Sex and Hysteria in the 1980s

In the 1980s, an idea took hold throughout the US that very young children existed in a near-constant state of sexual danger. A moral panic ensued, in which many day-care workers were wrongly accused of committing awful, elaborate, sometimes satanic crimes against the children in their care. Some version of that fear remains a largely unquestioned feature of contemporary American life—see the persistent myth of a trenchcoat-clad predator stalking the playground—and its sources are extraordinarily varied. While working over the last few years on my book, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, I conducted research that took me into the history of professional psychiatry, the radical wing of second-wave feminism, the emergence of prosecutors as an influential political class, and the resurgent evangelical conservatism of the ’80s. Taken together, the following texts illuminate forgotten currents of cultural or intellectual life, vividly conveying the texture of those years and what it felt like to live through them.

Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker

The first book-length treatment of the day-care panic was published in 1995. Debbie Nathan, a long-time investigative reporter, was first asked to write about a day-care case by Ellen Willis, the radical feminist intellectual, then an editor at the Village Voice. With the attorney Michael Snedeker, Nathan produced the first comprehensive analysis of the panic, researching it even as it was still taking place, and uncovering many of the institutional links that allowed it to spread around the country.

Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony by Stephen J. Ceci and Maggie Bruck

Many of the allegations that launched the panic came out of interviews in which therapists and social workers inadvertently coerced very young children into claiming they had been abused. It seems both important and totally beside the point to note that these interviewers were working with the best of intentions. Ignorance isn’t a great excuse, but it is true that many of them were essentially making up their procedures and protocols as they went along—this widespread interest in investigating the sexual abuse of young children was totally new in American society. In the late 1980s, researchers began to look into better ways to interview children who may have been abused, and Jeopardy in the Courtroom is the best guide we have to what they found. Today, those interviewing children follow a much clearer set of instructions and standards, which draw on the work of experts like Ceci and Bruck.

The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

One thing that helped drive the day-care panic was the now discredited idea that it is common for people to totally repress childhood memories of violent abuse, only to retrieve those memories later with the help of a skilled therapist. This notion became popular over the course of the 1970s, as a number of activist psychologists aggressively revived Sigmund Freud’s “seduction theory.” One of his earliest theoretical efforts, first presented in 1896, it held that hysterical neuroses were almost always caused by repressed memories of early abuse. Freud repudiated the theory soon after, but in the ’70s, some people began to ask, what if he was right the first time?

The Assault on Truth is the key document of this weird, misguided episode in the history of psychoanalytic thought. Its author, Jeffrey Masson, was director of the Sigmund Freud Archives until he alienated the entire psychoanalytic establishment with his hypothesis about Freud’s cowardice (he claimed that Freud abandoned the seduction theory because to acknowledge the reality of the abuse endured by his female patients would have cost him his professional standing). Masson is also the star of Janet Malcolm’s book In the Freud Archives: He filed a libel suit against Malcolm, who quoted him as saying, among other things, that he had slept with nearly a thousand women.

Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder

Now we’re really getting into it. Michelle Remembers is the coauthored memoir of a patient, Michelle Smith (a pseudonym), and her psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder, who started meeting for regular sessions in the early 1970s. By 1980, they both believed that Michelle had recovered memories of horrific ritual abuse she had suffered in childhood at the hands of a satanic cult—abuse that included the surgical implantation of horns and a tail, as well as the summoning of the devil. Also by 1980, Smith and Pazder had left their respective spouses and married each other. Michelle Remembers is an incredible document. It captures the catastrophic therapy that led Michelle to her false memories, the blossoming of a romance in bizarre circumstances, and the emotional logic that made the specter of ritual abuse so compelling during the 1980s. What’s more, that last sentence wouldn’t be possible without Lawrence Pazder: he coined the term “ritual abuse.”

Final Report of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography

The Meese Commission was convened by President Reagan in 1985, and it held hearings on the effects of porn on society, morality, and the family in cities around the US. It was a watershed moment in the return of sexual conservatism. The report the Commission eventually produced is a rich, confusing record of the times. It has Andrea Dworkin thundering about the dangers of porn, and it also has James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, thanking Dworkin for her testimony. It has conservative moralizers and tentative social scientists. It has a parent who testifies anonymously, but must be one of the mothers involved in the infamous McMartin Preschool trial, an early day-care case that helped spark the hysteria—she talks about how her child’s teachers made pornographic images of the abuse they supposedly perpetrated. It even has—and this is my favorite part—an acknowledgment that the testimony gathered in the report may have been unbalanced, because it was so hard to persuade any of the porn industry’s “millions of apparently satisfied consumers” to talk about their experiences. “To find people willing to . . . comment favorably in public about their use [of pornography] has been nearly impossible,” one commissioner wrote.

“Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism” by Ellen Willis

My book We Believe the Children originated with the desire to learn more about the sexual politics of the 1980s—specifically, to figure out why the women’s movement lost so much political momentum over the course of that decade. I did three years of research into these questions, but there is a sense in which I could instead have just spent that time reading this essay over and over.

Ellen Willis may be most remembered now as a rock critic and essayist, but I like her best as a straight-up political writer, and “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism” is the only intellectual history of the second wave you’ll ever need. It describes the movement’s origins, maps out its ideological fault lines, and offers a cogent analysis of its theoretical shortcomings. At the same time, Willis writes: “So long as the family remains an unquestioned given of social relations, women are trapped into choosing between subordination and abandonment. This is the specter haunting contemporary sexual politics.” The increasing instability of the nuclear family unleashed anxieties that helped make the day care and ritual abuse panic possible, and those fears are still with us. Willis reaffirms the things that made radical feminism so potent: most of all, its determination to change our social relations forever.

Richard Beck is an associate editor with n+1.