McMartin Preschool: Anatomy of a Panic | Retro Report | The New York Times

Published on Mar 10, 2014

In 1984, news reports that hundreds of children had been abused at a California preschool helped spread panic across the nation. But the case was not all it seemed and its impact continues to be felt.

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Early in the 19th century, two unmarried women who ran a school for girls in Edinburgh found themselves accused by a student of being lesbians. The charge, quite grave in that era, was baseless, and in time the women won a libel suit. But not before they had lost everything, including their school. If this story rings a bell, it may be because Lillian Hellman used it as a starting point for “The Children’s Hour,” her 1934 play about a couple of schoolteachers whose lives similarly come unraveled after a malicious student falsely accuses them of lesbianism.

It has long been said, in varying language, that a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. You do not have to reach back 200 years to Scotland to find enduring wisdom in that adage. You need return only to the 1980s and to the subject of this week’s Retro Report documentary video, part of a series re-examining news stories from the past. This week’s subject is the notorious McMartin Preschool abuse trial.

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