Book Journal – “Rumour in Orléans”

Here's one I bet you haven't read:


Written by sociologist Edgar Morin with the assistance of a team of field researchers, Rumour in Orléans is a chronicle and social-psychological analysis of an episode of mass delusion that gripped the French city of Orléans (population 88,000) in the spring and summer of 1969.

Playing out over a period of roughly two months (May through June, with a multifaceted psychic hangover following), the titular “rumour” was essentially a retread of a species of moral panic that was common enough in the early twentieth century (though earlier antecedents can be identified) when the blurring boundaries between pastoral and urban life gave rise to breathless accounts of doe-eyed farm girls being plucked up from idyllic homesteads and sold into diabolical underground rings of forced labor and sex slavery, usually under the machinations of shadowy satanic sects lurking in whichever encroaching yonder hive of incandescent iniquity. In the United States, this earlier wave of “white slavery” narratives was amply documented in sensationalist news accounts of the time, as well as in mass-marketed books and silent films, now mostly forgotten – though you can sometimes still find the timeworn pulps in musty used bookshops, perhaps spined alongside family eugenics primers and other antiquarian curios. The lurid covers suggest a once-thriving cottage industry of populist crisis reportage – morally overheated, salaciously framed, grimly illustrated, and seldom countered by any measure of skepticism.

The skeptical appraisals and socio-cultural retrofitting would come later, before and after the essential “snatch & enslave” narrative would be rebooted – with a few novel tweaks tuned to a different patchwork of social anxieties and latent, or “re-nascent,” enmities (i.e., antisemitism) – in the also mostly forgotten episode that is the focus of Morin’s very interesting book, the first and only English translation of which was first published by Anthony Blond Ltd in 1971.         

In its embodiment and trajectory the Orléans panic would mutate over time, but the core rumor-bound narrative held simply that teenage and adolescent girls were being drugged – usually by a hypodermic injection – and abducted in the fitting rooms of a network of Jewish-owned dress shops. The girls were then held captive in the basements of such shops, as the story went, where they were subjected to indignities before being sold to underground sex slavers. It was mostly the same old yarn in slightly altered garb, though the focus on changing rooms was a decidedly new, and not insignificant, kink. So was the contextual emphasis, echoing classic blood libel narratives, on Jewish complicity.* 

Evolving in rapid order, the tale came to accrete other elements, some of which will be familiar to armchair students of contemporary scares and conspiracy theories to which the Orléans episode merits comparison. Aniticipating the McMartin preschool panic (and other daycare/satanic ritual abuse panics), for example, various iterations of the rumor would be elaborated to include the claim that the suspect boutiques were connected though a labyrinth of underground tunnels. And as the tale played forward without formal investigation and with only hostile press coverage, adherents came to imagine a more far-reaching cover-up, such that cops, journalists, politicians and "anti-racialist" groups (“outside agitators” to believers) would fall under color of suspicion. This element of expansionist ratiocination is of course parcel to every strand of conspiratorial speculation that has since plagued the internet, and it’s significant in the present study insofar as it marks the transference of an insular myth into the formal, though narrowly articulated, metalogic of conspiracy theory.

Playing the analogy game yet forward to the more or less present, there are also limited parallels with the Pizzagate (or #pizzagate) conspiracy mishmash that seems to have crested and ebbed over the past couple of years, the most salient motifs here being the innocuous storefront as a gateway to nefarious flesh trade and the industrial basement as holding cell. A more superficial correspondence with the contemporary moral panic over sex trafficking in general is also hard to miss. Of course, with all such past to present comparisons, discretionary caveats are in order. The point is not to imply simple equivalence between one demonstrably false rumor from another era and such perceived crises of the present that may or may not be founded on more veridical scaffolding. One may insert asterisks wherever they fit;** it’s still fascinating and instructive to consider how Morin's singular case study of a collective fever that enveloped a polity across an ocean nearly a half century ago might yet be wedded to deep and fraught currents of mythic tension that churn and get recycled with different set pieces over time.

With specific reference to the Orléans panic it is worth emphasizing that no police reports were ever filed and no missing girls were ever named. In other words, there is no credible reason to believe there was a proverbial “kernel of truth” to the central claim of clandestine girl snatching. And while the germ of the rumor qua rumor remains elusive, Morin does well to speculate on some possible catalysts. It might have traced to a garbled retelling of an apparently factual story that had been reported elsewhere and a decade earlier. Or it could have had something to do with the contemporaneous opening of a trendy boutique named, ominously enough, “The Dungeon.” Or it could have originated from a practical joke, as some interview subjects insisted.

Whether or not the rumor was rooted in germinal incident, which I personally doubt, the belief appears to have spread sub rosa through friend-of-a-friend gossip among schoolgirls, being subsequently amplified and transformed through the above-ground chatter, culminating in public protests, of civic-minded parents (mostly mothers – fathers, according to Morin, tended to be skeptical). And it seems likely that some of those chattering mums harbored subconscious or perhaps overt animus toward Jews, or at least toward the new wave of young metropolitan Jews who ran the shops under suspicion.***

What strikes me about Morin's account of the foundational rumor, however, is that at least at its inception it seems to have had far more to do with changing sexual mores – or the threat of such, which Morin describes as a crisis of “the polis” (harking back to the “city mouse, country mouse” subtext of earlier white slavery panics) – than with dormant antisemitism. The “fitting room” as locus makes sense in this context, as Morin observes, since it represents a place of literal naked vulnerability, and perhaps liminal eroticism. Against the distant but magazine-advertised backdrop of Parisian sexual liberation, it isn't difficult to see how the common yet private experience of these would-be yé-yé girls donning miniskirts in quasi-public dressing rooms could stir sexual imaginings, tinged, as ever, with danger. The next step is to tell a story. The next next step is repeat. See what grows. Similar stories probably circulated in other regions around the same time, but without reaching a tipping point. Orléans might thus be understood as a kind of critical mass event. A Goldilocks moment in a darkened memeplex.         

Whatever the etiology, matters would become more complicated after a spate of provincial news reports captured the attention of the Parisian press, including Le Monde. The editorial tenor of media coverage at all levels was hostile toward the rumor itself, igniting a meta-narrative – what Morin calls an "anti-myth" – that emphasized the dangers of anti-Jewish mob hysteria. The insertion of the press, and particularly the big city press from outside the polis, along with the vested and vocal interest of anti-racialist groups, apparently transformed a "quasi-medieval" narrative of cabalistic deviltry into a metapolitical narrative foregrounding the specter of recrudescent antisemitism.

The residual "myth," having incubated in gossip and having crested in public protest, was thus cornered and insulted by a more powerful strain of external framing. In the high-tension feedback loops that followed, Morin postulates a complex yet plausible process whereby the original rumor, having given way to a cascade of politicized counter-narratives (or again, anti-myths) would sprout anew with anti-anti myths in popular reaction to such external framing. As the once-nested delusion abated, some true believers would invent bigger designs (the tunnels and cover-up), while others, presumably less invested, would latch to available excuses to retreat from the story with minimal embarrassment. Eventually the life-cycle of the rumor ran its circuitous course, leaving embers. The absence of closure is eerily palpable in Morin's chronology.

Being assembled from interviews conducted well after the initial spell of belief had (mostly) lifted and had been exposed to public ridicule, Morin's investigation is primarily concerned with the process of rationalization and embellishment that followed. In this respect Rumour in Orléans may be usefully compared to (and contrasted with) Leon Festinger's seminal account of shattered delusion – and famously “cognitive dissonance” – in his classic UFO cult case study, When Prophecy Fails. The crucial difference is that Festinger's team was embedded – having infiltrated the cult/community – before and after the curtain was lifted. Morin, who was alerted to the Orléans story through press accounts, argues that his team’s late-comer injection into the drama is a feature not a bug since happenstance provided an optimal vantage from which to observe the feedback and reaction in real time. That might be a case of sweet lemons, but his account of the assimilative process is for the most part surefooted and genuinely compelling.

Rumour in Orléans consists of a central monograph, which is usefully supplemented with inline footnotes (not endnotes, thankfully) and appended with extensive interview summaries (though I would have preferred transcripts), field research diary entries, transcribed press documents, and miscellaneous notations. The lack of an index is a point of only minor frustration since the book is relatively short (about 275 pages, counting the substantive appendices). Reading Morin’s case study in 2018 is a bit like witnessing a partial excavation, with mysteries yet buried – and of course, one is struck by contemporary parallels. I also found it surprisingly refreshing to rediscover the “sociologist on the ground” approach that has now been largely abandoned in favor of more recondite modes of social research. Speculative social psychology may be outmoded in many spheres of inquiry where behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology (among other disciplines) tend to yield more reliable data, but for all its overreaching faults in application to other domains, I suspect this more intuitive, dot-connecting method remains well-suited to the analysis of episodes of mass delusion and collective behavior, where flux and feedback mitigate against strict empirical controls. I might add that the translated text is very solid, even eloquent at times. It's not just that it reads well, but that the interplay of factual and analytical accounts is carried forward in cogent language, and with (inevitably dated) academic jargon deployed only in necessary and fully explicated doses. The core chronology of events is clearly delineated and Morin's documentation of literary antecedents, relevant ephemera, and paradigmatic folklore is deftly incorporated throughout.   

While the emphasis on antisemitism might be a tad overplayed in relation to the gestational rumor, the specter becomes manifest with second wave of the panic which, as discussed, entailed a political "anti-rumor" reaction (and consequent sequelae) that was spearheaded by press accounts and leveraged by antifascist rhetoric. In broader context, it seems important to recognize that the Orléans episode was of profound concern to Jewish organizations, and understandably so when we consider that the Nazi occupation had barely receded on the collective time horizon. I suppose it is also worth disclaiming that Morin’s field research was conducted at least in part under the auspices of one such concerned organization, I forget which. You could make hay of this fact, but given the nuanced, multilayered, and still-relevant exposition that resulted, it hardly seems to matter.   


* With some caveats, Morin stresses the novelty of the rumor inasmuch as Jews had not (according to him) generally been implicated in prior white slavery scares. I am not sure that this is true.

** I might as well inset mine here, since I understand there are intelligent people who assign veracity to contemporary conspiracy theories that I find highly dubious. With reference to let internet kudzu that is #pizzagate, I can state my own views cursorily. If you believe the cryptic lucunae embedded within a pored-over Wiki-dump of Podesta emails betray a winking familiarity with predatory online hot spots and some order of clandestine semiotics, I do not discount the possibility that you might be onto … something. That doesn’t mean I don’t entertain other plausible explanations, which might or might not prove entirely innocuous, and it doesn’t mean I’m as sure as you might be just what that “something,” if it's there at all, really means. If your first frisson leads you to believe that benuded kidlings are – or ever were – hogtied in the basement of a politico-frequented DC pizzeria that covertly catered to a deep-state-allied shadow elite of closeted libertines trading in pedo-crime, well, then I am obliged to politely register my sincere incredulity until presented with compelling evidence to the contrary. As to sex trafficking claims in currency, I don’t for a second doubt there are abject stories behind the screaming headlines and banners and PSAs and censorious legislation, but I’m just as confident that the rehearsed narrative of widespread coercion and chattel-equivalent slavery is mostly huff & puff. Whatever it means in Cambodia, in the First World “sex trafficking” is now a byword for every shade of prostitution, just as “human trafficking” is a byword for every shade of illicit labor. Absent evidence to support the more sinister framing favored in popular media accounts, I think the ground-level reality has far more to do with hardscrabble life choices and, yes, different strokes that tweak puritanical sensibilities. In other words, nothing much to get hung up about. I color myself a skeptic on all fronts in this sordid business in part because I understand that people are drawn to wicked stories, especially when such stories involve untouchable powerbrokers sating vile appetites. Freud may have been wrong about most of it, but he wasn’t wrong about projection. And if you believe there were tunnels under a Manhatten Beach preschool, please tell it to the nearest Reddit thread.     

*** Morin asserts that the older generation of Jewish shop owners was not implicated in the rumor, lending support to my impression that the episode had more to do with shifting norms than with antisemitism as such. I do wish Morin’s study provided a more detailed demographic account of dress shop proprietors that were active in Orléans when the rumor was in currency; in weighing evidence for the central versus incidental role of antisemitism, it would have been useful to know whether similarly situated gentile dressers, if such a control group existed, were excluded from suspicion. I might well have missed something on this point. Mea culpa if so.

Memento mori.

3 thoughts on “Book Journal – “Rumour in Orléans”

  1. I’ve been reading Andrew Gelman’s blog often enough that when I come across the term “pizzagate” my mind first goes to Brian Wansink’s bogus food research. There we actually do have supposedly respectable institutions misleading the public and then trying to sweep misconduct under the rug, mostly just because it would be embarrassing to admit that they got suckered by this upjumped marketer.
    Did the French get particularly interested because of the fashion industry there or the lingering French character of New Orleans?

  2. Good to hear from you, TGGP.
    Not sure I fully understand the connection your making between Wansink’s shenanigans and pizzagate, but if the point is that there was messy embarrassment to contend with in both cases, then I think that’s true. WRT to pizza chatter, the thing about the emails and the web sleuthing that followed is that at least some of what was revealed didn’t exactly slot up with Snopes-ish attempts at tidy debunking. The anti-myth dynamic in Morin’s study is relevant, I think.
    I may misunderstand you, but I don’t think the episode in Orleans France had anything to do with New Orleans. A teenage obsession with fashion was almost certainly part of the story, though. Trends showcased in magazines were something that French girls obsessed about; there was a sexual undercurrent to it, along with the lure of big city life. It’s important to recognize that information spread and assimilated differently before the advent of ubiquitous lightspeed transmission.
    Making a note to bookmark Gelman’s blog. Thanks.

  3. The first thing that’s always done is to say this phenomenon is a rumor.
    This so-called rumor keeps re-appearing over and over in all parts of the world where jews establish themselves. They’re welcome until they start subverting their host culture.
    Maybe it’s time to stop being afraid of the “bigotry” label and start investigating these claims. Once you do, you’ll see that hatred doesn’t come from nowhere.
    It was the jews afterall who transformed modern-day France into the violent Islamic hell-hole it is today. It was done under the guise of diversity but it only benefits them.
    If you’re a Jew or closed-minded leftist, you’ll deny this without giving it any thought because the books you cherry-pick are there to confirm your bias.
    If truth makes you angry, you’re living a lie.

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