When Marj Snyder tells the story of her life, she returns again and again to the same horrifying tableau -- a satanic cult run by her father that victimized her hundreds of times, inflicting sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
With its details of devil worship, sexual orgies, torture and even human sacrifice, her story of "ritual" abuse -- which she only gained conscious memory of as an adult in therapy -- is similar to other tales that have surfaced in recent years around the country.
In their wake, however, a chorus of doubt has arisen: Are these memories accurate? How could such widespread abuse have existed without attracting police attention or leaving physical evidence? And is it possible that therapists are influencing the content of their patients' revelations?
Ms. Snyder -- who now lives in Pennsylvania but grew up in northern Baltimore County -- tells of being raped and sexually abused in other ways from the time she was an infant; becoming pregnant as a teen-ager and giving birth to three babies she says were sacrificed in satanic rituals; developing a fragmented personality that shattered over the years into dozens of different parts to deal with or block out the horrors.
"The damage started so early that the real Marj is just a core," said Ms. Snyder, 37, who has been in and out of psychiatric wards for the past 15 years. Over the years she has held a number of jobs related to horticulture, but currently supports herself with Social Security disability payments.
Now in twice-weekly therapy with a psychologist she has been seeing for eight years, Ms. Snyder tries to convey what she endured: "Think of the most horrible thing a person can do and then magnify that many, many times."
Ms. Snyder was one of about 50 people who attended a recent conference on ritual abuse. The program, which was sponsored by the Baltimore Sexual Assault Recovery Center, attracted psychologists, social workers, educators, abuse survivors and others, some from as far away as Texas.
Similar conferences have been held around the country in the past year or two, as more and more people are going public with stories about ritual abuse.
Often these stories -- which have been featured on "Geraldo" and other TV shows -- are uncovered only after years of therapy, which allows the patient to peel back layers of repression covering the memories of abuse.
And often the stories are met with disbelief.
Among law enforcers, mental health professionals and the public in general, two camps have formed: those who accept the stories of ritual abuse, believing that the horror behind them is adequate explanation for years of repression; and those who compare ritual abuse tales to stories of UFO sightings, voicing skepticism that such horrible activities could have occurred without leaving behind verifiable clues.
Ritual abuse is considered the extreme end of a continuum of satanic and cult activity, which ranges from dabbling in occult literature and gleaning satanic messages from hard rock lyrics, to conducting ceremonies that involve no abuse, to carrying out the kinds of incidents described by Ms. Snyder.
"Sexual assault centers in the area all report seeing victims of ritual abuse, usually adults who were abused in childhood and are now seeking treatment," said Cecilia L. Carroll, executive director of SARC. "The numbers are small, but they are increasing."
Bonnie Ariano, director of the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center in Towson, confirmed that a small percentage of her agency's clients report ritual abuse. "My guess is that it's not increasing, but it's certainly being talked about more."
But others who have looked for evidence of ritual abuse doubt that it even exists.
"We now have 400 or 500 of these stories being told and we're unable to find the least bit of corroborating evidence," said J. Gordon Melton, a Methodist minister who directs the Institute for the Study of AmericanReligion at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
"If you put the stories together you would have had hundreds of covens around the country that existed without anyone knowing about them, without the rumor mill picking it up," Dr. Melton said. "Nobody ever talked about these things until about 1980, then we started hearing stories. How do we explain this?"
The recent surfacing of such charges, some say, may mean only that ritual abuse stories have achieved the status of urban legend. "The child abuse community is particularly susceptible to such a rumor process," said Dr. Frank W. Putnam, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health.
One of the leading debunkers of ritual abuse stories, FBI Academy instructor Kenneth V. Lanning, warns law enforcers about believing such charges without critical investigation.
"There is little or no hard evidence that [Satan worshipers] are involved in serious, organized criminal activity," he wrote in a 1989 article for The Police Chief. "The American people should not be frightened into believing that babies are being bred and eaten, that 50,000 missing children are being murdered in human sacrifices or that Satanists are taking over America's day care centers."
But a local law enforcement official, Baltimore County police officer Donald H. Thompson, thinks such skepticism may be misplaced.
"I know that ritual abuse goes on," Mr. Thompson said. "I've worked on three or four cases here this year that can be substantiated."
Mr. Thompson has become convinced of the existence of ritual abuse "because a lot of kids from different areas will tell you very similar stories." He cited one 7- or 8-year-old boy who drew a picture of a crematorium.
"He had the levers, he had the gauges, he had the whole thing. Now
how does a kid like that know what a crematorium looks like unless he's seen it?"
Ms. Snyder said that her personal experience illustrates how well satanic cult members can hide evidence of abuse. Many of the ceremonies she remembers occurred in a slaughterhouse -- a place with built-in clean-up mechanisms where bloodstains would attract little attention.
And she was terrorized, she said, into thinking that she would be killed if she ever revealed what had happened to her, so that it took years of psychotherapy to uncover the memories.
"Patients generally don't come to us knowing about ritual abuse," said Dr. Walter C. Young, a Denver psychiatrist who was the moderator of the recent conference in Baltimore. But the belated awareness of ritual abuse has given rise to criticism that it is the therapist who injects satanic ritual into an abuse victim's "memories."
David Bromley, a sociologist and co-editor of the upcoming book "The Satanist Scare," says a study of case histories "was not able to find a case in which the satanic material was not introduced by the therapist. If you go to a therapist who is convinced that ritual abuse exists, then they will put it in these terms."
But Dr. Young, while not denying the possibility that a therapist can sometimes introduce "contaminants" into the therapeutic setting, denies that this exists as a widespread pattern.
"Most of the time [discussion of satanic ritual] comes up spontaneously," he said. "And different clinicians have varying viewpoints about this. There's not agreement in the field."
Dr. Young, who recently published a paper in Child Abuse and Neglect about clinical similarities in patients reporting ritual abuse, added that he welcomes the debate that has arisen around the issue.
"I think it's a healthy dialogue that needs to be discussed in a professional arena," he said. "We've got patients who come in saying they've been through something and acting like they've been through something and we're trying to find out what it is.
"I'm faced with hundreds of patients across the country who say, 'I'm an eyewitness.' What am I supposed to say -- that it's all a contagious lie? We have to figure out the questions to ask, not attack each other for reporting our findings."