At 37, Meredith Maran made one of the toughest decisions of her life, one that would result in her biggest mea culpa: She accused her father of molesting her as a child.
Her new memoir, "My Lie: A True Story of False Memory
," chronicles her experiences with repressed memories and what ultimately led Maran to recant her claim. In an equally candid interview, the journalist discusses her saga, which unfolded at a time when the entire country was embroiled in a now controversial, Salem Witch Trials–like panic over sexual abuse.
Lemondrop: As accusations go, incest is a pretty weighty one. What factors led you to make such a serious accusation against your father at 37?
It was a constellation of precipitating events that were personal and political. The reason I wrote this book is because I was both horrified and fascinated as a journalist by the fact that so many people at the time [mid 1980s into the early 1990s], myself included, got swept up into believing that fathers, mothers, daycare workers, you name it, were mass abusing children and participating in satanic rituals across the U.S.
There was a social mania going on. We had just discovered that incest was not a one-in-a-million phenomenon -- it was more like one in three. And I was one of the journalists on the forefront trying to sell people on this statistic, which no one believed at first. But once the culture discovered it, we made a product line out of it. Oprah came out saying she'd been abused, made-for-TV movies dominated the airwaves, and it just ballooned from there. During this time, it seemed like every man was being labeled a molester, and claims were being made that one in three women were walking around with buried memories. The whole world flipped for this mania -- and I went with it.
You had persistent nagging doubts about your claim from the beginning. Why did it take you nearly 10 years to finally say it didn't actually occur?
There was never a moment that I knew with absolute certainty that it had
happened. I'd had a troubled relationship with my father since I ran away from home at 16, and I'd always questioned the reasons why. So when I started to write articles about incest and repressed memories, the idea that I was also repressing memories from childhood wasn't entirely implausible. But I always had my doubts. Yet it wasn't until my father had a heart attack, when we weren't speaking, that I realized, "If I ever want to see him again, I need to talk to him now." Throughout those years we didn't communicate, it was a real torment not to feel sorry for the "bad guy" in this story. I now realize that I did this terrible thing, and I take responsibility for it.
What was worse? Saying your dad molested you, or admitting it was a lie?
Initially, I felt an equal measure of horror and relief in both cases. But I think saying that it happened at 37 was easier than realizing, at 45, that I may not be a happy person ever again after what I'd done, after destroying my family over a lie.
Why were the 1980s such a ripe time for this type of Salem-esque momentum to take hold?
There was this really strange confluence coming together then. We had a delayed reaction to the 1960s going on, a backlash against free love. Middle America was taking back its repressed sexuality. The epidemic swept through small towns quickly; one day, everyone had their kids in preschool, and the next, all the kids in town were being pulled out of class, loaded onto buses, and shipped to therapists for hypnosis. There were also many well-educated women out there with rage and confusion about their 1950s upbringings, which placed a lot of importance on the father figure. And when people are looking for a scapegoat, they'll find it.
Do you still believe in repressed memory, or do you feel it's a product of our psychiatrist-dependent culture? You mention in the book that there's no record of it pre-1800.
It's a very loaded question. I do believe there's such a thing as repressed memory, and the point of my book is not to discredit those who really have blocked out horrible events from their pasts. The book has produced interesting discussions about the topic. For example, I've gotten a lot of mail from Holocaust survivors and war veterans who say they wish they could forget, how they'd give anything to lose those memories.
At one point, you talk about research that indicates people who've been molested are more likely to become molesters themselves, and how this pattern is much more prevalent among men than women. Can you expand on this?
I haven't been following incest research closely in the last ten or so years, but at the time that I made my accusation, I was submerged in it. The common wisdom at the time was that if you went to a prison and talked to men of violent crimes, the vast majority of them came from violent homes and they tended to re-enact the sex abuse enacted on them. Females from abusive families, however, were less likely to do this and they were more likely to deal with their issues in therapy.
When you finally came out with your accusation against your own dad, whose reaction shocked you the most?
My brother. Not only because he was so willing to believe me, but because I later learned that he also went to a therapist to discuss whether he'd been abused.
Is there anyone who doesn't speak to you as a result of what happened?
No, although my accusation definitely left scars on my family that will never heal, and there's no way around it. Just yesterday I spent the day with my stepmother and we talked about how the book has raised questions, yet again, among family members. Everyone has a lot to say and I don't expect that will ever end. As a mother, I can also say that I've been accused of things by my sons that I don't agree with, but I would never discredit them.
Has there been any backlash to your book? What about sex-abuse victims who now feel as though this book discounts their credibility?
That was certainly not my intention, and I feel horrible if that's what some people take away from the book. It also makes me question if they really read the book. I devoted lots of pages to discussing stories of actual abuse. But dialogue is good, even if someone reacts negatively. I recently responded to a woman who took issue with the book and asked what in the book led her to the conclusion that abuse survivors would now no longer be believed. She said it was the title of the book, and the fact that it was getting publicity. I respected her feelings, but it's a personal memoir and I can't alter what actually happened -- unless I change the title to "My Lie, Your Truth."
How is your relationship with your father today? Do you think there's a part of him that can never forgive you 100 percent?
My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's not long after I took back my accusation, so we're trying to move toward forgiveness quickly. He's made it very clear that he hopes the book will be successful, and he even came to the book-launch party. To be honest with you, the experience has allowed us to have a rebirth of our relationship. I haven't been this close to him since I was a small kid. It's forced us to be very honest with each other.
Liz Ozaist is a frequent contributor to Lemondrop. Most recently she wrote about how she and her husband survived four days in a "divorce boat."
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