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We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in…

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

by Richard Beck

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We Believe the Children by Richard beck is an account of the hysteria that arose in the 1980s around allegations of daycare child abuse and associated satanism. Those of us old enough to remember this will find some of the details familiar, though they are presented well.

It seems the issue with this book, based on some reviewers, is that Beck tries to understand and explain the "perfect storm" that created this hysteria and part of what he finds offends their love of Reagan and the conservative 80s. I found the portion of the responsibility placed on conservative politics to be but part of Beck's entire argument and it is not misplaced. To oversimplify part of the argument: if the places taking care of children can be demonized then women will go back to being housewives and mothers and men can get back to being in charge. That statement is both true and false, in that Beck does not claim that Reagan or conservatives (with the possible exception of the "moral" majority since they were willing to subvert facts for their goals) actually thought and advocated for the hysteria with these goals in mind. He is saying that the backlash from feminism's gains had made many conservatives want the 1950s version of the family back and part of the concern, all along, was how would children handle spending part of their childhood in daycare. This was a concern from those opposed to feminism's advances as well as every parent who made the decision to work and wondered if it was the right thing to do. So yes, that aspect of society at that time, as represented by Reagan and the "moral" majority, did indeed see this as a reflection on liberals having the audacity to think that every person, male or female, should be able to choose whether to work or not. And it was used, early on, as just such a weapon. Beck does point out other aspects of why this occurred, but if a reader can't get past the role conservatism played then they are blind to the many other aspects. There was no single cause, Beck says as much. It was what I just mentioned, it was pseudo-science run amok, with encouragement from certain segments, there were individuals who simply liked the limelight and played it up.

This work is fine for anyone not familiar with the cases that make up this hysteria. I would recommend reading other accounts as well, particularly articles from the period to get a feel for how crazy it was.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley. ( )
  pomo58 | Jun 27, 2016 |
Re-telling of the whole daycare abuse/sexual/"ritual" abuse of children from the 1980s. Not much new, but a decent retelling of what happened. No insight into how to prevent such hogwash again. ( )
  JeanetteSkwor | Apr 10, 2016 |
We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s by Richard Beck is a highly recommended examination of the panic over alleged horrific abuse by day care workers in the 1980's. Beck is primarily focusing on the history of the allegations, why it may have happened, and several other topics related to the discussion rather than presenting new information about this time in history. I vividly recall all the outrage and panic coverage over these cases in the 1980s when the McMartin Preschool became a whispered household word and accusations of satanic ritual abuse was seemingly everywhere.

"[I]n California, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, and elsewhere, day care workers were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted of committing horrible sexual crimes against the children they cared for. These crimes, social workers and prosecutors said, had gone undetected for years, and they consisted of a brutality and sadism that defied all imagining. The dangers of babysitting services and day care centers became a national news media fixation. Of the many hundreds of people who were investigated in connection with day care and ritual abuse cases around the country, some 190 were formally charged with crimes, leading to more than 80 convictions."

I also recall some of the more sensational and less than stellar media coverage surrounding the outbreak (Geraldo Rivera) as well as coverage on 20/20 and 60 minutes. For all the accusations, outrage, and charges, though, no evidence was found for many of the claims. The McMartin case, one of the longest and most expensive trials in history, resulted in no convictions.

Beck, an editor at n 1, a New York-based literary magazine, examines how social workers, therapists and police officers helped induce children to tell elaborate stories about abuse that never took place. The methods used by these professionals and investigators encouraged children to lie and tell those investigating what they wanted to hear. The whole atmosphere at the time was akin to a witch hunt, and Beck does make the comparison to the Salem Witch trials, with the difference being the accused witches were later given an apology.

There is a lot of extraneous information included in this presentation of the facts, including multiple personality disorder and recovered memory therapy along with anti-pornography efforts and Christian concerns about the family. Some of this extra information, while interesting, could have been reduced or eliminated. Becks ultimate theory as to why he thinks the societal hysteria took place is interesting, although I'm not sure I totally agree with his conclusions.

This is well written and well researched look at the fear that created a cultural disaster. Beck includes plenty of documentation to support the research in his presentation. My advanced reading copy included the footnotes and the final book will have an index.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of PublicAffairs for review purposes.

( )
  SheTreadsSoftly | Mar 21, 2016 |
We Believe the Children is about the spate of daycare child abuse cases which hit the news in the 1980s and, as its subtitle reveals, Richard Beck is not impressed at the way those cases were handled: by the police, by the mental health professionals, by the prosecutors, by the judges, by the news media, and even, or perhaps most especially, by the parents. Using the McMartin trial in California as his primary exemplar, Beck explores the political, social, and psychological underpinnings of the hysteria surrounding the daycare child abuse cases, eventually concluding that this hysteria was driven by a conservative society trying to repress - to hide from itself - two unpalatable truths:

"First, the nuclear family was dying. Second, people mostly didn't want to save it."

As an attorney, I was both fascinated and appalled by the conduct of those who investigated and prosecuted the McMartin case. I was particularly interested in the changes to the criminal justice process advocated by the McMartin parents, including a new hearsay exception which would allow the parents of alleged victims below the age of 8 to tell juries what their children had told them about the abuse, rather than the children testifying themselves. Beck suggests that such an exception would have violated the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause, an argument with which I might have agreed before the Supreme Court's June 18 decision in Ohio v. Clark. (To be fair, the galley I reviewed pre-dated that decision, so Beck couldn't have taken it into account.)

My biggest complaint was that, once Beck began discussing the psychological factors contributing to social hysteria, he spent far too many pages on the debate surrounding multiple personality disorder ("MPD"). While I am generally interested in psychology, and might well want to read a book about MPD, this discussion was only tangentially related to the McMartin case, which I expected to be the focus of this book.

We Believe the Children was informative, especially for someone who remembered the daycare ritual abuse panic but didn't know the true story, and many of Beck's insights are equally applicable to more current social issues, from gay marriage to the Confederate flag. I recommend it to anyone interested in sociology, psychology, or the criminal justice process.

I received a free copy of We Believe the Children through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

(I just have to add an additional note here. At one point, while describing the responses to Judith Levine's 2002 book Harmful to Minors (which controversially suggested lowering the age of consent to 12), Beck expresses his outrage: "The University of Minnesota Press was deluged with more than eight hundred angry phone calls and e-mails even before Harmful to Minors had been shipped to retail outlets, meaning that the letters were written by people who could not possibly have read the book." I found it ironic to read this passage in a book which I have read and reviewed but which is not due to be published until August 4.) ( )
  BrandieC | Jul 24, 2015 |
The further infantilizing of American society. If you lived through these years, as I did, this will add context and depth to this depressing era of our recent history. If not, you may just be horrified as the most vacuous accusations become reality as seen through the lens of Hard Copy. ( )
  jlbattis | May 27, 2015 |
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"During the 1980s in California, New Jersey, and New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, and elsewhere, daycare workers were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted of committing horrible sexual crimes against the children they cared for. These crimes, social workers and prosecutors said, had gone undetected for years, and they consisted of a brutality and sadism that defied all imagining. Using extensive archival research conducted in Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Minneapolis, and elsewhere, and drawing on dozens of interviews conducted with the hysteria's major figures, n+1 editor Richard Beck shows how a group of legislators, doctors, lawyers, and parents, most working with the best of intentions, set the stage for a cultural disaster. Psychiatrists and talk therapists turned dubious theories of trauma and recovered memory into a destructive new kind of psychotherapy. Social workers and detectives employed coercive interviewing techniques that led children to tell them what they wanted to hear. The climate of fear that surrounded these cases influenced a whole series of arguments about women, children, and sex that had been intensifying for some twenty years. At the root of these accusations were competing visions of society and what it was that threatened it most. "--… (more)

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