Review of We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s.

Richard Beck. We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. New York: PublicAffairs Books, 2015 (forthcoming). ISBN 9781610392877. $26.99 (hardcover).

I was born in 1980, and I never went to a daycare center. This book explains why.

Beginning in the early half of the 1980s, there were a string of allegations of child sexual abuse that centered around child care centers in various parts of the United States; eventually, what we might call a “mundane” case of molestation turned into a truly bizarre set of charges of Satanic ritual child abuse. Beginning with the publication of Michelle Remembers in 1980, this Satanic abuse/child abuse hysteria ran rampant for nearly a decade, eventually drawing in such disparate figures as Geraldo Rivera, Ted Gunderson (a former FBI agent), and elements of the Meese Commission. For those that have at least heard of the Satanic abuse panic of the 1980s (and a shockingly small number seem to remember it at all) and have wondered, “How could something this bizarre have happened?”, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s sets out to answer that question.

Chapter one provides a historical background for the rise of the child abuse allegations throughout the United States in the early 1980s. This historical background includes the confluence of Freudian psychoanalysis and second wave feminist theory that form the fertile ground in which the hysteria regarding child sexual abuse and child care centers would take root.

Chapter three covers the various prosecutors involved in these cases, and the changes in the judicial landscape that occurred prior to the 1980s that allowed the prosecution’s of the alleged child molesters to go forward. This chapter features egregious cases of prosecutorial misconduct that occurred even prior to the earliest allegations of child abuse in Minnesota and California. This chapter also features the first appearance of the alleged satanic and ritualistic aspect of the child abuse occurring in California, and the creation of an official Satanic Abuse Task Force led by Brad Darling. All of these features combine to create an environment where the absence of evidence was itself evidence of a vast threat being faced by children nationwide. The details of the investigative process included in this chapter or simply stunning and the various narratives combine to create a coherent whole that ultimately describes cases and investigations that had lost all contact with reality.

Chapter four provides an insight into the preliminary hearing for the McMartin case in California, showing how the lawyers for the defense were able to drag out the proceedings, which allowed them to use the preliminary hearing in a fashion more akin to the process of depositions in civil litigation and worked in their favor, especially once one of the alleged victims identified Chuck Norris as one of the men who abused him at the preschool; chapter five examines the details of the Meese Commission and the details of the Frank and Ileana Fuster cases tried by Janet Reno in Miami while the preliminary hearing for the McMartin case in California was still ongoing.

Chapter Six covers the McMartin trial, and exposes how prosecutors were able to separate out the most outlandish and fantastic accusations by dropping the charges against five of the original seven defendants, which kept the jury in the case from hearing the most ludicrous accusations that had been lobbed at the defendant, such as stabbing a child in the eyes with scissors (his eyes were still intact) and using a stapler on the child’s nipples and genitalia.

Chapter seven examines two families, the Friedman’s of Great Neck, New York, and the Ingrams of Olympia, Washington. The Friedman family disintegrates after the father and one of the sons are both accused of pedophilia, and eventually swand up serving prison sentences after pleading guilty. The Ingrams, devoutly religious family that had converted from Catholicism to Pentecostalism, also lived through allegations of abuse, leading the father to make a false confession which was called into question by an expert in new American religious movements and police interrogation tactics.

Chapter eight analyzes the final weeks and the verdict in the McMartin preschool case, and the eventual retrial of Ray Buckey and the outcome of the second trial. Chapter nine looks at the difference between the way the legal system looked at cases of ritualistic child abuse after the outcome of the McMartin preschool case and how the psychiatric and therapeutic communities eventually responded as well. While the legal community and prosecutors in particular began to shy away from taking such cases the therapists and social workers that championed multiple personality disorder we’re just beginning to hit their stride. While the legal community has become much more skeptical recovered memories, the psychiatric and therapeutic communities seemed to double down on their belief that these ritualistic abuses had truly occurred.

Chapter ten provides a look at how Kenneth Lanning a FBI expert on child abuse charges came to repudiate the satanic ritual abuse allegations that he had once tentatively embraced, to the point that those who unquestioningly believed the allegations began to accuse him of being a Satanist who had infiltrated the FBI. This chapter also looks at the difficulties faced by those accused as they attempted to return to their normal lives, and provides the authors culminating thoughts on the place of this hysteria in the larger American cultural milieu.

I found this book incredibly compelling; in fact, from the time I received my review copy first thing in the morning, I found it very difficult to put this book down. Richard Beck drew me in within the first couple of pages, and from that point forward the narrative was so fascinating that I frankly did not want to walk away from this work to attend class or even to eat. I was most impressed with Mr. Beck’s writing and his comprehensive knowledge of the material he presents; as we are in an age of poor research and even poorer writing, both of these aspects of his work are highly commendable. This is some of the clearest and most cogent prose I’ve come across in non-fiction in some time. The narrative of how the allegations began and then exploded, as well as the narrative of consistent judicial and police incompetence was horrifying to read. At the same time, the allegations themselves were so outlandish that they seemed to have been ripped from the plot of A.J. Quinnell’s The Blue RingThe fact that anyone found these allegations believable itself beggars belief. Particularly commendable is the way the author provides a historical backdrop in which the allegations of Satanic ritual abuse come to make sense as something of the apex of a twenty year societal paradigm shift.

Despite all of these highly admirable qualities, We Believe the Children is not without flaws, some minor and others glaring. Given the apt title of the book, I hoped that by the final chapter, the author might have critically interacted with the more modern cry of “We believe the victims.” An overview of how this sort of uncritical credulousness led to the Duke lacrosse case and the Brian Banks/Wanetta Gibson debacle would have been both powerful and timely. Even more helpful would have been any attempt to expose the connective lines between the abuse hysteria of the 1980s and the “rape culture” hysteria of our own day, as epitomized in the collapse of the UVA rape narrative as put forward by Rolling Stone magazine. Despite the clear ideological connections between all of these events, no such connections are ever made. While I recognize that the UVA case may have occurred to late in the publishing process to have been included, it’s something of an oversight to have not included the Duke case. These oversights, while minor, help illuminate what I found to be the more glaring flaw in the book: the author’s uncritical acceptance of the second-wave feminist meta-narrative. This can be seen when the author writes that the “real causes of child abuse” can be found in “poverty, the relative powerlessness of women and children within nuclear families and the patriarchal organization of many workplaces, schools and other institutions” (Kindle loc. 474-475). This is troubling for two reasons: first, it’s simply asserted that this is the case—the author doesn’t even attempt to prove such an accusation. Second, again and again, throughout this book, the only time second-wave feminists are critically engaged, it is only the conservative feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin, that face any scrutiny. This aspect is especially frustrating as every other ideology represented in the book faces the trenchant and penetrating analysis of the author. Why then isn’t second-wave feminism’s place in the rise of the hysteria as painstakingly scrutinized as the Recovered Memory wing of psychiatry, for example? Such an analysis would have contributed greatly to the book, and it’s to the book’s detriment that it wasn’t included.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the flaws I’ve pointed out above, I found this to be an incredibly stimulating book, and it’s one that I would gladly (and highly) recommend, especially to pastors. Buy this book!

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