Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Satanic Child Abuse Hysteria in the 1980s - Book Review

NY Times   From 1987 to 1990, in the longest criminal trial in American history, prosecutors tried to prove that Virginia McMartin, who owned a preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and other school employees, including her daughter and grandson, had raped or abused 13 children, taken pornographic pictures of them and forced them to watch the mutilation of animals.[...]

“60 Minutes” and “20/20” ran segments, magazines ran cover stories, and the case fueled a national fear of day care centers — and Satanism and child abduction. (Remember the milk cartons?) Numerous preschools closed. In Chicago, a janitor at a child-care center was accused of boiling and eating a baby. In North Carolina, children said that teachers had tried to feed them to sharks. Elsewhere, children said they had been taken to graveyards to kill baby tigers or to dig up and stab corpses. Before the panic subsided, approximately 190 people nationwide were charged with the ritual abuse of children, often in day care settings. Eighty-three were convicted.

Yet, as Richard Beck writes in “We Believe the Children,” his intellectually nimble history of the satanic ritual abuse scare, or S.R.A. in the shorthand of the time, no “pornography, no blood, no semen, no weapons, no mutilated corpses, no sharks, and no satanic altars or robes were ever found.” The McMartin case resulted in no convictions. It began when a mother, who proved to be mentally ill, said that her 2-year-old son, who was having painful bowel movements, had been sodomized by Raymond Buckey, Ms. McMartin’s grandson, who worked at the school. The police sent a letter to families of 200 students and former students, asking if their children had been victimized. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of suggestible children were interrogated. Some offered stories that — it’s now widely agreed — were planted by well-meaning investigators. By the end of the trial, charges had been dropped against five of the seven original defendants, including Ms. McMartin.

Meanwhile, the social workers, therapists and law enforcement agents who worked on the McMartin case and others were consulted by colleagues throughout the country. In February 1985, Kenneth Lanning, an F.B.I. agent, held a four-day seminar titled “Day Care Center and Satanic Cult Sexual Exploitation of Children,” attended by police officers, lawyers, social workers and academics from across the country. One pamphlet told investigators to look for signs of cultic abuse including “candles” and “jewelry.” One handout listed 400 “occult organizations,” rather loosely defined: a collective of feminist astrologers in Minnesota made the list.

Why were so many police officials and parents willing, even eager, to believe that such abuse was widespread? Other authors have put forward theories. Lawrence Wright, in “Remembering Satan” (1994), focused on fundamentalist Christianity’s fear of a literal Satan stalking the earth. Elaine Showalter, in “Hystories” (1997), showed how the psychological establishment, and feminists within it, intrigued by trauma theory, so-called multiple personalities and a new belief in recovered memories, was primed to believe outlandish stories of abuse, especially from women. Believing the victim became nonnegotiable — with adult female patients, then with children and even toddlers. [..]

Feminists had been early advocates for abused children, but it wasn’t their primary focus. “In the 1970s feminists had talked much more about rape than about child abuse,” Mr. Beck writes. But by 1980 or so, legislators no longer wanted to hear about the role of race and class in sexual violence. “What legislators and pundits were still willing to hear, to the exclusion of almost everything else on the feminist agenda, was that the country’s children were at risk.” Mr. Beck believes that an unholy alliance between anti-pornography feminists, like Andrea Dworkin, and the Christian right fostered the overly fearful climate in which schoolchildren were lectured about “good touch” versus “bad touch,” and adults could be easily accused of the latter. [...]

Mr. Beck concludes with a bit of Freudian psychology of his own. “Recovered memory and the day care and ritual abuse hysteria,” he writes, “drove the social repression of two ideas. First, the nuclear family was dying. Second, people mostly did not want to save it.” Far easier to redirect our anxiety about changing mores toward Satan, or his minions on earth, than to rescind no-fault divorce laws or convince women to quit their jobs. The “middle-class nuclear family will not be restored to its former place, nor do most people want it to be,” he continues. “To imagine otherwise can only perpetuate this series of costly and destructive fantasies.” [...]

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