Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The McMartin Daycare Case

Cultural Contagion

While the McMartin trial droned on, child sexual abuse fever gripped the nation. Parents began to wonder about daycare workers. Some of the professionals in the McMartin case even suggested that there was a nationwide conspiracy of daycare workers who were all engaged in abusing children. No one knew who they were and parents could not be too careful. It seemed that nearly everyone with a child in a preschool was afraid.

In 1985, according to Mary Pride in The Child Abuse Industry, one million people were falsely accused of child abuse. Every little gesture became suspicious and teachers who made physical contact were questioned, sometimes fired, and even imprisoned. Conferences devoted to child abuse received more papers on the "reality" of satanic ritual abuse. Some of them even claimed that a large percentage of cases of child abuse were, in fact, part of satanic conspiracies.

Paul Eberle told columnist Paul Carpenter, of Allentown, PA's Morning Call that almost all of the accusing families in the McMartin case were practicing Catholics. Their local church held rallies where placards intoned, "Ray must die." The church, Eberle said, had accommodated a lynch mob.

Very little was known about pedophilia, but grown men like Ray were suspect. Why would a man want to work in a preschool with young children unless he had some sexual interest in them? Could any sexually normal man really have such low-level aspirations? He had to be there for more nefarious reasons. There was widespread agreement on that point, even by people who knew almost nothing about the case.

Elaine Showalter's Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, points out that anyone is susceptible to hysteria. When anxiety mounts on a cultural scale, collective narratives — which she calls "hystories" — begin to emerge and build. Whole masses of people develop common physical symptoms that she believes are emotional in origin. The form these symptoms take depends on what kinds of behavior are acceptable within a given culture — and then promoted by journalists, therapists, physicians, drug companies, or whoever else might benefit from them.

Showalter places chronic fatigue and gulf war syndromes in the same category as alien abduction fantasies, multiple personality disorder and satanic ritual abuse. They are culturally fashionable narratives that blame an external source. Not that she means this in a disparaging way. Recent work in psychoneurology indicates that mind and body are inextricably linked. Emotional states such as trauma or depression can be physically encoded into our cells. That is, the symptoms are real. They just aren't attributable to aliens, abusers, chemicals, or viruses.

The problem, as Showalter explains it, is that we fail to respect psychogenic illnesses. Rather than viewing the mind as being just as forceful and relevant in our illnesses as these other factors, we dismiss or diminish its status: Hysterics are overly feminine, weak, flighty, or just plain nuts.

When that happens, we seek physical reasons that "firmly place the cause and cure outside the self." As a consequence, we avoid the real problem and become vulnerable to its spread — made more potent via talk shows, self-help books, medical or psychological gurus, ill-informed movies, journalists who uncritically embrace unsupported rumors, and technology like the Internet that spreads them faster and wider.

It's striking that each of these seemingly diverse narratives, according to Showalter, exhibit similar plot lines. "It starts with a group of people who share common ailments," she says. "Then there are doctors who identify the first cluster of sufferers. They give it a name and a rationale, and publicize the symptoms. They then become a center for pilgrimages, especially if they open a clinic. They may say that they aren't being allowed to research it properly, which makes them victims of a conspiracy. Others come to study with them, and as the patients accumulate, they form into self-help groups, and self-help groups since AIDS have become political groups. For some people, the illness becomes their life, their identity. They have journals. They have political lobbies. They may become very powerful."

As people join these groups, they gain further exposure to the accepted beliefs. "Statistically, the longer they stay in the groups," says Showalter, "the less likely it is that they will be cured."  They also grow more sensitized to those who contradict them — people who then become The Enemy. "There's always an enemy or a conspiracy against them."

While Showalter limits her studies to these maladies, others have seen potentially larger applications. Jon Katz, for example, writes in Wired, that Showalter's analysis of these psychosomatic illnesses is just as relevant to media's coverage of the Internet. Whenever something negative occurs in cyberspace, such as an online romance ending in murder or a child getting access to pornography, the media describe these rare events as "epidemic disorders in need of urgent recognition, redress, and attention." Irresponsible information becomes contagious, promoting paranoia and the sense of pervasive victimization.

How can these "epidemics" gain such force? Showalter won't go so far as to say that we have a cultural subconscious that stores repressive material just waiting to be triggered. Nor does she think fads like Beanie Babies are on the same level as psychogenic epidemics: one is short-lived, while the other builds into a virtual movement. Yet there do seem to be similarities in the way that some things create an overwhelming desire to belong to a group that exhibits certain behaviors, has access to "secret knowledge," or owns something deemed precious, while others simply fail — try as they might — to get the desired effect. Showalter points out that something like hypoglycemia, which was once a fashionable diagnosis, never got organized, so it did not develop into a social epidemic the way things like multiple personality disorder has.


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