Once a year, some town is named an all-American city. That means, among other things, that the streets are clean, the people are too and there is a main street called Main Street. This year, I nominate Jordan, an unhappy place on the Minnesota tundra where, in the manner of Garrison Keillor, the men are strong, the women are pretty and just about every other person has been accused of being a pervert.
At one time, 25 of the town's 2,700 residents were charged with sexually abusing scores of children, some of them their own. There were accusations of orgies with children and rumors that kids were murdered and their bodies buried down by the old river bank. The police found no bodies, but they did find children who said they'd been sexually abused and one adult who said he had done the abusing.
What kind of a place was this? It turns out we may never know. At last report, only one person had been convicted of sexual abuse and the charges against the 24 others were dropped. Some of the kids said they had made up their stories, and one of the adult informants said he had done the same. And yet the investigators insist that something awful must have taken place in Jordan. Some of the children's stories were too anatomically detailed and sexually sophisticated to have been concocted.
There is probably no getting to the bottom of the Jordan mystery, so maybe it's better just to accept the town as a metaphor for our national confusion and anxiety about children. A nation that tells us all to be wonderful parents, to love and nurture our children and yet to pursue a smashing business career that means leaving the kids in the care of total strangers was bound to have its Jordan. It's the place where all our fears about child care and baby sitters have gone -- a made-for-television town, not only because a TV movie will almost certainly be made about it, but because it's a place where the things you see on television come true.
For a year now, television has been on a child molestation kick. Show after show has been done on that subject, not to mention its companion themes of rape and incest. If you saw the shows and read the accompanying librettos in People Magazine and the news weeklies you'd have to conclude that child molesters have replaced communists as the premier American obsession. There is now one of the former under every bed.
Of course, child molestation exists. We all can recall the creepy people who still lurk in the shadows of our memory. But it's hard to say whether there's more of them now than in the past or whether there's merely more being made of them. What seems certain is that there's more anxiety about child molestation -- anxiety and its constant companion, guilt.
The reason is that we are spending less and less time with our kids and know less and less about what they are doing. This is true of both men and women, but it is with women that stories of child molestation hit hardest. These stories are like contemporary fairy tales in which the forest becomes the day care center and the wolf is the people to whom we entrust our children.
It's pathetic that turning the problem into a national anxiety is the best we can do, but that appears to be the case. Many women need to work and they need to put their children somewhere. Still others want to work -- want a career and want a family, too. And so they are caught. Either by choice or by circumstance, they have to do two things at once, and neither they nor we like to acknowledge that this is a difficult situation. Day- care centers are underfunded, understaffed. Instead of solving a problem, we simply preach an ethic of overreach in which people are told they should be able to do it all -- and that failure, of course, is their own fault.
A nation such as this one has become would sooner or later produce a Jordan -- a town like Salem at the time of the witches, a town that just couldn't cope. What's even crazier, though, is to look at Jordan as some sort of aberration that has nothing to do with us, to confine stories of it to the feature pages, and not to recognize that it went to pieces not because it was different, but because it was typical.
Jordan just couldn't cope with its kids anymore. It's an all-American city.