Mark Pendergrast’s Review of My Lie
Review of My Lie: A True Story of False Memory, by Meredith Maran. Jossey-Bass, 2010.
by Mark Pendergrast
It’s about time someone such as Meredith Maran wrote a book like this. Her book explains how in 1988 she came to accuse her father of incest, when he did not sexually abuse her – and how she later came to realize her mistake. As I observed in Victims of Memory, my book on the repressed memory epidemic of the late 20th century (roughly 1985-1995), it is likely that, during that time period, over a million people came to believe that they had been sexually abused throughout their childhoods but had repressed the memory and completely forgotten it until adulthood. This belief led to devastated lives and split families. The theory of “massive repression” runs counter to everything we know about how memory actually works, and I could not find one convincing case. If people are traumatized for years of their childhood, they tend to remember it all too well, even if they choose not to speak of it.
Fortunately, it is now clear to nearly everyone that these “memories” were illusory, encouraged by misguided therapy that relied on dream interpretation, hypnosis, vague bodily pangs, and other questionable methods. Yet as a society we have not really learned much from this disastrous pseudoscientific adventure in psychotherapy, just as we have not learned much from the closely related day care sex abuse accusations (McMartin Preschool, Fells Acres, Little Rascals, and over a hundred more), in which young children were interviewed in a leading manner and came to make false accusations that put their caregivers in prison.
I know how little we have learned, because I now serve on the board of the National Center for Reason and Justice (www.ncrj.org), an innocence project that focuses on people falsely accused of child abuse. Although we are a lamentably underfunded organization, and we have not received a great deal of notice, we still receive an overwhelming number of heart-rending requests for help. We have been able to research and sponsor only a few of these cases, and we have helped to free some innocent people, but they are the tip of an iceberg. So this book review is not just a review, but an urgent request that people contact the NCRJ to offer help. It is likely that hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocent people convicted of child abuse are rotting in American prisons, and many others took plea bargains, admitting to a crime they did not commit, in order to avoid a lifetime in prison.
I urge anyone interested in late 20th century culture, gender conflicts, social influence, and human suggestibility to read My Lie. It is a clear account of how an intelligent young woman could come to believe something so horrible about her own father, when it was not true. In my book, I concluded that therapists were the primary cause of these false accusations, since about a quarter of all psychotherapists in the U. S. specialized in repressed memories by the early 1990s. Yet Maran’s book makes it clear that the social milieu could be even more important. She lived in Berkeley, California, in a climate where she became desperate to recall incest memories in order to fit in. Her lover had such memories, and so did almost everyone she befriended. In her book, she called it “Planet Incest, where 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?’” She thus interpreted dreams about her father to constitute proof that he had abused her.
Consequently, Maran gobbled up The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, when it was published in 1988, with its message, “If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.” So Maran went to her therapist wanting confirmation and reassurance that she really was an incest survivor. Rather than helping her client understand how memory actually works, Maran’s therapist only told her, “What matters is what you think.”
While the book is fascinating and instructive, however, readers should be cautious about accepting everything Maran writes at face value. For instance, she misrepresents Sigmund Freud’s early “seduction theory,” asserting that Freud’s clients of the 1890s spontaneously revealed their alleged childhood sex abuse memories. In fact, Freud pressured his clients into having such “memories” in order to fit his theory of repression.
Once Maran concluded that she had been mistaken, she was left with the nagging question, “If my recovered memories weren’t true, why had I wrecked my family?” She went back to visit her old therapist, who told her that such memories were “metaphorically true, or emotionally true, but not literally true.” Maran apparently still believes this, even though her own narrative makes it abundantly clear that the social pressure to become an “incest survivor” was overwhelming and had nothing to do with her father.
It may be comforting for retractors such as Maran to conclude that their accusations had some justification. Her brother told her, “What happened between you and Dad could only happen when there’s anger and disconnection between a parent and child.” That simply is not true. I interviewed many women who accused their fathers on the basis of repressed memories, and their relationships with their fathers before the repressed memory movement were varied. Some fathers were warm and loving; others were distant and emotionally unavailable. The fact is, all of us have conflicted relationships with our parents – we love them and we resent them in turns. It is part of the human condition. Some parents really do abuse their children, in many different ways, but I concluded that almost anyone was vulnerable to false memories under the right circumstances, without proper cautions about how memory actually works.
In post-publication interviews, Maran has helped to call attention to the plight of innocent people in prison, and I hope that she will continue to do so. But she concluded a September 2010 interview with Salon with an incredible opinion. “Would I allow an innocent man to sit in prison if it meant keeping children safe?” she asked rhetorically. “I think so.” Maran appears to feel that this is an either-or matter, that convicting innocent people may be a necessary price to pay for protecting children from harm. That is absurd. All reasonable people want to prevent child abuse and prevent false convictions. If we can only learn from our recent past, we can do both.