October 30, 2015 2:28:05 PM
Richard Beck is 28 years old, and as a writer for the journal n + 1, was involved in a research group that looked into the history of radical feminism. Thus he was introduced into something he had never heard of before, the child abuse panics of the 1980s. Those of us who are older remember the sensational stories that children at kindergartens had been sexually and satanically abused, and everyone began wondering how safe it was to entrust your child to others for pay. Beck realized that he wasn't the only one who didn't know about the panics; he could hardly find anyone under thirty who knew about the events, and when he told people he was writing a book about the subject, they thought he must be working on a novel. We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s (PublicAffairs) is no novel, but it is a serious account of horrifying incidents when reason went to sleep and monsters were produced. Beck is good at recounting the episodes, concentrating on the McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California, but he is far from the first at telling it. His book is especially good for those who did not live at the time of the case as it is comprehensive and puts the events into the sociological and psychological context of the time. It also shows that we are still dealing with the aftereffects of the panic.
It all began in the summer of 1983, when a woman who was later shown to have serious emotional problems took her three-year-old son to the hospital with concern about redness around the boy's anus. She suspected he had been molested at his school, and went to the police with her suspicions. The McMartin School had been in operation for twenty years, and the yuppies were happy to get their children into it. But the police arrested Ray Buckey who worked at the school, and not having enough information to go on, cultivated more by sending a letter to all the parents of children in the school. The letter invited parents to question their children, and specified asking about sexual acts or nude photographs. The setup was in place; the panic took over and reigned for years.
At least some of the parents who got the letter must have scoffed, but it made others wonder. They began calling each other and wondering communally, and they also started asking their children, whose denials of anything out of the ordinary would have left the parents wondering, too. Perhaps the denials were confirmation of wrongdoing; one little girl told her mother that kids were never instructed to take their clothes off, but the mother told police that she did not feel the daughter was telling the truth. Other children would tune into what the parents and investigators wanted and would answer the questions in a way that was satisfactory to the questioners. Sometimes getting the right answer wasn't a matter of intuition but of power exerted, adult over child. One investigative therapist told a five-year-old boy who repeatedly denied being inappropriately touched, "You're just a scaredy cat." Another child who refused to confirm sexual improprieties was told, "You must be dumb." The children were coaxed into telling stories that were horrific and at times made no sense; they told of tunnels beneath the school where they had been tortured and abused (there were no such tunnels), or being raped by a robot, or seeing animals ritually killed and worse. One little girl told an investigator, "It's all a story," and she thereupon wasn't included as a complainant in the case.
There was little literature on child abuse of this type, and the papers that were consulted by investigators only made the panic worse. Children were simply too innocent to fabricate explicit sexual allegations, the thinking went; if they said it, it must be so. Then children might retract what allegations they made, and this sort of reversal was evidence of trying to minimize the horrors they had experienced (but horrors there must have been, one way or the other). The mirror-image character of evidence became apparent after parents wanted to pitch in and find it. "We're out here playing Dick Tracy," said one father about parents who formed search parties, drove children around to locales that might have brought back memories, or went through the garbage of someone suspected of devilry. Physical evidence, like the photographs that were supposed to have been taken or the cat bodies that were supposed to have been mutilated, were never found. This was, however, not a demonstration that such evidence did not exist; it showed to the contrary that the devious abusers were experts at making sure the evidence was never going to be found.
Something like $15 million was spent on getting the case to trial and on the trial itself, which lasted for six years. There were copycat cases all over the country. Almost all, just like the McMartin case, resulted in eventual court decisions of not guilty, about which one juror said that she could not tell "that the children were telling what actually happened to them, or if they were repeating what their parents told them." Another juror said, "I don't think anybody came out of this case better than they were before." Those accused had their lives forever afflicted, even if no guilt was found. The school was bulldozed; no tunnels were found. The children had been forced to consider imaginary horrors that have no place in the lives of five-year-olds, and one can only imagine how relations between parents and children were forever affected. The judicial system was able to go back and reflect that there had been clear instances of overreach on the part of investigators and prosecutors, but few such overreachers lost their jobs, and many went on to higher office.
Beck writes about how the panic was a reflection of its times. In the eighties, social conservatives were worried about feminism and changes in the family. No one planned the day-care panic to be a social lesson, but it was taken up as a warning to women who thought they could manage a life outside the home while turning over care of their children to others. We still have a legacy of the panic, in that some people are horrified that children are allowed ever to go unsupervised. Child abuse is horrible, and is not imaginary, but the pattern is that it happens at home; the horrible image of a child abducted from a public place by a violent pedophile is a horror only, and vanishingly rare. We are also faced with the pop psychology that if a person has a horrible experience, the person is likely to repress it. This simply is not the way humans operate; we do learn lessons from bad experiences, and it would be to our detriment to make them inaccessible to memory. There was a dental assistant who used to visit the McMartin school to teach hygiene, and reflected to her sorrow that she had never seen anything suspicious. She said at the time, "How could we have been so blind?" It's a great question, but blindness comes in many forms, and one of the most troubling is seeing what is not there.