At the Boston Review, Rebecca Onion reviews We Believe the Children by Richard Beck, a book about the wave of bizarre accusations of child abuse that swept through the US in the early 1980s. Beck argues that this "moral panic," as he calls it, was a backlash against second-wave feminism. Here's an excerpt from the review:
Reading Richard Beck’s detailed and provocative history of the early 1980s abuse panics, I begin to understand that my mother’s guilt over putting us in the hands of others took place against the backdrop of a larger social backlash against the very idea of day care and preschool. In the 1980s, this backlash, Beck shows, found form in a series of high-profile abuse cases. The McMartin Preschool, of Manhattan Beach, California, was closed in January 1984 after investigations found evidence of acts of sexual abuse supposedly committed by teachers and aides at the school; in Kern County, California, investigation of a supposed child sex abuse ring led to the imprisonment of four adults; in Jordan, Minnesota, twenty-four adults were charged with abuse and accused of ritual murders. Other accusations of malfeasance came from geographically diverse locations across the States: Niles, Michigan; Malden, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois.
The details were horrifying. The case against the proprietors and teachers of the McMartin Preschool was given its motive force by one mentally disturbed mother who issued a series of bizarre accusations, including the report that her son had been forced to watch the owner of the school behead a baby (and then to drink the baby’s blood). Following this mother’s initial allegations, four hundred current and former McMartin students were interviewed, using occasionally coercive techniques. Three hundred eighty-four of them reported abuse, telling investigators that they played naked Cowboys and Indians, witnessed the execution of a cat, and were taken to a cemetery and forced to dig up coffins. Allegations surfacing across the country were equally upsetting and fantastic. Children in North Carolina, Beck writes, “said that their teachers had thrown them out of a boat into a school of sharks”...
Beck’s argument is that the renewed emphasis on childhood danger in recent decades is part of a backlash against the feminist gains of the 1970s. While child abuse awareness was a feminist issue in that decade (children, like women, were vulnerable to male violence), it turned into a conservative talking point in the next. “What legislators and pundits were still willing to hear,” Beck writes, “to the exclusion of almost anything else on the feminist agenda, was that the country’s children were at risk.” The social impact of the amped-up concern for children’s physical and sexual well-being manifested in the demand that women re-cloister themselves: rely on nobody, keep your children close hour by hour, or your worst nightmares could come true.
Image via the Boston Review