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


We Believe the Children

A Moral Panic in the 1980s

By Richard Beck

Richard Beck, who graduated from Harvard in 2009, is an assistant editor and writer for n+1. We Believe the Children, a history of the 1980s daycare sex abuse hysteria, is his first book.

THE TOPIC: In the late 1980s, a mother in Manhattan Beach, California, accused one of her son's daycare workers of molestation. Despite finding no sufficient evidence against the worker, police then warned the daycare children's parents of possible sexual crimes. The McMartin Preschool case soon set off a wild witch hunt in more than ten states, which led to overzealous therapists, confused children who "confessed" to sexual abuse under coercive interviewing techniques, and the growing anger of a media-hungry public who believed the terrible tales of brutality, sadism, and bloody Satanic rituals. At the end of six years the McMartin case resulted in no convictions--but dozens of copycat cases. Beck attributes our collective hysteria to several factors, including the conservative backlash against feminism, homophobia, and growing trends in mass media, psychology, and law enforcement.

PublicAffairs. 352 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9781610392877

Boston Globe ****

"In this sharp, sensitive debut he deftly examines all the forces that came together in this strange moment in our history. ... Beck argues, quite convincingly, that paranoia over day-care abuse represented both 'a powerful instrument of the decade's resurgent sexual conservatism' and 'a warning to mothers who thought they could keep their very young children safe' while working outside the home." KATE TUTTLE

Daily Beast ****

"Drawing on interviews, archival research, and court transcripts, Beck illustrates how 'therapists, social workers, and police officers unintentionally forced children to fabricate tales of brutal abuse' that spoke to American society's deepest fears and introduced the stereotype of the playground pedophile.... We Believe the Children should serve to remind us of the dangers of the 'we must believe the victim' mindset in the case of any criminal offense." LIZZIE CROCKER

Wall Street Journal ****

"We Believe the Children is not especially original; many others covered this territory in the mid-1990s, notably Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker in Satan's Silence (1995) and Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham in The Myth of Repressed Memory (1995).... [But Beck] not only tells the story of a moral panic with a fresh eye but provides context, identifying the forces that preceded it as well as those that fed it and have kept it going today." CAROL TAVRIS

Washington Post ****

"Beck makes the case that the sexual abuse trials of the 1980s yoked numerous undercurrents in American society: fear of crime; the decline of respect for traditional authority; homophobia (being gay helped send some day-care workers to prison); the conservative backlash against feminism, which had encouraged women to work outside the home (with its resultant need for day care); and the reality that the patriarchal nuclear family had not just changed, it had become 'incoherent.' ... This is quite a laundry list, but Beck does a good job of marshaling the evidence." MAURA CASEY

Guardian (UK) ***1/2

"Beck covers, at length, the 'bizarre and volatile political atmosphere' created by the cooperation of radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin with rightwing conservatives.... But Beck is careful, in person, to emphasize that he's not blaming radical feminism per se." MICHELLE DEAN

NY Times Book Review **

"The frenzy, he tells us, was a backlash by family-values conservatives to the social changes around them.... With his partisan recounting of the child abuse panic of the 1980s, Beck turns what could have been a careful history about one facet of the nation's exhausting culture wars into one more illustration of them." KAY HYMOWITZ


While others have told this horrifying tale of moral panic before, Beck, 28, perhaps has perspective and distance to tell it from a more impartial view. Sensitively and meticulously researched, the book centers on the McMartin story, with chapters on the allegations, hearings, trials, and other ensuing cases. Besides ably analyzing the social and political forces that converged to produce such mass hysteria, Beck offers interesting takes on the rise of recovered-memory therapy, the growing awareness of sexual abuse, and fake science and media exploitation. He gives short shrift to the work of investigative journalists and psychologists who eventually helped quell the panic, and notes the New York Times Book Review critic, he does his own witch hunting. But if not perfect, We Believe the Children offers an important retrospective of a modern-day witch hunt.



A timeless book to be read by all


One of the best of its genre

*** GOOD

Enjoyable, particularly for fans

of the genre


Some problems, approach with caution


Not worth your time
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Date:Nov 1, 2015
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