Tall Tales

When we were no more than four years old, angels used to fly through our bedroom window some nights, snatch us up, and hurtle us about the room. Then they dropped us awed and dizzy back into bed. Our memory of these visits is so exact we have absolutely no reason not to trust it, aside from the fact they never could have happened.

This experience came to mind a few nights ago as we watched a four-hour documentary on a child-abuse conspiracy in North Carolina. Perhaps no other crime, not even murder, puts a jury under a heavier obligation not to acquit the guilty. In this case 30 adults were implicated, all of them associated closely or casually with the Little Rascals day-care center in the pristine coastal town of Edenton. Seven of the adults were indicted on a total of 429 charges. The accusers were 29 little children, about the age we were when the angels came to visit.

There was no physical evidence that any of the children had been molested, and no witnesses except the children. Even they denied at first that “Mr. Bob” and his wife and staff and friends had done anything improper, but caring parents and attentive therapists began coaxing out the details. One clever mother is said to have refused her little girl dessert for three weeks until she told the truth.

When the truth began coming out in 1989 it came out in torrents. The revelations, according to the documentary, included Mr. Bob dressed like a clown and robbing a jewelry store, body parts strewn around the day-care center, a child tossed into shark-infested waters and saved by a two-year-old, Mr. Bob breaking into a child’s home and threatening to break his toys, and Mr. Bob and Ms. Betsy killing babies in outer space. The indictments steered clear of these allegations and instead focused on rape and sodomy and the insertion of various instruments into the children’s orifices. Mr. Bob was tried on 100 counts of child abuse and in 1992 convicted of 99.

“Think of this as like the Salem witch trials,” we told our 11-year-old daughter, who’d studied those trials in school. Our daughter finally went to bed, but we stayed up till 3 AM, fascinated by the spectacle of someone who seemed to us both terrified and entirely innocent sentenced to life in prison.

“Innocence Lost: The Verdict” is presented by Frontline and will be broadcast on Channel 11 next Tuesday and Wednesday, July 20 and 21, at nine o’clock. Frontline sends us plenty of preview tapes we never write about, but this show we can’t ignore. We don’t doubt the existence of child abuse; but when 30 heretofore reputable members of a community of 5,000 mount a conspiracy to despoil its children, then–as their accusers surely would agree–some strange form of evil is afoot.

We spoke the other day with the producer of “Innocence Lost,” Ofra Bikel, and asked her if the people of Edenton are fundamentalists. “I don’t know what you call fundamentalist,” she said. “They’re really good Americans. They’re churchgoing. They’re the sort of people if you go on a long plane ride and they sit next to you, you’re very happy.”

We realized what we were doing. We were constructing pigeonholes. Worse, we were trying to explain Edenton by demonizing its people. We told Bikel this.

“In a way it’s a mistake,” she agreed. “It’s not understanding it. I tell you, it’s people you’d love to meet.”

Bikel is a native Israeli now working in New York. She went on, “Somebody interviewed me the other day and asked me, could it have happened in New York? I don’t know how to answer. I guess the answer is yes. It’s a very, very hard thing. Why do they believe it? Why do they think that? I don’t know, but they really, really believe it. They’re not vicious. They really believe the children were badly abused by 7 if not 30 people.”

But that’s ridiculous on the face of it, we said.

“Yeah, yeah. I tell you what the prosecutor says. The prosecutor says there were a lot of disguises. Some of the kids said there are five Mr. Bobs. Yes, there were. They were wearing disguises. One girl accused her father. But somebody disguised himself as her father to scare her.

“The children believed [the defendants] were killing babies because they were burying paper dolls and telling them they were killing babies.”

Could the prosecutors have believed this argument? Bikel is less cynical than we. “I think they believe in it, because otherwise they would be such vicious people,” she said. “I want to believe for their sake that they believe in it. If they don’t believe in it, I would give up.

“And the parents for sure believe it. How they believe it, why they believe it, I don’t know.”

Next week’s Frontline is Bikel’s second report from Edenton. In 1991, before the first trial, which was Mr. Bob’s, Bikel produced the original “Innocence Lost” and won an Emmy for it. (“Innocence Lost: The Verdict” includes some of that material.) She told us the parents of Edenton were slow to object to her first documentary. “They sort of were relieved, because they felt I didn’t misrepresent anyone,” Bikel said. “But they began to get a lot of calls, people began to bug them a lot, they were sent telegrams. They ended up being angry at me. They felt besieged. They just thought I was spiteful.

“I went to the trial, and a lot of people did not say hello to me. But I wanted to hear the children testify. I was told if I heard the children I would understand everything.” She did not.

“The prosecutor said, ‘Hah, hah, hah, I’m sure it’s the Emmy for fiction.’ He apparently mentions it whenever he can, and I assure you not in any complimentary way.”

Rage of Innocents

“Innocence Lost: The Verdict” provides no context for the events in Edenton beyond Edenton itself. It’s a colonial town rich in history. A local man was named by George Washington to the nation’s first Supreme Court.

Bikel does not attempt sociology. She does not explore hysteria, a term she says makes her uncomfortable. She doesn’t speak of celebrated child-abuse trials in other states, such as the McMartin Preschool case in California, in which seven child-care workers were accused of sexually abusing 360 children over a period of five years.

Bikel told us some mothers who sent their children to Little Rascals later blamed themselves. But she doesn’t raise the fashionable notion that a public troubled by the modern ways of raising children finds it easy to suspect the day-care centers to which they’ve been consigned.

And unaddressed by Bikel–and the prosecution–though not by the people of Edenton, is the theory that such evil springs from satanists performing ritual abuse.

Judy Abbott, a therapist in nearby Elizabeth City, treated 17 of the children. Bikel raises questions about her methods, but does not say that Abbott “has been active in lecturing about satanic cult ritual abuse.” We came across this description of the therapist in the new book Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend, written by Jeffrey Victor, a professor of sociology in New York. The publisher is Open Court, a Chicago press.

Victor, who touches on Edenton, writes that Roland Summit, a psychiatrist brought in to help the town understand what had happened to it, “calls ritual abuse of children ‘the most serious threat to children and to society that we must face in our lifetime.'”

“There are many more cases of real sexual abuse than we believe existed a decade ago,” Victor told us during a visit to Chicago, “but things have gone to the other extreme, where people who are accused of sexual abuse are believed guilty and have to be proven innocent. It’s gotten to be a gross overreaction to a real problem.”

Chilling as Ofra Bikel’s documentary is, it doesn’t strike the note of spiritual totalitarianism found in “Remembering Satan,” a two-part article by Lawrence Wright carried in the New Yorker this May. It’s about a case Victor knows well. Paul Ingram, a deputy sheriff in Olympia, Washington, and chairman of the local Republican Party, was accused by his two daughters of having had sex with them repeatedly since their early childhood.

Unlike the defendants in Edenton, Ingram did not insist on his innocence. Although at first he could remember nothing, he understood that the vaster his sins, the more likely he would have been to repress them. This logic proved invincible. With the help of a Pentecostal minister, first Ingram and then his wife began filling in the blanks. Ingram recalled details of satanic rituals. The testimony of the daughters (the elder especially) progressed to include goats, dogs, orgies, abortions, and the sacrifice and burial of babies. Ingram implicated two friends, and Ingram’s wife recalled a ritual in the woods that found her strapped naked to a table and covered with blood from a bleeding book.

Eventually Ingram pleaded guilty. He went to prison and his elder daughter went on Sally Jessy Raphael.

Not every accused parent is so credulous. Victor sits on the professional advisory board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which was founded by accused parents reacting to what hit them. The foundation is just 16 months old, but it already claims at least 4,000 member families–that is, families in which one or both parents were accused of incest by grown children (usually daughters). “My God, that’s the tip of the iceberg,” Victor told us. “How much is going on out there?”

About 18 percent of these accusations, Victor said, involve allegations of satanic-cult ritual abuse.

“A lot of feminists now believe these stories, not just fundamentalists,” said Victor, applying language Bikel won’t. “A lot of feminists or pseudofeminists. I used that word carefully. They see sexual abuse as just another way women are harmed and not listened to.”

The foundation is supported by psychologists and psychiatrists such as himself, who “question the whole notion of repressed memory, which has been a part of the popular culture since Freud. I would say this is the major psychological and psychiatric issue of the decade.”

Stylistic Changes

The Tribune cut a million and a half dollars from its editorial budget this week and not by nibbling at various edges. The Wednesday Style section will publish one last time on July 21, then disappear. Advertisers can call Womanews, which a lot of them had been doing anyway. The Style staff was astonished; last week the talk around the section had been about hiring a new reporter.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C.M. Haradt.