Roland Summit is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (Building D-6, 1000 W. Carson St., Torrance, CA 90509). He has been the community psychiatrist to the South Bay area of Los Angeles County since 1966, specializing exclusively in child sexual abuse since 1975. He was assigned the role of county Department of Mental Health Liaison to the community of Manhattan Beach in the wake of the 1983-84 epidemic of preschool abuse allegations.
The subject of ritual cult abuse of children is so loathsome and provocative that it is at risk of being regarded only in extremes. Those drawn into believing that there is such a thing become fascinated and terrified by its limitless implications while those who remain skeptical seem determined to quash and disqualify any evidence that it might exist. Most of those who believe have been personally touched and emotionally moved by association with alleged victims, while the skeptics enjoy the luxury of analyzing the phenomena in retrospect from a distance that passes for objectivity. Both sides of this divergent drift seem reluctant to acknowledge a possible intermediate reality: that while some aspects of the accounts are patently impossible, there remains an elusive core of sadistic obscenity.
It should be obvious that any possibility of such inconceivable and invisible cruelty must be confronted and understood before we as a people can move ahead to define the real dimensions of human experience and the remarkable complexities of personal and collective psychohistory. Considering the potential benefits of that confrontation-new insight into alienation, despair, rage, violence, dissociation, and the vagaries of memory and of ultimate accountability – it is all the more remarkable and lamentable that scholars are willing to harp at the extremes (worldwide satanic subversion versus therapist-induced hysteria) rather than to delve into the common ground of human perversity and deliberate psychic trauma.
The distractive, polarizing debate is renewed in David Lotto’s opening challenge in this scholarly Journal of Psychohistory (1). Must we start with witches and witch hunts? Should we cancel the message by attacking the character of the messengers? Can we define history by assigning cause and effect to untested post hoc connections?
Dr. Lotto traces the origin of ritual cult abuse survivor stories to 1980, with the patient/therapist collaboration of Michelle Remembers.(2) Such attribution of cause and effect is no less magical than assigning the power of spring time to the first crocus. And how is it relevant that Dr. Pazder divorced his wife and married his former patient, or that the psychologist who “interrogated” Ileana Fuster before her testimony in the Country Walk prosecution had himself been imprisoned for sexual assault of his clients? Such ad hominem examples assign a moral defect to the entire class of professionals who elicit lurid confessions from their clients. The credibility of every informant is similarly trashed by the droning presumption that they are all either infantile, mentally ill, or locked in a folie a deux with misguided therapists.
If post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments are to be honored, and if an author is to be equally empathic with all the players, one might consider that McMartin whistle blower Judy Johnson’s psychotic break and alcoholic toxicity were precipitated by, rather than precipitants of, her desperate concern that she and her not-quite three-yr-old son were victims of unfathomable treachery. Having met Ms. Johnson in February, 1984, I am convinced of the first option. Judy Johnson was quite sane and emotionally contained even as she described the improbable complaints of her child “He doesn’t like to talk about being buried alive or about large animals or that he was sodomized by a lion”. (3) Such complaints were unheard of in 1984, but they made more sense as older, less credulous children in the Netherlands (1987), England (1988) and North Carolina (1989) made quite independent observations that the wild animals had zippers on their costumes.
It is painful even to contemplate the stresses this young mother tried to endure during the succeeding years. She had always been an anomaly among McMartin parents, an outsider without access to the supportive social groups that had patronized the preschool. She was alienated from her husband and increasingly reclusive in a small house with her two children, one a putative victim of a formless conspiracy and the other dying of a brain malignancy. She barricaded herself against the menacing strangers who patrolled her yard. Who knows if they were intimidating conspirators or toxic hallucinations? Her hyperprotective stance toward her children warranted protective service and mental health intervention and she was hospitalized briefly. I did not recognize Judy Johnson the last time I saw her alive, in the summer of l986 she was bloated and somewhat incoherent, visibly damaged.
The extensive criminal investigation and the evidence selected by prosecutors for the McMartin trials had nothing to do with information gained from Judy or her child. Nor did she galvanize parental group hysteria. She lived and died an outsider in Manhattan Beach society. She was fair game for the posthumous recreation as the cause of it all. For the successful theory of defense and in the legacy of two mistrials she became the icon of hysterical misconception, the Chicken Little of a bird-brained gaggle of malicious parents. For those who knew her through those harried years she was the perfect embodiment of a sad truth: the individual who is suspicious enough to uncover a perfectly hidden evil will have to shoulder the blame for the chaos that is bound to follow. (4)
The Miami Country Walk convictions, featured in Dr. Lotto’s argument as a miscarriage of justice, are ripe for attack because they stand in the way of a backlash sweep. The case has remained as the most demonstrably real and potentially understandable of all the ritual prosecutions to date. Investigators found physical evidence, including photographs of unmistakeable fecal fetishism showing Frank Fuster’s wife and child soiled with feces. The crucifix described by the children as the instrument of Fuster’s bloody demonstrations of the rape of Ileana was found under the mattress of their bed. Frank Fuster’s own child described the private, utterly sadistic torture he and Ileana endured apart from the other children in their care. The case was not burdened with allegations of hooded strangers, satanic ceremonies, birth rituals or infant sacrifice; children described the stuff of exorbitant human perversity.
The Country Walk case is unique for the information and testimony gained from a co-defendant, but Ileana’s dramatic turnabout was not the pivotal element for the jury. Ileana decided to testify, at the urging of her attorney and with no plea bargain with prosecutors, only after jurors were reduced to tears in response to viewing the entirety of the videotaped interviews with the children. Earlier, Ileana had shown a slave-like loyalty to her husband. Her deposition just prior to testimony described a dismally recognizable pattern of teenage sexual enslavement: deception, kidnap, rape-marriage, perverse humiliation and torture imposed by her husband before he presented her to his Country Walk neighbors as an adult specialist in child care. When she finally renounced him in the courtroom, she was like a child cringing in terror against all-powerful retaliation.
The skepticism encouraged by the woeful lack of physical evidence in typical multivictim, sadistic sexual abuse cases can be artificially hyped by the double standard applied to victim disclosures: claims of the improbable are logically rejected while retractions are uncritically embraced as definitive. Recollections of unspeakable trauma are said to be distorted by dissociation or implanted by suggestion while denials are literally endorsed. The most misleading aspect of Dr. Lotto’s apparently sophisticated and psychologically enlightened opening article is its adherence to that simple and socially reassuring double standard. He dismisses Ileana’s elaborate and self-jeopardizing description of her as coached and coerced while her continuing selfjustification is advanced as the argument not only for her own innocence but for the exculpation of her codefendant.
Ileana couched her confession within a contradictory assertion of innocence. Such ambivalence and confusion invite psychological considerations beyond a simple truth-or-lie dichotomy. Instead, Dr. Lotto chooses one side of that uncertainty to nullify the judgment of the jury, the parents, and the children. But dissociation cuts both ways; if victims of unspeakable acts cannot accurately own the reality of their experience, can we insist that the accused are perfectly in touch with and accountable for their unspeakable actions?
When I had occasion to talk with Ileana Fuster after her testimony, she was irate in her self-defense, but more telling in the psychological complexity of her dilemma. I had asked her how it was that she had so perfectly protested her innocence, and how she had passed the polygraphs if she had done the things she described. “I didn’t do those things,” she protested,”I couldn’t do things like that. I’m not that kind of person! Frank made me do them.”
Who is to blame for the explosion of strange stories of sexual sadism? How are are we to interpret the quixotic reversals of ambivalent assertions? If we can’t consider some core of truth without physical proof, can we allow contrived “reasonable explanations” to prove everything is false? The reasonable explanations have proliferated in the wake of unreasonable allegations. That response is clearly opportunistic of the status quo, supported by no more relevant or verifiable evidence than the precipitating alarms. A jury found Frank Fuster guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of incredibly obscene behavior. Investigative reporters, on a demonstrated mission to debunk “satanic panic,” have proclaimed him innocent. (5)
In his conclusion Dr. Lotto discounts the traumatic consequences for innumerable children as he defines Frank Fuster along with those accused in the McMartin trials as “the very real victims, innocent of any wrongdoing, who have suffered traumatic consequences from being caught up in a net of hysterical accusations.”
Who are we to be so sure of anything in the unresolved confusion of ritual allegations? How can we tolerate preemptive conclusions before we have examined the most rudimentary questions? If criminal conviction of defendants is not only irrelevant but prejudicial to the credibility of the complaining witness, what will it take to re-examine the potential reality of these unwelcome complaints?
Would additional material evidence vindicate the merely testimonial proofs already rejected? If Judy Johnson’s concern for underground terror, or the McMartin children’s claims of tunnels under the preschool had solid verification, would that make a difference? The tunnels, were, in fact, found in 1990, only to be met with massive indifference.
Parents and therapists began hearing children’s descriptions of underground activities within months of their initial, more conservative disclosures. Children described tunnels under the floor of the preschool which led to an outside exit under the rabbit hutch, and another underground passage to the neighboring building. They explained they would be loaded into vehicles in the garage of that building for transport to other locations of group ritual. They described also a secret room accessed by the tunnels under the preschool.
As in other cases, such claims proved an embarrassing red herring for investigators. In common with descriptions of murder and pornography, they promise discovery of the tantalizing smoking gun, the concrete evidence that would confirm what might otherwise be dismissed as infantile fantasies. When there are no bodies or blood, or when the photos and videotapes can not be displayed, these “fish that got away” tend to cast doubt on the veracity of the more modest claims, no matter how plausible and recognizable the initial disclosures might have been. Since the elusive fish are also descriptive of the most threatening and grandiose scenarios-cult ritual with human sacrifice, pornographic exhibitions, profiteering in organized crime-they also precipitate an angry rift between believers and skeptics, especially between parents and police. Parents become preoccupied by the terrifying implications of these larger dimensions of victimization while police, trained to avoid speculation in the absence of evidence, view parents as alarmist and irrational in their naive credulity.
Priorities of prosecution further widen the rift. Child molestation is a recognizable crime which can proceed to conviction on the unsupported testimony of its victims. Religious ritual is constitutionally exempt from prejudicial harassment. In the absence of adult informants and incontrovertible evidence of criminal activities, the implications of multiperpetrator conspiracies, occult networks of religious fanatics-even the very existence of an undiscovered class of grotesque criminality-become ridiculous impediments to any hope of conviction. Parents see their children as spiritually mutilated while prosecutors seek refuge in the familiar confines of sexual touching. Lacking support from the institutions of justice, the more inventive parents will pursue their own investigations and develop their own conclusions, increasingly indifferent to the restrictions of conventional logic and restraint. Any information gained through such vigilant research is an embarrassment to the constraints of prosecution.
Such was the course of the McMartin investigation. A small assemblage of the most assertive parents pressured the district attorney to search for the tunnels and to find the off-campus locations where babies were slaughtered. When they met with stonewalling the parents began their own forays in the neighborhood. Children led them to a mortuary/crematory where they claimed to have pummeled dead bodies and watched people burn. Parents were convinced that interior decorating confirmed the identity with details anticipated by children’s descriptions (6)
Prosecutors received such information with resentment and distrust. It was both outside an acceptable chain of evidence and alien to what they could reasonably charge.
In order to force the prosecutor’s hands on the tunnel question, parents commissioned a backhoe one Saturday (March 16, 1985) and began digging in the lot next to the preschool, where children described the burial of sacrificial animals. The district attorney’s office them commissioned a limited archaeological survey of the site. The net effect of that effort was to disclaim any unusual underground activity. Although all of the digging was outside of the building, with no attempt to cut through the concrete slab floor of the preschool itself, the officials declared there were no tunnels on the site.
Although ritual elements were deliberately excluded from prosecution, defense attorneys ridiculed the willingness of therapists and parents to support the bizarre conspiracy theories implied by the children. A boy who had testified for prosecutors only about sexual touching responded to defense cross – examination with a typically grandiose, tough-kid description of physically lifting a body from an open grave. Other child witnesses described satanic weddings in neighborhood churches.
Prosecutors had two choices: Containment or chaos. Either the children experienced only sexual molestation at the hands of defendant employees within the McMartin Preschool itself, and they only imagined the tunnels, or someone had dug an escape route to an unrecognizable underworld of sex and death orgies. Prosecutors took the simple choice and thereby deferred to the skeptics, agreeing that children imagined the strange things-but they really were molested. The jury found the defense explanation more reasonable: a demonstratably crazy woman had initiated a satanic witch hunt which was swept into absurd illusion through leading questions from therapists and hysterical reinforcement by parents eager to put themselves in the limelight of the case of the century.
After more than five years of glaring public exposure and 33 consecutive months of the longest and most expensive trial in history, the verdicts of January 8, 1990 left most parents angry and confused but at least reconciled to a return to private life. The willingness of a few to protest the failure of prosecution on television talk shows exposed them to a peculiar kind of vilification. They were the perfect scapegoats for a small band of investigative journalists out to save the world from superstitious nonsense. The backlash gospel is simple: Those who trumpet the hazards of ritual abuse are the ones responsible for creating it. And they should be punished.
The decision (to retry Raymond Buckey on the undecided counts) came after a period of grotesque agitation by the parents of the supposedly abused McMartin children. They appeared on talk shows, and terrorized Los Angeles Board of County Supervisors into voting 4 to 1 to urge the district attorney to a new trial.
So now the McMartin parents can triumphantly torture poor Ray Buckey again, abetted by the cowards and opportunists in the justice system. But if people can be prosecuted on the words of children, then children should take full responsibility for what they are saying. If a child says he saw Ray Buckey kill a horse with a baseball bat (which one did claim) and if this charge is disproved (which it was), then the child should be indicted for perjury, with present prohibition against such infant indictment removed.
If a parent abetted the child in this false accusation, then this parent should be indicted for perjury, too. If the court then establishes that parent and child were lying, at least the parent should suffer the consequences. A few well-publicized sentences of imprisonment of parents (along with “therapists” and social workers, it goes without saying) and we would see a speedy end to these disgusting miscarriages of justice. (7)
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT
Despite such pervasive scapegoating and predictable attrition, a few parents remained alert to some hope of vindicating their children. The opportunity came in April, 1990 with permission from the new owner of the preschool to search for the tunnels before he demolished the building and redeveloped the property. These soiled but solid citizens managed to find what the district attorney had disclaimed: solid, scientific evidence that someone had not only dug tunnels under the preschool, but also had taken the trouble to try to undo them. The results of this definitive excavation are described in meticulous detail in the 185 page Report of the Archaeological Excavation of the McMartin Preschool Site by E. Gary Stickel, Ph.D., the UCLA archaeologist commissioned to do the study. (8)
My experience of the human background of this technical report adds insight into the difficulty of establishing proof beyond reasonable doubt of improbable claims, especially from a grass roots level of interest. On first gaining permission, parents began digging in the closet (in the northeast corner of classroom #3) described by children as the entrance to a tunnel leading to the secret room (see Figure 1, marked Unit 2). They found flecks of matching paint in the dirt they removed, which could have proved that a shaft had once been open to the closet above but their amateur efforts left open the possibility that those vital markers had merely fallen into the hold during their own excavation.
Such ambiguity led to some dissension among the parents and the burdensome decision to commission a professional, scientific study. From that point, established April 21, 1990, the project was impeded both by a conspicuous absence of funds and a diminishing number of participating parents. The financial and organizational responsibility settled on only one parent, Jackie McGauley, who, not unlike her one-time friend, Judy Johnson, is a single parent of two children, struggling to make ends meet, without traditional ties to other McMartin parental circles. Even the post-traumatic camaraderie that had once defined a larger parental affiliation had long since dissipated into somewhat alienated factions critical of one another for their divergent responses to the experience (9)
This left just one person responsible for soliciting funding for the project itself and the production of the report, with no apparent institution or avenue available for ultimate publication and distribution. Commercial publishers have a ready market for outrageously opinionated books like Paul and Shirley Eberles’ The Abuse of Innocence: The McMartin Preschool Trial. (10) Such revisionist manifestos proclaim a conspiracy of misguided prosecutors, therapists and parents as the sole abusers of the children. Who will pay for a dry, scholarly treatise that only implies that something monstrous really happened, especially if the report is promoted by the last remaining parental zealot? There is no really legitimate institution for rehabilitation of children’s’s stifled complaints of mysterious exploitation.
AND THE CHILDREN SHALL LEAD THEM
At least one child had a voice in the archaeological project. Time was running out before the bulldozers would obliterate the site and there seemed to be no trace of the children’s secret room. Joanie (11) 12 years old, was visiting her old preschool with her mother. Dr. Stickel asked her,”Can you tell us where it was that you entered the tunnels and which way you turned?” Joanie gave a meticulous description of every step along the way. Starting from the parents’ dig in the northeast corner of classroom #3, she described being lifted down a hole, turning right, going straight past the roots that brushed your face, turning right again where you were hurried through the long tunnel. “I liked to stop where the pipe was and swing on it. There was a little boy who couldn’t reach the pipe, and sometimes I’d lift him up so he could touch it. But right after that you had to duck down so you wouldn’t hit your head on the cement, then you had to run again to get to the secret room.”
Part of the course Joanie described corresponded to twin anomalies which had been detected earlier by ground penetrating radar. Corresponding openings had been cut in the concrete (Unit 1, classroom 3 and Unit 2, classroom 4, see Figure 1) but nothing unusual had been found. Encouraged now by Joanie’s explicit directions, the archaeologist extended the dimensions of the Unit 1 dig and discovered an interface of contrasting soil. The concrete cutout had matched the side walls of the tunnel so perfectly that the earlier dig had passed right through the filled-in tunnel without ever distinguishing its margins. Now that the profile of contrasting soil was defined the tunnel could be reopened with precision. It proceeded westward beneath a cast iron waste pipe, just as Joanie had described, and then passed under the deep concrete foundation of the wall separating classrooms #3 and #4. At the point where the tunnel passed under the foundation, and only at that point, the concrete had been arched upward and worn smooth, in contrast to the adjacent ragged contours and texture assumed by concrete poured into an earthbottomed trench. Under the classroom to the west the tunnel proceeded into a wide, room-like potential space of contrasting earth fill bearing remnants of timber, plywood and tar paper which appeared to have shored up the ceiling of a “secret” room. All this had been implied for years by numerous children and anticipated on the spot by Joanie.
There was no time to determine the entire parameters of the room-like space, but there was enough excavation to show that it was 6 feet 8 inches high and at least 9 feet in diameter, and that it connected through the predicted transit pattern to a previously discovered tunnel artifact turning to the north and exiting under the foundation of the west wall of the building, where the rabbit hutch used to be. Although this landmark had been a target for the first parental back-hoe expedition and the District Attorney’s archaeological search, and although those previous excavations partially obscured the outer feature, two of the project’s most definitive items were found just inside of the western foundation. One was a tree root that had originally grown across the path of the exit tunnel before being sawed away. The proximal section of that root, still feeding the distant avocado tree, had partially healed and sent out new sprouts where it had been cut some years before. The distal section, isolated at the other side of the exist, was withered and dead.
Beneath the floor of the exit, inside of the vertical plane of the foundation in fill undisturbed by the earlier excavations, a plastic lunch bag was found bearing the date of its distribution; “DISNEY CLASS 82/83,” also printed “c1982 Walt Disney Productions.” Except for some kind of clandestine intrusion, nothing in that location could have been newer than September, 1966, when the foundation was poured.
Besides being different in color, texture and compaction from the surrounding matrix, the dirt which filled the tunnel spaces varied in composition along the length of the tunnel itself, always at odds with the adjacent, indigenous soil. The western extremities of the fill, including the room-like space, were peppered with a kind of trash pit debris: old cans and bottles dating from the twenties through the fifties, as if to establish a provenance antedating the 1966 construction of the preschool building itself.
The most conspicuous and naturally inexplicable items were found placed exactly under the concrete arch between the two classrooms. These were four large containers, two enameled iron pots, a crockery jar, and a cast iron cauldron, arranged together in an upright position, resting not where the floor would have been but halfway up to the ceiling. There was no theoretical explanation for such location except that they were placed deliberately within a pre-existing, half-filled trench or tunnel. If all the artifacts represented random scatter of trash on an earlier dump site, as some skeptics have asserted, there is no justification for their exclusive delineation within a discrete pattern of tunnels or trenches. And if such conspicuous items as the four large containers had been littered on a dump site, they would not have survived clustered, upright and unbroken through the subsequent grading and levelling of the preschool site.
The pattern of tunnels conformed to the architecture of the overlying building but had absolutely no purpose or conformity to expected trenching for foundations or utilities. In fact, the profile of the shallow trench dug to accommodate the waste pipe leading across the main tunnel (Joanie’s reach-up- and-touch pipe) was clearly distinguishable as mechanically dug, showing the sharp angulation characteristic of a backhoe, whereas the tunnels had a rounded floor contour and shovel marks, showing that they had been dug by hand, presumably under the pre-existing concrete. The stainless steel pipe clamps joining an angle of the pipe where it crossed through the tunnel space had a different quality from clamps elsewhere which had remained buried since installation. The other clamps were corroded from years of soil contact, while those crossing the tunnel looked shiny and new.
Other features fell into uncanny, perversely predictable patterns, but scientific documentation was less definitive for lack of time or lacking permission to extend the excavations. There were roots protruding into the fill where Joanie had predicted, along with a linear succession of rotting posts that might have shored that portion of the tunnel (Marked 2 and 3 in Unit 3, Classroom 3, Figure 1)
There was tentative identification of a shaft and horizontal passage at the south-east end of the building, where children described going from the closet to the building next door. A discrete tunnel could be defined on the basis of differential fill and interruption of tree roots, leading under the eastern wall and several feet beyond the property line toward the adjacent triplex building (Figure 1). Owners of the property refused permission for further excavation, so the actual terminus of that tunnel feature remains open to speculation.
On May 29, 1990, I was invited to inspect the excavations. A district attorneys representative looked in from the surface, never soiling his suit to observe the demonstrated profiles of contrasting soil nor crawling under walls to appreciate the extent and utility of those potential tunnels. Prosecutors were at that time locked into the retrial, trying unsuccessfully to prove the few deadlocked counts of sexual molestation against a lone defendant. No one in authority could possibly want to reopen old wounds of putative conspiracy.
The bulldozer moved in that afternoon and quickly smashed the stucco building into splinters and dust. I have always wondered since that day why such a flimsy structure needed a 29-inch deep foundation to support a non-weight-bearing partition between two classrooms. The four-inch slab itself would have been code-sufficient. Could it have been designed as a strong-back girder over future sub-slab excavations? There is no sensible explanation better than Joanie’s naive observation than it was there to bump your head on. Dr. Stickel’s report (p.95) concludes:
There is no other scenario that fits all of the facts except that the feature was indeed a tunnel. The date of the construction and use of the tunnel was not absolutely established, but an assessment of seven factors of data all indicate that it was probably constructed, used and completely filled back in after 1966 (the construction date of the preschool). This age assessment has also been corroborated by the consulting Geologist for the project, Dr. Don Michael…
People magazine sent a reporter to interview Dr. Stickel. She reported to headquarters the remarkable misunderstanding that the project found nothing. Hearing this I called Dr. Stickel, who was dumbfounded: “I told her the children said there were tunnels and we found tunnels. It was as simple as that.” With some inside pressure, the magazine researched a more definitive appraisal of the project but it was bumped by more urgent priorities of space, perhaps by an unexpected celebrity marriage or divorce.
Dr. Stickel, Jackie McGauley, another patent and two now-adolescent McMartin children were brought face-to-face with debunking authors Paul and Shirley Eberele and defense attorney Danny Davis for the Maury Povich Show, broadcast June 21, 1993. In response to all the complicated and sometimes explosive arguments which erupted during that hour, Mr. Povich met Dr. Stickel’s description of the tunnels with the perfect dismissal: “What are we saying? Any *hard* evidence that abuse took place in these tunnels?” (emphasis his) (12)
At this point in the vastly larger, festering issue of ritual abuse, there is little hope of hard evidence for anything, especially for specific, ultimately trivial issues of individual criminal culpability. Frank Fuster’s conviction served best to excite more ingenious efforts toward blaming the victims. In the absence of a published tunnel report, the last word in print remains with award-winning Debbie Nathan:
The McMartin School was painstakingly proved for tunnels (by the District Attorney). None were found…(The McMartin) parents have invested years believing in demonic conspiracies and underground nursery tunnels. (Until recently the parents were still digging. They came up with Indian artifacts). They have spoken unremittingly of such things, to the world and to their sons and daughters. They have told their children, over and over, that they were abused, then rewarded them for being traumatized. They have put them in therapy with adult fanatics who have done the same, and enrolled them as guinea pigs in the “research” projects of zealots.
The McMartin kids, and hundreds of others in ritual abuse spinoffs across the country, have spent years trapped in clans whose identity derives from a tent-revival belief in their children’s imagined victimization. (13)
The McMartin Tunnels are just one more example of the continuing uncovering of evidence of a bizarre and industrious dedication to deception. The tunnels should raise serious questions against the reassuring premise that no one would go to such elaborate lengths to entrap children into illicit control. If the therapists were to blame, and they implanted only stories of tunnels, then who planted the pots in Joanie’s runway? The continuing obscurity of this potentially provocative archaeological discovery should give the lie to another reassurance: if things like this went on it would be impossible to hide the evidence. It is not so much that the evidence is difficult to hide as that we as a just and fair society are incapable of seeing it.
Judy Johnson saw blood on her infant’s diaper and has paid a terrible price for trying to find how it got there. Other McMartin parents, now distilled down to the essence of one, tried to find evidence for their children’s complaints, only to be reviled as a malicious threat to world serenity. Jackie McGauley has a hard-won documentation of physical evidence to share. Who will buy it?
1. David Lotto, “On Witches and Witch Hunts,” this issue.
2. Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder , Michelle Remembers, New York: Congdon & Lattes Inc. 1980
3. Notes of an office consultation with Judy Johnson, February 9, 1984
4. It is no accident that the person who blows the whistle on previously unsuspected and unprecedented extremes of abuse proves to be especially vulnerable to ad hominem attack. It takes an eccentric, potentially alienated personality style to over-ride the shared reassurances of more comfortably socialized peers. All forms of child sexual abuse have been protected by what Jean Goodwin has called the shared negative hallucination among clinicians and other opinion makers in respected authority, who will not perceive abuse when they confront it. (Credibility problems in multiple personality disorder patients and abused children. In: Childhood Antecedents of Multiple personality, ed. R.P. Kluft. Washington: American Psychiatric Press, 1985, pp. 2-19). As Suzzen Sgroi observed at the dawning of the current wave of discovery, “Unfortunately willingness to consider the diagnosis of suspected child sexual molestation frequently seems to vary in inverse proportion to the individual’s level of training. That is, the more advanced the training of some, the less willing they are to suspect molestation” (p. 20, Sexual molestation of children: The last frontier in child abuse. Children Today 4: May-June, 1975, pp. 18-21,44).
In the many multi-victim cases I have studied, there is a prodromal pattern of parental group denial before an eccentric outsider triggers a threshold of recognition. Concerned parents are reassured by “reasonable explanations” for potential indicators of abuse. Nylon underwear, bubble baths, constipation, masturbation, self-exploration “explain” genito-rectal inflammation, even foreign objects in the vagina. Conventional, well-socialized parents (and professionals) receive these reassurances with relief, repeating and reinforcing them among one another in extended circles. It remains for the odd one, the unsocialized outsider to pursue the nagging suspicion that the authorities could be wrong and to develop an arrogant, quasi-paranoid reliance on personal, intuitive belief. Such a person is easily stigmatized as eccentric and unreliable, if not crazy. The absence of authoritative substantiation leaves each successive believer dependent on a reversal of the old standard of evidence: seeing is believing; if I hadn’t believed it I wouldn’t have seen it.
Judy Johnson was not only an eccentric but something of an irritant in Manhattan Beach society; she was at war with the local school board to acquire home care for her ailing older son. She was distrustful of doctors and devoted to holistic notions of diet and health. It was this very eccentricity which led her to go out of town for university confirmation of her suspicions of sexual abuse after local doctors dismissed them. It was that young child’s isolation from medical contact that led the mother to the telling question and which confirmed the truth of the child’s answer.
When I asked Ms. Johnson during the February 8, 1984 office visit how she discovered “David’s” abuse, she explained, “It just grew with me. He had such discomfort with school. He cried every noon. But (the school director) warned me that if I gave in to him I’d always be a slave to his whims. He kept trying to give me a shot. I’m a very organic person and he had no contact with shots. I took him to the doctor for the redness and he said it was either from constipation or worms. Then I saw the blood and I knew he was sodomized. But my friends assured me that kids are very anal. I asked David several times if (his teacher) put his penis in his rectum. He always said ‘no’. Then later it occurred to me to ask, “David, did (your teacher) give you a shot in your bottom?” and he said ‘yes’.”
5. Debbie Nathan “Reno Reconsidered,” Miami New Times, March 3-9, 1993, pp. 10, 12, 18, 20, 24, 27-29. Also “Revisiting Country Walk,” Issues in Child Abuse Accusations 5(1), Summer 1993 pp. 1-11. See note #7 for Nathan’s role in debunking the concept of ritual abuse. The investigative reporter who lived in the Country Walk community and who was a participant-observer throughout the development of the case wrote quite a different account. See Jan Hollingsworth, Unspeakable Acts, New York: Congden & Weed, 1986, for 592 pages of cogent narrative and authentic documentation of the case.
6. By reviewing the parental investigations in the light of official disapproval, I do not mean to trivialize nor to discredit their findings. The absolute confidentiality of criminal investigation makes communication a one-way process, with no opportunity to know how seriously the leads were taken or to what extent they were confirmed.
In addition to the mortuary discovery parents followed a child-guided route in search of “the doctor’s house” where blood rituals had been described. They found a residence in an affluent community some 20 miles away matching the description offered independently by several children. Authorities confirmed it was owned by a physician. No further information was ever divulged.
I had occasion to feel personally how the alarm of clinicians can be left unresolved by grudging investigation. I had been consulted in 1984 by a therapist who wanted help in reporting her suspicion of criminal conspiracy. She was concerned for the safety of two preschool-aged clients, brother and sister, and for their frightened mother, who believed her estranged husband was involved in large scale drug dealing and child prostitution. The children had led their mother to the place they had described where their father had taken them for encounters with naked adults and children (they denied ever being molested, but their drawings were full of decapitation and bloodshed). The children spoke of group encounters in other locations as well, involving both a defendant in the McMartin case and a suspect from a second preschool then under investigation.
The building shown to the mother, the Coco Palms Motel, had been the site of a babysitting service sex abuse investigation apparently unrelated to either preschool case. But two McMartin children, upon seeing a newspaper picture of the Coco Palms suspect, had independently identified him as the “Wolf Man” who delivered drugs to the abusive rituals of their own alleged experience.
The law enforcement team especially assembled to investigate the presumption of linkages among the seven suspected area preschools took my report on behalf of the anxious therapist, promising to follow it up immediately. I was told only months later than nothing had come of their investigation.
The therapist who had been involved in the identification of the “Wolf Man” was stigmatized by police for having deliberately left the newspaper in view of her young clients, and for reporting her observations to the local police rather than to the special preschool task force. The alleged wolf man died of a drug overdose and the man and woman named as his Coco Palms accomplices were spared prosecution when the children recanted their complaints.
Such complexities abound in putative but unproven conspiracies. While these apparent connections could have been coincidental and enhanced with parent-and-therapist-induced red herrings, the preemptory dismissal and the policy of with-holding the findings of official investigations leave the therapists caught in the unresolved position of amateur investigators, distrustful of the officials and unprotected against escalating fear.
7. Alexander Cockburn, Viewpoint: “The Mcmartin Case: Indict the Children, Jail the Parents.” The Wall Street Journal, February 8, 1990, p. A17. This virulent op-ed piece includes the standard backlash attribution of the case: “The allegations… had been extorted from her two year old by a mother-now-dead- with a history of mental illness…,” without acknowledging that the “history” occurred only after the allegations. Cockburn also cited Judy Johnson and her McMartin case as the harbingers of the entire ensuing “hysteria” over satanic abuse in an elaborate review of some 36 cases and 91 arrests. “In this purgative frenzy many lives were destroyed” (“Out of the Mouths of Babes: Child Abuse and the Abuse of Adults.” The nation, February 12, 1990, pp. 190-191) In his recurring column entitled “Beat the devil.” He invoked the McMartin case in deploring the prosecution of the Little Rascals Daycare case in North Carolina in his syndicated ‘Column Left.’ Citing “daycare panics in more than 100 cities,” he sums up his dismissal with, “Satan mongering is an industry of sorts, served by repugnant legal stratagems and nourished by bogus experts: Day Care Satanism and ‘therapy’”. Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1991, p B13
An early journalistic reinvestigation of the McMartin case identified the six people who successively created the incredible concept of massive abuse: “Mother,” “Cop,” “Social Worker,” “Politician” (District Attorney), “Reporter,” and “Prosecutor” (Mary A Fischer. “A Case of Dominoes?: Did six crucial players simply invent the longest, most expensive, most sensational-and most trumped up-case in LA.’s history? Los Angeles, October 1989, pp 126, 135). This scenario, which parallels the theory of defense in the already-acquited Jordan, Minnesota case, is offered as “the solution to the McMartin puzzle (which) eludes most of the public and the media” (p 135). The mother was, of course, Judy Johnson: “It was this call (to the police) on August 12, 1983 that sparked the biggest mass molestation case in history, but for Johnson, it was another in a series of steps toward madness and an early death from an alcohol-related liver disease” (p. 128). The article presupposes that the increasingly bizarre allegations were a product and not the producer of that decline. The article stresses the absence of evidence for the pornography and tunnel claims, exaggerating the scope and negative significance of the official excavation: “A Huntington Beach archaeological research team was hired to make a painstaking search for alleged underground rooms and tunnels where the children claimed they’d been molested. The researchers tore up the preschool floor and used an electronic scanning device to try to locate the secret passages” (p. 135). In fact, they merely peeled back some of the asphalt tiles looking for potential interruptions in the concrete slab floor and relied on an inappropriate instrument to disclaim the possibility of disturbance under the concrete. According to Dr. Stickel, who excavated the tunnels, the terrain conductivity meter used by the first archaeological team was powerless to penetrate concrete.
Debbie Nathan, a free-lance investigative journalist based in El Paso, is the most articulate and influential of the ritual abuse skeptics. She won the H.L Mencken Award for Investigative Journalism for “The Making of A modern Witch Trial” The Village Voice, September 29, 1987, pp 19-23, 26-32. In this vanguard standard of backlash rhetoric she deplores the criminal conviction of two El Paso women through a detailed analysis of the overzealous, children-never-lie crusades she attributes to the prosecutor, child protective service workers and parents. Citing the history of bizarre charges against unlikely female defendants initiated by the McMartin case, she traces the pattern through Jordan, Minnesota; Niles, Michigan; Memphis; Country Walk in Miami; Malden, Massachusetts; West Point; and Maplewood, New Jersey, she highlights the ritualistic and presumably absurd allegations in each and labels these cases “junior” McMartins. The sidebar feature entitled “Sex, the Devil and Day Care (pp. 23 & 26) defines ritual abuse as a contrived political tool to stigmatize working mothers and to scapegoat women as potential child molesters. Beneath a photograph of three female McMartin defendants in “the case that started it all,” Ms. Nathan proposes that the attempt to “satanize” day care is a strategic adjustment of the conflict between liberal feminist objections to patriarchy and the conservative pressure to protect intact families.
“But in the Reaganite 80′s, feminist consciousness-raising about sexual violence hasn’t led to a critique of the family; rather it’s encouraged moralism against evil people and narrowly legalistic remedies. The times demand a scapegoat, and what better one than daycare? If the private family is sacred then the public day care center is profane. If stay-at-home mothers are holy, then the people they pay to take care of their kids when they escape from the house are witches. Day-care hysteria is another instance of how conservatives have cornered the market these days, supplying fundamentalist rhetoric for a public trying to sort out worry and puzzlement over deep-seated social changes.”‘ (p. 26)
Debbie Nathan’s coupe de grace on ritual abuse was “What McMartin Started; The Ritual Sex Abuse Hoax (The Village Voice, June 12, 1990), beginning and ending with an attack on the parents and their children who appeared on the Geraldo Rivera Show in the wake of the January verdicts of acquittal. It decries these people’s diehard insistence on victimization. She challenges the credulity of the young people, who had such fantastic stories they could not be used as witnesses, citing especially the “Round-faced, 10-year-old” who according to her father, has “talked about being molested under the school in tunnels lined with flashing lights and pictures of the devil” (p. 36)
The article blames the case on the purportedly psychotic allegations of Judy Johnson. Nathan traces the subsequent spread of incredible allegations through-out the country and into Europe, stressing the stereotypic absurdity of children who said that “the abuse took place in churches; adults wore masks and costumes; they urinated and defecated on children; they burned, stabbed, cooked, or drowned babies; they sacrificed animals; they molested children in funeral homes and buried them in cemeteries; they mutilated Barbie dolls, extensive investigations have failed to support any of these claims.”
In questioning how “large numbers of literate, secular people” could be duped into a Christian fundamentalist “paranoia about satanism,” Ms. Nathan iterates what Dr. Lotto reiterates: the publication of Michelle Remembers. The article reveals “there is evidence that the details in ritual abuse charges came more from grown-ups than from children: co-author Pazder consulted with the police and met with parent Jackie McGauley during the early days of the investigation.” That is hardly news, nor “evidence” though it has been slow to be touted by the conspiracy theorists of rebuttal. I met with Dr. Pazder at that time too – when he had come to Los Angeles to appear with several parents on a nationally syndicated television news magazine and after he had addressed a public meeting in Manhattan Beach parents wanted to meet Dr. Pazder not to acquire details of ritual abuse but to make sense out of them, because their child were *telling them* stories of blood ritual with satanic trappings.
His conclusions about satanic cult ubiquity, however outlandish they may seem to others, offered a “reasonable explanation” for parents confronted with children growling obscenities and death threats in half-awake nightmares. As a participant observer in what the sages now dismiss as “satanic panic,” I can attest that the stories of costumes, ceremonies, chants, bloodshed and death came first from children to naive, incredulous parents and therapists, who sought in vain for a more reasonable explanation from local authorities before turning to occult literature and out-of-town experts who could offer a horrific kind of understanding of their inexplicable distress. Similarly, the television producers brought Dr. Pazder to Los Angeles not to introduce the concept of satanic ritual abuse but to *address* it, since it was by then common knowledge among journalists that children and parents were describing unearthly obscenities.
Debbie Nathan concludes her investigation of the Ritual Sex Abuse Hoax with the paragraph excerpted at the conclusion of this article (note 13) proclaiming the nationwide network of “clans” united with the”…tent revival belief in their children’s victimization. Right wing devil-mongers may find this subculture to their liking. But the rest of us ought to recognize the harm it wreaking, not only on civil liberties and the falsely accused, but also on day care on women’s rights, and especially on children. Because the kids involved in this hysteria have indeed suffered, but not at the hands of their teachers. Compared to the abuses of a child-protection movement gone mad, could incest be any worse?”
The “investigative journalists” have no need of evidence for their clan conspiracy theory. With no more foundation than the presumption that the satanic implications are not worthy of rational credence, they state without any apparent doubt that another international, interdisciplinary, intergenerational conspiracy to abuse children does in fact exist, with agents so powerful in their misguided beliefs that they can infuse death terror into the minds of children through mere suggestion. And the perpetrators of this abuse are just the sort of folks one would least suspect of terrorist agendas; they are the child abuse finders who follow the dictates of the clinical high priest of a child-protection movement gone mad.
Compared to the grandiosity of a backlash movement gone ballistic, could a shared belief in satanic conspiracy be any worse?
8. Pending publication, there is no general access to this report, and no assurance of when or how it might become available. Inquiries may be directed to me, including any interest in assisting in publication. Correspondence will beforwarded to the custodian of the McMartin Tunnel Project, Ms. Jackie McGauley.
9. This mutually antagonistic response to common disaster is described as typical of parents in cases studied by child psychiatrist Lenore Terr. Initial bonding and cooperative optimism gives way to displacement of rage toward one another as they discover no one can perfectly resolve the collective trauma. Some withdraw and become protective of their private lives and untarnished future, resentful of other parents who try to keep the memory alive, especially those who seem to revel in publicity and notoriety. Too Scared to Cry: Psychic Trauma in Childhood. New York: Harper & Row, 1990, pp. 66-72.
10. Paul and Shirley Eberle, The Abuse of Innocence: The Mcmartin Preschool Trial. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993. The Eberles also wrote the Politics of Child Abuse (Secaucus, N.) Lyle Stuard Inc., 1986) which centers on the McMartin case as the bellwether of the nationwide “child abuse witch hunt” (p. 285) “resulting in the devastation of innocent peoples lives and families (p, 283). Both books lionized defendants and defense interests while defaming everything and everyone associated with child protection. Such polemics also illustrate the gospel of the dual attack on child protection. Ritual abuse cases are first debunked as de facto frauds, then all sexual abuse complaints are tarred with the same brush..” We believe that every molestation case in which there has been a conviction should be reopened and reviewed.” (The Politics of Child Abuse, p. 284)
11. In order to allow privacy for the child and her parents, “Joanie” is a pseudonym.
12. The Maury Povich Show, nationally syndicated. Broadcast June 21, 1993
13. Debbie Nathan, “What McMartin Started:The Ritual Sex Abuse Hoax,”The Village Voice, June 12, 1990. Also syndicated and reprinted in many independent newspapers, such as Metro: Santa Clara Valley’s Weekly Newspaper (AA) under the title, “The McMartin Syndrome” August 23-29, 1990, pp. 10-15
Roland Summit is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (Building D-6, 1000 W. Carson St., Torrance, CA 90509). He has been the community psychiatrist to the South Bay area of Los Angeles County since 1966, specializing exclusively in child sexual abuse since 1975. He was assigned the role of county Department of Mental Health Liaison to the community of Manhattan Beach in the wake of the 1983-84 epidemic of preschool abuse allegations.