Meredith Maran’s new book, My Lie: A True Story of False Memory, has just been released by Jossey-Bass/Wiley publishers. Meredith’s book is a memoir of her own experience with the false memory of parental sexual abuse and its devastating impact on her family. But it is also an exploration of the phenomenon as an example of mass hysteria. There is going to be a whole lot of heat generated by My Lie. Meredith is with us here today to talk about the book.
Andy: Meredith, it is unimaginable to me how you could write a book about a subject that must still give you such a sense of shame, even to think about. Why did you decide to write this and what were your feelings as you were writing it?
Meredith: Actually, ‘shame’ isn’t the word I’d use. Regret, sorrow, remorse, yes. But the reason I decided to write My Lie is the same reason I can’t feel shame for the false accusation I made—which is to say, my wrongdoing took place within the context of an epidemic of wrongdoing. That doesn’t diminish my personal responsibility, but it does help me understand how and why I became one of untold thousands of women like me who falsely accused their fathers of molesting them during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
I began writing the book in 2007, after I found out that a friend of mine had gone through the same experience I had. I started to check around, and discovered that many friends and therapists who’d been living on “Planet Incest,” as I call it, had since renounced their allegiance to the notion of incest as the primary source of our personal and political problems. At that same time, the Obama/McCain campaign, with all of its attendant Big Lies, made me feel that the issue of mass belief of lies continues to be prevalent –and dangerous.
Andy: When reading My Lie, it struck me how easy it would have been to fall into defensiveness, self-pity, or righteous indignation. You avoided all of these pitfalls, which made it a much more moving and compelling story. Did you ever get the temptation to allow these kinds of feelings to highjack the story?
Meredith: I’m glad to hear you feel that way, Andy. I knew that if I was to write this book I had to find a way to make myself a believable, if not a likeable, narrator—despite the title and the “plot” of the book. Of course it’s impossible for me to tell how successful I was!
I must say, self-pity didn’t really come up for me. It was much more difficult to grapple with my feelings of defensiveness. I’ve been an activist since I was a young teenager, and I’m a great believer in the balance of personal and political responsibility. But in this case, I felt I had to carefully examine that balance within myself. Would I have made my accusation absent the epidemic of accusations? Probably not. Am I still responsible for having made such a terrible mistake, with such terrible consequences? Absolutely.
Andy: We all like to believe that we are morally autonomous individuals and are strong enough to withstand the seductions (excuse the expression) of mass hysteria. Most of the people who will be reading My Lie no doubt think of themselves as rational, humane, and compassionate. But your book seems to be making the very unsettling point that all of us, no matter how moral or enlightened we believe we are, can become possessed by the darker regions of our hearts. It made me question whether this book was just about the phenomenon of false memory or whether it touches on something more fundamental in the experience of being human.
Meredith: Wow—I love that question, and I love your observation. Can you get Terry Gross to ask me that question?
It was profoundly unsettling to think that a person like me—rebellious, iconoclastic, smart, and a journalist to boot—could be sucked into such a morass of delusion. In fact, it was my politics that made it possible. Sexual abuse became a metaphor for the oppression of females in the 1950s culture that I and my friends grew up in. We loved having a one-word explanation, a diagnosis for our own pain and for women’s pain in general.
The most unsettling experience of all was when I saw the “Birthers” and “tea party” members with their red faces and unwavering convictions that Obama was born outside the U.S., is a practicing Muslim, that health care reform would create death panels that would murder grandmothers—and my friends were saying, “How can they believe that bullshit,” and I was thinking, “I believed bullshit like that.”
Andy: Some people come out looking pretty bad in My Lie. Particularly feminists who were too uncritical in embracing what you call “Planet Incest.” But your opprobrium seems to be most focused on the licensed psychotherapists, who were the real “brain washers” and used their credentials to give credence and authority to what in the end were little better than witch hunts? Has this poisoned you to therapy? Can you give some advice to people who are seeking it?
Meredith: Since I was one of the “feminists who were too uncritical in embracing what I call “Planet Incest,” I start with myself in criticizing that group of people. I also tried to make clear in the book that although we made huge, costly mistakes and committed great excesses, it’s also true that before this episode, incest was a deep, dark secret. When my own children were trained in elementary school to protect themselves from child molesters, it literally came home to me that great progress was made as well.
As for therapy, yes, I feel pretty thoroughly poisoned. I quit in 1997 after many, many years and the only thing I regret about that is not having quit sooner. That said, when people I care about tell me how great therapy is for them, I believe them, and I support them in whatever works for them—as long as they don’t ask me to join them, or pay for it.
Andy: Has the theory of recovered memory been totally discredited or is it still accepted in some circles?
It’s definitely still accepted, and promoted, by some experts. One is Jennifer Freyd, the daughter of the founders of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, who accused her father of sexual abuse, and then became a brain scientist whose research focuses on memory. Her book, Betrayal Trauma, makes a very good case for the existence of recovered memory.
Andy: As you can tell from my questions, this book really made me think about basic questions of human nature. At the end of it, I felt a kind of Conrad-ian pessimism. But your book ended on a pretty optimistic note. You seemed to believe in the power — almost the grace, really – of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Meredith: Again, I thank you, Andy, for your insight. You’re right—realizing my mistake, and writing about it, was humbling to say the least. There were days when I really wondered how my family has been able to forgive me.
On the upside, being humble beats the hell out of my previous world view, which contained a lot more arrogance and righteousness than I’m entitled to in the aftermath of writing the book. And my relationship with my father and stepmother are excellent now, so that’s a living reminder of the power of (sorry, but it’s true!) love and forgiveness. I’ve tried it both ways—anger and blame; reconciliation and empathy—and I’d rather live the rest of my life in this state of grace.
Andy: I think this was a very courageous book, and I hope it will find a wide readership.
A full listing of Meredith’s appearances, and more information about her work, can be found at her website:
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