Moral Panic and the Myth of Recovered Memory
More Harm Than Good, in the Name of the Children
Jennifer (a pseudonym) reached out to me after seeing an interview I gave about the McMartin Preschool trial, which launched the nationwide day care ritual abuse panic in the early 1980s. She said she had been involved in a similar case as a child and that her experiences with the police, the judicial system, and a series of therapists mirrored those of the McMartin children. Now an adult with a career and family of her own, she agreed to speak with me about her experiences during the trial and in the decades since.
We Believe the Children argues that the day care ritual abuse panic had far-reaching social and cultural consequences that continue to shape the way public institutions deal with (or fail to deal with) child abuse. But the panic also continues to reverberate in the private lives of those who were directly affected by it. Jennifer’s experiences illustrate the consequences of the misguided “belief” in children that so many therapists, parents, and cops professed during the 1980s. The following is adapted from the book.
Jennifer*, for many years, didn’t have confidence in her own memories, though she recalled the mundane aspects of her church basement day care rather clearly. “I remember baking,” she said. “I remember going into the church’s kitchen and baking as a group.” Then the day care moved to what she described as “kind of a Victorian house.” She remembered its large rooms and its two floors.
She grew up in a small town of about ten thousand working-class people, and her parents both had full-time jobs, which meant that Jennifer spent mornings and afternoons at day care under the supervision of Chuck, his wife, Linda, and another woman named Janice. By the time Chuck was accused of sexually abusing children in 1984, Jennifer had graduated to elementary school. She was seven years old when her mother first took her to the police station for an interview. “A man—I can’t remember if he was in uniform or not—had these anatomically correct dolls,” Jennifer said. “And he asked me to show him stuff , and I didn’t know what he was talking about.” Much about the early days of the investigation was confusing, but the energy that surrounded that first police interview was palpable, and it persisted through the days that followed. “I remember it was, like, I could tell there was a buzz in my family,” Jennifer said. “My mom was very drawn into it, and there were lots of phone conversations and meetings, and things happened. I remember my mom saying that a boy who I didn’t know told his mom that something bad had happened, and she asked me what happened. I said nothing had happened.”
It was the therapy sessions, which began soon after the first police interview and continued through Jennifer’s adolescence, that had the biggest impact on her life. “What happened in therapy for me was the most—that was where all the trauma happened,” she said. Jennifer went to regular one-on-one meetings with a therapist named Miriam, who also saw other children who had been allegedly abused at the day care. Miriam used dolls to demonstrate sex acts and then asked Jennifer to affirm that these things had happened to her. “I remember getting massive headaches,” Jennifer said. “And I remember Miriam saying, ‘Say this happened to you, it did, it did’—repeatedly—‘it did, didn’t it?’ Over and over again.” The questions made her “deeply uncomfortable” not only because of their subject matter but also because, like any seven-year-old, Jennifer’s sense of the world and her place in it was delicate and unstable. Shortly before the therapy began, or maybe during its earliest weeks, a popular girl at school had teased Jennifer by saying that her father wasn’t actually her father. This was actually true—Jennifer’s stepfather had adopted her when she was three. There was an adoption party at some point, but Jennifer had forgotten, and she ran home to her mother, upset that the girl had insulted the man she thought of as her father. “But he’s not your father!” her mother said. “He adopted you! Remember?” Therapy compounded the feelings of unease this episode brought about. “There was this sense like, what do you mean my dad’s not my real dad?” Jennifer says. “What do you mean penises and vaginas do these things together? You think an adult did that to me? You want me to use these words?”
Jennifer remembers standing in front of a judge who asked whether she wanted to put all of this behind her. Jennifer understood the judge’s phrase, “it all,” as referring to therapy, and she badly wanted not to go to therapy anymore, so she “finally just started making stuff up.” The trial passed. Chuck was convicted and sentenced to more than fifty years in prison. Therapy continued, though—there would be no putting it behind her. The parents’ support group also continued, at least for a time. “I hated the mention of certain families’ names,” Jennifer says. “I hated when [my mom] talked about the Calvys. We’d go to their house, and the kids were supposed to hang out, and the parents were talking about the court case.” After Miriam, Jennifer saw a therapist named Richard, who always had a plastic cup full of soda. It frightened her that Richard would lock the door at the start of their sessions, and one time she threw the soda cup, kicked him in the shins, and pounded on the door. Richard decided this meant Jennifer was afraid that Chuck would get out of jail and hurt her again. “So they took me in a state trooper’s car with my parents—I was in the front, they sat in the back—to a jail. I had to get a tour of the jail to see how safe it was, the whole time freaking out, not wanting to be there.”
Jennifer’s mother was often physically abusive—“she would hit me all the time, would smack me on the face”—so as she entered adolescence, her therapy’s focus began to shift . But day care was never far from the discussion, and her therapists’ insistence that she really had been abused at day care complicated Jennifer’s relationship to her own thoughts and memories:
I felt like I had secret rooms in my brain. Like, I had rooms in my brain where I needed to think very clearly, and be honest with myself, and try really hard to remember if anything happened. And at the same time, I had to keep it completely hidden and protected from my mom and the therapists. . . They would tell me, ‘We have ways of finding out what you remember.’ So my brain just didn’t feel safe. I had to judge: If I thought really hard and remembered, could I also keep it hidden away from them? And they’re also saying, in kid language, ‘This could really backfire on you. You could end up an emotional wreck.’ I had this fear that one day I would decompose or explode.
Civil suits meant that Jennifer and other children who attended the day care received money. This money went to the parents at first, but Jennifer gained control of it in her early twenties, and she will continue to receive payments at regular intervals, eventually totaling several hundred thousand dollars, until about the time she becomes eligible for social security. Like almost everything else about the case and its effects, the money was not openly discussed among Jennifer and her peers. She remembers a boy named Jake with whom she was close in high school. One day when they were seniors, Jake picked up Jennifer in a new red convertible he had recently bought. Then the pair drove to a nearby city, and Jake bought an expensive watch. A year later Jake came to visit Jennifer at college, and again he was talking about his money, and Jennifer asked him, “Where are you getting this money?” He said his parents told him they had invested in the stock market when he was young. Jennifer asked how much money he received and how often, and when he told her, Jennifer asked whether he had also attended the day care. He had. “I said, ‘Your parents sued the day care, and that’s where that money is from.’ He had no idea what I was talking about.”
Going to college was important, because Jennifer knew she would not be returning to her hometown. She came out as a lesbian, and she had a long, difficult relationship with a girlfriend. Sometimes she told people about the day care. “I would tell people, ‘Nothing happened to me. I had all this crazy therapy that happened to me.’ I would also say, ‘It’s fucked up that I’m getting all this money. I should not be getting this money. Nothing should happen to me.’” She started seeing a therapist during her junior year, after an older relative died, but things didn’t get very far. “I was reticent to lay it all out there,” Jennifer says. She graduated, moved, saw a new therapist, moved again, saw another therapist, stopped seeing that therapist. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Jennifer met a psychologist around whom she felt really comfortable. “From the very beginning,” Jennifer says, “I had to say, ‘You cannot get between me and the door, because if I feel in any way unsafe I am going to plow you over.’ So there were real baseline kinds of things.” Jennifer’s therapist respected these needs, and the two saw each other almost every week for five years. Jennifer told her all about the day care case and the therapy to which she had been subjected throughout her childhood. “We’ve learned a lot since then,” Jennifer says her therapist told her, “and you should not have been dealt with the way you were dealt with.”
This therapy gave Jennifer a sufficiently secure grip on her childhood experiences for her to begin looking into them more deeply. Although her former lawyer had destroyed all of the files that pertained to her case, Jennifer was eventually able to track down a few dozen pages of documents. She was particularly interested to see the specific charges on which Chuck had been tried, in part because she wanted to know whether they matched two vivid memories she had of being abused at the day care. Although Jennifer knows the trauma she experienced took place in the therapy she was made to undergo, she cannot find a way to qualitatively distinguish her two day care abuse memories from memories of events she knows happened for sure, and she says they have not faded with the passage of time. In one memory, she is in the main room of the day care’s big Victorian house, and she is facing Chuck, who sits in a chair. She is in a line with the other kids, waiting for her turn. When she gets to the front, Chuck lays her facedown across his lap and then pushes a thumbtack through the seat of her jeans, into her buttocks. He does this to each child. “I don’t remember it being a problem when it was happening,” Jennifer says. “I was just like, ‘Okay, there are three kids in front of me.’ And then I remember anticipating the thumbtack going through the denim.” In the other memory, Jennifer is taken from the day care to a gravel pit. She doesn’t recall anything that happened there—just the gravel pit itself. She told her father about this once, and he drove her around outside of town looking for the gravel pit. “And as an adult, I’ve driven around trying to find it,” she says. She never found it.
Jennifer eventually made a home for herself, her partner, and her child in a state hundreds of miles from her hometown. Her day care teacher’s conviction was eventually overturned. Around the country people associated with the ritual abuse panic moved on and moderated—or even repudiated—their old beliefs, many of them in ways that made prosecutors look like defiant and unapologetic intransigents by comparison. In 1998 John Briere, one of the leading advocates of recovered memory therapy in the 1980s, told an audience at the 12th International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect that efforts to “liposuction people’s memories out of their brains” had been damaging. “It’s not the therapist’s job to help patients remember anything,” he said.
* A pseudonym. The names of people and places associated with her case have been changed at her request, to protect her privacy.
Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs.