111019Tavris2March 26, 2012

How did the moral panic over day-care ritual abuse spread so widely? Did some undetected psychotropic waft from Manhattan Beach to Edenton to Christchurch, New Zealand?

I was reminded of that lingering question while reading the smart and lively “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts” (2007).

Although Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson address the day-care panic only briefly, their reference to the McMartin case having produced “copycat accusations against day care teachers across the country” caught my attention. Yes, the timing, pattern and similarity of these cases suggest conscious imitation, but I haven’t seen the evidence.

“We didn’t mean ‘copycat’ literally,” Tavris explains in an e-mail. “It’s just that the McMartin hysteria scared people, and got them worried about their own local day care centers, and motivated DAs and cops to advance their careers by finding these villains… and thereby launched a thousand other efforts to find molesters under the bed and in the day care classrooms…. That’s what a hysterical epidemic means.”

Coincidentally, I’ve been corresponding with Michael Hill, professor of sociology at Victoria University of Wellington, who has traced outbreaks in New Zealand and Australia directly to visits from such American Appleseeds as Roland Summit and Kee MacFarlane.