Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory BY Lawrence Wright. Vintage. Paperback, 224 pages. $15.

The cover of Remembering Satan:  A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory

Recent waves of newborn nostalgia for the 1980s seem to have bypassed the decade’s notable contribution to the annals of mass delusion, the epidemic of recovered memories of satanic child abuse. Lawrence Wright’s Remembering Satan (1994), a piece of reporting that looks increasingly like a durable classic, can serve as a necessary reminder of that page of madness. Wright focused on a single case out of many from that era—but what a case. It began with two young women lodging accusations of sexual abuse against their father, Paul Ingram, a deputy sheriff from Olympia, Washington.

Ingram initially claimed to have no memory of any wrongdoing, but soon managed, through the power of prayer, to dredge up increasingly elaborate memory-pictures more than confirming his daughters’ charges, charges that themselves became ever more wildly baroque. Scenes of incestuous rape led the way to the full-blown description of a devil-worshipping cult whose deeds included infant sacrifice, cannibalism, and bestiality, and whose membership expanded to include a large portion of the local police force. A number of those accused, including Ingram’s wife, proceeded to discover their own buried Walpurgisnacht memories.

The result was a carnival in which fundamentalist preachers, faith healers, dubious psychologists, ex–FBI men hipped on the satanic underground, and other assorted quacks and hucksters descended eagerly into the maelstrom. Police interrogators bullied witnesses unable to summon up memories of having been abused: “We know you’re a victim!” At one point helicopters were searching Olympic National Forest for traces of the countless slaughtered babies allegedly buried there. In the end the full price was paid by the self-incriminated Paul Ingram, who tried in vain to take back his original guilty plea. Wright (who would go on to explore the theme of religiously inspired extremism in The Looming Tower and Going Clear) brings a suitably dry, just-the-facts mind-set to this morass of delirium and trance, writing at one point: “The fact that the investigation was consistently thwarted by a total lack of evidence added to the explosive pressures.” His book is a virtual primer on a subvariety of American derangement that flares and subsides but never really goes away.

Geoffrey O’Brien is the author, most recently, of Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writings on Film 2002–2012 (Counterpoint, 2013).