“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” ~ Jonathan Swift, The Examiner, 1710
In the 1980s, the McMartin Preschool case unleashed nationwide hysteria about rape, assault and Satanism in schools. Report after report told of horrific practices, and a panic over nonexistent Satanic sex rings was born out of the concept of “recovered memories”. Are we seeing a replay in the Brett Kavanaugh scandal?
Brett Kavanaugh, President Tump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, has been accused of sexual assault and being present when other grotesque sexual assaults took place. The alleged assaults occurred at parties — essentially gang rape parties — when Kavanaugh was still in high school. The first alleged victim to come forward, Dr. Blasey Ford, told no one when it happened, and not for decades after.
Just how reliable is memory after 35 years? What about the phenomenon of “recovered memories”?
The function, power, and reliability of memory constitute critical aspects of these allegations. The other critical aspect, however, is partisan politics.
As The Economist notes,
Democrats believe the Republicans have no right to the conservative majority that Mr Kavanaugh’s appointment to the court would make. Most Democratic senators are therefore straightforwardly and irreversibly against confirming him. Perhaps, too, Mr Kavanaugh and his Republican admirers are right to be angry at the way Ms Blasey’s allegation has emerged at the 11th hour of his confirmation process. Dianne Feinstein of California, the senior Democrat on the committee, had been sitting on it for weeks, it turned out.
“There is no presumption of innocence,” said Democratic senator Chuck Schumer about the Kavanaugh confirmation process.
Ford was initially reported as saying that she told no one about the gang rape parties except her therapist (kind of), when the matter came up during couples’ therapy. But Wednesday, that story changed: four people close to Ford (including her husband) came forward to claim that Ford told them too — in the 2000’s.
Questions have also been raised regarding the media’s handling, or shaping, of this story:
The most recent individual to claim these rape parties happened is a woman named Julie Swetnick.
Swetnick’s allegations are bizarre, including claims that she was a witness to multiple gang rapes and yet she never reported them and she continued to go to the parties where the rapes were supposedly happening until she was allegedly raped too. She claimed in a statement that Kavanaugh and a friend of his were “present” when she became a “victim of one of these ‘gang’ or ‘train’ rapes” in 1982.
Judge Kavanaugh’s response was to state, “This is ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone. I don’t know who this is and this never happened.”
Then, 60 of Kavanaugh’s classmates sent a letter to the Senate about Swetnick’s ‘Nonsense’ gang rape allegation.
We are men and women who know Brett Kavanaugh well in high school. We have seen reports today that Julie Swetnick, who says she graduated from Gaithersburg high school, submitted a declaration to the committee alleging that Brett participated in horrific conduct during high school, including targeting girls for gang rape. Nonsense. We never witnessed any behavior that even approaches what is described in this allegation. It is reprehensible.
In the extensive amount we collectively spent with Brett, we do no recall having ever met someone name Julie Swetnick. Nor did we ever observe Brett engaging in conduct resembling that described in Miss Swetnick’s declaration.
Brett Kavanaugh is a good man. He has always treated women with respect and decency. He is a man of honor, integrity, and compassion. These shameful attacks must end. This process is a disgrace and is harming good people.
If we believe Kavanaugh’s accusers, it means that a whole lot of people are either incredibly mistaken, or lying.
About an outrageously improbable set of occurrences, and a scenario that impacts a man who was a well-respected judge long before Trump became president.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) launched a passionate defense of Kavanaugh during an extraordinary public hearing on Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Porn star lawyers with facially implausible claims are driving the news cycle,” Hatch said, referring to Michael Avenatti, who represents adult film star Stormy Daniels in her case against the president, as well as Swetnick.
“I hate to say this but this is worse than Robert Bork and I didn’t think it could get any worse than that,” Hatch said. “This is worse than Clarence Thomas. I didn’t think it could get any worse than that.”
Hatch called the hearing a “national disgrace,” echoing the frustrated appeal by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) from earlier in the hearing.
“We’re talking about Judge Kavanaugh’s conduct in high school,” Hatch said.
Ford related her allegation in painstaking detail during the first part of Thursday’s public hearing. She stated unequivocally multiple times that she is sure Kavanaugh was the man who assaulted her when she was 15 years old, pinning her down and putting his hand over her mouth. Kavanaugh in his 45-minute opening remarks forcefully denied the accusation, saying he never assaulted Ford.
So here we are: who to believe? To believe the women who have come forward is to believe that, back in the early 1980s high school gang rape parties took place with shocking frequency, leaving a long list of both victims and perpetrators. And yet no one said anything, no one suspected anything, and there was (and remains) no known physical evidence of assault.
All off which begs the question: how could this have happened?
Perhaps the fact that these events allegedly transpired in the early ’80s is significant. As The New York Times reminded us in 2014:
Starting in 1983, with accusations from a mother whose mental instability later became an issue in the case, the operators of a day care center near Los Angeles were charged with raping and sodomizing dozens of small children. The trial dragged on for years, one of the longest and costliest in American history. In the end, . . . lives were undone. But no one was ever convicted of a single act of wrongdoing. Indeed, some of the early allegations were so fantastic as to make many people wonder later how anyone could have believed them in the first place. Really now, teachers chopped up animals, clubbed a horse to death with a baseball bat, sacrificed a baby in a church and made children drink the blood, dressed up as witches and flew in the air — and all this had been going on unnoticed for a good long while until a disturbed mother spoke up?
Still, McMartin unleashed nationwide hysteria about child abuse and Satanism in schools. One report after another told of horrific practices, with the Devil often literally in the details.
Key McFarlane, then director of Children’s Institute International, examined and videotaped approximately 400 children using anatomically correct dolls.
McFarlane has been widely seen as one of the villains of the sordid affair, since at least the airing of the 1995 HBO film “Indictment: The McMartin Trial”.
A KCAL9 report from 2014 notes that, at the time of the McMartin case, McFarlane said:
“I’ve been working with sexually abused children for 13 years, and I have never seen children as frightened as these children.”
The thing was that, apart from the CII doctors, none of the 124 witnesses called during the trial, or 800 exhibits in court, offered an corroborating evidence to support the prosecutor’s allegations.
“I never did anything. My son didn’t do anything, nor my mother, my daughter, or any of the teachers,” Peggy Buckey said. “I just can’t imagine ever molesting a child.”
The trial dragged on for nearly three years.
With maximum publicity.
As Clyde Habermas wrote in The New York Times:
Criminal cases of dubious provenance abounded. One that received great attention involved Margaret Kelly Michaels, convicted in 1988 of rampant sexual abuse at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, N.J., where children said she had sexually abused them with knives, spoons and forks, and had urinated in their mouths. None showed signs of injury. Six years later, Ms. Michaels’s conviction was overturned. Another prominent case from those days involved charges of rape and sodomy brought against the operators of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, N.C. As with McMartin, there were bizarre allegations early on about babies being murdered and children thrown in with sharks. Though defendants were found guilty, their convictions were later overturned and charges were dropped.
Inevitably, perhaps, the mass frenzy over supposed Satanism and sexual predation invited comparisons to the Salem witch trials and to McCarthy-era excesses. Americans do seem prone episodically to this kind of fever. Witness the widespread panic a few decades ago when people around the country convinced themselves that evil neighbors were handing children poisoned Halloween candy and apples embedded with razor blades. Arthur Miller highlighted this phenomenon in his 1953 play, “The Crucible,” which invoked the Salem trials to comment on a contemporary abuse, the scattershot McCarthy hunt for Communists….
Of course, child abuse was then, and is now, an appalling reality in this country. So is false memory. The tricky part is sorting out which is which. If you have wondered whether it is possible that Woody Allen long ago sexually abused his and Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Dylan — and who has not wrestled with this explosive accusation and Mr. Allen’s insistent denial? — you readily appreciate the depth of the problem.
The Kavanaugh case differs from the child abuse cases, of course, in that the alleged victims are not children with fertile, suggestible minds ripe for inception or the implantation of false memories. Counterbalancing this, however, is the fact that politics are a factor — perhaps the key factor — in the Kavanaugh confirmation process, at a time when political lines in the United States are drawn very distinctly. Let us not forget that many view our Republican president as a threat to women’s rights as well as a “pussy grabbing” misogynist who cheated own his wife with a porn star. It would be desperately naive to imagine that no one would be willing to lie to stop a conservative judge’s confirmation to a lifetime job on the nation’s highest court.
Senator Lindsey Graham exploded across the dais in an outburst unusual even for a highly partisan body. “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open and hope you win in 2020,” he said.
Following Dr. Blasey’s riveting testimony, Thursday, Judge Kavanaugh took his turn before the Senate Judiciary Committee to proclaim his innocence, as well as his outrage.
He opened the second half of the high-stakes hearing with a scorched-earth defense, denying he had ever sexually assaulted someone and denouncing a “frenzy” bent on destroying his nomination.
“This confirmation process has become a national disgrace,” he said in an opening statement that he said he wrote himself on Wednesday. “The Constitution gives the Senate an important role in the confirmation process, but you have replaced ‘advice and consent’ with ‘search and destroy.’”
He condemned Democrats who he said had searched for reasons to sink him weeks before, only to turn to dark accusations. He pointed back at deep-seated liberal grudges, going back to the presidency of Bill Clinton and the victory of Mr. Trump as evidence of the animus. And he warned of dire consequences for the federal judiciary in decades ahead if nominees face a path like his.
And when he recounted his daughters praying last night for Dr. Blasey, he broke down in tears.
“My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false additional allegations,” he told the committee. But he vowed never to withdraw.