Child Abuse Hysteria in the 1980s

Yet, as Richard Beck writes in “We Believe the Children,” his intellectually nimble history of the satanic ritual abuse scare, or S.R.A. in the shorthand of the time, no “pornography, no blood, no semen, no weapons, no mutilated corpses, no sharks, and no satanic altars or robes were ever found.” The McMartin case resulted in no convictions. It began when a mother, who proved to be mentally ill, said that her 2-year-old son, who was having painful bowel movements, had been sodomized by Raymond Buckey, Ms. McMartin’s grandson, who worked at the school. The police sent a letter to families of 200 students and former students, asking if their children had been victimized. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of suggestible children were interrogated. Some offered stories that — it’s now widely agreed — were planted by well-meaning investigators. By the end of the trial, charges had been dropped against five of the seven original defendants, including Ms. McMartin.

Meanwhile, the social workers, therapists and law enforcement agents who worked on the McMartin case and others were consulted by colleagues throughout the country. In February 1985, Kenneth Lanning, an F.B.I. agent, held a four-day seminar titled “Day Care Center and Satanic Cult Sexual Exploitation of Children,” attended by police officers, lawyers, social workers and academics from across the country. One pamphlet told investigators to look for signs of cultic abuse including “candles” and “jewelry.” One handout listed 400 “occult organizations,” rather loosely defined: a collective of feminist astrologers in Minnesota made the list.

Why were so many police officials and parents willing, even eager, to believe that such abuse was widespread? Other authors have put forward theories. Lawrence Wright, in “Remembering Satan” (1994), focused on fundamentalist Christianity’s fear of a literal Satan stalking the earth. Elaine Showalter, in “Hystories” (1997), showed how the psychological establishment, and feminists within it, intrigued by trauma theory, so-called multiple personalities and a new belief in recovered memories, was primed to believe outlandish stories of abuse, especially from women. Believing the victim became nonnegotiable — with adult female patients, then with children and even toddler.