A few weeks ago I did a piece on a woman named Meredith Maran. She’s the one who’s just written a book about the 1980’s hysteria regarding the sexual abuse of children.
Maran dealt with our most recent Salem witch trials in which the witches were almost all men. She was a part of that hysteria, eventually coming to believe that her father had abused her. She now admits that she had convinced herself that she had “recovered memories” of abuse. What she had was the type of suggestible mind that was easily led to believe a lie (her word, not mine).
Maran’s book is just the latest to pull back the curtain on an entire industry that terrorized countless innocent Americans and sent a fair number of them to prison. So convinced were those people of their own righteousness that an entire field of law eventually grew up to correct their techniques for questioning children.
Their modus operandi was simple – keep asking the child over and over about what daddy, teacher, etc. had done to them and not take ‘no,’ or even repeated no’s, for an answer. The little kids, staunch at first in their denials, eventually figured out what the adults wanted and gave it to them. Far from deterring them, the lurid, often absurd, sometimes impossible stories the children concocted were swallowed whole by parents, police and prosecutors intent on vengence.
Amazingly, Maran retails all of that and more, but, in an interview with Salon.com, said that, in the final analysis, if the hysteria protected children, then it was worth it. I questioned at the time whether she would say such a thing if her father had spent years in prison because of her false allegations.
Now comes this excellent documentary by ABC’s 20/20 (ABC, 10/28/10). It’s the heartrending saga of a Vancouver, Washington police officer named Ray Spencer. Back in the early 1980s, he was married and had two children, Matt and Katy. His problem was that he was a bit of a rake. Though married, he had multiple affairs and eventually his wife divorced him and took the children, then aged 5 and 2, to California to live with her.
But apparently getting quit of a bad marriage wasn’t enough for her. She clearly put the idea of sexual abuse in their heads and Katy eventually said something about it to Spencer’s new wife who duly reported it to the police. From there, a sickening story unfolded in which an offhand remark by a five-year-old morphed into a legal lynching of an innocent man.
All the elements were there and then some. The police questioned eight year old Matt for eight months (eight months!) before he finally knuckled under and told them the most bizarre stories of multiple abuse by many different police officers, only one of whom was ever charged – his father, Ray Spencer.
The children were examined by doctors who found no sign of abuse, but the police and prosecutors marched ahead. More astonishing yet is the fact that, once Spencer was charged with multiple counts of child sexual abuse, he was ordered out of his house. He checked into a motel and, the very day after he was charged, his current wife sent her small son by a different marriage to spend the night with him. Strange?
Sure enough, in what was plainly a set-up, he was arrested again and charged with sexual abuse of her son. Over twenty years later it would come out that the lead investigator in the case was having an affair with Spencer’s current wife, a fact that needless to say, wasn’t mentioned to the defense prior to trial.
Yet another stock character in the drama was the police detective who was so certain of her cause that she broke numerous rules in order to put an innocent man behind bars. That included hiding the videotape of the interrogation of Katy in which the child adamantly resists the persistent suggestions of the adults. Then the tape goes blank and some time later returns with a visibly relaxed Katy demonstrating to the adults with dolls exactly what daddy did to her.
One of the adults present was her mother, Spencer’s scorned first wife, who coaxes Katy throughout the session.
That tape should be Exhibit ‘A’ in every police course on how not to question kids in sexual abuse cases.
By this time, Spencer was almost literally mad with depression. His life was falling apart, and, tellingly, he began to wonder if he could have blocked memories of abusing his children. So he got a doctor to administer sodium pentathol to him in an effort to find out the truth. The doctor reported that Spencer had nothing to fear; he had not harmed his children.
Still, Spencer checked himself into a psychiatric clinic where he was given anti-depressant medication that he said addled his mind. When it was time for trial, he was depressed, exhausted and foggy due to the medication. Spencer, fearing a trial with his own children testifying to rape, accepted a deal in which he would go to prison without admitting guilt.
But his refusal to admit guilt only made the judge angry. He sentenced Spencer to eleven terms of life imprisonment plus 14 years for crimes he had never committed.
Twenty-five years later, Spencer had his sentence commuted to time served by the governor after years of effort by his new wife whom he married in prison, his attorney, a private investigator and a reporter. But he was still a felon and a sex offender to boot. Finally, he was given a new trial and the prosecution dismissed the case before it began.
But Ray Spencer’s case is far more than a story of a vindictive ex-wife and unscrupulous police and prosecutors. And this is something Meredith Maran should learn. Spencer’s case is a story of child abuse, not by their father, but by their mother and by everyone involved in sending an innocent man to prison.
Throughout the documentary, Matt and Katy, now grown up, are interviewed. Their stories are heartbreaking. They are the stories of little children forced to lie. They were forced to lie against their father who, despite his shortcomings as a husband was a kind, loving dad.
Children their age often interpret their parent’s divorce as “their fault.” That’s wrong in the divorce case, but in this case, they played an undeniable role, because it was only through them that hateful, misguided adults were able to so damage an innocent man.
At first of course, Matt and Katy had no idea of the horrifying consequences of what the adults coerced them into doing. Their descriptions of how it slowly dawned on them that Daddy wasn’t coming back, make the stomach churn. As they grew up, their growing awareness of their own guilt, their sense of feeling “lost,” their growing anger and ultimately the dysfunctional life that Matt has led fairly shout “Child Abuse!” because that’s what it was.
And that is the final answer to Meredith Maran’s claim that sending innocent people to prison is in some way worth it if children are protected. The answer is “they aren’t; they never are.” However awful may be the fate of an innocent adult incarcerated for decades for a crime he didn’t commit, there is always another victim.
The Meredith Marans of the world may not care much about those adults. But coercing children into false charges of sexual abuse, particularly against a parent, damages a child and a childhood. Indeed, the guilt may last a lifetime. The zealots always seem to forget that.
Thanks to ABC’s 20/20 for not forgetting.
And thanks to Bob for the heads-up.