One of the most disturbing books I’ve read in a long time is Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. Beck recounts the history of a time when a great many Americans became convinced that day-care workers around the country were regularly abusing and raping children and forcing them to participate in Satanic rituals. Over a period of several years, the nightly news brought forth further horrific stories, and those stories grew more and more extreme:

In North Carolina, children said that their teachers had thrown them out of a boat into a school of sharks. In Los Angeles, children said that one of their teachers had forced them to watch as he hacked a horse to pieces with a machete. In New Jersey, children said their teacher had raped them with knives, forks, and wooden spoons, and a child in Miami told investigators about homemade pills their caretakers had forced them to eat. The pills, the child said, looked like candy corn, and they made all of the children sleepy.

Many day-care workers were brought to trial, and some were convicted, even though “No pornography, no blood, no semen, no weapons, no mutilated corpses, no sharks, and no satanic altars or robes were ever found.” One trial, that of the owners of the McMartin preschool in California, became the longest and most expensive trial in American history, and ended with no convictions — because there was no evidence that the charges were true.

Prosecutors, parents, and therapists dealt with this problem by repeating what became a common refrain. Set aside the lack of corroborating evidence, they said, and consider this basic fact: children all over the country were fighting through fear and shame to come forward and say they had been abused — how could a decent society ignore these stories? Therapists pointed to their own profession’s long and inglorious history of ignoring children who tried speak out about abuse, and they said this was a mistake the country could not afford to repeat. “All children who are sexually abused anywhere,” one abuse expert said at the National Symposium on Child Molestation in 1984, “need to have their credibility recognized and to have advocates working for them. Among the things that is most damaging is the sense of being alone and having no one to talk to.”

Thus the book’s title: We Believe the Children.

We don’t hear many claims these days that day-care workers, or anyone else, are forcing children to participate in Satanic rituals. But reading Beck’s narrative, I couldn’t help reflecting on the ways in which certain structures of presumption that drove that “moral panic” thirty years ago are still in place and still having massive social effects — just in somewhat different contexts. There’s a standard sequential logic practiced primarily by therapists and counselors but widely adopted by observers. It goes like this:

1) Identify classes of people who have historically been neglected, marginalized, thought to be less competent than the dominant figures in society — classes of people whose pain has been ignored or denied.

2) Take great care to listen to them for stories of trauma, abuse, or pressure to conform to dominant social practices and expectations.

3) Believing that people who have suffered in these ways may be reluctant to talk about their pain, or have repressed knowledge of what happened to them or who they really are, suggest to them the narrative of their lives that you think likely.

4) If they are reluctant to accept this narrative, that may well be a sign of repression — the greater the reluctance, the deeper the repression — so press them harder to accept the narrative you believe to be true. (Beck, in a discussion of the debate over repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, quotes something Roseanne Barr said to Oprah: “When someone asks you, ‘Were you sexually abused as a child?’ there are only two answers. One of them is, ‘Yes,’ and one of them is, ‘I don’t know.’ You can’t say, ‘No.’”)

5) Having established to your own satisfaction, and perhaps to that of the counseled people, the disturbing truth, consistently describe them as “victims” and “survivors.”

6) Insist that those who doubt this narrative are complicit in the suffering of the innocent.

7) Recruit the family members of the victims/survivors to support the narrative.

8) If the family members of the victims/survivors question the narrative, accuse them of not just complicity but of having actively contributed to suffering.

9) If any health-care professionals doubt the narrative, condemn them as upholders of oppressive structures and, if they do not give in, try to destroy their careers. (When a high-level FBI investigator named Kenneth Lanning said that he could find no evidence of day-care workers engaged in Satanic rituals, many counselors and therapists accused him of being himself a Satanist.)

10) No matter what happens, even if those you counsel ultimately reject the narrative you pressed upon them, never apologize or admit error. You were, after all, acting in the interests of the insulted and the injured, the marginalized and the oppressed. Beck was unable to find a single apology from therapists who coerced children into telling false stories that seriously damaged, and in some cases effectively destroyed, many lives.

It’s important to note that Beck is anything but a conservative. He attributes much of the panic to a deep residual antifeminism in American life, an interpretation that Kay Hymowitz strongly challenged in her review of his book. Hymowitz rightly points out that many American feminists eagerly participated in child-abuse panic, and indeed Beck should have acknowledged that, but I do not find his explanations as implausible as Hymowitz does. His claim that the hysteria arose from a situation in which “the nuclear family was dying,” and, though there was (and is) much hand-wringing about this fact, “people mostly did not want to save it” seems exactly right to me.

Anyway, given his politics Beck might not agree with my argument here: that the precise logic I have outlined above is at work today in two prominent venues, sexual assault cases on college campuses and the increasingly widespread diagnoses of gender dysphoria among young people. Just as child abuse is real and tragic — and often in the past was diminished or ignored — so too with sexual assault and profound gender dysphoria. But as Beck’s narrative shows, attempts to correct past neglect can go wildly, destructively awry; and the “structures of presumption” I have laid out above make it virtually impossible to have a reasonable discussion of how to assess claims that have immense consequences for human lives.

And if we cannot have such a reasonable discussion, we will almost certainly end up, sooner or later, with another massively damaging crisis like the one Beck describes. How that crisis will develop I can’t predict, but I’m sure of two things: first, that when it happens no one will acknowledge their responsibility for it; and second, that when it’s over we will contrive to forget it, just as completely as we have forgotten how readily millions of Americans believed all those accusations of ritual Satanism.


  1. Four mostly unrelated thoughts:

    1) Looking at your sequential logic there, it is remarkable how quickly the stories of the powerless get co-opted into prepackaged narratives—step 3! The jump from 2 to 3 seems like where the trouble begins in earnest, but, of course, one may already be listening with selective hearing, and indeed even identifying marginalized groups with a subconscious agenda (for example, I may feel the most sympathetic toward groups I am sure I had no role in oppressing).

    2) In a slightly different context, I think it’s this type of logic that disturbs me most about modern psychiatry and the DSM-V. The DSM is an almost alchemical technology that would transmute real suffering into a mere condition that can be treated.

    3) Even though steps 1 and 2 seem like positive, necessary things (and they are!), they also lay the ground for a subtle kind of victim-blaming when the narrative is proven wrong (like the Satanic abuse panic): if “we believe the children,” the oppressed, well, we are not to be blamed for believing them, how could we have done otherwise? They should not have misled us. With children the blame dissipates into talk of ‘overactive imaginations’ or whatever, but with false claims of rape…

    4) It is instructive to consider the Central Park Jogger case and realize that this whole sequence of logic is capable of occurring without any input from the victim at all.

  2. Spooky, weird, disturbing, and more. I won’t be reading the book. A couple thoughts to add. Creating a formal methodology or sequence for responsive action is just the thing that bureaucracies do. Then the script is followed without even being aware. As you point out with campus sexual assault and gender dysphoria, the same methodology is applied to new categories of victims that are way overrepresented, inviting everyone to consider him- or herself as a victim on some level. Well, life is often harsh, and we’re all victimized continuously in different ways. Amplifying certain fringe categories as representative of all of us must now also be considered part of the script. Just today, a questionnaire asked not for my gender but for my gender identification. Gender dysphoria has entered the popular lingo.

    The human mind is a belief engine, and getting people to believe things patently or obviously untrue is awfully simple. The Santa Claus fairy tale (and Easter Bunny, Jack Frost, Tooth Fairy, Boogeyman, etc.) is instructive, but it goes a lot farther. I won’t gore anyone’s ox by accusations of other irrational mainstream beliefs, but we’re trained from childhood to accept some woolly tales as fact. All that is before we even get to science and its demonstrations. That the three issues mentioned all revolve around sexuality and involve those who often have not yet achieved a stable, adult orientation is significant. We're pressing on taboos. I’m not sure students are being helped by professionals and administrators to do more to accommodate and foster disorientation than resolve it.

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