In the 1980s, a strange kind of hysteria swept across the United States. Concerned parents would turn their children over to therapists or investigators, who would subject the children to repeated interviews until the children began to reveal horrific tales of sexual abuse, torture, and strange rituals. Fears of satanic ritual abuse at the hands of daycare workers and babysitters lead to hundreds of criminal charges and very long prison sentences that are not overturned until the late 1990s and early 2000s. In We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, journalist Richard Beck takes several steps back to look at not only what happened in cases like the McMartin Preschool trials and its aftermath, but how it all came about in the first place. Reading the book was like standing in the middle of a hurricane as events spiraled out of control. Our vantage point shows us multiple points where the panic could have been stopped…but also shows us how powerless we are to actually stop the storm.
Beck begins with Sigmund Freud. Though many of Freud’s theories have been modified or outright discredited, his idea about repression and the power of repressed memories has stuck around. What Freud discovered later, as Beck reveals towards the end of We Believe the Children, is that it is appallingly easy for people in authority to convince vulnerable people that they have memories of things that never happened. This revelation came much too late for the people who got swept up in the panic. This and other psychological and sociological developments, Beck shows us, created a maelstrom that made a social panic possible.
The McMartin case forms the spine of the book. A mother of one of the children enrolled at the Manhattan Beach, California called the police in 1983 because she thought that her son had the marks of abuse. Her persistent calls were a spark to tinder. Her worries touched off worried among law enforcement, social work, and therapists that child abuse was endemic and that some of it was caused by satanists. Kee MacFarlane, the founder of a group that specialized in helping children “recover” memories, was hired to interview the boy and other children enrolled at McMartin Preschool. Their coercive, grueling interviews with the children lead to a growing belief that a satanic sex abuse ring was operating out of the school. No physical evidence was ever recovered despite repeated searches and even digging up the ground under and around the school. Millions of dollars were spent on the investigation. Two trials dragged on for years. Other waves of accusations and trials erupted across the country; all of them depressingly similar.
In between chapter discussing the McMartin case, Beck dives deeply into a variety of topics. In a chapter about the prosecutors, Beck discusses how people used the panic to support their political ambitions. In the chapters about the parents and community responses to the panic, Beck builds a case for how feminism and economic changes touched off a deep unease about the role of women as mothers. Daycares are an easy target for that unease because they make it possible for mothers to work outside the home—something that was increasingly necessary as it became impossible for a single breadwinner nuclear household. Beck circles back around to Freud towards the end of the book, to bring home an important point about how all the idea of childhood sexual abuse and “recovered” memories got twisted up with a variety of agendas and social fears. (Beck even spends some time vindicating the old man.)
When I picked up We Believe the Children, I was looking for an in-depth history of the satanic abuse panic. I got that and much more in Beck’s solid, incredibly well researched book. In fact, the only question I have left is, whether or not it’s possible to stop another panic like this if similar social forces align again.