Speaking Of The Devil

PAUL INGRAM'S DAUGHTERS ARE EVERY parent's worst nightmare. Ericka and Julie were obedient, responsible girls and faithful to their family's fundamentalist religion. Julie had won the state championship in the Future Homemakers of America contest two years in a row. Then, in the fall of 1988, when Ericka was 22 and Julie 18, both daughters suddenly moved out of their parents' house in Olympia, Wash. Several weeks later, they told their mother and the authorities that their father had been sexually molesting them for years. Before long they were embellishing their accusations with descriptions of Satan worship that included gang rape and the slaughter of babies. Several of the men they identified as members of the cult worked in the Thurston County Sheriff's department, where Paul Ingram was a deputy. But the most frightening thing about the case was that without a shred of corroborating evidence, Ericka and Julie convinced everyone-including their father-that their story was true.

In "Remembering Satan," his painstaking account of the Ingram case, New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright explores the controversial phenomenon of recovered memory and its more lurid cousin, the issue of satanic-ritual abuse. Dispassionately but with genuine curiosity, he retrieves this subject from the sensational atmosphere of TV talk shows. The author of "Saints and Sinners," a survey of American religious leaders from atheists to TV preachers, Wright manages the neat trick of being both fair-minded and entertaining. Though quick to expose cant and sham, he never glosses over the genuine mysteries he stumbles upon.

Over the last decade, thousands of people have suddenly "remembered" being sexually abused as children, usually by their parents. In many cases, the memories are decades old and, according to Wright, rarely is there much concrete evidence to support the claims, especially in cases involving Satanism. Nevertheless, advocates for the victims echo the logic of Ingram's minister, who told Paul's wife, Sandy, that victims "didn't make up those kinds of things." Ingram, the first accused party to ever plead guilty in a ritualistic-abuse case, was himself persuaded by this argument. His daughters would not lie, he reasoned, so he must be guilty of something. Within hours of his arrest, he began inexplicably to envision scenes of abuse.

In the weeks that followed, Ingram and his daughters spewed forth a sickening list of incriminating details that ranged from sodomy to cannibalism. Before long, Ingram's wife, Sandy, and two of his sons were avidly "remembering" incidents as well. When their memories proved sketchy, their pastor and the sheriff's investigators were there to encourage them. At one point, 20-year-old Chad Ingram was coaxed into converting a dream about witches into an actual memory. He could sue for damages, a psychologist working with the sheriff's department told him: "Pay for a nice car." "I've already got a nice car," Chad replied. "Yeah, but do you have a BMW?"

Ultimately, the Ingram family's hysterical eagerness to "remember" created so many conflicting stories that the state's case all but evaporated, and two other men arrested were released for lack of evidence. In 1989 Ingram came to his senses and sought unsuccessfully to withdraw his guilty plea. But the courts, which are never eager to grant an appeal to anyone who has pleaded guilty, have consistently turned him down. He is serving a 20-year sentence.

Wright notes obvious parallels between the modern-day satanic-ritual hysteria and the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. To explain why the issue has resurfaced, he cites "the rise of fundamentalist religions, the social anxiety about the loss of traditional values, and political uncertainty following the collapse of international communism." Whatever the reasons, the idea of satanic-ritual abuse has now become so firmly entrenched that many unscrupulous lawyers, says Wright, have drawn up "standardized forms for their clients, in which the accusations of rape, torture, sodomy and ritual abuse are already specified."

As a result of this hysteria, the Ingram family is destroyed. Much worse, Wright concludes, what happened to the Ingrams is "happening to thousands of other people throughout the country who have been accused on the basis of recovered memories." This is a cautionary tale of immense value, told with rare intelligence, restraint and compassion. "Remembering Satan" catapults Wright to the front rank of American journalists.