IN 1987, Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman proposed what was then a somewhat unusual interpretation of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Karlsen, a feminist historian, pointed out that most of those accused of witchcraft were “women without brothers or women without sons.” The late 17th century, she observed, was an unstable moment in Puritan New England: among other factors, an emerging mercantile capitalism was in tension with established agrarian structures, and changing ideas about childhood and the spiritual world of the family necessitated an expanded understanding of women’s roles and natures. The Salem women accused of witchcraft were inheritors who “stood in the way of an orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another.” Resentment of the new social order, in which women could lead economic and social lives outside of the ambit of male authority, was sublimated into witchcraft accusations, and the panic spread from there. 

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman was published the same month that jury selection began in what was to become the longest criminal trial in American history. California v. Raymond Buckey et al. — more commonly known as the McMartin preschool trial — was the most prominent of a series of day care ritual abuse trials that took place across the country in the 1980s. Supporters of the McMartin defendants, struck by the way in which their community had been swept up in accusations that satanic ritual abuse had gone on in the halls of one of the region’s most respected preschools, ran stark ads in local newspapers that read, “SALEM, MASSACHUSETTS, 1692. MANHATTAN BEACH, CALIFORNIA, 1985.”

The comparison is not an unfamiliar one. As Richard Beck points out in his new book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, “people who think they are being wrongly persecuted by the legal system will often compare themselves to the Puritans who were accused of witchcraft in Salem.” But in the case of the McMartin trial, Beck argues, the comparison is especially apt, and not just because “Salem” is now a handy metonym for a community and legal system gripped by hysteria. The Salem witch trials were “the first legal proceedings in American history to involve the testimony of child witnesses”; there, too, accusations of wrongdoing were extracted from children by adults in order to punish other adults. In both the 1690s and the 1980s, “the question of a child’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction was central,” and the trope of the endangered child played as important a part as that of the evil adult.

Beck, in his own way, advances an interpretation not unlike Karlsen’s. Like her, he posits a transitional moment in American culture: this time, the postwar dissolution of the nuclear family as society’s central organizing structure. Like the Salem witch trials before them, Beck argues, the day care ritual abuse trials were a vicious, vengeful response to a changing social order that seemed poised to grant women new freedoms. Here, too, those who bore the brunt of social resentment were scapegoats: the day care providers who enabled women to abandon the home for the workplace by entrusting the care of their precious children to strangers. In Manhattan Beach and around the country, Beck tells us, Americans located the devil in the shape of a preschool teacher.

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In We Believe the Children, Beck, an editor at n+1, carefully reconstructs the etiology of the nationwide panic over ritual childcare sex abuse that raged throughout the 1980s. He analyzes the furor over these cases to illuminate the “intense reactionary antifeminism” that was a central element of the decade’s “resurgent cultural conservatism” — which is, not incidentally, still with us today.

McMartin is not the only case that Beck examines at length, but it does provide his book’s central focus. Founded in 1966 in southwest Los Angeles and run by three generations of Virginia McMartin’s family, the McMartin preschool had become a well-respected institution by the early 1980s. Virginia’s daughter Peggy and son-in-law Charles Buckey helped run and maintain the school; her grandchildren Peggy Ann and Ray both taught there. Admission was “a coveted social prize” in tony Manhattan Beach.

In August 1983, a McMartin parent named Judy Johnson complained to the Manhattan Beach police about her son Matthew’s “itchy anus,” eventually alleging that Ray Buckey had molested her son and two other children. With Johnson’s help — she questioned her son intensively, filed multiple medical reports of abuse, and called other parents — the situation quickly ballooned into a large-scale criminal investigation. The Manhattan Beach Police Department sent a letter to the parents of 200 current and former McMartin students to inform them of the allegations against Ray Buckey and to ask them to give their own children the third degree. By the time a local ABC affiliate broke the story of the ongoing investigation that February, social workers at the Children’s Institute International (CII) had interviewed 63 children on behalf of the district attorney’s office. By the end of 1984, they had questioned more than 400. (CII billed the district attorney’s office $455 for each interview, which included a medical exam conducted using protocols that have long since been discredited.)

A legal quagmire ensued. Preliminary hearings lasted nearly two years and involved seven defendants indicted on 321 charges. The hearings were chaotic. Children alleged that they were “raped with a flagpole with an American flag attached,” locked in refrigerators, forced to eat their own feces, made to dig up graves and watch their teachers kill classroom animals, and shuttled to various sites — including a cemetery and a local Episcopal church — to participate in various satanic rites. The child witnesses contradicted themselves, retracted their claims, and, in one case, told a defense attorney that action star Chuck Norris and LA’s city attorney-elect had both participated in the satanic rituals. Meanwhile, though Judy Johnson’s son Matthew refused to speak in court, she continued to file police reports alleging that the McMartin-Buckeys had given the children enemas and subjected them to grotesque physical abuse.

By the time jury selection began in April 1987, prosecutors had pared the original witness list down to a handful of children and dropped the charges against all of the original defendants except Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy, who faced vastly reduced charge sheets. The case against the Buckeys was further weakened by the revelation that a former McMartin prosecutor had spent six months discussing the investigation’s failures in detail with a Hollywood screenwriter. (These conversations became the basis for the 1995 TV movie Indictment.) The media played a complex role in the proceedings, both fanning the flames of hysteria and introducing some much-needed skepticism: 60 Minutes aired a report that was sympathetic to the defendants and critical of the prosecution, while local news outlet KABC and the Hermosa Beach–based alt-weekly the Easy Reader dug into the DA’s office’s history of specious use of informants. Gradually, piece by piece, a scaffolding of extreme prosecutorial overreach began to come to light.

Still, the trial dragged on for three years; one juror, Beck notes, “lost his wife and remarried during the trial.” Ultimately, the jury deadlocked on 13 counts and returned “not guilty” verdicts on 52 more. The result was the same when the prosecutor’s office attempted to retry Ray Buckey on the deadlocked counts some weeks later. In a bizarre coda the following year, McMartin parents received permission to excavate the school ground in search of secret tunnels they were convinced had been built by the abusers. They found nothing.

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The McMartin case was the most infamous of the satanic day care trials, but it wasn’t the only one, or even the first. Beck intersperses close analysis of each stage of the McMartin affair with the stories of similar cases in Minnesota, Texas, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Florida (the latter prosecuted by State Attorney Janet Reno). Among the features these cases shared was a near-total lack of physical evidence coupled with a repeated invocation to believe the children at all costs. “[O]ur stand is that we believe the children,” a social worker insisted to a suspect in a pedophile sex-ring investigation in Bakersfield, California. “We still believe the kids,” prosecutor Kathleen Morris told the media after the jury reached a “not guilty” verdict in the Minnesota case. “‘We must believe the children,’” was the takeaway message that FBI agent Kenneth Lanning tried to get across in his four-day Day Care Center and Satanic Cult Sexual Exploitation of Children seminar in February 1985. And so on.

But in every instance, Beck says, the allegations came not from the children themselves but from parents, prosecutors, therapists, and other adults around them. It is not surprising, then, that “[p]eople associated with the day care and ritual abuse cases only believed children when they told stories that conformed to their adult advocates’ conspiracy theories and lurid fantasies.”

Where did these fantasies come from? It is a complicated question with no easy satisfactions. Beck’s explanation is both general and specific. He maps a large series of social and cultural changes that converged into a historical moment ripe for hysteria, but he also traces the consolidation and cross-pollination of professional expertise that catalyzed the specific events of the day care abuse panic. In the book’s first chapter, “The Discovery of Child Abuse,” Beck traces the cultural narratives around child abuse from the Victorian era through the 1970s, showing how discourses that linked child abuse to poverty slowly gave way to a depoliticized narrative of the pervasive endangerment of children at all levels of American society. By the 1980s, a conservative religious backlash had so denuded feminist arguments that “legislators and pundits” were only willing to hear, “to the exclusion of almost everything else on the feminist agenda, … that the country’s children were at risk.” (This helps explain the collaboration of anti-rape feminists like Andrea Dworkin in what was largely a right-wing narrative.)

Around the same time, physicians and psychiatrists revived Victorian-era theories about sex and human psychology to substantiate specious standards of physical evidence and propagate psychological frameworks (recovered memory therapy, Multiple Personality Disorder) that focused almost exclusively on childhood trauma and positioned women as infantilized victims. Beck takes us from Sigmund Freud’s infamous “Seduction Theory” (which posited that all hysterics had been sexually abused as children, a thesis he later abandoned) to Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s book The Courage to Heal, a landmark of the recovered memory movement. Child psychologists were drafted to fight legal battles that should never have been fought in the first place; the post–Warren Court empowerment of prosecutors enabled power-hungry district attorneys to force investigations and trials that were absurd on their faces. The self-sustaining logic of criminal prosecution meant that the judgment of otherwise unreliable complainants went unquestioned, so long as they made their court dates.

As Beck notes, the same cast of characters appears again and again at key moments in trials across the country. A particularly important player in this drama was Kee MacFarlane, a social worker at CII, the agency the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office hired to interview McMartin children, and a member of a regional group of abuse specialists called the Preschool-Age Molested Children’s Professional Group. On the strength of this experience, MacFarlane addressed Congress and assisted prosecutors in other cases. Physician Michael Durfee had founded the group after reading the psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder’s 1980 book Michelle Remembers, which linked Satanism with Multiple Personality Disorder; that same year, Pazder coined the term “ritual abuse” at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Padzer and “Michelle Smith,” his patient (and by then his wife), also traveled to Manhattan Beach to meet with McMartin families. Other figures — UCLA community psychiatrist Roland Summit, FBI trainer Kenneth Lanning — also pop up repeatedly, and sometimes unexpectedly, in the book. It’s clear that they were, in a sense, carriers of a social contagion.

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The largest argument of We Believe the Children is political. Beck believes that the satanic abuse panic could not have occurred if many people in significant positions of power hadn’t been ready — eager, even — to indulge it. “[H]ysteria doesn’t take root in society until it can work its way into a community’s most important institutions: the government, the justice system, the schools, medicine,” he writes. Media “transmits and amplifies hysteria,” but it cannot invent it from whole cloth. Indeed, according to Beck, “for the most part the actual investigations and trials came before the national news reports about the investigations and trials.” This is a story about the failure of community institutions to contain a specious moral panic.

But it is also, almost in spite of itself, a story about child abuse. Beck is loath to credit any of the claims of abuse made by children or parents in these cases. He takes pains to point out that “statistically the most frequent perpetrators of child abuse” are family members, and that “older children and adolescents,” not young kids, were (and are) “the most frequent victims of [sexual] abuse.” He observes that abduction by “violent pedophiles” is “a vanishingly rare occurrence,” but the threat was used as a rhetorical cudgel against women who wanted or needed to work outside the home. The point here, of course, is to undermine the credibility of the day care abuse claims on the most basic level: the stories seem improbable because they are. When you hear hoof beats, Beck suggests, think horses, not zebras.

That’s a reasonable claim, and — given the off-the-charts levels of credulity shown by so many participants in these cases — a useful one. It is also probably the case that some of the children in the day care cases (albeit a very few) were sexually abused, and Beck’s book, like other skeptical accounts, may erase those truths. This is the primary objection lodged against We Believe the Children by Ross Cheit, a political scientist who, in 2014, published his own book on the abuse cases, The Witch-Hunt Narrative. In it he contends that the Salem witch-hunt narrative was mobilized by the case’s contemporary chroniclers to suppress real evidence of real crimes. On his personal blog, Cheit has gone to great lengths to point out “what Beck left out,” and while few of his revelations seem like smoking guns, he does raise some important questions.

For example, both Beck and Cheit tell the story of a child in a Miami case, the six-year-old son of the alleged perpetrator, who was found to have gonorrhea in his throat. The test may or may not have produced a false positive, and after seven hours of interrogation, the boy both admitted and then denied that his father had sexually abused him. Having already set the stage with a thorough debunking of the theory, popular at the time, that retracting a previous claim of abuse is part of the normal course of a child’s psychological response to abuse, Beck uses this story to imply that this was yet another false allegation extracted by overzealous adults. But Cheit says that Beck ignores or even denies the existence of the evidence investigators uncovered, including photos and knowledge of the accused man’s “sadomasochistic” abuse history. (Beck also fails to weigh the fact that this case, unlike many others, involved abuse by a family member, which is the most common perpetrator profile.) While Cheit fixates on details that are open to interpretation and makes a case that is largely unpersuasive, he certainly demonstrates that a few of the children involved in these cases—and here I mean very few, a statistically insignificant number—were probably abused and the perpetrators have gone unpunished. They still matter.

None of this diminishes the overall thrust of Beck’s argument, which is still powerful and convincing. He admits that “[p]edophilia and hysteria about pedophilia are not mutually exclusive”: a case in point is that of Arnold Friedman, who seems to have actively traded in child pornography but was probably innocent of the more serious abuses of which he was accused. But the blanket skepticism on display throughout We Believe the Children does somewhat ironically underline the real damage the day care abuse cases did. Beck argues persuasively that the child endangerment narrative that emerged in the 1980s displaced a second-wave feminist discourse that centered on the rape and sexual subordination of women. The backlash against these cases, and the hysteria around them, strengthened our culture’s reflexive impulse to disbelieve anyone, of any age, who says that they were raped or sexually abused. Early in the book, Beck writes that “the widespread emphasis on belief did not lead to children being taken more seriously.” In fact, it has had precisely the opposite effect, one so pervasive that we see the faintest traces of it even in this book. Skepticism, as a weapon of justice, has its limits.

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Jacqui Shine is a writer and historian. She lives in Chicago.