Ross E. Cheit, The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Do you know the story of Ross Cheit? I first read it in a spellbinding article by Miriam Horn in the November 29, 1993, issue of U.S. News & World Report. It seemed to me proof, beyond any possibility of doubt, that repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse are a reality to be acknowledged, if not by judges and juries, then at least by those who contemplate the darker twists and turns of the human soul.
Which, for me, is an essential part of what UFOlogy is about. Which is why I’m posting on it today.
The 1980s and early 90s weren’t that long ago. But with regard to the sex-abuse issue, they feel like another world. What Wikipedia now calls the “Day-care sex abuse hysteria” seemed back then to be something that rational people could take entirely seriously. It had not yet come to be lumped with the Salem witch trials (as Wikipedia does in its “See also” section).
True, not everybody bought into the idea that a child’s memories of flagrant sexual aggression could be repressed for years, then pop out at a therapist’s bidding to send blameless caretakers to prison. But it was far from the consensus wisdom that it is today that the “abuse panic” was all a great “ado … about nothing”–as it’s been dismissed by, of all people, Thomas Bullard in his magisterial The Myth and Mystery of UFOs (2010).
Ross Cheit, Professor of International and Public Affairs and of Political Science at Brown University, brings us the message: the consensus wisdom is wrong.
Cheit isn’t exactly a detached observer. He’s had his own grueling encounter with sexual abuse, in the late 1960s at the San Francisco Boys Chorus summer camp, when he was what we’d now call a “tween.” The camp was a wonderful experience for a young boy–as long as the sun was up.
But each night the camp’s administrator, William Farmer, would come into Cheit’s cabin. He sat on Cheit’s bed. He stroked the boy’s chest and stomach, telling him to relax. “And then he would slowly bring his hand into my pants.”
Then Cheit forgot it all.
We’re told such things don’t happen. Traumatic experiences aren’t forgotten, the experts tell us, but “remembered all too well”; memory itself is creative, ever-changing, capable of endless confabulation. You don’t “repress” childhood memories, stuffing them into a locked drawer from which they pop out, on their own and with camcorder accuracy, 25 years later.
Try telling that to Ross Cheit.
He’d been teaching at Brown five years when, in the spring of 1992, his sister phoned him with the “happy news” that his nephew was joining a boys’ chorus, just like Uncle Ross. This “happy news” pitched him into a prolonged depression, eventually bringing him into therapy. He woke a few months later (as Horn describes it) “with the baffling sense that a man he had not seen or thought of in 25 years was powerfully present in the room.”
It was William Farmer, back for his nightly depredations.
That was in August. In October, at his therapist’s suggestion, Cheit went into a bookstore to buy a book called Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse. “As soon as I pulled the book off the shelf, I began to shake all over. I thought I was going to collapse. I looked at the title and thought, ‘My God, that’s me.'”
Cheit tracked down others from the summer camp who had similar stories to tell. He tracked down Farmer himself, kept him on the phone with a tape recorder running while Farmer admitted to what he’d done. He sued Farmer and won. He sued the Boys Chorus and got an apology. Aided by a small army of research assistants, he spent 15 years doing what he calls “Extreme Research” on cases–some famous, some not–of supposed child abuse from 20 and 30 years ago. Cases that, with our 21st-century sophistication, we “recognize” as miscarriages of justice, hysterical witch-hunts against blameless people.
The message of Cheit’s 2014 book, discreetly and rather misleadingly titled The Witch-Hunt Narrative: it just ain’t so.
The book, with its 415 pages of text and 69 pages of endnotes, is dense but fascinating reading. For me, at least, it is absolutely persuasive, although I’ll admit that it can’t really be judged by anyone who hasn’t done the equivalent of Cheit’s “Extreme Research” into trial transcripts and other primary sources. I can evaluate it only by the apparent solidity of its arguments and documentation–and these are very, very impressive.
Cheit doesn’t claim that everybody hauled into court on sexual abuse charges has always been guilty. No doubt about it: many of those implicated in the McMartin Preschool (California) affair of 1983-90, the most notorious and long-running of the sex-abuse cases, were innocents whose lives and reputations were unjustly trashed. But he makes a powerful argument that there was real sexual abuse at McMartin, and that to dismiss it and the other cases that arose in its wake as “witch hunts” and “moral hysteria” is a shameful distortion of history and reality.
Nor does he shy away from some of the more bizarre instances of abuse, those claimed to involve satanic ritual. True, “[t]he idea that a network of organized pedophiles infiltrated day-care centers in the 1980s deserves to be dismissed.” Yet Cheit distinguishes “between conspiratorial claims involving networks of perpetrators that had infiltrated daycare centers and claims of individual cases involving satanic or ritualistic elements … children have been sexually abused in ritualistic or satanic ways, and therefore claims involving such elements should not automatically be written off as ‘fantastic’ and unrelated to reality” (page 160).
(If you’re inclined to pooh-pooh the notion that horrendous crimes can be or have been committed by would-be satanists, I suggest you Google the names “Christa Pike,” “Tadaryl Shipp,” and “Colleen Slemmer”–but make sure your breakfast is well digested before you try it.)
The Witch-Hunt Narrative was many years in the making, as Cheit moved from his personal trauma to a scholarly appreciation of the traumas of others and our cultural need to pretend those things never really happened. In the course of his journey he created an important website, “Recovered Memory Project,” the riches of which I’ve just begun to explore. He also published a number of relevant articles, in one of which he coined the phrase “junk skepticism“–modeled after “junk science”–to refer to the “evasion, distortion, and double standards” by which the evidence for recovered memories is often debunked.
And what has all this to do with UFOs?
Just this: that recovered memories were a central theme in the alien abduction tradition, which peaked in the late 1980s and through the 90s, a wave that lagged about 5-7 years behind the popular acceptance of the idea of repressed memories of sexual abuse. To the skeptic, “junk” or otherwise, this may be evidence of the delusional foundations of both.
But I think the deeper wisdom was expressed in 1991, in an Atlantic Monthly article on UFO abductees by psychiatrist James S. Gordon: “Clearly something had happened to these people, something powerful, strange, and transformative.” I certainly oversimplified when, in a paper I delivered in 1995 at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion, I explained this “something” as a distorted representation of “the traumas that human sexuality can inflict on a child exposed to it at the wrong time and in the wrong ways.” But I stand by my essential position, that there’s a cognate reality behind memories of abuse and memories of abduction–with the important distinction that sexual exploitation of helpless children certainly happens in the real world, while UFO abductions (in my opinion) don’t.
Or, as Freud wrote in a brief but brilliant paper on a “premonitory dream” reported by a woman of his acquaintance: “According to the rules that apply to the interpretation of neurotic symptoms, her conviction must have been justified; its content may, however, require to be re-interpreted.”
Such “re-interpretation” is what I try to do, when I speak and write about UFOs. Professor Ross Cheit, with his courage and honesty, his lucid and painstaking scholarship, has given me essential tools to do it with. I cannot thank him enough.
by David Halperin
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