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We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s
by richard beck
public affairs, 352 pages, $26.99

My sister and I were preschoolers in the 1980s. Once upon an afternoon, our mother instructed us: If ever she were unable to pick us up and had to send another grownup in her stead, she would impart to that grownup a “secret word.” If ever a grownup approached us, neighbor or stranger, claiming that our mother wanted us to go with him in his car, we were to require of him this “secret word.” If he did not know it, we should run to the nearest policeman. We rehearsed. Our mother: “Hi, little girls. [Lies, lies, lies.] Why don’t you get in my car?” Our line was: “What’s the secret word?”

It was snickerdoodle, if you want to know. It never did turn out to be useful. Our mother was reacting to news reports that America was creeping and crawling with child predators. These were people undetectable by the casual observer but secretly organized in rings or cults dedicated to the violation of children, whether recreationally or as stipulated by satanic rites. Often they operated preschools or daycare centers as fronts for culling.

A new book by n+1 editor ­Richard Beck recalls this extraordinary popular delusion and the secondary delusions entailed by it: the fantastical orgies; the intricate high-reaching conspiracies; the magical ability of children to sustain gross physical injury without scarring; the pseudo-psychiatric theories of traumatic repression and recovered memory.

It was a strange time. Beck is solid on the history, chronicling several high-profile criminal cases with an emphasis on the nonsense. And he belabors an irony that cannot be belabored enough. His sarcastic title is We Believe the Children. During the daycare and preschool abuse panic, grownups were required to “believe the children,” or else be denounced for collaborating with evil. “Children never lie” about sex abuse, we were told. On the contrary, as Beck details, children could often be induced to tell untruths about sex abuse. Prolonged and harassing interrogation would do the trick; evocative psychotherapy, aided by hypnosis or psychopharmaceuticals, was a subtler method. Whatever it took to get the children to say what the grownups wanted to hear.

What many grownups wanted to hear, in that decade, was that pedophiles were abroad. You might wonder why. Beck asks and answers this question. His answer is inadequate, I think. We’ll return to that.

Beck gives much of his attention to the paradigm case, that of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. Chapters on McMartin alternate with chapters on the various copycat cases that arose in small towns and great cities across the country. ­McMartin spanned the heyday of the daycare panic, beginning in 1983 and ­continuing for seven years—the longest criminal proceeding in the history of the United States.

The McMartin Preschool was well regarded by the affluent families of Manhattan Beach, until its seven teachers were accused of full-­spectrum child abuse. Prosecutors said the McMartin teachers had hosted orgies, on school grounds and off—sodomizing the children, demanding oral sex, lacerating them with bullwhips. They had cast the children in pornographic film and photo shoots. They had kidnapped the children to a California ranch, there to witness the slaughter of horses, and to a national park in Montana, and up in a hot-air balloon, and to a local car wash. They had committed acts of bestiality and levitation. They had flushed the children through sewer pipes. In catacombs beneath the school, they had donned robes and capes and celebrated satanic liturgies at which cats were boiled alive.

Law enforcement recovered no physical or documentary evidence: no pornographic films or photos, no satanic vestments, no bullwhips, no horse carcasses, no hot-air balloon, no catacombs. The children’s bodies bore no traces of physical trauma, except for minute anatomical variations (alleged “microtrauma”), later demonstrated to be utterly normal.

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ow had these bogus ­charges arisen? A schizophrenic woman, speaking for her toddler son, had placed a series of lurid phone calls to the police. (Her mental capacity would not become public knowledge until well into the trial.) Investigators fanned out. Then began the Chinese whispers in the supermarket aisle. McMartin parents began to quiz their kids: Did the bad man touch you? No? Are you sure? Are you sure you’re sure?

The civil authorities enlisted a therapist, inexperienced but zealous in matters of forensic psychology, to extract allegations from reticent children. Using hand puppets and bully tactics, the therapist wrested from forty-one children the 321 florid counts of the indictment. ­Preliminary hearings ensued, and dismissals of charges, and trials and mistrials and retrials, and an acquittal, and two hung juries, and defections and elections of district attorneys, and the McMartin defense team carried on, until the list of defendants had dwindled to one, young Raymond Buckey, a surfer dude who had not seen the sun in years, whose charges were finally dismissed in 1990.

Copycat cases proceeded more efficiently than McMartin, though with no better evidence. Four defendants in Bakersfield, California, received combined sentences of one thousand years. A man in Miami was sentenced to six consecutive life terms. In Massachusetts, the elderly Violet Amirault and her son and daughter were sentenced to a combined fifty to eighty years. In Wenatchee, Washington, forty-three adults were indicted on 29,726 counts involving sixty children; eighteen of the defendants were convicted, receiving sentences of anywhere from four to twenty-three years.

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ad science aided bad cases. Enter Roland Summit’s devilishly influential 1983 paper, “The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome.” Summit held that children never lied about sex abuse—except when they concealed it, as they routinely did, to “accommodate” their frightening abusers. When a child denies having suffered abuse, the denial may thus be understood as symptomatic of abuse, and so as confirmation. Likewise, once a child has been coaxed into making a disclosure, “she is likely to reverse it,” reverting to old survival methods. Retraction is considered a normal part of the disclosure process and so it, too, may be taken as confirmation. A disclosure is confirmation; a denial is confirmation; a retraction is confirmation; there is nothing that is not confirmation.

Because children always resist disclosing abuse, Summit puts the onus on grownups to believe that abuse has happened, whatever the child may say. Hence the forensic practice pioneered by the McMartin investigators and replicated in later cases: Badger the kids until they disclose abuse; ignore them when they take it back later. The children in the daycare abuse cases were “believed,” as Beck observes, only “when they told stories that conformed to their adult advocates’ conspiracy theories and lurid fantasies.”

Whence such credulity about pedophilic abuse—something that we all say we’d like to believe never happens?

Beck proposes that the daycare panic was a case of classic Freudian repression—that act of mental avoidance whereby we don’t want to admit that we know or desire something, and so compensate by insisting, rather too forcefully, that we know or desire its opposite. The daycare abuse panic arose from a conservative decade’s repression of the sexual revolution and the feminist second wave. Only by exaggerating the Dangers Out There could we justify the retreat from our new freedoms. It was no coincidence that daycare centers and preschools—alternatives to homebound parenting, abetting the entry of mothers into the workplace—were the loci of the fantasized evil. Mothers, don’t leave your kitchens! Someone Out There will rape your children.

Beck would have it that the true desire of Americans is to be careerists and libertines, unencumbered by spouses or children. He establishes this point through ipse dixit (“The middle-class nuclear family will not be restored to its former place, nor do most people want it to be”), the persuasive force of clichés about the sexual revolution (Had you heard that the 1960s gave us a pill that allowed women to take control of their bodies?), and invocations of Ronald Reagan (“By the 1980s, however, with Ronald Reagan in office and evangelical Christianity at the height of its political influence, conservatives were mounting efforts to roll back these changes and shore up the old domestic order”). I took to penciling “RR!” in the margin every time the Ghost of Reagan was conjured for atmospherics.

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orse than these fallacies is that Beck’s theory fails to account for the majority of false abuse allegations. Neither so lurid nor so stupid as the daycare nightmares, but vastly more numerous, were allegations of incestuous child abuse, which were all the rage in the 1980s and remained so well into the 1990s.

These cases relied on a therapeutic technique that had figured in a number of the daycare cases, namely recovered-memory therapy. This therapy was based on a dubious account of the operations of memory, whereby traumatic events cause instant amnesia (“repression,” in a misuse of that Freudian term). Memories of trauma exist in the unconscious, unreachable by the ordinary processes of recollection, but recoverable by an analyst. The theory and practice of recovered memory were discredited in the late 1990s—not before thousands of fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, and teachers had been jailed, sued, or just estranged over recovered memories of ­pedophilic abuse.

This phase of the pedophilia panic, which wrought far more destruction by the numbers than had the daycare and preschool cases, hardly seems an initiative of the Reagan administration for the restoration of patriarchy. Indeed, it proved extremely useful to feminists and theorists on the left. A feminist critique of domestic relations held that the nuclear family was a power structure set up to enable and conceal the abusive predations of men. For academic trauma studies, which draws on feminism, Marxism, post-colonialism, and other -isms, ­recovered-memory therapy recuperates the silences of alterity, over against the patriarchal signifying order. In academic theory or in clinical practice, down with patriarchy!

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eck subscribes to these leftist critiques of the family, even while he recognizes that recovered-­memory therapy was bunk. He argues that pedophilic abuse (when it does occur) is indeed the practical consequence of patriarchal power structures. For Beck, the recovered-memory movement did not constitute (as did the daycare panic) a “moral panic.” It may have been wrong about the operations of memory and the precise guilt of specific men—but it was not a witch hunt, for its critique of patriarchy was conceptually sound.

Beck is inconvenienced here by the injustice done to falsely accused men. And so he stoops to quibbling over victimhood. He tells us that the true victims of false incest memories were not the accused father figures, nor the ruined families: “The real targets of recovered memory therapy were the women in whom treatment cultivated such a debilitating sense of vulnerability and helplessness.” Beck is not shy about imputing intention: The “goal” of recovered-memory therapy “was to make women too insecure and anxious to make use of any of the freedoms they had won for themselves.”

Fine way for patriarchy to recover its authority: by exploding its appearance of naturalness and decency, revealing men as malevolent and the home as a hunting ground.

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eck is right to observe that the pedophile became “society’s most feared and loathed criminal figure” in the years after Griswold, the Pill, and Roe. One effect of the sexual revolution has been to subordinate children, and the duties owed them, to the desires of adults. Marriage has been redefined so as to serve, rather than constrain, adult desire. Contraception has made children—once blessings and burdens—into optional luxuries. We still must sacrifice for our children if we have them, but when and whether we have them is for us to decide. Even a child that has been conceived may be disposed of if it is not desired. To an unprecedented degree, children today exist at—and for—our pleasure.

We are haunted by the knowledge that we have placed our desires before our duties to children. We know that children make transcendent claims on us. We know that we ought to be at their disposal, not the other way around. We repress the knowledge of our failings and compensate by insisting, rather too forcefully, that we do honor children and their transcendent claims. Seeking an occasion for this performance, we fantasize Someone Out There. This imagined monster subordinates children to his desire in ways we know we never would. His depravity incenses us, obscuring our more subtle sins.

Since the 1980s, we have outgrown satanism, and the American Psychiatric Association has discarded recovered memory. But our contraceptive culture is only more comprehensive now, and our foolishness about pedophilia has grown only more insidious. Presented with “conspiracy theories and lurid fantasies,” we still “believe the children.” What is telltale is the popular resistance to good news, a resistance seen especially in our insistence on psychologization. Pedophilia is popularly imagined to be an incurable mental disorder entailing uncontrollable criminal desires. (This belief lies behind our draconian sex offender registries.) Studies consistently show, however, that pedophilic offenders have a low recidivism rate compared with that of other criminals. Try applying this fact to any public controversy, and see where it gets you.

Equally popular is the notion that pedophilic abuse causes profound psychological damage to victims, always and irreparably. (This belief is often made to justify the intensity of our rhetoric about pedophilia: The stakes are supposed to be so high.) In 1998, however, a meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin found that most victims of pedophilia turned out only “slightly less well adjusted” than the average adult, with the probability of maladjustment being ­influenced by the degree of physical force or coercion present in pedophilic encounters. The study’s author was careful to distinguish psychology from ethics, observing that “lack of harmfulness does not imply lack of wrongfulness,” and that society can and should prohibit adult-child ­sexual relations on some basis other than the “presumption of psychological harm.” Who could argue?

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veryone, as it turned out. The paper was denounced by ­activists and pundits and the United States Congress, which for the first time in its history passed a resolution (355 votes in the House, unanimity in the Senate) condemning a scientific study.

Our elected representatives were shooting the bearer of good news. We should be delighted by a credible argument that nothing bad was done to the children of the McMartin Preschool, or Neverland Ranch, or wherever. We should resist, rather than insist upon, weird theories that old men conspire on behalf of pedophiles at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or Penn State, or wherever. We should rejoice that many children who are molested are not broken, and that many offenders will never offend again. Instead, we fantasize villainy and eternal wreckage. Indulging in hysterics over their safety and purity, we assure ourselves that though we have commodified our children, we will honor them if the stakes are high enough.

Note the partisan split on that congressional resolution: There wasn’t one. Beck fails to see that our irrationality about child sex abuse is more encompassing than left and right. It does not demonstrate how scared and stupid social conservatives are, as Beck proposes, nor how resentful and radical social liberals are, as others might venture. We’re all repressing our contraceptive mentality. As Congress knew, there is no ­constituency for being halfway reasonable about child sex abuse. Until we place our duty to children above our own desires, we will have special reason to go on “believing” them. The pedophile will reign as our most feared and loathed criminal figure for some time yet.

Julia Yost is an M.F.A candidate in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.