06/27/2012 05:28 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Remembering the McMartin Case

For those who can recall it, Virginia McMartin's face remains a strange one. Neither defiant nor dejected, its eyebrows always hoisted high above a huge pair of tinted glasses, it got a lot of laughs in the eighties, when McMartin, like most members of her immediate family, was on trial for sexually abusing numerous children at the preschool that she had founded, and that bore her name. In her late seventies when the trial started, McMartin was, some said, a fat old woman whose jowls would jiggle in the presence of naked children, and whose beady eyes would brighten at the sight of pedophiliac festivals, in which she was said to participate.

She was a satanic ritualist, too, or so read the headlines at the time. But as the testimony of child after child yielded contradictory remarks and outright lies, and as the malfeasance of the D.A.'s office crept into common knowledge, McMartin became what she'd always appeared to be, even beneath a banner of outré accusations: just another elderly, overweight woman with stiff gray hairs shooting out from her trembling head like frayed fiber optic cables. She could have succumbed to the pressure to confess, or accused her grandson, Ray, whose own physical appearance was said to be more suspect, since his gleaming little eyes weren't obscured behind a pair of ridiculous granny glasses. But she remained stoic throughout her public ordeal. When producers were casting the role for the inevitable made-for-TV movie, they seized the great Sada Thompson; she brought her quiet dignity to a woman whose own had been hidden amid hysteria.

The movie in question wasn't just any cable quickie. It was an HBO original. Titled Indictment: The McMartin Trial, it took an uncompromising approach to the kind of witch hunt that allegedly functions "for the children," and that seeks to rid society of suspected pedophiles. It's a searing account of what in 1990 was labeled the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history, and it was produced just five years after all of the charges were dropped. Before the redundant "reevaluations" of the documentaries of yore (which yielded the recent Grey Gardens and Cinema Vérité), and before the period-piece porn of a Hemingway & Gellhorn, HBO offered brutal topicality; it was the home of the muckraking TV movie, and it took a film like Indictment to help chasten those who had called for the murder of the McMartins.

Today, even left-leaning folks are calling for the killing of Jerry Sandusky, whose recent conviction has occasioned further reflection. Beyond the requisite rue surrounding Sandusky's alleged victims, we're permitting ourselves to feel superior to those who didn't intervene in the right ways. But have we forgotten about the McMartin case? I came of age in a climate of neoliberal hysteria, in which a false accusation seemed preferable to any form of inaction. The lessons both of the distant McCarthy era and of the egregiously recent McMartin trial seemed to have been lost somehow.

McCarthy and McMartin are now sacred cows, the former an example of the kind of ambitious evil that only a maven of mass media could combat, and the latter an indication of the innocence that can emerge even amid juridical incompetence. We're satisfied, I think, by the outcomes of both cases. (And if we begin to fear anew, then a Clooney flick can help.) The alleged lesson of McCarthy is that left-leaning Ed Murrow could handily slay the sweaty dragon. But the lesson of the McMartin trial is not that simple. It has more to do with fighting punitive hysteria, as Indictment so powerfully suggests, than with feeling safe in the knowledge that innocence can survive six years of wild criminal trials. Memories of the McMartin case offer some of the best defenses against a mob mentality. That's worth considering as we continue to review Sandusky's conviction.

Consider the purely punitive tenor of most accounts of the Penn State scandal, and the preponderance of cultural commentators who call for the criminalization of anyone who didn't swiftly, conclusively cure the insulated ills of the school's football program, or "save the children," as if either outcome were truly achievable. One of the effects of sexual abuse is, of course, the production of shame, which is shapeless, contagious, and corrosive. Who's to say where systematic abuse begins, where it ends, and why? There are too many villains and variables for traditional heroism to make an immediate impact. "I'd have known how to handle him," the average blowhard will say of some violent criminal. "This fist to his face? Forget about it!" I won't dwell on the appalling gender stereotypes that emerge in most critiques of Mike McQueary, except to say that brawny men can be traumatized into inaction, too.

While I can well anticipate the blanket denunciation that will come of my calling for caution, I can also expect a degree of vindication in the fake scandals that are forthcoming. This is, after all, America. And this is the climate that our partly self-aggrandizing outrage has created. We keep telling ourselves that we can't abide another long-lasting, Sandusky-style scandal, but how, in the future, will we nip it in the bud? By firing someone who seems "suspicious"? By excommunicating a man who maintains an interest in helping disadvantaged kids? I myself was once the deeply grateful beneficiary of such charitable concern, of such kid-conscious humanity. I would hate to see it disappear out of collective fear.

I realize that, given the relatively high number of actual witnesses to Sandusky's crimes, his case is unique. It can't be married to the McMartin affair. However, its attendant hysteria can. After all, even in what appears to be a clear instance of illness and corruption, there are countless caveats. That is not to say that pedophiliac rape represents a gray area, but to argue against maintaining the kind of criminalizing vigilance that will, if recent cultural history offers any indication, brutalize the innocent and, paradoxically, allow sexual abuse to persist by providing it with other outlets, other areas of experience in which to operate. By hysterically monitoring certain sectors (college sports, say, or secondary education), we obviously allow others to become ripe for criminal co-optation. But we also, I suspect, develop a degree of self-satisfaction that can foster further criminality, creating traditional villains and false accusers alike. Isn't it possible, even probable, that our fear of being the next McQueary will make us see things that aren't even there? If the McMartin trial taught us anything, it's that we should resist the kangaroo court as rightly and as roundly as we resist the abuse of children.