The McMartin postscript

One of the alleged victims in the McMartin case, the mother of all day care sexual abuse panics of the 1980s, has recanted and now says that he was never abused. Like the other “victims” in the case, Kyle Zirpolo initially insisted to the investigators that nothing happened at the preschool, and was badgered and cajoled into making up stories that grew more and more bizarre: Satanic rituals held in churches, animal sacrifice, the accused teachers flying their children on airplanes to other locations (somehow without the parents suspecting a thing). This young man was in fact a victim — not of pedophile day care workers, but of therapeutic, prosecutorial, and journalistic malfeasance.

Kudos to Debbie Nathan for breaking the story.

Kevin Drum has an excellent post about this, but he doesn’t quite cover all the bases when he names “hysteria, local newscasters, and bad child psychology” as the culprits. First of all, it wasn’t just local newscasters (will Geraldo Rivera apologize for his substantial role in taking the hysteria to the national level?). Second, let’s not forget the ideology the 1980s wave of day-care sex abuse witch-hunts: feminist panic about child sexual abuse. See this article by Alexander “even a broken clock is right twice a day” Cockburn on the feminist role in these events.

It is often forgotten that radical feminists played a key part in bringing the issue of child sexual abuse out into the open, as part of their critique of the patriarchal family. (A good recap by Rael Jean Isaac can be found here.) Obviously, raising popular consciousness about child abuse — particularly by family members and trusted authority figures, rather than the stereotypical predatory stranger lurking around the playground — was a good thing, and the feminists deserve credit for it, even if their interest was often driven by some pretty demented ideas (such as Florence Rush’s claim that our society condones sexual abuse because it’s the process by which girls are trained to acquiesce in their subordinate role). But this achievement had a very dark side: a wave of false accusations of sexual abuse, including the “recovered memory” craze and grotesque stories of ritual sexual abuse in Satanic cults. The Los Angeles County Commission on Women even formed a Task Force on Ritual Abuse.

When some voices of sanity — including feminists such as Debbie Nathan, Carol Tavris and Wendy Kaminer — began to speak up against the hysteria, some of their “sisters” did their best to silence dissent by labeling it as collusion with patriarchy. Here’s Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Judith Herman chastising the left-of-center magazine Mother Jones for having the temerity to publish a piece about false memories:

Violence against women and children is deeply imbedded in our society. It is a privilege that men do not relinquish easily. So it’s not surprising that we would see serious resistance to change. Historically, every time a subordinate group begins to make serious progress, a backlash occurs. This is what happened one hundred years ago when Freud created the myth that hysterical women fantasize about sexual abuse. It makes perfect sense that we would now see another backlash in the pages of Playboy or even the New York Times. But I have to admit that I’m surprised at Mother Jones.

Gloria Steinem was also in the forefront of pushing the “recovered memory” agenda. Among other things, she narrated the 1995 HBO documentary The Search for Deadly Memories, and as far as I know she has continued to insist that the McMartin defendants were guilty.

Some point out that the other ideological foundation of the day care sex abuse craze was right-wing hostility to day care. There probably was some of that: the alleged abuse seemed to confirm the worst fears about the children of working women being “dumped with strangers.” But I don’t recall any conservatives of Steinem’s prominence lending his or her voice to the witch-hunts, or any conservative magazine running a lurid cover story titled, “Satanic Ritual Abuse Exists — Believe It!” (That particular honor goes to Ms. magazine.)

The radical feminists who pushed the “sexual abuse is everywhere” meme were interested in vilifying conventional masculinity and depicting “patriarchal culture” as a cesspool of misogynist atrocities; but the bitter irony is that so many of the victims of the resulting hysteria were women. That includes several of the McMartin defendants, as well as Margaret Kelly Michaels, the New Jersey preschool teacher who spent five years in prison after begin convicted on lurid charges of sexual molestation.

The reversal of Michaels’s conviction in 1993 marked the beginning of the end of the 1980s sex-abuse witch-hunts. The McMartin recantation may well be the final nail in the coffin.

Someone tell Gloria and Geraldo.

Note: The excellent HBO docudrama about the McMartin trial, Indictment, first aired in 1995. The script by Abby Mann was pitched to the networks but rejected because it took the unequivocal position that the defendants were innocent, and that was just too controversial at the time. Highly recommended, with great performances by James Woods as the lead defense attorney, Henry Thomas as defendant Ray Buckey, and Lolita Davidovich as therapist Kee McFarlane.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “The McMartin postscript

  1. mythago

    feminist panic about child sexual abuse

    You know, I’m the absolute last person to take blame away from fellow feminists who damn well should have known better, but it’s curious that you missed the other contributor to the hysteria: anti-feminist paranoia about day-care centers. It’s not an accident that the imaginary Satanic cults were supposedly oozing into day-care centers, not from kindergarten classes. The 1980s were even worse than now when it comes to anxiety over daycare.

  2. Cathy Young

    Hi mythago–

    Actually I did mention it:

    Some point out that the other ideological foundation of the day care sex abuse craze was right-wing hostility to day care. There probably was some of that: the alleged abuse seemed to confirm the worst fears about the children of working women being “dumped with strangers.” But I don’t recall any conservatives of Steinem’s prominence lending his or her voice to the witch-hunts, or any conservative magazine running a lurid cover story titled, “Satanic Ritual Abuse Exists — Believe It!” (That particular honor goes to Ms. magazine.)

    I agree, the general atmosphere of day-care anxiety contributed the hysteria. However, I don’t recall any conservatives specifically pushing or even endorsing the day care witch-hunts (if there are any such examples, I’ll be happy to change my mind). Unless you count Geraldo Rivera as a conservative, and I think that would be a bit of a stretch.

  3. Dean

    From what I recall, the McMartin preschool case came at a time when feminists (and popular culture) were finding sexual abuse everywhere. (As a young man, I felt a great deal of guilt. I was afraid to have children because, they told me, most female children were sexually abused.)

    The McMartin preschool was just another ‘See! It’s everywhere!’ case until the Satanic stuff got mixed up in it, and I seem to remember that getting the right wing into a major froth, whereupon they sort of took over the preschool Satanic abuse biz.

    It isn’t like the religious right’s Satanic panic was new: there was quite a stir about ‘Michelle Remembers’ before McMartin, and much of the mythology of the SRA movement is based on Pazder’s paranoid religious beliefs.

    Anyway, that’s how I remember it. The strongly anti-male climate had everyone looking for abusers, and the paranoid religious right, who, it must be remembered, also lived in the culture, took cases like McMartin and ran with them. If you remember, the cases got more and more lurid, bigger and more Satanic.

    Feminist panic about child sexual abuse started the ball rolling. The religious right picked up the ball and ran with it. Many people got trampled along the way.

  4. colagirl

    Yeah, IIRC, once allegations of Satanic stuff started coming out (not necessarily in this case, but in general), then Christian fundies started getting involved too, and sort of picked up the ball and ran with it.

    I think it was part of the tenor of the times. IIRC, it was in the 80s when we started seeing Christian fears about Dungeons and Dragons as “Satanic” as well–here’s a to the MiST of Dark Dungeons for any Jack Chick aficionadoes.

  5. Revenant

    Speaking as someone who was a D&D player in the early eighties (and, ahem… still is), the Christian fundamentalists weren’t nearly as big a problem with the Satanism hysteria as the mainstream media (and Hollywood) was. That ridiculous 60 Minutes smear piece did more to label roleplayers as freaky suicidal demon-worshippers than all the fundamentalists in America lumped together.

    The same was true with the myth of ritual child abuse — yes, fundies pushed it, but most people don’t listen to fundamentalists. What they DO listen to is the media, and the media was grossly incompetent and irresponsible when covering the child abuse hysterical. Sheesh, a solid hour’s worth of reporting could have found countless holes in the McMartin kids’ stories. Nobody bothered doing that solid hour’s worth of reporting. It was more fun to write about abused children and reprint soundbites from self-described experts.

  6. Cathy Young

    Thanks, reader_iam. Dorothy Rabinowitz certainly deserves a great deal of credit for this — the fact that she never got a Pulitzer for her writings about the Michaels case and the Amirault case is a disgrace.

  7. ginmar

    Florence Rush’s ludicrous belief that childhood sexual abuse subdues girls? All those people who support nice white boy rapists must not exist then; nor all those studies that find that ‘boys will be boys’ remains a popular excuse.

  8. Revenant

    All those people who support nice white boy rapists must not exist then

    Not unless you’re talking about Bill Clinton supporters. 🙂

  9. mythago

    So you did, cathy–my bad.

    It’s not the first time a particular wing of feminism was stupid enough to get mixed up with the far right, I’m afraid.

  10. Anonymous

    It’s convenient having “fundies” on hand to blame for these cases, isn’t it? Couldn’t just have been simple prejudice? You know, that human tendency that can result in what we call a miscarriage of justice?
    On a related point, one doubts anxiety over daycare will disappear while parents are forced to choose between getting paid and spending the time they need with their babies.

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