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Richard Beck's new book on the moral panic over child abuse in the 1980s.
Photo: Kate Ter Haar
We Believe the Children
By Richard Beck
PublicAffairs, $26.99 (cloth)
In the early 1980s, before my siblings and I started going to school full time, we had our share of subpar caregivers. One let us watch too much television, and I saw a bloody scene that poisoned bedtime for months; another wouldn’t let us into her house, making us play outside in the yard in a cold New Hampshire March; a third, a teenage boy, put our toys into sexual positions and pretended they were humping—the antics of a bored kid that seemed, at the time, to be obscurely terrifying.
As adults, we’ve used these bad babysitters as prods to tease my mother, telling our stories in order to watch the guilt creep over her face, then reassuring her: “It wasn’t that bad. Really, it wasn’t.” Still, I remember the chart she once created for me; it was supposed to help me understand how many total hours I’d be away from her the next day, and to illustrate how small that chunk of time was, in relationship to the total number of hours in a day.
In retrospect, this chart is heartrending. Reading Richard Beck’s detailed and provocative history of the early 1980s abuse panics, I begin to understand that my mother’s guilt over putting us in the hands of others took place against the backdrop of a larger social backlash against the very idea of day care and preschool. In the 1980s, this backlash, Beck shows, found form in a series of high-profile abuse cases. The McMartin Preschool, of Manhattan Beach, California, was closed in January 1984 after investigations found evidence of acts of sexual abuse supposedly committed by teachers and aides at the school; in Kern County, California, investigation of a supposed child sex abuse ring led to the imprisonment of four adults; in Jordan, Minnesota, twenty-four adults were charged with abuse and accused of ritual murders. Other accusations of malfeasance came from geographically diverse locations across the States: Niles, Michigan; Malden, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois.
The details were horrifying. The case against the proprietors and teachers of the McMartin Preschool was given its motive force by one mentally disturbed mother who issued a series of bizarre accusations, including the report that her son had been forced to watch the owner of the school behead a baby (and then to drink the baby’s blood). Following this mother’s initial allegations, four hundred current and former McMartin students were interviewed, using occasionally coercive techniques. Three hundred eighty-four of them reported abuse, telling investigators that they played naked Cowboys and Indians, witnessed the execution of a cat, and were taken to a cemetery and forced to dig up coffins. Allegations surfacing across the country were equally upsetting and fantastic. Children in North Carolina, Beck writes, “said that their teachers had thrown them out of a boat into a school of sharks.”
Parental reaction to these accusations becomes almost as baroque and overblown as the allegations themselves. A group of fifty McMartin parents took it upon themselves to dig in a lot next to the school in order to try to find the secret tunnels their children said were located underneath the preschool’s main building. The image of this excavating mob, digging and digging and finding nothing, is indelible.
Beck lets the details of the accusations and trials speak for themselves, weaving together transcripts of therapists’ interviews with children, court proceedings, and news reports to trace the progress of what Beck calls a “moral panic.” The accusations were so salacious and bizarre that they make for difficult material for a conscientious writer. Beck manages to avoid condemning the reactionary parents while illuminating the social context that made them panic by adopting a somewhat detached tone—one that serves him well.
That middle-class childhood has become, in actuality, more and more safe, while parents are more and more anxious about danger is the central paradox of early twenty-first-century American parental attitudes about child safety. This is a knotty intellectual problem with a lot of real-world significance; people’s beliefs about their children’s safety influence the way schools are funded and communities are planned, as well as the way parents relate to political life. As Eula Biss wrote last year in her book, On Immunity, “What has been done to us seems to be, among other things, that we have been made fearful. What will we do with our fear? This strikes me as a central question of both citizenship and motherhood.” Beck’s book performs the valuable service of filling in some of the cultural history of today’s parental anxiety. It takes Biss’ passive construction—“made fearful”—and gives it history and politics.
While child abuse awareness was a feminist issue in the '70s, it turned into a conservative talking point in the '80s.
Beck’s argument is that the renewed emphasis on childhood danger in recent decades is part of a backlash against the feminist gains of the 1970s. While child abuse awareness was a feminist issue in that decade (children, like women, were vulnerable to male violence), it turned into a conservative talking point in the next. “What legislators and pundits were still willing to hear,” Beck writes, “to the exclusion of almost anything else on the feminist agenda, was that the country’s children were at risk.” The social impact of the amped-up concern for children’s physical and sexual well-being manifested in the demand that women re-cloister themselves: rely on nobody, keep your children close hour by hour, or your worst nightmares could come true.
Most of the early 1980s child abuse accusation targets were preschools—potent symbols of the working mother’s reliance on others to help raise her children. One interesting outlier was the Jordan, Minnesota panic, in which parents leveled accusations not at the workers in a day care, but at neighbors and family friends. The Jordan accusations highlight the idea that the panic was rooted in the concept of a toxic public sphere. The fear was that any place located outside of the home, even if it’s a seemingly kind neighbor’s house, is a bad place for a kid to be. Writing on the increased popularity of Recovered Memory Therapy techniques in the same decade, Beck notes that women were told that not even their own brains were safe spaces; they could be harboring memories of abuse, without knowing it. Both childhood and womanhood were portrayed in political and public discourse as being constantly in peril.
By the late 1990s, convictions in many of the cases had been overturned, as the veracity of the child witnesses’ testimony and the appropriateness of the judicial system’s handling of that evidence came into question. The toll that this panic took on lives of particular people is a constant theme of Beck’s book. The single piece of physical evidence from any one of the 1980s sex abuse cases was a positive gonorrhea test on a swab taken from one child’s throat—and even this was later suspected of having been a false positive. The McMartin trial, the most famous of its ilk, resulted in dropped charges, cost over $15 million, and ruined the financial livelihood and social standing of the family that ran the school. Some of the defendants in these cases—like Bernard Baran, a worker at a day care in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who was nineteen when he was first accused—ending up spending more than twenty years in prison. But Beck is perhaps most poignant on the subject of the damage to the young people who acted as witnesses. “Children as young as three and almost never older than nine or ten,” Beck writes, “children who previously understood their time in day care as essentially normal, whether happy or not, had their lives reorganized around the idea that they were deeply and irrevocably traumatized.”
But a greater toll, perhaps, was the reification of the idea that day cares can be dangerous—and, more broadly, that nobody, besides parents, is capable of caring for children. Even after the moral panic passed and key players were exonerated, the taste of this panic remains, hovering in the air when we talk about the relationship between parental responsibilities and public duties. We Believe the Children reshaped my understanding of the relationship between feminism, cultural politics, and mothering. It takes a chapter of contemporary history that could be easily dismissed as an insignificant and bizarre aberration, and shows it to be anything but.
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