We are so rational…


[January 17, 2010:  I find I am getting a lot of traffic to this site because of the current Senate race in Massachusetts.  I have commented on the issues this raises for me here.]

This is Gerald Amirault, victim of the child care sex abuse hysteria that swept the nation in the 1980s and 90s.  Have you forgotten it?  Did you think that witch hunts were a thing of the past, or a just a sharp metaphorical way of speaking about people who try to suppress dissent?  No.  This was a real witch hunt.  Child care workers were accused of all sorts of bizarre behaviors – animal sacrifice, flying, using children in Satanic rituals, orgiastic sexual abuse in underground caverns – and more.  No evidence was ever found.

Children were made to overcome their initial reluctance to accuse their teachers with the help of experts who led them to “recover” memories.  Judicial norms were set aside in the interest of the children – “Believe the children” was the slogan – and some lives were ruined before it all wound down.  Amirault, was in prison until 2004, steadfastly refusing to confess – “impudence” as one justice put it – although all the other cases led to nothing but blasted lives and wasted money.  The unanimous recommendation that his sentence be commuted in 2000 was rejected by then-governor Swift for political reasons.

How did it happen?

For parents so educated, it was possible to be convinced by social service workers, the prosecutors’ abuse investigators and other counselors that their children had daily suffered unspeakable atrocities–whose effects they themselves simply lacked expertise to see. It became possible to believe that their children had been tortured sexually, been forced to watch animal mutilation and to ingest urine, and been threatened with death for two years–and that the children could continue, nonetheless, to go to the school happily every morning and show no fear of their alleged torturers. Just after the first allegations against Fells Acres became public, the papers were filled with quotes from parents telling of their children’s love of the school and worry that they wouldn’t be able to attend anymore.

We really do have to watch ourselves closely – it is so easy to stumble into primal madness, the insanity of the spooked herd animals.  Refusing to listen to rational contrary arguments and insisting that some tremendous moral issue is at risk if we even consent to doubt for a moment is one thing to avoid.

I like to post now and then about how silly our notions of ourselves are, the comforting thought that we are sensible and reasonable, but reading about this case makes me want to run screaming into the night.

My recollection of these events was stimulated by reading John Demos’ new book, The Enemy Within.  Dorothy Rabinowitz won a Pulitzer for coverage of this case – read about a new book of hers here.


3 Responses to We are so rational…

  1. pancime says:

    Fascinating. I presume that the accusers, who cajole children into fabricating evidence, are never prosecuted for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

  2. lichanos says:

    I read that there are many civil suits against them pending. Some politicians made hay from it for a while. The prosecutors and their cases have been thoroughly discredited. Charles Fried now teaches at Harvard – he denied appeals in the case in the interest of “finality” for the community.

    In a word, “no.”

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