False Memory                                          

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"My Lie" by Meredith Maran (continued)

women I know who made these false accusations, it was very much a social phenomenon. Metaphorically, everything we were saying was true. But there was a confusion between a metaphor and a fact. And it was a highly relevant difference.

There were no legal implications in your case, and you never directly confronted your father. Would it have sped the process toward realizing the truth had you talked to him directly?

I was pretty terrified by my father. People ask, “What did your father say when you confronted him?” Well, I never confronted him. I withdrew from him, and I spent years sort of patching together this story and lining up the evidence.

Including a regular set of dreams that pointed to being molested. I wonder if you ascribe any meaning to those dreams now?

I felt a little stupid when I started interviewing the neuroscientists about how I could be dreaming something if it never happened. One of the doctors basically said, duh, a dream is a dream.

It’s not reality. It’s not like something had to happen in actuality for you to dream about it, as those of us who like to dream about flying during dry sexual periods have experienced. But when I dreamed over and over about my father’s hands, and all around me people were losing their heads and blaming it on incest, I said, oh, see, I’m dreaming about my father’s hands. Obviously he molested me. It was just a few links that were a little extreme.

On the other end of the story, was there a moment when you could say, I have decided it did not happen?

That too went on for years, just like the process of deciding that he had. But when I stopped believing, it was a little more dramatic, during the breakup with my incest survivor lover. Over time, I had been less and less able to believe her stories, which progressed from incest with a slightly older relative to satanic ritual abuse, to the extent where I thought she was becoming defined as an incest survivor. I knew I couldn’t say I don’t believe her without examining my own beliefs just because her story is crazier. To my family, my story is pretty crazy too. When she left me, that was the break I needed to realize it was not true.

There is this amazing scene in the book when your father calls after you’ve sent him a birthday card for the first time in years and you recall that you sort of floated to the ceiling and could look down at yourself. And you hear your therapist say floating to the ceiling is what little girls do when they’re molested. Can you tell me a little bit more about what happened to you that day?

That was a really good example of mind control, of brainwashing, that I had been so steeped in the symptomatology of incest survivors. How do you know it’s true and what happens to little girls when they’ve been molested? All that stuff had gone into my head. That is a symptom of mass hysteria. I was actually transposing what I had heard from these little girls into my own psyche. When I heard my father’s voice, I just went there.

Because the writing is so direct in that passage, I have to ask, what really happened?

Well, you know that feeling when you hear a voice you didn’t expect to hear, that means a lot to you, and you feel weak-kneed? It was more like that. It was such an intense experience coming over my body.

At one point in the book you say, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely sure of anything again.” But at the end of the book it seems clear that you have become as sure as possible that nothing happened. That’s where it stands, right?

Yes. Not that I check my Amazon page or anything, but there have been some early comments that say I leave some room for doubt. That wasn’t my intention.

An important catalyst for you and many women who later recanted was reading the book “The Courage to Heal.” What’s your opinion of that book today?

I feel mixed. The two women who put the book out are people I know. I have great respect for each of them as human beings and I think their intentions were nothing but the best. I happen to know them well enough to know that no publisher called them up and said, “If you will just make these really deceptive lists of symptoms and if you will write phrases like, ‘If you think it happened, it happened,’ you will become rich and famous. It’s very hard now to understand the context in which that book was published. So if you take it now and say, how did they ever sell 10 copies of this book, it’s such nonsense, it’s easy to do. The movement that created that book doesn’t exist anymore.

There’s a whole body of work that came out of that time and mind-set, some of it feminist literature. Was there anything from that time that you think was useful or should it all be forgotten?

Oh no, no. In the book there’s a conversation with a friend of mine who says very clearly, there were excesses, there were heartbreaks, there were tragedies in terms of our families. But at the same time, when you look at the overall impact on the world, I’m glad it happened. 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.

You make a very interesting connection in your prologue to your story and the political landscape of today.

During the election, when people were saying Obama was a Muslim, my leftie friends would say, “What’s wrong with these people? They’re such idiots. How can they believe that?” And I would be watching it and thinking, that’s me. I know how. Even though the intention was different, and the politics were certainly different, the fact of the matter is, I’ve had the experience of gradually and thoroughly coming to believe something that isn’t true and acting on it. I can never look at crazy right-wingers the same way.

There’s a scene in the book where you meet one of the major detractors of recovered memory, Elizabeth Loftus, and your old defenses return as you talk. It made me wonder if you feel like you betrayed your side.

I’m getting letters and responses from people in the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Elizabeth Loftus gave me a blurb. You are so right. That is another example of conditioning. I spent years thinking the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and Elizabeth Loftus in particular, were the devil incarnate. They were cover-uppers of this horrible crime. That’s why I write about finding common ground with Elizabeth in the book, because it was so startling to me.  HOME

Michael Humphrey is a former editorial fellow at Salon. He is a contributor to Forbes.com and currently teaches at Colorado State University.

See other real life stories by victims of false memory HERE.