One of the things I love about Bellevue Avenue in Newport, the neighborhood where Doris Duke’s Rough Point sits, is that the great houses there—bigger, grander and more well-provided with antiques than anything here on the outskirts of Santa Fe—are often not gated. They are open to the public, it seems to me, in more ways than one: open to ticket-buying tourists, but also open to the acquisitive gaze of ordinary passersby.
That’s not the case here. Nearly always when I go to visit friends, I have to wrack my brain to remember the gate code, lost among the welter of passwords daily life at the computer requires. Right around me, signs sprout, against the backdrop of the beautiful mountains, signs that signal fear, possessiveness, and an almost obsessive need for protection.
It wasn’t always so, here or anywhere else.
About twenty years ago, we began to be instructed in fear, and the instruction goes on, anywhere and everywhere, even as crime rates fall across the country. But our fear is not based on statistics.
Then on what is it based?
In the September 22 edition of the estimable Boston Review, Rebecca Onion’s analysis of Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children offers a clue.
Calling the book “a detailed and provocative history of the early 1980’s abuse scandals,” Onion reminds me that the incredible fantasies of sexual abuse—including murder, blood-drinking and every form of sexual aberration— wrecked several childcare centers, ruined lives, and led to long term jail sentences, even though a 1984 investigation proved the allegations were without merit.
Why did anyone believe them, to begin with? And what are the long term consequences of that belief, for all of us?
Our fear fed on several factors: a general anxiety, part of the backlash against the women’s movement, and the easily aroused guilt and confusion of mothers who found little or no support in their families or their communities for their commitment to their careers.
Onion remembers how easy it was to arouse her own mother’s guilt for leaving her and her siblings with baby sitters for short periods every now and then. The baby sitters were not great, but her mother’s reaction was extreme: she drew up a chart to prove to her children how few hours a day she was actually absent.
The overprotectiveness of parents, especially mothers, which we all notice today is rooted in a fear our culture foments: fear of any outside influence. This not only limits the lives of children, confining them to home because the outside world is too dangerous (and delivering them to the seductions of electronic media), but it hampers support for public education, hence the charter schools that drain the system of resources and talent, and prohibits the creation of affordable childcare, a major obstacle for women who want to work.
And it leads to these forbidding signs, as well as to absurd accusations of neglect—parents who allowed their children to walk a few blocks home from a park were subjected to criminal indictment—a sick focus on children as sexual objects, and a rejection of the lessons that aloneness, loneliness, and access to the outside world offer all children, while liberating their parents, as well, from suffocation.
The real danger we face is the sexual exploitation of college-age women. Twenty percent of female students in a recent study of public and private colleges and universities suffer some form of sexual abuse during their undergraduate years. The seriously over-valued Ivy Leagues are among the worst offenders (entitled young men are unlikely to treat their female classmates with respect), and the fact that Princeton bowed out of the survey tells its own story.
Signs are not going to protect these young women. In fact, the signs I’ve seen posted on campus with help line information seem feeble, especially in view of many colleges’ intransigence in taking this issue seriously.
Signs are not going to protect us in our homes, either, because the intruder has already entered, and its name is fear.
[For more on “Free Range Kids”, please read Doris Duke: Getting Dirty.]