From 1987 to 1990, in the longest criminal trial in U.S. 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.
One witness in the preliminary hearing, a 10-year-old boy, testified that he had seen hundreds of animals slaughtered, and that priests and nuns had abused him in a dozen satanic rituals. Vigilante parents went through people’s garbage and used a backhoe to excavate a lot next to the school, looking for the skeletons of slaughtered classroom pets.
“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. 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 SRA 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 had been sodomized by Raymond Buckey, 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. By the end of the trial, charges had been dropped against five of the seven original defendants, including 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 FBI 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.
Why were so many police officials and parents willing, even eager, to believe that such abuse was widespread?
Beck, an editor of the literary magazine n+1, places such accounts in the context of right-wing resurgence in the 1980s. Feminists had insisted that not all was well with the nuclear family, which they said was a site of patriarchal repression. Anti-feminists, evangelical Christians and law-and-order advocates conveniently refocused attention on the children, away from the grievances of grown women. In this right-wing narrative, what was wrong with the family could be blamed on mothers who had joined the workforce and dumped their children in day care centers.
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.”
This thesis feels a bit unearned. But I happen to buy it, at least as a useful addition to our collective thinking about this recent nightmare, which, like most of our own dreams, has gone unremembered. And his argument should prove far more enduring than all the lies and self-deceptions, so credulously believed in the 1980s, that this book does a devil of a job correcting.
We Believe the Children:
A Moral Panic in the 1980s
By Richard Beck
PublicAffairs, 323 pages