Meredith Maran’s New Look At Recovered Memories

The Oakland author came to realize that she had fabricated her "memory" of child abuse.

Meredith Maran didn’t simply wake up one morning and remember that her father had molested her. Over several years, Maran pieced together dreams and fragments of memories and information from friends, therapists, books, and magazines; only then did she conclude that her father had abused her.

Problem was — he hadn’t.

In the mid-1980s, it was easy to get enmeshed in the culture of repressed memories; Maran says she was living on Planet Incest. “At the time, I was hearing all the stories — my friends, lover, everyone around me was saying, ‘Oh I remember I was sexually abused as a child, and I had forgotten all these years,” Maran said in a recent interview.

It took years for the Oakland journalist and author of the books Dirty and Class Dismissed, What It’s Like to Live Now to see her error. Today, she’s sure the incest never happened. She’s chronicled her journey from belief to non-belief in a memoir published in September, My Lie: a True Story of False Memory (Jossey-Bass, 260 pages, $24.95). “Now I’m sort of living on Planet Not Incest,” Maran said. “I’m living on Planet False Memory now.”

It all began in the early-1980s, when Maran got a job editing a book on incest. She began reading articles and books on the question and interviewing experts. She became fixated on the question and continued researching and writing on the subject after her editing work was completed.

Incest was in the air in the 1980s. The theory of repressed and recovered memories of abuse, dormant since Freud invented and then rejected it, was revived and became a hot topic among psychologists and in pop psychology.

Maran’s incest dreams became increasingly intense as she researched and wrote articles about the topic. Her lover in the mid-1980s was “Jane,” a woman whose life revolved around her memories of sexual abuse. “The question was always incest and the answer was always incest and the explanation for everything was always incest, and no one ever asked, ‘Are you sure?'” Maran wrote.

Over time and through discussions with friends and therapists, Maran came to believe, like Jane, that she had been molested.

At that point, she stopped allowing her young children to spend time with her father, with whom she stopped speaking. She suggested to her brother that he always be present when his children visited their grandfather. Maran’s stepmother considered leaving her father.

Still, there were moments of uncertainty. “My head was a jangling kaleidoscope of loose shifting truths,” she wrote. “My dad, the loving grandfather. My father, the child molester. Me, the good daughter and good mother. Me, the crazy paranoiac. Too many versions of reality added up to none.”

Believing she needed to heal herself of her childhood trauma, Maran tried therapy and co-counseling and researching incest. None of that helped, so she decided that the best thing to do would be to step off Planet Incest altogether. She stopped writing articles about incest, reading books about incest, and hanging out exclusively with incest survivors. The result, she said, was that she no longer had incest dreams. And she began to question her lover’s incest “memories.”

Maran began to interview a new set of people — people who believed that “recovered” memories of child abuse were actually false memories. Some of these people were dedicated to getting people released from prison whose children had — wrongly, they believed — testified that a parent had sexually abused them.

For Maran — and for others who had believed ardently in recovered memories — the pendulum was swinging away from the theory of recovered memories. She quotes Columbia University psychology professor Richard Gardiner in a 1993 Mother Jones article: “The simple solution is very attractive. … You’re thirty-five or forty and your life is all screwed up and someone offers this very simple solution: ‘Ah, I never realized that I was sexually abused. That explains it all! It’s a simple answer for the therapist as well as the patient.”

And she cites a 1993 Time magazine piece quoting UC Berkeley social psychologist Richard Ofshe: “Recovered-memory therapy will come to be recognized as the quackery of the 20th century.”

Maran’s research into the question took her to the courts. She found that much of the drama around recovered memories versus false memories was played out in custody battles. “It’s a charge that can be ambiguous at best, it is usually im-provable either way, which makes it an ideal crime to fabricate,” Maran said. “It also makes it an ideal crime to commit and get away with” unless there’s physical evidence associated with the accusation.

Maran became convinced that a recovered memory could, at times, be a false memory — after all, you dream of flying, but don’t fly, and dream of your teeth falling out, but they haven’t. And so she was able to consider the possibility that, in fact, she had not been sexually abused.

Close to a decade after she first began to believe she had been molested, Maran was convinced that she had not been abused. “In this case, I’d found the perpetrator and it was me,” she wrote.

Once she realized she was wrong about the abuse, Maran undertook the excruciating task of apologizing to those she had hurt — her children, her brother and his family, her mother and step-mother — and, especially, her father. In writing the book, Maran made the apologies public.

It almost seemed as if Maran wrote the book to punish herself publicly for all the people she hurt. Maran said that wasn’t the case. “I don’t feel that I wanted to be punished,” she said. “I feel that I did something really bad and I didn’t really understand its consequences and I wanted to. I could have [apologized] without writing a book.”

Working on the book “gave me an excuse to go back to my family and reopen the wound which had kind of scabbed over, but definitely wasn’t healed,” she said. “It allowed me to make a deeper apology to everyone in my family and it gave my family members a way to tell me how my accusation affected them.”

The experience has left Maran in the difficult place of holding contradictory truths: Recovery of memories of past abuse is possible and it’s also possible that those memories are false. As a person with an instinctive bent for activism and taking sides, Maran says that position is often uncomfortable, and sometimes gets her accused of defending child molesters. But she says it’s the correct stance.

She said she hopes the book will give pause to people who make or evaluate allegations of molestation. “I certainly hope that the book gives courage to accusers who might reassess their accusations,” Maran said.

EDITOR’S NOTE. This story has been modified to correct the following errors, which appeared in the print version: In our November 24 article “Meredith Maran’s New Look at Recovered Memories,” we misquoted the author and erroneously made it appear as if she had multiple lovers during the period in the mid-1980s that is discussed in the story. We also misstated the publication date of her new book My Lie: A True Story of False Memory. It came out in September. And the photograph of Maran was taken by Cori Wells Braun.


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