A McMARTIN APOLOGY….The McMartin Preschool case is, in some sense, old news. By now, it’s common knowledge that the charges of child abuse and satanic rituals at McMartin were untrue, whipped up by hysteria, local newscasters, and bad child psychology into one of the most monumental miscarriages of justice in recent memory.

Still, the individual stories are compelling. Today, in the LA Times Magazine, one of the victims, Kyle Zirpolo, tells the story of what really happened to him at McMartin and why he made up the sensational stories he did back when he was nine years old. It’s a cautionary tale, but it was this passage that really caught my eye:

One particular night stands out in my mind. I was maybe 10 years old and I tried to tell my mom that nothing had happened. I lay on the bed crying hysterically?I wanted to get it off my chest, to tell her the truth. My mother kept asking me to please tell her what was the matter. I said she would never believe me. She persisted: “I promise I’ll believe you! I love you so much! Tell me what’s bothering you!” This went on for a long time: I told her she wouldn’t believe me, and she kept assuring me she would. I remember finally telling her, “Nothing happened! Nothing ever happened to me at that school.”

She didn’t believe me.

We had a highly dysfunctional family. We argued and fought all the time. My mother has always blamed anything negative on the idea that we went to that preschool and were molested. To this day, she believes these things went on. Because if they didn’t, how can she explain all the family’s problems?

That has the ring of profound truth to me. We often embrace bad news far more easily than good, I think, because it so convincingly provides both an explanatory and an exculpatory power that good news lacks. Explanatory because it’s easy to believe that bad outcomes are the result of a single bad event while good outcomes are usually more complex, and exculpatory because it provides a explanation for bad outcomes that relieves us of our own responsibility for them. Once we’ve internalized that, the bad news can be rejected only at the cost of giving up the comfort that comes with it. And so the bad news becomes a psychic totem, clung to with increasing intensity until, eventually, it becomes part of the fabric of our worldview, never to be released regardless of where the truth actually lies.

And therein lies the power of our modern, siege mentality political environment: explanations based on the evil of others are simply more compelling ? and comforting ? than explanations based on good. At least in the short term. Not so much in the long term, I think, but what good politician ever thinks in the long term anymore?

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