I’m just endlessly fascinated by the way pseudoscience, hysteria and fears about the breakdown of society and the loss of innocence periodically come together in a kind of perfect storm of insanity. Anyone remember crack babies? How about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon? Lately I’ve been reading about the Ritual Abuse Panic of the 1980’s and 90’s.
One day in 1983, a three-year-old named Matthew Johnson told his mother that Ray, a worker at the day care he attended, could fly. He went on to say Ray had thrown another child to lions, that he chopped off a baby’s head and set it on fire, molested a goat, conducted rituals with elephants and witches, taken the children on trains and planes and made Matthew drink blood. Rather than being treated as a fanciful tale or a bizarre or even alarming fantasy, Matthew’s story became testimony at the longest, most expensive trial in California history.
The McMartin Preschool investigation and trial, which lasted from 1983 until 1990, is a fascinating exemplar of a whole class of so-called ‘ritual abuse’ cases of the 1980’s. All over the country, police, prosecutors and child-welfare advocates investigated, charged and convicted dozens of day care and preschool workers, teachers and parents of molesting hundreds of children. The abuse supposedly involved Satanic ceremonies by ‘sex rings,’ and the daily sexual and physical torture of children that went on for months or years, all without parents suspecting that their kids had become the sex slaves of Satan’s minions.
In 1983 the police, acting on the suspicion of a mentally-ill woman named Judy Johnson, panicked the entire town of Manhattan Beach with phone calls and letters suggesting that their kids might have been molested by the McMartins and their relatives and employees. The calls triggered an avalanche of accusations and prosecutions in which children were badgered, coerced, bribed and threatened into making false accusations against their caregivers, teachers and parents. That the ‘testimony’ was largely the sort of ridiculous fantasy characterized by Matthew’s tales of planes, trains, submarines and elephants was rarely an issue for the authorities, who urged doubters to ‘believe the children.’
A 1995 book by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker called Satan’s Silence gives an excellent survey of the panic, its victims and the precursors and likely causes of the episode, which found leftist feminists like Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin in league with reactionary Christians who believed Satan was trying to turn children away from God, citing evidence like the “’Wicca Letters,’ a document whose origin and content were remarkably like the rabidly anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and which purported a Satanic plot to corrupt America’s preschoolers.
The ritual abuse panic had it all –false memories, rumored suburban sex cults, anatomically-correct dolls, multiple personality disorder, even fraudulent ‘facilitated communication’ that allowed profoundly disabled people to join in the craziness. The parallels to Salem’s witch hunts of the 1600’s are almost too perfect, right down to the search for ‘Satan’s marks’ on the bodies of victims, echoed in the disturbing, scientifically-faulty examination of children’s genitalia for signs of abuse.
The fallout went on for years, with lives and careers ruined and falsely accused people languishing in prison for ten or fifteen years before the authorities finally freed most of them. Janet Reno, who participated in two ritual abuse cases as a Florida prosecutor, went on to order the attack on the Waco, Texas compound of David Koresh because she thought child abuse was going on inside.
I was reminded of all of this the other day after reading about the reconsideration of people sentenced to long prison terms based on medical testimony about ‘shaken baby syndrome,’ which may turn out to be false. I think the impulse to believe deeply in things that are sketchy, unlikely or even demonstrably untrue is deeply ingrained in our psyches, and that impulse comes out most strongly when we feel frightened, marginalized or under siege by forces beyond our control. I’m just an armchair psychologist, but I don’t think you have to look too far to find a lot of examples of people reaching farthest for the most ridiculous explanations when they feel wronged by dark forces.