Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman

In 1983, seven teachers from the McMartin Preschool were alleged to have abused more than 100 children.  The case lasted seven years and cost $15 million, making it the longest and most expensive American legal proceeding ever, but no convictions occurred.  Bruna Calado, Henry Otgaar, Timothy J. Luke, and Sara Landström with The Inquisitive Mind summarize what started it all:

To start, the statement from the first allegedly abused child was made by a parent who later was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After this statement, the police sent a letter to 200 families. In this letter parents were warned that their children could have also been abused and were also requested to ask their children specific questions concerning the matter. However, research shows that parents often unintentionally ask children questions in a suggestive manner that leads to false reports and might jeopardize children’s memories. This is shown by the fact that children can eventually start to believe and remember the suggested events.

The authors cite suggestive interviews conducted by social workers who coerced memories and presupposed events that never happened:

Interviewer: Can you remember the naked pictures?
Child: (Shakes head ‘‘no’’)
Interviewer: Can’t remember that part?
Child: (Shakes head ‘‘no’’)
Interviewer: Why don’t you think about that for a while, okay? Your memory might come back to you.

Then children were verbally rewarded when they “remembered” situations, and descriptions became quite bizarre.  Satanic rituals, underground tunnels, orgies at carwashes and airports, one child even mentioned Chuck Norris as a collaborator.  Escaping relentless coverage surrounding the McMartin case was impossible.  To say investigators require training against improperly leading subjects is an understatement, since shoddy undertakings could very well impede situations where actual child abusers deserve legal consequences.

The McMartin case reflected an overall Satanic Panic engulfing the United States during the 1980s and 1990s.  Story after story from media sources displayed “evidence” of satanic messages embedded into rock albums, comic books, popular films, all inflamed by sensationalist reportage, coercive interviewing techniques, and zealous police investigations.  Participants were mixed.  One party sought to manipulate through fear while others were merely misinformed.  A work friend who attended a police seminar on satanic practices showed me materials the seminar’s facilitator had distributed.  Mostly, these read like introductory texts on Wicca, like Raymond Buckland or Gerald Gardner providing information related to neo-pagan practices but not inherently Satanism.

Our culture can’t escape conspiracy theories.  John F. Kennedy’s second shooter, a cryogenically-stored Walt Disney, ongoing Illuminati or aliens meddling into our affairs, communists, satanic hordes, and more recently Pizzagate and QAnon – it never stops, no matter how many are debunked or how much they challenge societal stability.

With his Whisper Down the Lane, Clay McLeod Chapman utilizes these unfortunate real-life tropes — statutory allegations, exaggerated accusations, conspiracy fears, and the Satanic Panic — into a compelling thriller that explores aftermaths, the damaged lives left after the heated investigations, distorted coverage, and melodramatic court proceedings have concluded.  Indeed, his title refers to a popular party game beginning when one child whispers a phrase into another’s ear, and this continues along a circle until finally the final child whispers to the original what they’ve heard.  Invariably, the phrase becomes entirely changed, since each child playing reports what they think they’ve heard.  Or maybe what they wanted to hear?  Or maybe what they think you should hear?  We as a species are unreliable narrators, mostly unconsciously, but sometimes intentionally.

Chapman deftly portrays how trends have been embedded within our universal psyche.  McMartin’s plight is just one in a long chain that has made it easier to raise irrational questions.  A child comes home with a bruise, maybe from a playground accident, maybe from an abusive teacher, maybe from an abusive teacher who belongs to a Satanic cult, and what if all the teachers are in on it?  You might scream, “Who believes such bullshit?”  Well, let me point you, again, toward Pizzagate and QAnon, nonsensical stories that still receive serious attention across media outlets, and that have tilted local and national elections.  Watching the QAnon-touting and COVID-denying nut Marjorie Taylor Greene occupy a congressional seat may challenge my patience, but I’m not surprised. Then we have conspiracies that include racist dogma, concocting a frightening “other.”  Can’t we quit?

Read Whisper Down the Lane knowing full well that pedophilia and other abuses happen all too frequently.  Read it also knowing that human conditions often pull us off track, that witness unreliability is a thing, and then we have certain actors mining painful truths, tapping our fears for destructive ends.  Hopefully while doing so, you’ll enjoy a pretty good thriller as well.