Eight years after accusing her father of having sexually abused her, Meredith Maran concluded that the allegation was untrue — a socially constructed false memory.
As a committed feminist and journalist with a keen sense of justice, Maran’s zeal led her to therapeutic sessions for incest survivors, reform sessions for perpetrators, and ultimately to the conclusion that she herself had repressed memories of abuse. Her new book, My Lie, is a poignant and fascinating account of the events and processes that led her from accusation to retraction.
In the midst of international media attention, and only one day after the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections, Maran honored Process.org with this interview to discuss her new book, and what her experience, her “lie”, may tell us about false beliefs in general…
You describe that, as a girl, your father was your best friend. To give a necessarily broad overview of your story, how did you come to be falsely convinced that he had molested you?
Well, that’s a long, complicated story that took 200 pages to explain. It’s a combination of the personal and the political. The personal being a combination of the dynamic in our particular family. As you mention, I was always close with my father, not so much with my mother. That was true when I was young. But then, when I got to be a teenager, my father began to get very possessive, and we began to have huge fights because he didn’t want me to date. I ultimately left home really young, mostly because of that.
So that was the personal part of it. It was kind of heart-breaking for me to have lost a parent that I was so close to, who became this angry guy that I was fighting with all of the time.
The cultural part of it is that the culture was in a period of rapid shift from incest-never-happens to incest-happens-all-the-time. And I was part of that shift because I was a journalist for about five years — one of the first journalists to write about this subject, before [incest] was known to be as prevalent as, in fact, it is, and was. So I sort of immersed myself in the world of incest treatment, incest identification, and so on. [This was] in the early eighties… and I ultimately became convinced that it had happened to me as well.
So you were steeped in a culture of molestation revelation and exposure. You weren’t guided by any one particular individual.
No [I wasn’t guided by an individual].
Do you feel there was any pressure on you at that time to identify yourself as a victim?
Well, yes. Pressure I applied to myself, in a way that people — or I — wanted to be part of a movement that seemed to me to be the latest phase in a movement to end the oppression of women, which I had been active in trying to do for a long time. It became sort of a meme — a widely believed idea that incest was in fact the embodiment of male domination and violence. So, fighting incest, personally and politically, became a way of fighting women’s oppression.
[The book] The Courage To Heal states: “If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.” I can only imagine the confusion this could cause in anybody who is sold on the idea of the commonplace prevalence of repressed memories… Did you find yourself interpreting and second-guessing presumed symptoms –?
Yes, once I started down that path, which happened a long time before The Courage To Heal was published, because of my unusual circumstance of being a journalist who was steeped in that world of actual incest treatment. I was spending a lot of time with people who were some of the first to treat survivors — genuine survivors — of incest. When I was doing that, a lot of the people I was working with in those programs — when I was a journalist — would ask me what my interest was in particular in this field, and why I was one of the few journalists who was coming around into these treatment programs when nobody else seemed to be interested. The implication was that I had some personal reasons to be interested, and I did start to wonder why I was the only journalist who was reporting on incest. Also, in the course of doing the journalism [I found myself] sitting in incest survivor therapy sessions with children who had recently disclosed that they’d been molested by their fathers, and also in perpetrator groups with men who had been convicted of incest and were in treatment — [they were] in therapy as a condition in being out-of-prison. Unlike most people who had kind of a stereotype in their minds of what an incest perpetrator looks like, I knew it wasn’t just a sleazy [looking] guy in a trench coat, because I had seen the guys in these groups who looked just like my dad.
Right. And I’m sure at that time you would have had difficulty entertaining the notion of accusations that were false for fear of undermining this movement — that realization that this was actually happening.
Right. I have to say, of course, I deeply regret what I did — accusing my father falsely — I also have to say that I think there was a huge amount of positive change that came out of this movement to address the truth of the prevalence of incest. Before this movement, there were many fewer, if any, programs in place to help kids protect themselves from being sexually abused, and also for adults to help children who reported being sexually abused. So the slogan, believe the children, was a very meaningful one to anyone who considered herself an advocate of child welfare. I was certainly one of those people.
In your book you describe that at the time of your holding the conviction that your father had molested you, you were in a relationship with another self-identified incest survivor whose recovered memories grew increasingly more bizarre and implausible. How did you square the conspiracy-laden, supernatural recovered memory narratives that began to surface in that time with your belief in recovered memory accuracy?
When you say “supernatural”, you mean the toddlers reporting — ?
Right. Well, even in Michelle Remembers, she [protagonist and co-author, Michelle Smith] faces Satan himself.
Well, to me it was as if someone had just said the world was flat — or the world was round, I guess you would say. Until this time in which I started doing research about Childhood Sexual Abuse, I had believed that it was a wild, rare occurrence. So, when one lie was revealed to me, [and I learned] that it occurred far more often, and it was often reported, and the kids were not believed — the kids reporting it [were] not being believed by the adults being told… that cultural lie, that [molestation] was rare, and that kids lied about it regularly, sort of opened me up to thinking that everything that I had believed about it was a lie. It sort of made the incredible credible. It’s sort of a reverse logic in a way. Once I realized that I had bought a lie on the other side of the equation — the lie that [molestation] rarely happens — then it became very possible to believe anything that argued the other point… If you follow my logic… not that it’s logical, but it seemed logical at the time.
You describe very well in your book coming to the gradual realization that you were wrong, so I won’t make you go through all that here (I’ll just encourage those interested to read it) — but I was interested [in the fact that] you never directly confronted your father, nor did you press charges. While some may wonder if you’d have retracted earlier had you taken either of those steps, I wonder if doing those things might have made retraction that much harder. That is to say: I wonder if some people might have reached a point in this from which they feel there is no return…
I almost felt that way. It took me many years to get to my retraction, as you know from reading the book. So, I can definitely imagine why one would have doubts, and then sort of cast those doubts aside because of the consequence of realizing that she was wrong. I think my retraction would have come sooner if I hadn’t had to — if I hadn’t realized what it would mean to say that I had made this up, that I had believed something that wasn’t true… But I’m not really clear what you want to know from me here?
I’ve entered into debate with some people who I feel have perhaps developed too elaborate a narrative, estranged themselves too far from their families, that I don’t think they are going to ever retract. No matter what [evidence] they are faced with, it will be too painful to face the proposition that they are wrong.
Well, there is definitely that. But, I think, more so than a conscious thought of, if I retract this accusation then I’m going to have to do X, Y, and Z to apologize, I think that it’s as I describe in the book, when I interviewed the neuroscientist. He described the physiological proclivity of the human brain to be certain, to be sure, to feel that what you’re saying, or thinking, or feeling, is true. I think it is as much a function of that as it is not wanting to face the consequence of a lie. In the book I describe how for years I was tortured. It took me about 5 years to get from this first thought, did my father actually do this to me, to the point where I actually said it out-loud. It also took me at least a couple of years before starting to doubt my accusations, before I acknowledged that I no longer believed it was true. I think part of that was that I didn’t want the consequences, but also I think it came about because it felt better to be sure of a terrible lie than it felt to be uncertain about what was true. That sensation of mixed relief and horror both times — first when I accused my father and felt both horrified and relieved, and also when I retracted my accusation — I felt the same way. On the one-hand I felt the relief of this new certainty, on the other hand I realized that I had caused so much pain for nothing.
Do you feel it would have been possible to publish this book 15 years ago, or do you feel it’s only possible now that some of the dust [from the Memory Wars] has settled?
That’s an ironic question because it was almost not possible for me to publish this book. I’ve published — I don’t know — about 9 books before this one, and not to say that it’s always easy to get a book contract, but I’ve never had as hard a time getting a book contract as I had this time for this book. Most publishers rejected publishing it. Their two main reasons were, one: it’s over. It’s a piece of History, and no one cares anymore. Two: I was such an unreliable witness that who would want to read a book by someone who calls her own self a liar? So, on both counts, they said, it wasn’t worth publishing. Of course, since it’s been published, I’ve also heard those accusations from people, both of them. But I’ve also heard an equal number of people saying that it’s happening to them now — they’re being accused, or they are coming out of accusing someone. Also, I may be a marginal character, but I have very large company as a marginal character as someone who has since realized that the accusation was false.
Not only is it still happening now, but I feel that this whole episode can tell us more about belief in general. In the introduction to your book, you talk about deeply held political myths, such as [Saddam] Hussein’s connection to the 9-11 attacks, President Obama’s Muslim faith – how do you feel your story better helps us understand these convictions?
That really is the biggest goal of my book. And today — being post-election day — with a major shift in the political landscape, and much of it based on falsehoods. Certainly, the Tea Party came to prominence by propagating things that factually are inaccurate. You can certainly debate what might be the best health care plan for the United States, but you can’t debate what Obama’s proposal actually said. It did not say that there would be Death Panels killing grandmothers. You can debate whether you like Obama’s policies or not, but you can’t debate whether he was born in the United States, or whether he is a practicing Muslim. These falsehoods were presented as facts and bandied about so much that they no longer needed to be repeated. Those lies and others were used just yesterday to essentially win a bloodless coup. We’ll see if it remains bloodless. So, I agree with you. I would not have written the book if it were just the story of one woman who made a terrible mistake. There would be many more books on the shelves than there are if everybody who made a terrible mistake wrote a book about it. I wrote the book because of exactly what you’re saying, which is that we need to have a much better understanding of how our emotions translate to what we come to believe as facts. I think that in the same way that if I had been able to articulate what I really had to say to my parents, and to my father in particular, and to myself — and that message might have boiled down to, I need to take a break for a while because I’m too enmeshed with you, or your opinion matters too much to me, or I need an apology from you have having caused me to run away from home when I was too young to take care of myself — something like that would have been a very messy, but much more honest way to say what I ended up saying by using the word “incest”. I think that similarly, if a lot of people in this country would just say, I really hate having a black president, instead of saying that he’s channelling the war-mongering of his Kenyan father, or that he was born elsewhere, or that he’s a secret Muslim — I think we’d all be a lot better off.
Or, [claiming that] gay marriage will cause insurance rates to be unpredictable, or go up, rather than [admitting] that [gay marriage] is contrary to one’s religious convictions.
Or that gay soldiers will cause a morale deficit. All these things –
In our brief e-mail introduction you indicated that you hope to help bridge the divide in this still-bitter memory war. How do you hope to do this?
I think that publishing the book is doing that. Not agreeing to promote either point of view. I believe both are true. I am a feminist in that I believe in the equality of women. To me, that’s what feminism means. So the “feminist” side of this debate is the one that is supposed to believe children and women at all costs, no matter how incredible their stories might be. The myth is that only feminists care whether women and children have been sexually abused. So, I have taken some heat because I have written the truth of what happened to me, and what I did. Not just what happened to me, but what I caused to happen, which is that my feminist beliefs led me in a really bad direction. That’s not to say I’m no longer a feminist. I’m very much a feminist, I think feminism is a very simple precept. I also think that any extremist movement — whether on the right or left, or for groups for equality, or for overthrow of the government, or anything else — I think that every movement, just like every human being, is capable of great extremes. Often, movements go to great extremes before they sort of settle into a middle ground. I hold the feminist belief that women should be equal, and that they should not be abused in any way, and I also hold the “opposing belief” which is that false memories should be rooted out, and not treated as real memories. False accusations, whether they are lodged at Obama, or lodged at my father, are a form of injustice. I happen to believe that it is possible to repress memories and recover them years or decades later, but that’s just my personal opinion, it has nothing to do with a political affiliation. That is not a view that is held by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, but they know that, and we work together toward the end of putting an end to false accusations. Some [people] on the other side accuse me of selling out feminism because I’m helping to harbor accused molesters, like the co-founder of the FMSF[*]. So, obviously I don’t want to do anything to help any man who abused his child to go unpunished. That’s not my goal. Nor do I want women to see themselves as victims who are in search of an explanation for their victimhood. So, you can say that I’m a bridge, or you could say I’m big trouble for both sides. I like to see myself as a bridge.
In the writing of the book, for example, I was going back-and-forth between the warring sides. I spoke at length with both Pam and Peter Freyd, who are the founders of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and I also spoke at length with their daughter with whom they are estranged. So I would listen to Jennifer Freyd tell me her version of what had happened in her family, and I would listen to Pam and Peter — Pam, in most cases — tell me what she believed. And they were opposite. It was challenging, but it was the point of the book to sit with the reality that each presented to me, and make peace with that myself.
[*Editors note: The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) was co-founded by Pamela and Peter Freyd, whose daughter, Jennifer Freyd, claims to have recovered memories of childhood abuse. While this explains the Freyds’ interest in False Memory Syndrome, some suggest that the entire idea of a False Memory Syndrome was only introduced as a mere cover-up for actual crimes.]
I can think of few things more noble than taking a full accounting of the facts, without discarding those which don’t mesh with what you think you already know, and allowing yourself to adjust your beliefs and behavior accordingly.
Of all the reasons that I campaigned for Obama, I think the fact that he seemed more willing to do that than most politicians was my greatest attraction to him. I’m not an Obama maniac at this point. I have my criticisms of him. I think that a lot of people voted for him for the same reason, and I think there is, despite this latest election, I do think there’s a longing in each of us, individually, and in the culture, to relax into the complicated truth instead of latching onto these extreme views; inflexible views of pretty much everything. And it’s very challenging. I get into fights — arguments — with people who I love very much. I get very clenched and rigid over how that person is mistreating me, or misrepresenting the facts. It’s been a very interesting learning process for me in a very deep personal way, as well as socially — looking at that kind of rigidity and adherence to belief at all costs, including the cost of the truth, is so prevalent today."