Believing Women and Children and Forgetting History

Several women have accused Marilyn Manson of emotional abuse, physical violence, and sexual assault. These allegations first came to light in February 2021, when actor Evan Rachel Wood named Manson as her abuser in an Instagram post.

In the wake of Wood’s accusations, several other women came forward with similar stories of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of Manson. Manson has denied the allegations, describing them as “horrible distortions of reality.”

In 1984, news reports that hundreds of children had been abused at a California preschool fueled moral panic sweeping the nation. 

The accusations against Manson have damaged his career and reputation. Several venues and festivals canceled his scheduled performances and he was dropped by his record label and talent agency. Several actors who had previously worked with Manson condemned his behavior.

But is there any forensic of compelling circumstantial evidence in support of the accusations? One of the accusers, Ashley Morgan Smithline, has come forward to say that she was manipulated and pressured by Wood into making her allegations.

In a declaration filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court last week, Smithline said the accusations were not true and that she had succumbed to pressure to make the allegations after Wood repeatedly told her that just because she couldn’t remember “did not necessarily mean that it did not happen.”

“While at first I knew Mr. Warner did not do these things to me, eventually I began to question whether he actually did,” Smithline said. Smithline’s statement points to a widespread problem in our society: the manipulation of people into believing things happened than did not or could not have happened.

If we didn’t finally learn the inherent problem with believing things people say without any forensic or compelling circumstantial evidence during the Satanic panic, then I truly fear for the future of truth and justice. One’s identity—as a child or a woman—has no bearing on whether one tells the truth or tells lies or grasped reality.

People lie. People are mistaken. People are manipulated. People misremember. People are malevolent. Etcetera. There is no rational reason to believe a person without evidence. Indeed, we err on the side of the accused because the accuser has the burden of proof.

The person making the accusation has the burden to prove the accusation beyond a reasonable doubt with reason and evidence. Being accused of something and having to prove you didn’t do it is near impossible.

This is why the argument that we should believe in God because we can’t prove God doesn’t exist is so irrational. The default position is not to believe a person who says he was abducted by aliens. Maybe he was. Where is the proof?

Slogans cannot substitute for proof. Hashtags are propaganda. They are evidence of nothing except the desire to push an agenda.

During the Satanic panic of the 1980s, children across the country were telling parents that they were being used by day care workers as ritual subjects by satanic cults. Scores of reputations were ruined because of the fanciful imagination of children made even more real by parents and authorities determined without any evidence to believe the children over the day care workers.

The McMartin Preschool case is the paradigm. It involved allegations of child abuse and satanic ritual abuse against staff members at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California.

The case began in 1983 when a parent accused a staff member at the McMartin Preschool of sexually abusing her child based on something the child told her. Soon after, other parents came forward with similar allegations of abuse. The accusations quickly snowballed. It turned into a moral panic. This was because everybody was saying, “Believe the children.”

The investigation led to the arrest and prosecution of seven staff members at the McMartin Preschool, including the school’s owner, Virginia McMartin, and her son, Raymond Buckey. It was one of the longest and most expensive trials in American history and unfolded like something from a Kafka novel. 

The prosecution’s case was blown when the children’s allegations were found to be based on false memories or contradicted by physical evidence. In 1990, after seven years of legal proceedings and two trials, all charges against the accused were dropped, with no convictions. Now adults, many of the children continue to believe they were ritually abused. 

Others regained their hold on reality. One of the children, Kyle Zirpolo, admitted in 2005 that he had fabricated the allegations. In fact, he had never met the man he accused of abusing him.

The McMartin Preschool case had a significant impact on the way that child abuse cases are investigated and prosecuted in the United States. It led to a greater emphasis on the use of forensic evidence and the use of trained interviewers in the questioning of children. It also raised questions about the reliability of children’s testimony in criminal cases and the potential for false allegations of abuse to be made.

Here is my recommended default position for rational people: Believe nothing unless there is clear forensic and compelling circumstantial evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused.

What people say about things that happen to them is the worst possible evidence there is. Eyewitness testimony and confessions are not to be trusted in light of the history of false accusation and wrongful arrest, conviction, and imprisonment. 

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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