Books

In Brief...

Capsule reviews of four new books

We Believe the Children:

A Moral Panic in the 1980s

By Richard Beck

PublicAffairs, 352 pp., $26

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It began in the summer of 1983 with one mother’s allegation that her son had been sexually abused at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The resulting investigation and trials lasted until 1990, a span that also encompassed dozens of other cases in which day-care workers and other adults were accused of harming children, running pornography rings, and engaging in ritual satanic abuse. Many rallied around the imperative to believe the children who said they had been abused, but transcripts of the McMartin Preschool children’s interviews reveal adults manipulating, coaching, and even threatening children until they received the accusations they wanted to hear. “You’re just a scaredy cat,” therapist and investigator Kee MacFarlane told one 5-year-old boy who repeatedly said he hadn’t experienced or seen any abuse. “Well, what good are you?” she said to another child who wouldn’t confirm MacFarlane’s suggestions that he must have witnessed sexual games at McMartin, concluding, “You must be dumb.”

“Social hysteria is born of an unmanageable surplus of anxiety and fear,” Richard Beck writes, and in this sharp, sensitive debut he deftly examines all the forces that came together in this strange moment in our history. Worry about women’s roles and the strength of the American family converged with trends in psychology, mass media, politics, and law enforcement. Beck argues, quite convincingly, that paranoia over day-care abuse represented both “a powerful instrument of the decade’s resurgent sexual conservatism” and “a warning to mothers who thought they could keep their very young children safe” while working outside the home. In the end, although two defendants spent years in jail, the McMartin case resulted in no convictions, and it’s difficult to disagree with that result. Despite the rhetoric of respect for children, Beck writes, “People associated with the day care and ritual abuse cases only believed children when they told stories that conformed to their adult advocates’ conspiracy theories and lurid fantasies.”

Girl in Glass:

How My “Distressed Baby” Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles

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By Deanna Fei


Bloomsbury, 320 pp., $26

Born at just 25 weeks gestation, weighing 1 pound 9 ounces, Deanna Fei’s baby daughter Mila hovered on the edge of life, surviving a serious brain bleed, a collapsed lung, and other complications of what the neonatologist calls “catastrophic” birth. “Her fingers are so tiny that they’re less like fingers than like the fins of a minnow, the tendrils of a pea,” Fei writes. “But they grasp at my finger.” Fei, a novelist and essayist, writes with precision, grace, and a devastating honesty. She tackles the guilt, worry, and fear that attend a life spent half in the neonatal intensive care unit with her Mila, half in her Brooklyn home with son Leo, still a baby of 13 months when his sister arrived so early. The comparisons are brutal: “If my first days with my son were spent celebrating new life, this is communing with death: its constant proximity, its heavy sorrow.”

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Fei’s concerns expand from her own family to the wider world when she learns that her husband’s boss, AOL chairman Tim Armstrong, mentioned two employees’ “distressed babies” in explaining changes to the company’s 401K policy. Suddenly thrust into a national conversation about health care costs and corporate responsibility, Fei finds herself fielding media requests and facing “the torment of suddenly being viewed, first and foremost, as financial liabilities.” The book’s final section — not as exquisite as earlier parts, but perhaps more necessary — explores the philosophical and policy questions raised by prematurity. In the end, she writes, Mila’s story “illustrates for me how children like her not only challenge but ultimately affirm our shared humanity.”

Barefoot to Avalon:

A Brother’s Story

By David Payne

Atlantic Monthly, 304 pp., $26

His first memory, David Payne writes, is learning at age 3 of his younger brother’s impending birth, then picking up his toy gun, aiming at his mother’s pregnant belly, and pulling the trigger. In this moving, often painful memoir, Payne writes about George A., (the initial is part of the name; it’s a Southern thing), his “oldest competitor and ally,” a sweet, beautiful boy who grows into a troubled man. Alcoholic and bipolar, George A. dies at age 42 on the highway while helping David move from Vermont back to their native North Carolina.

The author of five novels, Payne unflinchingly chronicles his own family’s pain, from dramatic stories of violence and alcoholism to quieter but no less devastating blows: failed marriages, lost loves, unfinishable books. “I believed that family love was stronger than time or death, except it wasn’t,” he writes in one of the memoir’s recurring refrains — and one senses that the book’s bitterness stems from how thoroughly this childlike hope was thwarted. Payne delights in long, pounding sentences, which sometimes get lost in their own looping musicality; at their best, they contain stunning moments like this, a description of a sibling love-hate bond that so many readers will understand intimately: “I loved him, but there’s that other part, you see, that wished to beat him.”

The Man in the Monster:

An Intimate Portrait of a Serial Killer

By Martha Elliott

Penguin, 336 pp., $27.95

Becoming friends with a serial killer was not what Martha Elliott had in mind. When Michael Ross entered Elliott’s life, it was as a convicted murderer who sent letters and editorials to the Connecticut Law Tribune, the journal she was then editing and publishing. He wrote that he hoped to be put to death, as he had originally been sentenced before the Connecticut Supreme Court overruled it. Ross explained that while he personally opposed the death penalty, he felt that only by dying could he express his remorse and help his victims’ families heal. Thus began a 10-year friendship, which ended with Ross’s eventual execution in 2005.

An experienced journalist, Elliott digs deeply into Ross’s past — a horrific childhood, his growing attraction to sexual sadism — and tracks her own emerging sympathy for a man who killed eight woman, and raped and assaulted more. “I saw all too clearly the incredible damage he had done,” she writes, but she found herself drawn to a man she saw as “soft-spoken, self-effacing, and even funny.” Sturdily written and well researched (save a few bizarre quotes from a notorious anti-medication crusader), the book will appeal to those curious about why killers kill, and those who can stomach what they learn.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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