A moral panic in the 1980s

This is the first of two outstanding articles by Julia Yost in First Things. She reviews We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s by Richard Beck
public affairs, 352 pages, $26.99. The article has direct relevance to the ‘Pell Affair’.

Children of Desire
by Julia Yost

My sister and I were preschoolers in the 1980s. Once upon an afternoon, our mother instructed us: If ever she were unable to pick us up and had to send another grownup in her stead, she would impart to that grownup a “secret word.” If ever a grownup approached us, neighbor or stranger, claiming that our mother wanted us to go with him in his car, we were to require of him this “secret word.” If he did not know it, we should run to the nearest policeman. We rehearsed. Our mother: “Hi, little girls. [Lies, lies, lies.] Why don’t you get in my car?” Our line was: “What’s the secret word?”

It was snickerdoodle, if you want to know. It never did turn out to be useful. Our mother was reacting to news reports that America was creeping and crawling with child predators. These were people undetectable by the casual observer but secretly organized in rings or cults dedicated to the violation of children, whether recreationally or as stipulated by satanic rites. Often they operated preschools or daycare centers as fronts for culling. Read on…