Review of The Politics of Child Abuse

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A Review of The Politics of Child Abuse

by Paul and Shirley Eberle

Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart Inc.

Review Copyright © 1986 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



In 1985 I lived in an extremely placid middle-class town in Marin County, where for excitment my family used to watch deer graze at the foot of Mount Tamalpais. The woman who was then my wife was fiercely protective of her kids. When she prepared to enroll the youngest in a local pre-school she carefully toured the premises and interviewed the faculty and staff. She later told me with hot eyes and set jaw how she had warned the school's director that if anyone there harmed her children she would cut that person's liver out with a knife.

It came as some surprise to us, then, when the police showed up at two o'clock one morning to investigate a complaint of possible child abuse in our home. The officer was calm and kind, but was also quite firm in his direction that my wife take down her five-year-old son's pajama pants so he could make sure the boy was not broken, bruised, or abraded. Apparently a woman up the hill, famous in the neighborhood and on that town's police blotter for paranoid meddling, had heard the boy cry out in a nightmare and got right on the horn. I presumed she'd been watching too much television, but as a stepfather and a counselor whose professional license could be jeopardized by these sorts of matters, I became jittery about being alone with the little people in my house.

The mid-1980s were the years of the Great American Child Abuse Scandal. From the director of the Small World Pre-School and Day Care Center in Niles, Michigan to the entire staff of the McMartin Pre-School in Los Angeles; from a 16-year-old teaching assistant in Manhattan Beach, California to a network of upstanding citizens in Jordan, Minnesota: anyone who had children, liked children, worked with children, or came in contact with children ran the risk of being arrested for child sexual molestation.

As it turned out, many – perhaps most, though certainly not all – of the newsworthy accusations were as uninformed and naively or maliciously intentioned as the one that had my stepson stripped naked against his mother's wishes in the dead of night and in the presence of a uniformed adult stranger who packed a gun and a billy club. Some of the accused whose defenses seemed airtight – one, for example, who had proof that he was out of town on the day of the alleged incident – went directly to prison. Others who were finally exonerated were ruined personally and financially by months and even years of media attention, courtroom proceedings with their attendant attorneys' fees, and the presumption of guilt that often attaches to anyone accused of deviant behavior. Numbers of gifted and devoted teachers found themselves unemployable even after they had been acquitted, while others simply left the profession, unable to escape their notoriety or unwilling to face the possibility that they might stand accused again of actions they themselves found heinous.

Worst of all, families were destroyed and hundreds of children who never had been molested were left with the psychological and physical scars resulting from repeated examinations by doctors, lawyers, police, and child welfare workers that amounted to abuse quite as severe as the fictions those children were sometimes pressured to make up.

By the end of the 1980s the fad had passed. Bored with raped children, the media moved on to more traditional scandals in national and international politics. Since popular delusions seem to move in waves, it is unlikely that child abuse will find its way into our nation's headlines again until a whole new crop of social workers, reporters, police, editors, child therapists, and television anchorpersons reinvent the subject and whip themselves into a whole new frenzy of righteous lust. Meanwhile, the people whose lives and careers were destroyed have finally been left alone to piece themselves together again. The children may never fully recover.

Paul and Shirley Eberle have undertaken to report on this small social disaster in recent American history. Many people might wish they had succeeded. Instead, they have given us a poorly planned, poorly researched, poorly organized, poorly written, and poorly edited collection of pieces that are more like the notes from which a book could be written than the investigative journalism the authors claim they are writing, and whose blatant bias in favor of the wronged adults makes impossible any clear assessment of the incidents they purport to examine.

Occasionally writing as "us," but more frequently as "I," the Eberles rely on unnamed sources such as "one of the attorneys," and "another parent" for the grotesque background and informed opinion of many of their stories. Nearly all the police, social workers, and prosecutors they describe seem to be involved in a conspiratorial witch hunt, while nearly all the accused adults are models of white middle-class American citizenship, and nearly all the children seem to have been coerced by warped psychologists into telling tales of satanism, infanticide, blood drinking, and orgiastic rapine in locales that are either so visible as to be impossible (active shopping malls, busy streets), so improbable as to be laughable (hot air balloons, parachuting through open skies), or so fantastic no one can ever find them (underground warrens, sewers). The authors quote monologues as long as 15 pages relieved by only one sentence of interrogatory. Even if it were plausible they remembered such rambles, or if they recorded their conversations, they had some obligation as interviewers to edit these speeches for the page so that their readers wouldn't fall asleep and their subjects sound unnecessarily like nitwits.

It is a shame The Politics of Child Abuse is so badly done, both because the Eberles have taken a position that flies in the face of popular prejudice and needs to be explored, and because, buried amidst their tiresome harangues, they do make points important to the understanding of child abuse as both a popular and a psychological matter. For instance, they quote Lee Coleman, M.D., a principal expert witness for the defense in child abuse cases, as saying,


The point ... is that it terribly misses the point to decide, "Is it a lie or isn't it a lie." If a child talks about Santa Claus, is he lying? And if the child isn't lying, does that mean we believe in Santa Claus? I think that's the point – it's none of the above. The child can be led to believe something. They're not lying. But that doesn't mean, like a bunch of idiots, we should assume that it's true.




One child told that he had attended parties where large numbers of adults would torture and kill children. He said he saw three children murdered at a sex party and was forced to copulate with animals. Police investigating the allegations began to doubt the credibility of the children's stories. Records show that this child once tried to retract the murder claims, but was persuaded by a therapist to revert to them....

When Tom and Helen Brown finally got their children returned to them, they asked their daughter why the children had told the stories they had told. The girl's face fell and tears began to run down her cheeks. The girl sobbed that she had been afraid that [prosecutor] Kathleen Morris and the others would hurt her.

One of the children said his interrogators "... wouldn't let me out of the room until I said yes. It would have gone on forever." Another said he was told that he would never see his parents again unless he accused them of sexual abuse.


Perhaps the saddest part of this book's failure is the desperate need we have in our society to examine the reality of child abuse – whether sexual, physical, or emotional. Both Alfred Kinsey, in the 1940s, and Diana E. H. Russell in the 1980s, reported that approximately one American female in four received undesired and abusive sexual attentions no later than the age of 14 or 16, and studies subsequent or related to Ms. Russell's have argued that the statistic of 10 percent for boys would rise considerably as the stigma of homosexual contact dissipated and boys became as willing as girls to talk about their experiences. My own work as a therapist with severely disturbed adults suggests that a much higher percentage of these people, at least, were abused as children to some extent, and that there are various conspiracies of silence that often keep the existence and importance of such abuse under wraps. It is a virtual certainty that there is a correlation between childhood abuse and mental or emotional disturbance in adults, and that correlation deserves the kind of popular examination this book might have offered.

Politics enters into the picture also, of course, and the notion of exploring the politics of child abuse was a good one. Unfortunately, the Eberles have only added petty fuel to a fire no less serious now that it is smoldering than it was when it first blazed across our television screens. The Politics of Child Abuse seems to have been written and published chiefly to catch the ghoulish wave of interest in its subject, not to examine or answer the subject's pressing questions. Thus, the book is an example of the politics of publishing more than anything else, and we are all the poorer for it.

* * * * *



I have rarely written a review of a book I did not like or find valuable, because it seems a waste of time, space, and effort to do so. Sometimes, however, I've been confronted with work that seemed to me to need negative exposure for ethical reasons. The Politics of Child Abuse was such a work. Unusual in my experience, one of the authors of this book responded to my review by writing to the editor of the paper in which the review appeared. The editor published both that letter and my response to it. I do not have and I have not sought permission to reprint or archive the author's letter, but I do reprint my published reply to it, as supporting documentation for my review.

William Henkin replies:


I was delighted to read Paul Eberle's letter objecting to my review of his and his wife's book – first, because I like to know that authors read my reviews, and second, because his letter so perfectly demonstrates why I said his book was "badly done."

For instance, Mr. Eberle claims to have "counted no less than eighteen false and/or inaccurate statements" in my review, but he does not identify a single one. He calls my review "disjointed and incoherent," but gives no examples of what he means by those vague terms. He implies without stating that two reputable magazines (Psychology Today and Omni) and one impossible to identify (The Times – of New York? London? Los Angeles?) praised his book, but gives neither date nor issue so that neither readers nor I can verify his allegations. And he objects to "the bias and motivation of those who make the statements contained in" my review, even though the only "statement" I cite comes from his own book where it is attributed to one of his principal sources, whom I identified.

Mr. Eberle himself makes so many false and inaccurate statements it would be ridiculous for me to answer them all. A few examples, however, may put the froth of his letter in perspective.

1) The Federal Child Abuse Act, whose text Mr. Eberle includes in his book as "Appendix A," certainly does not fund a "child abuse industry." It provides a modest sum of money to begin combating real child abuse on a national scale.

2) In very few states can anyone be a "self-styled" therapist. In most states, as in California, it is a crime to identify oneself as a therapist without first passing a state examination and becoming licensed.

3) It is not clear what Mr. Eberle means by the "real facts at the center of the child abuse witch hunt," because he offers none – none – in his letter. Instead, he pontificates and offers grandiose opinions couched in the dramatic sort of prose demagogues often employ to hide their ignorance or to arouse emotions in people they believe, contemptuously, to be ignorant themselves. Considering the evidence with which Mr. Eberle supports his opinions it should come as little surprise that he believes the "only" difference between Adolf Hitler and "our leaders" is that Hitler "was a bit more outspoken and less cool." So also is cancer a bit more virulent and less pleasant than a cold.

4) Most damning of all, Mr. Eberle is so concerned to denounce my review that he has evidently failed to note that in it I agreed with his fundamental premise; I just found his version of it unsupported by his efforts as an author, journalist, and researcher, and unsupportable by myself as a reader, reviewer, and therapist – and human being. What I did write was that in the mid-1980s many of the newsworthy child abuse accusations were uninformed and naively or maliciously intentioned; that some of the people who were innocent were nonetheless ruined personally and financially; that many gifted teachers quit their profession rather than risk being accused of behaviors they themselves found reprehensible; that some families were destroyed; and that some children were emotionally abused by the doctors, lawyers, police, and social workers who examined them in the line of duty.

I called the Eberles' book a failure not because of the position it espoused – as readers of this paper know, I do not fault books on that basis. I did say that the authors made points important to understanding child abuse as both a popular and a psychological matter, and that their position needed to be explored in a responsible fashion. I wrote that we have a great need in our society to examine the real issue of child abuse, and that the notion of exploring the politics of child abuse was a good one.

Unfortunately, the Eberles' approach to their subject was similar to Mr. Eberle's approach to my review: poorly planned, poorly researched, poorly organized, poorly written, and poorly edited. Their cause – if it was the politics of child abuse – would have been better served had they kept their inflammatory writing to themselves. Even if their cause was the promotion of Paul and Shirley Eberle it would have been better served by silence, since their posturing has only called attention to the authors' prejudices. The Eberles may have succeeded only in the event that they wished to jeopardize the efforts of people who do seek an honest account of the politics of child abuse, because other researchers in the field may now be smeared with guilt by association with the Eberles' unfortunate book.

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