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Against Innocence

March 15, 1999 |
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Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America by Philip Jenkins (Yale University Press, 302 pp., $30)

Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting by James R. Kincaid (Duke University Press, 352 pp., $24.95)

Pictures of Innocence:  The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood by Ann Higonnet (Thames and Hudson, 256 pp., $39.95)

Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America by Paula S. Fass (Oxford University Press, 324 pp., $27.50)

In August 12, 1983, a woman named Judy Johnson placed a call to the police department in Manhattan Beach, California. She had a crime to report: her two- year-old son had been sodomized at his preschool. And that was how it started. What kept it going, what made Judy Johnson's allegation virtually unkillable, even as it began to look more and more controvertible, is another story, one whose implications we have neither reckoned with nor escaped.

Johnson, as it turned out, was not the most reliable of narrators. Within two years, she had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. (This was shortly after she had engaged the police in a stand-off, menacing them with a shotgun from her front door.) Within four years, she had died of liver failure induced by alcoholism. By then her stories had lurched into Gothic grotesquerie. Her son's ordeal at the McMartin preschool, a family-run operation with a long and placid history in its prosperous community, had included, she claimed, being made to watch the sacrifice of animals and human infants, to ingest urine, blood, and feces, and to accompany his teachers on airplane flights to Palm Springs and into a labyrinth of underground tunnels where one of the accused "flew in the air" and the others "were all dressed up as witches." By then, too, Johnson had accused various elected officials, along with models whom she saw in advertisements and strangers passing in cars. The prosecutors on the case--some of them, anyway-- regarded her as an unpleasant joke. "You want to hear what Judy says happened now?" court records show one of them razzing his colleagues. And later: "Jeez, I wish Judy would just disappear and leave us alone."

Yet the chain of events that Judy Johnson's delusions set in motion seemed, and almost was, unstoppable: an avalanche, a runaway train, all the tired metaphors of inexorability come to mind. The McMartin school case eventually encompassed 354 counts, 41 witnesses, and 369 alleged victims. In an effort to locate the kiddie porn for which the McMartin toddlers had allegedly been exploited, local investigators, along with the FBI and INTERPOL, seized and reviewed thousands of blue movies and photos. In an effort to find bones, bodies, burial sites, clothing--any evidence at all of the ritual sacrifices that supposedly went along with the sexual abuse--they searched 21 residences, seven businesses, 37 cars, three motorcycles, one farm, and a national park in South Dakota where one of the defendants had once gone camping. Gloria Steinem put up money so that a team of archeologists and geologists could excavate beneath the school looking for secret tunnels. (Their existence was never established.) The police offered a $25,000 reward, no questions asked, for a single pornographic photo of a child taken at the McMartin school. (None ever materialized.)

Therapists and social workers cocooned the parents of Manhattan Beach in support groups, in which they were encouraged to vent their grief and to elicit further "secrets" from their children. The result of such ministrations was that by 1985, as Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker write in Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt(1995), "hundreds of South Bay children were naming ministers, reporters, soccer coaches, aerobics instructors, grade school teachers and babysitters as abusers.... If the charges were true, one could only conclude that over the course of a decade, one-third of the children in the South Bay had been molested, raped, and then terrorized so utterly that not one had dared to tell." Indeed, under the coaching of satanicritual-abuse experts, who picked up the smell of panic and jetted in from all over North America, some of the McMartin school parents became convinced that any number of local celebrities, including members of the Anaheim Angels baseball team, had been involved in the abuse conspiracy. Seven preschools in the area were eventually shut down. And the trial itself was to last three years--from April 1987 to July 1990-- making it the longest-running (and the most expensive) criminal proceeding in American history.

In the end, as we know, for the story has been told many times now, the McMartin case did not yield a single conviction--only a welter of mistrials, acquittals, and deadlocks. It turned up no forensic evidence to support the charges that the school had been the scene of ritualized sex abuse. Nor, for that matter, did any of the other prosecutions of alleged sex-abuse rings in American daycare centers--McMartin was the first of about several dozen cases like it in the 1980s, including the notorious Little Rascals and Wee Care prosecutions--turn up such evidence.

The defendants in these cases included a large number of women, which in a way was not surprising, since most day-care workers are women. Still, this fact was surprising--or it should have been--since women also make up a small percentage of child molesters in general (about 12 percent, according to the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect) and a minute percentage of those who molest very young children. And the sudden focus on day care was odd, too, since children are far more likely to be sexually abused by adults who are related to them than by teachers or day-care workers. Reliable studies based on reports from state agencies suggest that perhaps 2 percent of confirmed child sex-abuse cases take place in day-care or foster-care settings, and virtually all of those cases involve one perpetrator. The diabolically organized conspiracy to molest--the crime posited by the day- care prosecutions of the late '80s and early '90s--is a chimera.

And yet, even as the charges grew more and more implausible, and corresponded more and more suggestively to a toddler's notion of unspeakable transgression rather than to any known profile of adult sexual perversion--in Maplewood, New Jersey, a 26-year-old day care worker named Kelly Michaels was accused of playing "Jingle Bells" on the piano in the nude and licking peanut butter from the genitals of her young charges, and one of the McMartin children said a teacher had served her feces in chocolate sauce--the child abuse professionals held fast to their mantra: "Believe the Children."

For several years, moreover, during which innocent people, many of whom were themselves the parents of young children, were sent to prison, the press by and large went along. "The horrors may only have started with sodomy, rape, oral copulation, and fondling," Newsweek confidently reported of the McMartin allegations in April 1984, and added the following consumer tip: " The Manhattan Beach case serves as lesson for any parent: choosing a pre- school is an exacting decision--'as important as choosing a college' says Pittsburgh childcare authority Marsha Poster Rosenbloom." Time's account noted that a horse was slaughtered in front of the toddlers to intimidate them into silence, but the magazine neglected to ask how this messy procedure was accomplished without detection in a busy preschool in the middle of town, where parents and teachers came and went throughout the day. "Parents," Time chided, "were too trusting, assuming that separation anxiety was the reason their children cried when dropped off at school."

By the late '80s, then, the notion that many, many day care workers went into the field only to sate their Sadean lusts for small children, and that schools were places fraught with sexual "stranger danger," and that childish innocence was under unprecedented assault from the forces of evil, had sufficient credibility to darken the nightmares of mothers and fathers across the country.

The question, of course, is why--and the answer is not merely of historical interest. For while it is true that we have come to the end of this particular cycle of prosecutions, we are still in the grip of the same debilitating belief that kept those prosecutions alive. We seem to think that we can protect children from sexual depredation chiefly by imagining them as chaste and empty vessels--as though only if they were such figments of our frightened imagination would the moral horror of their violation be great enough to call up society's resources on their behalf. The innocence of young children--which is to say, the sexlessness of young children--is a newly reclaimed article of faith for many child-abuse professionals, who contend that overt sexual curiosity in children is often a sign of pathology or abuse. (To adopt this point of view, they have had to beat back the ghost of Freud, but that hasn't been so hard of late.) The de-eroticization of childhood is also a talismanic notion for many of the rest of us, who want to believe that prelapsarian virtue may still be found somewhere, clean and gossamer-white. Our children seem to provide a foundation for our belief in the possibility of pure and perfect innocence, and what else can?

But this interpretation of childhood teaches more about American adults than American children. Can we really not protect our children as they are? For children need not be sexless in order to trigger our solicitude and our censorship of certain aspects of adult life. They need only be what they are: smaller than us, newer to the world, more easily frightened, not yet capable of certain kinds of cognition and will, and so on. There is such a thing as infantile sexuality, even if sex is for grown-ups. And the sentimental tenet that the value of our children lies in what they are not--corrupted, sexual, us--entails some unkindness and some injustice to them. Molestation is not the only terrible fate that can befall a child, though to read much recent fiction, or a large sub-genre of self-help books, you might think otherwise.

The re-Victorianized hypervigilance about "good" touch and "bad" touch that makes many teachers--even preschool teachers--wary about holding or hugging small children is one sad and practical consequence of such attitudes. So much can be read into a gesture now, so much assumed about its motivations and its capacity for contamination. "We advise our members not to touch the children, especially as the children grow older," the spokeswoman for a New Jersey teacher's union told The New York Times last year. "We have to be careful because there have been so many false accusations against teachers."

Similar policies at many day-care centers now prohibit workers from changing a baby's diaper without another adult present and discourage them from holding toddlers in their laps. Joseph Tobin, who teaches early childhood education at the University of Hawaii, has written thoughtfully about the kinds of fears and precautions that he encounters among students who are preparing to be preschool teachers now. In one classroom discussion, about an exuberant four-year-old girl who liked to kiss little boys, half of Tobin's students thought that such behavior "should alert us to the possibility of sexual abuse." Tobin was disturbed that what seemed to him normal behavior should automatically trigger such alarm.

I asked myself ... Why would something as ordinary and innocent (at least to me) as a preschool kissing game strike so many of my students as dangerous? In the weeks that followed students described other situations they found problematic: children playing doctor; a field trip to a dairy farm; a male teacher holding a little girl on his lap.... Children's sexuality, sexual play, sexual knowledge, adults touching and being touched by children-- these struck my students as dangerous and threatening to children, their caretakers, or both.

For their part, some parents, too, seem to take an unseemly pride in policing the sensual pleasures--for both parties--of caring for young children. As one father recently boasted on an Internet chat group, "I remember being scrupulous to avoid any inappropriate stimulation of my infants while making sure they were clean."

Our preoccupation with people who actually do assault children has made us wary of people who never would assault them. These days we are all suspects. Of course, most of us are not drooling in carnal thralldom to the very young. Most of us are perfectly able to draw the line between an awareness of the erotic strand in the relationship between parents and children and the callous exploitation of it. So we have become suspects not so much by acting differently with our children as by acting the same, while all around us, and especially in the helping professions, the definitions of suspicious behavior change.

A child psychologist named Toni Cavanagh Johnson recently conducted a survey of 369 mental-health professionals in which she asked various questions about what sorts of family intimacy are "appropriate" and " inappropriate." When she asked, "What ages are suited to children and parents being nude around each other?" 55 percent answered "No age," suggesting a conviction that even infants ought to be decently attired at all times. Almost 40 percent thought parents should never take baths with their children, no matter how young those children are. To label as puritanical the sort of domestic routine that this "scrupulousness" would entail is almost beside the point. What really astonishes is the stringency of the ideal, the almost utopian impracticality of it. How is a mother home alone with her baby supposed to shower or dress? Should she leave him unsupervised in the other room lest he catch a glimpse of her defiling nakedness?

When it comes to sex play between children, the attitudes of many childabuse professionals these days can be even more censorious. They might be thought of as pre-Freudian, so shocked are they by evidence of erotic curiosity and desire in children, except that they are so often self- consciously post-Freudian: that is, prone to indignant dismissals of the whole notion of infantile sexuality and brimming with conviction that little kids who play doctor, as the euphemism has it, could only have caught the idea from a nasty grown-up. These attitudes have spawned a new and intrusive monitoring of so-called "sexually reactive" or "sexualized" children--which in its worst guise can mean forcing kids who have engaged in consensual exploration with siblings or friends to register as sex offenders or enroll in behavioral therapy programs.

There are now several hundred such programs treating "molesters" younger than twelve, according to Judith Levine, a journalist who has reported extensively on them. Levine has written about a twelve-year-old boy in New Jersey obliged to register as a sexual offender after he groped his eight- year-old brother in the bath and about a nine-year-old boy in San Diego who was placed in foster care for two years after he admitted touching his younger sister's "vaginal and anal areas" and "placing a pencil in her buttocks." His sister, too, was removed from their mother's home for two years.

Of course, the sex-abuse panics of the 1980s also gave rise to a backlash. Organizations such as the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and researchers such as Richard Ofshe and Elizabeth Loftus tried to refute the theory that horrifying memories of child abuse could be suddenly "recovered" intact, hauled gleaming to the surface in the obliging net of total recall. Journalistic skepticism kicked in at last, and helped produce books such as Satan's Silence and Lawrence Wechsler's Remembering Satan, along with an extraordinary three-part documentary on the Little Rascals case made by an Israeli journalist named Ofra Bikel. Wildly inflated statistics that had been reported in the mid-'80s as fact--such as the claims that twenty to fifty thousand children are abducted in the United States each year and never seen again, or that kiddie porn comprises a $5 billion industry in the United States, or that 40 percent of American girls were sexually abused as children- -were by the mid-'90s getting the critical scrutiny that they deserved.

Yet the backlash has done damage, too. It has given aid and comfort and ammunition to some of the more brutish opponents of the entire therapeutic profession, and to Freud-bashers in particular. (That this always involved a profound misreading of psychoanalysis-- it was Freud, after all, who introduced the notion that many memories of childhood "seduction" were fantasies, not literal transcriptions of reality--has not stopped Frederick Crews and others for whom the excesses of the recovered memory movement have been a godsend.) It may also have stirred up undue skepticism about real cases of sexual abuse. Backlashes are like that. They sweep up everything that came before them, the sensible along with the bizarre; and they cannot really liberate us from the logic of the previous regime because they are still arguing within its terms.

There were proximate causes, it is true, for the great Satanic day-care scare of the '80s. Chief among them were the interviewing techniques of some of the child-abuse professionals called in on these cases. It was not merely that they routinely asked leading questions: "Can you remember the naked pictures?" one of the McMartin interviewers prompts a child, though neither picture-taking nor nudity has been mentioned in the interview. It was not merely that they asked these questions over and over again, and with little apparent willingness to accept "no" or "I don't remember" as an answer. It was not just that, with brightly colored puppets and anatomically detailed dolls and wheedling hypotheticals, they encouraged imaginative speculation about events rather than the free recall of them. ("Let's pretend and see what might have happened.")

No, they were even more egregious. They overtly rewarded those who " disclosed" with hugs and lavish praise, and they bullied those who did not, telling them that all the other "smart" kids had owned up to the "yucky secrets" at McMartin. Even now, reading excerpts from those interviews can make you suffer for the children all over again. "Are you going to be stupid, or are you going to be smart and help us here?" the interviewer demands of an eight-year-old boy, who has just denied having ever seen anyone play "Naked Movie Star" at the McMartin school. After a few more vain attempts to winkle out an allegation, the interviewer turns to the puppet who is supposed to be the boy's stand-in and says: "Well, what good are you? You must be dumb." When a child twice says he has no memory of the "naked pictures," his interrogator instructs him to "think about that for a while, okay? Your memory might come back to you." Salacious details are often supplied by the questioner him- or herself, as in the following exchange about the elderly director of the school:

Interviewer: Who do you think played that game horsey ? 

Child: Ray and Miss Peggy.

Interviewer: Ray and Miss Peggy? Did Miss Peggy take her clothes off?

Child: Yeah.

Interviewer: I bet she looked funny, didn't she? Did she have big boobs?

Child: Yeah.

Interviewer: Yeah. And did they swing around?

Child: Yeah.

In many of the other day-care abuse cases across the country, too, transcripts show social workers and police investigators cajoling and browbeating children who said they were not molested, bribing them with promises that they can go home to mommy and daddy or get their teacher out of prison if only they will tell. Sometimes the emotional rewards offered to those who do "disclose" give off their own unsavory odor. "Do you want to sit on my lap? Come here, I'm so proud of you," says one social worker in the Kelly Michaels case. "I love big girls like you that tell me what happened-- that aren't afraid because I'm here to protect you.... You got such pretty eyes.... I'm jealous. I'm too old for you."

For the most part, these interviewers were not merely nasty or inept. Many of them were deeply and sincerely committed to their mission of child protection. Unfortunately, that mission often required them to accept the doctrine then in vogue that a denial of abuse may be the best indicator that abuse has occurred. By that logic, believing the child could mean believing what a child did not say, what, in fact--out of fear or shame, the thinking went--he might insistently and repeatedly refute. Consider the following exchange between two adult investigators on the Kelly Michaels case and a four-year-old boy:

Interviewer: Did she put a fork in your butt? Yes or no?

Child: I don't know, I forgot.

Interviewer: ... Oh come on, if you just answer that one, you can go.

Child: I hate you.

Interviewer: No you don't.

Child: Yes I do.

Interviewer: You love me I can tell. Is that all she did to you, what did she do to your hiney?

Interviewer #2: What did she do to your hiney? Then you can go.

Child: I forgot.

Interviewer #2: Tell me what Kelly did to your hiney and then you can go. If you tell me what she did to your hiney, we'll let you go.

Child: No.

Interviewer: Please.

Child: Okay, okay, okay

Interviewer: Tell me now ... what did Kelly do to your hiney?

Child: I'll try to remember.

Interviewer: What did she put in your hiney?

Child: The fork.

In other exchanges, the interviewers seem scarcely to listen, so wedded are they to their own version of what must have happened. Consider this tone-deaf back-and-forth between a social worker and a child, again in the Michaels case:

Child: Wasn't hurting me. I like her.

Interviewer: I can't hear you, you got to look at me when you talk to me. Now when Kelly was bothering kids in the music room....

Child: I got socks off.

Interviewer: Did she make anybody else takes their clothes off in the music room?

Child: No.

Interviewer: Yes.

Child: No.

You don't have to believe that young children make inherently unreliable witnesses, or even that they are significantly more suggestible than adults, to conclude that this sort of grilling--especially when it takes place in an atmosphere of rising panic, replicated at home by parents who can't seem to stop themselves from believing the worst--is likely to elicit some falsehoods.

Recently, a group of psychologists led by Sena Garven at the University of Texas in El Paso devised an experiment in which they tried to recreate the McMartin interviewing techniques, based on their reading of the interview transcripts. Sixty-six children between the ages of three and six received a visit at their preschool from a jolly graduate student who introduced himself as Manny Morales. He read them a story, placed a sticker on each child's hand, and gave each a cupcake. A week later, 36 of the children were questioned about this incident by interviewers who used the full arsenal of McMartin techniques. The other 30 were asked merely "suggestive" questions. Of the kids in the first group, 58 percent made false allegations against Manny-- saying, for instance, that he stole, threw a crayon, bumped a teacher, or told the child a secret that she wasn't supposed to reveal to anyone else. By contrast, just 17 percent of those who were asked merely suggestive questions, with no social incentives to fabricate, did so.

In the end, though, proximate causes only get you so far. Bigger explanations are demanded. The interviewers in the day-care cases may have been overzealous, and the stressed-out parents may have been easily spooked, but what primed the rest of us to believe these stories? Surely there were larger reasons for an entire culture's preoccupation with child sex abuse; and these are precisely what two astringent and important books--Moral Panic by Philip Jenkins and Erotic Innocence by James R. Kincaid--seek to provide.

Jenkins and Kincaid are less interested in addressing the objective threat of child molesting than in asking why at particular historical moments--and with no solid evidence that it is on the rise--it can seem so much more omnipresent and alarming than at others. "Prominent among what are accepted as self-evident facts in contemporary America," writes Jenkins, "is the belief that children face a grave danger in the form of sexual abuse and molestation. This menace has certain well-known, stereotypical characteristics. Sexual abuse is pervasive, a problem of vast scope; molesters or abusers are compulsive individuals who commit their crimes frequently and whose pathologies resist rehabilitation or cure. Sexually deviant behavior often escalates to violence or murder. Sexual relations with adults invariably cause lasting damage to the children involved; a battery of psychological explanations exists to account for any failure by the victim to perceive harm from the abuse or to recognize its severity." Yet none of these were accepted social facts a quarter of a century ago. And their promotion to that status now is not necessarily a sign that the truth has finally triumphed, that these beliefs are correct whereas the previous beliefs were incorrect.

Why, these books ask, does sexual molestation often dominate our discussions of child abuse--and our talk shows, our TV movies of the week, our custody battles, our middle-of-the-night anxieties--when physical abuse and neglect are far more common and far more likely to kill a child? In a 1997 survey of substantiated child abuse cases in 31 states, for example, the largest number of cases--54 percent--were instances of neglect. 22 percent were cases of physical abuse, and 8 percent were of sexual abuse. (The rest were considered cases of either emotional maltreatment or "other.") In 1996, a federal government survey (based mostly on data from the National Incident Study on Child Abuse and Neglect) put the percentage of sex abuse at 12 percent of the approximately one million substantiated or strongly suspected cases of child abuse and neglect nationwide.

For Kincaid, these sorts of observations warrant a much more audacious attack on the ways in which "our culture has enthusiastically sexualized the child while denying just as enthusiastically that it is doing any such thing." He has produced an impassioned argument that, in construing children as "the species incapable of practicing or inciting sex," we inevitably eroticize them, for "defining something entirely as a negation brings irresistibly before us that which we are trying to banish." The result is the oily fear th

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