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.
Q: What would you say now to someone who thinks they might have had some kind of unrecalled sexual trauma in childhood?
A: It would depend on the age of that person. Honestly, if the person is my age and has gotten along fine without feeling tortured by some memory that is lurking or some relationship that feels poisonous, if you’ve lived 60 years without knowing, it probably won’t kill you not to know.
I know that’s heresy in the psychotherapeutic world, but we had a very religious attitude about therapy for a few decades. It has proven to be useful but not to be a magic bullet. If you are young and really feeling some kind of pain with this, I suggest very carefully selecting a therapist, doing some reading and talking to your family in a very gentle way.
I wish some [therapist] had said to me, “You’re making this up. This cannot be real.” One thing a therapist did say was that these allegations do not arise in healthy families, whether or not this particular thing happened, something was very wrong. I would say to people, if you are questioning like that, there’s probably a whole bunch of other stuff that’s worth taking a look at. (More on Time.com: All TIME 100 Best Novels)
Q: How can we prevent this kind of extremist response from happening again?
A: I have thought long and hard about this. For myself, I have two little tricks. One is that if I’m arguing with someone and I find myself with veins popping out on my neck and hands clenched and my stomach in knots, that’s my first clue that I’m not really sure of what I’m saying. There is some insecurity there. The second clue is asking myself, “If everyone on earth told me this could not possibly be true, would I still believe it?”
Q: The other part of that is also to look at the science: therapists were asserting things about memory and dreams that simply weren’t supported by the data.
A: Exactly. [Also], the method that I learned as journalist is the “follow the money” line of argument. Sometimes that’s dollars, sometimes it’s about who stands to benefit. If you’re kind of broke and your muffler is loose, you’re not going to fix it because they’re going to tell you that 80 things need to be fixed. Some things really need fixing, and some do not.
[Nobody] goes to a therapist and says something seems to be terribly wrong and the therapist says, “No, actually everything is fine.” They would be out of business and, usually, they would be wrong.
Q: It seems that critical thinking is also key to avoiding the kind of hysteria that developed around child sexual abuse. I remember, at the time, hearing about alleged abuses in day-care centers and wondering how it could be possible that Satanic orgies were being held and people were putting peanut butter down kids’ pants, but no parent ever came in unexpectedly and caught them at it or found peanut butter on a child’s underwear.
A: We are bred to be a nation of sheep. You have to ask hard questions because no one else will ask them of you and no one else can answer for you.
[Throughout the book you’ll see that] I kept begging one therapist after another, “Just tell me if it’s true.” You don’t feel good if you’re wondering if it’s true. When I settled in comfortably and said, “I know that my father molested me,” I felt better, even when the certainty I’d settled into was horrible. I felt better when I convinced myself of that lie than I had felt for five years previously. When I was quote-unquote “open minded,” it felt awful.
Q: It must have been very difficult to realize you were wrong, apologize to your father and then write about it.
A: It didn’t exactly make me feel good about myself. When I was thinking about doing the book, I thought, [sarcastically], “Way to really build self-esteem and your reputation as a reliable narrator as a journalist.” I mean, the title of the book is My Lie.
More on Time.com: