Monsters are an ancient phenomenon in human history: There have always been individuals whose characters are marked by brutal, sadistic cruelty, who lack any redeeming instincts of compassion or mercy. Call them what we will—fiends or psychopaths, ghouls or serial killers—this type is by no means new to the later 20th century, however much the media preach to the contrary. What is new to our age, however, is the explanation that we give for the production of such creatures, which in recent decades have been explained in terms not of moral evil but of the offender’s upbringing and family environment.

A cascade of true-crime books and television programs has established as social orthodoxy the idea that monsters, serial killers, and child molesters are not born but made, and made by the most extreme forms of sexual and physical abuse, committed by parents and intimates. As psychiatrist Park Dietz declared when he was asked how society could prevent the creation of serial killers: “Parents should stop torturing their children.” We can readily find plausible examples of revoking cruelty which have had understandably devastating consequences on the lives of the unfortunate child victims. But equally disturbing is the extent to which such family violence has now come to be seen as a commonplace phenomenon, and thus to serve as an all-purpose explanation for virtually any type of crime, violence, or depravity, a magic key to interpreting all social failings.

The familiar themes emerge in myriad books and magazine articles, in thousands of television talk shows and newspaper advice columns: Repeat killers commit their deeds because they are taking vengeance against the parents who abused and humiliated them; molesters abuse children because they themselves were abused. And while such individuals fortunately represent only a tiny proportion of the population, they are only acting out in extreme form the traumas inflicted to a greater or lesser extent upon all of us. As the therapy industry asserts, we are all “secret survivors” of our family horrors. In this jaundiced view, the Western family is “a nightmare from which we are just beginning to awake.”

Our current social ideology presumes that all evils result from the ills of the family and that individual misdeeds must be understood, and presumably pardoned, in that context. The attack on the family thus merges with a wider assault upon the idea of individual moral responsibility.

Alan Dershowitz coined the phrase “the abuse excuse” in his 1994 book of that name. The potential value of that excuse became apparent to an amazed public in the early 1990’s, in a series of incredible cases in which flagrantly guilty criminals escaped punishment by claiming that their actions resulted from their disastrous family setting and upbringing. One of the more spectacular cases involved the Menendez brothers, who had killed their parents (according to most accounts) because of an overwhelming desire to gain an inheritance. In court, however, the brothers testified that the acts were the consequence of lifelong sexual and physical abuse at the hands of these sinister parents, and in memorable scenes broadcast nationwide, this evidence was accompanied by some of the least convincing and least spontaneous tears ever produced outside a mediocre high-school drama production. But the jury bought it—or at least decided that the appalling abuse which the brothers had suffered more or less justified their violent response.

This remarkable miscarriage of justice was soon rectified, but the case sent a frightening message about the extent to which the child-abuse idea had established itself as a social ideology. We had come a long way from the dark, superstitious days of “the devil made me do it”: As every behavioral scientist knew, my father’s abuse made me do it. In 1997, James Q. Wilson’s book Moral Judgment bore the justifiably alarming subtitle, Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten our Legal System?

The Menendez case raised questions about just why and when ordinary’ Americans had come to accept such an apocalyptic view of the extent and severity of intra-family abuse. The beginning of the trend can be dated quite precisely to 1962, when an epoch-making article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “The Battered Child Syndrome,” declared the discovery of baby-battering, which resulted from the violence that parents inflicted on small children. Professionals came to see physical abuse as a common phenomenon which could pose a lethal danger to the young. By the mid-1970’s, these perceptions were disseminated by the media, demanding a prompt official response. Politically, the issue offered wide appeal: Everyone could agree with a measure to protect vulnerable children, and liberals and feminists supported a campaign against the patriarchal family. In 1974, Senator Walter Moudale sponsored a federal law which mandated the reporting and investigation of abuse allegations and promised matching funds for states that identified abused children and prosecuted abusers. The measure justified the creation of state and local agencies whose whole raison d’être depended on the investigation of child maltreatment—originally physical violence, but soon including sexual abuse. Mandatory reporting swelled abuse statistics, though basing investigations on anonymous reports opened the way to a high volume of groundless or malicious charges. Abuse seemed to be vast in scale and indiscriminate in its victims.

By the 1980’s, exploding abuse statistics were giving a potent weapon to critics of traditional family structures, especially to feminists who could claim that the nuclear family was an arena of rape and battering. It was rhetorically vital to show not just that such abuse occurred on a vast scale, but that its consequences were lifelong and deadly. We heard repeatedly that abuse victims were at high risk of becoming juvenile delinquents or adult violent criminals. Therapists argued that repeated child abusers had themselves been abused as children, while abused women became the wives of abusers and connived in crimes against a new generation of children. At this point, the questionable theory of the cycle of abuse became entrenched in therapeutic orthodoxy. And if in fact abuse (broadly defined) affected one-third or two-thirds of the population, the implications were staggering. Was society breeding a new generation of millions of potential molesters?

Ideas about the effects of family abuse were reinforced by a powerful therapeutic trend, as the failings and anxieties encountered by adult patients were traced to forgotten instances of early abuse, which therapists recovered through hypnosis or suggestion. Once identified as incest survivors, patients could confront their problems and begin a process of healing their inner child, usually through self-help groups of comparable survivors, all struggling to free themselves of the bitter legacy of their “toxic” parents. In the most extreme cases, the child victims were believed to have retreated into secret dream refuges within their minds, constructing alternative personalities which would reappear sporadically throughout their lives. Thus was born the myth of multiple personality disorder (MPD), a hugely influential (and lucrative) subset of the therapy industry.

This was the era in which the “dysfunctional family” became a catchall explanation for personal sins and failings, a process described in Wendy Kaminer’s hilarious anatomy of human gullibility, I’m Dysfunctional—You’re Dysfunctional. Theorists of the dysfunctional family extended that damning term to at least 90 percent of American households, but if a vast majority of families are dysfunctional, what norm is being applied to assess “functionality”? By definition, we cannot all be abnormal.

Though these ideas about abuse, dysfunctionality, and so on have come to be thoroughly institutionalized, it is striking just how recently so many of them have been developed: They would have been utterly strange to all but a handful of therapists just 20 years ago. The sharpest change from earlier orthodoxies is in the harm said to be caused by child abuse, especially of a sexual kind. Thirty years ago, the common assumption was that such abuse was not likely to be terribly damaging if the child had a supportive family and the case were not dragged through the bureaucratic channels of police and courts. Today, of course, this view seems barbaric, because we have been told that any sexual contact with an adult, even of the most fleeting kind, devastates a victim’s entire life. In fact, equally plausible research and case studies can be produced for either die extremely optimistic attitude of the I960’s or the pessimistic theories prevailing today. As is so often the case in social science, once you know the ideological approaches of the scholars conducting the research, you can predict their findings pretty accurately.

Contrary to received wisdom, virtually no credible evidence exists for the prevalence of child abuse, and even less for its long-term effects. Many modern assumptions about child abuse rest on foundations which, on closer examination, prove to be utterly insubstantial: For example, given the outpouring of articles and books on MPD, there still remains to be found even one case of the supposed disorder that will stand up to critical examination. The phenomenon may exist, but even if it does, it occurs in perhaps a few instances in every million people, not (as it sometimes seems) in every other client unwise enough to wander into a psychiatric facility with some unspecified malaise.

Much of the evidence for the whole ideology of abuse and dysfunctionality stems from “monsters,” that is, from very high profile cases of extremely violent or criminal individuals subjected to intensive examination, whose life stories are subsequently publicized and popularized through the media. These tales can be found in himdreds of true-crime books or in documentaries broadcast almost uightiy. Though these stories are generally reported uncritically (“When Bob was a toddler, he was savagely beaten and repeatedly raped by his alcoholic father”), the means by which the alleged facts are produced are profoundly suspect.

Consider, for example, one case of the late 1970’s, which happens to have been studied in great detail. (Though the event took place some years ago, little has changed in terms of therapeutic orthodoxies; if anything, therapists have become even more credulous.) When Kenneth Bianchi was first arrested for his role in the “Hillside Strangler” murders in Los Angeles, news reports stated that he was a striking case of MPD, a classic Jekyll-and-Hyde pattern. While “Ken” seemed a pleasant and peaceful individual, this superficial personality was occasionally replaced by another, a brutal killer, and the killings had been the work of this alternative part of the psyche —another “alter,” in the jargon of the trade. Bianchi’s personality split could be traced back to childhood unhappiness and abuse. Two eminent psychiatrists vouched for this interpretation; the only problem was that it was a flagrant ruse to avoid first-degree murder charges. A third psychiatrist proved this by inducing Bianchi to invent more fake personalities while on camera. Minutes after being told that it was unusual for true multiples to have only one extra personality, Bianchi was speaking in a silly, childlike voice, and another alter was born. It makes for riveting television, and if the circumstances were not so tragic, it would be very funny.

Bianchi’s motives in this situation were clear enough, and it is staggering that the first psychiatrists on the scene could have been so naive about what was at stake. One psychiatrist later recanted his diagnosis of Bianchi after he took a job in a prison and found to his astonishment that convicts and criminals spend their lives lying and seeking to manipulate others. This fact is already familiar to most of the lay public, who do not possess the benefit of psychiatric qualifications.

A similar gulf between popular and expert views became obvious a decade later in the trial of Arthur Shawcross, who had killed a dozen prostitutes. His defense was that he suffered from MPD, and one of his alters was a 15th-century cannibal. As reported by a well-regarded therapist, Shawcross’s unfortunate situation resulted from his extreme sufferings while being abused as a child. On cross-examination, the therapist appeared shocked when asked whether she had ever thought that Shawcross might have ulterior motives for reporting abuse or feigning MPD; she declared, no doubt with total sincerity, that such a thought had never crossed her mind. Shawcross described his feelings and experiences, and she faithfully reported them to the court. (The psychiatrist’s televised appearances became so outrageous that a local radio station greeted them with a jingle based on an old rock song: “Yakkity-yak, Dorothy’s Back.”) The stories of Bianchi and Shawcross have been repeated in a thousand other eases, and in most, the therapists involved come across as equally naive and just as determined to use the eases to prove their cherished theories.

Criminals, killers, and molesters very often report suffering severe childhood abuse, and maybe some of them did have such awful experiences—though virtually nobody seeks external confirmation of the alleged events. Having said this, anyone finding himself in peril before the justice system knows that there are certain obvious ways to improve his situation, and one of these is to lessen responsibility for his actions. The abuse excuse is invaluable in sentencing hearings, and downright essential before a parole board. Indeed, the childhood trauma theory is so deeply embedded in our expectations that a failure to produce adequate horror stories is a sure symptom that the defendant is suffering from denial and has not taken the first steps to recovery. Doesn’t everyone know, as surely as the night follows the day, that sex offenders do what they do as part of the ongoing cycle of abuse? The medical authorities expect, even demand, tales of abuse, and of course they get them; in turn, these tales confirm and expand the initial expectations.

Ever since parole boards were invented in the 19th century, it has been a prison term that the way out of the institution is to find the nostrum for crime currently in vogue and to cite it with all passion as the reason for one’s life of wrongdoing. In the 19th century, the usual explanation was the demon rum, and convicts and defendants invoked this enemy as the force driving them from the straight and narrow. For much of the mid-20th century, Freud held sway, and legions of inmates stood before the board members asserting how much they detested their possessive mothers. (Inmates would privately regret telling such dreadful lies about beloved parents, but the circumstances forbade honesty.) About 1980, child abuse became the obligatory explanation, the approved formula for creating criminals and monsters.

When psychiatrists appeared before lay audiences, they could quite genuinely say that they had heard the same stories a thousand times before, that all their cases had reported similar tales of torture and abuse. Being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, ft was incredible that anyone could doubt the pervasive nature of rape and torture in the American family. The therapists never asked themselves whether the criminals in question had any option about telling the tales they did, or whether they would have been believed if they had denied being abused. The questioners knew exactly what answers they were going to get, and of course, they got them. Of such are orthodoxies born.

To say that the plethora of modern-day abuse tales are dubious does not, of course, mean that the behavior docs not exist: Some parents do torture their children, physically, sexually, and emotionally. However, an historical perspective might raise doubts about the exact effects of violence suffered in childhood: For most of Western history, severe corporal punishment has been the normal experience of virtually all boys and most girls. If the modern consensus is correct in seeing this type of behavior as abusive, then presumably it should have had obvious aftereffects in the form of high rates of violence and sex crime. Crime rates do change over time, but there is not the slightest evidence of correlation with strict child-rearing practices. In fact, it is the recent, post-Spock generations—which grew up largely without corporal punishment—that have recorded the most spectacular increases in crime and violence.

This is a troubling observation, because if we deny the social impact of childhood conditions, we have subverted a very large part of the justification for the therapeutic professions, to say nothing of the rationale for state intervention. If the claims about the vast effects of abuse are hokum, how do we justify the huge edifice of social-work agencies and overpaid therapists which we have constructed to deal with the supposed problem? Even worse, without the explanation of family abuse and maltreatment, how do we explain criminal behavior itself? We might even be driven to explanations based on personal morality, on the notion of evil, and we could not have that, could we? It is so much easier to invoke that familiar whipping boy, the institution of the family.