Review of Meredith Maran's "My Lie: A True Story of False Memory"

Sunday, September 26, 2010


A True Story of

False Memory

By Meredith Maran

Jossey-Bass. 260 pp. $24.95

One of the more bizarre stories of the 1980s and '90s was the widespread conviction that day-care centers had become hotbeds of sexual abuse, all memory of which the young victims suppressed until prompted by therapists to break down the walls of resistance. A related phenomenon was the one Meredith Maran writes about in "My Lie": accusations of incest against family members, in this case her father, with -- again -- memory of the incidents needing to be awakened by therapy.

Maran had originally taken an interest in child abuse as a journalist. Soon she became fascinated by the McMartin case, in which therapists "used hand puppets and anatomically correct dolls to help the children describe what had happened to them." Reading about this and similar cases caused Maran to fret about her uneasy relationship with her dad: He hadn't just tried to control her life, she came to think; he had abused her sexually. She let him know of her belief via her mother and refused even to speak with him for 10 years. "It is natural that you have periodic doubts of your experience," reassured one of the many books she read on the subject. "But that's because accepting memories is painful, not because you weren't abused."

Yet even so Maran did have doubts, which became stronger the more she looked into the issue. For instance, according to a 2007 news article, "A team of psychiatrists and literary scholars reports that it could not find a single account of repressed memory, fictional or not, before the year 1800." The study team suggested that repressed memory is "a culture-bound syndrome and not a natural process of human memory." In other words, the alleged victims had been coached. Finally, Maran sought out her old therapist, who explained: "There was so much pressure during those years to try and find incest memories in every client. In the therapeutic community in the late 1980s and early 1990s, incest was this cookie-cutter answer to every woman's problems." Fortunately, Maran explains, "When I came to my senses, my father was still alive and relatively well. I still had time to make amends."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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