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It's all about control. If you feel you have lost control over and have no explanations for very important aspects of life, things you can't bear to confront consciously, then you look about to see what you can control, or think you can, and try to explain them. If you can't explain and search for a solution to the biggest problems, you try to find a problem you can control, or, at least, try to explain. Your repressed fears become an atmosphere you can't escape, an intolerable burden to your emotional self, and you look around for something you can project your fear onto, and then attack it. Or, lacking the ability to do battle with it yourself, get authority figures to do battle with it for you. And, all the while, the real cause of your fear, a proverbial elephant in the living room, goes unmentioned and ignored while you and, perhaps, your friends, neighbors, relatives, and others fasten on something else as the culprit, something you can deal with -- which may not even be real. This is how mob violence starts, often aided and abetted by powerful people who can use such fear and violence to further their own aims. It's also how many political movements have gotten their start, and it is rarely productive of anything save a great deal of noise, lots of confusion, and grave injustices which may end up disrupting or even ending the lives of innocent bystanders accidentally caught up in human mayhem directed at a nebulous or even imaginary target. If you feel that your life is spiraling out of control for reasons that have little or nothing to do with you, the human need for the feeling of having control over our lives is such that you are very likely to fasten on something, anything, that gives you at least the deeply-felt illusion that things are under your control, or could be. And it on just that dynamic that so many lives have been heavily damaged or actually destroyed by well-meaning, badly frightened people down through history. If nothing else, the witch-hunts ancient and modern -- the ones of the Middle Ages as well as the political witch-hunts of the 20th Century -- certainly testify to that.

During the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the whole world, the unconscious, deeply repressed fears of nuclear Apocalypse so many Americans suffered from erupted in rumors and speculations that at least one or as many as twenty satanic covens were lurking in every neighborhood, seducing youngsters into engaging in "the occult," kidnapping young women to be bred to produce babies which would then be sacrificed to Satan, and otherwise doing everything to bring about The Triumph of Evil. More and more Americans, from frightened homemakers to prominent businessmen as well as numerous members of various civilian police forces, were drawn into such beliefs thinking, with so much smoke, there must be fire around here somewhere. By the end of the 1980s, especially thanks to tabloid journalism and television specials, numerous people who had done no real harm were rotting away in prison, their pleas for justice unheeded by not only the general public but also the courts, in prison on the strength of accusations that had no actual basis in fact. All in the service of deeply repressed fears about nuclear Apocalypse and all the horror it might wreak at any moment, given conscious expression in the form of satanic figures who didn't exist, institutional child-molesters who had molested no one, and a paranoia that in some areas seemed to swell and swell until they encompassed whole neighborhoods, communities, towns, cities, and perhaps even states.

And, right on cue, in the latter half of the year 1991, with the downfall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it all came to a screeching -- and, one hopes, a shame-faced blushing -- halt.

As described in Richard Beck's We Believe the Children, during the 1980s in states ranging from California, Oregon, and Washington to New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and many others, day-care workers were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted of perpetrating horrific sexual crimes against the very children they cared for. Social workers, prosecutors, and psychiatrists and psychologists employed by local and state governments said that these crimes had gone undetected for years, consisting of a sadistic brutality that defied all imagining. The dangers of day-care centers and babysitting services became fixations of national news media, especially the tabloids and Geraldo-style "investigative reporting." Of the many hundreds of people who were investigated in connection with day-care and ritual abuse cases all over the country, more than 190 were formally charged with such crimes, leading to more than 80 being convicted. As in the time in Europe of the great, literal witch-hunts that took place when weather, famine, disease, and war made life utterly uncertain for the common run of people, America in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the McCarthyite Communist "witch"-hunts, and the post-bellum American South before the energetic pursuit of civil rights for both black Americans and the poor whites -- both kept "down" by authorities over them by aiming the two groups at each other in order to make sure that neither group would turn against those who had them both in their power, the "satanic," ritual-abuse, and child-molestation fears of the American people in the 1980s were driven by unconscious fears of things most Americans had no control over and which could conceivably lead to their doom.

Years later, people began to realize what the defendants had said all along: that these persecutions wee the product of a decade-long outbreak of collective hysteria on a par with all earlier instances of group fears about nebulous and even imaginary evils in the face of real and uncontrollable evils, whether of war, famine, and pestilence, or literal witches, or Communists, or any of the other things that frantic people fasten on as foci for their fears and targets to be taken down and destroyed, all in the name of unconscious terror as impossible to deny as Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984 terror of being eaten alive by rats.

Beautifully written and meticulously documented, author Richard Beck shows how a group of legislators, doctors, lawyers, and parents -- most having only the best of intentions (but we all know what that road is paved with!) -- set the stage for a cultural disaster. The climate of terror that surrounded these cases influenced an entire series of discussions about women, children, and sex. It also drove a right-wing cultural resurgence which in many respects continues to this day, especially among the religious right, driven by, among other things, the specter of radical Islamic fundamentalism and the horrors perpetrated by such extremist groups as Islamic State. And the terrible existential insecurities underpinning all such cases of group hysteria show no sign of abating. In fact, they are likely to get worse over time, as will the group hysterias that are then associated with them. Reading this book will give the reader at least some preparation for dealing with whatever the future brings of such uncertainties, be the latter concerned with crop failures, weird and unpredictable weather, wars and rumors of war, catastrophically failing economies, ghastly emerging diseases, or a combination of all of these.

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Yael Dragwyla

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