No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times
by Dorothy Rabinowitz
Free Press. 239 pp. $25.00
The witchcraft trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 are an appallingly fascinating episode in our history. Thanks to Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible (1952), they have also become a supposedly essential piece of our national self-understanding—essential, that is, from the liberal point of view. In representing the Salem trials as a proxy for the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950’s, Miller suggested that America was a country prone to inquisitorial rampages, ever on the lookout for imaginary malefactors to punish in order to satisfy a simplistic worldview of good versus evil.
With that in mind, one might have thought that the country’s most prominent progressives would have leaped to the bars, benches, and barricades to defend the falsely accused when allegations of mass sexual abuse against children erupted in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These were cases, after all, in which outlandish, ever-escalating charges were leveled at totally innocent people, in which gross violations of due process and constitutional rights were committed, and in which terribly wrongful convictions were obtained.
But one would have been wrong. Instead, it was left to a single reporter, the heroic Dorothy Rabinowitz, to undertake in-depth investigations of the worst of these cases and to bring their horrifying transgressions of justice to the attention of a wider public. Eventually, her work helped to secure the legal and financial assistance necessary to free most of the victims—but not before lives were shattered, livelihoods lost, savings exhausted, families destroyed, and miserable years passed in prison.
Even now, while some unfortunates still languish in jail, and contrived sexual-abuse charges remain toxically potent weapons, no new Arthur Miller has emerged to write a play or produce so much as a movie of the week. But we do have Rabinowitz’s riveting new book, No Crueler Tyrannies, based on the brilliant investigative articles, mostly for the Wall Street Journal, that helped earn her a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. And that is quite enough for the present.
Rabinowitz relates six awful tales. Two of them—those of Patrick Griffin of New York City and John Carroll of Troy, New York—stemmed from trumped-up charges brought by just one source. In a third case, that of Grant Snowden of Miami, prosecutors kept filing charges even after his first trial ended in acquittal, and finally found two coachable children to help convict him. The other three cases were instances of government-orchestrated mass hysteria. Here Rabinowitz describes the persecutions endured by Margaret Kelly Michaels, a young Maplewood, New Jersey nursery-school teacher sentenced in 1988 to 47 years in prison on 115 counts of child abuse; the story of the 40 residents of Wenatchee, Washington arrested in 1995 as members of a child-abuse “sex ring”; and the nightmare of the Amirault family of Maiden, Massachusetts, the most notorious of the cases and the one that, for Rabinowitz, subsumes the evils of the others.
The ordeal of sixty-year-old Violet Amirault and her adult children, Gerald and Cheryl, began in 1984. Worried about the behavior of her young son, a mother at the Fells Acres Day School, which the Amiraults had successfully operated together for many years, prodded the boy to tell of anything strange that might have been done to him. The child dimly recalled an instance in which Gerald had changed his underwear (as it would later emerge, the child had wet himself). Then, after months of questioning, the boy began to talk about sexual acts.
The mother called the child-abuse hotline. In short order, the police arrested Gerald, closed down the school, and began coaching parents on how to elicit charges of molestation from their children, instructing them not to accept denials and to see such ordinary problems as bed-wetting and loss of appetite as signs of abuse. Charges began pouring forth, and Violet and Cheryl were also arrested.
The district attorney and prosecutors enlisted the help of therapists, social workers, and abuse experts, who spent months interviewing the three-, four-, and five-year-old children and preparing them to testify. Tapes and transcripts of the sessions reveal that the tykes did their best to hold on to the truth, but that their implacable inquisitors eventually managed to break them down. A pediatric nurse, Susan Kelley, was especially gifted in these techniques, promising rewards and telling children that they were “helping” the adults by making charges. Armed with anatomically correct dolls and puppets, Kelley refused to rest until weary tots finally pointed to a penis, vagina, or rectum.
The Amiraults were accused of preposterous violations of the children in their care—shoving pencils, sticks, and knives into their orifices (while leaving no signs of injury), tying them naked to trees in broad daylight in front of the other teachers, forcing them to watch the killing and dismemberment of animals, and making them drink urine. They were accused of taking the children to a “magic room” in which clowns wielding wands undressed and assaulted them and took their pictures. At trial, the children (now between the ages of six and eight) were permitted to testify while looking away from the defendants, in violation of both the Massachusetts and U.S. constitutions. In the proceedings against Violet and Cheryl, the judge permitted the prosecution to intimate, without any evidence whatsoever, that they were somehow involved in child pornography.
All three Amiraults were convicted of multiple counts of rape and indecent assault and battery. Violet and Cheryl spent eight years in prison before their convictions were overturned, only to see them reinstated a year and a half later. At that point, seventy-three-year-old Violet passed from this world, bitter and broken. In 1999, after fifteen years of living hell, Cheryl was able to get her sentence reduced to “time served,” though she remains on probation. Gerald, sentenced to a term of 30 to 40 years, is still in jail, his young family having grown to adulthood during his incarceration.
Rabinowitz relates these incredible stories with spare, controlled intensity. She pours scorn on the fools and zealots of the legal system while making vivid the devastation that they wreaked upon the victims and their families. One finishes this fast-paced book feeling a little like Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, who emerges from the dark forest after a night of witnessing Satanic revels, his faith in human nature shattered.
It is not that the cases lack heroes. There were clearheaded judges who reversed unjust decisions; lawyers who worked long hours, often pro bono, to provide counsel and mount appeals; ordinary friends and neighbors who refused to believe the charges; and generous philanthropists and great-hearted readers of the Wall Street Journal who poured out funds. Thanks to their efforts, and thanks especially to Rabinowitz herself, many of the victims of these modern-day witch-hunts have been vindicated.
But the hall of shame is much larger. In the Amirault case alone, the villains include the obsessed, unappeasable district attorneys and prosecutors of Middlesex County; the disgraceful dolts of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, who frustrated at least a half-dozen attempts to exonerate or free the Amiraults; and Jane Swift, who as acting governor of Massachusetts yielded to obscure political pressure and turned down the recommendation of the notoriously tough Massachusetts parole board to release Gerald Amirault and put an end to this dreadful case.
One hungers to know more about the larger forces that permitted these outrages to occur. Rabinowitz lays some of the blame, in passing, on “advanced political opinion,” which has created an aura of piety around claims of violation made by women and children. On this view, as Rabinowitz writes, to side with the falsely accused would have been “to undermine the battle against child abuse; it was to betray children and all other victims of sexual predators.” Even to raise questions about these cases would have been tantamount, in the opinion of one of the Amiraults’ tormentors, to victimizing the children all over again.
One might also point an accusing finger at our schools of law and social work, where whole cadres of professionals have been trained to survey every social setting for evidence of “oppression” and victimization. As if to prove the point, the experts involved in winning the original conviction against the Amiraults met afterward to congratulate themselves in a seminar titled “The Fells Acres Day School Case: A Model Multidisciplinary Response.”
Our culture’s gross sexualization of children is undoubtedly part of the problem as well, creating worries that did not exist a generation or two ago. Many of the parents in these cases plainly found relief in the pillorying of individuals who seemed to embody their own worst fears. Finally, and not to be underestimated, simple, old-fashioned careerism and self-promotion played their part in the actions of various public officials.
It would take far more than the modest, politicized talent of an Arthur Miller to do justice to the range of human failings and vices on display in these cases. But with her impassioned, relentless pen, Dorothy Rabinowitz has come very close, in an achievement for which all of us must be grateful.