The Return Of Moral Panic

The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology and the Sexual Abuse of Children, by Ross E. Cheit, Oxford University Press, 508 pages, $49.95




Twenty years ago, the elderly owner of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California; her daughter, grandson, and granddaughter, who worked at the day care center; and three female teachers were charged with unspeakable crimes against children. The allegations, which included not just sadistic sexual abuse and the production of child pornography but Satanic rituals, became fodder for newspaper headlines and breathless TV reports. After a three-year trial that remains the longest and costliest in United States history, the case ended in 1990 without a single conviction.

By then, the panic about pedophile rings and devil-worshiping cultists lurking in child care centers had already spread nationwide, with dozens of new stories springing up from coast to coast. In one of the most sensational cases, 24-year-old Margaret Kelly Michaels, who had worked at Wee Care Nursery in Maplewood, New Jersey, was convicted in 1988 on 115 counts of molesting 20 children ages three to five.


Five years later, Michaels's conviction was overturned after appellate courts found that the children's testimony was hopelessly tainted by suggestive and coercive questioning. This ruling, the Brown University political scientist Ross Cheit writes in his new book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative, marked "a turning point" in the backlash against a perceived hysteria around child sexual abuse—"a major shift in the press, academia, and the courts." Under the new view, the day care child abuse cases of the 1980s were irrational witch hunts that swept up the innocent and victimized the very children they were purporting to protect. By the time the movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial aired on HBO in 1995 to near-universal acclaim, this perspective had gone fully mainstream.

Cheit sets out to provide a counter-backlash. While he admits that there was some "overreaction" and injustice to innocent people—including "five, possibly six, of the seven defendants" in the McMartin case—he argues that the "Satanic panic" hysteria is a myth rooted in exaggeration and distortion. His argument is twofold: first, that the number of cases involving outlandish claims of large-scale molestation with ritual-abuse aspect is too small to sustain the notion of a national witch hunt; second, that many of the defendants, including Michaels, were almost certainly guilty.

Is Cheit's revisionism convincing? Much of his analysis, especially of the McMartin and Michaels cases—which take up more than a third of the book—relies on materials to which the reader does not have ready access, such as trial transcripts, investigation records, and author interviews. Thus, whether the book succeeds in making a dent in the witch-hunt narrative depends, to put it bluntly, on whether we can trust Cheit to give a fair and accurate account of this material. A close look reveals enough evasions, highly tendentious interpretations, and verifiable inaccuracies to conclude that we cannot.

Take the McMartin case. In Cheit's view, the only male defendant, Raymond Buckey, really was a child molester, and his actions may have been abetted by his grandmother, McMartin Preschool owner Virginia McMartin. As proof, he points to allegedly strong medical evidence of abuse in several children, as well as what could be considered unusual sexual behavior by Buckey.

Regarding the former, Cheit himself acknowledges that "changes in medical knowledge that occurred between 1984 and the late 1980s" cast doubt on much of the expert testimony for the prosecution: It is now known that anal and genital inflammations and lacerations in young children, once believed to be clear signs of sexual abuse, also occur frequently in kids who were not abused. But he asserts that for several children, including three-year-old Matthew Johnson—whose mother, Judy Johnson, was the first parent to raise the alarm about alleged sexual abuse at the McMartin Preschool—examinations yielded "evidence that seems significant even with the benefit of advancements in medical knowledge" (emphasis added). At times, Cheit admits that this evidence is inconclusive and hopelessly compromised by overdiagnosis.

As for Raymond Buckey's suspicious behavior, it boils down to testimony that he often walked around preschool grounds wearing loose shorts and no underwear, resulting in occasional accidental exposure; that he was once seen reading Playboy "with kids on his lap"; and that neighbors sometimes saw him masturbating in his bedroom without turning the lights off or pulling the window shades down. (While Cheit writes that "several neighbors" mentioned this to the police, the notes cite a statement from just one couple.) All this may be inappropriate, but it is hardly enough to indicate that someone is a child molester.

Cheit severely undercuts his own credibility when he sets out to rebut the claim that "the McMartin case was started by the delusions of a crazy woman"—Judy Johnson, who died of alcohol poisoning in December 1986. Cheit concedes that by the summer of that year, Johnson was clearly unstable and paranoid. (He leaves out the fact that she was hospitalized for a psychotic episode much earlier, in March 1985.) But he argues that it was probably the McMartin case that brought on her mental instability, not the other way round. Says Cheit, "What is taken as an article of faith—that Judy Johnson was delusional from day one—is flatly contradicted by all of the available evidence."

As proof, Cheit invokes Glenn Stevens, the prosecutor who left the district attorney's office in January 1986 due to doubts about the McMartin case and gave extensive recorded interviews to screenwriters Abby and Myra Mann (the husband-and-wife team that went on to co-write Indictment) shortly thereafter. According to Cheit, Stevens told the Manns that Johnson had no mental health issues when she first reported her son's alleged abuse in August 1983 and was a "great" witness at the preliminary hearing in July 1984.

Yet in 1990, Stevens told the New York Times that "Judy Johnson was psychotic before she filed the first police report." And Cheit's insistence that "there is no evidence...that Johnson was mentally unstable" in August 1983 elides the fact that over the next several months, her allegations grew increasingly bizarre. By December, she was talking about children being taken to a car wash and a ranch to be molested. In February 1984, according to a deputy D.A.'s notes, her reports featured Satanic rituals in a church involving a goat, a lion, and the sacrifice of an infant whose blood her son was forced to drink; her son's ears, nipples, and tongue being stapled; and the claim that at some of the church orgies, Raymond Buckey "flew through the air."

In the Wee Care case, Cheit seeks to rebut the belief that the grotesque accusations against Kelly Michaels—who was said to have penetrated children with plastic utensils and made them perform oral sex, drink her urine, and eat her feces—were the product of an overzealous investigation in which kids were coaxed and badgered into disclosing abuse. (The panic was initially triggered by a little boy's comment, while having his temperature taken rectally by a nurse, that his teacher did this to him at school. Though he clarified that "her takes my temperature," his comment was taken as a reference to being sodomized.) While conceding that there were highly improper interrogations, Cheit argues that none of them involved children who actually testified at trial—and that a number of children did, in fact, make extremely damaging spontaneous disclosures and exhibit shocking sexualized behavior.

This contradicts the conclusions of the New Jersey State Superior Court, which clearly stated in its opinion overturning Michaels's conviction that all the children were exposed to improper influence—from investigators, parents, or classmates. According to the ruling, "The record of available interviews does not disclose that any of the children related their testimony of the alleged abuse by 'free recall.'" Cheit relies on parents' accounts of incriminating child statements and disturbing symptoms of abuse, but we only have his word that these accounts were not tainted by their context as well.

Yet Cheit's bias is evident throughout his counter-narrative. He is intent on reading something sinister into the fact that Michaels left her job at Wee Care shortly before the investigation began and into a teacher's testimony that Michaels once mentioned she wasn't wearing underwear. He mentions a psychologist's evaluation of Michaels as "sexually confused" without revealing that this determination was based largely on her possible homosexuality (Michaels had had some sexual experiences with women in college) as well as uncorroborated speculation about incest in her family. He omits the fact that, as Debbie Nathan reported in The Village Voice in 1988, a second expert who evaluated Michaels found "absolutely nothing" to suggest sexual pathology.

In a particularly deplorable innuendo, Cheit asserts that Michaels "wrote a 'poem' in her preschool roll book that contained arguably lurid lines" and that she was oddly evasive when asked about it. In the endnotes, he quotes only bits and pieces ("the smell of your flesh," "your body will leave me") on the grounds that the full text may be "copyright-protected by Kelly Michaels." He also says that this "strange" poem is quoted in Lisa Manshel's 1989 book Naptime, a pro-prosecution account of the Michaels case.

Intrigued, I ordered a copy of Naptime. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Are you

going about this

the wrong way?

Source :

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