A Canadian Woman's Bizarre Childhood Memories of Satan Shock Shrinks and Priests

UPDATED 09/01/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/01/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

The horror began for Michelle Smith of Victoria, B.C., in 1976, just after her third miscarriage. In a terrifying dream, Smith saw hundreds of tiny spiders gushing from a scratch on her left arm. The nightmare prompted her to consult a psychiatrist, Dr. Larry Pazder, but therapy at first had minimal results; her uneasiness persisted and she developed a painful rash. "I felt a tremendous pressure that I had something to tell him," Smith recalls, "but I didn't know what it was." Then one day, while watering her plants, Smith "felt something inside click." At her next session, Pazder says, Michelle lay down on the couch and became pale and remote. Pazder sensed that something important was about to happen. "In a very short time she reached a place of frozen terror," he recalls. For 25 minutes Michelle shrieked and moaned. (A psychiatrist in the next office later said, "It was the most piercing cry of genuine terror I have ever heard.") Then the screaming stopped, and out of the eerie calm came a child's voice. "It's all black," said the little girl. "He's hurting me all over. His eyes are scaring me. They look crazy. Where's my mommy? Oh, please, help me."

With that cry for aid, Michelle Smith, now 30, began a bizarre, all-but-incredible 14-month odyssey that has excited the interest of psychiatrists and Catholic theologians—and the commercial instincts of the publishing industry. In the soon-to-appear Michelle Remembers, which has already earned a $100,000 hardcover advance and a $242,000 paperback sale, Smith and Pazder describe the process by which they dredged up Michelle's long-buried "memory" of an infernal childhood—and a pact with the Devil. At about the age of 5, Michelle says, she was subjected by her mother to a group of Satanists in her quaint, gingerbread hometown of Victoria. Through therapy, Michelle recalled being subjected to a merciless succession of physical and psychological tortures. She claims to have been imprisoned in a mesh cage layered with live snakes, forced to eat a soup of worms and to watch cultists slaughter kittens. She also insists that she was wrapped in a shroud and lowered into a cemetery grave. The Satanist high priest, Michelle says, once attached horns to her skull and a tail to her spine. In her recounting, the torment continued for months until—filthy, starving and bruised—she began seeing the Devil in the bonfire of the Satanists' Black Mass. "He always came out of the fire, and his shape was constantly changing," she says. "You never saw a whole person at once—just a huge gigantic foot or a long, hairy leg."

Stunned by the vehemence and consistency of Michelle's story, Pazder taped her "recollections" from the start; they now have 600 recorded hours. He also launched a search for factual corroboration. Scientifically, of course, her "memories" proved nothing; they could as easily be caused by hysteria as demonic influence. But Dr. Pazder—a Roman Catholic—suspected supernatural influence in her case. "If I had missed some neurosis or psychosis," he says of her condition, "I might as well have gone out and sold pencils. It would be a lot safer for people on the street." Pazder hunted for hospital records that would confirm the recollections. He found one clue in her account of being placed in the back seat of a car with a dead woman in front. The Satanist high priest, Michelle said, released the emergency brake and let the car roll down a hill into an embankment where it burst into flame. Consulting a doctor who had once treated Michelle, Pazder learned that she had indeed been admitted to a hospital at about age 5 for smoke inhalation after a car accident. Although the records of the case had been destroyed, Pazder was convinced of the accuracy of Michelle's memory. "In the beginning I wondered if she had made things up," he says, "but if this is a hoax, it would be the most incredible hoax ever."

Michelle's early life was certainly dogged by misfortune. Her mother died when Michelle was 14; her father then signed over custody to her maternal grandparents. After attending a convent school, she first consulted Pazder for conventional young-adult neuroses while she was at the University of Victoria. Her story of possession surfaced much later, after her marriage to a surveyor began to falter.

The supernatural element of her tale is impossible to substantiate. Michelle says that she was miraculously rescued through the intervention of an unearthly woman dressed in blue, who identified herself as "Ma Mère" ("My Mother" in French). Michelle claims that while in therapy she recognized the woman's son, "Jésu," a young man clothed in white, and realized that the woman was the Virgin Mary. "I know it's really odd to be talking about it," Michelle admits, "but I can't deny that she stood there and held my hand." Not religious before psychotherapy, Michelle was baptized as a Catholic three years ago and now sleeps with a rosary beneath her pillow. She reacts with dismay to questions about the credibility of her spiritual experience. "I'm being accused of having had encounters with Mary, Jesus and Satan. Is that so awful?" she demands. Accompanied by Dr. Pazder, Michelle visited the Vatican in 1978, and Bishop Remi de Roo of Victoria is now awaiting a final transcript of her taped interviews with Vatican officials before deciding whether to recommend a full church investigation. "I do not question that for Michelle this experience is real," the bishop says judiciously. "In time we will know how much of it will be validated."

Meantime the American Psychiatric Association, the Jungian Institute and the Menninger Clinic have expressed a more secular interest in Michelle's case. Her therapy has ended and she plans to continue to cooperate with religious and secular investigators. Dr. Pazder, now 44, suffered some personal and financial hardships because of his devotion to Michelle's case. The possibility of a movie intrigues both Pazder and Smith; they would like to see Christopher Plummer as the Satanist priest and Dustin Hoffman as Pazder. Michelle hopes someday to put the whole Satanic period behind her—although she is planning a coast-to-coast publicity tour for her book first. "When it's all over, I will be very, very happy to do absolutely nothing for at least six months," Michelle says. "Not getting dressed until 11, propping my feet up and watching soap operas, and having nothing more complicated to do than going grocery shopping."

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