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I’m not usually a fan of memoirs, but I picked up My Lie by Meredith Maran because I was intrigued by the book’s premise. Maran tells the story of how, as an adult, she claimed to have recovered a memory of her father molesting her as a child – and then years later, realized that this was a false accusation. The idea that someone could have a false memory about such a serious incident was puzzling at first, but as I found out, Maran’s allegation didn’t occur in a vacuum.
In the 1980s social scientists began to realize that childhood sexual abuse was more common than was previously imagined. Women and men started to come forward as incest survivors, and therapists had to learn how to treat them. But what started as a movement of acceptance and healing soon turned into a nationwide panic. Suddenly thousands of adult women, coaxed by therapists claiming to help “recover” memories, began accusing their fathers of childhood abuse, on the basis of incidents they believed to have unconsciously repressed.
At the same time, many children started claiming to have been molested by teachers and day care providers. Some of these allegations were true, but some (animal sacrifices, satanic rites, secret underground chambers) were incredibly ridiculous. As with any type of scare, though, these cases became sensationalized and the public was both fascinated and horrified, convinced that any man allowed to be around children had the potential to become a pedophile.
Maran’s experience as a “survivor” during this time shows how entrenched and unreasonable some in the anti-incest movement became. She likens some of the support network that arose to a cult, complete with their own lingo, rituals, and shaming techniques for anyone who dared question the validity of any abuse story.
Today, recovered memories are not usually accepted as evidence in courts, and psychologists believe that it is rare for any kind of traumatic memory to repressed and then remembered years later. The effects of this panic, however, are still being felt today. Just look at how few men work in preschools and day cares, or ask any single man in his thirties or forties what precautions he has to take on a daily basis in order to remain blameless.
The story behind Maran’s accusation was fascinating, but the more important point of My Lie was the evidence of how a movement meant to do good can also cause so much harm.
- Miriam Musco
Girl Museum, Inc.