The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children

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9780190465575: The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children

In the 1980s, a series of child sex abuse cases rocked the United States. The most famous case was the 1984 McMartin preschool case, but there were a number of others as well. By the latter part of the decade, the assumption was widespread that child sex abuse had become a serious problem in America. Yet within a few years, the concern about it died down considerably. The failure to convict anyone in the McMartin case and a widely publicized appellate decision in New Jersey that freed an accused molester had turned the dominant narrative on its head. In the early 1990s, a new narrative with remarkable staying power emerged: the child sex abuse cases were symptomatic of a "moral panic" that had produced a witch hunt. A central claim in this new witch hunt narrative was that the children who testified were not reliable and easily swayed by prosecutorial suggestion. In time, the notion that child sex abuse was a product of sensationalized over-reporting and far less endemic than originally thought became the new common sense.

But did the new witch hunt narrative accurately represent reality? As Ross Cheit demonstrates in his exhaustive account of child sex abuse cases in the past two and a half decades, purveyors of the witch hunt narrative never did the hard work of examining court records in the many cases that reached the courts throughout the nation. Instead, they treated a couple of cases as representative and concluded that the issue was blown far out of proportion. Drawing on years of research into cases in a number of states, Cheit shows that the issue had not been blown out of proportion at all. In fact, child sex abuse convictions were regular occurrences, and the crime occurred far more frequently than conventional wisdom would have us believe. Cheit's aim is not to simply prove the narrative wrong, however. He also shows how a narrative based on empirically thin evidence became a theory with real social force, and how that theory stood at odds with a far more grim reality. The belief that the charge of child sex abuse was typically a hoax also left us unprepared to deal with the far greater scandal of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, which, incidentally, has served to substantiate Cheit's thesis about the pervasiveness of the problem. In sum, The Witch-Hunt Narrative is a magisterial and empirically powerful account of the social dynamics that led to the denial of widespread human tragedy.

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About the Author:


Ross E. Cheit is Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Brown University.

Review:


"But what if the skeptics went too far? What if some of the children were really abused? And what if the legacy of these cases is a disturbing tendency to disbelieve children who say they are being molested? Those are the questions that frame this new book by Ross E. Cheit, a political scientist at Brown University who spent nearly 15 years on research, poring over old trial transcripts and interview tapes." --New York Times


"The most important book on its subject in the last thirty years. Most legal efforts to address multiple sexual abuse of children have been strangled at birth since the collapse of the McMartin daycare trial and the assaults on child credibility that followed. Ross Cheit's exacting, calm, close inquiry into the early trials and the media firestorm around them uncovers both grounds for believing the children and the often despicable tactics of the deniers... Cheit shows that the real hysteria lies in the denial of the abuse. If evidence and logic matter, this book will change how allegations of sexual violation of children by adults -- ground zero of sexual abuse and arguably of gender inequality -- are socially understood and legally addressed." --Catharine A. MacKinnon, University of Michigan Law School and Harvard Law School


"Ross Cheit has done masterful job of finding the facts buried in the mythology of what happened in the high profile sexual abuse cases of the 1980's and brings a degree of balance to our understanding of these sentinel events." --Charles Wilson, MSSW Senior Director and Sam and Rose Stein Endowed Chair in Child Protection, Chadwick Center for Children & Families, Rady Children's Hospital - San Diego


"Ross Cheit has written a book that must be read by anyone seeking to go beyond the headlines of the multiple victim child abuse cases of the 1980's and 90's and the witch-hunt narrative that grew up around them. Through methodical research into the transcripts of the trials that apparently was never done by the purveyors of that theory, Cheit sheds light on details of the McMartin, Kelly Michaels and Frank Fuster cases that were ignored when they didn't fit the narrative... The book is not easy, but is required reading for all who seek to understand the dynamics of child abuse cases and the hysteria that can arise and lead to misinformation, skewed journalism and injustice for children who have been abused and for adults falsely accused of child abuse." --Judge Judith C. Chirlin, Los Angeles Superior Court (Retired)


"[Cheit] recounts evidence with scholarly precision that is emotionally engaging and eminently readable... [his] book is a tour de force against the witch-hunt fabulists and those suggestible enough to believe them." --The Providence Journal


"As Gloria Steinem has said multiple times, we can try to save people from drowning one at a time, or go to the top of the river where they are falling in, and prevent these mishaps from happening at all. Cheit is at the top of the river. Now, psychologists need to come together and get there too." --PsycCRITIQUES


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