Mind Reading is TIME Healthland’s new series of talks with authors of “brainy” books. Following is a conversation with journalist and author of My Lie, Meredith Maran, who falsely accused her father of molesting her.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, American therapists, churches and self-help groups began seeing a rash of cases of child sex abuse. As victim after victim bravely came forward and told their stories, the therapeutic establishment began recognizing sexual abuse as a major contributor to many problems, including addiction, eating disorders, obesity and depression.
But soon, the trend took a wrong turn. Women who were in counseling for such problems were told by their therapists that their presence *always* meant that some sort of childhood abuse had occurred, and that the key to recovery was unearthing their repressed memories. Loving families were falsely accused. Innocent owners of day-care centers were wrongly condemned for hosting sadistic Satanic sex rituals. (Read a previous Mind Reading: Mind Reading: Discussing the Dark Side of Medicine with Author Carl Elliott).
Therapists’ misunderstandings of the workings of dreams and memory — along with their use of ill-advised and under-researched therapeutic techniques — created an epidemic of false memories in people who were never abused, a phenomenon that threatened to discredit the stories of those whose abuse was all too real.
Indeed no one would argue that the sexual abuse of children is not real, common and often devastating. While most children recover, many end up spending years struggling with psychological problems such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Sexual abuse also has physical consequences for health: the extreme stress it produces can increase the risk for obesity, heart attack and stroke. (More on Time.com: Study: Why Child Abuse Investigations Don’t Help Kids).
How could it happen that people who never suffered such harrowing experiences would come to believe that they had? Meredith Maran, a California journalist and author, has told her story of falsely accusing her father of molesting her in a compelling new book bluntly titled My Lie.
Q: In the early ’90s, it had gotten so you couldn’t turn on the TV or pick up a book or magazine without seeing some story about child sex abuse. But, now, it’s like the whole issue has disappeared again.
A: You are correct, it’s certainly not like it was in 1991 when Oprah and Roseanne Barr were coming out as incest survivors and the Pulitzer Prize went to The Color Purple [Alice Walker’s novel dealing with incest]. When I first realized the preponderance of incest in our culture, I thought, “Of course we have to write about this.” … [But] at the time, I couldn’t sell a piece to my editor to save my life because they were saying it only happens one in a million times.
The more people [working with incest] were telling me that what I knew was true was true, the more fervent and fired up I got. I went to extremes and many of the people in what I call Planet Incest went to extremes. Things start out terrible, which creates a movement — whether it’s the civil rights movement or the women’s movement or gay people or whatever. People have a hard time being believed, their accusations are discredited by the mainstream. And so people in the movement — and I speak of myself here — become very extreme, almost like fundamentalists. If you feel heard, you don’t scream.
Q: In My Lie, you write about how the director of an incest program whom you interviewed actually came out and said, “We don’t see many reporters around here. I’m wondering — is this a personal issue for you?”
A: Yes, the way I personally got to a false accusation was that I was a journalist for five years writing about true incidents of incest. [The accusation of my father came about after I’d been involved in therapy and was dating an incest survivor.]
Q: What made you decide to write this book?
A: The immediate provocation was a hike I took in 2007 with an acquaintance. She said in that sleepy way that people talk when you are hiking, “Did you ever do anything you still regret?” I told her that I had accused my father of molesting me and didn’t speak to him for eight years, and I [later] realized it wasn’t true. She said that exactly the same thing had happened to her. That was the beginning of what has been a real living experience of the personal in the political.
Q: Are you saying that all reports of child abuse may be unreliable?
A: Not only am I *not* saying that, but I am also saying that although there were horrifying examples and abuses that included false accounts, [the problem is real and must be addressed].
Q: You’ve received some pretty negative reactions to the book, with some people claiming that you are supporting those who would deny that incest ever happens or who say that all memories of child sex abuse are false.
A: I have been misquoted or misunderstood already. Despite the pain and suffering inflicted on people who were innocent like my father, there was also a huge amount of positive [things] that came out of these extremes we went to. [Back then] no one knew to train first-grade kids to notice how it felt in their belly when adults told them to keep a secret.
Q: How common do you think child sexual abuse really is?
A: I’ve learned hard way to say that we don’t know. I don’t think it as common as the 1 in 3 [women abused as children] statistic. Nor do I think it’s as rare as one in a million. One child being sexually molested is one more than we should tolerate.