There’s frequent talk in the new FX docuseries “Children of the Underground” about the misinformation that often accompanies allegations of abuse. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite showcases a court landscape where judges aren’t given vetted information, where women who show too much emotion are “hysterical,” and where husbands don’t “fit the part” of a man who could abuse his children. It’s impossible to watch this series about sexual abuse and not see shades of a recent celebrity court trial, or the numerous allegations women have brought forth about powerful men.
And, really, that’s the point of “Children of the Underground.” Too often the abused, mainly women, are disbelieved in favor of someone who looks more “rational” and “stable” to those in power. Mainly men. Cowperthwaite takes the same blunt approach that she did in exposing the mistreatment of Orca whales in her 2013 documentary “Blackfish” and applies it to this four-episode series recounting the exploits of Faye Yager and her organization Children of the Underground. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Yager promoted her network as a group fighting to save children sexually abused by their parents.
As the documentary lays out, Yager’s methods were extreme; she advocated for non-custodial parents to kidnap their children in order to save them, and helped families disappear and start new identities. Cowperthwaite presents all angles to the argument. She shows Yager as a crusader for children, a vigilante whose unorthodox methods might have further traumatized children, and a criminal. But the grander point to the documentary is how courtroom failures start this process. We wouldn’t have Faye Yagers if family courts weren’t being tasked with so much. As one talking head disturbingly said, “I believe that the family court system would have a better chance of protecting children from sexual abuse if it simply flipped a coin. That’s how bad it is.”
The tone of the documentary is similar to FX’s previous female-focused documentary, “AKA Jane Roe.” Like that doc, “Children of the Underground” tackles the controversies and complications of being a woman fighting for rights in America. But unlike that feature, Cowperthwaite has the opportunity to extend beyond Yager’s immediate sphere of influence to look at how she played into (or played up?) several of the themes affecting women and families during that time. Sometimes it feels like these divergences get away from the stronger core issues: namely Yager’s pleas to protect children from a fractured court system and how women are disbelieved. But even when the doc is looking at the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and early ’90s, it’s fascinating to watch if only to remember what a weird time it was.
Another comparison to “AKA Jane Roe” is the chronic frustration that’s felt in watching “Children of the Underground,” particularly as a woman. Yager’s story, as well as that of the other women interviewed, is an all-too familiar one. Yager started Children of the Underground after her own daughter, Michelle, was allegedly molested by Yager’s ex-husband (though he would admit to it, he was only ever convicted on unrelated charges). Yager, though, was the one put on trial, eventually losing custody of her daughter. Cowperthwaite juxtaposes this with a running subplot involving fellow Underground client April Curtis, who went on the run with her daughter Amanda after the court system chronically placed Amanda back with her abuser. Cowperthwaite repeatedly shows one judge who tearfully apologizes for not believing a former defendant’s allegations of abuse.
But, as we know, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. Yager refused to be interviewed on-camera, but in an audio interview with Cowperthwaite it’s clear she has no regrets about what she’s done that we now might consider questionable. Archival interviews between Yager and several children play like interrogations, with Yager demanding the children stop crying, reiterating “don’t you lie to me.” It’s sequences like these, as many of the talking heads state, that propelled a backlash claiming that false child abuse allegations were everywhere. It remains unclear just how many families are still living in hiding whom Yager helped escape. The second half of the docuseries follows April’s daughter, through recorded footage, after she fled to Europe with Yager’s help. Amanda went to the Underground two different times; once when April took her and once on her own. Amanda was actually not in Faye’s Underground until she was 18, although she was in hiding. She returned from Europe at 14 and lived in hiding in various locations until she turned 18. Amanda stayed in France till she was 18, finally able to live safely with the mother who’d always supported her.
Yager isn’t a saint, as the documentary lays out, and viewers are never really given an indication of how the documentarian feels. The audience is left to question Yager’s motives and helping a child go abroad feels like villain territory, no matter the context. But placed against a tearful woman, seen in archival footage, whose own children were kidnapped by Yager, there seems to be more to the story. It’d have been interesting for Cowperthwaite to interview some of the women whose own children were snatched by spouses or loved ones at Yager’s guidance. If the moral of the doc is to investigate a gray area when it comes to sex abuse allegations and women, why not talk to women who lost their children by men who felt they were saving their kids?
The second half centers the victims. Young Amanda actively ran away from home to escape abuse from a man a court regularly deemed wasn’t a threat. If those who watch TikTok videos were in charge, Amanda might not be universally seen as a victim, even though she clearly is. As we’ve seen in high profile cases like that of Amber Heard, some things that are perceived as not being victim-like behavior actually are. Amanda fleeing her abusive situation appears, as the doc shows, to fall into that same area. Cowperthwaite always reminds the audience through her interview subjects of how hard it is to be deemed a credible victim in these cases. It seems like short of being a nun any sins, slight or otherwise, are too-often used against victims in domestic violence and abuse cases.
It’s great that FX has embraced docs centering women’s issues, between this, “AKA Jane Roe,” and several of their prominent “New York Times Presents” episodes on people such as Britney Spears and Janet Jackson. “Children of the Underground” feels like the apotheosis of this newfound desire to give voice to the voiceless, with a story that may feel confined to a specific era but continues to possess long-standing ramifications. In a way, Faye Yager had the gumption to try to affect real change. Her methods were messy, but with a complicated subject, perfect heroes might not exist.
“Children of the Underground” airs on FX starting August 12.