Memories, Lies and Sex Abuse: A Cautionary Tale

Having known a number of incest survivors over the years, including a close friend who suffered from horrific abuse as a child, I find the notion that women might fabricate their stories of sexual abuse both unbelievable and offensive. In fact, I have always assumed that anyone who doubted these stories was simply not educated about the prevalence of incest. So what to make of Meredith Maran’s book about falsely accusing her father of sexually molesting her as a child: My Lie: A True Story of False Memory?

A journalist and author of several critically acclaimed books, Maran writes about how she became convinced that her father had molested her, despite no specific memories of abuse. While she did not take any legal action, the repercussions of her accusations were profound: family members regarded her father with suspicion, his second wife nearly left him, and for years neither she nor her two sons saw or spoke to him. Although Maran eventually realized that the abuse never happened and apologized, close to ten years had passed and her father was by then in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Having met Maran and read her previous books, I believe her to be both intelligent and emotionally astute. So, how did she go so far off the deep end? And if someone as smart and perceptive as Maran could be so dramatically led astray how many other “survivors” might be similarly deluded? Even more troubling: How is her retraction going to affect the real victims of incest? (Just needing to add the word “real” here makes me cringe.) Doesn’t this public apologia empower the perpetrators by suggesting that hysterical women can make this stuff up?

Then I read Maran’s book and realized, much to my chagrin, that the personal and political milieu that gave rise to her accusations was entirely familiar to me. While I never accused anyone of abuse, I was certainly influenced by the sex abuse hysteria that swept the country in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Not only did I feel honor-bound to believe any woman (or man, for that matter) who claimed to have been sexually abused, if anyone questioned these stories in my presence, I deemed them insensitive and sexist. I was, like Maran, a true believer.

Also, like Maran, I identified strongly as a feminist and, in my work as a journalist, wrote about women’s mental health issues from a feminist perspective. At one point, I considered writing a book about Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), a controversial diagnosis that is most often associated with prolonged sexual abuse. And like Maran, I read The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, which basically states that if you think you might have been abused, you were.

Reading Maran’s book, I was reminded of how childhood sexual abuse – including some truly bizarre stuff — was the hot news story of the day. I’ll never forget the descriptions of satanic rituals, underground tunnels, and dead animals that were reported on during the McMartin preschool trial in Los Angeles in 1988. And while I wondered if some of the details had been exaggerated, I never doubted that terrible things had happened there. And I never doubted that women like Holly Ramona, who claimed to have “recovered memories” of her father, a wealthy California wine executive, of raping her as a child, was telling the truth.

I had no direct involvement in cases like this, but Maran was actually in the courtroom, reporting on trials like Ramona’s. She was also given access to therapeutic sessions with perpetrators of incest. And, as if her professional life wasn’t already keeping her in the epicenter of “Planet Incest,” as she calls it, she was living with a woman whose existence revolved around her identity as an incest survivor. But even without “Jane” and her thrice-weekly therapy sessions and escalating stories of ritual abuse, as a feminist living in Berkeley, Maran was often in the company of women for whom incest was the embodiment of women’s political oppression. To question or deny an accusation of sexual abuse in this crowd meant you were siding with the oppressive – and silencing — patriarch.

Again, this perspective resonates with me. I remember being furious with my husband for questioning the concept of recovered memory, a phenomenon in which victims recall being abused years after it happened. I chalked it up to the fact that he had not had his feminist consciousness sufficently raised.

I also remember being asked by a therapist in my late twenties if I thought I’d been abused and immediately wondering if I had. My father was a complicated guy; he’d been unfaithful to my mother and was occasionally sexually inappropriate: Could something have happened and I just didn’t remember? The possibility tortured me for months before I finally let it go. Is it hard for me to imagine going further down this road and actually accusing my father of something? Well, yes it is, frankly, but not that hard.

Of course, just when it seemed like there was a child molester in every closet, the backlash began. After nine weeks of deliberation, a jury acquitted the owners of the McMartin preschool on all counts. In 1992, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) was formed to help the thousands of parents who’d been falsely accused by family members claiming to have “recovered” memories of childhood abuse.

Books and articles debunking the more extreme stories and statistics on child sexual abuse soon followed, including a 1993 article in The New York Times entitled “Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine.” In May of 1994, Holly Ramona’s father was awarded $500,000 in a suit against the psychotherapists who treated his daughter.

As the zeitgeist around incest began to shift to a less hysterical, more measured response, Maran too began to question her allegations. Or, rather, she began to listen to the doubts that had plagued her from the start — doubts she had pushed aside because to doubt herself meant to doubt all the victims around her. It might also mean the end of her relationship with Jane and ejection from “the Sisterhood.” In what is by far the most emotionally harrowing section of the book, she attempts to make amends, first and foremost to her father, who seems to accept it with enormous good grace, and then to the rest of her family.

While thankfully I do not have any retractions or amends to make, reading this book was a sobering exercise. It made me realize that Maran — like myself, and many women I know  — were wading in some pretty murky waters. I don’t fault myself for being sympathetic to the victims of incest or wanting to speak out on their behalf — I still believe that incest is an all too common and horrifying crime — but I regret being so willing to revile anyone who even raised the possibility than an accusation of incest, any accusation, might have been false. Call it group-think or mass hysteria or witch-hunting, we are all vulnerable to its reach.

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2 Responses to “Memories, Lies and Sex Abuse: A Cautionary Tale”

  1. Jane Wechsler

    Thanks, Zoe, for wading into this very complex subject. I too followed the McMartin case and was extremely upset by the disturbing information being released, especially since I was working with children. I also read Lenore Terr’s book, Too Scared to Cry. I had a dear friend who accused both her father and her husband of child sexual abuse and satanic rituals, while she also had questions about her own memories, which she shared with me. She was unsure about what had really happened, which I could understand based on the horror of her stories. But it made me realize how confusing these situations are for people, precisely because they were recalling childhood experiences which the mind does want to repress, in order to survive. So, bravo for joining a difficult discussion with clarity and compassion for people who suffer.

  2. Faye Reitman

    As a working therapist I have worked with many women over the years who, though not actually physically being the victims of fatherly incest, where emotionally sexually victimized by their fathers. There is a very fine line here and it does blend in memory. It would be terribly wrong to not look openly at the emotional damage done to daughters by men who are both narcissistic and overly sexual with their young daughters. Zoe opens the door to an honest discussion of how fathers indelibly “mark” their daughters and set them up to enter painful relationships with inappropriate men.

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