could have been beneficial will backfire completely.

* Huh? I don’t know about that.

While less disastrous than a false denial, this makes you look underinformed or dodging the question. At worst, it’ll make you look completely freaked out, and you’ll probably drop back to mistaken response #1.

* They’re a different kind of Pagan/minority religion than I am.

While this is likely true, it doesn’t address the heart of the questioner’s fears and leaves open several unpleasant possibilities. Pointing out that people who venerate Santa Muerte mostly describe themselves as Catholics might be helpful, but only after establishing that this is not what Santa Muerte’s following is about.

What you do want to say in response is something that puts the incident in a framework the listener can understand. Look at how Religion Dispatches does it:

“If we can accept that not all Beatles fans are Charles Manson, we must also have faith that not all who pray to Santa Muerte are [murderers].”

Everyone who might face questions about this should have that comparison in their back pocket. A more aggressive one is to say that not all Christians are Branch Davidians.

Particularly in this case, it looks like it was all members of a single family, so it’s not hard to imagine they came up with their own weird interpretation that was as sick and twisted as other murderers’ motivations have been. It’s not about venerating Santa Muerte; it’s about what went wrong in this specific instance.

Obviously, it will help if you occasionally check in on the story and find out what the resolution is once there is one.

Then you can say things like “I don’t follow that path, so I don’t know much more about it” and “No Pagan religion practices or would permit human sacrifice; it’s a completely atrocious idea,” and if you have time, explain that the Satanic Panic was a manufactured fear that continues to be completely overblown, so whatever the person thinks they know about past incidents of “sacrifice” is probably not true.

This is a matter of both defusing potential fear directed at us and about helping people understand and accept members of other minority religions or offshoots. If you’re going to talk to people about Paganism, you have to be prepared.


You’re not doing me any favors

In the midst of a wonderful and spirited discussion on social and political matters this weekend, the following exchange took place:

Someone mentioned the “Mormonism is a cult” news splash. The lady next to me turned to me and said, “Well, that’s true! If you look at it, it is a cult!”

I gaped, dumbfounded, for a moment as my hand went to my pentacle pendant hanging in plain view. When my voice came back, I said, “Well, the word ‘cult’ gets thrown at my religion a lot, too, so I’m not so quick to use that term.”*

She looked surprised and asked, “And you are?”

I replied, “Wiccan.” I had to repeat it for her – I’m not sure if that was because she’s unfamiliar with the term, or because of the background noise. Oh, shit, I was thinking to myself – did I just ‘out’ my hostess? Did this lady actually not get the joke behind the giant wooden silhouettes of three witches around a cauldron on the front lawn that had me almost doubled-over in laughter? (They say a Witch lives there!)

She said, “Oh. Well, I’m Quaker, so everybody always thinks I’m weird,” and turned back to the larger conversation.

I let out a slightly relieved breath and didn’t even stop to boggle at the total ignorance of Christian privilege inherent in her statement. (Yes, I know there are Pagan Quakers – some of them do some great blogging. But by and large, most Quakers are Christian or Christ-centric, and that was clearly assumed by this lady’s attitudes.)

Aside from causing a nifty little moment of gut-churning fear, this exchange helped clarify why I agree so strongly with Star Foster about Project Conversion. The blogger behind this “Try the flavor-religion-of-the-month!” experiment showed up in her comments section and basically said that Star was being a meanie and that we should all be oh-so-grateful that he’s trying to bring Wicca some positive PR. (After all, it’s the only religion he got negative comments about, he said.)

First of all, Star’s right about his problematic framing. (If you haven’t read Hecate on the topic, go do that. I’ll wait.)

But more importantly, I don’t have to feel grateful that this dude is doing me a favor, because he’s not. Yeah, Wiccans have a lot to gain from positive PR. But we also have a lot to lose, especially from people who think they’re doing us a favor by giving us more media exposure when they are actually reinforcing negative frames with that exposure. As Cara Schulz more eloquently put it, he is running a significant risk of making us all look like “fluffy bunny asshats.”

I look forward to the day when being Wiccan is no more weird than being Quaker, when religions less than 250 years old aren’t automatically dismissed as cults, when monotheism isn’t seen as the only way. (I also look forward to the day when someone who is called out ever-so-gently on privilege doesn’t double-down by asserting hir status as also less-privileged.)

But we’re not there yet, and in the meantime, pretending that you’re doing me a favor by helping out the poor, oppressed Wiccans is orders of magnitude more rude than ignoring the existence of Christian privilege. It’s one thing to be ignorant, even deliberately, and another thing to acknowledge that privilege exists and then claim you’re using yours to help the less-privileged without actually acknowledging the feedback you get from them on how they want to be helped – or not.

*Recommended reading on “cults” and the dangers thereof: The ABCDEF.

Shout-outs via the Humane Society

The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association awarded Dr. Lori Pasternak  its Direct Practitioner of the Year award. Dr. Pasternak works at the Helping Hands clinic in Richmond, VA, a low-cost surgical and dental clinic. I’ve taken animals to Helping Hands before, and I can’t say enough good things about the clinic and about Dr. Pasternak. I’m delighted to see her getting the recognition she deserves. From the article:

“Surgery happens to be my talent. We should all use our talents to make the world a better place,” said Dr. Pasternak.

Well said!

Second, this month’s All Animals magazine has an excellent feature story on how humans and bears can coexist safely and peacefully. As the tag line reads, these strategies and examples prove “we can live in and with the wild without destroying it.”

Among other things, this article and the ideas behind it are a great example of framing. We don’t, for example, have to accept Bryan Fischer’s framing and metaphors that it’s “humans v. bears.” Environmentalists who accept that framing can potentially end up seeming like they support the bears more than the humans. By reframing the question as one of coexistence – even a potentially difficult coexistence at times – instead of unremitting aggression, a whole slew of different approaches become possible.

Finally, the article also provides some good perspective:

[Fatal bear attacks] average fewer than two per year. More people are killed by bees. By spiders. By dogs. By lightning.

“More people are killed in vending machine accidents,” says Andrew Page, senior director of The HSUS’s Wildlife Abuse Campaign.

These are interesting counter-examples of what fringe Christians don’t tend to interpret when they try to divine their god’s will. As far as I know, Fischer hasn’t yet claimed that a vending machine falling over was a sign of God’s wrath. I really loved C&L’s suggestion of a “wall of separation between church and weather.” Could we extend that to other extremely unlikely imputations of divine wrath such as earthquakes, bird deaths, and bear attacks?

Framing and giving energy: How we work against DC40 matters

In light of the upcoming DC40 event, a lot of Pagans have expressed the opinion that responding to people like these fringe Christians only gives them more power, that it feeds them more energy to work with. That’s not necessarily true; the way we frame our response can determine whether we’re feeding them more energy or not.

Hecate has up another one of her oh-so-necessary posts about framing in response to DC40. I’d like to expand on that by giving some contrasting examples of responses that do and don’t reinforce fringe Christians’ framing of the situation.

My ideas for responses are focused on promoting a positive. That’s a basic principle of magic and affirmations: you say things that you want to happen. You don’t say “Please make sure this plane doesn’t crash,” because that’s talking about a plane crash. Negating a frame reinforces that frame. You say, “Let this trip be safe and smooth,” because that’s talking about what you want. Positive framing keeps your attention and energy on the desired outcome.

Now this isn’t just about saying “nice” things. It doesn’t have to be all sweetness and light; I fully understand that my vision of religious liberty is an affront to these would-be theocrats. That’s not a nice thing to say, in their world. But it is a positive framing in the sense that it keeps the focus on what I want.

You may choose to do a working like this using the idea of reflection, that the harmful intent and purpose will be reflected away from those it is meant to reach, possibly back on the originators. That’s fine, but again, framing matters. If you concentrate on what’s being reflected, you’re accepting their framing and directing your energy and attention to their harmful efforts. Concentrate instead on what’s doing the reflecting, and on the people who are being protected by that reflection.

Others raised the idea of “repurposing” the harmful intent or energy. I imagine that this can be done in positive-framing terms, but I seriously, seriously discourage it in this case. It’s extremely likely that you will end up feeding their energy. These people are strong and experienced and have a deep, deep passion behind their intent. They have a clear vision. They are not including a “an it harm none” or “for the greatest good of all” clause that you can latch onto for leverage to redirect them.

Magically speaking, stopping this energy is going to be hard, hard work. Think about it more in terms of momentum than electricity. Trying to repurpose this energy is like jumping in a truck going really, really fast and trying to get it to go in exactly the opposite direction without using the brakes.

I do include in my visualization the idea that any energy thrown at the shielding or at the wall of separation is grounded, harmlessly, and that since the shielding draws some of its strength from being connected to the earth, then in some sense their energy gets recycled to fuel the shield, but that’s an afterthought and not something I pay a lot of attention to.

In the mundane world, it is true that even negative attention often encourages its recipient. But, as a Pagan said about polyamory on the Wild Hunt today, “the road to equality lies through the fields of visibility.” Take Hecate’s advice and if you counter-protest in any public form, make it an opportunity for outreach and visibility for Pagans as good, normal people, not just about these fringe Christians.

Finally, there is the problem with responding to action rather than initiating action. That’s where a lot of other work matters so much. Being out as a Pagan can help; well-run Pagan Pride Days can help. Taking positive political and social action are essential. We’re already doing some of that, so let’s do more, as much as we can, and realize that that’s the real work of promoting religious plurality and understanding, and defending religious liberty.