"I recognize that," one participant said of the intricately designed daggers she alleges were used to kill babies. Asked where the babies came from, she answered, "the baby farm." Mingling cheerfully in the DoubleTree Hotel's nondescript lobby one recent Saturday evening, the few dozen attendees of the SMART seminar in Windsor Locks could have been mistaken for any name-tagged conference-goers -- rare stamp enthusiasts or computer programmers on a motivational retreat.
But SMART -- Stop Mind Control and Ritual Torture -- is a support group for alleged victims of serial child abuse at the hands of satanic cults, rogue priests, Freemasons and the CIA.
They were brutalized as children, organizers say, to split their personalities and prepare each child for a secret life as a sex slave, government assassin, blackmail agent -- any number of things.
The early trauma was so severe, conference participants say, that it was buried deep in the recesses of their minds until adulthood.
David Wilbur, selling audio tapes of past conferences at a folding table in the wings of the conference, tells a common story.
"It's been a process of recovering memories over years," he says, "repressed memories that came back spontaneously."
Often in the company of his therapist, Wilbur says he would conjure memories of "violent abuse by priests, draw pictures of knives and blood. 'Kill. Kill. Kill.' Anarchy symbols."
"It took years," Wilbur confesses. "But I connected it to the answer. Basically, Illuminati mind control," he says, referring to a secret society that trained him and others like him. "I was going to be part of their satanic world-domination plan."
As one might expect, many doubt these survivor abuse tales which are often long on richly textured detail but short on hard, empirical evidence. To a large degree, their allegations emerged during psychotherapy, under hypnosis or drawn forth from a controversial psychological phenomenon known as repressed memory -- unlocking traumatic childhood events buried deep in the patient's subconscious.
While Wilbur and others insist they are abuse survivors, skeptics say they are fantasists who have created an elaborate victimhood identity to deal with an otherwise unsatisfactory life.
"Everything that one might call a 'repressed memory' could have been the result of suggestion and an active imagination," says Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, who has long worked to discredit repressed memory. "The things these people say are just not credible."
The stories do test credulity.
Displaying an assortment of intricately designed knives and other implements, Jeanette Westbrook, a conference speaker from Kentucky, recounts graduating from being a Freemason sex slave to a blackmail agent for the CIA.
"My father handed me over to the cult; I was like his gift," Westbrook says. "When they realized that I was a gifted split -- split-personality -- the CIA got hold of me for sexual blackmail missions."
"Oh, I recognize that," says Julaine, an elderly conference-goer leaning over Westbrook's shoulder and pointing to a wavy steel dagger. "That's what we killed the babies with."
"We were brainwashed by the cult and made to kill firstborn children," Julaine explains helpfully.
Asked where cult organizers got sacrificial babies she replies blithely, "The baby farm."
For having purportedly survived nearly unspeakable trauma, attendees of the SMART conference were surprisingly chatty.
"Sharing like this is the best way to rid ourselves of these toxic memories," says SMART conference organizer, Neil Brick. "There are thousands more survivors out there who have yet to learn what they have been through."
But those who have studied groups like SMART and the phenomenon of 'recovered memories' says Brick's organization is part of a thankfully dwindling conspiracy mania that once poisoned mainstream culture.
"For me it started about 20 years ago when I got calls about children being tortured by satanic cults," remembers Kenneth Lanning, a retired FBI agent who spent most of his 30-year career profiling child abusers from the bureau's Behavioral Science Unit. Lanning was reached by phone at his home in Virginia where he now works as a private consultant.
"The calls were coming from all over the country and my first instinct was to help local law enforcement find out how to catch these people," Lanning says. "But no matter how much we investigated these cases they were just impossible to substantiate with any physical evidence."
After years of exhaustive research and investigation, Lanning wrote an authoritative paper concluding that the phenomenon of widespread satanic abuse was a hoax. But in the intervening years, the story held sway for some.
Probably the most famous incident involved over 350 pupils at the McMartin pre-school in Manhattan Beach, Calif., who claimed to have memories of repeated, sadistic, ritual molestation in the early 1980s. The children said they remembered animal sacrifices, pornographic movies, the murder of infants and drinking of blood, submitting to burial in a coffin, and flying to Palm Springs by hot air balloon to be abused and then returned.
Despite the $15 million spent in the course of a criminal investigation and six-year trial, no evidence was found to substantiate the children's claims that their teachers were members of a satanic conspiracy.
Later research concluded that the McMartin children drew their stories from suggestive interview techniques.
"Why did this happen? I don't know," Lanning says. "But there are plenty of cases in history of hysteria like this."
But, if recovered memories are actually false memories, what motivates the phenomenon?
"The benefit," Loftus says, "is that people have an explanation for everything wrong in their lives. If you were so traumatized and forced to commit such awful acts, nothing is your fault. You get a free pass."
Neil Brick, himself an alleged survivor of ritual abuse, says his self-discovery of past lives began about 10 years ago during a troubled part of his life. "My whole life was very dysfunctional," Brick says. "I was always tense, always holding my emotions in very tightly. I had a lot of life issues -- could not hold a job, had a failed marriage, drinking."
Only after straightening his life out and seeking psychological help did he become aware of his past life. Short in stature, Brick says that "the government kept me small so that I could easily fit through ducts and crawlspaces when I was on missions."
He claims to have recurring memories of his part in assassination missions behind the Iron Curtain. Estranged from his family, Brick says he blames his parents and others for allowing his abuse.
"I have not been in touch with my family for quite a while," Brick says. "My belief is that my family is still in the group, possibly for financial reasons."
Because ritual abuse has been so widely discredited, Loftus says, accusers like Brick are less of a menace to society. Still, she says most have destroyed their family networks and are perpetuating an unhealthy mental state.
"They get together in these groups, reinforce each other, ooze sympathy and empathy, give each other a sense of importance," Loftus says. "In the end, they stay unwell and never get help."