A Moral Panic in the 1980s
Email this review


An attempt to explain the hysteria that surrounded the child sex abuse cases that swept the United States in the 1980s.

Beck, associate editor of n+1, argues that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s triggered a backlash from conservatives in the ’80s, which caused widespread panic about child abuse in the preschools. The McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California, one of the longest and most expensive in American history, takes center stage, with individual chapters on allegations, the preliminary hearing, the trial, and the verdict. The author also cites another California case and ones in Michigan, Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts. Through interviews and archival research, Beck shows how therapists and detectives (the line between them is blurry) induced youngsters to tell wild, even fantastic, tales of sexual abuse, sometimes involving bloody Satanic rituals, by their caretakers. The title comes from posters carried by parents in Manhattan Beach incensed that their children’s incredible stories, not backed by actual evidence, aroused skepticism in some quarters. Beck also shows the role of the media and of overeager prosecutors and mental health professionals in creating a situation that destroyed the lives of innocent people, many of whom spent years in jail. Comparisons with the Salem witch trials are inevitable, but the author points out a difference: the victims of that one later received apologies. Beck sees the day care trials as a warning from conservatives to career-minded mothers who chose to pursue lives outside the home and entrust their children to others. He looks to the source of the hysteria in people’s fears about the social changes taking place in American society. Unfortunately, the author devotes much more of his text to a rehash of the McMartin case and less to exploring theory about the causes of the hysteria surrounding child sexual abuse.

An intriguing but uneven treatment of a subject that has not received much attention in years.

Pub Date: Aug. 4th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-61039-287-7
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2015


NonfictionMAXED OUT by Katrina Alcorn
by Katrina Alcorn
NonfictionALL THE RAGE by Martin Moran
by Martin Moran
NonfictionGREAT IS THE TRUTH by Amos Kamil
by Amos Kamil