Warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual abuse.
Faye Yager was unable to protect her young daughter from being sexually abused by her father, and she responded by dedicating her life to creating an underground network for women striving to shield their kids from such heinous cruelty—work that brought the issue of incestuous rape and molestation of children into the national spotlight, and ostensibly saved numerous girls from danger. She was also a vigilante who believed that many of her wards had been subjected to demonic rituals, thus adding fuel to the “Satanic Panic” fire of the 1980s, and she likely aided some individuals whose progeny were not the victims they claimed to be. Children of the Underground is thus a portrait of a woman—and an issue—with no easy answers, shining a spotlight on a legacy defined by contradictions and complications.
Whether Yager was a saint or a sinner is the question at the core of FX’s five-part docuseries Children of the Underground (August 12), and directors Gabriela Cowperthwaite and Ted Gesing’s tale turns out to be inherently messy, even if concrete certainties do exist. Few people, for example, have doubts about the sincerity of Yager, who embarked upon her mission due to her own harrowing personal experiences. Raised in a rural West Virginia enclave, Yager married Roger Jones at age 17 and had a daughter, Michelle, shortly thereafter. When, one morning, she discovered her spouse standing before Michelle, trying to cajole the girl into fondling his erect penis, Yager snapped. Nonetheless, even when Michelle developed an STD from Jones’ sexual assaults, the courts did nothing to address this brutality, and—after Yager’s husband tried to get her committed to a psychiatric hospital—a judge actually gave Jones full custody of Michelle.
That nightmare scenario went on for years, and it became national news when Jones became the first person on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for child sexual assault—something he perpetrated on dozens of adolescents. Jones was ultimately caught and sentenced to three decades behind bars. Yet when Yager read a similar story about a mother being prosecuted for trying to defend her child against a monstrous father, she decided to actively do something about it. The result was an underground association of clandestine safe houses, activists and operations (for fake IDs, relocations, and assorted services) designed to support those in desperate need. To the women who benefited from this help, like April Curtis—who absconded with her daughter Mandy in order to save her from a habitually abusive dad—Yager was a hero who did what others would not.
From lawyers, journalists and colleagues to some of the parents and kids who sought her assistance, Children of the Underground depicts Yager as a crusader who, despite her old-fashioned dresses and Southern manner, was a fearsome fighter. Moreover, it casts her Children of the Underground organization as the byproduct of a criminal justice system that, by its very nature, was destined to let down children in these circumstances—largely because sexual abuse allegations were sent to family courts that were ill-equipped to handle such evidence-based criminal charges. Aside from the rancid rapists themselves, Cowperthwaite and Gesing’s docuseries points the finger at legal institutions as the underlying culprits responsible for the mayhem that engulfed Yager and others during this period, failing initially to recognize the problem (due to ignorance and ingrained biases) and then to act in the best interests of the girls in dire straits.
Far from an open and shut case, however, Children of the Underground employs interviews and archival footage—including from Yager’s TV appearances on talk shows like Geraldo and Sally Jessy Raphael (whose host briefly sits down for a new chat)—to detail how Yager’s noble intentions led her astray. Facing more than 60 years in prison for trumped-up kidnapping charges, Yager contended to the court (and the world) that child sex abuse was intrinsically linked with Satanism, a theory that gained further traction in 1984 via the McMartin Preschool scandal, in which multiple charges of sexual abuse blossomed into a full-blown narrative about animal sacrifice, torture, and murder. Cowperthwaite and Gesing sharply elucidate how this hysteria temporarily swept the country. And as FBI supervisory special agent Kenneth Lanning subsequently explains, what began as a potentially believable (if sensational) notion was eventually revealed to be preposterous and imaginary, thereby undermining genuine abuse claims as well as Yager’s credibility.
A high-profile battle with prominent businessman Bipin Shah, whose wife Ellen Dever was spirited out of the country by Children of the Underground, additionally muddied Yager’s reputation. Throughout, Children of the Underground embraces its saga’s paradoxical disorder. On the one hand, Yager resonates as an advocate for women’s rights, and for engaging in brazen civil disobedience in the face of systemic injustice. On the other hand, she appears to be a zealous true believer who was so angry, and so consumed by her righteousness, that she made mistakes that permanently damaged her cause. At least according to the series, both characterizations appear to be true; in archival television clips and in a new audio-only 2021 conversation, Yager comes across as a fervently driven and unapologetic champion of the downtrodden who was occasionally too headstrong and unswerving to avoid the pitfalls in her path.
Children of the Underground doesn’t know if every Yager client was telling the truth about child sexual assault or if, in the end, Yager did more harm than good. Rather, it presents a nuanced and multifaceted look at the jumbled confusion of an era when the exploitation of children was finally treated seriously, and when kids’ defenders were led by amateur advocates figuring things out as they went along. That, in turn, makes it a history lesson about the consequences of creating and perpetuating an unjust system that forces people to take drastic, unlawful measures to ensure their (and their loved ones’) safety—an idea that, in a 2022 America coping with an extremist judiciary, proves as timely as ever.