I’ve never written about this, the darkest of the Bo Bradley mysteries. I haven’t because anything I can say is likely to anger a few people, but they aren’t likely to read my books anyway so why not?
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So here’s the upsetting idea from which this book grew – The only difference between psychiatric delusional states and “sanity” is the absence or presence of consensus. If one person thinks something irrational is true, that’s a delusion and a psychiatrist must be called. If many people think something irrational is true, societies will respond as if it is. Witch hunts and McCarthyism are examples, but Strawgirl was spun from much more recent stuff.
I went to work as a child abuse investigator in the late eighties, in the wake of the McMartin Preschool “Satanic/Ritual Child Abuse” madness. And I use the term “madness” deliberately. The case, which involved accusations of satanic child sexual abuse with fantastical elements such as children being flushed down toilets to secret underground tunnels where they were molested in the presence of circus animals and murdered babies, went on for seven years. The McMartin criminal trial was the most expensive in American history but, not surprisingly, resulted in ruined lives but no convictions.
The mass hysteria did result, however, in enormous federal funds pouring into “training programs” which would enable child advocacy professionals to recognize evidence of satanic child abuse. I was one of those professionals and had no choice but to sit through mandated satanic abuse workshops. Really.
In one of these we were told to scour record collections in the homes of clients for
those by Ozzy Osbourne (heavy metal rock personality), as these were indicative of satanic influences in the home. That night my teenage son and I joked about burying album covers in the yard to avoid being arrested as satanists even though he was never into heavy metal and didn’t own a single Ozzie record.
But not everybody was laughing. The mindless hysteria endured well into the nineties, spreading across the country and wrecking hundreds of lives. And there are still individuals and organizations who, in the absence of any evidence whatever, seriously believe in satanic ritual child abuse. This is madness, but because it is espoused by several rather than one, it is not so-labeled. Nobody was or is dragging these individuals and groups off to see the shrink.
So I wrote Strawgirl, in which bipolar child abuse investigator Bo Bradley (who really does live with a psychiatric disorder) must battle the undiagnosed craziness of mass hysteria around satanic/ritual child abuse. Complicating her task is the opportunistic psychologist, Cynthia Ganage, who’s riding the craziness all the way to the bank, and Bo’s own supervisor, who’s determined to use Bo’s psychiatric diagnosis to end her career.
I wanted to point out that special interest groups, sometimes called “cults”, are usually harmless and often interesting, so created the “Seekers,” people who believe in or hope to see extraterrestrials. Eva Broussard, a half-Iroquois psychiatrist who studies the Seekers, becomes Bo’s new psychiatrist. And of course Dr. Andrew LaMarche, whose interest in Bo is far from professional, is again at her side despite her unorthodox methods. But without the courage of one homeless man, probably living with schizophrenia, Bo would not have been able to solve this case.
In real life people labeled “mentally ill” carry the stigma of crimes committed by thousands who are perfectly “sane” as well as the highly-publicized few committed by a handful of their number. In Strawgirl, a bipolar social worker, a homeless mentally ill man and a renegade psychiatrist revered by a cult, combat an epidemic of societal madness to protect a child.
It’s a dark novel with unpleasant details presented graphically. The villain is vile, but he isn’t crazy. Bo is sporadically crazy, but she isn’t vile. Both exist in a world distorted by a dangerous mass delusion that has passed, but pockets of which still exist and can flourish again in other forms, at any time.
Cornell historian George Lincoln Burr is often quoted as having said, “… that the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered.” If only that were true!