Can False Memories Of Abuse Help Real Victims?


Meredith Maran accused her father of molesting her, but now she says it never happened. Her story is disturbing for real survivors, but she says it could also help them.

In an excerpt of her memoir My Lie, published on Salon, Maran writes that she came to believe her father had molested her after talking to incest survivors, writing about recovered memories, and reading the 1988 book The Courage to Heal. She explains,

I was in love with a woman who identified strongly as an incest survivor. I was in therapy with a woman who believed in recovered memory. Many of my friends were incest survivors. I’d been plagued by strange dreams — dreams in which little girls whose fathers had raped them told me, night after night, that I was one of them. I made a list of the “evidence” and presented it to my brother over dinner one night. I’ve never seen him look so miserable.
“I’ve read your articles,” he said finally. “I know this kind of thing happens all the time. I just never thought —”
“I know,” I said. “Me neither. It took me a long time and a lot of therapy to put the clues together,” I said. “But there’s no other way it makes sense.”

Except that it didn’t really make sense. Over time, Maran realized her father hadn’t really molested her. In an interview, she says that she “had been so steeped in the symptomatology of incest survivors” that she “was actually transposing what I had heard from these little girls into my own psyche.” And, she says, she’s not alone — when she started writing the book in 2007, she found that “with the exception of my ex-lover, every other person I talked to who had accused her father in the ’80s and early ’90s now believed she had been wrong.”

Maran speaks of a “mass panic” in the eighties and nineties, centering on childhood abuse discovered later through recovered memory. Now that recovered memory has been widely questioned, and Maran and others have recanted, what can we take from their experiences? On the one hand, children who report abuse have so often been silenced and disbelieved over the years that anything that calls abuse claims into question is disturbing. But Maran actually thinks the “panic” she describes may have done more good than harm for victims. She writes,

Kids didn’t used to be protected the way they are now. Another thing, one hopes, is that a little girl who does tell, or little boy, is more likely to be believed than was true before all this happened.

Now that the recovered memory movement has died down, has it left in its wake a greater awareness of child abuse and the havoc it can wreak? Perhaps — it’s certainly true that the last 20 years has been intense public discussion of the problem. And yet abusers are still sometimes shielded or ignored by those with the power to stop them. Maybe the best thing we can learn from the “mass panic” Maran writes about is that children need to be protected while they’re still children, so they never have to have memories of abuse, repressed or otherwise.

The Lie That Tore My Family Apart [Salon]
“My Lie”: Why I Falsely Accused My Father [Salon]

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