“Are you an academic or lawyer?” Ross E. Cheit was asked in his first interview for a teaching position at Brown University, to which he could offer no one response. Cheit’s interests had always cast a wide net (to reference his book under contract with Temple University Press, highlighting the political factors that shape the management of fisheries and the consumption of seafood in the U.S.), having just concluded his law degree, PhD in public policy, and begun working in criminal defense. Cheit’s resistance to academic and bureaucratic labels has been a defining characteristic of his career ever since.
When first appointed to the faculty of Brown University in 1986, Professor Cheit straddled the Environmental Studies, Public Policy, and Political Science departments, an arrangement he cites as being the result of Brown “liking eccentric and interdisciplinary professors”, to which he certainly fits the bill. But, in August of 1992, during his first vacation as an academic, everything changed.
While the reality of recovered memories is still contested, Professor Cheit suddenly became proof of their existence. Awakening from an otherwise ordinary night’s sleep, a memory burst into his mind’s foreground: one of confusion, deceit, and fear as a young boy. And in the weeks that followed, Professor Cheit identified himself, and countless others, as victims of The San Francisco Boys Chorus summer camp’s ring of pedophilic staff members, administrators, and their apologists.
By day, Cheit was an academic, teaching his 250-student ethics class in fear of students surmising his fragility. By night, he was a lawyer, compiling information with the help of a private investigator, and preparing a case against his confessed abuser.
It was a crisp May day in 1994 when Professor Cheit concluded his spring semester ethics class differently than he had before: “I’m teaching an optional class tomorrow afternoon if anyone wants to come,” he announced.
The turnout exceeded class attendance. Cheit recalls that lecture as, “I just told the story. I talked about all of it to this class. I somehow just felt compelled to do that, since so many people had come and nobody had to be there.” The audience’s response exceeded expectations of vulnerability: thank you’s, moments of recognition, breakthrough, long-suppressed exhales, shock. But it was the responses of countless female-identifying attendees, whose relief that a man saw the violence they were experiencing and having ignored, which made Cheit realize the endemic nature of the problem.
Professor Cheit’s first academic pursuit regarding child sexual abuse was a refutation of Richard Gardner’s claim: “in the United States, murderers, on average, receive less jail time than child sex offenders”, as well as Gardner’s belief in our societal ‘overreaction’ to child abuse. “How can I empirically test these claims?” Cheit asked himself, leveraging his legal training to comb through the backend case files that supported Gardner’s claim. Professor Cheit’s results proved his suspicions correct: “taking these factors together (differences in the incarceration rates and in sentence severity) Dr. Gardner’s claim is mistaken by a factor of more than 200 and possibly as much as 800”, cementing his new interdisciplinary interest.
Cheit’s next focus was Debbie Nathan’s ‘Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt’, where Nathan argues that The United States engaged in a ‘witch hunt’ of sexual abusers. Nathan also asserts that this ‘witch hunt’ has been counterintuitive to the original goal, resulting in innocent people serving prison time for false convictions. After one glance at the book’s dedication page, Cheit’s training in criminal law prompted skepticism. Satan’s Silence is dedicated to 53 men, all of whom, Nathan explains, were serving prison time for child sexual abuse they did not commit. Cheit was unfamiliar with at least half of them, nor could he find mention of them in the book, itself. But Nathan’s claim of injustice in the American legal system was one Professor Cheit was perfectly positioned to challenge. He settled on one name, whose location (listed in the book as ‘Lanesborough, Mass’) was just close enough to find answers, and set out to find everything possible about one Robert Halsey. After studying his case’s transcript, and finding substantial evidence of guilt, Cheit published “The Legend of Robert Halsey”, a response which challenged Nathan’s ‘witch hunt’ and ‘false conviction’ theories. Cheit began collecting more examples of misrepresented cases, “by the early 2000s,” he says, “I knew it was a book.” After a long gestation period, “The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children”, the culmination of nearly twenty years of research, was published.
1995 marked the beginning of Cheit’s academic interest in recovered memory, starting with PBS’ four-hour documentary series, ‘Divided Memories’, wherein the filmmaker claimed that in thirteen months of research she found ‘only one corroborated case’ — and that one, included at the beginning of the program, was ambiguous. Shocked at the director’s questionable obligation to her research, Professor Cheit chose to hold firm to his lifelong practice of writing letters of complaint. (He discovered this idology when, at eight years old, he came across an uninvited insect in his breakfast cereal, taping it to a piece of paper and mailing it to the cereal company before any other grade-school-aged boys made the same unsavory discovery.) Divided Memories was met with a different tone. In the letter to PBS, Professor Cheit detailed the findings of a research assistant, who, after a brief online search, had discovered no fewer than six examples which adhered to the documentary’s criteria of corroboration.
Frustrated by the pervasiveness of unreliable information that seems inseparable from conversations regarding sexual abuse, Professor Cheit started collecting these examples in bulk. First, he turned them into a lecture and presentation, which he gave to the APA in 1996, and second, after the encouragement of Professor Jennifer Freyd, he created an open-source website. In its initial iteration, The Recovered Memory Project was a database of 10-20 sources, but after its recent redesign in 2022 as The Recovered Memory Archive, holds over a hundred.
Professor Ross Cheit will be retiring from Brown University following the 2023 academic year. He has spent his thirty five years in academia most notably, albeit least discussed, as a tremendous friend and mentor to undergraduates. The depth of his care has stood the test of many decades, with students from his first classes still working closely with him today.