I have just finished reading No Crueler Tyrannies by Dorothy Rabinowitz. This book is about false cases of child abuse, some of which gained national attention, mostly in the 1980s, and what happened to the accused (all were convicted; all but one have now been released from prison). I was interested in it because I like to follow cases of mass hysteria, and I like books that look back thoughtfully at situations that were not so clear when we were living through them.
Boy, oh, boy, though: after reading Ann Crittenden's meticulously researched and carefully annotated book, I have to say this one is a fresh outrage perpetrated on the American public. And it's by a Pulitzer Prize winner. Well, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist should know how to tell a story coherently; Rabinowitz covers immensely complex cases, like one in Washington State in which more than forty people in a small town were accused of participating in a highly organized sex ring, in single short chapters. New names appear and disappear in a single sentence; it's impossible to follow the narrative, or to understand how things escalated from a single accusation by a young girl to a whole town being under siege.
And shouldn't she have at least, say, one footnote? Or a list of sources? Neither appears; even direct quotes are unattributed. If she were one of my writing students, I'd be scrawling snidely in the margin, "How do you know this? How can readers verify it? Are we just supposed to take your word for it?"
The other snide teacher note I'd be scrawling: "What's the point?" Rabinowitz devotes two-hundred-odd breakneck pages (with very large type and generous leading--"Do you think I can't tell you're padding your paper to meet the minimum page requirement?") to simply telling stories: this happened, then this happened, and then this happened. She doesn't ever bother to stop and ask why. She does, in an epilogue, report that at least one prosecutor in a day-care abuse case has admitted that he never believed some of the children's claims (such as that they were sexually penetrated by butcher knives without suffering any visible injury). But she doesn't seem to wonder why he prosecuted the case anyway. She doesn't wonder why parents participated in compelling their children to testify to abuse the children originally denied, or why the investigators who interviewed the children resorted to such obviously coercive tactics as offering children rewards for "admitting" abuse, or asking questions like, "Where did he put his penis? In your mouth, between your legs, or in your bottom?" of children who had just denied ten times running that any sexual contact had occurred. She doesn't seem to have any sense of the social climate of the time that might have contributed to credulity in these cases, or to a mentality that it might be better to err on the side of believing even incredible claims made by children rather than risk having abusers go free. There's a bigger story to how these cases came about, but Rabinowitz can't be bothered to do the work of telling it.
Some of what is in the book is disturbing: the interview techniques, the politically-motivated prosecutions (the one convicted "abuser" still behind bars would be free except for a politically-motivated decision by a struggling governor not to honor the commutation board's recommendation to commute his sentence), the ruined lives of both "victims" and "perpetrators."
That is, it's disturbing if it's true. Rabinowitz is such a shoddy and irresponsible writer I wouldn't feel comfortable repeating any of her assertions without confirmation from a more reliable source. Having this book in my house makes me feel defiled. I can't wait to get it back to the library--if I don't decide to compost it first, as a public service.Posted by Su Penn at November 15, 2003 01:24 AM | TrackBack