IPT Book Reviews

Title: Sex Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited  Positive Review Positive Review Positive Review
A two-hour videotape presentation with same title is also available
Author: Richard A. Gardner
Publisher: Creative Therapeutics 1990

Creative Therapeutics
155 County Road, P.O. Box R
Cresskill, NJ 07626-0317
(201) 567-7295


The fourteen chapters of this latest book by Richard Gardner are in keeping with Dr. Gardner's ability to produce timely and thoughtful analyses of problematical situations involving children.  He intends for this book to describe and clarify what he believes is a national scandal the high level of false accusations of child sexual abuse.

The first chapter sets forth what he sees as the basic problem.  Our society has become obsessed with sexual abuse.  Next, in Chapter 2, he presents a Freudian understanding of childhood sexuality.  He concludes that the normal child shows a wide range of sexual interest, fantasies, and sexual behavior, although adults have difficulty accepting this reality of childhood.  In Chapter 3 he states his case for the belief that sexual abuse prevention programs do more harm than good.  Based upon his experiences as a child psychiatrist, Chapter 4 briefly describes the development of a hypersexuality in our society with a change in mores in the direction of greater explicit sexual stimuli and a broader range of sexual behaviors.  In Chapter 5 he deals with nine factors that may account for parent's readiness to be involved in the obsessive preoccupation with sexual abuse.  The most controversial factor may be his discussion of parental greed that is, the benefit from suing for money damages based on the claim a child has been sexually abused.

Chapter 6 is the longest and most strongly written.  Dr. Gardner exposes the weaknesses, errors, and venality of self-styled "validators" who affirm and support claims of sexual abuse.  This chapter contains some of his harshest judgments and shows his highly critical view of the process by which the child protection system responds to an allegation of sexual abuse.  Chapter 7 presents his view of what actually happens to children in the development of an allegation of sexual abuse.  When the allegation is false, the child is victimized and abused by the system and adults who erroneously accept an allegation.  Chapters 8 through 12 are brief but pungent discussions of various professionals involved in handling sexual abuse allegations.  They are physicians, prosecutors, judges, lawyers, and therapists.  In each case, Dr. Gardner criticizes the behaviors attached to the role and the nature of the involvement in the system's response.

Chapter 13 presents factors Dr. Gardner believes contribute to the development of mass hysteria in our society.  He is likely to get the most emotional response to his discussion of the role that feminist thought and rhetoric may play in fueling the hysteria.  At the end, in Chapter 14, he compares what he sees happening today to the climate and the behaviors of the seventeenth century witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts.


Dr. Gardner has produced provocative and, indeed, seminal books in the past.  His early Boys and Girls Book About Divorce (Hardcover)(Paperback) was the first book for children aimed at responding to the needs of children in a family in the process of divorce.  His games and techniques for doing therapy with children were highly innovative when introduced and are currently widely used by professionals of all types who interact with children.  In this book his provocative, often controversial, insights and ideas continue his commitment to the welfare and well being of children and his readiness to be direct and forthright in addressing those adults whose behavior toward children may be ill informed, in error, or simply foolish.

The strength and value of this book is in its presentation of the thinking of a brilliant, creative, and courageous intellectual pioneer.  It is not a typical scholarly book with lots of references, criticisms of methodology, and citations of research studies.  Rather, it is the thought and insights of a perceptive and compassionate human being written in a white heat of passionate indignation at the stupidity, arrogance, and folly of adults who use and exploit children in pursuit of their own bias or personal agendas.

His vehement and detailed criticism of professionals who style themselves validators of sexual abuse allegations is the strongest section of the book.  However, in this discussion, Dr. Gardner's lengthy criticism of the failure of American education as a root cause of the inadequacies of putative validators is too lengthy.  While many of his criticisms of the educational establishment may be cogent and accurate, it could be said more succinctly and the connection with the errors of validators made more explicit.

The videotape presentation covers the same ground as the book.  However, in his own inimitable style Dr. Gardner adds details, insights, and thoughts not found in the book.  He draws upon his broad experience to support his views which are essentially psychodynamic.  The book and videotape together form a powerful teaching duo.  A group could read the book and then meet to view the videotape.  This could be followed by a group discussion that would be sure to be lively and spirited.  The videotape is two hours and might best be split into two to four segments followed by discussion of the portion viewed.

Some people will be angered and offended by this book.  They will be those who believe the present system for responding to accusations of child sexual abuse is fine and works well.  Others will be pleased and enthusiastic.  These will include those whose lives have been damaged by the present system.  Some will be able to gain increased understanding of what can be corrected, strengthened, and improved.  If this then results in actual increments in the compassion, accuracy, and effectiveness of the bureaucracy and the procedures, once again Dr. Gardner will have provided the kind of intellectual leadership and trail blazing that has characterized his past work;

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, Northfield, Minnesota.

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