By Bob & Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott
|The Story Before the Story: Ten years ago a shocking story of pornography, satanic ritual abuse, torture, rape, and infanticide was a best-selling book that brought its author to the stages, pulpits, and broadcast booths of Americas television shows, churches, and radio programs. Lauren Stratford’s story, Satan’s Underground, became one of the key sources for promoting, perpetuating, and validating the satanic ritual abuse (SRA), “adult survivor,” and “repressed memories” hysteria that peaked in the early 1990s.Many who said they were adult survivors of SRA, and who had recovered their repressed memories in a therapeutic setting, pointed to Satan’s Underground as external support for their subjective, directed counseling experiences. The book was promoted by its author, publisher, and major Christian personalities such as Johanna Michaelsen, Hal Lindsey, Mike Warnke, and Bob Larson as documented, factual, and corroborated by a wealth of evidence.
From Laurel Willson to Lauren Stratford, Christian Satanic Ritual Abuse Survivor: As it turned out, none of it was true. There was no documentation, corroboration, or evidence. Careful research, by us and Cornerstone editor Jon Trott, revealed that author Lauren Stratford was actually Laurel Rose Willson 1, a troubled woman from Washington State who spent most of her teen and adult life fabricating horrendous stories of victimization by a variety of people in a variety of settings. She repeatedly threatened suicide and practiced self-mutilation. In the mid-1980s, when the scare about ritual child abuse in daycares gained momentum, she produced a new story incorporating SRA’s most sensational features. That story metamorphosed over three years to become the story of Satan’s Underground.
Our investigation, published in late 1989, was the first in-depth analysis of a particular testimony of satanic ritual abuse. 2 It provided the first concrete evidence that at least some such stories could be the result of troubled minds, bad therapy, and credulity regarding Satanism, and not the result of actual events.
Although the evidence was overwhelming and the original publisher and Lauren even admitted that she repeatedly said things that were not true, some continued to believe her. Another publisher reissued Satan’s Underground and her two subsequent books, I Know You’re Hurting and Stripped Naked. 3 Although she never enjoyed the same fame or fortune, she continued to speak in churches and before other groups, to participate in support groups and SRA survivor advocacy groups, and to counsel. She continued to advance her Satan’s Underground story and assumed the position that anyone who doubted her or asked for proof was “wittingly or not” a pawn of the satanic conspiracy. As she had done in the past when her stories were found out, Lauren turned the focus on herself as a victim of callous disbelief and advanced her falsehoods as prima facie evidence that she must be a victim of what she said she was, or she wouldn’t have been so emotionally disturbed as to tell so many untruths. In Stripped Naked, she tried to compare the SRA survivors’ lack of evidence with the clandestine nature of Nazi atrocities, saying,
This and other references to the Holocaust in Stripped Naked have turned out, in retrospect, to foreshadow the next incredible story of abuse told by Lauren Stratford. 5From Lauren Stratford to Laura Grabowski, Jewish Holocaust Survivor: In the years since the discrediting of Satan’s Underground, Lauren developed a new story that put her in the midst of another survivor support community this one for actual survivors of a massive horror shamefully hidden by its perpetrators, but chillingly documented by overwhelming amounts of both eyewitness and historical evidence.
Lauren Stratford became Laura Grabowski, child survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Polish Jew who was experimented on by the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele, liberated to a Krakow orphanage at the end of the war, brought to the United States, and adopted by a Gentile couple at age nine or ten.
Lauren Stratford may have hoped that her old identity and old story would remain secret from her newfound Holocaust survivor friends, but the echoes of her past continue to reverberate through her new life.
Different but Still the Same: She didn’t write a book this time, but she did copyright a poem, “We Are One,” in honor of her fellow sufferers from the camps, available on several Internet sites devoted to memory of the Holocaust.6 She didn’t launch her story on the television and radio talk show circuit, but she did perform an original composition, “Ode to the Little Ones,” before a crowd of Holocaust survivors and supporters. She then granted an interview to a Jewish publication. 7 She didn’t collect royalties or honorariums for her new testimony, but she did collect funds for Jewish Holocaust survivors in need. 8 Replacing her cross with a Star of David, and her “In Christ” with “Shalom,” she joined a community where she believed she would be relatively safe from scrutiny and unlikely to encounter those who were aware of her many previous stories.
As before, she attributed her physical ailments to the abuse she had suffered. Before she pointed to the scars of her self-mutilation as the work of her abusive parent(s), the pornographers, or the Satanists; now she points to the scars on her arms and whispers, “Mengele’s child” the work of Dr. Mengele and his medical experiments. 9 Before she feigned blindness for sympathy; now she claims Dr. Mengele injected chemicals into her eyes. 10 Before she claimed a rare blood disease as a consequence of the years of torture and abuse at the hands of the pornographers or Satanists; now she claims she is afflicted with a life-threatening blood disorder because of Dr. Mengele’s experiments. 11 In previous stories, she claimed either that she was forced to have children that were killed for pornography and/or Satanism or that she was rendered sterile by sexual abuse from her parent(s) and others; now she says Dr. Mengele sterilized her. 12
In her satanic stories, the abuse (whether from her mother, the prostitution ring, the pornographers, or the Satanists) began when she was four and continued throughout her childhood and into her adulthood. Now she says she was in Auschwitz-Birkenau until it was liberated at the end of the war, and then in a Krakow orphanage until her adoption by American Gentiles in 1950.13
In all her stories, past and present, she repeats common refrains. For example, each new confidante is told that Lauren has never been able to tell her horrible secret before. In a letter to a Holocaust survivor couple, she said, “I have remained silent about being a child survivor for over fifty years.”14 In another letter she said that she was still “fearful about coming out of the closet.” 15
Over the years a succession of her confidantes heard her say that she had never had “family” before, that she had always been alone but now experienced real love for the first time. She told Holocaust survivors at group meetings that they had become her family, that, “Now I won’t die alone . . . I’m among friends.”16 Of someone else she said, “he is like a brother to me. . . . We cried together and hugged each other and shared things of little kids in the barracks.”17
The Proof that Lauren Stratford Is Laura Grabowski: Some of her Holocaust survivor friends are reluctant to believe that she is not telling the truth about her identity and past. Some of her friends in the SRA survivor support system seem willing to defend and protect her no matter what. 18 Most of both kinds of acquaintances want nothing to do with the issue at all, 19 sensing (properly, we believe) that even if Lauren is lying, her reasons are psychologically complex and not merely for profit. Even those Holocaust survivor acquaintances who doubted her claims were concerned that she not be accused without convincing evidence.
As Christian journalists working for a Christian publication, we take biblical mandates regarding criticism and accusations seriously. The Bible explicitly encourages constructive public criticism of what has been done publicly, especially by public figures. 20 However, public criticism must be done according to the biblical principle that rejects hearsay, uncorroborated opinions, and unfounded accusations. The principle of “two or three witnesses” is established in the Old Testament (Deut. 17:6; 19:15), affirmed by Jesus Christ in the Gospels (Matt. 18:16, 20; John 5:31-47, 8:14-18), and reiterated in the Epistles (1 Tim. 5:19). This is the pattern we followed in coming to the conclusion that Lauren Stratford is now claiming to be Laura Grabowski, Holocaust survivor, and that she could not have had a secret origin as a Polish Jewish concentration camp orphan.
The Written Evidence: Two days after her birth, Laurel Rose Willson was the name recorded on her birth certificate in Washington State on August 18, 1941.21Laurel was born to an unwed mother, Marrian Disbrow, and adopted at birth by Frank and Rose Willson. 22 Rose Willson’s parents, Laurel’s maternal grandparents, were Polish Catholics named Anton and Rosalio Grabowski. Anton immigrated to the United States in the late 1890s and became a leader among Polish Catholics in Tacoma, Washington. Although Rosalio died before Rose was grown, Laurel knew her grandfather and visited him during her childhood. He and Rosalio are buried in the Tacoma cemetery.23
The name documentation does not stop there. In a letter to a Holocaust survivor, Lauren signed her name “Lauren Grabowski” and then typed beneath that “Lauren Grabowski-Stratford.” 24 In various meetings, interviews, letters, Internet postings, and published pieces, she identifies herself variously as Laura or Lauren Grabowski.
On the same letter where she designates herself as “Lauren Grabowski-Stratford,” she types her address and phone number (on file). The identical phone number and address is in the records of the Child Holocaust Survivors Group of Los Angeles, the World Jewish Restitution Organization application, and another letter signed “Laura Grabowski.” 25 This is the same address that appears on the credit header information for Lauren Stratford/Laurel Willson from 1990 to present,26 on the public record of Lauren Stratford/Laurel Willson’s bankruptcy of 1994,27 and on an envelope hand-addressed by Lauren Stratford to us.28
In addition to corresponding name and address evidence, the social security number listed on Lauren Grabowski’s World Jewish Restitution Organization application matches that of Lauren Stratford/Laurel Willson and was issued in the state of Washington between 1956 and 1959.29
Laurel Willson’s birthdate of August 18, 1941, is the same one Lauren Grabowski listed on her application to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, on Lauren Stratford/Laurel Willson’s credit header report and social security report, Lauren Stratford/Laurel Willson’s California Department of Motor Vehicles Driver’s License record, Laurel Willson’s University of Redlands Alumni file, and Laurel Willson’s marriage certificate.30
The location of her birth in Washington State–not Poland–is listed on her birth certificate, the bill from the hospital where she was born,31 alumni records, driver’s license, and marriage license.
The signature identification of Laura Grabowski with Lauren Stratford/Laurel Willson is also overwhelming. A comparison of the following signatures, some of which are reproduced below, shows that the same individual signed them all: 32
The Photographic Evidence: There are two significant issues that photograph evidence addresses: First, that Lauren Stratford/Laurel Willson and Laura Grabowski are the same person; Second, that there is no possibility that little Laura, the Auschwitz survivor, could have been switched in 1950 (or at any other time) with little Laurel from Washington State.
A careful comparison of video images from Lauren Stratford’s appearances on television programs such as Geraldo in 1988, Oprah (February 17, 1988), and the BBC (July 12, 1992) to the photograph in the April 24, 1998, Jewish Journal article and the upcoming BBC production interview33clearly identifies the same woman. The facial characteristics and even the expressions on childhood and adult pictures and video interviews match. The first match, between the faces of Lauren Stratford and Laura Grabowski, is undeniable.
The second match, that the same individual who grew to adulthood as Laurel Willson began her life in the Willson family, is provided by dozens of photographs from the time she was a newborn through her graduation from high school. The consistency of facial characteristics and expressions; the presence of her older sister, Willow, who has known Laurel throughout her childhood and teen years; and the visual confirmations that the childhood photographs were taken in the United States, and not Poland, are inescapable.
A clearly characteristic picture of Laurel at about four years old with her sister Willow is overlaid with the photographer’s stamp reading “Classic Portrait Studio, Tacoma, WA.” A Sunday school class picture from around the same time shows a portrait of Jesus on the wall behind Laurel and her classmates. In the tattered photo album that Laurel made for her childhood pictures, next to the bill from St. Joseph’s Hospital for her care as a newborn, are five photographs of her as a newborn.
Amidst many photographs chronicling her growth from newborn through preschool is a striking photograph of toddler Laurel with her sister Willow in front of three Catholic nuns who worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where Laurel was born and where their father worked as a doctor. Another photograph shows Laurel and her friends at her fifth birthday party, cake, candles and all.
Three photographs from when Laurel was six years old are especially arresting: they were taken in 1947 (the date on the car license plate in one picture) and show Laurel, her sister Willow, and father Frank on a trip to Yellowstone National Park. One picture shows the girls in front of the west entrance sign to the park, the other shows them in front of the sign for the Old Faithful geyser. The picture of Laurel with her kindergarten classmates couldn’t have been taken in a concentration camp or a Krakow orphanage: the healthy, well-dressed children in the midst of their toys are in front of a wall with an American flag, pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and an Easter bunny drawn on the chalkboard. A jolly American Santa Claus holds Willow and five or six year old Laurel on his lap in another picture.
The photographic evidence is conclusive: Laurel Willson was born and raised in Washington State and is the same individual who now claims to be Laura Grabowski, child survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, subject of gross experimentation by the notorious Dr. Mengele, and orphan from a Krakow orphanage.
Is There Any Evidence to Support Laurel’s Holocaust Story? Because we were unable to contact Lauren directly despite our best efforts,34we were especially diligent to uncover any evidence or argumentation we could that might support the validity of her current Holocaust story.
While some child survivors of the Holocaust would not be able to amass a wealth of documentation for their experiences, most have a continuity of memories, consistent acknowledgment and recognition of their background during their childhood and adulthood, connections with relatives and other survivors, often Nazi documentation in the form of tattoos, records, and other materials, and the testimony and/or records of their liberators and others who helped them immediately subsequent to the war. Laura has none of this.
What she has are her own statements noted previously in this article and a mutual affirmation of child Holocaust survivor status with another individual who calls himself Binjamin Wilkomirski. Space precludes our chronicling his fascinating claims as told in his many public appearances and in his best-selling book, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood (1995). Wilkomirski has none of the common supports for his story, and in fact, voluminous evidence has been uncovered that he is not a Latvian Jewish Holocaust child survivor but instead is Swiss-born Bruno Grosjean, adopted and renamed Bruno Dossekker. This evidence has been examined on television, such as on 60 Minutes early this year (1999) and in several outstanding journalistic pieces, including Philip Gourevitch’s “The Memory Thief,” The New Yorker, June 14, 1999, and Elena Lappin’s “The Man with Two Heads,” Granta, June 1999.
Lauren first contacted Wilkomirski in 1997 after reading his book. She said that his book touched her deeply.35 He then claimed to remember her from the camp and later the orphanage. The two met for the first time in Los Angeles in April 1998 and performed together (she is an accomplished pianist and vocalist, he an equally accomplished clarinetist) on April 19 for the Child Holocaust Survivors Group of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and Congregation Shaarei Tefila. Although the two support each other’s stories, they don’t have even a modicum of corroboration or evidence to counter the overwhelming evidence that neither story is true.
Lauren says, “I think only the individual can decide if he/she is a survivor.”36 In a letter to someone who was looking for corroboration to help Wilkomirski, she explained,
Regardless of the credibility problems facing Wilkomirski, Lauren has worse than what she described in her letter. She not only has a lack of evidence or corroboration for the story she tells: this article has presented an embarrassment of contrary evidence that flatly and completely contradicts her story.Conclusion: Laura Grabowski is Lauren Stratford. She is not a child survivor of the Holocaust, nor is she an adult survivor of satanic ritual abuse. As in the past, she has found a group with which she can identify and that will provide her with the nurturing attention she craves.
So why did we pursue first her Satan story and now her Holocaust story? Because she has betrayed the public trust she solicited in each instance, and by claiming a victimization that is not hers, she dishonors and cheapens those who are genuine victims. There are those who point to her false Satan story and say that she was able to fool Christians because Christians are basically ignorant and gullible. There are those who point to her false Holocaust story as an example of a Christian exploiting Jewish suffering for her own benefit.
Neither prejudice is warranted, but both are to be expected because we as Christians have failed Lauren. By shrinking from public accountability, excusing ourselves from rehabilitative love in truth, and continuing a platform and acceptance for one who has a lifelong pattern of storytelling, we have partnered in Lauren’s deception of the Jewish community. It may be easier to pretend nothing’s wrong and either ignore the problem or excuse it, but such Christian irresponsibility harms Lauren, Christian credibility, and a Jewish community that has suffered unspeakably through perhaps the darkest events of this century.
Look at the pictures of Mengele’s child victims at the beginning of this article. Look at the pictures of Lauren. That’s why.
1. Laurel Willson legally changed her name to Lauren Stratford after our article was published at the end of 1990 (Los Angeles County Clerk–Civil Division, Case Number LS 963).[return]
2. Gretchen and Bob Passantino and Jon Trott, “Satan’s Sideshow,” Cornerstone, 18, issue 90, (October-November 1989), 23-28.[return]
3. Pelican Publishing, P.O. Box 3110, Gretna, LA 70054 (504-368-1175), Milburn Calhoun, publisher.[return]
4. Lauren Stratford, Stripped Naked (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1993), 223. See also, for example, the BBC interview in the television program Panorama, “Satanic Abuse,” 12 July 1992.[return]
5. See, for example, pages 29-30, 119, 161, 212, 245.[return]
6. See, for example, http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/5245/weareone.html. A copy is also posted here. [return]
7. The concert took place 19 April 1998, and was mentioned in Naomi Pfefferman, “Memories of a Holocaust Childhood,” The Jewish Journal, 24 April 1998.[return]
8. From the World Jewish Restitution Organization in New York City, affidavit on file.[return]
9. In conversation with Holocaust survivors at various meetings of the Child Holocaust Survivors Group of Los Angeles in 1997 and 1998, testimony on file.[return]
11. Ibid., and letter of 14 November 1998 on file (addressee’s name withheld on request).[return]
13. On application to World Jewish Restitution Organization, affidavit on file; in discussion with Holocaust survivors in private and at various meetings of the Child Holocaust Survivors Group of Los Angeles in 1997 and 1998, testimony on file; in conversation with others including Binjamin Wilkomirski, testimonies on file; in credit for her “We Are One” poem on the Internet” Laura Grabowski, Child survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau”; in a listserv posting on the Internet from 24 January 1999 ([email protected] EDU); in an interview, “Memories of a Holocaust Childhood,” Naomi Pfefferman, The Jewish Journal, 24 April 1998.[return]
14. Letter of 15 July 1997 on file (addressees’ names withheld on request).[return]
15. Letter of 20 June 1997 on file (addressee’s name withheld on request).[return]
16. Recounted by attendees at various meetings of the Child Holocaust Survivors Group of Los Angeles in 1997 and 1998, testimony on file.[return]
17. Letter of 14 November 1998 on file (addressee’s name withheld on request).[return]
18. We’ve even been warned that if we wrote this article we would be in danger of exposure ourselves and of God’s judgment against us (tape and letters on file).[return]
19. Christian supporter Johanna Michaelsen, for example, refused to answer numerous messages. Lauren Stratford’s publisher, Pelican, not only ignored numerous phone calls and faxes, but refused even to tell us if they had contacted her (at our request) to give her an opportunity to make a statement or defense for this article. Publishers have an obligation to their authors to inform them about media inquiries and requests to the author made through the publisher, especially if the media coverage might be critical. All contacts were made by us between 20 and 22 September 1999, records on file.[return]
20. See, for example, Gal. 2:14; 1 Tim. 3:7; 5:20; and “Truth and Consequences: Exposing Sin in the Church,” Bob and Gretchen Passantino, afterword in Selling Satan: The Tragic History of Mike Warnke (Chicago: Cornerstone Press Chicago, 1993), 407-418.[return]
21. Certified copy of birth certificate on file.[return]
22. See our previous article, Passantino and Trott, “Satan’s Sideshow,” Cornerstone, 18, issue 90, October-November 1989, 23-28.[return]
23. Information from Laurel’s sister, Willow, documentation on file.[return]
24. Letter dated 20 June 1997, on file (addressee’s name withheld by request).[return]
25. Letter dated 14 November 1998, on file (addressee’s name withheld by request).[return]
26. Safescan (Equifax Inc.) Address History report, 10 May 1999 and 23 August 1999.[return]
27. California Bankruptcy, Los Angeles County, Filing Number 9442300, 1 September 1994.[return]
28. Letter dated 22 May 1992 to Bob and Gretchen Passantino, on file.[return]
29. World Jewish Restitution Organization application affidavit on file, Safescan (Equifax Inc.) Address History report, 10 May 1999 and 23 August 1999, Social Security additional names report.[return]
30. Ibid; also University of Redlands Alumni file records, on file; marriage certificate (11 March 1966), on file; and Driver’s License record information, on file.[return]
31. “Baby Laurel Willson,” 16 October 1941, St. Joseph’s Hospital, on file.[return]
32. All copies are on file.[return]
33. Exact airing date not available at time of publication.[return]
34. We tried every address and telephone number we had for her, attempted to reach her repeatedly through her publisher, Pelican, asked both Christian and Jewish friends of hers to contact her for us, but she never responded.[return]
35. Interview with BBC, April 1998, statement from producer on file.[return]
36. In a listserv posting 24 January 1999 at H-HOLOCAUST @H-NET.MSU.EDU.[return]
37. 14 November 1998 letter on file (addressee’s name withheld by request).[return]
First published on Cornerstone Magazine Online October 13, 1999. Published in Cornerstone (ISSN 0275-2743), Vol. 28, Issue 117 (1999), p. 12-16, 18