07 PM | 30 Oct

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s

Cover of We Believe the Children: Black with White Text and Stick Figure of Child and Adult

Author: Richard Beck

Publisher: Perseus Book Group, PublicAffairs Book

Date of Publication: August 4, 2015

Date of Review: October 30, 2015

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s,” by Richard Beck, is a compelling book about the satanic ritual abuse, childcare sexual abuse, and repressed memory scandals that rocked the U.S. in the 1980s and early ‘90s. The autobiography “Michelle Remembers” and the McMartin preschool trial are thoroughly covered to highlight the hysteria and “witch hunt” against “epidemic” sexual abuse. Beck analyzes the legal, psychological, and sociological events that led to these scandals, and the backlash afterwards.

A cautionary tale for prosecutors, therapists, and media outlets, “We Believe the Children” documents the devolution of good intentions. As Beck points out, “prosecutors asked their child witnesses to do nearly all the heavy lifting in court,” forgoing hard evidence and incontrovertible proof with the manipulated stories of children “as young as three and almost never older than nine or ten.”

As Beck rightly highlights: “Resources that might have been directed towards addressing the real causes of child abuse—simply put, these are poverty, the relative powerlessness of women and children within the nuclear family, and the patriarchal organizations of many workplaces, schools and other social institutions—were instead used to fend off bogeymen. This misrecognition of the problem of child abuse and the misallocation of money and energy that resulted were, in a sense, part of the point. As disruptive and painful as the day care sex abuse cases were to those involved, addressing the real causes of child abuse would have been a much more difficult and disruptive task.”

Beck is highly critical of conservatives and liberals, noting that homosexuals’ “supposed predisposition to pedophilia,” the power structures of the nuclear family, pornography, chauvinism, and Satanism were to blame for the “epidemic” of child sexual abuse. This is perhaps best highlighted in Beck’s investigation of the 1980s “nonfiction” “Michelle Remembers”—“a tour-de-force of un-self-awareness”—and his inquiry in the Kee MacFarlane’s inquisition of the children involved in the McMartin case, where therapists were detectives, soothsayers and prosecutors.

If these stories were fiction, they would be over the top. “Satanic Abuse Task Forces” searched for hidden dungeons and Satanic sex chambers, while children were coaxed into telling elaborate stories of being bitten by sharks at the behest of their abusers, undergoing ritual abortions, and forced enemas. Unfortunately, the telling of these stories is true, and had devastating consequences. For example, Bernard Baran, an openly gay man whose sexuality was used against him in court, was convicted of sexually abusing five children. Regarding one of Baran’s supposed victims, Beck notes, “when social services interviewed the boy, however, he unambiguously claimed to have been abused by his mother’s boyfriend, who was never charged with a crime.”

Perhaps Rosanne Barr best exemplifies the mentality that led to the hysteria of “epidemic” sexual abuse. Regarding the question, “‘Were you sexually abused as a child?’” Rosanne states: “there are only two answers, one of them is ‘Yes,’ and one of them is, ‘I don’t know.’ You can’t say, ‘No.’” This mentality fit perfectly with Multiple Personality Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder, which were created to explain the elaborate ways adults who were abused as children were able to forget their abuse for years, only to have it resurface in a therapists office.

Looking ahead, Beck rightly highlights today’s moral panic: children as sex offenders. He notes, “the specter of predators lurking even among the elementary school population eventually caused some states to begin including children on public sex offender registries.” [Full disclosure, I’ve worked for state governments regarding child sex offender laws] Federal acts like the Adam Walsh Act (AKA, Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act), compel States that adopt the Act to place some juvenile “offenders” on sex offender registries. This includes children and teens who take naked selfies and send it to friends and teens who have sex with teens. Beck highlights, “Today juveniles constitute more than a third of all people thought by police to have committed a sexual offense against a minor, with some 4 percent of the total offending population under the age of twelve.”

In my own research, one government report found that individuals under the age of 18 account for 23% of reported cases of child sexual abuse. (Snyder, H.N. (2000). Sexual assault of young children as reported to law enforcement: Victim, incident, and offender characteristics. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.) Rightly, however, Beck pokes holes in these studies. For example, when discussing retrospective studies conducted on college campuses, Beck asks: “If preschoolers and sixteen-year-olds alike were classified as children, and if “abuse” referred to everything from repeated violent assault to incest to fondling to isolated incidents of exhibitionism, how could one reasonably expect to find uniformity in people’s responses to child abuse?”

Perhaps most unsettling about the ritual abuse and day care abuse scandals of the 80s, and today’s juvenile sex offender hysteria, is that it quashes honest inquires in real problems. Two-thirds of sexual abuse happens at home or by individuals who are in the victims’ “circle of trust.” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Administration on Children, Youth and Families. (2007) Child Maltreatment 2005. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.) Though it’s true that some children and teens do abuse other children, many of these cases are only considered “abuse” because of overzealous laws, overprotective parents, or ambiguities around what constitutes abuse. Further, children who actually are abusers are overwhelmingly repeating learned bad behavior, are themselves victims of sexual abuse, and should be treated as victims and not as offenders.

Do I believe everything Richard Beck wrote? Not quite. Also, his delivery—while entertaining (I laughed out loud at some of his sly remarks)—can come across as condescending, but how can it not when you’re discussing a book like “Michelle Remembers?That said, “We Believe the Children” is a worthy read because it is compellingly written (quite a feat given the topic), an appropriate length, and applicable to law enforcers, policy makers, lawyers/prosecutors, psychologists/therapists, parents, and everyone in between.

My genuine hope for this “We Believe the Children,” based on my experience working as an advocate for people who have been sexually abused and my policy work in three states, is that this book leads to honest discussions about the true nature of childhood sexual abuse. In a society were “yes means yes” receives lauded front page headlines; a book like “Not Gay” (My review here) dismisses “do-or die” frat and military sexual hazing as “cultural” and “hyper-heterosexual;” and two fifteen-year-olds who engage in consensual sexual activities gets them both listed as sex offenders for 25 years; society is a long way from addressing the causes and resolutions to child (and adult) sexual abuse. “We Believe the Children” is a great place to begin the conversation.

Thank you NetGalley and Perseus Books Group for providing me with an ARC.