Her false memories fuel painful memoir

By Caroline Leavitt
Globe Correspondent / September 21, 2010

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What if the worst thing that happened to you never really happened at all? In this terrifying, haunting, and controversial memoir, award-winning journalist Meredith Maran delves into the fascinating subject of the recovered memory movement of the 1980s and 1990s, where a number of Americans — including Maran — with the help of hypnosis, overzealous therapists, or drugs, were prompted and conditioned to fabricate memories of abuse, ruining lives and sending innocent people to prison.

Maran’s suspicions about her childhood abuse begin when she’s 37, and editor of an incest book. Immersed in research, she starts to question her unhappy marriage, even as unsettling new dreams and memories about her distant, disapproving dad bob to the surface. Convinced she’s an abuse victim (the cultural wisdom of the time is that if you dream you are abused, you probably were), she enters a folie à deux with an acquaintance named Jane, who claims to be a victim of satanic ritual abuse.

Maran develops a close relationship with her therapist, Angela, and cuts ties with her father, refuses to let her children see the grandfather they adore, and makes even her mother doubt her own husband. But as times change and more scientific studies emerge, Maran, to her horror, learns that recovered memories are false ones. Doubting that either she or Jane was ever abused, she struggles to repair the damage she’s caused. Slowly, movingly, Maran begins to make inroads back to her father to ask for forgiveness, even as he shows the first signs of Alzheimer’s.

What’s so fascinating here isn’t just Maran’s account of her own travails, but of the whole charged history of repressed memories and the sex abuse scandals. She delves into the infamous 1990 McMartin preschool day-care trial (which after seven years ended in acquittal), where hundreds of children were supposedly raped and enlisted in satanic rituals, many taking place in hidden tunnels. The tunnels were never found, and later some of the victims admitted they had lied. Gradually, more and more people in other abuse cases discredited the memories they had so fiercely clung to, some even suing their psychiatrists, and the whole notion of repressed memory began to be debunked, replaced with a false memory movement.

So why did so many people, including Maran, “drink the Kool-Aid’’? How can so many people believe the same wrong thing at the same time? False memory can give reason to an unhappy life, Maran supposes. Today, many “big lies,’’ such as the death panels that were believed to be part of Obama’s health insurance overhaul, seem stubbornly fueled by group hysteria.

Therapists and psychiatrists at the time used questionable methods, including the constant rewriting of childhood memories. As the discomfited Maran seeks out brain chemists, neuroscientists, and UCLA brain researchers (one of the book’s most fascinating moments), she discovers there’s no scientific proof for repressed memory at all and that even the most vivid flashbacks do not represent real memory.

Maran’s not just shockingly honest, she’s also funny. (When she thinks about picking out a birthday card, she muses on a message that might say, “Happy Birthday, Dad. I’m sorry I falsely accused you of molesting me.’’) Her refusal to whitewash her own behavior, her fierce ability to expose all sides of the issue (she doesn’t deny that horrific abuse does occur and should be punished), and her compassion for the abused as well as those still falsely imprisoned as abusers opens up a dialogue about memory, belief, and past- and present-day culture that is as riveting as it is important.

Caroline Leavitt can be reached at Her new novel, “Pictures of You,’’ will be published by Algonquin Books in January.


A True Story of False Memory

By Meredith Maran

Jossey-Bass, 272 pp., $24.95