2 September 2015


Richard Beck. We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. Public Affairs, 2015.

Back in the 1980s the United States became the centre of a series of social panics about the sexual abuse of toddlers in day care centres, the equivalent of Britain’s day nurseries, nursery schools and child minders. These rapidly escalated into grand conspiracy theories in which dozens of locals were sometimes named as being part of huge rings of child abusers.
The tales of abuse moved on from “ordinary” sexual abuse to allegations of abuse involving “satanic rituals”, murder, cannibalism and human sacrifice, for which no evidence was ever provided. Magonia, not least our late friend Roger Sandell, commented on this latter at the time (Links here).

These reflected the interest shown at the time, but much of this has probably fallen out of memory, so it is valuable that now, a generation later, Richard Beck, an editor at n+1 https://nplusonemag.com/ has revisited the issue. The book centres its account around the paradigmal case of the period, that at the McMartin day-care centre in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, details of which can be found here and here.

Anyone who reads this book will conclude that children were indeed abused, but not by the staff at the day-centre but by the prosecutors and their bullying, intimidating “experts” who never accept the children’s denials. At times, reading the transcripts it appears as if these interrogations are themselves tipping into a form of sexual abuse.

Beck portrays a classical witch hunt in which normal standards of evidence cease to apply, and in which everyone is presumed guilty unless they can prove otherwise. As in other witch-hunts the claims escalate as more and more people are dragged in. The similarities to the classic witch-hunts or the Stalinist purges are evident.

Beck sees the development of the social panic in the conservative backlash against women’s rights and feminism that coincided with the victory of Ronald Reagan and the Republican right, in which there was growing pressure on women to re-adapt back to traditional feminine roles, and that elements of the women’s movement began to endorse this, adopting positions that in Beck’s view infantilise adult women. He makes the important point that much of this rhetoric deflected attention from sociological causes of unhappiness and actual abuse, into the purely private sphere. He also makes another important point, in that only by making allegations of sexual abuse, as opposed to forms of physical or emotional abuse or general neglect, could people get listened to.

While this is clearly a book aimed at a US readership, with perhaps law students as the most significant group, it is very apposite for a British readership today, where we are in the midst of the a major social panic about 'historic abuse'. While there are profound differences - the 'victims' are not themselves children, but usually adults in middle to late middle age (significantly older than the recovered memory victims in the US in the 1990s - there are also similarities in that the serve as a conservative backlash against pre-Aids sexual permissiveness and the 1960s in general. They involve the infantalisation of teenagers, young adults and adult women (often portrayed as sexless, passionless, agencyless, inert dolls to which things just happen), and depend more on quasi-religious belief rather than evidence. As with other witch-hunts they eventually start consuming their own in every wider, more baroque conspiracy theories. -- Peter Rogerson.

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