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Who Do You Trust?: Revisiting the McMartin Preschool Case

November/December 2015


Review of We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s and The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children


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

By Richard Beck

Public Affairs. 323 pages.

9781610392877


The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children

By Ross Cheit

Oxford University Press. 544 pages.

9780199931224

The McMartin Preschool child sexual abuse case, a story that generated more controversy within the mental health field than any news story in the past 40 years, began in 1983 when a mother reported to the police that her two-and-a-half-year-old son had been sodomized by a male teacher at the school. The police took the charge very seriously. They identified a suspect and sent a letter en masse to the 200-some families whose children attended the school. In a tone all the more alarming for its matter-of-factness, the letter (from the local police chief in Manhattan Beach, CA) asked parents to question their preschoolers about any acts of “oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttock or chest area, and sodomy” they had witnessed or been subjected to. “Please keep this investigation strictly confidential,” the letter went on to state. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine a more incendiary…

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