When you once believed something that now strikes you
as absurd, even unhinged, it can be almost impossible to summon
that feeling of credulity again. Maybe that is why it is easier
for most of us to forget, rather than to try and explain, the
Satanic-abuse scare that gripped this country in the early 80's
-- the myth that Devil-worshipers had set up shop in our day-care
centers, where their clever adepts were raping and sodomizing
children, practicing ritual sacrifice, shedding their clothes,
drinking blood and eating feces, all unnoticed by parents, neighbors
and the authorities.
Of course, if you were one of the dozens of people prosecuted
in these cases, one of those who spent years in jails and prisons
on wildly implausible charges, one of those separated from your
own children, forgetting would not be an option. You would spend
the rest of your life wondering what hit you, what cleaved your
life into the before and the after, the daylight and the nightmare.
And this would be your constant preoccupation even if you were
eventually exonerated -- perhaps especially then. For if most
people no longer believed in your diabolical guilt, why had they
once believed in it, and so fervently?
Peggy McMartin Buckey, who died on Dec. 15, at 74, was surely
still wondering. She was the paradigmatic victim of ritual-child-abuse
hysteria: a middle-aged woman who worked in a day-care center
run by her family and who had, until the day she was indicted,
led an uneventful and unobtrusive life.
Buckey's ordeal began in 1983, when the mother of a 2 1/2-year-old
who attended the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif.,
called the police to report that her son had been sodomized there.
It didn't matter that the woman was eventually found to be a paranoid
schizophrenic, and that the accusations she made -- of teachers
who took children on airplane rides to Palm Springs and lured
them into a labyrinth of underground tunnels where the accused
"flew in the air" and others were "all dressed up as witches"
-- defied logic. Satanic-abuse experts, therapists and social
workers soon descended on the school and, with a barrage of suggestive,
not to say coercive, questioning techniques (lavishly praising
children who "disclosed," telling those who denied the abuse that
they were "dumb," introducing salacious possibilities that children
had never mentioned), produced increasingly elaborate and grotesque
testimonials from young children at the school.
"Believe the children" was the sanctified slogan of the
moment -- but what it came to mean, all too often, was believe
them unless they say they were not abused. It didn't matter that
no trace of the secret tunnels was ever found, that no physical
evidence corroborated the charges (a black robe seized by the
police as a Satanic get-up turned out to be Peggy's graduation
gown), that none of the kiddie porn the abusers were supposedly
manufacturing ever turned up, despite an extensive investigation
by the F.B.I. and Interpol, that no parents who stopped by during
the day had ever noticed, say, the killing of a horse. It didn't
matter that most child abuse -- which after all does exist in
real and horrifying form -- takes place not in day-care centers
but in the home, indeed within the family. The prosecution charged
forward nonetheless, with a seven-year trial that became the longest
and, at a cost of $15 million, the most expensive criminal trial
in American history. It resulted in not a single conviction, though
seven people were charged in the McMartin case, on a total of
135 counts -- just a series of deadlocks, acquittals and mistrials.
Buckey served two years in jail, and her son, Raymond, served
five. They spent their life's savings on lawyers' fees and in
the end went "through hell" and "lost everything," as she put
it after her 1990 acquittal.
Yet even now, the legacy of McMartin and other cases like
it (Wee Care in Maplewood, N.J.; Little Rascals in Edenton, N.C.;
Fells Acres in Malden, Mass.) is with us. It's with us -- this
is the sad part -- in policies that discourage day-care workers
and teachers from hugging children or from changing diapers without
a witness, lest they be accused of something untoward. It is also
with us -- this is the good part -- in improved methods of questioning
Over the last few years, it has become commonplace to describe
the ritual-abuse trials as witch hunts, and surely that's as good
a metaphor as any. Yet in one important way, it isn't quite right.
In the prototypical witch hunts in Europe and in the Massachusetts
colony, the accused were often scapegoats for some calamity --
disease, bad harvests, the birth of a deformed child. In the witch
hunts of the 80's, there was no such injury to be avenged or repaired.
There was, however, a psychological need to be fulfilled. Our
willingness to believe in ritual abuse was grounded in anxiety
about putting children in day care at a time when mothers were
entering the work force in unprecedented numbers. It was as though
there were some dark, self-defeating relief in trading niggling
everyday doubts about our children's care for our absolute worst
fears -- for a story with monsters, not just human beings who
didn't always treat our kids exactly as we would like; for a fate
so horrific and bizarre that no parent, no matter how vigilant,
could have ever prevented it.
By now, the screaming meemies about day care have settled
into a chronic low-level ambivalence -- children get more colds
when they're in day care, but then again, they don't get asthma
as much; they may be slightly less attached to their mothers,
but they may also be more sociable; and so on -- a constant, uneasy
seesawing of emotion that we mostly keep at bay. But ambivalence
is a difficult state of mind to sustain; the temptation to replace
it with a more Manichaean vision is always close at hand.
Copyright 2001, The New York Times Magazine