We Believe the Children
PublicAffairs, 2015, 352 pp., $26.99
In August of 1983, Judy Johnson, a single mother in Manhattan Beach, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb, called the police to report that she believed her three-year old son had been sexually abused at McMartin preschool. There was something wrong with his anus, she said, likely because he had been sodomized by one of the teachers. The police sent out a letter to hundreds of parents asking if they had suspicions about the teacher. Before long, the department was inundated with accusations.
As police and mental health professionals began to interrogate the children, and as parents began to gossip obsessively about the preschool, the nature of the allegations became more and more grotesque. The children hadn’t merely been molested; they had been taken into underground tunnels forced to watch Satanic animal sacrifices; they had been flown out of Los Angeles International Airport and photographed by child pornographers across the state; they had been forced to participate in sex acts with several preschool teachers at once. Prosecutors believed a massive criminal conspiracy was at work and that hundreds of children had been abused. Manhattan Beach was soon embroiled in the longest criminal trial in American history.
The McMartin preschool case is the most famous example of the child abuse hysteria that swept across the nation three decades ago, and it is the focus of Richard Beck’s ambitious and meticulously researched new book, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. But it is not the only case, or even the most bizarre one, that Beck describes. In Kern County, a working-class area in central California, a couple was convicted of “selling their children for sex in area motels and abusing them while the children hung from hooks in the ceiling,” and other children “claimed their abusers wore black robes and brandished inverted crosses.” A Texas prosecutor said at trial that children were abused by a group of men “dressed as monsters and werewolves.” The panic was a national phenomenon, with communities descending into witch-hunt style investigations from Washington to Minnesota to Massachusetts.
Beck, an editor of the avant-garde literary journal n+1, is an able historian and a clear writer. His thorough analysis of media reports, police records and court transcripts successfully brings this nightmarish cultural episode to life. The book is a devastating indictment of the earnest but irresponsible detectives and psychologists who effectively projected their own fantasies into young children’s imaginations over the course of extended interrogations, and of overzealous prosecutors—including such high-profile figures as Janet Reno and Martha Coakley—who put innocent people in prison.
But We Believe The Children is not only, or even primarily, a work of history. It is first and foremost a sophisticated culture war polemic. Woven throughout Beck’s measured, journalistic accounts of the investigations and prosecutions is a radical political argument—an all-out attack on “the patriarchal nuclear family,” an institution that he sees as having no function whatsoever except to suppress individual freedom. It is the “patriarchal nuclear family,” Beck insists, that is the real cause of child sexual abuse. The heroes in his narrative are the radical feminists who sought to dismantle the family in the 1960s and 1970s. And the villains are the Reagan-era social conservatives who sought to stem its decline. According to Beck, these reactionaries created the 1980s hysteria by terrifying parents into thinking that alternative social arrangements would put their children in peril.
Beck’s cultural story begins in the 1950s, when physicians treating injured infants often ignored evidence of abuse. The doctors’ willingness to look away, Beck says, “speaks volumes about the nuclear family’s status in postwar society: the prestige, the respect, and especially the extraordinary degree of privacy that families regarded as their natural right.” This sets the stage for a theme Beck returns to again and again: the traditional family, America’s “most sacred institution,” is actually the site of terrible violence. Child abuse stems in large part from “the relative powerlessness of women and children within nuclear families.”
There is something quite strange about Beck’s casual association, over and over again, of “the patriarchal nuclear family” with child abuse. As W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson have pointed out, the data show that children living with their married biological parents are an order of magnitude less likely to be abused—sexually or otherwise—than children living in other social arrangements. Children are more likely to be abused by someone they live with than by a stranger, but stepfathers and men cohabitating with the child’s mother are among the most frequent perpetrators. One can debate the extent to which poverty factors into these statistics—poor children are more likely to live with single parents or step-parents—but there is no dispute that children living in the “patriarchal nuclear family” that Beck so despises are least likely to be harmed at the hands of their guardians. So Beck is standing more on ideological than empirical footing when he insists that the weakening of the family as a social institution from the 1960s onward was an unalloyed good, and that the conservative campaign to shore up the family is born purely out of fear, bigotry, and reaction. But that is his view, and he is certainly not the only person on the cultural left to see things that way.
This understanding of post-1960s cultural politics leads Beck to interpret the child sex abuse hysteria of the 1980s as essentially a conservative campaign to slow down the sexual revolution. After the 1960s, Beck says, social conservatives saw “a country in which porn, gays and women had run amok,” and “argued that the confines of traditional family life, with its breadwinning husband and housewife mother, provided a shelter from social madness.” One key weapon in their political arsenal, he says, was to cultivate a sense that the nation’s children were in danger. Each of the child sex abuse cases dramatized the way a different social transformation endangered children. The day care cases served as “a warning to mothers who thought they could keep their very young children safe while pursuing a life outside the home.” Other investigations targeted parents in non-traditional family structures to send the message that “mixed families lead to predatory sex rings.” And in several of the cases, police and prosecutors used gay and lesbian defendants’ sexual orientation against them.
Beck’s theory of the sex abuse hysteria as a right-wing campaign to intimidate working women, remarried couples, and gays probably captures some truth. But it is complicated by the fact that feminists played a huge role in perpetuating the child abuse panics, as he acknowledges. Gloria Steinem wrote self-help books targeted at “women who had recovered memories of ‘ritual or cult abuse’,” and “Ms. magazine, the country’s largest feminist publication, put out an issue with the cover headline: ‘BELIEVE IT! Cult Ritual Abuse Exists. One Woman’s Story’.” The 1980s feminist anti-pornography movement, led by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, also overlapped substantially—in terms of supporters, legal interests, and rhetorical strategies—with the child abuse panic.
The large-scale feminist complicity with the hysteria would seem to undermine the notion that it was an anti-feminist enterprise. But Beck claims that the panicky, censorious, victim-oriented feminism that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s was merely a byproduct of the period’s conservative revival. Conservative arguments about sex had “gained so much momentum,” he writes, “that even some feminists joined in, arguing that the liberalization of sex had gone too far and produced not freedom but anarchy, danger, pornography, victimization and psychological trauma.” It might be the case that this type of feminism (as opposed to the more libertarian, sex-positive, 1960s version) was merely a projection of the culturally conservative mood of the 1980s, but it seems unlikely—not least because social conservatism today is weaker than it has ever been before, and yet what might be called “MacKinnon feminism” is as strong as ever, especially on college campuses.
One wonders if Beck deliberately chose to publish this book in the midst of the national outcry over campus rape in order to draw implicit parallels between the 1980s hysteria and what is taking place today. Beck recounts how, in a 1984 hearing on child abuse, Senator Arlen Specter said, “The molestation of children has now reached epidemic proportions.” Senator Mark Warner used the same term to describe the campus rape problem at a press conference earlier this year. Beck recounts how legislators and voters responded to the child abuse hysteria by giving prosecutors vast new powers—for example, making hearsay evidence admissible and scrapping preliminary hearings. Today, universities across the country, under pressure from the federal government and state legislatures, are narrowing due process rights in sex cases so as to obtain more convictions. Beck recounts how ordinarily perceptive people suspended disbelief and believed outrageous stories about Satanic abuse despite obvious countervailing evidence. That more or less describes why Rolling Stone recently printed—and was then forced to retract—an apocryphal story describing a monstrous, three-hour long gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party. Beck describes the way “recovered memory” therapists, who encouraged women to recall childhood abuse, “outfitted victimization with a redemption narrative, and in recasting victims as survivors, it made victimization into an identity with its own kind of bleak attractiveness.” Much the same dynamic is at work on our sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia-obsessed campuses today.
Beck insightfully notes that while “some ritual abuse skeptics have explained the panic as a simple failure of reason . . . it hardly explains anything at all to point out that people got their facts wrong.” In the same way, many observers who doubt the campus “rape epidemic” narrative simply bash its proponents for being unreasonable, without thinking carefully about the broader social trends that might have made the narrative so appealing to so many people, from the dean’s office to the White House. One possible reason for its appeal is the transformation in campus gender relations that has taken place since the sexual revolution. As Heather MacDonald has noted, relations between college men and college women used to be regulated by informal norms of modesty, propriety, and restraint, as well as formal parietal rules governing dorm visitation. Once this system was swept away, the campus sex scene became much more hostile to women, who were increasingly confronted by drunk, boorish, exploitative young men who think that they are entitled to sex on their first encounter. Even if male behavior does not usually rise to the level of assault, the campus sex scene is morally corrupt, and the rape epidemic narrative provides a vocabulary for cultural progressives to express this without breaking with the liberal shibboleth that more sexual freedom is always an unqualified good.
A similar dynamic might help account for the 1980s hysteria. As Beck notes, families began to break down in the 1960s, as divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births surged. Beck thinks that the expansion of personal sexual freedom at the expense of the nuclear family structure made people happier—that “people actively wanted these social changes to take place, even if they often found this was a desire they could not bring themselves to acknowledge.” But maybe they didn’t. Maybe people felt that rising rates of divorce, cohabitation, abortion, and single motherhood were actually worse—for parents and children alike. Maybe parents, like college students, felt that while the sexual revolution brought many blessings, it brought a number of challenges as well. And maybe the day care hysteria was in part a projection of peoples’ anxiety about this brave new world.