Gosh, what it feels like to have a great, big tremendous piece of commerce on your plate! — Thomas Congdon
I’ll bring you up to speed on several topics. Here, we’ll look at the basics of the book, Michelle Remembers, which you should totally read, btw, but it’s terrible, so you totally shouldn’t. You’ll make the choice that is best for you and your family. You can call me in the nighttime (do not call me in the nighttime) to discuss if you do.
God — where to even begin.
So, late 1980. A man named Thomas Congdon, founder of the publishing house Congdon & Lattes, publishes Michelle Remembers. The authors — Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder — have never published a book before, and Congdon & Lattes had only been in business for a year.
In fact, though Congdon & Lattes had been established in November of 1979, their first book wasn’t published until August of 1980. Publishing is the restaurant business of the book industry is a very smart thing I might toss off at a cocktail party, by which I mean no one makes money until they do, and it’s usually a fluke.
To establish Congdon & Lattes as a player, Thomas Congdon devoted his time and resources to his first list:
- A collection of Russell Baker essays, So This is Depravity
- The Thornton Instrumental Sextet*, a nonfiction work by Frank Conroy about musicians
- Michelle Remembers
[* The Thornton Instrumental Sextet ended up never being published, by Congdon & Lattes or any other house.]
“Michelle Remembers is the biggest piece of nonfiction I’ve ever had,” Congdon told the Washington Post in 1979. “It’s about a little girl whose parents gave her to a Satanic church, where she was made part of the rituals. She buried it all in her subconscious and, when she was grown, a psychiatrist pulled it all back out again, bit by tortured bit.”
That’s as good a summation of Michelle Remembers as any. And a book like that would be very attractive to a publishing house looking to make a name for itself. By 1979, American readers had almost a decade of Satanic memoirs, mostly by adults, about their adult experiences. The innovative wrinkle in Michelle Remembers is the endangering of a child.
Satanic Memoirs are what I’m calling (and others may call it this, too; I’m not a word genius) a genre of literature that, for the most part, have these characteristics:
- From a religious — even evangelical — point of view.
- Describes some sort of deep involvement with the occult/demonic.
- Rarely discriminates between witchcraft and Satanism.
- Offers a guide to a deeper understanding of God’s love because of the strength of their conversion.
The first Satanic memoir to see publication might be Mike Warnke’s The Satan Seller, which describes Warnke’s seduction into a Satanic group called The Brotherhood, his rise to power (eventually becoming some sort of high priest), his disillusionment with evil, his conversion to Christianity, and then the battles he had to endure from Satanic and demonic forces. America had entered its Freshman in College phase by the ’60s, exploring spirituality more fully than in the past. Christianity was on the wane as people discovered other philosophies and other types of worship. One way for evangelicals to reassert themselves into the conversation was to suggest that Satan was real, being worshiped, and causing unbearable psychic pain and misery to those caught in its web.
One thing I’ll want to explore, over several other posts, is the evolution of the Satanic Memoir — how we get from Mike Warnke almost tame account of Satanic involvement to Michelle Smith’s account, which layers child abuse, murder, magic, and angelic intervention. Each memoir, in a sense, builds on its predecessor: borrowing enough for logical continuity, but amped up a notch so that there is something new, something shocking, to differentiate it. As each writer discovers the line in the sand, she steps over it with just a toe. For Mike Warnke, Satanism involved drugs, sex, and jewelry. By the time we get to Michelle Smith, it will involve necrophagy, violent child abuse, a diabolical prophecy, and rhymes. (The Satan who appears in Michelle Remembers speaks in astonishingly banal couplets.)
“I probs read the book, but I don’t remember,” Thomas Congdon’s daughter, Elizabeth, told me. I had hoped to talk to Thomas Congdon himself, but he died in 2008. I found Elizabeth Congdon, instead. “My dad was a huge skeptic, and so he truly challenged their story.” This seems a little at odds with the enthusiasm Congdon talked about Michelle Remembers to the Washington Post in 1979: “Gosh, what it feels like to have a great, big tremendous piece of commerce on your plate!” Leonore Fleischer, writing the article, adds, “You can hear Tom licking his chops over the telephone.”
Towards the end of our conversation, Elizabeth said this, “Dad loved people’s stories and he worked really hard to craft them well.” Michelle Remembers is thoroughly crafted, and thoroughly unbelievable.