Imaginary Solutions to Real Problems

By Lucien Greaves

This article was originally posted on Greaves' Patreon.

The allegedly “true story” contained claims of psychic phenomena, prophecy, demonic possession, Ritual Abuse, Divine Intervention, and an antagonist Mad Scientist ultra-villain who was simultaneously a Jewish Satanist and a Nazi working for the CIA on refining methods for mind-control.

Naturally, I was skeptical.

The book, Twenty-Two Faces: Inside the Extraordinary Life of Jenny Hill and Her Twenty-Two Multiple Personalities, was authored by one Judy Byington, a retired Social Worker who was, at the time, still providing counseling via Skype. She also claimed to be working with the Utah Attorney General’s office in some official capacity to combat Satanic crimes of ritualized abuse. Alarmed, a colleague of mine reached out to the Utah AG’s office for confirmation, and instead of the expected Glomar response (“we can neither confirm nor deny…”) we received an unequivocal denial. The office was clear that they did not work with Byington in any way, on any level.

Byington scoffed it off. Of course they denied it, she rebutted. The work she performed with them was far too top secret not to. Not so top secret as to be left off of her publicly posted author’s bio, you see -- just top secret enough to prevent the AG’s Office from acknowledging it.

The book claimed an endorsement from a respected former Press Secretary General for the United Nations, five years dead at the time of the book’s publication, and requests for any evidence that could validate his support for this unlikely tale were not forthcoming.

While I, and colleagues of mine (some of whom would go on to help form today’s Grey Faction), sought evidence for Byington’s outrageous claims, we were horrified to see media accept her “true story” claims uncritically. Kimberly Nelson, a news anchor for ABC 4 in Utah, ran a sensational, spooky, Halloween-time report about the book, its author, and its subject, presenting it not as an unlikely work of deranged supernatural horror fiction, but as a documentary work of remarkable insight into a rare psychiatric condition (Multiple Personality Disorder), and an under-recognized epidemic (Satanic Ritual Abuse). Early reviews of the book similarly glossed over the supernatural claims and already-debunked assertions. Soon, we were informed, Dr. Phil, too, was scheduled to air this incredible story.

Byington, claiming to have been the therapist for the subject of the book, Jenny Hill, even at the time of the book’s publication (and later revising that claim when questions of legality regarding Byington’s unlicensed status emerged), purported to have gained Ms. Hill’s biographical tale by way of Recovered Memory Therapy. The horrors suffered by Jenny Hill at the hands of the Satanic CIA conspiracy were so extreme, Byington claimed, that Hill had “repressed” them from her conscious mind, causing her personality to fragment. Only a therapist -- adept at drawing out discrete personalities and interviewing them regarding their unique memories -- could possibly piece the entire narrative together and integrate a case like Jenny Hill into one whole self again.

It was the origins of the Satanic Panic all over again in the year 2012. In 1980, a similarly ridiculous book, Michelle Remembers, made equally outrageous supernatural claims, alleged to have been gained through therapeutically revealed recovered memories. The book’s publication and subsequent popularity is widely regarded as the defining moment in instigating an anti-Satanist witch-hunt that lasted till about 1995 (if it ever really ended at all). Irresponsible daytime talk show hosts, like Oprah Winfrey, humored appearances by the Doctor/author and his subject/wife giving uncritical airings of “their reality,” and seemingly affirming the claims of the book. As ridiculous and discardable as Twenty-Two Faces clearly was to many of us, it also became increasingly obvious that submitting its claims to rigorous scrutiny and making our findings known were well within the public interest, and far from a superfluous waste of our time.

I published a scathing review of Twenty-Two Faces in Skeptical Inquirer magazine in the beginning of 2013, and a rather relentless correspondence campaign between me, my future Grey Faction colleagues, and Dr. Phil’s producers are suspected to have tilted the show’s broadcast toward a more skeptical presentation. In all this, Jenny Hill’s son, too, was an asset in exposing Byington for a fraud, refusing to remain silent while his mentally ill mother was exploited.

As Byington’s claims began to collapse around her, she increasingly failed to address relevant direct questions. Finding herself viewed unfavorably when it was revealed that she had composed an “exclusive rights” contract with Jenny Hill -- taking full ownership of Ms. Hill’s alleged biography, and offering no part of the royalties to Hill -- Byington claimed that proceeds would be used in support of “survivors of ritual abuse.” When asked where such funds would be disbursed and when, and why such language was never in the contract with Jenny Hill, Byington was silent. Soon, Byington only answered questions with questions. What were our own motives? What was our “agenda”? And, most pointedly, on one comments section of a review for her book, “why are you spending so much time and energy trying to disprove that children are being raped, tortured and murdered?”

Refusing to address any specifics regarding her own claims, Byington decided to generalize her position as one of victims’ advocacy. At the end of the day, she would have had us believe, the core of her position was merely that child abuse is harmful. Jenny Hill, regardless of whatever specifics we chose to split-hairs over, was allegedly a victim of childhood abuse. Forget the supernatural elements of those claims, Byington seemed to be saying. Forget any standards of credibility. To question a narrative that includes claims of child abuse is to question the very existence of child abuse itself. In this way, Byington conveniently generalized assaults of scrutiny brought to bear upon her narrative of Satanic Panic as an endorsement, or cover-up, of organized abusive behavior.

Transparent and facile as Byington’s evasion is, this technique of generalizing conspiracist claims under the rubric of some real-world problem is a prevalent, and fairly effective, means of shielding implausible claims from investigation. Deranged “PizzaGate” bloggers, too, whiff the foul air of a conspiracy favoring human-trafficking protection in all revelations of facts that disprove their asinine and delusional claims. More insidiously, the debates about the overall reliability of “recovered memories” and the validity of theories regarding “traumatic repression” have become a minefield of retaliatory accusations of perpetrator protection leveled against research psychologists whose data suggest that Recovered Memory Therapies can lead to the creation of sincerely believed confabulatory false memories.

The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) presents itself as an empirical evidence-based organization for mental health professionals studying the psychological effects of trauma upon individuals. In practice, their literature and conferences are widely centered upon Multiple Personality Disorder (now remarketed as Dissociative Identity Disorder) with regular seminars from their Ritual Abuse/Mind Control Special Interest Group that elaborate conspiracist narratives of Satanic occult crimes, Illuminati brain-washing plots, and all manner of irrational narratives befitting of Byington. In fact, Twenty-Two Faces contained endorsements from two ISSTD past presidents; Joyanna Silberg (who also currently acts as editor for the society’s journal), and Colin Ross (who still speaks at most, if not every, ISSTD annual conference). Ross, in fact, wrote the Twenty-Two Faces forward.

The ISSTD and its supporters meet criticisms against the bizarre and irrational claims propagated at their conferences in the same way that Byington attempted to evade criticisms leveled against her book: by contextualizing any debate in broad and generalized terms, placing the ISSTD’s position on the correct side of a completely unrelated debate that they will then insist is the fundamental core of the issue at hand. If you question the plausibility of the content of the ISSTD’s lectures -- whether it be related to Illuminati mind-control, Satanic cult world domination plots, or “prenatal trauma” -- you will likely be accused of simply denying that child abuse exists, or that child abuse is traumatic. From there, it may be inferred that your skepticism is motivated by a nefarious agenda bent upon protecting perpetrators. If one were to express skepticism toward a report by an alleged victim claiming that he was robbed on the street by an invisible unicorn, a qualitatively identical rebuttal would accuse the skeptic of refusing to accept that muggings occur.

In contextualizing their opposition as merely motivated to deny that child abuse is occurring, or that it is traumatic, proponents of ISSTD conspiracism and pseudoscience seem to suggest that individual complaints regarding specific claims are irrelevant: overall, they suggest, the greater good is served by their advocacy for trauma victims. Likewise, nothing good can come from denials of the reality of abuse.

Of course, this framing of the issue evades reality entirely. Nobody is claiming that child abuse does not occur, or that child abuse is not traumatic for its victims. It is not even accurate to say that those who frame the debate in this manner demonstrate a strict defense of alleged victims of abuse over alleged perpetrators. In fact, the Multiple Personality defense has been used in attempts to shift responsibility of severe abuse perpetrators onto discrete, separate “personalities” that presumably are not at all representative of the individual’s “core” consciousness. In 2011, Colin Ross acted as an expert witness in the trial of Billy Joe Harris, known as “the Twilight Rapist,” who targeted elderly women. Ross testified that Harris exhibited Dissociative Identity Disorder, and Harris acted the part in court. However, Harris’s credibility was destroyed when the prison he was being held in released audio of a conversation he had with girlfriend in which he clearly described his courtroom insanity plea antics as a “show.”

During my investigation of Twenty-Two Faces, a strident supporter of Byington by the name of David Shurter consistently raised concerns that my efforts to debunk Byington’s claims were indicative of a vested interest in ensuring that predatory pedophiles, in particular, were not brought to justice. Shurter posted numerous long rambling blog posts, videos, and comments insisting that my colleagues and I were “pedophile protectors” for our audacity to cast doubt upon the growing threat of Satanic mind-control programs instigated by the CIA.

One day, I received an email from somebody claiming to be a relative of Shurter’s. This person claimed to be in possession of documentary evidence, in the form of a letter, establishing that Shurter himself had molested his nephew. I asked for some confirmation of this claim, or a copy of the letter, but I heard nothing back. I forgot about it temporarily.

One evening, some months later, I was looking in outraged horror as I saw a whole new stream of slanderous comments from Shurter on -- I believe -- an article related to Twenty-Two Faces. I replied to Shurter with a bluff. I claimed to be in possession of the letter that I was told existed, and I asked if Shurter cared to give commentary before it was made public. Taking the bait, Shurter soon replied that what I was suggesting was a “nice try,” but the reality of the situation was that he was under mind-control when he had molested his nephew, and he certainly could not be held accountable for his own actions when acting at the behest of the oppressive puppet masters that once ruled his every action.

David Shurter, the man whose conspiracy theories were presented as victims’ rights advocacy, had himself molested his nephew. The moral boundaries in this debate were not at all anything similar to how they were being presented by the ISSTD crowd.

Conspiracy theorists who bundle sexual abuse claims into tin-foil hat narratives of Illuminati world conquest and Satanic cult crimes do not, as they would have us believe, bring greater recognition to the problem of human trafficking. They use victims of such crimes as human shields against scrutiny into their more outrageous and unjustifiable claims.

The tactic of eluding specific scrutiny in favor of positioning oneself as solidly and unquestionably on the proper side of a broader moral issue is by no means confined to proponents of Recovered Memory Therapies or Illuminati conspiracy theorists. Tribal politics demands displays of moral outrage over nuanced discussion, and internal skepticism regarding the efficacy of certain tactics in bringing about their intended end are denigrated as treachery. Republicans favoring restrictive gun laws are seen as communist traitors, while Progressives defending Free Speech are now seen by some of their unsophisticated peers as supporters of Fascism.

No matter how desperate or contentious a complicated issue might become, we should never allow false moral grandstanding to strip us of nuance and our ability to engage in informed debates. We should always take care to make sure that our actions are just in and of themselves, and not merely justified because we have defined ourselves in terms of unquestionable moral superiority.