The Freud of her generation or a logical, objective academic? Celia Kitzinger meets anthropologist Jean La Fontaine, author of a controversial report into satanic abuse.
Anthropologists are not used to appearing in the newspapers, yet Jean La Fontaine made front-page headlines in mid-1994, when she found herself in the centre of a public furore over her research into child sexual abuse. Her research report, The Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse, commissioned by the Department of Health, was widely read as denying the existence of satanic abuse. Leaked before publication, it was reported in one national broadsheet under the headline, "Government inquiry decides satanic abuse does not exist". For several weeks afterwards, La Fontaine's work was at the centre of arguments raging in the press about the prevalence of child sexual abuse in contexts involving human sacrifice, cannibalism, bestiality, dismemberment of foetuses, witchcraft and devil-worship. As La Fontaine remarks somewhat dryly: "Satanism sells newspapers."
The report itself is a slim, 36-page document, with tables of statistics, pie charts, and a histogram with columns neatly labelled "Foetuses eaten", "Drinking blood" and "Killing babies". It is founded on an analysis of survey questionnaires completed by police, social services and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for all cases of alleged organised and ritual abuse of children reported between 1988 and 1991, plus additional material drawn from police files and interviews with key personnel. La Fontaine investigated 84 cases of alleged ritual abuse, and substantiates only three, none of which meets her criteria for "satanic" abuse because none was directed to the worship of the devil. She observes that in these cases "the aim is sexual and the ritual is incidental to it. Self-proclaimed mystical/magical powers were used to entrap children and impress them with a reason for the sexual abuse, keeping the victims compliant and ensuring their silence."
La Fontaine, a mild-mannered emeritus professor of anthropology in her sixties, grew up in Kenya, the daughter of a colonial official. She came to England to study archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University, having chosen this degree course in the hope of avoiding that inevitable career choice for women, teaching. As she remembers: "Everyone assumed that I was going to read history, but there was nothing much for a woman with a history degree to do but teach. I was casting around for something else, and a friend of my parents suggested that anthropology might be the answer for someone brought up in Africa. I just put it down on the form without really understanding what it was - and I was extremely lucky, because I loved it."
After receiving a first-class honours degree, she went on to complete her doctorate (also at Cambridge) on initiation rituals among the Gisu, a Bantu tribe on the eastern border of Uganda. In 1958, she left Cambridge to lecture in anthropology at Birkbeck College and the London School of Economics. In addition to scholarly papers on the Gisu, she has since written and edited several books, including The Interpretation of Ritual (1972), Initiation (1985) and Child Sexual Abuse (1990).
This conventional academic background means that La Fontaine is somewhat surprised to be the focus of so much public controversy. "Academics live quietly, retired from life. Most people pay little attention to us. The response to my report was very emotional and hostile, including a virulent personal attack. It's very difficult when people question your motives and tell you you're promoting paedophilia." Critics have pointed out that the perpetrators of satanic abuse have everything to gain from reports that no such thing exists. According to journalist Bea Campbell, one of her most vociferous critics, Jean La Fontaine "may be destined to become the Freud of her generation: young survivors' stories of tyranny and torture seem so terrible that she prefers to locate their origin in fantasy rather than real events". Others point to the sophisticated organisation of ritual abuse and the secrecy with which it is conducted, arguing that La Fontaine's failure to come up with concrete forensic evidence demonstrates the success of occult groups in covering their tracks, rather than the non-existence of the abuse.
Commenting on La Fontaine's observation that children's stories of satanic ritual are an unreliable source of information ("the stories may change with successive tellings or further elements of horror are added"), psychologist Ashley Conway points out that high levels of violence and trauma are known to result in amnesia, and claims that this is "completely consistent with what one would expect from genuinely traumatically abused children".
Psychologists and therapists queried La Fontaine's failure to interview any adult survivors of alleged satanic abuse. Those who share her scepticism about satanic abuse link the surge of "recovered memories" to the publication in the early 1980s of Michelle Remembers, a Canadian woman's account (co-authored with her psychiatrist) of sexual abuse, torture, mutilation, the sacrifice of babies, and her ceremonial marriage to Satan. In 1990, a group of researchers in the United States conducted a nationwide survey of clinical psychologists, asking them if they had encountered claims of ritual abuse: about 800 psychologists, a third of the sample, had treated at least one case. Yet law enforcement officials, in the US as in the United Kingdom, have failed to uncover the forensic evidence - the bones of sacrificed adults, children or foetuses, the documented marks of torture - which would support these claims.
Asked why she did not talk to adult survivors of satanic abuse in preparing her report, La Fontaine replies with some exasperation: "Look, if you're doing a piece of academic research, you've got to draw the parameters very tightly, and I thought quite hard about getting a representative sample of adult survivors and finally decided that all I would end up with was a completely unrepresentative sample of self-selected volunteers. Whereas if I concentrated on children, I would be able to get some sort of national survey data."
How, in general, does she interpret the stories of women who claim to have been subjected to satanic abuse in childhood? "I find it quite easy to believe that they have been damaged in childhood, and that sexual abuse may have been what caused the damage - but probably not satanic abuse. I think that to a certain extent they're the victims of therapy." Where her opponents rely unproblematically on survivors' reports of their (alleged) experiences, La Fontaine demands independent forensic evidence and rational proof.
In fact, because of this, she is open to the possibility that evidence of satanic abuse may yet be uncovered. Commenting on the much-quoted words of Virginia Bottomley, then health secretary, who said that the report "exposed the myth of Satanic abuse", La Fontaine says: "I told them beforehand that to talk about 'exposing the myth' was unfortunate and overdramatic. I didn't find any evidence in the 84 alleged cases which I investigated. My conclusion was that there was no evidence of satanic abuse in these cases." Drawing upon her long-standing anthropological interest in why people believe in witchcraft, she suggests that belief in satanic abuse far exceeds the evidence for its existence because "people are reluctant to accept that parents, even those classed as social failures, will harm their own children. Demonising the marginal poor and linking them to unknown satanists turns intractable cases of abuse into manifestations of evil."
Her practical concerns lie now with the children, with their problems: "All this furore about satanism and satanists has distracted attention away from very seriously damaged children and what they need." She adds: "Everybody's galloping about trying to find satanists and looking for buried bodies and midnight rituals and this sort of thing, and there are some very needy children, some of whom are going to be made worse by the whole process, because people are trying to extract evidence from them instead of looking at their needs."
Yet, although she is now in a position to make practical suggestions for child protection, it is clear that her initial interest in child sexual abuse arose not out of a desire to make concrete changes but out of theoretical anthropological concerns. Approaching her topic from this perspective, she admits that "the horrors I found when I started researching sexual abuses were a terrible shock". But the theoretical starting point was important, and it can be traced through La Fontaine's anthropological career. Fairly early on, she became interested in theoretical debates about witchcraft and concepts of evil. "The witchcraft issue fed into a number of big debates in anthropology - perhaps the most famous being the debate about rationality. It was initially postulated that people who believed in witchcraft and magic were using modes of thought which were somehow different from western modes of thinking: they were pre-rational, pre-logical. Among the people I was studying, belief in witchcraft as an explanation for what went wrong was tremendously common. 'Why is it that my child is always sick?', 'Why is it that my cows die and nobody else's seem to?', 'Aha, it's witchcraft, or sorcery!'" Two years before the publication of her DoH report, she had written, in an article entitled Concepts of evil, witchcraft and the sexual abuse of children in modern England, that "the sexual or physical abuse of children, particularly very young children, serves in modern England, to exemplify a major form of evil and to characterise those who commit these acts as inhuman monsters". Ridiculing the idea that, in contrast with other societies, we in the West live in a rational secular world, she points to the suspension of critical judgement "now that we have beliefs in the devil popping up, and evangelical Christianity taking a very strong hold on things, and people behaving with immense, staggering irrationality".
La Fontaine has enormous faith in rationality, logic, and objectivity. Indeed, it is one of her distingushing characterisitics. She defines her terms carefully, considers evidence dispassionately, and has high standards of accuracy. Asked about the anger she has generated in some of her critics, she says: "We have to consider this rationally, and the argument must be conducted in terms of the available data." For an anthropologist, she seems curiously committed to an unrelativised modern western mode of thought, and strangely surprised - even alarmed - by other ways of thinking about ritual and satanic abuse.
Valerie Sinason, consultant psychotherapist at the Tavistock Institute, and editor of a book called Treating Survivors of Satanic Abuse has been quoted as saying that "I find it disturbing that one anthropologist's readings of transcripts are being listened to more seriously than 40 senior health service clinicians". When I mentioned Sinason's name to Jean La Fontaine, she replied: "I don't like to be arrogant, but there was only one Galileo who first said that the earth was moving around the sun. Numbers of believers don't count. Data and logic do".
Celia Kitzinger is director of women's studies at Loughborough University.