UC Berkeley press release

NEWS RELEASE, 11/19/97

First book about historical and social roots of child kidnapping
written by UC Berkeley professor

by Fernando Quintero

The celebrated trial of 19-year-old Louise Woodward over the death of an eight-month-old boy in her care. The horror and titillation over the murder of little JonBenet Ramsey. And a nation in mourning over the abduction and murder of Polly Klass.

For UC Berkeley history professor Paula S. Fass, these headline-grabbing cases are signs of the times.

In her new book, "Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America" (Oxford University Press, 1997), Fass explores the social and historical roots of missing and exploited children. These days, Fass believes kidnapping plays out society's fear of sexuality and abandonment and the dissolution of the American family.

"On one hand, you have the loosening of sexual taboos. On the other, you have the fear that this opening will target your child. We have women liberated from the home, and the fear that a stranger in your house can kill your child when we're out at work trying to make a living," Fass says.

"We're investigating childcare workers -- the British au pair on trial -- and hearing stories of strangers coming in and snatching our children from our homes, like with the Polly Klass case," Fass says. "In Cambridge one week we have the death of one child creating the possibility of a new law permitting capital punishment, and an outcry about justice in the case of another."

Fass first began investigating the subject of child kidnapping after she found herself becoming preoccupied with the idea of losing her own child.

Much to her dismay, Fass found that no book on the history of child kidnapping in America existed. She decided to write a book that would not only put the subject in an historical as well as social and psychological context, but also would be accessible to a general audience.

"As a mother, I found comfort in better understanding my fears and anxieties about child kidnapping. I thought that other parents, not just academics, should have the opportunity to put things in perspective," Fass says. "As historians, we're dropping the ball if we don't provide a perspective for fellow citizens. We're beginning to do the kinds of history that speaks to people today."

On the afternoon of Dec. 28, 1994, Fass's own worst fears were momentarily realized. She and her family had taken a short and much-needed vacation in Santa Barbara. As they were strolling down the picturesque California coastal town's main drag, her seven-year-old son, Charlie, disappeared.

In her introduction, she writes: "We ran back to State Street, thinking he must be there. He was not. We searched frantically for a couple of minutes, each of us going in a different direction. People began to ask us what was wrong; the police came. Charlie was nowhere to be seen. Then I dropped into a black hole. I was literally inside a nightmare, my ears seemed disconnected to the outside world and humming, my eyes were staring into a tunnel, all my senses were focused on one excruciating fact -- Charlie was gone ... Fortunately, the experience (but not the understanding) lasted only ten minutes, ten minutes I cannot adequately describe."

The first case Fass looks at is the kidnapping of Charley Ross from his home in 1874. The incident not only created a new kind of American crime, namely, kidnapping of a child for ransom. It also acted as a socially significant harbinger: kidnapping exposed the children of the middle class to the new dangers of urban life.

Fass also includes a chapter on the celebrated abduction of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr., which broadcast the vulnerability of even the most rich and powerful.

By the 1950s, increasing concern about gender roles and sexuality came about at the same time that the kidnapping threat turned into fear of the sexual predator.

Today, child abduction has also become a strange paradox of anxiety and titillation. But despite the cultural indulgence that has come to exploit the very children we seek to protect, Fass ends her book on a hopeful note.

"The more we talk about what's really bothering us, the more we see things clearly, the better off we'll be," Fass says.

On the UC Berkeley faculty for 23 years, Fass teaches the social and cultural history of the U.S. Besides her recent book, Fass also wrote "The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s" (1979) and "Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education" (1989).

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