Sunday, July 17, 2016

Richard Beck's "We Believe the Children" (2015): A Review

You who give to the outlaw that calm and graceful look
That damns the crowd around the scaffold
-- Baudelaire, "The Litanies of Satan"

For a large portion of the 1980s and into the early '90s, large segments of the American public, the mass media, educated opinion, law enforcement, the federal government, and the psychiatric and social work professional communities became convinced -- or at least very actively entertained the suspicion -- that there was a vast network of Satanic cults and sexual exploitation rings engaging in the systematic and nationwide ritual abuse of children. This abuse was supposed to take such extreme forms as child pornography, rape, murder, and cannibalism, and all of it was ostensibly transpiring behind the innocuous-seeming parti-colored doors of America's preschools and day care centers. 

The idea seems laughable and distant to us now -- as unrecognizable a way of viewing the world as the tales of capitalist spies and saboteurs who haunt the court reports of Moscow's show trials (Though it is not in fact ancient history, even for the relatively young -- the notorious McMartin preschool trial wrapped up a few days after I was born). One could only expect a book on the subject appearing in 2015, therefore, to be a sort of updated "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" -- a satisfying narrative of the eventual triumph of reason, which leaves us peering down from the safety of our modern moment with the assurance that, whatever horrors we are reading about in the past, cooler heads did eventually prevail.

And indeed, Richard Beck's "We Believe the Children" does rest the vast bulk of its narrative in what is now (however recent it still feels) the past -- carrying much of the story no further than the George W. Bush administration. The author devotes remarkably little space to beating us over the head with any "Lessons for Today" or pseudo-profundities to the effect that: "the Satanic ritual abuse panic is still with us" (he leaves that to the likes of me, glad to say). Moreover, the wealth of detail and depth of knowledge displayed in the book's pages suggest it was years in the making, and therefore couldn't have been undertaken as a project with any too-distinct notion of where it would fit in the news cycle when it was eventually published.

Yet, it's hard to give the book even the most cursory glance without feeling that it could only have appeared when it did... even that one saw it in the bookstore at just the right time. As we have entered this summer of weekly, daily, hourly shootings and atrocities in the news (I just heard something about Baton Rouge today over the radio and haven't yet felt ready to follow the details), with each new headline the panic-needle in each of us inches up a few more degrees. Pandemic mass-scares such as the ritual abuse hysteria are made possible because people start to believe the unbelievable. Yet it is precisely the nature of moments like ours of rapid change, of the escalation of rhetoric or violence, of the empowering of previous fringe movements and politicians, of the enthroning of formerly deviant belief systems in the platforms of major parties -- that the unbelievable actually happens. So we start to think, "If that could happen, who knows what else I used to believe no longer applies."

Beck situates the ritual abuse scare firmly in the context of the massive social and cultural changes of its era -- specifically, the reactionary backlash that followed on the heels of the women's movement,  gay liberation, and the other left and egalitarian movements that emerged from the 1960s. He could perhaps have made his analysis more comprehensive, however, by allowing that there were reasons other than unsympathetically patriarchal and repressive ones for why people in the mid-1980s might have felt that the ground had broken open beneath their feet, and that things that were supposed to be impossible were in fact actually unfolding around them. The notion of Satanic cults committing ritual murder is absurd, to be sure, and not the least shred of physical evidence for their existence was ever found. Even among "cults" that do actually exist, meanwhile, like Scientology or the Unification Church, the forms of coercion they exercise are rarely as lurid and Lifetime-movie-ready as the stories in the day care panic -- rather, these groups operate in a more mundane fashion by exploiting the ordinary psychological vulnerabilities of their members, such as the need for connection and transcendence and the fear of isolation, and they are not so outwardly aggressive. Yet nowhere in his book does Beck mention the names Jim Jones or the Peoples Temple -- though only a few years prior to the McMartin scare, 900 people were killed in Guyana on Jones' orders -- roughly three hundred or so of them children. It was a coerced act of so-called "revolutionary suicide" that could very well be described as a form of "ritual murder."

To point to such a real-world precedent for extreme fears being realized is not in any way to excuse the ritual abuse scare, which shattered countless lives of falsely accused individuals and legitimated a viciously punitive regime for sex crimes in our justice system that even now brands "sex offenders" with a scarlet letter until the day they die. It is to suggest, however, that each of us faces a harder choice than we like to think on a daily basis as to what kinds of stories or actions we are going to rule out as simply incredible, as beyond the realm of the possible. That context might help to explain why so many psychiatrists, social workers, FBI agents and other people who should have known better instead began to take seriously the lurid rumors being phoned in by frightened parents about the "brainwashing cults" that had ensnared their children.

But even if that's true, where, then, did those rumors come from in the first place? What makes parents across the nation spontaneously become convinced that their apparently healthy and contented children have in fact spent every day of the past year at preschool being dragged down into dungeons and underground tunnels, forced to watch as school pets are ritualistically murdered, made to drink blood, maybe even forced to eat the flesh of human infants who have been bred specifically for that purpose (by 1988, as we will see, this last allegation was considered to be a live enough possibility by the more shameless sections of the media that Geraldo Rivera presented it as a serious social problem, on a notorious late-night special)?

Beck traces the origins of the core ritual abuse narrative -- the one that would become the template for so many parents' more bizarre allegations -- largely to two books of pop psychology -- Sybil and Michelle Remembers -- that have since become legendary in social work circles as illustrations of what not to do as a practitioner. (After finishing my reading of Beck the other day, I called a friend who's a social worker to report on what I'd learned about this woeful chapter in the history of the helping professions, as if it would be news, and she assured me that both these books are used as cautionary tales of professional malpractice for therapists training today -- Good to know!)

Sybil, written by journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber about the actual therapeutic practice of Dr. Cornelia Wilbur and first published in 1973, did not explicitly introduce Satanism into the discussion, but it popularized the study of so-called Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) -- a trendy ailment that seems to have vanished as rapidly as it came (où sont the "split personalities" of yesteryear?). It then made the critical leap of tying the existence of these multiple personas, or "alters," in a patient's mind to what were believed to be repressed memories of traumatic childhood abuse. The book recounts Sybil's years-long treatment at the hands of Cornelia Wilbur -- a process that, in Beck's telling, amounts to a thrilling archeological excavation into the sediment of her patient's psyche, managing gradually to uncover no fewer than sixteen different "alters" inside Sybil's brain-- and from there to discover the systematic (begin to read, "ritual") abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents that split her personality and created the need for the "alters" in the first place.

As Beck takes us through the circumstances of the real-life "Sybil's" treatment, however, we begin to doubt not only the reality of the "recovered" abuse narrative, but the original MPD diagnosis, and eventually whether Dr. Wilbur's "treatment" is perhaps not itself the greatest contributor to Sybil's anguish -- yet another case of the cure being worse than the disease.

Perhaps Wilbur's most deeply questionable therapeutic technique was to cover Sybil's living expenses and to find and pay for an apartment for her so that she could be closer to her therapist -- thereby essentially "employing" Sybil as a full-time patient. This device had the entirely foreseeable effect not only of isolating Sybil from other social ties and from any other life, career, or interests apart from her identity as a person with an "interesting" illness; it also no doubt led to an understandable feeling on Sybil's part that she was in some sense expected to perform -- that in order to justify living on her therapist's dime she needed to continue to deliver the goods in the form of more personalities, more traumas, more memories dredged up from the unconscious that could be incorporated into Wilbur's case study. Dr. Wilbur's continued interest and approbation became the chief -- perhaps the only-- thing happening in Sybil's life, and that eventually ensured she had no way out of her illness.

Beck reveals the force of this dynamic when he cites a long letter Sybil wrote to her therapist, in which she effectively confessed that she had never had MPD to begin with; that she had never experienced any "missing time" or lapsed memories -- that, in short, she had made it all up, out of the fear of losing what had become the central human relationship of her life, the one with her doctor. Wilbur refused to credit the letter, however, saying that it was merely a further indication of Sybil's resistance to therapy. When this option was presented to Sybil as a convenient explanation and a way of maintaining the status quo with her doctor, she gladly took it, saying that the letter of confession must have been written by one of her "alters."

A similar breach of professional trust and of an appropriate set of boundaries accounts for Michelle Remembers, the second of the two books that served as ur-texts for the ritual abuse panic. Like Sybil, the book recounts a series of memories of ritual abuse (now with an increasing overlay of occult and Satanic imagery) that Michelle supposedly "uncovered" during sessions with her therapist. In real life, Michelle married this therapist, and the two would later go on tour to promote the book that described the "shocking" mutual discoveries they had made in the backwaters of Michelle's psyche.

Beck describes the book as a "tour-de-force of un-self-awareness." Michelle and her therapist, Lawrence Pazder, develop a romantic and sexual attraction over the course of her treatment that eventually issued into a marriage; yet the basis for their feelings of closeness appears to have been totally bound up with the experience of therapy. In particular, they seem to have first experienced feelings of love during Michelle's recovery of her various "traumas," which led to her need for emotional care and support and Pazder's feeling that he was "comforting" her -- a paradigmatic case of the "transference" that helping professionals have been warning each other against at least since Freud. While Pazder didn't entrap his patient by quite the same means as Wilbur, nevertheless the result was the same. The central interest and drama of Michelle's and Pazder's lives became the intimacy and live-wire intensity they managed to achieve through "finding" together ever more ghastly abominations in Michelle's past -- ones that would render her more "vulnerable" and him more able to grant succor.

These are extreme cases of therapeutic malpractice. Yet they contain in blatant form the basic mistakes and misconceptions that would make the ritual abuse narrative so hard to dislodge from social work and psychiatric circles once it took root. Perhaps the most obvious of these mistakes, with the benefit of hindsight, is the fact that both Wilbur and Pazder took it for granted that any "memory" that their patients "recovered" -- regardless of the circumstances under which it was remembered or of how ludicrous it seemed, had to be believed as literally true, and not just as a potent fantasy or nightmare or hallucination. Why and how therapists could have come to this strange conclusion is one of the most interesting stories to emerge from Beck's account.


The focus on the need to always believe Satanic abuse allegations -- indeed, the sense that it was somehow morally imperative to believe them, that otherwise one was betraying the victims -- is surely one of the more striking and omnipresent features of the discourse surrounding the panic (it is the reason for the title of Beck's book, after all). In the Geraldo special about "Exposing the Satanic Underground" that Beck discusses, and which you can now find and watch for yourself on YouTube, there is an especially bizarre segment featuring multiple women who are identified only as "Former Breeders." The women describe their ostensible childhood abuse at the hands of Satanic cults, and end up declaring that they gave birth to multiple infants, for the sole purpose of using them in human sacrifices. After the "Breeders" conclude their narrative, Geraldo whirls on the two representatives of the "Church of Satan" that he has brought on stage to answer for their obscene religion. (In reality, by the way, the Church of Satan is a tiny group of countercultural Objectivist types, few if any of whom believe in the literal existence of Satan -- and even if they did, it would only be because well, let's face it, the Prince of Darkness is pretty cool.) While Geraldo makes a distinction between what he calls "mainstream Satanism," of the kind represented by the two people on stage --  which he applauds for having "condemned" the murder and eating of children (and I'm sure at the time Geraldo felt that this line was more than sufficient to preserve his role as an evenhanded and "objective" journalist, despite the fact that he has just devoted broadcast time to interviewing three women who call themselves "former breeders" for a Satanic cult) -- Geraldo wants to know if the Satanists on stage think it could be true that there are other (I guess, not-so-mainstream) Satanists out there who are actively engaged in the practice of infant murder and cannibalism. The two Satanists -- who remain, from one end of the special to the other, hands down the most reasonable and level-headed discussants -- respond that they don't believe any such thing. Anton LeVay's daughter, Zeena, poses the sensible question, "If all this is happening, why haven't they found any bodies?" In response to this line of thinking, Geraldo gestures back toward the "former breeders." "Are you saying that all these women are lying?" he asks.

This was the moral trap that lay in wait for anyone who tried to question the ritual abuse narrative. Someone is saying that these things happened to them. Are you accusing them of lying?

Geraldo was only channeling, however, what had become conventional wisdom by that point among professionals engaged in working with abuse victims. It was partly the impact of feminism that had placed this new imperative to believe the abuse allegations, no matter what, on the moral agenda for a new generation of social workers and therapists, and this is part of what accounts for the somewhat ambivalent role played by feminism in the ritual abuse panic, and hence in Beck's account. While Beck's argument owes a tremendous amount to feminist theory -- and in particular to the writings of Ellen Willis -- and while it is plain that the antifeminist reaction against working mothers who entrusted their children to day care centers was an enormous part of what fueled the panic, Beck also traces some of the most problematic assumptions underlying the panic to certain streams of feminist thought.

As Beck tells it: Largely in reaction against the reductive Freudianism that dominated psychological thought in America by mid-century, which tended to assume that whatever women told their therapist about past rape or abuse was most likely a "wish-fulfillment" fantasy that reflected their own forbidden desires (though this was never a doctrine taught in so extreme a form by Freud himself) -- feminist psychoanalytic thought increasingly became convinced of the need to credit what their patients told them -- particularly where abuse and rape were concerned. While this was obviously an admirable correction to popular pseudo-Freudian dogmas, as Beck certainly would grant, it was no doubt liable to being carried too far to the opposite extreme. As Ellen Willis writes in her essay "Villains and Victims," there was by this time an "item of conventional movement wisdom" emerging in some feminist circles, which took the form that: "since men have notoriously gotten away with all manner of crimes against women by vilifying them as liars, feminists must redress the balance by assuming that men always lie and women always tell the truth." Willis glosses: "The assumption is silly; but because it has deep roots in women's collective experience of having their reality denied, it is not easily relinquished."

One does not even have to speak of "lying," however, in order to arrive at the conclusion that not every memory shared by a patient should be regarded as something that literally happened. No one would expect people struggling with psychosis, say, to produce perfectly accurate pictures of their current reality, let alone of their past. Moreover, people can convince themselves as well as others of things that aren't true, particularly when they are under psychological pressure to reshape their version of reality. There are evidently middle grounds to be found between lying and truth-telling. "Sybil," we feel, may have been experiencing several of these things at ones. It is possible she had a tendency to hallucinate. More plausibly, she may have maintained in her own mind an ambivalent view of the truthfulness of the narratives she was sharing with Dr. Wilbur -- on the one hand, being self-aware enough at moments to be able to "confess" that they were invention, on at least one occasion, yet also convincing herself at times that these thoughts were the work of an "alter." Perhaps her relationship with Dr. Wilbur had itself come to define Sybil's "reality" by that point, so that whatever truths were necessary to maintain it were ones that Sybil was ready to believe.

Patients who are living under conditions of effectual coercion, who have had their lives stripped down to little more than their experience of patient-hood itself, or who have fallen into a mutual infatuation with a therapist (in Michelle's case) that can only be kept alive by a constant supply of new trauma narratives, cannot be faulted for telling tales as a means of emotional survival. As Georges Bernanos writes in Mouchette (Whitehouse trans.) "Lying [... is] the most precious -- perhaps the only -- privilege of the wretched." The fault in all these cases lies not with the "lying" patients, therefore, but with the therapists who placed them in conditions that rendered them "wretched," conditions that amounted in essence to emotional blackmail -- however unintentionally so -- and who then insisted upon "believing" everything the patient said.

Yet even this over-hasty presumption in favor of the literal truthfulness of abuse narratives, misguided though it may have been, would not on its own have contributed to something as bizarre as the Satanic abuse panic, had it not been joined in the practice of these social workers to several other assumptions, in combination with which it became downright toxic. For all that these therapists were in revolt against vulgar Freudianism, they actually preserved some of the worst features of its approach-- in particular, the fatal circularity and absolutism of Freud's thought -- what Arthur Koestler once called the "closed system" of Freudianism.

Freud harvested his psychological evidence in a fairly conscientious way from his patients, it can perhaps be granted; but to a rather galling extent, he held the generalizations and theories he extrapolated from this evidence to be universal and basically inarguable. Any attempt on the part of a patient to dissent from Freud's account of her or his neurosis was taken to be merely a sign of the strength of the neurosis, of the power of the patient's "resistance." Any effort to say, "that's not quite the way I see it," was just one more indicator that one was not yet psychologically prepared to accept the inevitable truths that one's therapist had long since perceived. This makes for a perfect logical loop, in which all apparent discrepancies of individual experience in fact serve to confirm the initial theory.

It is of course strange that people so firmly committed to the task of "believing" their patients should have chosen to preserve this other, most questionable aspect of Freud's approach as well, with all its denial of individual agency and of the truths of one's own perceived experiences. Yet the fact that at least some nevertheless did so is evidenced by Dr. Wilbur's unwillingness to take Sybil's confession seriously, chalking it all up instead to an "alter." As Beck puts it, "Even in these earlier documents of recovered memory and ritual abuse [...] the therapist's belief seems to depend on the patient providing a particular kind of story." For all their talk of trying to credit what their patients were saying about their memories and their reality, these therapists in fact were only willing to hear or believe one thing: the narrative of abuse.

Why were therapists so anxious to hear this one story, to the exclusion of all others? Perhaps it served their own emotional needs, allowing them to feel validated as healers and saviors. In Pazder's case, at least, it would seem clear that his infatuation with Michelle had a great deal to do with his desire to see himself as a trusted protector over a helpless woman in distress -- perhaps the only worthy protector to be found, in an otherwise demon-haunted world.

Regardless of the deeper reasons, however, this is what therapists believed, and the stage was now set for the ritual abuse scare to move beyond the self-help bookshelves and into the courts. This phase all started with a phone call from a mother, Judy Johnson, whose child attended the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. As Beck describes in detail, Johnson's mental health would deteriorate tremendously over the next several years, as she offered increasingly baseless and incredible allegations about the hidden forces who were supposedly intent on raping her son Matthew (including nearly all his former teachers at McMartin, but eventually taking into account a mysterious "former marine" and many others). By the time the McMartin trial went to court, Johnson was not even among the formal complainants, being considered too unstable to take the witness stand and her accusations too outlandish to bear up under cross-examination. Yet it was on the strength of her initial report, and nothing else, that the local police department sent out a notice to every McMartin parent saying they had reason to believe their children may have been molested at the school, and that they should report any incident to that effect to the police immediately. Thus the speculation and rumor-mongering began in earnest.

These McMartin children were subsequently brought in to the station to face a battery of police interviews, many of which were heavily coercive in technique, as Beck documents exhaustively, designed for the sole purpose of getting kids to "admit" that they had been abused. The most bizarre allegations related to McMartin, however, emerged not from this source, but from an unprecedented series of half-therapeutic, half-forensic interviews undertaken by the Children's Institute International, which was run by a group of therapists and social workers who had thoroughly imbibed the "believe the abuse narrative (and-- by hidden caveat -- nothing else a patient says)" mantra of their cohort. When children did not furnish the preferred abuse narrative, Beck shows us, interviewers coaxed it out of them by deceptive means, saying things like, "Everyone else has already told us what happened," or calling children "scaredy-cat" when they refused to answer "Yes" to a series of leading questions about supposed crimes.

In Beck's telling, it would seem that neither the police interviewers nor the therapists ever asked the children to simply tell them what they actually remembered. Instead, the children were subjected to queries along the lines of "Did they do this to you? What about this?" Such an approach would seem to answer the question always posed by defenders of the veracity of the ritual abuse allegations -- namely: where could little kids have gotten all these ideas about specific criminal sex acts?


Time and again in the stories recounted in Beck's book, we discover that the people who claimed to "Believe the Children," or to believe what adults recalled through supposed "recovered memories" about their childhood, in fact were not interested in hearing what children or patients had to say for themselves. They weren't even particularly interested in hearing about plausible cases of abuse. Beck cites one instance at least of a child who was swept up in a "ritual abuse" investigation who seems to have made a credible report of abuse committed by a step-parent. Because this mundane and depressingly familiar story did not fit the narrative of massive "sex rings" and the like, however, police did not follow up. The narrative that police and others wanted to "believe" -- and which they eventually managed to extract from child witnesses by coercion and sheer dogged persistence -- was one that featured nefarious and supremely powerful conspiracies, rather than ordinary flawed and mortal perpetrators. All the better if it was a morality tale that involved "innocent" upper-middle class blond preschool children who stood in need of "saving," such as the kids at McMartin -- rather than adolescent children from poor families suffering abuse in, say, the foster care system or juvenile detention.

I am reminded in all this of the conclusion of Richard Hughes' 1929 novel, A High Wind in Jamaica. This book was obviously published long before any Satanic abuse panic, and even longer before any of us gained an improved understanding of the questionable reliability of child testimony (especially of the kind obtained through leading questions) largely as a result of the panic trials, yet it displays a remarkable prescience in its understanding of the psychological dynamics of suggestibility in the courtroom-- as well as of the kinds of stories people will and will not believe about abuse.

The book is a literary treatment of a perennially popular theme -- the family of English children who are kidnapped by pirates. The young English protagonist, Emily Bas-Thornton, largely enjoys her captivity aboard the pirate vessel, and the pirates treat her for the most part with avuncular protectiveness. Margaret, however, an adolescent creole girl from a lower class background who is captured alongside them, is not so fortunate. She is eventually forced, the novel strongly implies, to engage in a form of survival sex with members of the crew. When the family is finally rescued, no one seems particularly worried about what has happened to Margaret while shipbound, and the other children treat her as soiled by her abuse. Hughes writes:
“Margaret stood in the background holding all their parcels. None of her relations had appeared at the station. Mrs. Thornton’s eye at last took her in.'Why, Margaret...' she began vaguely. Margaret smiled and came forward to kiss her. 'Get out!' cried Emily fiercely, punching her in the chest. 'She’s my mother!' 'Get out!' shouted all the others. 'She’s our mother!'
Margaret fell back again into the shadows: and Mrs. Thornton was too distracted to be as shocked as she would normally have been. Mr. Thornton, however, was just sane enough to take in the situation. 'Come on, Margaret!' he said. 'Margaret’s my pal! Let’s go and look for a cab!'
When the English courts in the novel do begin to look for abuse that might have occurred during the children's captivity, they likewise pay little attention to Margaret, the creole servant, despite the fact that she was the only one of any of them who was actually abused. Instead, all eyes are on the "innocent" and much younger Emily:
“'Now,' said Mr. Mathias gravely, 'there’s something I want you to tell me, Emily. When you were with the pirates, did they ever do anything you didn’t like? You know what I mean, something nasty?'
Emily, drifting with the direction of the cross-examination, eventually says that they did, and accuses them likewise of being responsible for a killing that she herself had accidentally committed. The pirates-- the very same ones with whom she had in fact got on famously while at sea-- are sentenced to be hanged on the strength of her testimony. After being taken home, she asks her father: “What was it all about? [...] Why did I have to learn all those questions? [...] What are they going to do to Captain?”

One feels that the story the English courts expected to hear in Hughes' novel -- the one according to which the "innocent" white English girl had been abused -- and the story they were not at all interested in hearing, even though this one happened to be true -- that the "damaged" creole servant girl had been repeatedly raped -- are not so different from what prosecutors, investigators, and therapists were still seeking to find in the 1980s. They weren't any more likely to find it in Manhattan Beach than on the high seas, and yet they sought it so earnestly they would pry it out of children by unrelenting badgering, if all else failed, and insist that any resistance the children put up was simply due to the strength of their "repression" of the relevant traumatic memories.

Perhaps the most unsettling part of Beck's narrative is the knowledge that people are still suffering the consequences of accusations obtained through these bizarre and wildly inaccurate means even decades later. And unlike the pirates of Hughes's novel, these are real people, and their lives have been permanently damaged by the ritual abuse hype and by the outrageous malpractice of police and social workers. While it is true that the defendants in the McMartin case were eventually acquitted -- albeit after losing their homes and preschool building in order to cover their legal fees -- and enduring a decade of harassment, vandalism, and public vilification from their neighbors -- some of the defendants from other cases were not so fortunate. Depressingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, those who belonged to already marginalized groups were less likely to be acquitted when the panic wound down. Beck describes the chilling instance of what happened to Bernard Baran, for one, a gay man in Massachusetts whose homosexuality was made into a mark against him at his trial, and who was only released from prison in 2009. Ileana Fuster, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, was seventeen years old when she and her husband were accused of operating a child sex ring out of their shared daycare business. While in jail awaiting trial, she was repeatedly subjected to solitary confinement until she agreed to testify against her husband. After serving a ten year prison sentence, she was deported to Honduras, where she presumably remains to this day.

As much as Beck resists making the point central to his book, one can't help but wonder in the face of such grotesque miscarriages of justice: "Is it still happening today?" And if not, "Could it happen today?" and the like.

Beck does, to be sure, address the fact that much of America's present-day punitive apparatus against "sex offenders" dates from this era. The ritual abuse panic bequeathed to our society a ruthless approach to punishing sexual offenses that is unique in the Western world (though Britain flirted with something similar in the early 2000s to telling effect, when it made the names and addresses of certain sex offenders available to the public, and therefore ignited a massive wave of harassment and vandalism, as "concerned citizens" picketed for days outside the homes of people on the registry). Beck reminds us that the extremely widespread belief that sex offenders are a uniquely "incorrigible" type of criminal is not borne out by any of the available research; yet Americans by and large seem content not only to place sex offenders on a permanent watch list, but to make this list available to the public -- in short, to strip from them any of the privacies that would ordinarily be regarded as basic to a democratic society. As Beck writes, "The [ritual abuse] hysteria cemented the child molester as society's most feared and loathed criminal figure. When someone is convicted of a serious sex crime against a child, he [...] becomes the ward of a prison system in which pedophiles constitute a particularly reviled group and in which he will be vulnerable to sexual and physical assault himself. This vulnerability to beatings and rapes, which many people believe incarcerated pedophiles completely deserve, is the premise of many jokes about child abusers."

One doesn't have to think back very far into the past to come up with examples of what Beck has in mind. I know that I for one read these sentences with a queasy recollection of having participated in some of this hysterical public mood myself, however unwittingly (and aren't we all unwitting, ultimately? If we were witting, we wouldn't do it). I remember the endless obsession with the child molestation allegations against Michael Jackson back in the Bush years, and the national furor over the clergy sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. While the clergy sex abuse allegations certainly did raise serious concerns about the ability of powerful institutions to shield abusers and deny protection to victims, the public seems only to have taken away from the story a mistaken belief that celibate priests -- because of their non-normative sexual choice -- are somehow more likely to commit child molestation than other people in a position of authority (such as school teachers), despite the fact that this is not at all born out by the data. As for Michael Jackson, how many people do you think were seriously worried about the impact of the alleged abuse on the alleged victims, vs. how many simply wanted to see a "weird" celebrity be abused in the prison system for the "crime" of seeming vaguely sexually non-conformist and androgynous. That's not all, of course. I don't know if people are still making "don't drop the soap" jokes about rape in the prison system -- let's hope not -- but I certainly heard a few in my benighted past. There was a period there when the thought of men being anally raped in prison seemed to be widely considered the funniest thing in the world -- in addition to being a fitting extra punishment for America's outcast criminal classes.


The really challenging thing about Beck's account, however-- I find -- is that it does not just point the finger at the usual suspects in these narratives: America's 1980s "War on Crime," the Drug War, and other features of the right-wing backlash, for example. It certainly does identify these as culprits as well, in moving and impassioned prose, yet at the heart of "We Believe the Children" is the unsettling contention that the right wing never could have gotten as far as it did with its agenda of rolling back the discretion of judges, empowering prosecutor's offices, and limiting the rights of defendants, if it had not been helped along the way in significant ways by major segments of the Left.

This is where Beck's engagement with feminism comes into play. Immersing us in a long-running internal debate in American feminism, Beck shows that while some feminist writers were among the first to question the veracity of the ritual abuse "witch hunt" allegations as they were unfolding -- Ellen Willis, Debbie Nathan, and others associated with the Village Voice among them -- they did so in self-conscious opposition to a second (and at that time arguably more vocal) stream of feminism. This was the one associated with Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and the other separatist, "anti-pornography feminists." Beck's contention -- and here he is plainly channelling Willis -- is that MacKinnon-style feminism, with its focus on punishing sexual wrongdoers, was really a mirror image of the Reagan era conservatism against which it was in ostensible rebellion. As much as the increasing feminist focus on more onerously punishing rape, sexual abuse, assault, harassment and other forms of gender-based violence was presented to the public as the ultimate threat to the patriarchy, it in fact served very well the conservative agenda items of reducing larger social problems to matters of individual morality; of scaling back the discretion of judges (who were part of an "old boys network" to many feminists, after all, much as they were part of a "liberal elite" to conservatives-- and who were resented by both groups for ostensibly being too lenient in passing sentence) and thereby shifting power to prosecutors; and of expanding the scope of the criminal justice system and of the emerging phenomenon of mass incarceration.

The real reason for this supposed "triumph" of feminism (that was in fact anything but) -- according to Beck and Willis, anyways -- was actually that feminism's larger goals of passing the Equal Rights Amendment, of reshaping the dynamics of the family, of building an egalitarian economy that reduced the burden on women and single mothers, had all been frustrated by this point in history by the conservative backlash. Feminists signaled this defeat by adopting the dominant language of the age, beginning to speak of problems in terms of private morality, and urging the need for steeper penalties against criminals-- rather than emphasizing as they once had the need to reform the social conditions that make crime virtually inevitable. To cite again Ellen Willis's "Villains and Victims": "[A]s the women's movement hit a wall of reaction, many feminists' utopian hopes gave way to despair." As a result, "the radical demand for equality in personal life is displaced onto a profoundly conservative appeal for law and order."


From the perspective of 2016, it does not seem that Ellen Willis's stand of feminism is any closer to carrying the day, alas, than it was when she wrote those words. Utopian hopes are, if anything, treated with even more derision than they were in the Reagan era, and the "appeal for law and order" is still very much with us. And while it is true that America's brutal and discriminatory systems of mass incarceration and militarized policing are finally being criticized as never before under the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is meanwhile unfolding on college campuses a discourse about the supposedly ineradicable effects of "trauma," about the pervasiveness of "triggers," about the need to reduce protections for people accused of sexual assault, about the dangers of judicial discretion in sentencing (vide the Brock Turner case)-- that has more than accidental parallels to the ideologies that informed and made possible the ritual abuse panic. Beck spells none of this out directly, but one feels it must have been on his mind in composing the book.

One wonders, then, what might be the results if, as happened in the 80s, a left-wing discourse about the pervasiveness of sexual assault were joined to a racialized or xenophobic right-wing narrative (and who in 2016 might be willing to supply that? we need hardly ask) about the need to "get tough on crime." After recent shootings of police officers it doesn't seem at all unlikely that the Right could gear up for yet another push to expand the reach of the criminal justice system. And perhaps the most terrifying thing of all about the ritual abuse panic -- the sternest warning it offers for the present -- is it proves that, if the Right finds the proper language in which to do so, the Left might just go along with them.

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