We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s
By Richard Beck
Public Affairs. 323 pages.
The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children
By Ross Cheit
Oxford University Press. 544 pages.
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…