In 1984, news reports that hundreds of children had been abused at a California preschool helped spread panic across the nation. But the case was not all it seemed and its impact continues to be felt.
Early in the 19th century, two unmarried women who ran a school for girls in Edinburgh found themselves accused by a student of being lesbians. The charge, quite grave in that era, was baseless, and in time the women won a libel suit. But not before they had lost everything, including their school. If this story rings a bell, it may be because Lillian Hellman used it as a starting point for “The Children’s Hour,” her 1934 play about a couple of schoolteachers whose lives similarly come unraveled after a malicious student falsely accuses them of lesbianism.
It has long been said, in varying language, that a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. You do not have to reach back 200 years to Scotland to find enduring wisdom in that adage. You need return only to the 1980s and to the subject of this week’s Retro Report documentary video, part of a series re-examining news stories from the past. This week’s subject is the notorious McMartin Preschool abuse trial.
Starting in 1983, with accusations from a mother whose mental instability later became an issue in the case, the operators of a day care center near Los Angeles were charged with raping and sodomizing dozens of small children. The trial dragged on for years, one of the longest and costliest in American history. In the end, as with the Scottish women, lives were undone. But no one was ever convicted of a single act of wrongdoing. Indeed, some of the early allegations were so fantastic as to make many people wonder later how anyone could have believed them in the first place. Really now, teachers chopped up animals, clubbed a horse to death with a baseball bat, sacrificed a baby in a church and made children drink the blood, dressed up as witches and flew in the air — and all this had been going on unnoticed for a good long while until a disturbed mother spoke up?
Still, McMartin unleashed nationwide hysteria about child abuse and Satanism in schools. One report after another told of horrific practices, with the Devil often literally in the details.
Criminal cases of dubious provenance abounded. One that received great attention involved Margaret Kelly Michaels, convicted in 1988 of rampant sexual abuse at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, N.J., where children said she had sexually abused them with knives, spoons and forks, and had urinated in their mouths. None showed signs of injury. Six years later, Ms. Michaels’s conviction was overturned. Another prominent case from those days involved charges of rape and sodomy brought against the operators of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, N.C. As with McMartin, there were bizarre allegations early on about babies being murdered and children thrown in with sharks. Though defendants were found guilty, their convictions were later overturned and charges were dropped.
Inevitably, perhaps, the mass frenzy over supposed Satanism and sexual predation invited comparisons to the Salem witch trials and to McCarthy-era excesses. Americans do seem prone episodically to this kind of fever. Witness the widespread panic a few decades ago when people around the country convinced themselves that evil neighbors were handing children poisoned Halloween candy and apples embedded with razor blades. Arthur Miller highlighted this phenomenon in his 1953 play, “The Crucible,” which invoked the Salem trials to comment on a contemporary abuse, the scattershot McCarthy hunt for Communists, much as Hellman had looked to the early 19th century for material about the power of a readily believed lie.
Often enough in these situations, news organizations share blame. In the McMartin case, they were far from innocent observers. A pack mentality set in after a local television journalist first reported the allegations. Across California and beyond, normal standards of fairness and reasoned skepticism were routinely thrown to the wind, with news gatherers scrambling to outdo one another in finding purported examples of monstrous behavior by the principal defendants: Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son, Raymond Buckey. (Ms. Buckey, daughter of the school’s founder, died at 74 in 2000. Raymond Buckey, now in his mid-50s, said years ago that he wanted simply “to be left alone,” and he did not acknowledge Retro Report requests for an interview.) It would be comforting to believe that mindlessly frenetic news coverage is a relic of the past. But who could make that claim with a straight face?
Did McMartin have any lasting effects? In some respects, yes. Teachers across America grew afraid to hug or touch their students, out of fear of being misunderstood and possibly being brought up on charges. A widely held notion that young children do not lie about such matters took a huge hit. Some are vulnerable to implanted memories. In the McMartin case, many jurors found that leading questions from therapists steered impressionable children toward some of the most macabre tales.
Of course, child abuse was then, and is now, an appalling reality in this country. So is false memory. The tricky part is sorting out which is which. If you have wondered whether it is possible that Woody Allen long ago sexually abused his and Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Dylan — and who has not wrestled with this explosive accusation and Mr. Allen’s insistent denial? — you readily appreciate the depth of the problem.
The video with this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report has a staff of 13 journalists and 10 contributors led by Kyra Darnton, a former “60 Minutes” producer. It is a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle. Previous Retro Report videos can be found here; and articles here.